"Adelaide Elizabeth Sinclair."
I distinctly heard a loud whooping sound as I crossed the stage, shook a bunch of hands, and accepted a blank roll of paper symbolizing my high school diploma.
Dad, I thought with a smile, glancing at the audience to see him standing up with his fists in the air.
It was hard to believe, but this was it. The culmination of thirteen years of standardized tests and cafeteria food and report cards. Everything I'd worked so hard for and pretty much all I'd ever known, coming to a close tonight at graduation. Funny how I used to think school would last forever, and now there I was, closing that chapter of my life, ready to start a new one all my own.
When I sat back down, readjusting my cap and fingering the tassel, Luke leaned forward two seats away and held up his own faux diploma.
"I owe this all to you, Teach," he said.
I laughed. In the past two months Luke had cleaned up his act and started acing every test, quiz, and homework assignment in pre-cal. Naturally. He brought his grade up from a 45 F to a 91 A. The metamorphosis was so dramatic his teacher looked at me like I was the Math Messiah or something. Life was good.
"Kitty Lunabelle Stevens."
Instead of shaking hands with the officials, Kitty violently hugged each of them. Except the principal, who backed away in fear as though Kitty were some rabid canine. Undeterred, Kitty took her diploma with a smile and hurried offstage.
"You do realize they're going to be sore for days, right?" I said as she sat down a seat away on my other side.
"You do realize you're next when this is over, right?" she countered. Indeed, when the ceremony ended and we tossed our hats into the air, the first thing Kitty did was lunge at me and squeeze with all her might. But this time, instead of standing there and taking it, I reached up and squeezed her back.
My parents took the three of us, my sisters, and their partners out to dinner. And not to McDonald's or Chuck E. Cheese or even the Chinese place my mom used to work at. Nope. This was a special occasion that called for only the finest of restaurants. Or at least, the finest within our budget.
"Fidelio's?" Lilia's eyes widened at the sign as we went in. "Blade, you took me here on our first date, remember?"
"How could I forget," he said with a grin.
So this is where she obsessed over a bunch of napkins, I thought. Sure enough, there they were on our table, folded into triangles on each plate. The utensils didn't have any water stains on them. The menus were leather-bound. The lighting ambient, but not too bright. It was nice.
We divided ourselves into two, Luke, Kitty, my parents and myself sitting on one side of the table while Lilia, Blade, Sadie, Peter and baby Oliver sat on the other. We laughed and chattered like the happiest family on earth—the kind of family you see in picture frames at the store. Everyone was so outrageously, annoyingly cheerful as they ate their Italian food. Well, everyone except for Peter. He cracked a few smiles, mustered a laugh once while idly twirling his spaghetti, but that was it. Then, in the middle of our utopian feast, he stood up and clinked his glass with a fork.
"Sadie and I have an announcement to make."
He looked down at Sadie, who remained seated. She didn't meet his gaze, focusing instead on the vase of flowers in the center of the table.
Peter cleared his throat. "We're expecting another baby."
Kitty and Lilia squealed. Everyone clapped and congratulations were passed around. Just another joyful moment, another reason to celebrate tonight with smiles and laughs.
Sadie was smiling, but there was a touch of something else there. Something only I could see because it was something only I knew. I caught her eye and she stared at me for a moment. Then Oliver tossed his pacifier to the floor and she turned to retrieve it. Once again she and Peter were The Perfect Couple, the one everyone wanted to emulate. The one who exemplified the very essence of true love.
If only they knew.
"You okay, Adelaide?"
Luke had his eyes on mine, eyebrows raised. "Oh," I said, flashing him a smile. "Yeah. I'm fine."
Not to be outdone, Blade and Lilia stood up together as Peter sat back down.
"Don't tell me you're having a baby, too," Dad said in jest, but there was a slight edge to his voice. Mom, sitting beside him, also looked a bit nervous.
"No," Lilia said with a laugh, and they relaxed. "But we do have an important announcement of our own." She smiled at Blade and they said, in unison, "We're engaged."
