Tony Glass woke up for the last day of seventh grade with a storm churning in his stomach. He barely ate breakfast, and halfway to school, his mother asked what was wrong.
“Nothing,” he said.
“It’s the last day of school. You look like we’re going to the dentist.”
Tony shrugged and looked out the window, squinting into the morning sunlight and wishing it was winter. Summer was overrated, lonely even. Hating school was every kid’s unspoken obligation, but where else could you hang out with hundreds of other kids every day? Not that Tony had hundreds of friends. He had two of them, but among those hundreds of other kids was a girl named Christine.
“You’ll walk home?”
Tony nodded to his mother and cautiously stepped out of the car. Things would be different today. He heard more laughter than normal, more talking and running around, yearbooks passing and cameras flashing. Kids didn’t sit where they usually sat.
Tony’s two friends would be in their usual spot, but he had no idea where or when he might see Christine. He had been wanting to ask her out for weeks, months even, but he had chickened out every day, and so here he was, faced with one last chance on the last day of school.
And there she was, straight ahead and smiling as she signed a friend’s yearbook. Tony forced himself to keep walking and look normal, even though the sight of her triggered a series of warning sirens and fire alarms in his head.
As usual, he stared at the floor and avoided her, then suffered through a familiar wave of regret. He had chickened out again.
He plopped down beside Craig and Scott on their bench beside the cafeteria. Craig lived for video games and Scott for sports, so they found common ground playing MLB ‘06 on PSP.
“You okay?” Craig asked, looking up from Scott’s game. “What’s up?”
“Nothing.” For what must have been the hundredth time, Tony considered telling them his secret. It seemed like that was how it was done, anyway. Ask one of your friends to ask one of her friends if she liked you. Of course, then the whole school knew about it in minutes.
“Who do you like?” Tony blurted out.
“Yankees,” Scott said, tapping away. “Good pitching this year. Could go all the way.”
“No, I mean girls,” Tony said.
Craig looked up. “Lara Croft.”
“No, I mean real girls.”
“Michelle Wie, that golfer,” Scott said.
“I mean girls who go to our school!”
They both looked up.
The bell rang. “Forget it,” Tony said.
The halls buzzed with energy, and Tony was glad he hadn’t given in to the whole friends-asking-friends thing. His friends were incompetent, and besides, it seemed like a chicken way to go about it. Of course, Tony had no idea how to go about it. He had never asked a girl out. Where were you supposed to go? More importantly, how were you supposed to go? Did you get your mother to drive you to her house and then to wherever you were going, or did you ride your bike over? Did she ride her own bike or hop on your handlebars?
Tony spent first period pondering these questions and staring out the window at rain clouds gathering on the horizon.
In second period, a kid he barely knew asked him to sign his yearbook. The poor guy’s pages were almost empty, though Tony’s were almost as bad. There was no better gauge of student popularity than how many signatures you had in your yearbook.
Christine’s was probably overflowing. She had become popular the old-fashioned way, by being nice as well as pretty. Tony had known her since sixth grade, but it wasn’t until this year’s winter dance that something changed. She showed up wearing a black dress, with her hair up, and half the seventh grade took notice. Surprisingly, as far as Tony knew, no guy had actually managed to go out with her yet.
He stared at his half-empty pages and came up with a plan. He spent third period getting as many signatures as possible. A few kids raised eyebrows at his sudden friendly interest, but Tony gradually managed to get his yearbook looking presentable.
He sat with Craig and Scott at lunch but kept an eye on Christine, a flurry of motion who flitted between the cafeteria and the courtyard like a butterfly. There were whisperings of a food fight, and Tony had visions of boldly stepping in front of her and taking a pizza to the face. He tried to intercept her a few times, but it was never right, so he decided to wait until fifth period, the only class they shared.
Fourth period was the longest class of the year. Tony stared out the window instead of watching the movie, his right knee nervously bouncing up and down. The sky outside had darkened, threatening rain and looking more like winter every minute.
In fifth period, Mr. Harden found a way to make even the last day of school boring, explaining what to expect in eighth grade math. He only left ten minutes for signing yearbooks, and it took Tony five minutes to muster the courage to say, “Hi, Christine. Can you sign mine?”
Her pages were packed, and Tony panicked. He hadn’t thought of what to write. She was done by the time he wrote her name.
It was pretty much the worst yearbook signature ever, and when they traded back, Tony tried to hide his shaking hands. “Hey, I was wondering…”
Christine smiled and waited. This was his chance.
“Are you going to any camps this summer?”
