The high school stadium rang with a chorus of “Happy graduation!” In front of the stands, the group of ex-seniors tossed their caps up into the air.
Tom Kent’s best friend and girlfriend, Emily, rushed from her place in line and threw her arms around Tom’s neck. “Happy graduation!” she said breathlessly.
He kissed her and cradled her face in his hands, feeling her put her arms around his waist. “Decided to get away from the smart kids to come back here and slum with your boyfriend?”
She laughed and pressed her lips to his.
Tonight was the night he would ask her. Finally, after knowing her since they’d been seven years old, it was time.
She pulled back, and her face shone with exuberance. “I love you, Tom.” Tears misted in her eyes, and he thought of the ring in his pocket.
“I love ya too, Ems.”
“Six, five, four, three, two, one! Baby Kent!” he heard his brothers yelling in unison from the stands.
Peering up, Tom discovered his brothers’ shirts were off, and they had baby bottles and “Tom Kent Graduates” painted on their chests. He was the youngest of six brothers. Remarkably, they’d all been able to come for his graduation. They’d always teased him about being the baby, and now they were rubbing his face in it. He laughed and flipped them the bird, which made all of them burst out laughing and high-five each other.
His mother scolded them before turning to clap for Tom. He could see tears in her eyes as she shrugged in response to his brothers’ antics.
Emily held him tighter. “They’re crazy!”
Blinking back tears, he laughed harder, loving his brothers so much. “They’re just happy I’m graduating.” He winked at her. “You know it was iffy for a while.”
People were pointing at his brothers and whispering, “Look at the Kent brothers.” He ignored them because his brothers loved the attention. Instead, he focused on Emily, who was snuggled securely in his arms.
Emily stared up at him. “You’re right; it was iffy. But even though you may not like book stuff or actually going to class …”
He laughed and thought of how many classes he’d ditched this past year.
“And even if you’re a bad-boy rebel, I still think you’re brilliant and funny and dashingly handsome.” She kissed his cheek.
He gently pressed his lips to her forehead. “See, that’s why we work, Ems. You’re the yin to my yang. Because you’re really the brilliant, smart, going-to-take-over-the-world one.”
“Okay,” she said, relenting. “How about we’re both brilliant?” This was a game they played, complimenting each other equally.
He snuggled her closer. “Ems, I’m definitely the one who just plain needs you.”
Emily’s nose wiggled and she kissed him again. “I love you so much.”
He nodded, a nervous thrumming in his gut. “Me, too.” Tonight. Tonight, he would ask her, and soon they would be the greatest love story this small town had ever known.
People walked by and high-fived them as they chatted with friends.
“Hey, Emily! Why are you hanging out with the biggest dork here?” one of Tom’s brothers called out from the stands.
She reached for Tom’s hand and pulled him with her. “Let’s go find my sister and my mom. Then we’ll go deal with your brothers.” She rolled her eyes and stuck her tongue out at his brothers.
Laughter sounded from his clan, and he knew he would kill them when he got the chance. “Sounds good.”
* * *
At the bonfire later that night, all of their friends laughed and chatted. Someone was strumming the guitar. Emily leaned back into Tom’s chest, and he wrapped her tightly in his arms and shifted so they were facing the fire. Emily thought this must be the best day of her life. The beginning.
A twinge of sadness soured the moment. She wished her father would have been here. Strike that: she wished her father had never left. Anger simmered in her thoughts as she remembered how he’d left when she was fifteen, how he’d run off with another woman and never looked back. Unfortunately, her father’s departure had caused her mother to have a nervous breakdown. Her mother had never been the same. The breakdown, they’d recently been told by the doctors, had led to mental problems and memory loss.
Pushing all of that out of her mind, Emily tried to focus on the fact that it had been a good day. Nevertheless, nervousness pulsed through her. She hadn’t told Tom about the letter she’d gotten earlier, the one her mother had given her before the small graduation gathering at the Kents’ house earlier that evening.
Her mother had excitedly pushed it at her. “Open it. Let’s see what options you have.” Her eyes had twinkled.
Her sister, Trina, had taken her mother’s hand and scrunched up her face at Emily. “You got in, Em. I know you did.”
Excitement had woven through her when she’d opened it and seen the acceptance letter. She’d stumbled back and nearly fallen. Trina had rushed to her side, held her, and finished reading the letter, declaring she’d not only gotten into Yale, but she had also gotten a full-ride scholarship.
“I can’t take it,” Emily had said, dropping the letter and thinking of Tom and how they’d toured the CSU campus in Fort Collins together two weeks ago. They’d talked about their future and how they would work their schedules out to meet for lunch.
Trina and her mother hadn’t pushed her, but she’d known both of them were thinking this had been her dream her whole life. There was no arguing. Going to Yale had been her dream. But she couldn’t leave Tom behind.
She and Tom had decided they chose each other. They would never leave each other.
Tom stroked the side of her hair, bringing her back to this moment. “What are you thinking about, Ems?” he whispered into her ear.
