Two Weeks Later

 

 

 

The air conditioner hums in the distance, the cool interior a stark contrast to the sharp, blazing sun outside. It’s unusually hot and humid, yet another byproduct of global warming. Even so, I’ll take it over the depressing blizzard weather back in Salina this time of year any day.

 

For the first time in history, I sit at a corner of the dainty, independent cafe I’ve been waiting tables at for almost three years.

 

As a customer.

 

“You’re gonna go blind if you keep reading that, you know,” Pey chuckles, her voice swirling with amusement and something else I can’t quite pinpoint.

 

My mouth is suspended over the transparent straw in my glass, my lips parted as they hover absently over my neglected drink.

 

She keeps talking, and I hear everything she’s saying, but my eyes are glued to the wrinkled letter in my hands, roaming over the typed words again and again; words that I have somehow memorized in less than twenty-four hours.

 

I’ve read the piece of paper several times now—way too many according to some people—including my best friend, Peyton.

 

I can’t believe I’m actually holding it; the fruit of my incessant labor. The end product of constant planning and preparation. The physical result of hard work, patience, passion and perseverance.

 

The acceptance letter to Earth Capital.

 

No…my acceptance letter to Earth Capital.

 

My one-way ticket to an elite, singular internship with one of the most prestigious environmental consulting companies in the world—even if said ticket doesn’t currently look so prestigious itself.

 

In just under a day, it’s gone from its original crisp and immaculate appearance to being worn and wrinkled with a few fingerprint stains and a small tear at the bottom.

 

Maybe I have read it too many times. But it’s not like I can help it.

 

“I still can’t believe I got picked,” I murmur, mostly to myself, but I’m pretty sure Peyton can hear me.

 

My eyes flit to my right for a moment, locking on to the ice floating in my citrus green tea. Without thinking, I zone in on the transparent cubes as they swim adjacent to and on top of each other.

 

It might be because something I’ve been quite literally dreaming about for so long has finally come true or because, on some level, I think all this is still part of the dream and I just haven’t woken up yet but, in that instant, for whatever reason, it feels like each one reflects some part of myself; like pieces of a puzzle that can’t quite seem to fit no matter how close they get. Like coins that can’t be aligned no matter how they’re stacked on top of each other even though they’re practically identical.

 

Despite my religious upbringing, I’m far from superstitious but this feels somewhat…foreboding.

 

I don’t know why such a thought would cross my mind, especially at a celebratory time like this.

 

Or, at least, it’s supposed to be.

 

I poke absently at one of them with the straw, submerging it completely in the yellow-green liquid for a few seconds before it finds its way up from under the pressure I’m putting on it. I do the same thing to another ice cube. And then another, and another, until I’m not even sure what exactly I’m doing anymore. Suddenly, I can’t seem to keep still. I start swirling the drink, and the light chiming sound of ice against glass fills the air sporadically. It’s like I have all this nervous energy bubbling up out of nowhere and all I know is I desperately need to expend some of it. At one point, I circle a bit too fast and some of my tea spills over. It almost gets on my phone and the letter, but Peyton saves the day and swipes them both away, just in the nick of time.

 

I think she saw it coming, but then again, she’s always had really good reflexes, and being a former college volleyball player and martial arts enthusiast only adds to her agility.

 

“Shit…thanks,” I say with an apologetic sigh, reaching for a paper towel.

 

She stares at me for a moment, and when she doesn’t look away, I can’t stop myself from asking, “What?”

 

Without a word, she motions downward with her eyes. My own gaze follows hers to find my free hand drumming against the table without my consent, idle fingers tapping away furiously at the wooden top with no particular rhythm.

 

“Damn…you really are nervous about this,” Peyton offers a sigh of her own, handing back both items like she knows I need to hold something as hints of worry creep into her big, doe eyes. She takes a sip of her coffee before she adds, “I don’t understand. You’ve been wanting this forever. What are you so worried about?”

 

I shake my head. “I’m not worried, I’m just…”

 

Well, I’m not entirely sure what I am, to be honest. My feelings are definitely mixed and all over the place right now, and my mind is sort of on its own speedometer, going a million miles a second as too many thoughts struggle to go through it at the same time.

 

“I don’t know,” I shrug. “I guess I’m just still kind of in shock that it’s…actually happening. Especially after all this time, you know?”

 

Pey nods solemnly. “Yeah, I know.”

 

She lowers her eyes and taps absently at the handle of her cup, and I can tell she’s hesitating, almost as if she’s unsure of what to say next. But then, she looks up again with a grin, and pretty soon, her full, naturally puckered lips are spreading into a full-fledged smile.

 

I’ve probably seen it over a million times at this point and somehow it still has the ability to turn my heart to putty.

 

Typical Peyton Baxter.

