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The Oak Tree by Julie Judish - HTML preview

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Chapter 2

 

By the time the three friends arrived at Alex’s new car, the mysterious black sedan had disappeared. Jo told Alex and Charlie about how she’d seen it near her home several times, and earlier in the day pulling into the teacher’s parking lot. Since there were so few cars left in the lot, it was easy to see that the car she was concerned about had left. Alex wasn’t convinced that the three separate sightings was a coincidence, yet Charlie was all for forgetting about it and going for ice cream. Jo was worried, but decided to put on a brave face and a sturdy smile, and not let this day be ruined. After all, the car was gone; it could have been there by chance.

Alex unlocked the car door of her beautiful new car, and all three exclaimed over this and that in the interior, and the color of the blue as the sunlight hit the exterior. They tried out the stereo of course, and then Alex climbed in behind the wheel, Charlie crawled into the back behind Jo, who piled in beside Alex in the front bucket seat. The car rode smooth, and the girls were having the time of their lives! They went to a local ice cream parlor where they ran into even more senior-classmen from their school. The group chattered about the coming festivities, snacked on ice cream and sodas, and realized for the first time that many of them would be leaving shortly. Danny and Rob, both huge cut-ups in Physics class, told them about moving to Montana to live and work with Danny’s uncle on a ranch. Lindsay was really quiet in class but was talkative and laughing here in this environment. She was going to beauty school to become a licensed beautician. Others talked of their plans after high school and the group as a whole appeared rather nostalgic to see this phase of life come to an end.

At about five o’clock, the group split up to prepare for the graduation ceremony. Because it was scheduled to begin at seven, the graduates were asked to be in the auditorium by six thirty sharp, with their caps and gowns on. Alex dropped Charlie off at her home on the way to Jo’s. Charlie leaped out of the car and danced to her front door yelling and shouting, “We are graduating in one hour!” Alex and Jo both whooped and hollered with her as they pulled away.

Once the two girls were alone, Alex brought up the black car again.

“Jo, when did you say you saw the car the first time?”

She thought for a minute. “I don’t remember if it was Tuesday or Wednesday last week, but it was last week. It just sat across the street, in between two of the homes on that side.”

            Alex seemed lost in thought, and Jo, feeling rather foolish after the car was gone, decided that there were too many wonderful things happening today to worry about a strange car.

            “Alex, I want you to stop speculating about what this car means or doesn’t mean. We are graduating tonight; this is what we have worked thirteen years for! Come on, drop the worried frown, and stop furrowing your eyebrows. Just forget about the car. It is nothing, I’m positive! I was just imagining things. There’s no way that anyone would want to follow me! I am extremely uninteresting!” They both chuckled.

            “All right, Jo, but if you see the car again, promise me you will call the police and report it. Maybe your life is boring, but you are smart and pretty, and there are definitely psychos out in the world. Will you promise?”

            Alex eyed Jo to see if she was being taken seriously. Jo nodded agreement. “Yes, I promise I will call the police if I see it again.”

            Alex turned into the mobile home park and drove down the road that led to Jo’s house. She stopped in front and Jo got out, thanking Alex for the ride, and again complimenting and congratulating Alex on the beautiful car. They waved, and Alex sped off toward home.

            Jo pulled her keys from her backpack and was just inserting them into the lock when it turned in her hands and the door opened. Her mom had made it home from work early, to make sure she was there for Jo’s big evening. The two hugged tight.

            “My little girl is graduating!” She mumbled in Jo’s hair. Jo could hear the sadness in her mom’s voice, and pulled away from her shoulder to gaze into her face.

            “Mom, have you been crying?”

            “It’s a mother’s right to get all emotional at a time like this.” She smiled as she answered. “I’m so proud of you sweetheart.” Another quick hug and her mom let go.

            “There isn’t much time before we leave. I have a sandwich ready for you, and then we need to get you dressed. I would love to help you with your hair, if you want me to.”