Mom and Dad sat absolutely still, probably waiting for the punchline or the, "Just kidding!" But it never came. When Lilia extended her left hand toward us, showing off her engagement ring, that sealed the deal.
"Oh, wow," Mom managed.
Dad's mustache bristled, but he didn't say anything.
The rest of the table, for their part, congratulated the two and bent forward to get a better look at Lilia's ring. I heard what she'd said, saw the ring, the smiles, but I couldn't shake the numb feeling of shock strangling my body.
Lilia's getting married. My sister—my nineteen-year-old sister who's been dating this guy for six months—is getting married.
It shouldn't have surprised me so much. Lilia was enamored with the guy and he with her. Marriage was the next step. Yet, as I watched them sit down and plant a kiss on each other's lips, I couldn't help but wonder if it was a mistake.
"Adelaide?" Mom leaned back in her chair on Dad's other side to look at me. "Honey, do you have any news we should know about?"
Dad's mustache twitched. The table quieted and all eyes gravitated to me.
"Uh." I toyed with my lasagna, sliding it around on my plate. "I got a B in English."
"Good job, Ad," Dad said, much more enthused with my announcement than Lilia and Blade's.
"Oh, Adelaide." Blade scrambled to his feet. "I've got something for you."
"Yep." He grinned nervously, then, right before my eyes, lifted something up from beneath the table.
Me. It was me.
Or, well, a picture of me. I was standing in front of a post on my front porch, hands in my jacket pockets, a hint of a smile on my lips. My hair was messed up by the wind. My eyes were puffy. Cheeks were flushed red and eyebrows could have used a serious tweezing. I didn't like the drawing at first. Almost hated it, in fact. But then I looked around me, at the faces staring at my portrait. I looked at Luke. Lilia. Kitty. Sadie. My parents. Even Blade. I looked at these people I cared for—these people who cared for me—and found what I'd wanted all this time.
They had their histories, their mistakes, their scars and vices. But I didn't care. I loved them. After all, it's what made them who they were. And now, looking at this rendering of myself, I could finally accept the fact that this was me. This bushy-eyebrowed, puffy-eyed, tussle-haired girl was me, and for the first time in my life, I was okay with that.
"Thank you," I said.
Later that night, back at home right before I went to bed, I ventured over to Lilia's room after hearing some laughter. To my surprise Sadie was there, sitting on the bed with Lilia, a photo album in her lap. The two were giggling at the infamous picture of me at Disney World twelve years ago. For some reason, as Goofy knelt down beside me with an arm around my little shoulders, I'd looked pissed off.
"Addie," Lilia said, waving me over. "Remember this? God, you look so mad."
I plopped down on Sadie's other side. "What are you guys doing? It's getting late."
"Just reminiscing," Sadie replied, turning a page. "Oh! This was right after Lilia threw up on the teacup ride!"
Lilia made a face and quickly flipped the page. The next photo was the three of us standing side-by-side behind Sadie's eleventh birthday cake. We had identical haircuts—shoulder-length, straight black hair with bangs—and smiles that displayed missing teeth. Sadie would start refusing meat that summer after realizing Mom's roasted turkeys were once living creatures. Lilia would get glasses right before school started. I would call her "four-eyes" over and over again until she punched me in the arm so hard I had a bruise that lasted for a month. Good times.
"This seems like forever ago," Lilia said. "Now Sadie's having another baby. I'm getting married. Adelaide's off to college. Will we even have time for Sweeper Saturday anymore?"
"Probably not," I said.
She sighed. "Well. I guess now's a good a time as any to retire it. It was silly anyway. I mean, God, I was sixteen when we came up with it. So naïve." She glanced up at me, her eyes searching, seeking confirmation.
She didn't really want to end it. Neither did I. It would just be another change, another permanent alteration to my continuously shifting world. But that's what life is. Never-ending change, one right after the other, a cut here and a paste there. I couldn't avoid it. Not now, not ever.
I nodded. "Yeah. Good idea."
