The Beginning of the End
I can’t believe I survived sixth grade.
This entire year almost blew the gauge on the Suckage Meter. But I made it out in one piece (barely), and now I’m going to use summer break to set my world back in order—or I’m at least going to try my best.
Kids pour down the sidewalks outside Palm Vista Middle, flooding the air with shouts and laughter, energy renewed by the official start of summer vacation. My best friend and I stroll alongside each other at a slower pace than usual, drinking in the drastic shift in atmosphere. No mountains of homework, no waking up early to get to school on time—summer break has finally arrived in Palm Vista, California.
I don’t remember ever liking this place. The last truly exciting thing to happen here was when the highway strip mall got a GameStop and a Cold Stone in the same month. Last summer, I emailed Guinness World Records to nominate Palm Vista as Most Boring Town in US History. They never wrote me back.
There’s not much to do here unless you’d enjoy an arcade with prehistoric machines that eat quarters like popcorn or a movie theater with musty, creaky seats and stale candy. My hometown sits smack-dab between San Diego and Los Angeles. Two places I’d rather be any day—but my preference would not
be San Diego. I have zero desire to be near Dad or his “new family.”
I slide my backpack around and peek inside the front pocket. The small white envelope is still safe and sound. I know, I know:
carrying these tickets around is pointless. The concert’s a week away, and I still haven’t mustered the courage to ask Sky to go with me. But keeping the tickets close helps me hold on to the hope that he and I might become friends again.
“I think I’ll commit to full-on rebellion and loc my hair,” Loren Blakewell announces as she loops both thumbs through the straps of her camo backpack, the front of which she’s suffocated with colorful enamel pins. She’s wearing cuffed olive-green overalls, and her hair is pulled back into a giant pouf, held in place by a black-and-green ribbon that, of course, matches her sneakers. “It’s my
hair. I should be able to do what I want with it.”
“You’re absolutely right.” I zip closed the pocket of my backpack and swing it around to my back. “But if you upset your mom, she’ll lock you in solitary for the rest of summer.”
Loren groans and kicks a rock, sending it skittering down the cracked sidewalk. She must be angry to risk scuffing her Jordans. I think she’d look great with locs, but her mom told her that hairstyle wasn’t “appropriate for a young lady”—and Loren got her phone taken away for a week for calling her mom a troglodyte. That week also rated pretty high on the Suckage Meter, because I’d grown accustomed to having Loren’s usual upbeat mood to distract me from what’d happened between me and Sky.
“Soooo . . .” Loren drags out the word, making my gut flinch preemptively. “Speaking of summer break, there’s something I have to tell you.”
“What’s up?” I try to sound unconcerned despite my stomach revving up to full-on Cirque du Soleil.
“I’m going to LA for break.” She winces as if she’s the one hurt by the reveal. I still smile. “I finally convinced Mom to let me go to Muay Thai camp.”
Loren became obsessed with Muay Thai three years ago, when she started taking lessons at the YMCA. At first, her mom refused to let her take the class, but Loren went on a hunger strike and Mrs. Blakewell caved by day two. Muay Thai camp means a lot to Loren, so I’m def happy she’s getting to go. But my heart also sinks into a pit of sludge, because I realize my best friend’s going to be gone our entire
summer break. And that means the only other “friend” I’ll have to hang out with is Sky.
Except he and I aren’t exactly friends right now.
I swallow the lump of anxiety in my throat as I elbow my bestie playfully. “That’s great, Lo.”
“You aren’t mad?” she asks.
Mad? Nah! Decimated? Only a little.
“I’m going to miss you terribly,” I say with an exaggerated sigh, “but I suppose I’ll find a way to survive.”
