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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

First & Then

Emma Mills

Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)

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1



My college essay was titled "School Lunches, TS High, and Me," and it was every bit as terrible as you'd expect.

I stared at a poster on the wall behind Mrs. Wentworth's desk while she read. It was this National Geographic-looking photo of a pride of lions on a veldt. One was out front, looking particularly majestic. Golden sun dappled its mane, and whereas the background lions were looking here and there, this one's dark eyes gazed right at me. Underneath the picture, the word ACHIEVEMENT was printed in big serif letters.

Clearly, this was supposed to inspire something in me. I wasn't quite sure what. Run faster. Kill more gazelles. Be better than those riffraff lions hanging at the periphery.

Mrs. Wentworth cleared her throat eventually, and all she said was, "School lunches." It posed the question "why?" without formally asking it.

"The prompt said to write a page from the story of my life. You eat an awful lot of school lunches in your lifetime, don't you?"

"And this cafeteria food was somehow ... meaningful to you?"

"There were some deeply moving mashed potatoes-I'm not going to lie."

There was something strange happening around her lips, a weird sort of twitching motion. I think a frown and a smile were locked in mortal combat. "Devon, I really need you to take this seriously."

She meant take it seriously like go home and write an essay about a dead relative, or a sick bird I had nursed back to health when I was little, or a mission trip to build houses in Guadalajara. I just couldn't find it in my heart to do that. I'd never been to Mexico.

But then she surprised me. "Don't get me wrong," she said. "It's not the topic. It's the execution. You could've run with this. It could've been witty and inventive and really captivating. But it reads like you wrote it during a commercial break."

I took offense to that. I wrote it during at least four commercial breaks.

"How much thought did you really give this?"

It wasn't like I hadn't given any thought to it. I had even gone as far as composing an essay in my head, written in the style of Jane Austen. Jane was my favorite author, hands down, and I knew that my true life's story would be told in her style.

Jane didn't shy away from the truth about people. I felt like I knew her from reading her books, like I knew the kind of person she had been, and it was someone I liked a great deal. Someone who saw people for who they really were, someone who was capable of calling bullshit in the most elegant way imaginable. Jane would tell it like it was.

Unfortunately, how it was for me wouldn't make the best sort of college essay. Miss Devon Tennyson requests admission to your university, despite the fact that she is stunningly average.

I couldn't say any of this to Mrs. Wentworth. I didn't expect her to understand it, how I took comfort in seeing things through Jane's lens sometimes. She couldn't possibly comprehend the satisfaction I drew from imagining myself as Miss Devon Tennyson and unextraordinary, as opposed to regular Devon Tennyson and just plain boring.

When I didn't speak, Mrs. Wentworth set my essay aside. "Devon, this is crunch time. You've got a lot of work to do this semester if you want to get your applications competitive. Your GPA isn't bad, but your extracurriculars are definitely lacking. Are you at least aware of this?"

One brief tryst as girls' cross-country team manager. One failed run for Homecoming Court. One nonspeaking role in the drama department's annual desecration of Beauty and the Beast. I was definitely aware of it.

I would've pointed out that I had joined Mrs. Wentworth's own club-the Road-to-College Club-but it was hardly optional, and as of now, I was the only member. So I just nodded and tried to look solemn.

"You've still got time. It's only August, but before you know it, deadlines are going to start creeping up. You've expressed some interest in Reeding. Let's pursue it. But we need to explore all our options. If there are any other schools you've got in mind, let's visit them."

"Visit?" For a brief second, I imagined myself on the road with Mrs. Wentworth, arguing over complimentary shower caps in some cheesy motel room.

"You can't make informed decisions without knowing what you're getting into," said Mrs. Wentworth. "You wouldn't buy a dress without trying it on first, would you?"

I choked back Maybe if I bought it online and just shook my head. It wasn't the idea of college visits I was apprehensive about. It was the concept of Road-to-College Club in general. I think this will be good for you, my mom had said, holding up a flyer sent home in the mail and officially making Road-to-College Club akin to broccoli and sunscreen. Maybe it would be good for me. But that didn't mean I had to like it.

"Are there any particular majors you're interested in?"

