“It’s time,” I say, and I switch on the lights.
The boy in the bed blinks a little, moving restlessly as he wakes, and I smile, tilting my head to share the grin with Raffy beside me.
“Come on,” I tell him, and I’m trying for exasperated, but I’ve known this kid since he was twelve years old and I’m not going to try and pretend that there isn’t any fondness in my voice. “Come on, it’s time. You don’t need to be scared.”
And we go together to the meeting hut.
“Listen,” I tell them all. “The important thing is that it’s not the territory that matters. It’s what you choose to do with it. The Cadets are only here for six weeks, and you make every bloody second of it count, all right?”
I can feel tears prickling in the corners of my eyes and I don’t even care because this matters so fucking much.
“You’ve got one year left in this place and it will go even faster than you think. One year left to make your own mark and don’t you dare, don’t you fucking dare waste it.”
Everyone looks at me. And Ben and Raffy and Trini are smiling and even Richard looks proud.
“You ready?” I ask the year elevens. One by one they nod, looking around at one another, and already I can see the plans taking shape in their eyes.
“Then it’s time,” I say, and I’m holding Raffy’s hand as we walk away.
Our HSC marks come in, and when I show Hannah she’s happy and so proud, smiling like a revelation. And I promise myself I’ll never take that look for granted. Not ever.
And when I talk to the others, all of our offers line up like magic. We’ll all leave together to go to the city halfway between Jonah and me, the city with a lake and a mountain and two universities and the military college.
We find a house for the four of us to rent together, on the north shore of the lake where the houses are old and the streets are lined with massive oak trees. Below them there are young saplings springing up through the dry tangled grass, flourishing their bright leaves like banners from some distant country
“Needs some work,” Santangelo says, eyes on the overgrown garden and the leaf-choked gutters and the doors that don’t quite fit their frames.
I sigh and nod.
And beside us Raffy is lit up. “Look at it,” she says, smiling and beautiful. “It’s so perfect.”
“I’m scared,” Raffy says quietly, and I tilt my head up to look at her. We’re on the grass by the edge of the lake, watching the clouds and the dark shapes of the swans moving across the steely water. I’m lying down with my head tipped back in Raffy’s lap and it’s awkward and uncomfortable and the safest place I’ve ever known.
“God, Taylor, I’m so scared. Neither of us is seeing anyone right now and every time I look at him I think about what could happen between us, I just can’t help it. And the thought of it scares me so much.”
“Breathe, Raffy,” I say. She’s talking too fast, incoherent, and the Taylor of a year ago would have come up with five different bitchy responses right now.
But I know perfectly well that she’s talking about Chaz and instead I just give her a smile.
“He used to be my best friend and then when I started high school I lost him, Taylor. What if it all went wrong and I lost him again?”
I’m quiet for a while. “And what if you never had him at all? Wouldn’t that be worse?” She sighs down at me and I grin. “You’d spent the rest of your life filled with regret and unresolved sexual tension in the kitchen in the mornings. Don’t act like I haven’t witnessed your shameful displays over the coco pops, Raffy.”
She pokes my side and I raise my eyebrows before I start to fight back. And then we’re wrestling like kids and even though I’ve always been tougher than her it’s never the winning that matters.
In the pitch-black night we sit outside at the top of the mountain, surrounded by fragrant bush smells and all the lights of the city spread out below us, the stars above like a burning mirror to their brightness. And it’s all so beautiful.
We sit in a circle together, huddled close against the freezing winter cold. Holding hands.
“I’m alive,” I say. “I’m so fucking happy to be alive.” Telling them, telling the sky and the mountain and the burning stars.
Jonah squeezes my hand.
“So am I,” he says so softly, but I feel the words punch into me, sharp and brilliant and beautiful. And I never want to stop hearing them.
“We’re going to know each other for the rest of our lives,” Chaz says, and the words hurt, but they also feel so right.
“Promise me something,” Jonah says suddenly. “When we lose each other – promise me that none of you will forget how this feels. Promise me that you won’t let me forget. No matter what happens.”
“I promise,” we say, and I squeeze Jonah’s hand tighter.
“Everyone leaves eventually,” I whisper, squeezing the words out past the choking lump in my throat. “But I don’t fucking care, okay? Because until it does we’re going to be so bloody beautiful. And afterwards…”
“Afterwards we’ll keep living,” Raffy says, and the words sound so bright.
“I promise,” I say again. For Raffy and Jonah and Chaz; for Jude and Hannah and Jessa. And for Tate, and Webb, and Fitz.
For a girl called Taylor Markham, who’s had three families and deserves to be happy.
Who lives in the most beautiful house you’ve ever seen.
On the Jellicoe Road.