Jolting back to this moment, she sucked in a breath, then slowly let it out. She didn’t want to talk about her worries, so she smiled up at him. “I’m thinking about how we’re going to have a ton of fun at CSU this fall.” Yes, CSU. Unmistakably, a twinge of regret tumbled through her insides and lodged itself in her gut. Not Yale.
A half smile crossed his face. “Yep.”
She wondered if there was some regret inside of him. All of his brothers had served in the military in some way, and his father had lost his life serving his country. This was the precise reason she’d spent so much time talking Tom out of enlisting. It was dangerous.
“I need to talk to you, Ems.”
The simple sentence raised her hackles. Forcing down the immediate worry, she tried to smile at him. “Sounds serious.”
Tom stood and held a hand out to her. “Can we get away from everyone and walk by the river for a bit?”
Emily took his hand and stood, but right away she had that feeling. It wasn’t something she talked about with many people, but Emily had always been a bit clairvoyant, as her mother called it. She could feel when something was amiss or about to happen. Granted, it could be as little as a fly swimming into her cereal milk, which had actually happened once. Or it could be as big as knowing her grandmother had had a heart attack, which had happened too.
Her heart raced. Was it a good something or a bad something? She never knew that either. She easily fell into step with Tom. This was how they were, in sync. They’d been best friends since he’d moved in, but not girlfriend and boyfriend until high school when he asked her to prom sophomore year. After prom, he had kissed her by the old tire swing.
Tonight, the moon was bright. It was the end of May, so it was chilly but warming up. Lacing her fingers with his, she leaned into his side as they walked. “What’s on your mind, Ninja?” He’d inherited the nickname the same year he’d kissed her, when he’d begun sneaking into her yard at night and throwing rocks at her window. Neither of them had cell phones until they could afford them, so this had been their way to communicate.
He let out a soft laugh. “Stupid nickname.”
They walked away from the party for a bit. Abruptly he stopped, letting out a sigh and taking her by the shoulders.
She stared up into his eyes. He was tall. Six foot two. She was only five-six, and he’d shot up a lot in the last two years. She always teased him about that too. “Can’t be this serious tonight, Tom. It’s our graduation. The beginning of the rest of our lives.” The last bit was spoken with mock solemnity, mimicking the principal’s speech earlier that day.
A smile emerged on Tom’s face, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Ems, I have two things, important things, I need to talk to you about.”
She didn’t want to talk about important things, so she reached up and looped her arms around his neck, kissing him.
Soft, eager, and knowing the motions, Tom gave in for a moment and kissed her in return. Then he tried to pull back.
She was determined, deepening the kiss, holding him closer. “No,” she whispered before planting another kiss on his jaw. “You must not understand,” she said, opting to kiss his neck. “This means I don’t want to talk right now.” She found his lips, again, and felt him smile against her. Her mind screamed, Yes, I want to be with you. Kiss you. Hold you.
Once again, Tom allowed a bit of kissing before pulling back. “Ems,” he said, letting out a skittering laugh. He took her hands in his and brought them to his chest. “I need to talk to you.”
Emily’s stomach flip-flopped, and the spine tingling was back. “Okay. Let’s talk.”
Tom hesitated. Then he ripped the words out like you would rip duct tape from someone’s lips. “I enlisted.”
All the air whooshed out of her lungs. His admission couldn’t have more impact if he’d told her another bomb akin to Hiroshima had just been dropped on their hometown of Greeley, Colorado. She coughed. “What?”
“I had to. I just …” He let go of her hands and put a fist to his chest. “I just had this feeling inside of me, nagging at me. Like destiny was pulling me forward, and if I ignored it, I couldn’t live with myself.”
Anger flared in her, and already tears were forming in her eyes. She thought of his oldest brother, Zane, the SEAL, who was super into stuff like duty, honor, and commitment. He was always pushing his agenda with Tom. He’d been home this whole past week. Not to mention all of his brothers had served or were serving. “When?” she asked softly, realizing it shouldn’t have surprised her.
Squeezing his eyes shut, Tom put his fingers to his eyes and scrubbed them. “I did it yesterday. I’m shipping out for boot camp at the end of next week.”
Yesterday … The word rang through her mind, and the rest of the Beatles lyrics fell neatly in line. All my troubles seemed so far away. Pain filled the center of her chest, and she put her hand to it, backing up.
“Ems, Ems!” Tom closed the gap between them, holding her shoulders. “Are you okay?”
She felt like she’d felt on the day she’d found her mother on the couch. The day her father had left. Dizzily, she reached out and held on to him for dear life. “We weren’t going to leave each other, remember? We chose each other!”
Pulling Emily against him, wrapping his arms around her, he whispered, “I do choose you, Ems. Always. I would never leave you.”
She felt herself trembling. “Yes. You. Are.”
“Not permanently. Not ever.”