"Not really." Saying advanced breakfast with a minor in cable television would surely bring about some epic battle that Mrs. Wentworth's smile was doomed to lose.

"Well, you've got some things to think about. This week I want you to look for extracurricular activities. Join a club. Start your own. It's not too late to get yourself out there and get involved."

Ugh. She sounded like a brochure. I suppressed an eye roll and opted for a noncommittal head bob.

It was quiet for a moment. I thought she was going to dismiss me, but when I looked up, Mrs. Wentworth was examining me through narrowed eyes.

Her first name was Isobel. She wasn't very old in the grand scheme of things, but by high school standards, she seemed it. She wore patterned sweaters and long, shapeless floral skirts. Still, Mrs. Wentworth's eyes were very beautiful. Her lashes were thick and dark, and the color of her eyes was just as vibrant, just as green as it must've been when she was my age. I liked to think that she was incredibly popular in those days. All the guys would follow her around and offer to drive her home and tell her that she looked like the girls in the magazines. And she would laugh and flip her dark curls and have no idea that there would be a time in her life when she would be Mrs. Wentworth, and care what some obnoxious girl wrote to get into Reeding University.

"Devon," she said, and somehow it felt like the voice speaking was a little more Isobel and a little less Mrs. Wentworth. "Do you want to go to college?"

No one had ever asked me that. College was the natural order of things. According to my parents, between birth and death, there had to be college.

"I don't know what else I would do," I said.

"Join the army," was her simple reply.

I made a face. "I hate being yelled at."

"The Peace Corps, then."

A choking noise erupted from my throat, something like a cat being strangled. "I hate being selfless."

"All right." The twitching around Mrs. Wentworth's lips started up again. "Get a job."

"Just start working? Just like that?"

"Lots of people do it. Some very successful people never went to college."

"Yeah. Look at Hollywood."

"There's one. Go to Hollywood. Become a star."

"But I can't act. I've never even talked in a play."

"So join drama club."

"Oh yeah, chorus member number twelve will be my ticket to stardom."

"Why not?"

"First, you have to like doing that kind of stuff, which I don't, and second, you have to be good at it, which I'm not."

"So what are you good at?"

"I don't know. Nothing, really."

"Now, how can you say that?"

I couldn't express it right, not without Jane's help. Those turns of phrases she used that gave elegance to even the unpleasant things. She would say I was wanting in singularity. Staunchly average. Spectacularly ... insufficient, in situations like this. In the face of all-caps ACHIEVEMENT. Because what if you didn't have it in you? What if, deep down, you were just one of those background lions?

"Everyone's good at something," Mrs. Wentworth said after observing me for a moment. "You'll find your niche. And you know a good place to find it?"

"College?"

"See, you're a good guesser. There's something already."

I smiled a little.

"I think you're a perfect candidate for college. Don't think I'm trying to dissuade you here. I just want to know why you want to continue your education."

"My parents," I said. She could've just asked that straight out of the blocks.

"To get away from them?"

"To keep them from murdering me."

A particularly fierce twitch seized her lips. "I want you to get involved," she said, sticking the essay back into my file. It was the only thing in there, save the crumpled postcard from Reeding University I showed her at our first meeting. "And give the personal statement another try. Heck, write the whole life's story while you're at it."

I made another face.

"All right, all right, I won't get ahead of myself. Have a good day, Devon."

"You, too," I said, and left the office.

* * *

I walked down to the football field after our session and thought about what Mrs. Wentworth had said. Mostly I thought about the essay-a page from the story of my life. I imagined writing about myself in the Peace Corps: a philanthropic Devon, traversing jungles and deserts, filled to the brim with the opportunity to self-sacrifice for the good of others. That's the kind of shit those college people wanted-some spectacular tale of unflinching originality, sandwiched between your grade point average and your ACT scores. How many volunteer hours have you performed, and tell us exactly when your stunning triumph over adversity occurred.

I felt like I had never done anything. I had never suffered. I had never triumphed. I was a middle-class kid from the burbs who had managed to be rather unspectacular for the last seventeen years. A triumph over mediocrity-that was what I needed.

"Did college club get out early?"

Wherever I was, Foster had a way of finding me.

