What You Left Me by Bridget Morrissey
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
“Morrissey strikes a graceful balance between poetic description and visceral detail, ultimately delivering a tragic, suspenseful, and inspiring novel.” —Publishers Weekly,STARRED Review
If I Stay meets While You Were Sleeping in this beautiful and heartbreaking novel told in dual perspectives about friendship, family, and all the other threads that bind us together.
Martin and Petra meet for the first time at graduation, and though they’ve shared the halls of their high school for four years without crossing paths, there’s an instant connection the moment they’re seated next to each other at the commencement ceremony.
Then a car accident puts Martin into a coma; and Petra is somehow left picking up the pieces, using friends, family, and shared dreams to keep their surprise connection going.
Together they must unlock the truth of his situation, and with time running out, their bond becomes Martin’s best shot at waking back up to the life he's left behind.
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About the Author
Bridget Morrissey lives in Los Angeles, California but hails from Oak Forest, Illinois, a small yet mighty suburb just southwest of Chicago. When she's not writing, she's coaching gymnastics, reading in the corner of a coffee shop, or headlining concerts in her living room.
Excerpt from What You Left Me
Right here in the middle, with 867 other sweaty kids herded like cattle around me, I want to die. End it all on the football field. Burn up into ash and leave behind this hideous robe. There’s no way I’m spending my afterlife wearing yellow polyester.
The first thing I did when I walked out here today was make an official announcement to everyone in my general vicinity. “In this gown, I am a disgrace to the McGee family name,” I said.
I can’t have my classmates thinking I don’t know how ridiculous I look. I know, okay?
I’m not the most ridiculous person here though. That award goes to our valedictorian, Steve Taggart. There’s no refund on the six minutes of my life I’m currently donating to his speech about how we’re all birds taking flight. Dude, I’m not a bird. I’m Martin McGee. I’m hot, I’m bored, and I don’t have anyone to talk to right now. Forgive me while my eyes glaze over as I drift off into oblivion.
If I counted, and I mean if I got really specific, I’d say I know about four hundred of the people graduating today. That’s including, like, the drug dealer who sits at my study hall table, that super tall blond who has a cross-country picture on the wall by the main entrance, and the girl who threw up before picture day in first grade. I don’t see any of them right now. Based on the amount of random people around me, this could straight up be my first day of school.
Okay, maybe I don’t want to die, but I could go for teleportation. I’d find Spits and talk him out of our bet. When this is all over, I’ll need my ten bucks for a celebratory meal. It’s the only money I have to my name, and, well, high school will be done.
That calls for a sandwich.
Oh, Steve Taggart. Sweat has painted circles through his yellow robe. The random smattering of claps that follow his final sentence must be more for his underarm artwork than his terrible speech. My personal applause is for the end of Steve Taggart’s reign as smartest kid in school. See you in hell, Steve Taggart! Or at Notre Dame, but maybe the universe will grant me one kindness and make it so we never cross paths there.
At the rate I’m going, it won’t be a problem.
Steve walks back to his spot, smug and sweat-drenched, and settles into the innermost aisle seat of the front row. The rest of the top ten sit alongside him in order of class rank. The chosen ones.
I’m in the miserable middle, plain old Petra McGowan of the M section, sandwiched between my alphabetical neighbors. Three different middle schools merged into our high school, and while there are faces nearby that I’ve known my whole life, there are also faces I swear I’ve never seen before. Like the two complete strangers on either side of me. For four years, we’ve coexisted, sharing walls and desks and hall passes and gossip without ever managing to cross paths. When you try hard to be good at this whole school thing, you end up with the same group of people in every class. As the years tick by, the numbers dwindle. No one ever randomly decides to take an AP course. This is the first and only time we’ve all been united; a bunch of squirming and vibrating cells being observed by the microscope that is the high- sun, waiting for this pomp and circumstance to end.
