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Four, five, six ... Lily cracked her knuckles, counting the pops one by one. A bad habit to be sure. Mom always nagged that she wouldn't be able to bend her fingers by the time she was thirty if she kept up. But sometimes she couldn't help herself. Especially not when she was this anxious.
Her nerves were going crazy. She drew a deep breath, inhaling the delicate floral scent of the white orchid arrangements decorating the stage. But the effort was lost. Not even they could calm her. Soon, either her heart would explode from worry, or she'd have an anxiety attack.
Once again she glanced towards the stands and searched for her father. She kept hoping she'd see him sneaking in, a little late, but in his dress uniform just as promised. She loved to see him in his whites. He looked so proud, so respectable. Her gaze fell to her mother, her petite stature sitting tall in her navy blue suit that Lily knew drew out her bright blue eyes so well. She would look great next to Dad in the pictures ... if he made it. If.
An eerie tingle crept down her spine, followed by that same old feeling, one she'd grown used to over the past four years. Mrs. Smith's gaze could burn right through you. Turning her head back, she saw the matronly looking teacher staring at her with a look of reprimand. The bright white dress Mrs. Smith wore drew out her deep Hawaiian tan. It was her best point. Though, if she got rid of the glasses and took down the tight bun, she might have been able to draw the attention away from her sharp nose and get adate. Then maybe she'd find something better to do with her life then to harass kids.
It was a wonder she didn't come jostle her snoozing sister awake. Cheese and crackers! How could Holly fall asleep at a time like this? And how could Daisy just sit there, paying such acute attention? Weren't they worried? Nervous? Anxious?
Lily thought she'd go crazy with all her fretting. She gave up on her knuckles and began to twist a lock of bright red hair around her finger. She wrapped it round and round then released it. It immediately fell limp and straight. It never could hold a curl.
Once again she began twirling a strand, binding it tight enough to cut the circulation in her finger off. What if Dad didn't show as he promised? Cheese and crackers! Had she really fought for four years to be on the honor roll, with hopes of impressing him, of getting his attention, and now he wouldn't even show up at her graduation?
Truth be told, she'd fought hard for her grades, but not because she wanted to get into a good school. Not because she liked learning. Not really even because she cared. She'd have much rather skipped and gone surfing. And oh, it had been tempting, especially with all these cute Hawaiian boys.
Deep down she'd wanted to impress her father, to get his attention for something other then the trouble she always found herself in. She'd wanted him to be as proud of her as he was of Daisy and Holly.
She crooked her neck once again and looked towards the bleachers. Nope. They were overfilled with the smiling faces of countless proud parents. But not Dad; he wasn't there.
She twisted her hair, and tried to focus her attention elsewhere. She had to chill out. Her eyes darted across the courtyard, taking in the tropical scenery. By all accounts, you'd think this would be a perfect day. The weather had been beautiful. No surprises. In fact, until now everything had gone smoothly--the rehearsal, dressing, and dinner had all gone just as planned.
She turned her head up towards the sky. Now dusk was settling, turning the horizon a brilliant mix of pinks and blues. Fluffy white clouds puffed against the streaks of color, the sun's golden rays making brilliant streaks through them. It made something in her tickle. She loved the sunsets here. If you had told her when she was nine, living in snowy Virginia, she would graduate in Hawaii, she'd have gone crazy. As long as they'd been here she could never get enough of the scenery.
Even the school courtyard could have been a picture in a calendar or a scene from a movie. The grass was as green as grass could get, mowed in stern rows to even perfection. There were numerous palms, with bright red and orange flowers underneath. The air smelled of beautiful perfume. The band played "The Wind Beneath My Wings."
But if this were a movie, there was no happy ending.
Once again her heart sank. She cracked at her knuckles and tried hard to pay attention. Nerdy, thin, Principal Jennings squeaked the names one by one. Right now he was beginning the Bs. They'd be called soon. Real soon.
Dad was going to miss it.
Once again she went back to her hands, but she'd run out of fingers to crack. They were all out of pops. In the back of her mind, she wished she could take off her damn pinching white shoes and crack her toes.
"Daisy Burton," the principal yelped in a cracking, froggy voice. She watched her sister rise with grace and walk to the stage. Silky red hair grazed her squared shoulders. Her backbone was straight, her demeanor cool. If she was upset, she held it in perfectly. The blind eye would never see it.
But she could. Lily knew her sisters as well as she knew herself.
Lily searched her face as she turned. The jaw to her delicate, oval face was set harder than usual. With unusual poise, she accepted the diploma, and paused for the camera. Lily could see the look of desperation in her darkening hazel eyes. She wore a smile spread across her freckled tan cheeks, but it was fake. Her hands gripped her gold graduation gown as she started down the stairs, pausing for only a spilt second. Her eyes darted across the crowds. She, too, was looking for Dad.
And he wasn't there.
Lily nudged Holly with a sharp elbow in her side just as the principal croaked her name. "Holly Burton."
Holly snapped awake, looking a bit dazed as she jumped to her feet. Too fast as usual, she practically sprinted to the stage. With a handshake, she received her diploma and her picture was snapped. Her smile was widespread and beautiful, her white teeth perfect and even, but just as fake as Daisy's. Lily didn't miss her pause at the stairs, her feline eyes twice searching the bleachers .The desperate look on her face was identical to her triplet sister's in every way.
Would she, too, look the same?
