I signed the college acceptance paperwork without even thinking about it, Kristen A. Thomas, and dropped the envelope in the mail the very next morning. Stoneybrook might be a small town, but the postal carrier worked fast—by the next business day, the letter would be across town and in the admissions office of Stoneybrook University.
It wasn't like I'd even applied anywhere else. I mean, we were talking about Stoneybrook. Who'd want to be anyplace else?
Pizza Express was loud, like it was every Friday night, but Mary Anne was quiet. Then again, she usually was, so I didn't even register it, filling the silence with my own big mouth while I peeled the pepperoni off my slice and ate them separately.
"So I got the form to sign up for a dorm room, but I figured I'd just waive that," I blabbed around a bite. "I mean, if I can just live at home and save the money, why not? Mom and Watson don't mind, and I've seen the bills for Sam's residency fees—it costs a ton. Plus, this way I can keep up with my regular babysitting clients easier."
Mary Anne nodded and swirled her straw around her cup of Sprite. As usual, she was eating like a bird—she'd barely nibbled her slice.
"What does your dad want you to do? I bet he'd be happy if you stayed home." I was pretty obviously fishing. Unlike me, Mary Anne had applied to a couple colleges besides SU, and I knew she was waiting to hear back from all of them before she made a decision. I'd been mentally preparing myself in case she decided to go for Barnard, which had been her dream school since we were in diapers. It wouldn't be the same as being in the same town, but I kept telling myself that New York wasn't too far away, that there were always weekends and holidays, that visits would be a snap.
She hesitated before slowly answering, "Well, he would, but it'd be quite a commute."
Oh God, she got into Barnard. She's really going. I sucked in a breath, waiting.
Leaning across the table, she put her small hand on mine. "Kristy, I'm going to school in Des Moines."
I blinked once, twice. "I—Des Moines, Iowa? What about Barnard? Or SU?"
Mary Anne bit her lip and said, "I got into both. But I read this other college, Drake University? It's in Des Moines, and it sounds wonderful—smaller, quiet. And it's only a three-hour drive to Maynard. Grandma Porter's getting older, and I—I just thought this would be a great way to be close to her."
Jerking my hand away, I snapped, "What about being close to us?" I waved my arms around, as if encapsulating Richard and Sharon, Stoneybrook as a whole, and most importantly, me.
Her eyes filled with tears. "I'll miss you, of course, you know I will. But Grandma's the only family I have on my mom's side—I might never get another chance to live close to her. You have to realize how important that is."
I did, sort of, but I just stubbornly muttered, "I guess."
"Besides," she said, smiling a little. "I'll be home during breaks, and there's always email and Skype. It won't be as bad as it be. We'll always be best friends, right?"
"Right," I answered hollowly, but for one of the first times in my entire life, I found I'd lost my appetite.
"It's vintage," Stacey said proudly, showing off her purple satin NYU windbreaker. It looked butt-ugly to me, more Members Only than New York chic, but Claudia and Mary Anne, the other occupants of our regular lunch table Stoneybrook High cafeteria, gushed over it, so what did I know?
It was Look to the Future Day at SHS, where all the seniors were encouraged to wear something in honor of their college of choice, since by now even the slowest admissions departments had gotten their acceptance letters out. The senior hallway was flooded with every color combination but good old SHS red and white. So much for one last hurrah of high school spirit.
At our table, besides Stacey's NYU purple, there was Mary Anne in a blue polo shirt with a bulldog, which was apparently the Drake mascot, embroidered on the pocket. My baseball tee was in SU's shades, black and yellow ("Hufflepuff colors," Mallory Pike had noted brightly when she'd seen it that morning, and I'd rolled my eyes so hard they'd practically fallen out of my head). Claudia just wore a look of depression.
Mary Anne noticed, of course. "A lot of other people do a year or two of junior college first, Claudia. It's a good idea—you can get the general credits out of the way while you work on your art school portfolio."
"But there's no dorms in junior college," Claudia replied glumly. "And no parties, no fun."
"You never have a problem sniffing out parties," Stacey said. "And if you do, you can just come up to see me for a weekend and we'll find some together."