Steve Taggart’s speech marks the end of one part of the ceremony and the beginning of the next—the ever-important receipt of the diploma. It begins with the parade of our most intelligent: Valedictorian Steve, Salutatorian Marissa Huang, third in the class Jay Cattaro, and then, my favorite mouthful of a name, Cameron Catherine Elizabeth Hannafin-Bower.
Cameron’s wiry auburn hair engulfs her profile until she becomes nothing but a moving ball of energy, all warm colors and excited twitches. She turns to face the crowd and flashes her most vibrant gap-toothed smile at me. Or in my general vicinity. I’m not sure she can see this far back. Rank eleventh like me, and there is no fanfare. You’re deep among the plebeians, permanently imprinting your lower half into a foldout plastic chair while waiting for your spot in the alphabet.
At least I was blessed with McGowan for a last name, not Prabhu or Stetson. Poor Aminah and Daniel. It’ll be hours before they get to graduate. P and S may not seem very far from me, but I’m almost positive a third of our graduating glass has an M last name.
Mister tenth in the class—the last of the spots that could have been mine if things had been different—walks across the stage, ending the stream of academic overachievers getting their only moment of priority over the athletes.
How nice it would’ve been to get that single candle flicker of justice.
The march of the mundane begins with Alex Abraham. His mom breaks the rules and uses a blow horn when his name is called, sending a much-needed jolt of energy through our class. The boy next to me jumps out of his seat.
Alex Abraham’s mom uses a blow horn. I jump out of my seat.
“Aw, c’mon,” I say to myself. And kind of to the girl next to me. She turns a little, brushing a piece of her hair out of her eyes to see me, so I keep going. “Alex Abraham’s gotta be angling for some kind of last-ditch recognition as a rebel or something. I swear I’ve never heard that kid say more than five words in my whole life. Now he’s got the family bringing out blow horns? Let it go, kid. It’s over.”
The girl does something halfway between laughing and shrugging. We aren’t supposed to talk, but it’s a rule without consequence. It’s not like they’ll take away our diplomas now.
I pass time by trying to list every Cubs manager I can recall, in reverse chronological order. I’m all the way back to Leo Durocher (1966–1972), when I catch sight of Spits shuffling into his seat. He’s arrived right in between the graduations of Bryant Carpenter and Eduardo Carrera, and he’s causing a tiny commotion while making his way down his row. The other graduates yelp as he trips over their feet. Spits just laughs.
“He’s such a loser,” I mutter, half laughing to myself.
“I’ll say,” the girl next to me quips back.
I’m stunned. I shoot her a look, but she’s got her eyes right back on her hands, the smallest trace of a smile hanging on her lips.
A paper airplane crashes into the lap of the dude on my other side, who has somehow managed to stay asleep through the horn blowing. Good for him. I look around for a culprit—it’s Spits of course, his metal mouth on full display, grinning like he took a hit seconds before and is riding the high. Classic. He points to the airplane.
bet you can’t get that girl next to you to come tonight.
also get my ten bucks ready.
“Wanna hear something funny?” I ask the girl. Might as well make one last friend before I dance across the stage, grab my damn diploma, and keg stand my way into a victorious summer. “My buddy, uh, Spencer, bet me ten bucks that my mom will yell out Marty McFly when they call my name.”
“Why would she do that?”
“Because my name’s Martin McGee.”
“Then who is Marty McFly?”
“You have to know who Marty McFly is.”
“A sports guy?”
My laugh is the blow horn now. It scares her. “Come to my party tonight,” I say. “I’ll lend you Back to the Future.”
“Where’s it at?” she asks. It looks like one of her cheeks gets red, but it’s hard to tell when she’s facing the other direction. Her hair’s curled in that way all girls seem to do for special occasions, pieces of it twisted like coiled ribbons around her head. She wraps one strand around her finger until it becomes a perfect brown spiral.
“My place,” I tell the girl. “Mama Dorothy lets me use our basement for parties. Everyone has to put their car keys in a bowl and promise to spend the night if they drink. I live right behind the school.” I point toward the trees beyond the field. “Ugly orange house with a basketball hoop in the driveway. You can’t miss it.”
