Chapter 22: Here's to the Future, Here's to Us

Valedictorian Rebecca Harvey had the longest speech in the history of speeches I was pretty sure. She had been a socially awkward student who always focused on her studies rather than having a social life. I had liked her well enough but she definitely hadn't been someone I would willingly want to hang out with. But everyone in her graduating class had different opinions of her at the moment. Most of them looked like they wanted to fall asleep.

"Today is a day to celebrate because we've finally made it. We've overcome the obstacles and we've beaten the odds and now we're here. All of the events that have happened to us over the past thirteen years have shaped the person we have become."

I had been leaning into Bryce's chest as we sat in his aunt's backyard letting the spring air fall over us and fill in the silence. It was mid-May and school would be over for us soon but we still had lots of work that we could be doing. It was the weekend though and we didn't really care about anything in the world other than ourselves.

I could hear Bryce leaning his head back and resting it noisily on the tree he was leaning up against for support. "Can you believe everything that has happened this year?" he asked, finally breaking the long comfortable silence we had been swimming in.

I turned my head up slightly so I could see the corner of his mouth and the side of this face. Even at this angle I knew why I cared about him so much. It wasn't just because of his beauty, though that certainly was an added bonus, but it was the way he cared for me and would never let anything happen to me and would always make sure that I was happy no matter what. He put me before himself. "Honestly, I can't."

"We've been through so much in what seems like such a short amount of time," he added.

I smiled as I thought about what we had been through together. "I feel like our time together has gone by too fast. I mean, in four months you'll be in college and I'll hardly see you anymore."

"We're dwelling on college again?" he asked sarcastically, looking down at me with disapproving eyes. Bryce always hated when I brought up the subject of college because he enjoyed living in denial that we would be together forever and always be with each other while I was practical and always saw our relationship as a ticking time bomb.

Scooting away from him and turning so I was facing him head-on, I drew a long breath in. "You know I always dwell on this. You're going to be so far away and we'll never see each other and you'll meet some gorgeous college girl and forget all about me. You know that will happen."

He sighed as he reached forward and took my hands within his own. "We've talked and talked and talked about this, Belle. Yes, it will be hard. Yes, we won't see each other as much. Yes, I'll miss you like crazy. No, I will not meet some 'gorgeous college girl' and forget about you."

I looked away from him because I couldn't quite bring myself to believe the words he was saying. I usually wasn't a pessimistic person, but when it came to the fact that Bryce was leaving me in the fall I was downright gloomy. "But what if-"

I couldn't even finish my sentence because Bryce mashed his lips with mine to silence me. It wasn't only a silencing kiss, I could tell. It was his you-know-I'll-always-love-you kiss. He pulled me closer to him so I was straddling him and I snaked my arms around his neck. Our kiss was fervent and full of a passion I never thought I would know. We had had the 'college is going to end our relationship' conversation more times than I could count but it had never included this kiss before. Suddenly, all my doubts were washed away.

When we pulled away and were panting for air, I pressed my forehead to his and whispered softly, "I love you."

After everything that had happened to the two of us, Bryce had imprinted himself into my heart. He had changed me in a way that was irreversible. I wasn't sure how he had done it, and I was guessing I had had the same affect on him, but it had been done. Our histories were wound together so tightly that I don't think we could ever live our lives apart now.

Bryce smiled and I heard him say, "It's about time I heard those words from you." Then he kissed me again.

"All of the people that we have interacted with have changed us and made us into better people, stronger people."

I hadn't told anyone about what Bryce had revealed to me about his family at the park. He had entrusted me with something so painful, something so personal; I wasn't about to betray his trust and tell my mother or brother about what I had learned. Though I had thought about telling my mother so she could help him. Not a week after I had found out his news did he come to school with a bruised cheek that he claimed had gotten from stumbling down the stairs.

"Bryce Moore, I care about you too much to see you in such pain, both physical and emotional," I told him in his car the day the bruise had appeared. I reached over and placed my hand on his face tenderly, trying to prove just how much he meant to me. "You can't keep living like this."

He sighed, leaning into my touch and closing his eyes at the same time. "But what am I supposed to do? I can't confront my dad because it will only get worse." He drew in another unsteady breath before opening his eyes and catching my hand between his two. "I can't lose you."