Until this past summer, he had been the kind of cousin you see only every fourth Christmas or so. His family lived in California, we were in Florida, and that had been perfectly fine, a perfectly acceptable dose of Foster. But things had changed, and the new dosage of Foster in my life was pretty hard to tolerate at times.

He threw his bag to the ground and plunked down next to me on the bleachers.

"Did moron club get out early?" I said.

He looked at me for a moment. Then he said, "I see what you did there. I said 'college' for your club, and you said 'moron' for my club. Clever."

I looked out at the field, partially to avoid having to reply to that, and partially because practice was just starting and this was my favorite part. All the players would circle up on the field to do calisthenics. I liked the jumping jacks best, the way they'd chant each count aloud together. It was hard to see faces when everyone had their equipment on, but I could spot Cas Kincaid from anywhere. His jumping jacks were always half-assed.

Foster didn't like Cas, but I didn't like Foster. I probably should've felt bad for him, but Foster had this inability to do or say anything remotely human. Sometimes I thought the earth could rip open and swallow our house up whole and he would just stand there on the sidewalk changing tracks on his iPod.

"What'd you learn in college club?"

"Stop calling it college club."

Like "Road-to-College Club" was so much cooler.

"Stop calling it moron club," Foster countered.

Ironically enough, if any club was "college club," it was his. At freshman orientation, Foster signed up for the Future Science Revolutionaries of America Club. It was a biweekly meeting of those genius kids who like to build robots and memorize the digits of pi. Most of them could probably get into more colleges as freshmen than I could as a senior.

The chanting stopped as the guys moved on to a new exercise. Foster followed my gaze to the field and, more particularly, to Cas.

"Don't you feel dumb always following him around?"

I didn't answer, but I wasn't really listening.

"Don't you feel dumb hanging around and waiting for him?" he repeated as he bounced up and down a little in his seat, a rubber band perpetually wound too tight.

"Why would I feel dumb?"

"Because he doesn't hang around and wait for you. Don't you want a boyfriend who waits for you?"

"He's not my boyfriend. We're friends."

"So how come you close the door to your room whenever he comes over?"

"So you won't come in."

"You don't have sex in there?"

"No!" I looked over at Foster. I was fairly confident he was the scrawniest, most immature fourteen-year-old in all of Florida, quite possibly in the entire world. "No. No one's having sex anywhere."

"I'm sure there are people having sex right now. All the way around the world. I'm sure there are millions of people having sex right now. It's nighttime in Europe. People have more sex at night, don't they?"

"Stop talking about sex, Foster."

"Why? Does it make you uncomfortable? Does Cas make you uncomfortable? I could punch him, you know. I know how to punch."

"No punching. No talking. Let's just be quiet, okay? Let's play Zip Lip."

"Okay." Foster liked to think he was best at this game. I was old enough to know that my mom only invented it to keep me quiet when I was little. He should've been old enough to realize that, too.

"But wait. Is your dad picking us up? Because I'm not driving with Cas. He smells."

"You smell."

A pause. "I see what you did there."

I sighed. "Zip your lips, Foster."

"Do yours first."

I drew my fingers across my lips. Foster did his, and there was temporary peace.

The peace lasted through the drive home, even after I greeted my dad, effectively losing Zip Lip.

"How was school?" My mom asked that evening, with one hand resting on her hip and the other stirring a wooden spoon in a pot of pasta sauce. Foster was tucked away in front of the television, and my dad was in his office. The house was quiet, aside from the gentle bursting of bubbles in the sauce and the dull hum of Foster's TV.

"It was fine." I took to setting the table, because I knew she was going to ask me to do it anyway.

"How was Foster?"

I hated questions like that. What can you possibly say? It made him sound like a weather system. Foster was cloudy with an 80 percent chance of precipitation.

"He seemed fine," I said as I grabbed some napkins out of the cupboard. I still wasn't quite used to getting four instead of three.

"Do you..." She was trying so hard to sound casual. "Do you think he's fitting in well?"

"It's only the third day."

"But do you think he's making friends?"

"I don't know." That was a lie. "I haven't seen much of him." That was a lie, too. I knew he couldn't have been making friends, or else he wouldn't be trying to hang around me so much.