Closing her eyes, she let him hold her. It wasn’t okay, but Tom had always been the dreamer, and she’d always been the practical one. This couldn’t work. Tears poured down her cheeks. “You can’t do this.”
Bending down, Tom picked her up like a father would pick up a child. He held her to his chest as he walked down to a patch of grass on the river, far away from the bonfire.
When he sat with her on his lap, he said, “Ems, please don’t cry. Please don’t.” His voice cracked as he held her. “You always break me when you cry.”
She didn’t know how long they sat there. Him, holding her. Her, crying herself out. Of course he would serve. Tom was that kind of guy. It all came down to God, country, family. She’d known that. She let all those thoughts be drowned out. All she could hear was the river. All she could feel was Tom’s warmth.
Suddenly, he moved, adjusting her to the side of him. “I have something I want to give you, ask you.”
He pulled a ring from his pocket. A ring they’d looked at when they were messing around at the mall in Fort Collins, the same day they’d gone to campus. A diamond ring.
In a flash, he was on one knee. “I know I just exploded our plan. But … Even though I’ve enlisted, I can’t see my life without you.” He took one of her trembling hands and kissed the back of it. “You’re my girl. You have been since, well—I want to say since the night we first kissed, but you and I both know it’s always been us.” He winked at her. “We’re this town’s greatest love story.”
Unwillingly, she laughed at his reference. They both loved this country song about first love. She couldn’t help but smile even though she was crying again and feeling so confused.
“I want to marry you. I want to do what we’ve always talked about doing. I want to marry you and then honeymoon in Hawaii.”
She was so shocked she didn’t know what to say. He was leaving. Leaving?
He gripped her hand tighter. “I want to fix up an old house with you.” Another thing they’d talked about doing. “With a wraparound porch and acres of property for all the kids to run on.”
Shaking her head, she didn’t understand. “You’re leaving, Tom?” She gulped out a cry that ripped from her chest.
He was back on his feet, holding her, stroking her hair. “I know, but I want you, Ems. I want you to be my wife. Say you’ll be my wife. I talked it over with all my brothers. They said I’ll get leave over Christmas. We could do the wedding then and then head to Hawaii. Say yes.”
For a long time, she didn’t answer, thinking about how she couldn’t imagine a life without him either. Even though he’d enlisted. “I got a scholarship to Yale,” she finally said. She pushed out a breath, feeling like she had to tell him this.
“What?” He pulled back, a huge smile on his face. “Are you kidding me?”
Despite herself, she smiled back. His happiness was infectious. “I just got the letter today. It’s a full ride.”
He engulfed her in another hug. “I’m so happy for you.” He squeezed her tighter.
Feeling better, but still whiplashed that he was leaving, she gave in to the hug. “Thank you.”
Determination glinted in his eyes. “I think this just confirms it. I’m supposed to go in the Army. You’re supposed to go to Yale, and we’ll get married by Christmas.”
“By Christmas?” They’d always joked about it, but now it was sounding too real. Yet confusion simmered inside her. “But I’ll be at Yale.”
He took her hand and squeezed it. “Right. And you’ll come home and I’ll come home and we’ll get married by Christmas.”
“We’ll be living apart,” she protested.
“I know, but it’s really the best of everything, because I picked a two-year active commitment with a two-year reserve. So really, I’ll only be gone two years. Then I’ll be able to become a firefighter, and I can do that wherever you want to go.” His brow furrowed briefly in thought, and then he gave her a dopey grin. “I mean, I always thought we’d live here by our mothers, but I guess we can live anywhere. We’ll move them to us.”
Her heart pounded, and she felt like all of this was happening so fast. Tom was right. It might work. But everything was unraveling so quickly, all their old plans turning to dust. She laced her arms around his back and put her head against his chest. “I don’t want to lose you.” The thought of bullets flying by his head made her feel sick.
Wrapping his arms around her, he held her and whispered, “You won’t. You could never lose me, Ems.”
She blinked and wished she could pause time, pause this moment. She hadn’t worried about her future because Tom was supposed to be by her side. Now, it all felt so uncertain. “I’m scared.”
He searched her eyes, then got back on one knee again. “Emily Ann Times, will you marry me? Will you be my wife? C’mon, Ems. Just say yes.”
She burst out in a half laugh, half cry. “Yes.”
“Yes!” He punched the air, and she saw tears in his eyes. They stood, and he slipped the ring onto her finger. “I love you.”
“I love you too.”
He grinned at her. “Married by Christmas.”
Warmth flooded her, and she thought about how happy her mom and sister would be. They loved Tom. “Married by Christmas,” she agreed.
Tom kissed her, and fire coursed through her veins. She kissed him back, feeling desperate and dumbfounded that she was actually engaged to him. Usually, they had firm boundaries, but she deepened the kiss, wanting him closer, wanting everything.
A groan escaped his throat. “Ems, we better stop.”
Thinking of him leaving her, all she knew was that she couldn’t. Not tonight. “Tom, I don’t want to stop.”