“Cool,” she says. She puts her hands in her lap and starts chipping off the sparkly stuff on her nails.
This whole ordeal is supposed to be my last punishment, closing up shop on the era that will someday be known as the time Petra just graduated. Emphasis on the word just, as if plain graduation is a disease to be contracted, because there isn’t anything to follow it with, such as in the top ten, like my sister Jessica, or even better, as the valedictorian, like my sister Caroline.
But here’s Martin McGee. Interrupting me.
“Gotta kill the time,” he says, “or this thing is gonna kill me.” He has the delivery of a stand-up comedian, every word crackling with extra flair so that no sentence sounds ordinary.
“I hear you,” I respond, wiping away the newest beads of sweat forming along my hairline. I spent half an hour curling my hair just right, and the heat has been trying its hardest to undo all my work.
Our principal cuts in front of the man reciting the names. “In the interest of time, we ask that everyone refrain from making any noises for the remainder of the ceremony. Thank you.”
Someone boos in an act of defiance.
“Wow. Gotta love this town,” Martin mutters under his breath.
I’ve never understood why you’re supposed to feel this unfounded disdain for where you come from, as if it is the unclassiest, most smothering place that ever existed. “I like it just fine,” I say to him.
“You might be the first.”
We go quiet again.
Spits makes faces at me. You failed, he mouths, smiling of course, and pointing to the girl, who’s kind of pretending to ignore me by leaning forward and staring at the grass. I wad up the note and try to throw it at Spits, but it bounces off the head of someone who doesn’t even react.
“My friend over there told me to invite you to my party. He thinks I failed,” I say to the girl.
“How? You already invited me.”
“Failing would be you not showing up.”
“How does he know that I won’t go?”
“Exactly. Orange house. Basketball hoop. .”
“Who are you?”
“The name next to yours in the yearbook,” she says.
I try to get a good look at her, but the sun’s so bright she becomes her own kind of light. Her eyes are all I can make out. They’re brown, but a shiny kind, like maple syrup glistening on a pancake.
Man, I’m hungry.
“Guess I need to pay better attention to the yearbook,” I say.
“Same,” she whispers.
When I open my mouth to speak, my voice crackles with Martin’s style of speech, one so easy to fall into, I do it without even realizing. My dress may as well be made of concrete. It blocks my exasperated air from releasing, shoving it into space around my rib cage.
“We’ve got a whole list of things to do,” he says. “Number one, watch Back to the Future. I can’t sleep until you’ve met the real Marty McFly.”
“You know I can stream it, right?”
“You can?” His tone isn’t mocking, just playful. “My copy is special though. It’s the Marty ‘Fly’ McGee platinum edition. Extremely rare. Actually, one of a kind.”
“Wow. What an honor.”
“Please, please. It’s not a big deal. I don’t like to make a fuss. At the end of the day, I’m just a regular guy.”
We share a laugh. As it tapers out, there’s a pause, like in the space between words, something has shifted. It’s almost awkward.
Martin swoops back in to save the moment. “All right, back to my list. Number two, look at our yearbook. If I’ve missed you, my alphabetical neighbor I’ve never been put next to at any other school thing, who knows what else might be in there?” He pauses to smile at me. Mouth open, molars visible, so lacking in self-consciousness that I have to bite the inside of my cheek to keep myself from smiling too big in return. “Number three, I’m gonna need you to show me what there is to love about this place.” He takes out his phone. “So, Graduation Girl, how about a phone number for your new friend Marty McGee?”
I shake my head no, because if there is one lesson I will take away from my four years here, one definitive thing I have learned, the hard way, it is to beware the smiling sweet talker.
Stop while you’re ahead, Petra.
You have more important things to accomplish this weekend.
Graduation Girl’s got her own set of tricks. No name. Won’t give me her number. Smells like that fancy soap store in the mall where all the girls get their bath bombs. “Seriously though, how have we never met?” I ask her.