Now my mission to fix things with Sky has just become dire; otherwise I’m doomed to spend the entire summer with only the company of my irritating human barnacle of a little sister—who had better
be waiting at her school’s pickup zone like she’s supposed to be. The last time she wandered off (yeah, she’s a repeat offender), mesmerized by her tablet, it took twenty whole minutes of frantic searching before Loren and I found her curled up on a bench near the playground, reading. The last
thing I need right now is Mom grounding me on the first day of summer break because Mags got lost on my watch.
Loren and I pass a strip of shops where some of our classmates hang out; then we turn the corner toward the elementary school, leaving the ruckus of the main road behind for the deserted side street. This part of the neighborhood is silent except for the soft shuffle of our sneakers on the pavement.
The back of my neck prickles . . . like someone’s watching me.
I look over my shoulder, but we’re alone. Weird.
I shrug the feeling off, but something snaps across the street, like a twig breaking underfoot. Either Loren doesn’t hear, or she ignores it as she ambles beside me, deep in thought, likely planning how to kick off hair-pocalypse with her mom this summer.
Across the street is a row of paneled cottages with plain, reasonable front lawns, drenched in the shadows of the mature trees lording over the sidewalk. The windows of every house are dark, as if the entire neighborhood’s already left for vacation. Creepy.
I start to turn away, but something catches my eye. It looks like someone’s shadow disappearing behind the trunk of one of the wide, slanted trees whose roots have broken up the surrounding sidewalk. I stop and crane my neck to see if anyone’s hiding behind the tree.
No one’s there. But I could’ve sworn—
“Umm . . . did you forget how to walk, goober?” Loren, a few strides ahead of me, doubles back, looking confused.
“I thought I saw something,” I mutter.
“What?” she asks, concerned now.
Before I can answer, the sound of Sky’s laugh snatches my attention. He’s a block behind us, walking alongside his new bestie. Sky’s shoulder-length sandy-brown hair is up in a ponytail, and the sun has flushed the freckly strip of skin beneath his forest-green eyes and across the bridge of his nose. He’s wearing a faded San Diego Padres tee—the baseball team his dad, the famous Judas Hollowell, pitched for before he retired last year.
“Nothing,” I tell Loren. “Let’s go.”
She shrugs, and we continue toward the elementary school.
I glance back at Sky, who’s so engrossed in his friend that he hasn’t noticed me walking ahead of him. It wouldn’t bother me so much if his new bestie were literally anyone other than Larry Adams, one of the evil villains in the story of my life. The sight of them together tightens my chest like someone’s twisting it with a rusty crank.
I met Sky at the library at the start of summer break last year. His family had just moved to Palm Vista from San Diego, and his parents had forced him and Blu, his ten-year-old brother, to sign up for the summer reading club. While Loren’s mom dragged their family around the country on an educational agony—uh, I mean vacation—Sky and I hung out a lot.
Played video games. Listened to music. Watched TV. Talked for hours.
And on the last day of summer break, I told him my deepest, darkest, scariest secret—the one Loren doesn’t even know. Then the next morning at school, Sky met Larry, and our friendship was obliterated before the homeroom bell rang.
I’ve wondered all year if telling Sky my secret was a mistake, if doing it right before Larry accosted him that morning was what made Sky change his mind about being friends with someone like me, someone I thought he was too. I need to know the truth.
I look back again. This time, Sky meets my gaze—but Loren jabs me with her elbow, stealing back my attention.
“Are you listening to me?” she asks. “Why are you being so weird all of a sudden?”
“I’m not,” I say, fighting the urge to look again.
“Speaking of weird,” she says before I can snap back, “there was this creepy influencer dude from LA on TV this morning raving about horsemen and the end of the world. Dad made me turn it off while we were eating breakfast. Have you heard anything about it?”
I shake my head, though I’d welcome the end of the world if it would get me far, far away from Palm Vista and
“Well,” I say as we walk through the gates of Palm Vista Elementary, “I highly doubt it, but if these horsemen are
real, I think it’s super rude of them to end the world now, after
we’ve suffered through a whole school year.”
Copyright © 2023 by Terry J. Benton-Walker. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.