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. Uncharacteristically 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 very first time, I sit at a corner of the dainty, independent café 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 both amusement and tranquility.


My mouth is suspended over the glass straw in my bedazzled Mason jar mug, 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 already-crinkling 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, immaculate appearance to visibly handled, with two dog ears and a small tear at the bottom.


Maybe I have read it too many times.


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


My eyes flit away for a moment, locking on the ice in my citrus green tea. Idly, I stare at the transparent, identical cubes as they float adjacent to one another.


A strange, novel sentiment washes over me. One I can’t really describe. Or fathom.


It might be because I’ve quite literally been dreaming about this for so long that, on some level, it feels like I still am and just haven’t been pinched awake yet, but, for whatever bizarre reason, I visualize each cube as 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, even when they’re practically indistinguishable.


I’m far from superstitious, despite my religious upbringing. The oddity of this sentiment, however, feels somewhat…foreboding.


I have no idea why such a random, melancholic thought would cross my mind during what’s supposed to be a triumphant, momentous time in my life.


I poke absently at one of them with the straw, submerging it completely in the yellow-green brew for a few seconds before it finds its way up from under the pressure. I repeat the action on the cube next to it. And the next. Until I’m not even sure what exactly I’m doing, anymore. I graduate to swirling the entire drink, the light chime of ice against glass interjecting sporadically. Nervous, pent-up energy bubbles up from nowhere, possessing me, demanding I expend some of it.


I swirl too quickly, inertia spilling my tea. The spatter misses my phone and the letter by a hair, my best friend managing to swipe them both away just in the nick of time.


Peyton saves the day once again.


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. Plus, I think she saw it coming.


“Shit…thanks,” I sigh apologetically, reaching for a paper towel.


She stares at me for a moment. When she doesn’t look away, I can’t stop myself from blurting, “What?”


Without a word, she motions downward with nothing but her eyes. My gaze follows hers to find my free hand drumming against the table without my consent, fingernails tapping furiously on the wooden top with jagged rhythm.


“Jesus…you really are nervous,” she breathes, handing back both items like she knows I need to hold something, hints of worry creeping into her big, doe eyes. She takes a sip of her coffee. “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, partial, and just generally all over the place right now. 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 in shock. That it’s…actually happening. Especially after all this time, you know?”


Pey nods solemnly. “Yeah, I know.”


Her gaze flits to her mug momentarily. She taps absently at the ceramic handle. I can tell she’s hesitating, almost as if she’s unsure of what to say next. But when she looks up again, a newly-formed grin meets me and, pretty soon, her full, naturally-puckered lips spread into a full-fledged, gorgeous 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. But she also possesses this inherent, natural serenity, beaming as effortlessly as she breathes, even when she isn’t flashing her pearly whites. A true beauty. Inside and out. She doesn’t even have to say anything. It’s one of the things that makes her so approachable. So likable. And it sure as hell gets the guys fawning over her like kids over Halloween candy. It’s no surprise she never has issues meeting new people or making new friends.


Can’t exactly say the same for myself.


“I’ve said it before but it deserves repeating: I’m really proud of you, Connie,” she says, interjecting my thoughts, 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 goes tight hearing the sincerity in her words. From 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, ensuring I stay put.


“Thanks, Pey,” I whisper, my voice strained, my throat constricting. I manage to offer a small smile in return, but an incoming threat of tears stings the corners of my eyes.


Her acknowledgment and praise touches me, much deeper than I realize. It’s not like me, but I can’t help but get 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 the only person who knows pretty much everything I’ve been through these last five years, in particular. 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 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, the waiting, doubting, hoping, and sometimes even literally keeping my fingers crossed.


All 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 have been completely restless ever since. It came 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…




In truth, I hadn’t allowed myself to think this far ahead so 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 is going to be more than a little salty about the outcome. Can’t say I blame them. Every single person had hoped it would be their name on the sealed envelope as much as I did. It’s common knowledge that Earth Capital, informally dubbed “Earth Cap”, pretty much guarantees post-grad success; turning lowly interns into vetted, high-demand professionals who write their own checks and get their pick of countless, top-earning clients across all industries, no matter what they choose to specialize in. There was even a credibly-sourced 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 the mailbox like a crazy person—I called in and confirmed my receipt, as per the instructions.


I start tomorrow.


And I can hardly wait.


But, in spite of the edge and all the advantages this internship bestows on its victor, I didn’t make its acquisition my year-long obsession and objective because of monetary prospects or exclusive credentials. Nor did I do so for the potential bragging rights I could toss in the faces of my mother and father—who were both very vocal about and critical of my choice to switch from pre-med to environmental science half-way through college, insisting it was the biggest mistake of my young life.


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


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


But…it’s the truth.


My truth.


While most of my fellow seniors have already done their best to party as much as humanly possible, get laid as much as humanly possible, and come up with new and inventive ways to beat the common hangover as many times as humanly possible before the real world starts breathing down their necks, my formative years as a young adult were spent brainstorming ways to circumvent the premature melting of polar ice caps, raising awareness about endangered land and aquatic species, and organizing rallies against unclean, unsustainable human practices.


As a result, I’m that one person 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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