Ms. Hornsby, resident terrifying math teacher, walks by to shush us. Graduation Girl gets all flustered, which makes me laugh. “What can she do to us for talking?” GG doesn’t answer. “I’ve got a lot of bucket list items to cross off with you,” I say, trying to puff out my voice so it sounds bigger. More confident.
“Martin!” Ms. Hornsby scolds. “Be quiet!”
“Yeah, Martin,” GG jokes, “be quiet.” She plays it like she’s kidding, but I can tell she means it. Her chipped-off nail polish is all over the lap of her gown, and she’s going to town on the little that is left on her nails.
My mind runs through all the ways I could get her to notice me again. There’s always flicking her arm. Eh. Being annoying doesn’t seem like the right move. I look around for another idea and accidentally make hard eye contact with Hornsby, which makes me sweat, which makes me overcompensate, which makes me start humming, which is actually the perfect solution. It’s not talking. It’s fair game.
After a big throat clear and a good neck crack, I push air through my teeth to recreate the synthesized greatness of Van Halen. No human being can resist the musical mastery that is “Jump.”
I check in on Graduation Girl. The ridiculousness of my humming should be at least a half smile’s worth of points from her.
Nope. She is stone-faced. Royal guards would be jealous.
I amp up my effort, hammering the song’s rhythm into my leg and humming louder. I did choir in grade school, so I know I’m nailing my pitches (boy sopranos represent!), but the end of the introduction is nearing, and the magic of the music doesn’t seem to be affecting her. Still, I hit the final majestic synth high notes, burying my head into my neck to give the kind of commitment the song deserves, and sweet-holy-patron-saint-
of-Cubs-baseball-Ernie- Banks, I catch sight of movement on the ground.
It’s her foot. Tapping along.
Like David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar and every other random lead singer they’ve had, she comes in for the first line. “Dog it off,” she sings under her breath. The rest comes out as an incoherent mumble.
The lyrics are so wrong I almost keel over and die laughing. I decide to bring my other hand in for a better drum section instead. This is too good to stop. GG takes over the humming, and I pick up the next line of the song (with the correct lyrics, of course) as if we planned it this way all along. We look at each other, her pounding the beat into the grass and me into my legs, and we sing together until we get to the chorus’s lead-in. Graduation Girl hits me with the most ridiculously wrong lyrics of all time, but she is one hundred percent committed to the feeling. When it comes time to speak the line before the chorus, I say it all cool, and then she echoes back the title with perfect timing, shouting it with the exact amount of power and feeling required. She throws her head back and laughs at herself. It’s like an ad for shampoo the way her hair falls over the edge of her chair, all long and curly and flowing.
“Shut up!” the no-longer-sleeping guy on the other side of me whisper-yells.
Graduation Girl and I laugh louder. “My dad loves that song,” she whispers, catching her volume. “We always just make up the words as we go.”
“I can tell,” I say. “My dad loves it too. Official postseason anthem for the 1984 Cubs, baby. Big ups to two of the all-time greats, Rick Sutcliffe and Ryne Sandberg. Love you, Rick and Ryno.” I pat my chest and then blow a kiss to the Rick and Ryne in my head.
Ms. Hornsby pulls her finger to her mouth and gives the loudest shush ever known to man. Graduation Girl straightens up.
This is outrageous. Four years of high school have come and gone without a single sighting of Martin McGee, now here we are singing our respective fathers’ favorite eighties rock anthem together on the football field. Ms. Hornsby has threatened to remove Martin from the ceremony if he speaks again. He’s mostly obeying. Just nudging me and tapping my foot with his.
I can feel my head getting lighter, pulling me out of my seat and into the clouds, loosening the anchor at the bottom of my stomach. I’m fighting for gravity. Fighting to stop my mind from wandering and wondering about this kid that’s been one name away from me all this time.
Come on, Petra. Stay ahead.
You cannot piss off Ms. Hornsby now.
I play games on my phone to get Hornsby to leave me alone. I’d love to see her try and kick me out of here, but it’s more entertaining to sit next to Graduation Girl. We communicate through elbow nudges and impatient foot shaking. Sometimes you don’t need to speak to have a conversation.