Meanwhile, I was barely paying attention. The gears in my brain had suddenly started up, whipping something up. I turned to Mary Anne. "Hey, why don't you do that?"
She tilted her head, looking confused. "Do what?"
"Get your gen ed credits done here in Connecticut, going to junior college." She opened her mouth to reply, but I barreled on, saying, "Private colleges are way more expensive, especially when they're out of state, right? So you could just polish off, what, one, two years here and save money by staying home." Now it was time for my killing stroke, the one that was sure to put tears in her eyes. "Plus, I bet your dad would be a lot happier. You're so close—I bet he's crushed that you're going somewhere so far away."
But rather than turn on the waterworks and agree that yes, she couldn't possibly leave poor Richard, Mary Anne smiled. "It's nice of you to think of him, but Dad's actually been supportive about this. He says that going away to college really helped him grow as a person, so he understands. And he says it'll give him more empathy for what Sharon's gone through with Dawn and Jeff all these years." She pursed her lips for a moment. "Actually, I'm more worried about Sharon. She was really hoping Dawn would consider the East Coast for college."
"Oh, hey," Stacey broke in. "What did Dawn actually decide? Is she going to that college in Santa Cruz or joining the commune?"
The conversation went on from there, but I just mostly kept my head down and poked at my plate of chicken a la king. So much for that great idea.
Even though my mom had been through the high school graduations of two children before this one—and she'd be getting her first college graduation ceremony pretty soon—she was still grinning ear-to-ear, camera in hand, from her front-row seat in the audience. Beside her, Watson surreptitiously dabbed his eyes while my little siblings looked bored and tried to sneak glances at their iPhones. A few rows back, Mary Anne's dad was bawling his eyes out as Sharon patted his shoulder.
A few yards away, I was dressed in my cap and gown finery. My heart felt like it was going to beat out of my chest with anticipation. I wasn't actually anxious about the ceremony already in progress (could the principal mangle that many names by accident? Yeesh), that wasn't in my nature at all. No, it was just the thought of how many years had led up to this, and that now everything was going to change in such a big, monumental way. No more meeting up with my friends before first bell, grabbing each other in the halls for a quick conversation between classes, laughing together over lunch, sharing homework assignments. Starting tomorrow, we were all going to start drifting in different directions, and the idea made me feel physically sick. Suddenly, I felt sympathy for all the times I'd made Mary Anne green with my creative descriptions of cafeteria meals.
She was beside me, since we'd been placed in rows alphabetically. Over the years, other S's and T's had come and gone, but in the end, it was Spier and Thomas, together again. She did look nervous, chewing at her bottom lip, and I knew it was because visions of tripping on her robe on the way to pick up her diploma were dancing through her head. Maybe it helped that Claudia and Stacey had already successfully received theirs without any problems, though Claudia's smile possibly looked a little more relieved than it should have. Or maybe not. Mary Anne had always been the worrier, the sensitive one.
But when the principal finally called her name, her whole expression transformed. She beamed, instantly glowing, radiant with happiness, and her hand darted out to give mine a quick squeeze as she rose to stride forward, toward the future.
And I was left alone with an empty chair beside my own, really relating to Richard's wracking sobs from the audience.
A little while later, when our newly graduated class was introduced and everyone else flung their caps into the air, Mary Anne wasn't the one who burst into tears. It was me.
I've always hated change.
"There's no sweaters for sale anywhere," Mary Anne murmured, pushing through the clothes on the sales rack in the Junior Miss section of Bellair's Department Store. "It's all still summer stuff."
"The sports department has hoodies..." If I stood on my toes, I could just see them across the store, hanging side-by-side MLB licensed shirts. Yeah, that was my kind of clothes department.
Mary Anne, though, scrunched up her nose at the very idea of venturing over there. "Those aren't even tailored for women, Kristy," and something in my stomach twinged a little. She'd never referred to herself as a woman instead of a girl before, at least not to me. What had that started? I definitely wasn't a woman yet! "I guess I could just wait a few months to finish up my school shopping, but I won't have a car in Des Moines, so I can't count on getting to a mall. And I hate shopping online; nothing ever fits."
"Please, like your dad and Sharon aren't going to be sending you a billion care packages anyway," I said, trying to shake off that weird feeling. "You'll get a thousand sweaters before it's even cold."
