32

A year later, I find myself in the same spot—well, physically.

Poppy, Levi, and my two parents surround me at our rectangular deck table on this June night, where the sound of laughter hasn't ceased for the last hour. The golden sun descends farther behind the thick green trees enveloping the yard, slowly starting to be replaced by a bluish-purple sky and a pleasant cool breeze. Wrapping my denim jacket tighter over my body, I lean back into my seat and smile as I watch my parents exchange a few words over now empty plates of pasta, noticing the absence of my dad's phone for the first time in my life.

He looks up and smiles tenderly at me, the corners of his warm hazel eyes wrinkling behind his glasses. "When's the big announcement happening, Whit? We finished eating before you even breathed a word about it."

"It's not that big of an announcement," I say shyly, feeling everyone's eyes land on me, "but I am kind of proud of myself." My mom and Poppy eagerly gesture for me to speak, so I finally go ahead. "As of this morning, I, Whitney Carmichael, am officially a certified personal trainer."

A series of congratulations echo across the table, and I feel my cheeks grow even warmer, unused to being the center of attention at these gatherings. I welcome the warm hug from Poppy sitting next to me and notice her husband waiting to speak.

"I'm shocked you managed to get certified during your first year of college." Levi shakes his head in disbelief. "I never had time to step foot into the gym freshman year with those daily breakdowns over organic chemistry."

"Oh God no, Levi. Not that class." I press my fingertips into the bridge of my nose, the signature headache from that semester of hell returning. "I swear I still see molecules in my sleep every night."

Levi chuckles over the rim of his glass and offers me a sympathetic smile. "I'll let you know if it gets any better in med school." From the dead look in his blue eyes, I have a feeling he knows it won't.

Unlike Levi, Poppy stayed at her full-time job and put off continuing her education for another year—or maybe five. Our mom eventually got over the fact that law school isn't on her radar anymore, the end of a dream that wasn't her daughter's in the first place. It's a miracle what acceptance does to a relationship, as I haven't witnessed the two clash and quarrel ever since she got married.

My dad picks up the sealed bottle of champagne from the corner of the table, eager to finally pop it open. "I think now is the perfect time for a toast."

"You say that at every gathering, Dad," Poppy chuckles. "Just admit you want an excuse to drink fancy alcohol."

He holds a finger up into the air, shaking his head. "We have a lot to celebrate this time, Poppy." He pops open the cork and grabs the first glass, looking between the four of us. "Whitney's new path in life, your success at work, my son-in-law's start to a rewarding career, and almost twenty-five years of marriage to your mother."

"I think that's the first time you remembered our anniversary on your own, honey," my mom remarks, eyebrows raised in surprise. Mumbling, she adds, "I'll toast to that myself later."

More laughter ensues as we clink glasses, and the evening soon rolls into the night, marking the end of a perfect day.



***

"You move in today, right?" my mom asks when I step into the kitchen. I slide onto the bar stool next to her, joining her for breakfast. "Are you excited to actually begin working soon?"

"To be honest, I don't even know how I feel." I pour myself a large cup of coffee, knowing I'm going to need lots of caffeine to survive a long day of Bob's orders. "I couldn't sleep last night overthinking everything even though I'm pretty sure those trainees have more reason than me to be scared out of their minds."

"Relax, Whitney, you've been training for this all year." She brings her cup of coffee to her lips and smiles before adding, "Besides, if you don't turn out to be all that good at the job, I'm sure there's been plenty worse before you."

I take a handful of berries from the bowl on the table and shove them into my mouth. "Thanks, Mom," I answer wryly. Swallowing, I add, "Anxiety is all gone now." I cut into a blueberry pancake doused in syrup and shove in a larger-than-normal bite—some things never change apparently.

I keep a close eye on the time as I linger at breakfast, grateful I already stuffed my car with everything I need to move in. With a tight parting hug to my mother, I hurry upstairs to survey my room for the last time and make sure I haven't missed any key belongings. As I make the turn down the hallway to my bedroom, I run into a passing figure.