After a long while, my fingers get so hot from the sun beating down and my phone’s battery working overtime that I put it back in my pocket. Graduation Girl eyes me. It’ll be worth it to get kicked out if I can just get her number. Hell, even her name. “Hey,” I say.
She glares at me.
“I know. I know.” I knock it down to a whisper. “What if we played a game? You give me three letters of the alphabet to guess from, one of which is the first letter of your name. If I get it right in less than thirty tries, you have to come to my party.”
“That sounds like a terrible game.” This girl cuts no corners.
“You’re right. It does.” I nudge her shoulder. “At least I’m not our valedictorian, out here talking about how we’re all baby birds ready to leave the nest.”
“Did you watch his nose when he spoke?” She sounds kind of mischievous when she asks. Clearly, I’ve chosen a solid topic.
“Can’t say I was paying much attention to his nose, no. Why?”
“His nostrils always do this flapping thing every time he breathes.”
It’s not what I’m expecting her to say. I belly laugh. She wraps her hand around my forearm in a vice grip to silence me. “I’m sorry,” I whisper, almost breaking. “How did you even notice that?”
“Steve Taggart is my archnemesis,” she answers in the most deadpan whisper I’ve ever heard. “Knowing everything about him used to be my life’s mission.”
She’s so close I can smell her again; this flowery, honey scent is wafting right up into my nostrils. I’m glad she seems to refuse to ever look at me because I might be doing the Steve Taggart thing too without even knowing it. “I think I need to make it my life’s mission to know more about you.” I say it before realizing how much it sounds like a terrible line. I didn’t mean it to be that way.
More than anything, I want to be her friend. And I want her to want me as a friend.
Still, it backfires. She balls up into her seat and starts picking at her nail polish again. The sun becomes so instantly and unbearably hot I have to loosen my tie.
Dammit. I can never get it right when it counts.
It needed to end. There is no room in my life for a boy like Martin McGee. Not even as a friend. It would just be another distraction. I’m already well stocked.
Ms. Hornsby walks by and slips me a satisfied smirk, as if she knows I’ve just gone cold turkey on Martin. He must be trouble. Is every boy trouble? My vision blurs at the thought.
Names drone on. People graduate. The world keeps spinning, even when I push against it, trying to set it back the other way.
Graduation Girl’s presence is a force. I wonder if she knows that. She’s not doing a single thing, barely even breathing it seems, and still it feels like she controls time itself. Right now, it stalls for her. The announcer guy reads in slow motion gibberish. Kids walk across the stage like their legs are sticks and the ground is mud. In my head, I go back to listing Cubs managers, and I swear I almost make it all the way to the late 1800s before another minute passes.
Then, like a finger snap, she sets the world back on track with one sentence. “Isn’t that your friend?”
Spitty’s waving at me, pointing to his wrist. Like he’s ever worn a watch in his life. Once I acknowledge him, he starts pretending to chug and toss imaginary liquor bottles. Your ten-dollar bill is mine, bitch, he mouths. His smile is an explosion of metal fireworks.
“Best one I’ve ever had,” I say to Graduation Girl.
“Is it wrong for me to hope you win this bet?” Her voice is so soft I have to piece the sentence together afterward. She’s looking everywhere but me, trying to see if Hornsby is watching us.
“I’d never tell you how to feel,” I crack off. “But you’re on the right side of this battle, for sure.”
“Well, I’d never feel the way you told me to, anyway.”
Out of nowhere, Hornsby pops up. This woman is everywhere. She looks right at Graduation Girl. “You really can’t afford to be making so much trouble right now. I can only do so much,” she tells her.
“I have no idea what prodigious even means,” I say when Hornsby’s gone.
Graduation Girl doesn’t acknowledge me. She’s slunk down so low into her robe she’s almost a turtle. It doesn’t even make sense. Hornsby just treated her like high school still matters. And Graduation Girl is acting like Hornsby is right about that. But we’re at graduation. It’s very confusing.