            It dawned on Jo then that she hadn’t seen her mom’s car outside. “Mom, where’s the car?” she asked.

            Her mother’s smile faded, and she sighed. “Broke down at the market. It wouldn’t start when I was leaving to come home. I’m not sure how I’m going to pay for the repairs this time.”

            “But mom, how did you get home?”

            “Oh, you won’t believe it!” She laughed. “Our neighbor, Mrs. Harper had run in for milk on her way home, isn’t that just incredible! I know she works close by, but had no idea when she would be off, or if I could even get hold of her. To tell you the truth, I hadn’t realized I was broke down more than a few minutes before I saw her leaving the market. I hadn’t even begun to try to figure out what to do next before the answer just showed up! It was just a wonderful coincidence.”

            Panic was beginning to set in. Jo could feel the butterflies fluttering in her stomach. She could feel the tingling in the back of her head. Why, oh why today. This was supposed to be perfect! This was a once in a lifetime day! Why now? But she was able to remain calm as she asked her mom, “Mom, Mom listen this is important. How are we getting back to the high school for the graduation ceremony?”

            Her mother glanced up at Jo’s face, and immediately saw her daughter’s anxiety. She placed one hand on Jo’s shoulder.

            “Jo, honey, calm down. It’s all been arranged. I told Mrs. Harper what my problem was about tonight as we were driving home. Well, as it so happens, her great-nephew is graduating tonight as well. She will be going to the high school just as we are, and of course she is happy to take us with her. She even agreed to go early so you can get into the auditorium when you need to be there.” Her mother smiled at Jo’s sigh of relief. “Tonight will be perfect, just as you had always dreamed!”

            Jo allowed her mom to lead her into the kitchen as she chattered about the day’s events and devoured the sandwich her mom had left for her. The mother laughed through Jo’s description of the water fight with her and her two friends and the two English teachers. Jo finished eating and quickly went to her room to change. While she was getting ready, she asked, “Mom, the sober grad party won’t be over until one o’clock or so. Since you can’t come pick me up, can I call Alex and see if I can go home with her afterwards? She has a car, by the way. She got it today as a graduation gift!” She briefly described the car to her mom. “I’m sure she will have it there, and then we can go back to her house when we get tired. Would that be ok?”

            “Yes, that would work perfectly. I can’t see asking Mrs. Harper to drive back to the high school at that time in the morning,” she chuckled.

            Jo fastened the last button on her dress, and reached for the phone to call Alex. After explaining to Alex about the defective car, and their transportation to the high school, Alex readily agreed to have Jo spend the night. “Yes, let’s do it!” was Alex’s reply.

            She had her dress, nylons and shoes on, her hair was shimmering, and her cap and gown were lying on the bed. Everything was ready. Jo watched her mom come into the room, smiling secretly, and wondered what her mom had up her sleeve.

            “Jo, I know you and I have sacrificed a lot over the years. Money has always been tight. You haven’t had most of the things you wanted, or some of the things you needed, but tonight is special. I have been saving for this night for about four years. And now, I have something for you, to honor you tonight.”

Jo watched as her worn, tired mother handed her a small oblong box, tied with a ribbon. It looked like a box that would contain jewelry, but her mom had never been frivolous like that before. Jo glanced up to see tears shimmering in her mother’s eyes. “Open it, honey. I really want you to have it.”

            Jo opened the shiny white box to reveal a set of beautiful diamond earrings in the shape of a teardrop, and a matching pendant on a gold chain. She drew in her breath sharply; she was stunned. “Mom, these are beautiful! Are you sure we can afford them?”

Through her tears, the mother nodded, and said, “Yes, Jo. I wanted you to have a token, a memento of this night. We have weathered a lot together, sweetheart. Now, soon you will be a woman, legally, but you have already grown into the most beautiful, wonderful woman I know. And I am so very proud of you!”

            Jo hugged her mom and squealed over the beauty of the gift. She asked her mom to help her put on the necklace, and then Jo put the earrings in. She looked in the mirror to see the completed picture, and felt like a million dollars. Her smile lit up the room, and Linda Becker was pleased.