I blinked at him in surprise. His tone of voice was nothing but serious. He truly was afraid that he was going to lose me. "Listen to me carefully, okay?" When he didn't acknowledge me, I took his face in my hands and held my gaze with his. "Okay?" When he mumbled his consent I continued. "There is nothing that could keep me from you. You aren't about to lose me, I promise. I promise."

"I love you," he told me fiercely before he kissed me. I didn't even get a chance to say it back.

After that, Bryce had explained the situation to his aunt and she had told him he could live with her for the remainder of high school. Since she only lived a few minutes out of town, he was able to continue going to our school – after explaining the situation to Principal Barnes – and finally live without fear. He had had a lot of trouble confronting his father and telling him that his son was moving out, but at least Bryce had caught his dad while he was sober and it didn't go completely horribly. Thankfully Bryce was able to move in with his Aunt Petunia and find some sense of normalcy once again. I was so happy for him.

"We've taken risks," Becca continued, a smile never leaving her face.

I stared down below me, seeing my life flash before my eyes. "Uh, maybe I'll just watch you and Jeff do it. Yeah, that's what I'll do," I declared weakly as I backed away from the ledge slowly.

As I was walking backwards, I bumped right into someone's chest. "Come on, Belle. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You know you'll look back on this someday and say, 'Man, I wish I had listened to that macho boyfriend of mine.'"

I turned and scowled up at Bryce. "Yeah, right," I scoffed, trying to wiggle out of his hold that he had trapped me in once I bumped into him.

"He's right, Annie," my brother chimed in as he rubbed his palms together in anticipation. "This is totally awesome."

I peered down again and felt the butterflies kick into overdrive again. My throat had gone dry. "But…"

"We'll strap on together and I'll make sure nothing happens to you, okay?" Bryce suggested into my ear soothingly. Just feeling his breath tickle my ear already had me feeling safe. I knew that he wouldn't let anything happen to me.

Because of that thought I found myself nodding my head reluctantly. "Awesome!" Bryce boomed, slapping a high-five with my brother. As they looked completely excited, I just wanted this day to be over.

It was the day after Bryce and Jeff's last day of high school – the seniors always got out a month before the underclassmen did sadly – and in hopes of celebrating, the boys thought that bungee jumping was the thing to do. Jeff told Mom that I was coming to watch – he had even told me that I was just going to watch – and Bryce had told his aunt that we were all going out for a celebratory ice cream social – Aunt Petunia was overprotective of everything Bryce did. As it turned out, we didn't get any ice cream and I had somehow gotten roped into partaking in this 'epic, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity' that we would 'remember for the rest of our days.' I wanted someone to shoot me.

After Bryce and I had been strapped together with harnesses and clips and whatnot – we were to go first apparently – and were told important last minute details, we were ready to die, I mean go. "We're not going to die," Bryce snapped lightly as he wrapped his arms around my waist and held me tightly to his body.

I fastened my arms around his neck so tightly I thought he was going to accuse me of choking him. "Did I say that out loud?" I asked. He raised his brows at me as his answer. Apparently I had. "I'm scared," I announced quietly as I buried my face in his chest.

Bryce kissed the top of my head and said, "Don't be scared. I'm here, which means that nothing is going to happen to you. Trust me." And I always did.

"We've done things that we never thought we would have done to begin with," Becca told everyone.

My bedroom window was wide open and I was sitting on the windowsill, dangling my feet out and lightly banging my heels against the side of my house. My room was on the second story and it would have been quite a ways down if I had fallen. It had been a spring night, with the breeze blowing warmly against my skin and the moon glowing brighter than ever. It was so pretty outside, with all the millions of stars staring down at me. A spring night was my favorite time of the year because it was just so warm and pretty and perfect.

"What are you doing out there?" I heard from behind me, nearly sending me hurtling out the window in sheer shock.

I turned my head to see that my brother was standing in my doorway with his hands in his pockets. Placing a hand over my heart and trying to get it back to its normal pace, I panted while saying, "Are you trying to kill me by scaring me to death?"

He smiled sheepishly and walked over to me, indicating that I was supposed to move over on the sill and make room for him. It was almost midnight on a Tuesday night during spring break. "You know," he paused, fumbling through his mind to find the right words that he was searching for, "I never thought that I would be okay with my best friend and my little sister dating each other."

Taking my eyes away from Orion's Belt and gazing at my brother, I asked, "And now?"

