Instead, I pull out my wallet and hand Mrs. Carnes a twenty, which is the smallest I have, and she counts off the books. “That’s a dollar a book, times ten. I’m going to have to go up to the house to get change.” She’s gone before I can tell her to keep the money.
Violet sets the books down, and now I go with her to explore each trailer. We add a few more books to the pile, and at some point I catch her eye and she’s smiling at me. It’s the kind of smile you smile when you’re thinking someone over and trying to decide how you feel about them. I smile at her and she looks away.
Then Mrs. Carnes is back, and we argue about the change—I want her to keep it, she wants me to keep it, and finally I do because she absolutely won’t take no. I jog the books to the car while she talks to Violet. In my wallet I find one more twenty, and when I get back to the trailers, I duck into the first one and drop the twenty and the change into the old register that sits on a kind of makeshift counter.
A group of kids arrives, and we tell Mrs. Carnes good-bye. As we walk away, Violet says, “That was awesome.”
“It was, but it doesn’t count as a wandering.”
“It’s technically one more place, and that’s all we needed.”
“Sorry. Awesome as it is, it’s practically in our backyard, in the middle of your three-to-four-mile safe zone. Besides, it’s not about crossing things off a list.”
She is now walking several feet ahead, pretending I don’t exist, but that’s okay, I’m used to it, and what she doesn’t know is that it doesn’t faze me. People either see me or they don’t. I wonder what it’s like to walk down the street, safe and easy in your skin, and just blend right in. No one turning away, no one staring, no one waiting and expecting, wondering what stupid, crazy thing you’ll do next.
Then I can’t hold back anymore, and I take off running, and it feels good to break free from the slow, regular pace of everyone else. I break free from my mind, which is, for some reason, picturing myself as dead as the authors of the books Violet collected, asleep for good this time, buried deep in the ground under layers and layers of dirt and cornfields. I can almost feel the earth closing in, the air going stale and damp, the dark pressing down on top of me, and I have to open my mouth to breathe.
In a blur, Violet passes me, hair sailing behind her like a kite, the sun catching it and turning it gold at the ends. I’m so deep in my own head, accepting the thoughts, letting them come, that at first I’m not sure it’s her, and then I sprint to catch up, and run along beside her, matching my pace to hers. She’s off again, and we push ourselves so hard and fast, I expect to go flying off the earth. This is my secret—that any moment I might fly away. Everyone on earth but me—and now Violet—moves in slow motion, like they’re filled with mud. We are faster than all of them.
And then we’re at the car, and Violet is giving me a “so there, take that” look. I tell myself I let her win, but she’s beat me fair and square.
After we’re in and the engine is running, I toss her our notebook, the one we’re using to record our wanderings, and say, “Write it all down before we forget anything.”
“I thought this one didn’t count.” But she’s flipping through the pages.
“Humor me. Oh, and we’re hitting one more place on the way home.”
We’ve left the gravel and are cruising along on pavement again when she looks up from the notebook she’s now writing in. “I was so busy with the books, I forgot to leave something behind.”
“It’s okay. I did.”
145 days till liberation
He misses the turnoff, goes right over the grassy center to the other side, and climbs back onto the interstate, heading in the opposite direction. At some point, we exit onto a quiet country road.
We take this for a mile or so, and Finch has turned up the music and is singing along. He drums the beat on the steering wheel, and then we turn into this little town that is just a couple blocks long. Finch hunches over the dash and slows down to a crawl. “Do you see any street signs?”
“That one says ‘Church.’ ”
“Good. Brilliant.” He turns and, just a block later, pulls over to the curb and parks. “We’re here.” He’s out of the car and at my door, opening it, offering his hand. We’re walking toward this big old factory building that looks abandoned. I can see something along the wall, stretching for the entire length of it. Finch keeps going and comes to a sudden stop at the far end.
Before I die … it says on what looks like a giant chalkboard. And there below these giant white letters are column after column, line after line, that say Before I die I want to __________. And the blanks have been filled in with different colors of chalk, smudged and half melted from the rain and snow, in all different handwriting.
We walk along reading. Before I die I want to have kids. Live in London. Own a pet giraffe. Skydive. Divide by zero. Play the piano. Speak French. Write a book. Travel to a different planet. Be a better dad than mine was. Feel good about myself. Go to New York City. Know equality. Live.
Finch bumps my arm and hands me a piece of blue chalk.
I say, “There’s no space left.”
“So we make some.”
He writes Before I die I want to and draws a line. He writes it again. Then he writes it a dozen more times. “After we fill these up, we can keep going on the front of the building and down the other side. It’s a good way to figure out just why we’re here.” And I know by “here” he doesn’t mean this sidewalk.
He starts writing: Play guitar like Jimmy Page. Come up with a song that will change the world. Find the Great Manifesto. Count for something. Be the person I’m meant to be and have that be enough. Know what it’s like to have a best friend. Matter.
For a long time, I just stand there reading, and then I write: Stop being afraid. Stop thinking too much. Fill the holes left behind. Drive again. Write. Breathe.
Finch stands over my shoulder. He is so close, I can feel his breath. He leans forward and adds: Before I die I want to know a perfect day. He steps back, reading it over, and steps forward again. And meet Boy Parade. Before I can say anything, he laughs, rubs it out, and replaces it with: And kiss Violet Markey.
I wait for him to erase this too, but he drops the chalk and brushes the dust off his hands, wiping them on his jeans. He gives me a crooked grin, and then he stares at my mouth. I wait for him to make a move. I tell myself, Just let him try. And then I think, I hope he does, and the thought alone sets off the electric currents and sends them shooting through me. I wonder if kissing Finch would be that different from kissing Ryan. I’ve only kissed a handful of boys in my life, and they were pretty much all the same.