“Okay, people. Line up. They’re waiting for you.” The principal of Midland Senior High School stood at the classroom door. The buzzing group of students hushed. Robes rustling, tassels swaying from their mortarboard caps, the young people hustled to take their places.
Helen Devlin squeezed in behind Sam Darnall. Behind her, Sue Edwin hissed a threat into her ear.
“Remember what I told ya. Don’t cry, or else.”
Helen shrank, fear churning her stomach. As the thirty-seven students edged through the door and toward the tiny auditorium, Sue poked a bony finger into Helen’s spine and whispered, “Remember.”
Following Sam, Helen realized with a sudden pang that she would miss the long hours she had spent tutoring him in English. No, she would miss him. Unwanted tears pooled in her eyes until she stared down at the black and white tiles of the hallway. Her right foot landed on a black tile, her left on a white. Black, white, black, white. Forget, forget.
Within seconds, she passed over the threshold to the auditorium. The tiny orchestra wheezed the strains of Elgar’s ‘Pomp and Circumstances’. To her left, parents and children, relatives and guests, strained to capture a glimpse of the graduate they had come to honor.
“Sam!” A deeply tanned supermodel type warbled and waved. She snapped a photo, the flash one more in a sea of blinding pops of light. Sam stopped for a moment, and Helen noticed him redden and scowl at the girl before moving forward.
Two rows of ancient wooden folding seats in front of the stage stood vacant. Twenty students filed into the first row, Sam, Helen, and Sue among them. They stood, waiting for their classmates to fill the second row and for the march to end.
“You may be seated,” the superintendent of schools intoned. Helen felt Sue’s sharp elbow prod her ribs. She tried to focus on the speeches and music that were part of the ceremony but her attention drifted. She cast a sidelong glance at Sam. He caught her look and smiled. His hand crept over to hers. Helen held her breath in disbelief.
“Thank you,” he mouthed, squeezing her hand, then releasing it.
“Right,” she mumbled under her breath. Had she misread his gesture? She mentally kicked herself for assuming Sam thought of her as anything but a study partner.
Helen’s row stood and shuffled toward the stage steps. Names were called and the row was refilled by graduates with diplomas in hand.
“Samuel Darnall.” An ecstatic scream erupted from the rear of the auditorium Sam glared in the direction of the commotion and quickly left the stage. The audience laughed.
“Helen Devlin.” Helen gulped in a breath of air. There was no applause as she shook the superintendent’s hand and received her diploma. She had not expected any. More than likely, her single mother was out on the town with one of her boyfriends. Her heart breaking, she wished her father was alive to see her now. Then she heard someone clapping. She squinted toward the chairs where Sam, parchment roll tucked under his arm, applauded her. Helen ducked her head and exited the stage.
“Susan Edwin.” Helen took her place beside Sam as Sue approached the speaker. The black smudges and streaks around Sue’s eyes surprised Helen. Had she been crying?
There was light applause and then a slurred male voice rose above it. “Thas my liddle girl! There she is! Look’t her, all grown up!” Sue stiffened and glared at him, tears coursing down her face.
Two teachers escorted Sue’s drunken father toward the auditorium doors. Sue took her place beside Helen, scrubbing at her tears with the sleeve of her robe.
“Would everyone take their seats, please?” the superintendent said. The audience complied, sitting in stunned silence as the rest of the students walked across the stage.
One more song, and the graduates marched from the auditorium. Once in the hallway, Helen touched Sam’s sleeve.
“I just wanted to thank you,” she stammered as he turned toward her.
“For clapping and making me feel like I matter to someone.”
Sam hesitated as if making a decision about something, then engulfed her in a tight embrace. “You matter to me. You helped me graduate, didn’t you? Maybe now we can see each other without books getting in the way.”
“But what about your girlfriend? That girl who took your picture?”
“Her?” Sam shrugged. “That’s my goofy cousin, Cheryl. She lives to embarrass me.”
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