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Five teens backpack through Europe to fulfill the mysterious dying wish of their friend in this heartwarming novel from the author of The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy.
Jesse lives with his history professor dad in a house covered with postcards of images of the Madonna from all over the world. They’re gotten used to this life: two motherless dudes living among thousands of Madonnas. But Jesse has a heart condition that will ultimately cut his life tragically short. Before he dies, he arranges a mysterious trip to Europe for his three cousins, his best friend, and his girlfriend to take after he passes away. It’s a trip that will forever change the lives of these young teens and one that will help them come to terms with Jesse’s death.
With vivid writing, poignant themes, and abundant doses of humor throughout, Kate Hattemer’s second novel is a satisfying journey about looking for someone else’s answers only to find yourself.
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Kate Hattemer graduated with a degree from Yale in Classics. She works as a bookseller in Cincinnati and is the author of The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy, which has received five starred reviews.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The package arrived on Saturday morning, two hours before Cal graduated from high school. The kitchen had a festive feel. She’d set her mortarboard on the coffeepot, and Trevor had hung his dress shirt, still unironed, on the oven door. Their dad hummed a never-ending loop of “Pomp and Circumstance” as he cleaned out the fridge. Their mom rustled the op-ed page and stretched her calves. Cal was eating apeanut butter sandwich with her feet on the table. Summer was so close she could see it in the air, in the white sunlight that surged through the blinds. She was almost free. She hadn’t felt so good in months.
Maybe tonight she would sleep.
She was arguing withTrevor, her big brother, about which superpower they’d choose. “Flying,” he said.
“Invisibility,” said Cal.
Trevor tilted his chair onto its back legs. “Anyone who chooses invisibility over flying has a totally underdeveloped sense of fun.”
“I do not!”
“But we already knew that,” said Trevor.
Cal pitched a grape at him. He dove for cover. His chair toppled.
“Children,” their mother murmured as she turned the page of the newspaper.
“Besides,” said Trevor, righting the chair, “invisibility is a logistical nightmare. Would your clothes disappear with you?”
“So anything you’re touching goes invisible?”
“Ah-ah-ah,” said Trevor, waggling his finger. “That opens up a whole host of complications. I don’t think you want that.”
He was right. “Fine,” said Cal. “I’d strip.”
“What about your contact lenses?” He pointed at her, smirking. “Gotcha. That’d be so messed up, two little bits of plastic floating through the air--”
She needed to go on the offensive. “It’s not like flying’s so easy. The second you got spotted, you’d be trotted off to some lab.”
“Only if they caught me.”
“So you’d spend your entire life running from authorities?”
Trevor bounced a grape off the ceiling and caught it in his mouth. “Already do.”
Their mom went outside to get the mail. Cal felt like a kid, eating peanut butter and arguing with Trevor, the summer arcing to the horizon like an open road. The past ten months hadbeen rough, but she’d put herself together again, just about. She was ready to move on.
“What’s the package?” she asked her mom.
“I don’t know. It’s from Arnold.”
Her mom sorted through its contents: a thick, padded envelope for Cal; a thin one for Trevor; another thin envelope that she opened herself.
The news must have hit them all at once, Cal thought, because she could feel the shift in the room. The sunlight took on a strained, cloistered quality. Their breaths hushed. Trevor lowered his chair with a muted thwack. “Steve,” her mother said quietly. “Come here.” Her father closed the fridge.
As salutatorian, Cal was stuck onstage. The ceremony dragged. “You’ve been versatile and comforting,” said the headmaster. She’d lost his thread long ago. “You’ve provided tremendous support.” Was he addressing the parents, or her sports bra? She surveyed the sea of square hats and slick polyester. Her classmates were yawning, fidgeting, glazed over. She hoped her mental state wasn’t so obvious. She doubted it. Since Jesse’s death, she’d become practiced at holding herself together, at least at school. She’d relied on her image: her cleft-chinned and dimpled smile, her sharp leg muscles, the minor cachet that came with beingvery good at something that everyone respected but no one really cared about. Last track season, she’d set a school record for the 3,200. She was popular enough to be invited to most parties, and popular enough not to go sometimes. She had a reputation of being bossy and a little mean, a bit of abitch, they said, but she tried not to let it bother her, because they’d never say that if she were a boy.