That wasn't the answer she'd expected. Or wanted. She frowned. "Nothing will ever be the same again, will it?"
My eyes drifted down to the photo. I smiled a little. "Not really. But we'll always have each other, won't we?"
"Yes," Sadie said, slinging her arms around our shoulders and pulling us close. "No matter what. We're in this together, guys."
"Oh, God. You're going to make me cry." Lilia sniffled and looked at the picture. We all did, three sisters staring at younger versions of themselves, the younger versions staring right back. Then, suddenly, Lilia jumped to her feet.
"You know what we should do? We should have one more Sweeper Saturday. Right now. For old time's sake."
"But it's Wednesday," I said.
"So? Let's do it! Come on!"
"I guess I can stay for a couple more hours," Sadie said, looking at me. "What do you think, Addie?"
It felt right. One last hurrah. How could I say no?
"Okay. Let's do it."
Sadie and I took our spots on the floor while Lilia rummaged through her DVD collection, carefully picking one out. She popped it in, switched off the light, and jumped onto her bed as the movie started.
It was Casablanca.
I looked at Lilia, who looked at Sadie. "Are you sure you want to watch this?" she asked our eldest sister.
"I won't fall asleep this time," she assured us. "I've kind of gained an appreciation for old black and white films."
Lilia beamed. "Good!" Promptly, she turned forward to face the television screen. We hadn't seen the movie since that night, four years ago, but like riding a bike it came back so easily, as if it were there, hidden, all along. The sultry way Ilsa looked at Rick. The charm, the romance, the sadness. I glanced at Lilia every so often, smiling as she mouthed her favorite lines.
When it ended, Lilia crawled to the edge of her bed to look down at Sadie. "So, what did you thi—"
Sadie let out a small snore. She was leaning against the bed, head back, eyes closed and mouth hanging wide open.
"I was wrong," Lilia said as I started laughing. "Some things never change."
When Luke told me he had a surprise for me, I hadn't the faintest idea what it could be. But it was fun kicking around the possibilities while I waited for him by the window, hardly able to contain my excitement.
Until he arrived and I realized exactly what he had in store for me.
"I'm not getting on that thing."
Luke grinned. "You scared?"
"Yes," I said, crossing my arms. "Terrified, as a matter of fact."
"You've never ridden one before?"
I shook my head.
"Come on. Get on it."
"Luke, I can't."
"You might enjoy it, you know."
"I doubt that."
"We'll be safe."
"I-I don't know."
"Come on, Adelaide. I won't go too fast. I'll go nice and slow. Just for you."
I looked at it, then back up at his face. "You promise?"
"I promise," he said.
"Okay." I took a deep breath, though it did nothing to calm my nerves. "Let's go."
"I knew you'd come around," he said, smiling a bit cockily as he reached back and handed me a helmet. I took my time fiddling with it, making sure it fit properly on my head and tightening the strap under my chin. When I couldn't possibly stall any longer, I swung a leg over his motorcycle and wrapped my arms tightly around his torso.
"Ready?" he asked, slipping on his own helmet.
"Where are we going?"
"You'll see." He started the engine, revved it twice, and then we launched forward.
The first few minutes were horrifying as I feared we might tip over or run into something, full force. But Luke, true to his word, took it easy. We cruised along at a comfortable speed before stopping at a red light.
"How you doing back there?"
"Good!" I lied, trying not to act like I was about to barf all over the road.
The light turned green and we were off again. I clutched him tighter, rested my helmeted head against his back and watched as trees and buildings slipped past. If I just focused on the feel of his body pressed against mine and not the speed or the balance or the wind, it wasn't all that bad. It was actually kind of nice.
The number of buildings gradually decreased, replaced by more and more trees. Finally, when we slowed to a stop, we found ourselves in front of a forest.
"Where are we?" I asked, taking off my helmet.
"I don't know if it has a name, but you'll like it. Here." He took my helmet and helped me off the motorcycle. "Follow me."