"You're leaving already, Whit?" my dad asks, adjusting the collar of his white shirt.

"I don't have to, but my nerves are telling me to be two hours early." Laughing at myself, I return his warm hug and keep my head buried into his shoulder for several moments, until he finally lets me go with a melancholic smile.

"Sometimes I forget that you and Poppy are now full-grown adults." He looks off into the distance, rubbing his gray sideburns. "I remember when you were in kindergarten, you'd hug me like that every morning, rattling off a million reasons why you shouldn't have to go to school."

"I think you're going to have to try to keep me out of school now," I say, remembering the seven or more years I still have left. "Geez, I feel kind of old now, Dad."

"Trust me, I'm the only old one here." Ruffling the top of my head, he pushes me in the direction of my room. "Now go kill it at the job, kiddo."

My smile never leaves my lips the whole way back to my car, and I pause for a moment in the driver's seat. I take in the overwhelming contentment washing over my body in spite of the very different path that life has taken me on in the past year.

I haven't seen Mina in over six months, though we occasionally exchange a few texts, usually about some sighting of someone from high school we never wanted to see again. Although I've met countless people in college already, no one else has come close to filling her prior role in my life, apart from my closest long-distance friend, Martina.

I make a mental note to respond to her four-paragraph rant as I scroll through my messages and come across a name that stands out among the rest, adorned with a heart. Axel has shown me love in its purest form over the past year—there whenever I needed him and whenever I thought I didn't.

My parents are well aware of his existence by now and what drew him to me in the first place, but I've still kept somewhat of a gap between them and him, having only brought him home once to a Christmas party last December. Last week was the first time I met his own mother and brother, James. The nerves I feel now aren't even close to the vomit-inducing anxiety that gripped me the whole ride to his family's apartment. That was until I realized there's a reason Axel is the good man he is, with a mom that radiates pure sunshine and a brother that worships the ground he walks on.

As I drive closer to the camp, I realize how much I miss him. While we've only spent a whopping seven days apart, that feels like a lifetime when the loving part of your heart is wholly invested in one person.

I park my car in the closest legal spot to the trainer dorm and wait to start hauling out my belongings, wanting to find Axel first. On my journey across the camp, I pass by the stone benches from last year and notice two more have joined the original duo. For double the drama, I think and chuckle to myself as I keep walking down the grass.

When my hand grips the door handle of the central building, another clamps down on my shoulder. Whirling around in a panic, I can barely register who stands in front of me before I feel myself being hoisted into the air.

"Axel," I laugh, as he spins me around in a circle. After a couple urges to put me down, he plants me on my feet and dips his face down to mine. I cup his cheeks in my hands, sharing his same broad smile before mumbling, "That's one way to show me you missed me."

"I could also kiss you," he suggests, sliding his hands down my back, "but you've made it clear you despise PDA."

I flicker my eyes across the campgrounds, not a soul in sight. "But who says we're in public?"

With a certain self-satisfied smile, he grips the back of my neck and brings his mouth to my own. The kiss is shorter and sweeter than our normally long and passionate romantic exchanges, but that same warm feeling rushes down my body, making me wish for more.

But, alas, we're now in public.

"You know, I've lived most of my life thinking I thrive in a domineering career, but now I'm starting to regret not becoming a professional matchmaker. Really seems to be my specialty."

Neither Axel nor I have to turn around to know who those words belong to, spoken in the signature smug tone of Bob himself. Axel slowly lets go of me and stares up to greet his boss—our boss.

"Hope your summer's been good so far, sir," he says wryly, unable to look him in the eyes.

Bob simply smiles a wide, complacent smile. "Oh, it's been great," he says and opens the door to the central building, "and it'll get even better when I finally have another sixteen minions to terrorize. Enjoy the last bit of your freedom, you two."

When Bob finally disappears, Axel gazes at me again.

"Are you ready for this summer?"

I look into his eyes with a surprisingly confident smile. "More than you could ever imagine."

***

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