Some mornings, when I’m still drifting back and forth between asleep and awake, I think I can hear her voice. She’s singing, or maybe she’s laughing, and it’s the color of sunlight on the back of my eyelids. Orange-gold. Glowing.
It’s not her real voice. The human brain doesn’t start making memories until the age of two, and she was gone long before that. She died in a time when there was nothing but a half-made, invisible foundation, when my subconscious was still being shaped by experiences that would never be remembered. She shaped me—in the impression of her voice and her touch, and then her absence. But I’ll never, ever know her.
If I let them, things with Mom can become an obsession. I’m a detective and she is the case that will make my career. I’m a scientist, and she is the grand, elegant equation that will explain the universe. But the rest of the time, she truly doesn’t exist to me.
I run down the front steps and jump on my bicycle, the straps of my helmet dangling down around my ears. My American History final is in ten minutes; I just woke up and I haven’t even brushed my teeth.
I begin pedaling furiously up the giant hill that leads away from the cul-de-sac. June gloom is in full force, so I’m not sweating as hard as I could be by the time I get to the top. Just enough that I feel a trickle at the edge of my forehead.
I fly through the burned-out strip that is downtown El Sobrante, dodging a man who is riding his horse down the street. I pass Santa Shoe Repair, Nerd Crossing, Mountain Mike’s Pizza. I barrel into the school parking lot and lock up my bike next to a monstrous hydrangea bush, run down the hallway, and slide into my seat at 8:59 a.m.
Hannah looks over at me and says, “You look . . . interesting. Everything okay?”
She’s perfectly neat as always, and there is something deeply calming about her thick golden ponytail, her crisp white T-shirt, the tiny silver H
at her throat. I reach up and tug the end of her hair.
“I accidentally slept in.”
She raises both hands. “Not my fault.”
Then Mr. Henderson walks in, looking sad and rumpled, the human equivalent of a ketchup stain.
“Good morning, seniors! For most of you this will be the last test you ever take at De Anza High. Good luck.”
He passes around the test books and pencils and then the next two hours are a fog of essay questions about the Civil War and the industrial revolution. I try, but by the end of it I’m basically propping my eyes open with sticks.
I hand in my test, brush my teeth in the bathroom, and then wait for Hannah and Jake out front. A pack of wild turkeys roams through the parking lot, shitting on cars. I sit on the gate of Hannah’s dad’s pickup truck, tucked between my bike and the surfboards, my hood cinched over my ears to muffle the chattering birds and the distant highway sounds.
And then we are driving along the Richmond Parkway, my hand on Hannah’s knee, Jake whining about being crammed into the back seat of the extended cab. The fog is burning into a smoggy, hazy blue that can’t decide if it’s dirty or clean. A cormorant corkscrews into the water. Rust-colored fuel cylinders loom on the hillside, blending in to the orange rocks.
We cruise over the Richmond Bridge, past the San Quentin State Prison. Hannah is singing along loudly to the Killers, which she thinks is cool/retro but everyone knows is garbage music. Her voice is slightly off-key, but somehow it’s charming.
Hannah is calmly, classically beautiful, with delicate features and soft, pale skin. We’ve been together since junior year but I liked her for a lot longer than that.
We’re heading up to Bolinas, where Hannah and Jake will surf and I’ll wait on the beach, and then we’ll meet up with a bunch of other kids from school and drink warm beer around a fire under the moonlight to celebrate the great accomplishment of finishing high school.
My phone buzzes on the seat. It’s Dad.
Thanks. Going up to Bo for the night. Probably gonna camp out. Good?
Yep. Just don’t drink too much and DO NOT DRIVE.
We stop at the grocery store in town for lunch items: hard rolls, cheese and salami, salt-and-pepper chips. I get a Sprite and Hannah crinkles her nose at me, setting her kombucha on the counter.
“Don’t do that,” I say, reaching out a finger to push on the freckled end of her nose. “Or I’ll make you drink it.”
She makes a fake choking noise and watches as I take cash out of my wallet and set it down.
“You guys are disgusting,” Jake says. He is clutching an armful of Hostess CupCakes against the front of his UC Santa Cruz sweatshirt. Jake is white, with pale, freckled skin and strawberry blond hair.
“Disgustingly great,” Hannah says, lacing her fingers up with mine.
We walk down to the end of the road that leads to the beach. I carry Hannah’s surfboard and she carries the food. We find a spot and spread out a big red-and-black quilt, our toes digging down into the dark brown sand that’s always a little bit wet, even when the sun is out. We put sunscreen on our arms and ears and noses. It’s too cool out to have much more skin exposed than that. Hannah and Jake head down to the water and I lie back and try to read a book about Sun Ra and the Arkestra, the sound of the waves and the soft but relentless breeze rushing in my ears.