Jeff hadn't looked at me yet since he sat on the windowsill with me. Instead, his eyes were fixated on the moon. "It was weird at first, you know? But after a while I realized how happy you two were together. I've never seen you so happy, Annie. It makes me happy."

I didn't know what to say to him. Instead, I just placed my head on his shoulder and rested it there as we both basked in the silence of the starry night. Eventually though, I found myself saying, "If someone had told me that I would be happy because I had Bryce Moore as my boyfriend, I would have told them they were crazy."

We both laughed at that because we knew the truth to it. When we were really little, it was no secret that I wanted to marry Bryce. But it was just a silly schoolgirl crush. As I began to age and we began to grow apart, it was as if the two of us hated each other. And now what? We love each other? It's almost like we had gone full circle. Who would've thought?

Jeff threw his arm around my shoulders and rested his head atop mine in a brotherly fashion and said, "You are pretty crazy though." He couldn't be more right.

"And by facing our fears, we've encountered more wonders than we could ask for."

Clinging to Bryce in order to save my life was an understatement. Bryce had counted down from ten and then we fell backwards together as we plunged off of the bridge toward the river that was below it. I had never been so scared in my entire life. But looking back on it, I had only been scared for the first second that my feet were no longer touching the ground. After the initial jolt of fear, pure adrenaline begun shooting through my veins and it was exciting.

Bryce had been laughing in my ear the whole way down, and after a moment of readjustment, I was laughing with him. I had felt like I had been flying and I had been free to do whatever I wanted to do. And being able to experience it all with Bryce right there with me made it all the more better.

The whole fall felt incredibly long but was over far more quickly than I would have liked. Before I knew it, we were colliding headfirst with the water's calm surface and recoiling back up, only to fall back to the water once again. We only bounced a few times with the bungee cord before we were just hanging there. As we swayed back and forth from the bungee cord, dangling upside mere feet above the river, I said, "Man, I'm glad I listened to that macho boyfriend of mine."

Bryce laughed and kissed me lightly before shaking his wet hair in my face. I'm still not really sure why, but that kiss is by far my favorite kiss of all time. Perhaps it was because of the activity we had just done. Perhaps it was because we were upside-down. Perhaps it was because I had never loved him more at that very moment. I'm not sure, but something about that kiss made my relationship with Bryce even more special.

Then out of the blue, Bryce and I were falling yet again. Only this time I landed in the water and had to swim my way back to the surface. Apparently Bryce had pulled the cord in order to cut us loose. I floated there in the water just thinking about everything I had overcome. Not only had I overcome my fear of heights by bungee jumping, but also Bryce and I had overcome so much more over the years. Without Bryce, I wasn't sure where I would be in all reality.

"It's everything that we have had to face, be it raging teachers or overdramatic friends, be it lost homework or less than satisfactory school lunches, that have molded who we are. High school, middle school, even elementary school. We've endured it all. We've come out on top and now we're here. This is it. This is our history. This is our future. This is us. We are who we have made ourselves into. Now all we can do is go forward and face the future, just as we have faced everything else in our lives. College, the 'real world'; we can face it all. So here's to us, Class of 2010. Here's to the future." Becca concluded her speech and the crowd was sent into a frenzy of applause, causing a few of the graduates to wake up from their dosing states.


"Our future is solid, Belle," Bryce assured me as he snaked his arms around my waist and pulled me to him. "There's nothing that can tear us apart. It's you and me, baby!"

I rolled my eyes at him and snuggled closer to him. Today was the day he was leaving for college. The summer had gone by way too quickly for my taste, but at least it had been a good one. I spent lots of time with my best friends and their boyfriends, Patrick and Mark (yes, the very one). And I had spent a lot of time with my brother. Since he was leaving for school – only an hour's drive away, but still not down the hallway – we hung out quite a lot. It had been nice just to be with Jeff without any pressure; we spent time together because we wanted to, instead of Mom forcing us to spend the last few months together.

But most of all, Bryce and I were together. Sometimes we would be hanging out with Jeff since they would be parting ways as well. Sometimes it was just the two of us spending time together. In a way, I felt like my world was shattering. It was like a time bomb that I knew was counting down to my doom and there was nothing I could do to prevent it.

