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Twelve years ago


            “Leigh Ann Simms,” the announcer calls out as the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen crosses the stage. Her dark blond hair is draped over her shoulders and a dark green cap matching the gown she has on sits atop her head. Even from the back of the crowd I can see the sparkle in her piercing green eyes. She looks angelic. She’s too precious for me to touch and yet I’ve touched her too many times.

            I’m supposed to be up there with her and the rest of our class. That was the plan back when I was hopeful and feeling good about myself. But reality has a way of tearing those thoughts down.

            It was a month ago when the counselor called me into his office to let me know I wouldn’t be graduating. Apparently, constantly missing class and being tardy did me no favors. When you’re a teenager and no one is checking up on you it’s way too easy to fall between the cracks. It was three weeks ago when I decided not to tell Leigh, to let her continue to believe we’d both be graduating and then shortly after moving forward with plans to live our lives together. We aren’t going to get great jobs and move in together. It’s no longer in our future. I can’t even graduate high school. How could I ever provide for us?

            It was two weeks of sleepless nights in the shack of a place I call home that I realized what I have to do, and it was one minute ago I knew that it had to be today.

            The roar of her parents in the front row as well as the woohooing of Temperance, Leigh’s best friend, who herself received her diploma just a few moments ago, snaps me out of my depressed state. Before she can spot me in the crowd, I turn and walk away.

            Six hours have passed, and it’s time to face the music. I walk the two miles to Jeffery Wagner’s graduation party. My lack of a car is just one more thing on the long list of reasons why I don’t deserve a girl as precious as my Leigh.

Leigh’s texted me four times already to tell me she’s there with Temperance. Two of the texts were offering me rides, one was telling me she’d meet me there, and the last was a frantic message wondering where I was.

            It only takes a minute for her to spot me once I’ve walked through the door. The second her eyes hit me I feel the heavy weight of what is happening deep in my stomach.

            “Gabriel Starr!” she yells through the dense crowd as she makes her way to me. “Where the hell were you today? Did you sleep through your own graduation?”

            I never told her I wasn’t graduating. It wasn’t her burden to bear. None of my problems need to be hers. Leigh is perfection and for some reason for the past year and a half she’s convinced herself and me that I’m good enough to share her space. If these past few weeks have taught me anything it’s that she’s been so wrong about me and I refuse to pull her down to the slums of my life anymore than I already have.

            She finally makes it over to me and immediately pokes me in the chest with her finger, a devilish look in her eyes. I usually love when she gets mad and overcome with emotion. I love watching her go from sweet and fun to heated in seconds. But not today. This isn’t going to end with make-up sex or declarations of love. No, tonight really is the end for us, and I hate it as much as I know it has to happen.

            “This was our day, what we’ve worked toward.” The party pauses as she yells, and all eyes are on us. Noticing the audience we’ve gathered, her voice softens. “You deserved this.”

            She couldn’t be more wrong. My heart aches; she really believes I can beat the statistics. Too many nights we’ve lain across the hood of her car looking at the stars, dreaming about what our lives together would be like. Even then somewhere deep inside I knew I wasn’t meant to keep her, but I was a selfish kid and held tight as long as I could.

            She just knew she’d become a famous hairstylist and women from all over the state would beg to get an appointment at her salon and I’d spend my days running my own business and my nights wrapped around her. We’d have our own place with plenty of space for children and dogs. We’d have the family I always dreamed about. The sort of one I envisioned in the many years I lived in and out of foster care.

            I should have told her then that my genes weren’t ones that should be passed on. When your father is in prison for life and your mother is so addicted to drugs and alcohol that she just shrugs when the state shows up to take her only child away, you have to admit you might not be from the cream of the crop.

            Before I ruin her night, I grab her hands and pull them until they’re wrapped around my waist. I lay my chin atop her head and my eyes instinctively close to fully memorize this feeling. The only comfort I’ve ever felt in my entire life. It’s the last time I’ll have the chance to feel like this and I never want to forget.

            My head bends and my lips take hers. Soft and plump like I knew they would be, with just the hint of a cherry taste from her favorite Chapstick. She goes to deepen the kiss, something we are usually both desperate to do. My hunger for her grows inside me, but I won’t do that to her. It’s not fair to lead her on more than I already have.

            I pull my head back and take one of her hands in mine. I lead her through the crowd, whose attention has left us and returned back to dancing and drinking. We go out the back door and down off the deck to a swing sitting next to a small garden.

            We sit in silence, enjoying the soothing cadence of the swing and the sound of the old chains squeaking. With her head on my shoulder, I work up the courage to do what has to be done.

            Readjusting my body, forcing us to lose contact, I scoot away from the only girl I will ever love and look into her confused eyes.

            “Leigh, we need to talk,” I say the words every person in a relationship dreads to hear. I hate myself for what I’m about to do to this angel. I hate that to make her life better I have to hurt her first.

            Her back instantly straightens and her head lifts off my shoulder as she turns to look me in the eyes.

            “No!” She slowly shakes her head, her voice stern. “I reject this.” She attempts to move closer to me to resume our previous position, but instead of allowing her to touch me, I stand and look at the ground, trying to hold firm to what I came here to do.

            My legs weaken, knowing what I’m about to do, and my heart shatters because I think she knows, too. I’ve always admired her backbone and spunk, but still, I can’t let her convince me this isn’t for the best.

            “You are going to do amazing things.” I’m trying to hold my emotions back, the pit in my stomach getting bigger and bigger with each word I say.

            “We, Gabe. We are going to do amazing things. Don’t forget our plans.” Her tortured eyes are pleading with me and it’s killing me inside.

            “Angel, I didn’t graduate high school. Do you really think I’m good enough for you to make a life with? I can’t let you waste away struggling with me forever. Not when you deserve the world.”

            Tears are beginning to fall down her cheeks and I want to kiss them away. But I don’t have the right to do that anymore. Not to mention, if I do, I won’t have the willpower to follow through with what has to be done.

            “If it wasn’t for you, these past few years would have been torture. But I see what you can have in life, what you will have, and that if you stay with me, I’ll hold you back.”

            “I love you. Gabe, don’t you love me?” She’s pleading through her sobs and knowing I caused them is killing me. I remind myself this is for the greater good.

            “God, Leigh, don’t you see I’m doing this because I love you?” I want to give in so much it’s killing me. I wish I could be a better man. A man who deserves her. But I don’t and I’m not sure I ever will.

            She shoots up off the swing, throwing her arms in the air. “That’s bullshit and you know it.” Her voice is growing louder, and a crowd starts to form on the deck of the large house. “You don’t abandon someone you love.”

            “I wish I knew how to love you in a way that won’t eventually hurt you. I would rather hurt you a small amount now when you have the chance to be happy for the rest of your life than drag you down to my level for far too long. I’m so sorry. I love you and that’s why I have to go.”

            I step back farther away from her, sliding my hands in my baggy jean pockets. My head staring at the ground, I debate explaining all the reasons why this has to happen. How my mom would pop in and out of our lives whenever she needs a fix or to impress a new friend with her kid. How my dad sends letters to me every month, reminding me I’m the reason he’s there. But none of that weight should be placed on her shoulders. She’s eighteen and full of life. With her family and Temperance by her side, she can do anything in life. And she will.

           Instead of telling her any of that or the million other reasons why I’ll always be a lowlife not deserving of her, I simply mutter “I’m sorry” before turning and walking around the house and down the street to nowhere in particular.

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