I can’t focus for long because of the fact of this day: the last day of high school.
I have a scholarship to Cal State East Bay, and my first semester starts in less than three months. Everything is starting. Everything is good. The future is waiting in a neatly wrapped and labeled package. But for some reason I can’t really feel it. I never can.
I put down my book and watch Hannah and Jake bobbing up and down in the water like seals. Everything is backlit and the top halves of their bodies are two irregular black shapes, in steady motion on the dark sea.
Hannah is going to school in Ohio, and we are deep into negotiations about what that will mean for our relationship. At any given moment either of us can be found on either side of the argument. We’re circling around something inevitable, but no one wants to be the first to let go.
The shadows get longer and longer until it’s time to get out, get dry, head to Blake’s cousin’s house. By the time we park the pickup on the dirt road out front, kids from school have already started gathering.
The house is a California-interior-style wet dream, everything wabi sabi, weathered, reclaimed, decks and steps everywhere. Ceramic sculptures. Glass doors. Cool grass in the twilight, fruit trees sagging under the weight of ripening apricots and plums. It’s the kind of house Dad builds for people who have a lot more money than we do.
“I’m hungry,” Hannah whines from where she sits on a wraparound bench on the back deck. She’s wrapped up in lavender fleece, white leggings, and Uggs, shivering with wet hair.
“I’m pretty sure Connor is bringing pizza,” Jake says, adjusting his baseball cap.
“Yup,” I say, “and here he is.”
“Hey, bro!” Connor calls from across the yard. He ducks under the crooked branch of a live oak tree, balancing the pizza on one hand. There’s lots of hugging and backslapping as we all greet each other. Something about it feels disingenuous, every single time.
More and more kids come, and I start to worry that this is more like a party than a hangout, but by that point the beer is surging through my veins and I feel good
. Light. Free. This
is the way I should feel on the last day of school.
Hannah is over talking to a group of her friends. After a day outdoors, she is this shade of golden pink that is completely enticing. I walk up behind her and wrap my arms around her waist, kissing her neck.
“Excuse me, everyone,” I say, winking. “I need Hannah for a minute.”
I pull her up the stairs into a bedroom that looks like a perfect replica of a fisherman’s bunkhouse with old glass floats and porthole windows, and she pushes me down onto the bed and takes off my glasses and we tangle ourselves up in each other until we get right up to the edge of the line that we are both, for some reason, hesitant to cross. For a while, I lose myself until I’m completely gone, in a way that makes every voice, every thought, everything that isn’t the soft blur of Hannah, recede.
Afterward, when we are strung out, breathless, lying limp on our backs, Hannah turns her head to me and says, “Today was the last day of high school, ever.”
I nod, slow, rubbing a long strand of her silky hair between my fingers. “So weird.”
Suddenly, her aquamarine eyes are overflowing with tears. “Everything is going to change, isn’t it?”
The past half hour in this tiny room has sobered me up, made me thoughtful, and for a few long minutes her question swirls around my brain.
She leans over and kisses my shoulder.
“I’m really going to miss you.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I’m really going to miss you too.”
But there’s something empty about the words because I can’t imagine what it would be like, really missing anyone.
Later, we are back downstairs. I’m loose in a good but dangerous way. Like everything might fall apart at any moment and I might not mind.
I’m sitting on a camping chair next to the fire when I see Sydney Greenfield drifting across the firelit lawn like a fairy. Her black hair is braided into a crown on the top of her head and she’s wearing an old black T-shirt that’s full of holes and a giant black old-man’s cardigan sweater. She’s holding hands with a guy I’ve never seen before. He’s white, skinny, and scruffy, and looks like he doesn’t belong at a high school party. He tugs her along, both of them looking cool and disinterested. A cigarette dangles between her fingers.
I first met Sydney when we were eight years old, after Dad and I moved from Oakland into the house next door to hers at the end of a dusty cul-de-sac. For years, I followed her everywhere. She introduced me to music and made me dye my hair black and dared me to do a hundred stupid and dangerous things.
But at some point Syd and I drifted apart. Sometimes it felt like she was still and I was moving, and sometimes it felt like I was still and she was moving. Now here we are, on opposite sides of a gigantic ocean. It’s weird because for so long she was my twin, the other half of my brain. Sometimes I still wake up at night and expect to find the lump of warmth that is her body in my bed.
The older guy stops for a second to talk to a friend, and Syd stops too, turns her head, looks at me, stares. Her eyes are like exploding stars, the way they suck everything inward. For a second I feel this great missing, this frustrated longing. They pull me in, her eyes, like a swamp.
And then she looks away, turns back to the guy, moves along like a fish in a stream until she’s out of sight.
Copyright © 2023 by Kate Sweeney. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.