We walked straight into the thick of it, stepping over sticks and tree roots. I spied a rather large spider web to my right and nearly fell over trying to hurry past it.
"When I first got here I did some exploring," Luke said, taking my hand, leading me through the brush. "My mom and I were so pissed at each other we couldn't stand being in the same house, so I took off a lot. One night I found this place."
"I never even knew this existed." I looked up at the sunlight streaming through the leaves, way up high. "It's beautiful."
"You haven't even seen the best part."
We continued on for another minute before reaching a clearing. There before me sat a lake, as calm and clear as a slab of glass. Below me, a carpet of green, green grass covered the area. I knelt down and ran my fingers through it like hair. It was soft and fine.
"Nice, huh?" Luke sat down beside me, stretching out his legs in front of him and propping himself up with his arms. I mirrored his position and we stayed like that for a while, listening to the chirps of birds above us.
"So," he said. "Has Lou taken you back yet?"
"Nope. He's still mad."
"Wow. That man can hold a grudge."
"He'll cave eventually," I said. The night I reunited with Luke, I went back into the diner and asked Lou if I could have my job back. He narrowed his eyes at me and silently retrieved a mop to wipe up the water I'd tracked in. And that concluded our discussion.
Lou could be bitter and resentful, sure, but there was a heart in there somewhere. He would give in sooner or later. Until then, I planned on enjoying my last summer before college.
"Does your sister have her wedding date set?"
"I don't think so." I glanced at him. "Why? You want to go?"
"Maybe," he said. "I always did like doing the Y.M.C.A."
"I'm partial to the Electric Slide, myself."
He laughed. We sat in silence again after that. The comfortable kind. There was nothing much to think about. Nothing much to say or do. I breathed in the warm air and stared up at the sky. Not a cloud in sight.
"They seem real happy, don't they?" Luke asked.
"Lilia and Blade?"
"Yeah. They do."
"I guess she really did find her sweeper after all."
"We retired that," I said. "The whole sweeper thing."
"Oh. What do you use now, then?"
I shrugged. "Nothing, I guess."
"I know a good substitute if you want to hear it."
"Sure. What is it?"
He smiled. "Keeper."
"Keeper," I repeated.
"Yes. A keeper is a person you want to be with for the rest of your life." He glanced back at me. "Corny, right?"
I chuckled and scooted over so our thighs touched. "You're talking to the girl who coined a term from one of the cheesiest idioms in existence." I leaned my head on his shoulder. "I like yours, though. Keeper. It has a nice ring to it."
He tilted his head to the side so it was resting against mine.
The heat layered itself on my eyelids, weighing them down as we looked out across the lake together, watching short breaths of wind tickle the surface. Everything moved lazily with the breeze, branches swaying, grass bristling. It lulled us both into a gentle state of calm.
"How long do you want me for?" I asked, soft and slow as fatigue crept up on me.
He didn't say anything, just reached between us and traced something on my knee with his finger. I smiled and closed my eyes, drifting off to sleep with the image he drew still on my mind.
The infinity symbol.
Huge, huge thanks to everyone who has read this story and joined me on this—admittedly long—journey. I deeply appreciate every Favorite, Alert, and review. Without your support and enthusiasm, I'm not sure we would have ever reached this point. Seriously. So, again, thank you!
There's going to be a sequel to this story called Keepers. I can't give too much away, but it'll pick up where Sweepers left off and will mostly revolve around Mrs. Sawyer (Luke's mom) and Adelaide's contempt for each other. I hope to have it posted here on FictionPress next year. February or March, to be more precise.
In the meantime, I'm starting a new story called Just What I Needed. It's similar to this one in that it's character-driven, family-oriented, and a romance, but the characters are a few years older and the themes more mature. I'm crazy excited about it! The first chapter will be up next month.
If you'd like to know when either story is posted, I recommend adding me to your Author Alerts. Or you can kick it old school and check back once in a while. Whichever you prefer.
Well, I think that's about it. This was a lot of fun for me and I hope it was for you, too :) Thanks again, everyone!