"What about gym class?"

Physical education wasn't a freshman requirement until my sophomore year, so after having put it off for so long, I was dutifully bound to two semesters as the only senior in a class of hormone-ridden freshmen. A class that happened to include my cousin Foster. I hated sports and I wasn't too fond of freshmen, so gym class was a blight on my otherwise seamless senior schedule.

"We've only had one class," I said.

"And?"

"And Mr. Sellers told us about dressing out and lectured about the sports schedule and that was it." Mom opened her mouth to speak, but I went on. "As far as I know, nobody's shoving him into lockers or calling him names or treating him any different than any other freshman."

This seemed to satisfy her, but I knew it could only be temporary, so I threw some silverware on the table and hurried up to my room before she could ask any more questions.

I got Cas on the phone that night before bed. It was one of my favorite things-curling up under the covers with the phone pressed to my ear, knowing I could drift off to sleep as soon as I hit End.

"A number four," I heard Cas's muffled voice say on the other end of the line, "with a Pepsi and no-hey, Dev, remind me to tell you about practice-and no pickles on the burger and extra ketchup."

Cas was nearly unable to devote his entire attention to a single conversation at any given time. But it was difficult to ever reproach him for it; he just thrived on constant engagement-interested in everything and everybody. When you really needed him as a friend, he'd rein it in.

"What happened at practice?"

"Coach reamed Marburry because"-to the drive-through window, "Thanks, man, could I get a couple napkins?" and back to me-"because he nearly killed himself trying to take Ezra down."

"Why would he do something like that?"

"Because he's a fucking idiot," Cas said thickly, because now he was eating and talking and driving all at one time. "No, but seriously, he's pissed he got moved to safety and Ezra's still starting running back." There was just the slightest hint of darkness to his voice, something that I heard only because I had known him so long. "And, you know, because of the Bowl."

Everyone knew. In addition to being named a Parade All-American, Ezra Lynley had been chosen for the army's All-American Bowl East team. The entire town made such a big deal out of it that you couldn't use a public restroom without a CELEBRATE TEMPLE STERLING'S OWN ALL-AMERICAN poster staring down at you from the back of the stall door.

"Yeah," I said. "What an exciting and unexpected opportunity for him."

Cas laughed. That was the tagline under CELEBRATE TEMPLE STERLING'S OWN ALL-AMERICAN: AN EXCITING AND UNEXPECTED OPPORTUNITY FOR TS HIGH'S EZRA LYNLEY.

There was a pause during which I'm sure Cas shoved a few more french fries into his mouth, and then, "How's your new brother?"

"Don't call him that."

"Well, that's what he is."

"Is it bad that I don't want to be around him at school? I mean, I see him all the time at home, but does that, like, make me a bad person?"

"Why would that make you a bad person?"

"I don't know." Except I did know. "His mom just abandoned him like that."

"So? Joe Perry's mom abandoned him, and last time I checked, you said he was the most obnoxious person in the world ever ever."

"I did not-"

"You did so, two evers. Twice the ever is, like, the obnoxiousness squared."

"That's probably the nerdiest thing you've ever said."

"Don't change the subject. You hate abandoned children."

"I don't hate anybody!" I knew he was goading me, but I always played along. "And Joe's mom left in, like, the second grade. It's different."

"No matter how long it's been, an abandoned child is still an abandoned child."

"Stop saying abandoned child!"

"You said it, too." I could hear the grin in Cas's voice. "Hey, you know somewhere a kid is, like, being abandoned because of this conversation."

"Don't say stuff like that."

"Don't censor me! I've got freedom of expression that will never be broken!"

"Shut up," I said, but I was laughing all the same. "You're going to drive off the road."

"I'm almost home."

"And it would be tragic to die a block from your house, wouldn't it?"

"This from the girl who didn't want to say abandoned child."

"Foster wasn't really abandoned," I said, the smile slipping off my face. "He was just kind of ... sent away."

"Doesn't make it any better, does it?"

"Maybe it does. She's coming back for him."

"Yeah," Cas said evenly, and I wasn't sure how much either of us believed it.



Copyright © 2015 by Emma Mills