They had let her out on the morning of her graduation. Two years, four months, and five days after entering isolation and six months after widespread adoption of the vaccine. They’d lied about almost everything on the program including how long they needed her for. April hung on to the only things that she still believed were true: her blood had saved her friend and would vaccinate the globe. She’d spent most of her life isolated and now she was connected to almost everyone through millions on millions of injections of something synthesised from inside her.
She felt awkward and out of place in the Great Hall. It was the first set of ceremonies to be conducted back in the Wills Memorial since 2019, more than a decade ago, the first time that everyone felt safe converging in such numbers in a confined space. They had arranged a gown for her and let her change at the hospital before a taxi had picked her up to drive her into town. She had kept it from her parents, there would be time to call them later and she hadn’t wanted them to come straight away. She couldn’t really explain it but she’d completed her studies shut away, it was hers and hers alone and she wanted to keep them separate from her memories of her time in Bristol.
In the cab on the way over she had dropped a text to Aps, just a jokey thing commenting on the weather: beautiful day for a graduation. She knew they’d all had their ceremonies already as the scientists (even the pseudo ones like Leah) had been earlier in the week; she’d listened to them all chat about it on one of their regular video calls and been bombarded with photos afterwards, the usual shots of mortar boards thrown into the air, friends arm in arm, laughing families.
There was a shot of Aps that she loved, eyes glowing, facing down the camera with a broad smile. There was no trace of the shattered and wrecked girl that she’d seen in the HDU, no vestige of the months and months of rehabilitation she’d worked through, rebuilding her body, processing what had happened. They had clung to each other for the last two years, speaking every day, working through their memories of their shared experiences and talking about what they were facing now. April would read to her in the first few weeks of her recovery, dialling her up on video, and voicing over whatever she was studying. Later, as Aps got better, she took over the lead on their conversations and April was grateful for that; there were only so many ways to describe her day when every day was basically the same in isolation.
The pictures of Leah and Cora also brought her joy. Leah had grown her hair out, falling down across her shoulders. It was how she wore her hair growing up, she said, when they’d first moved to Italy. Her parents had flown over for her graduation and there were several shots of her and her dad pulling faces at the camera before a final one of the two of them, his arm across her shoulders, him looking at her with a quiet pride. Cora was mostly alone in her pictures but looked content and comfortable in herself. April knew she’d met someone in the last few months, they were taking it slow but it was making her happy. Cora had confided in her the day of her ceremony. She’d hesitated a little as she’d said that she would always love Rob but that she thought that it was finally time to move on.
April took a seat towards the back of the hall which was beginning to fill up. Everyone else gravitated towards the front, filling the rows with the best view. She didn’t mind. She didn’t really know anyone, they’d tried dialling her in on seminars but it had never properly worked trying to keep up with the flow of discussion in the room. They had usually forgotten she was there, a disembodied face on a propped up tablet. Towards the end she’d managed with just viewing the lectures and picking up one to one conversations with her tutor. She had hoped to meet him but couldn’t pick him out in the sea of faces and she felt still too uncertain to try and mingle in the crowd. It was only after she sat down that she realised how overwhelming it all was, like she was undergoing some sort of social bends, coming back up into a large group of people too quickly after so long on her own.
She took a deep breath and stood up. This was too much. She turned to leave.
In the doorway were three women. They weren’t wearing gowns and looked slightly breathless, flush in the cheeks, as if they’d just run up the gothic stairs on their way to the hall. One of them saw her and pointed. And then they were all running, all four, them to April and April to them. She felt arms around her for the first time in two years. They stayed like that for a long time.
“Why are you crying?” said Leah, finally. “You got a first.”
“Yeah,” agreed Cora. “It’s us that should be in tears. We didn’t have to study on our own for our degree and you still did better than us. I think the University’s a bit embarrassed about it to be honest, you’ve made them look bad.”
“They’ll spin it as evidence of the effectiveness of their distance learning programs,” said Leah. “And, I don’t know how to break this to you Cora but we are all kind of crying.”
“What are you doing here?” said April. “How did you know?”
“Really?” said Aps. “You think we wouldn’t figure out your cryptic little text. Absolutely classic April, can’t just come out with it and ask us to come.”
“I never was very good at asking people for help. Ask my therapist.”
“Which one?” said Leah. April laughed.
“Hey, now you’ve graduated you could be April’s new therapist,” said Aps.
“I really don’t think that’s going to work,” said April.
“You could be my lifetime study,” said Leah. “Don’t rule it out. I’ve already worked out our first session. Tonight. Classics night at the Kandi. Classics with an x, obviously, you haven’t missed that much. Indie dance therapy. I’m going to get it peer reviewed, imagine it will be bigger than CBT.”
“I never really got on with CBT,” said April. “But screaming Nirvana songs in your face under a strobe light I think I can get on board with.”
Cora gestured towards the front of the hall where some members of faculty and local dignitaries were taking their place on a stage underneath the building’s dome. Someone tapped a microphone and the four of them squeezed into seats on the back row, Cora and Leah flanking April and Aps in the middle.
Aps held April’s hand until her friend’s name was read out. She gave it a squeeze and let go and they all watched her walk to the front to receive her honours.
Alone but not lonely.