Tony bit his lip. Camps? What kind of stupid question was that?
“Oh, I’m not sure. My dad wants me to go, but I’m not sure. Are you?”
“Oh, I’m not sure, either. Maybe.”
There was an awkward pause.
The bell rang. “Well,” she said, “one more class!” Her friends pulled her away.
Tony rushed to sixth period, flushed in the face and furious at himself for not asking her out, but fumbling to open his yearbook to see what she had written.
It was a great message, better than he ever expected, but now he was doomed to spend all summer remembering how he chickened out on his last chance.
Unless he got another chance.
Sixth period took even longer than fifth, but the last bell finally rang and the school exploded. Kids shrieked and ran, most bolting straight for the doors. Tony looked for Christine through the chaos but couldn’t find her. He scouted the halls for ten minutes but saw no sign of her or her friends. Even Craig and Scott were gone. Soon the only ones left in the halls were small clusters of teachers or eighth graders, the teachers relieved and the eighth graders slowly saying goodbye.
Tony sighed and shuffled out the door, hearing a distant rumble of thunder. He had no jacket, and the first raindrops brought a coolness to the air, the winter Tony had wanted, only now school was over and he had failed. Kids in the streets and sidewalks laughed and ran off for home or wherever they went for the summer. Christine might have said yes if he asked her out, but now he would never know.
Part of him wanted to walk in the rain as a kind of punishment, just stagger home getting soaked like he’d seen heartbroken guys do in the movies. Instead he walked toward the office and the huge pile of lost and found stuff, grabbing a forgotten umbrella.
Tony looked down the sixth grade hall and decided to leave that way. He felt a sense of comfort as he passed familiar landmarks like his old locker and the solar system wall mural, happy to have another year here before heading off to high school. He approached Mrs. Earle’s room, the last one at the end of the hall with the door always open, and he froze in mid-stride when he looked inside.
Mrs. Earle stood with her back to him, hugging Christine.
Christine’s eyes opened wide when she saw him.
Tony stood rooted to the spot, warning sirens and fire alarms wailing in his head.
Christine glanced at Mrs. Earle’s gray hair and opened her eyes wider, smiling and mouthing the words, ‘Help me!’
Tony quickly looked up and down the empty hallway, eyes settling on the nearby exit door with its window framing the rain. Outside lay all the freedom of summer, which Tony knew would only be a prison. He took a deep breath and stepped into the classroom, returning Christine’s smile.
“Everything alright?” he asked.
Mrs. Earle released Christine and turned in surprise, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. “Oh, everything’s fine,” she said. “Don’t mind me, I’m just a silly old lady.” She laughed, and Christine laughed with her. “I’m retiring, Tony, and Christine was nice enough to come say goodbye. It’s hard to believe it’s all over after thirty years.”
Tony nodded. “Just think of it as a big summer vacation, Mrs. E. You and your husband can do all kinds of stuff now. And you’ll be around as a volunteer, I bet.”
Mrs. Earle smiled and nodded, laying a hand on Christine’s shoulder. “You’re right, and it’s kids like you I’ll miss most of all.” She gave Christine a friendly push. “But go on now. You two go enjoy your summer. I’ve got grades to do.”
Christine walked toward Tony but turned before leaving. “You’re a great teacher, Mrs. Earle. You’ve done a lot of good here in thirty years. You should be proud.”
“Definitely,” Tony added.
Mrs. Earle struggled to keep from crying and managed to say, “I am,” before shooing the kids away and pretending to get to work.
Tony and Christine walked outside in silence and stood under the overhang, watching the rain.
“That was cool,” Tony said. “That was really nice of you.”
“You too,” Christine said. “It’s weird. The last day of school is supposed to be so happy, but it’s actually kind of sad, like you feel lonely all of a sudden.”
Their eyes met, and for the first time, Tony felt comfortable in her company. He felt safe. “I know what you mean,” he said. “But I was wondering…”
Christine smiled and waited.
“I was wondering if you might want to go out sometime.”
She smiled and blushed, looking down before quickly looking up. “Sure,” she said.
She nodded and bumped her head into his shoulder.
“Wow.” Tony wrapped his arm around her. The world suddenly seemed brand new, like anything was possible. “What should we do?”
Christine held out her palm to catch the rain. “Maybe you can walk me home.”
“Definitely,” Tony said. “That would be cool.”
“You brought an umbrella to school?”
He held it up and laughed. “Lost and found.”
“I don’t think we need it,” she said. “What’s a little water, right?”
Tony dropped the umbrella and took her hand, and together they ran laughing into the summer rain.