Graduation Girl doesn’t say or do anything until it’s our turn to stand up and graduate, no matter how many times I clear my throat or pretend to notice something really interesting in the sky or the grass or next to my foot or whatever.
Our favorite shushing teacher motions for our aisle to rise and start walking toward the podium. I do a big stretch and let out a yawn, hoping Graduation Girl will react. We’re on the move. Maybe she won’t feel so bad about talking now?
After my fourth time twisting my torso back and forth like I’m preparing to run a marathon, Graduation Girl sighs. “You are ridiculous,” she says.
“Come to my party. Please.”
Graduation Girl doesn’t answer. Instead—and I didn’t know this was a thing real humans did, I’ve only ever seen it in movies—her eyes flutter, like she’s batting her damn lashes. She laughs a private little laugh that loops in my head like a victory song. Of course her yellow robe has turned her into the Sunshine Statue of Liberty. She seems powerful and serene and a little sad, which is probably exactly what Lady Liberty feels like posted up all by herself in the water. I realize she’s standing in front of Brittany McMahon. I forgot I know Brittany McMahon. She’s one of those people who makes you go, “Oh yeah, you. You were in my day care back in the day, weren’t you?”
We start walking down the aisle. The dry grass of the football field is pressed flat from all the people before us. As we make our single-file line on the left side of the podium, I look out into the crowd to try and spot Spitty or Turrey or, hell, even Chris, but no one’s paying attention to anything. It’s like boredom is an actual disease, and everyone is a couple of breaths away from dying of it. I put my head down and stare at my kicks, looking fresh and ready for their official graduation debut. Getting the chance to put them on this morning was one of the only things that got me out of bed. I’d say they’re the only things I care about right now, but if I’m being honest with myself, this Graduation Girl has my head kind of spinning.
I refocus myself by limbeing up for my planned dance across the stage. Spits was supposed to dance too, but he chickened out. I knew he would. He walked across like he was balancing a book on his head, all proud, acting the part of Spencer Alan Kuspits Jr. I should’ve bet money he’d do that. Then I wouldn’t lose my ten bucks.
The sleepy guy before me goes across to dead silence. Good. I’ll spice it up. Mama Dorothy doesn’t know what quiet means. Two of my aunts are here, and they’re super loud. Then there’s my sister Katie and her husband, and I swear they get paid to be professional sports fans. They’re always at some game or another. They’re going to be screaming.
“Martin Frederick McGee.”
I walk up the three steps in total silence. I’m going to win the bet with Spits. I don’t want to win the bet anymore. I want to lose my ten dollars. I want to make Graduation Girl laugh again.
I look up into the bleachers to find my family. They’re starting to stand, with posters in hand. “I love you Marty McFly!” yells Mama Dorothy.
Everyone holds a different letter. M-C-F-Y-L-! My aunts look at each other and switch spots. M-C-F-L-Y-! My sister puts down her letter and holds up her phone. The version of “Fly Like An Eagle” they use in the movie Space Jam starts playing, and I’ll be damned if that song doesn’t make me believe I can. I run in slow motion toward my diploma, airplane wings on and a dramatic spin here and there, just like the singer Seal would want.
Damn. Guess Taggart is right. I am a bird.
GG stands at the steps, waiting to cross after me. As I spin, I catch her cupping her mouth, a smile showing at the corners.
Martin McGee surely went out how he went in, a funny dude skating by on wild antics, always going over the top for the joke, never passing up an opportunity to make an impression. He shoots me a wink. I can’t help but laugh. This boy. He really does seem so good. Can it be true? Do they exist?
Against my better judgment, the corners of my mouth stay pulled upward. Nothing will get my face to calm down, not scolding or biting my cheek or the thought of algebraic equations.
“Petra Margaret McGowan.”
That sobers me right up.