“We’re so proud,” the headmaster said, “of these young men and women, their futures before them--”
If she weren’t onstage, she’d have rolled her eyes. The future was always before you. That was kind of the point of the future. On her right, Louis Gumber had his features screwed up, looking constipated. On her left, the dean of faculty swallowed a yawn. Cal’s eyes watered with the effort of not yawning herself. She hadn’t slept well for months. Twisted in clammy sheets, she’d jolt awake from yet another nightmare. The first day of college cross-country, and everyone was giving her the side-eye. She’d shown up in flip-flops. They began to run and her soles flapped and the pace felt hard from the start.
“This class contains accomplished artists, master musicians, skilled scholars, adroit athletes--”
That damn notebook. She couldn’t stop thinking about it. There’d been a Post-it note on top: It’s not without ruefulness that I pass this on, Cal, but I’m following instructions. I’m afraid I don’t know any more than you do. Love, Uncle Arnold.
“Plane tickets,” her mother told her father. “One in Trevor’s name, one in Cal’s. Chicago to Frankfurt, Germany.”
Cal opened the frontcover: The Juvenilia of Jesse T. Serrano. Every page rippled with his fierce, slanted handwriting.
“Departure two weeks from today,” her mother said. “With an open-ended return.”
The four of them looked up at each other, incredulous. Her mother’s face was drawn. Her father’s eyes were rimmed with the red that, before last August, Cal had seen only during allergy season. He passed a hand over his face. She felt gutted.
“Jesse’s given you a trip to Europe,” said her mother.
Cal shut the notebook. Anything could make her cry these days, moldy bread or a stubborn zipper orcling wrap clinging to itself, and she didn’t want puffy eyes at graduation.
“Crazy,” said Trevor, jumping up. “Crazy! I’ve got to call Ben.”
Now, from the stage, Cal scanned the bleachers for Trevor. It wasn’t hard to find him. His hair was the raw orange of construction signs and sports drinks, and he wore it like a thatch. He caught her eye and pantomimed a violent yawn. Trevor was fine with the trip. He was fine with everything. She watched him wrangle his gangly form out of the bleachers, hunched over like an ape. When he saw Cal watching, he mimed smoking, his eyes rolling up in deliverance. Trevor didn’t smoke. She didn’t think so, anyway. But he’d do anything for a joke.
Louis Gumber’s nervous gulps were audible. “Our valedictorian’s schedule included fourteen AP classes,” Dr. Thornton was saying. Clearly not AP Saliva Conservation, thought Cal. At this rate, he’d be parched by the time he spoke. She nudged him. “You’ll be awesome.”
Swallow. “Thanks, Cal.” He cleared his throat. There, maybe now he wouldn’t have to do that into the mike.
Dr. Thornton turned expectantly, and Louis skittered to the lectern. “A wise man once said,” he began, “that you should shoot for the moon. Because even if you miss--”
Lucky Trevor, Cal thought. Out there enjoying his fake smoke break. Out there being Trevor. Spontaneous. Fun. Everything she wasn’t. “This trip’s saved my ass,” he’d said, and then refused to explain what he meant. “You excited, Cal?”
“I don’t know,” she’d managed.
She wasn’t. She wasn’t sure she was even capable of it. She could imagine herself riding to the airport, teetering as she pulled on a fat backpack, hugging her parents goodbye--but then the reel was zapped off like a television. Would she walkaway from them? Could she? Or would she sink to the floor and huddle and rock?
If she wanted to make it through this ceremony, she’d better think of something else. Right now.
“In conclusion,” Louis Gumber said, “I exhort you to make the hard choices.”
These hats weren’t doing favors for anyone, but the way this kid’s hair fringed out was ludicrous.
“To boldly go where you would not go before.”
Of course he’d make a Star Trek reference. Of course. Cal tried to find Trevor. Had he returned? He’d catch her eye and snigger, and she wouldn’t feel so jaded and alone.
“And remember,” said Louis, “remember, on this day filled with both celebration and nostalgia, filled with the bittersweet knowledge that the threshold between youth and maturity is, at this very moment, crossed: remember that graduation marks an end, but also a beginning.”
Cal couldn’t help it. She rolled her eyes so hard that she didn’t see the crouching ninja photographer, who chose that moment to deploy an arsenal of flashbulbs. Damn.
“The world is all before us. Thank you.”
There was rousing applause. Cal stood. Louis basked. Finally Dr. Thornton prodded him, and hejumped and returned to his seat.
“That was so good,” whispered Cal. She didn’t want him to suspect that his speech had been shit. Hers, after all, would have been just as bad. How were you supposed to sum up adolescence in three minutes without mythologizing the whole endeavor?