"Besides, who knows, you might not even end up needing them anyway," I barreled on. "I read that like thirty-five percent of college students drop out their first year, so you might be back home before you know it."
As soon as the words were out, the awful feeling of You should have shut up about a hundred words ago, cultivated over a lifetime of being a loudmouth, hit me. From the long moment of silence that stretched on from Mary Anne's side of the clothing rack, that feeling was on the money.
When she finally spoke, her voice was quiet but cold. "That's a terrible thing to say, Kristy."
I bit my lip. That percentage had actually been a huge comfort to me when I'd read it, but at least I had the grace to feel like a jerk about it, I guess. "I'm sorry."
"Is that what you really think?" she asked. "That I'll probably drop out?"
"No," I said quickly. "I meant that it could happen, and just—look, I don't know. I was just talking, not thinking. As usual. Okay?"
She stared down at the hangers of clothes, but with her close-cropped hair, she couldn't hide the struggle to control her tears. A few months ago, Mary Anne cut her hair shorter than ever. A pixie, Stacey had called it, and I immediately understood how it got the name. It made Mary Anne's big brown eyes even more enormous and emphasized the delicateness of her petite frame, like she was an elf. People used to say we look alike, but over the past few years, I'd grown a couple inches and looked sturdier and pear-shaped next to tiny Mary Anne.
We were nothing alike now.
"Okay," she finally said, her voice small, and it was obviously going to take a little while before she fully relaxed again.
"Come on, let's go look at the Merry-Go-Round," I said, even though it was probably the most boring store in all of Stoneybrook, other than maybe Yarnoplex. "Karen told me they have some barrettes with kittens on them."
Mary Anne's face brightened a little, just like I knew it would.
Sometime after my birthday, everything started getting quieter as friends started packing up and heading for college. These were people I'd been going to school with since kindergarten, and now all of a sudden they were just gone. Kids like Pete Black, Emily Bernstein, Rick Chow—it was possible that I'd never see some of them again. I'd even miss Alan Gray, the dumb goon.
By the end of the month, even Stacey was gone, sorting out her new full-time living situation with her dad, stepmom, and little half-brother, and Claudia was visiting Janine in Princeton. They'd said their goodbyes to Mary Anne early, with a flood of tears from the Town Crier, of course.
So it was just her and me those last few days, before my life—and hers—changed forever. Well, Mallory and Jessi too, I guess, but they were absorbed in getting ready for their junior year of high school, all the angst of separation still just a distant future.
The weekend before Mary Anne flew out to Iowa with her dad and Sharon, I went over to help her pack. It was really just an excuse for me to sleep over—there was no way in hell she wanted me anywhere near her suitcases, which were just as neat and organized as the Baby-sitters Club record book had been, back in middle school. She was still fussing with them, comparing the contents to the checklist she'd made, long after dinner. I just supervised, along with her cat, who meowed anxiously by my side on the sleeping bag.
Mary Anne glanced over, looking troubled. "Tigger knows something's wrong, that I'm leaving him."
I hesitated, knowing I should probably deny it, but by the way he was pacing, tail swishing fretfully, I had a feeling she was right. "He'll be okay."
"No, he won't. He'll hate me!" She wiped at her eyes, already wet. "I'm abandoning him! I've never left him for more than a couple days, not since I brought him home from the shelter."
I scooted over to her, put my arm around her shoulders. "He might not understand right now, or ever. I mean, he's a cat. But he loves you, so he get over it. And when you come home, he'll be waiting here for you. It'll be like you never left at all."
Look, I wasn't stupid. I could see the stupidly obvious parallels between what I was saying and what I was feeling. And maybe I should have thought a little harder about what it meant that I was having the same amount of separation anxiety as a spoiled house cat, but still. For the first time in six months, the knot in my stomach seemed to unravel.
Mary Anne sniffed and wiped her eyes, giving me a watery smile. "You're right. I know you're right." She turned toward me, wrapping me in one of those long, warm Mary Anne hugs that I was going to miss so much. "Thanks, Kristy. I love you."
"I love you too," I murmured.
And I'd be waiting when she came home.