 

She has one of those unbelievably radiant, engulfing smiles that can light up an entire football stadium. Seriously. Plus, she beams as naturally and effortlessly as she breathes, even when she isn’t flashing her pearly whites. She doesn’t even have to say anything. It’s one of the things that makes her so approachable and likable, and definitely one of the things that make guys fawn over her like kids over Halloween candy. She never has issues meeting new people and making new friends.

 

Unfortunately, I can’t exactly say the same for myself.

 

“I’ve said it before but it deserves repeating; I’m really proud of you, Reau,” she says, interjecting my thoughts with the sweetest, most genuine expression splayed across her pretty face. “No one inherently deserves anything but you’ve earned this more than anyone. You should be really proud of yourself, too.”

 

My chest tightens at hearing the sincerity in those words, at the way she commends me, at how supportive she always is, and I just want to reach across the table and give her the biggest hug in the world. But a heavy feeling quickly settles in my gut and makes me stay put.

 

“Thanks, Pey,” I say with a bit of a strain, my throat constricting slightly. I manage to offer a small smile in return, but the threat of tears stings from behind my eyes.

 

Her words touch me deeper than I realize, and while it’s not like me, I can’t help feeling emotional.

 

They say you can never truly know a person completely, but if there’s anyone who knows me better than anybody else, it’s Pey. She’s also the only person who knows everything I’ve been through these last five years, in particular, and all the crap I’ve had to deal with and sacrifices I’ve had to make in order to get to this very moment.

 

And she’s right. I should be proud.

 

For someone who’s about to begin her final semester of college, I can’t imagine a better way to end my undergrad career than getting accepted into the annual, full-time internship program at Earth Capital.

 

Every single year, there are well over fifteen thousand seniors from top schools all over the country who desperately want and fight incredibly hard for the coveted, sole spot at the prestigious environmental consulting firm, and this go-around has been no different.

 

It’s been four long, angst-filled months from start to finish; the constant preparation, the countless steps of the application, the tumultuous process, all the waiting, doubting, hoping, and sometimes even literally keeping my fingers crossed for this acceptance letter.

 

So, when I unexpectedly received it in the mail this morning, I’d all but jumped out of my own skin, and I’ve been completely restless ever since. It’s come in a little earlier than the date I was given by the interviewer, so I wasn’t at all expecting to see it sitting in mine and Michaela’s mailbox.

 

I’d struggled—with quite a bit of difficulty—to contain my excitement as I broke the envelope’s seal, unfolded the letter, and read the ultimate words of approval addressed to me on the formal paper.

 

I honestly didn’t think I’d get it, and a part of me had already prepared myself for that, but now…God…

 

I never imagined I’d be this emotional, but I am. I really am. And happy. Really, really happy.

 

I know a few of my classmates will be happy for me, too, but I also know that the overwhelming majority of them are going to be more than a little salty about the outcome. I can’t say I blame them for feeling that way, especially since each and every one of them had been hoping it would be their names on the sealed envelope. After all, it’s common knowledge that Earth Capital, more commonly dubbed “Earth Cap”, pretty much guarantees post-grad success, turning lowly interns into vetted, high-demand professionals who can write their own checks and have their pick of countless, top-earning clients across all industries, no matter what they choose to specialize in. There was even a rumor floating around about the last intern who was, apparently, offered integral, far-from-entry-level positions with, not one, but twelve Fortune 500 companies right out of the gate.

         

So, naturally, as soon as I got the good news—and once I was done screaming and jumping up and down in front of my mailbox like a crazy person—I called in and confirmed my receipt, as instructed.

 

I start tomorrow, and can hardly wait.

 

But, in spite of all the advantages and the edge this internship will give me, I didn’t apply for it because of the money prospects or credentials that the experience would likely earn me, nor the potential bragging rights I could toss in the faces of my mother and father—who were both very vocal and critical about the fact that switching from pre-med to environmental science half-way through college was the biggest mistake of my young life.

 

As unoriginal as it sounds, the reason I jumped at the chance to work at Earth Capital, the “holy grail” of environmental consultancy, is because I genuinely want to make the world a better place.

 

Yes, yes, that sounds cliché as hell. Almost childishly so. And, yes, pretty much everyone says that. I know.

 

But it’s the truth.

 

While most of my fellow seniors are doing their best to party as much as humanly possible, sleep with as many people as they can, and come up with new and inventive ways to beat the common hangover before the real world begins breathing down their necks, I spend all my free time trying to figure out ways to slow down the premature melting of polar ice caps, raising awareness about endangered animal species, and organizing rallies against offshore drilling.

 

As a result, I’m the one in class who always has the expressed opinions, rarely drinks anything stronger than a cup of coffee…and has never had sex.

 

***

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THIS CHAPTER MAKES ME FEEL...
  • Fascinated
  • Happy
  • Sad
  • Angry
  • Bored
  • Afraid

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