“Thank you! Thank you!” said Louis in a rush. Up close, Cal could tell he hadn’t yet discovered shaving. His patchy, dirty-blond whiskers were unmistakably rodentian. “I was nervous because my message was a bit countercultural, you know? But--”
Cal nodded along. She hoped Trevor hadn’t missed the speech. He was a dead-on mimic, and she was looking forward to his rendition of Rat-a-Louis Gumber.
God, she was mean. They were right.
There was Trevor, standing at the back of the gym, down the center aisle. He must have decided not to bother crawling back into the bleachers. Dr. Thornton was speaking again. Couldn’t he give them their diplomas and set them free? He introduced the vice principal to read the names and moved to the side with a stack of diplomas.
Louis twitched. In her mental narration, Cal appended “like a rat” to his every action. He sprang up (like a rat) and grinned (like a rat) as he shook Thornton’s hand and accepted his diploma. Mean, she thought. Mean, mean, mean! But no one understood that she was aghast at her own meanness, at the pettiness of her own unbidden thoughts. Louis squeaked, “Thank you, Dr. Thornton!” Click, flash, went the official photographer. The seniors had rehearsed this maneuver ad nauseam. Shake, take, smile down the aisle.
I’m delighted, she told herself. She wanted a real smile so she’d look good in the photographs. She shook, took, and beamed at Thornton before turning down the aisle.
Thornton must have seen it too. He released her hand. “Congratulations.”
“Um,” said Cal, “thanks.”
“You can tell your brother we’re glad he’s gone.” He seemed weary.
“I will.” She hadn’t yet caught her breath. That bastard. She couldn’t believe him. She didn’t dare look again until she had run the gauntlet of congratulatory administrators. There was Trevor, applauding serenely for Lucille--Ann--Abermathy.
She glared at him. He gave her an innocent smile. She glared some more and he widened his eyes, his index finger on his chin: moi? She tried her hardest but she felt the laugh rising in her throat.
She’d expected to see him at the end of the aisle. She had not expected, however, that quick as lightning, just as she posed, he’d spin and lower his pants. The audience had been focused forward. She and Thornton were the only ones who’d seen Trevor’s tiny, moon-white butt.
Cal balled up her dress and threw it in the closet. She put on old running shorts and a soft T-shirt from regionals. In her bed, she read the first story of the Juvenilia.
It was bad. It was worse than she’d expected. She too remembered that day in Santa Fe, but her memory had dulled like a rock in a streambed, growing as smooth and cold as her turquoise egg. Now the details came back. His crab-like scooch across the sidewalk with that butter dish. His grin, a marvelous and lopsided smile that squinched up the left half of his face. How, when she’d put her hands on his back, she’d felt the panicked thumps of his heart, churning blood through the Hole.
She shoved the notebook under a mess of covers. Those leggy, brace-faced thirteen-year-olds, blithely facing a future they imagined all wrong! They thought growing up meant moredays like Santa Fe, not fewer. Growing up meant freedom, and choices, and nobody making you drink water instead of root beer. When you grew up, you could spend your time with whomever you liked best, and she and Jesse, born comrades, mere weeks apart in age, would have chosen each other.
She wished she could find her past self, that girl who skinned the cat on the monkey bars of Santa Fe. She’d beckon her aside and say, Steel yourself. The years ahead do not match your expectations. Her past self would have lifted that single eyebrow. (How obnoxious she’d been!) She’d have said, I don’t believe you. Of course I’ll keep in touch with Jesse. Why wouldn’t I?
Cal tucked her knees to her chest. She had a bundle of excuses, but they were as flimsy as balsa wood. Cross-country, indoor track, outdoor track. Schoolwork, loads of it. Summerjobs pouring coffee and clipping shrubbery. She didn’t have time now, she’d always said, but soon, soon. Four years had passed since Santa Fe, four years of infrequent texts and no visits. Last August, he’d died.
Nobody understood how awful she felt. Nobody understood how awful she was. She’d abandoned him. And now she was supposed to go on this trip. She felt a surge of anxiety at thevery thought. Couldn’t she move on? Put her grief and guilt behind her?
She could reach her bookcase from her bed. A Betsy-Tacy book, that was the ticket. She had to stop thinking.
Trevor didn’t knock. “What’s that smell?” he said. “Is this the abode of a Soviet powerlifter? You know, experts recommend you wash your workout clothes every few months.”
“This is killing my appetite.”
“Well, I lost my appetite when I got my diploma.”
“Couldn’t help myself,” said Trevor, testing the bar in her closet to see whether it’d bear his weight. “It was a...
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