Bryce was so confident that everything would work out perfectly even though he was going to school three states away. I was happy for him because he had finally figured out what he wanted to do after college and the school he was going to would help him excel in that. He wanted to become a detective agent, specializing in finding missing persons. Ever since his mother left, he had changed. And his future career choice was just one of the many changes.

"Hey. What's the matter?" he asked me now as he saw the expression on my face.

I laced the sarcasm on thick as I said, "The matter? Oh, you know, nothing, except for the fact that my boyfriend is leaving today in order to go to college hours and hours away. But other than that, I'm peachy keen."

He sighed, pulling me closer to his body, an action that I pushed away. I knew that this was an unfair reaction, but I was going to miss him. And he acted like nothing was going to change between us, when in reality it had to. "Annabelle, you know how much I'm going to miss you. I'm gonna go crazy without seeing your face everyday. But I don't want to mope around all day long. I want to embrace life, because even though this seems like the end, it's really only the beginning. We'll get through this, Belle, and then everything will be perfect again. Just you wait and see."

I knew he was right; sulking wasn't going to get us anywhere in the end. But I just couldn't fathom how he could possibly be so optimistic about it all. "I don't want this to be the end," I whispered as I turned away from him and felt a tear slide its way down my cheek.

"Well you're in luck than," Bryce said as he stepped toward me and wrapped his arms around my waist. I placed my hands on his arms as he continued, "This isn't the end, sweetheart. It's just a bump in the road."

"In the random road?" I replied, quoting his mother's letter.

I could feel him smiling sadly as he squeezed me lightly. "Only I hopefully know where this random road is going."

I spun around in his arms and melded my lips with his easily. I didn't know what was going to happen to us in the future, though I did hope it was a good future, but at that moment it was only the future. I was always pessimistic, but somehow I knew Bryce and I would find a way to make this work. I loved him too much to let him slip away from him, just like he loved me too much for the same thing to happen.

"Dude, your aunt keeps pestering me that you're supposed to board the plan in a few minutes," I heard Jeff say. "You might wanna go."

Bryce and I pulled away from each other when we first heard my brother. Then it seemed like everyone appeared out of nowhere. A couple of his friends walked over to say a quick goodbye and have a nice life. Genie and Kylee flanked my sides suddenly, waiting to say bye but also to help support me. My mom seemed to be the saddest of us all that Bryce was leaving. As she continuously said, Bryce was like another son to her. It was funny watching Jeff and Bryce say their farewells. They simply gave each other a 'manly hug' and adverted making eye contact. Both were pretty bad with saying goodbye anyway.

Then Aunt Petunia rushed over and took him by his arm, ushering him away from the crowd of people. "You're going to miss your flight if you continue to stay here. Come on! You're supposed to be boarding now." Then he started to follow after her, talking animatedly with her.

I watched longingly after my boyfriend who had forgotten to say goodbye to me as he disappeared around a corner, still linking arms with the closest woman he had to a parent for the last seven months. Just like that he was gone and I didn't even get a chance to tell him one last time that I loved him. If he had forgotten to say a simple 'bye' to me, did that mean we really wouldn't last?

Genie and Kylee tried to soothe me with words as they saw that I was affected by this simple gesture. Jeff called his best friend an idiot in order to ease my pain in his strange way. We all turned around and began heading off in the direction of the airport exit. I was gloomier than I would have imagined I could be.

"Wait!" I heard distantly in the background but just figured it was my imagination.

Continuing to walk in gloom, I heard something again. "Annabelle!"

The moment I turned around I was met with Bryce as he hurtled himself into my arms. "I'm kind of the world's biggest idiot," he mumbled breathlessly into my ear.

I laughed and clung tightly to him. "Kind of?" was my reply.

"Bryce Moore!" Aunt Petunia snapped, walking briskly up to him and pulling him away from me. "You'll miss your flight."

I thought for a moment that he would listen to her and run for it so he wouldn't be late. And I would have been okay with it because I had gotten my goodbye – somewhat. But instead he pulled his arm out of her hold and kissed me fiercely. As he pulled away and uttered the word 'bye,' I placed my hand on his cheek and said, "I love you."

And that was it.

A/N: That's all folks. I know it's a cheesy ending, but I think it works. But this is the last chapter. I can't believe I finally finished it after all this time. Thanks to the people that stuck with it to the end. It means a lot to me. I hope you all enjoyed it. Well, thanks and farewell.