            It was time to go. Mother and daughter locked the door of the mobile and walked the few steps to Mrs. Harper’s car. Their officious neighbor was just stepping off her porch, and she stopped and looked at Jo. “My, what a beautiful young woman! Congratulations on your graduation, Jo. I’m so pleased I can help in this small way.” They all got in the car, Jo in the back of course, and left for the high school. On the way, Mrs. Harper inquired about the broken car, and then the two women in front filled the rest of the drive with small talk. Jo didn’t even attempt to follow the conversation around her. Her mind was on the evening. She was nervous. The same fears that every high school girl feels as the ceremony approaches also dogged Jo: will I trip as I walk across the stage?

            After parking, and one last hug from her mom, Jo hurried to the high school gym, which was the staging area for the graduates. The building was flooded with caps and gowns, and excited seniors. Jo found Alex and Charlie waiting for her near the side of the room. Charlie, of course, noticed the diamonds immediately.

            “Jo! Those are just gorgeous!” She delicately lifted the pendant to get a closer look.

            “My mom totally surprised me with them; I had no idea at all.” Jo explained. “I’m sure she skipped a lot of lunches to get this for me, and I love her for it.” Jo smiled. Alex and Charlie both knew how little luxury there was in their friend’s life, and were happy for her.

            “So, Charlie. Alex got a car, I got diamonds. What are your parents doing for you for graduation?” Jo asked.

            Charlie grinned ear to ear. “Well, since I’m going to New York in the fall for college, Daddy decided we all needed to go there for a vacation, so I could get acquainted with the city. He sprung this on me this afternoon! We are leaving day after tomorrow for New York! He wants me to look for an apartment now, so I get one that’s close to the University, and in a good area.”

            Jo’s face fell. ‘Day after tomorrow’ meant she didn’t get to spend her birthday with one of her best friends. She sighed, and quickly plastered her smile back on. This was a wonderful opportunity for Charlie, and Jo didn’t want to be selfish by wishing it were a different time. No, Charlie didn’t need to see how hurt she was. Jo glanced up at Alex, thankful that Alex would be around to have a fantastic day with. Alex saw the look, and commiserated with Jo. With their eyes they agreed not to bring up the forgotten birthday to Charlie, and just be happy for her. Charlie was babbling about the plans, when the flight left, which airports they were doing layovers in, which motel they would stay at, etc., and never noticed Jo’s momentary sadness, for which Jo was grateful.

            “That’s wonderful, Charlie,” Jo said, “Take lots of pictures, we want to see where you will be living!” Jo really meant it, too.

            Soon Vice-Principal Smith was asking for everyone’s attention. He requested the graduates get in a line in the order they had practiced earlier in the day. A hush fell over the crowd as it dawned on them the significance of the next few hours, and they lined up quietly and nervously. Jo was between Alex and Charlie in line, and they would be sitting together for the ceremony. Once all the graduates were in place, Mr. Smith led the students to the auditorium. At the entrance, the girl at the head of the line paused, and waited for “Pomp and Circumstance” to begin. Then they all apprehensively yet proudly marched to their respective seats.

            There were several speeches that followed. The Principal, Mr. Wright, congratulated the students on a job well done, and encouraged them to follow their dreams. One of the teachers gave some hilarious anecdotes regarding things the students had done or said over their four years in that school, and wished them well in their future. The last two speeches were from two of the senior class. Their words both moved and inspired their classmates. The procession of the graduates concluded without fault; not one person tripped, no one tried to accept their diploma with the wrong hand, and all students stood and sat together as they practiced. It was beautiful. It was flawless. Jo clutched her diploma to her chest and smiled so big she was sure her mouth would split wide open. Then Mr. Wright announced the graduating class of 2010, and total chaos and mayhem erupted as students tossed their caps into the air, leapt for joy, and cheered.