I step up the stairs. An almost serene silence accompanies me, allowing me to hear every meaningless thank-you from the faculty members as we shake hands. The last one gives me my empty diploma holder. Everything I’ve ever worked for, my entire life really, is now represented by one missing eight-and-a-half-by-
eleven sheet of cardstock. It’s all been for the very piece of paper I don’t yet have. The anchor in my stomach scrapes along my intestines as it sinks deeper. I’d be stuck standing in the middle of the stage for the rest of my life if not for the simple, powerful fact that no other graduate knows this black folder is empty. To them, I am just a girl in the middle of the class. I smile and smile and smile and smile until I’m down the steps on the other side of the stage.
I’d always pictured this whole thing ending here, as if I could throw my cap in the air and head straight to a painful family dinner at Olive Garden. But it isn’t over when I walk across the stage. It’s over when all 868 students walk across the stage. I’m merely the halfway point. So back into the line I go, en route to my assigned seat, my leaden legs propelled forward by the promise of seeing Martin again. He’s there, cheesing like someone’s let him in on the best, most exciting secret known to man.
“Petra, Petra, Petra,” he says when I walk down. “Petra riding the Metra. You betcha, Petra.”
“So you know my name now,” I say with an eye roll, mostly because making any kind of real eye contact with him seems deadlier than the boredom afflicting every student within a fifty-mile radius of this football field.
“Not just your first name. I know your whole name.” He taps the boy in front of him on the shoulder. “Excuse me, man, I just wanted you to know that this girl here is my best friend, Petra Margaret McGowan. Petty Margs, I call her. I know you heard our singing earlier. I think our music’s so good we just might start a band with that name.”
“Dude, get over yourself,” the boy says as he shrugs off Martin’s touch.
Martin tosses a half grin my way. “This guy clearly doesn’t know classic rock like we do, Petty Margs.”
“I can’t with you.”
“No one can.”
We’re waiting for the rest of our row to graduate so we can walk back to our seats in, quote, “uniform fashion.” With every name called, I remind myself to breathe. I’m supposed to be sulking. This is supposed to be torture. But it isn’t. No matter what I do, I can’t shake the Martin McGee I’m wearing all over my mood.
I’m supposed to be bored. This is supposed to be torture. But it isn’t. There’s a Petra Margaret McGowan–size light shining on me, and it’s brighter than anything the sun is trying to make happen up in the sky right now.
Wow. I can be cheesy.
Whatever. I own it.
It’s so strange though because I can’t even remember the last time I felt this charged up. Maybe when I tried to get Holly Paulson to go to the seventh-grade dance with me. My sister Katie and I stayed up all night making a shoe box diorama of Holly and I holding each other on the dance floor. I had to carry it with me the entire school day because the only class I had with Holly was my last one. By the time it rolled around, she’d already heard about the box from everybody else, so there was all this expectation, and when we finally saw each other, neither of us really knew how to go about it all. I ended up saying nothing and just handing her the diorama as if that was enough. She looked at me like I’d shown up to school in just my underwear, because the project featured Popsicle stick people with our school pictures pasted onto their heads.
It’s like that—like I’m holding an obvious question but unsure how to really ask it. My words are glue, stuck inside my mouth.
Oh, and Holly said no, by the way. So there’s that too.
Somehow, Martin and I get stuck in a silence so weighted it lassoes around my throat. Something between us got lost up on the stage. Or maybe found. It’s hard to tell with all the loaded silence blocking my peripherals. I study the intricate details of my yellow robe, distracting myself by imagining what it might be to finally, maybe, let myself like a boy again. Why are ceremonies practically designed for this kind of introspection? It’s as unavoidable as the brightness all around me.
Ryan Hales emerges, like a light that’s been turned on in the attic of my mind. The squareness of his face, so symmetrical that you could slice him down the middle and come up with mirror images. He’s rubbing his hands on his jeans, asking me on a date in front of my locker. His hands stop when I say yes. He’s kicking the rocks outside of the tennis courts, waiting to give me a ride home, stopping when I walk up. Tossing my homework out the window when I tell him I have too much, stopping when I panic.
We’re in the back seat of his car. Sweat is pouring down my back.