Straightening her cap, Lily laid her straight red hair over her shoulders, and waited to be called. There was a pause then the principal cleared his throat and announced her name. "Lily Burton."
She stood, squared her shoulders, and walked to the stage. So, Dad wasn't here. She knew he wasn't. She wouldn't even look for him again. Forget him. Who cared anyway? It was just a dumb graduation.
Right. And that was why tears were brimming in her eyes.
He'd promised. He'd sworn nothing on earth would keep him from seeing his girls graduate. Well, apparently something, as always, had proved more important.
She swallowed a huge gulp in her throat, shook the principal's hand, and took her diploma. She smiled sweetly as she paused for the camera. Then she did just as her sisters had. She let her gaze wander to the bleachers. As if she didn't know he wouldn't be there. As if she really needed the disappointment now.
Somehow, she numbly found her way back to her seat with no outburst of tears. She felt like a dam about to break as she waited for the ceremony to end. The list of names continued until it finished at the Ws. Apparently no one had names ending with X, Y, or Z. Go figure.
The singing and hoopla seemed to go on and on. Normally she might have enjoyed all the pomp and circumstance, but today she just wanted out.
Finally the principal announced, "I present to you the graduating class of 1991."
All their caps flew into the air at the moment, and rained back down upon them.
Despite her mood, Lily couldn't help but laugh gleefully. Throwing themselves into one big bear hug, they danced around a bit. They kicked up their heels and danced in a circle, arm-in-arm. When the embrace fell apart, they joined hands and followed the procession of other graduates to the bleachers.
Their mother's smiling face greeted them. The same color as theirs, her brilliant red hair was wrapped neatly into a tight bun. A tan glowed upon her skin, a few freckles dotting across her button nose. She was such a beautiful woman, inside and out. So strong, proud, and always supportive of their father. Every officer's dream wife.
Cheese and crackers! She didn't show her concern for their missing father one bit. Her blue eyes danced with joy, too much so, as if she refused to let the moment be dragged down. She opened her arms for a hug, but all three of them hung back.
"Mom..." Lily started slowly, almost as if she were afraid of the answer though she already knew what it was. "Where is Dad?"
"Oh honey, your Daddy loves you all very much. And he is very, very sorry. But he was called away at the last minute. It couldn't be helped." Tenderness coated her voice, and the happiness in her eyes faded away. "Don't be mad at him. It couldn't be helped. You know our country depends on the likes of him. Sometimes..."
"So, once again duty has come before us. As always." Bitterness snapped in Daisy's voice as she turned her head away.
Lily grunted in agreement, unable to help the tears building in her eyes. Cheese and crackers! She had to get out of here. This was just too embarrassing.
Her heart raced as she ran away. Sobs choked her, and snot began to drip from her nose. Tears streamed down her throat. God, she felt like a kindergartner. She needed a tissue awful. She needed to hide.
Dashing into the school, she headed to the nearest bathroom. Its lemony smell and pea green walls almost eluded her as she made a dash for the end stall. She slammed the door shut behind her and clicked the pathetic jiggling metal lock.
Then she really let the tears fall. They poured over her cheeks like a great waterfall. How could he do this to her? To them? She could understand if he occasionally missed a thing or two. But he always missed everything. Cheese and crackers! This was their graduation.
Sometimes she thought he just didn't care. She knew his duty was important. Of course. But it always came before them. He didn't care how he uprooted their lives again and again. Didn't even know half the things he'd missed in their lives. He thought he could make up for it all with a little attention, and a few treats when he was off duty, and it was all good.
The click clack of footsteps interrupted her thoughts. Looking under the door, she saw two pairs of white dress shoes identical to hers. Daisy and Holly. Were they as upset as she? Cheese and crackers! Of course they were. They just didn't act like overzealous nutcases running off to the bathroom to bawl like a kindergartner.
A knock tapped on the door. "Lily ... Lily let us in." Holly pleaded, her voice soft with understanding. "We should be together." The door jangled. "Come on Lily. It's not that bad. Why are you hiding from us?"
It was that bad. But she welcomed her sisters' comfort. They were the only ones who understood. Hell, after all, they were the only ones she could depend on, being as she could never keep a best friend. Moving had made it impossible, no thanks to Dad. She only had her sisters. They weren't just triplets, they were best friends. The bond that held them was unbreakable.
She unlocked the door and faced them. Immediately she was greeted with a double hug. Holly stroked her hair. "I'm sure Dad didn't mean this to happen, Lily. I really thought he was coming too, but he didn't and we have to face that."
"Really, I don't know why we are surprised. Dad never keeps his promises." Something caught in Daisy's throat, and she paused. Golden sparks of anger burned in the greenish hazel color of her eyes as wetness pooled in them. "I don't know how Mom does it. I'll never marry a man in the military."
Lily nodded, her sadness beginning to harden into anger. A knot formed in her chest where her heart should've been. "Me either. I'd rather never marry."
Two tears skidded down Holly's cheeks as she nodded in agreement. Her hazel eyes darkened to a deep, depressed green. The gold sparks in them nearly faded.
All three girls looked to each other. Lily could see their pain ran as deep as hers. Their tears were quiet, their sadness heavy.
Holly swallowed, and straightened her shoulders. "Let's make a vow. Right here and now, we promise. We'll never marry a man in the military. Never, ever, no matter what." She held her hand in the middle, and she and Daisy piled theirs on top. "We swear to never ever marry a man in the military."
"We swear." Lily and Daisy resolved with steadfastness.