            Following the recessional, Jo found her mom searching for her in the crushing mob. They hugged, and cried. “Jo, sweetie, I love you so much, and I am so proud of you!”

            “I know, Mom. I love you!”

            Charlie and Alex came up then to give hugs to Jo’s mom, and there were hugs all around from Charlie’s parents, Brad and Mindy Allen, then more hugs from Sam and Kendra Turner, Alex’s parents. Finally, with a last hug and a wave, Jo left her mom in the care of their neighbor and the three girls left for the sober grad party.

            “We are graduates! High school graduates!” Charlie was ecstatic. She was dancing and leaping as she led the way to the building where the party was starting. Jo and Alex laughed with her, and allowed themselves to be dragged along by their energetic friend. They went to the girl’s locker room to change into jeans and T-shirts before they entered into the fun.

            The party was a complete success. There were gifts for each of the graduates from the community, collected by a very active Parents’ Club. There were games and small prizes for each game. There were unlimited sodas, candy, pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs, and every other kind of junk food teenagers love. The three girls went to check out the water balloon game they had helped with earlier that day, and got caught off-guard by a few of the boys that were there already. Alex got hit in the legs, and instantly drenched. Charlie saw what was going on, and squealing, turned to run away, and was beamed in her side. Jo took a balloon in the chest, and it splattered all over her.

            “Oops,” Danny from Physics class apologized, “I’m sorry Jo, I didn’t mean for it to hit there.” He grinned sheepishly.

            “Sure you didn’t.” Jo laughed. Then she nodded to Alex and Charlie, and they grabbed a balloon in each hand. Danny and Rob, the other boy who was on the offensive, were outnumbered, and it didn’t take long for them to jokingly cry “uncle.” Laughing, the girls left them, dripping wet, and went to get some food.

            It was a warm evening, so getting wet actually felt good. They went from station to station, trying the games, working puzzles, solving math equations in one place, and having a blast. Charlie was imbibing too much caffeine in Alex’s opinion, but Charlie just laughed and drank another. After several hours of play, the girls began to tire.

            “Girls, I think the caffeine buzz is wearing off,” Charlie informed them. “I’m pooped. I’m gonna call my mom for a ride. How much longer are you staying?”

            “Not much longer. Jo’s coming home with me. Her mom’s car broke down so she doesn’t have a ride home. I think we’ll head out when you do.”

            Charlie pouted. “Why wasn’t I invited?”

            Alex sighed, “It was a last minute thing, Charlie. Jo didn’t have a way home, and since we knew we would be late, she asked if she could sleep at my place and get a ride home in the morning.”

            “Oh. Ok.” Charlie thought about that for a minute. “Well, can I crash at your place too? Let’s have one last sleepover before I go off to college!”

            Jo didn’t want to be the cause of any jealousy, so she quickly spoke up, “Yeah, Alex, lets both go home with you. Then Charlie’s parents won’t have to come get her either, and tomorrow we can hang out all day or something. It will be fun!”

           

            “Ok, Charlie. Call your mom and tell her, and we will go to my house and sleep. I’m ready. It’s been a long day.”

            After Charlie made a quick phone call, the girls collected their stuff: the graduation attire, the prizes and gifts they had received, and a few sodas for the road, then went to the student parking lot to get in Alex’s car for the trip home.

The parking lot was well lit, and a lot of students were milling around, saying good-byes to friends. Alex and Jo hugged several girls they knew from a class or two, and Charlie hugged a few of the boys. Alex and Jo looked at each other and laughed. Charlie would never change, they agreed, as they got into Alex’s car and headed out of the parking lot. At the stop sign leaving the school, as Alex was turning onto the main road heading home, she heard Jo’s sharp intake of breath. She quickly looked over and saw Jo staring off at the parking lot where they had just left. Following the direction Jo was looking, Alex turned to see what it was. Then she saw it. The black car with tinted windows. It looked exactly like the one they had seen earlier in the day, and it was backing out of its space to leave, as if to follow them.