“Your eyes look like pancakes,” Martin says finally, after what could be years or milliseconds. He dissolves Ryan into nothing more than a mirage I never meant to chase.
“What?” It’s such an absurd sentiment that my laughter doesn’t feel like too much of a giveaway. I’m laughing at Martin, not with him, I assure myself. And laughter is a great distraction from the aftershock of surfacing memories.
“I mean maple syrup,” he corrects.
I still don’t let myself look at him, but the heat radiating from his cheeks burns stronger than the sun. I can’t help but soften. “Petty Margs and the Maple Syrup Eyes. Our official band name.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I see his shoulders relax. “Available for weddings, birthdays, and graduations.”
Ms. Hornsby signals for us to walk back to our seats. I stare at my feet as we start moving, thinking about everything and nothing at once. When I look back up, Martin is nowhere to be found.
Sneaking out had no unforeseen difficulties. Zig when everyone zags. Easy as that. Spits waits for me behind the bleachers. He pulls two travel-size bottles of whiskey out from beneath his robe and hands one to me.
“Cheers!” he says.
We chug them back in one gulp.
Don’t know where I’m going next, but I like the way everything looks right now. A little too bright and way too hot, but exactly the way I want it to be. High school took my sobriety and most of my dignity, so Spits and I break our whiskey bottles on the bleacher mud to honor all we gave to this sacred ground.
“You look nice,” Spits says, tugging on the part of my tie he can see above my robe. “Now give me my ten bucks.”
“Take it and use it for the greater good,” I tell him, shaking off the nagging feeling that I’ve left behind something essential. “Beer would be very appreciated at the McGee residence tonight,” I say as Spits lifts up his robe and crams my ten-dollar bill down his pants. “You’re sick, you know that?”
“Shut up. Let’s go for one last joy ride before this thing ends. I promise we’ll be back in time for your mom to give me a big kiss, and you know she will.” He tries to click his heels together but gets tripped up on his robe. “Shut up!” he yells, but I’m already laughing.
Spitty and I arrive at his parking spot. I usually keep my crying reserved for baseball games and videos of pets being reunited with owners, but I’d be lying if I said the sight of his raggedy Dodge Caravan didn’t choke me up. “I thought you were driving with your dad.”
“Did you want me to bring him to the liquor store? Hold on, Pop. Grabbing some whiskey for me and Fly. He drove himself. I rode solo in the White Whale.”
I climb in. The passenger seat is pushed and leaned back to my exact preference, covered in stains and nostalgia. I am the co-king of the White Whale. This is my throne.
Spits takes out two more baby whiskeys. We chug, so fast I get a bubble caught in my throat, then toss the little bottles out the White Whale’s manual windows, cranking the handles as fast as we can to let in the fresh air. Spitty takes a hard left out of the school lot. Not a car in sight.
“By the way,” I say, grabbing at the warm summer air as it flies through my fingers. “That girl’s coming tonight.” I smile at the thought of Petra, imagining her walking through my front door, eyes shooting left to right, scanning for me.
Accelerating speed pulls my cheeks back. I can almost taste the future’s possibilities in the wind whooshing through my mouth.
No one cares about Martin’s empty seat. No one checks. Rules are gone, because for 867 other people, high school is officially over.
I could throw up.
Without him here, I remember the reason for my initial dread. Every reason, actually. Every twelve-hour school day. Every agonizing assignment. Every painstaking triumph and hard-earned grade. My years of work all erased, obsolete, rendered irrelevant. Because of one misstep, none of it matters. None of it pays off.
At some point, the ceremony ends, and I hear, “Congratulations, graduates!” At some point, I switch over my tassel and rise up to toss my cap into the air. Doing what Dad’s always asked of me. Faking it until I make it, even though I know it’s not that simple.
At some point, families crowd the football field.
At some point, Cameron finds me. “We did it!” she squeals, as if there were ever a question in her mind that we would.
If only she knew…
“We’re going to a party tonight,” I tell her. A surprised look smushes her freckles into the wrinkled creases on her nose.
Martin McGee, I will find you again.