Best friends Matt and Cole grapple with their changing relationships during the summer after high school in this impactful, evocative story about growing up and moving on from a traumatic past. Surviving was just the beginning. Eleven years after a shooting rocked the small town of East Ridge, New Jersey and left eighteen first graders in their classroom dead, survivors and recent high school graduates Matt Simpson and Cole Hewitt are still navigating their guilt and trying to move beyond the shadow of their town's grief. Will Cole and Matt ever be able to truly leave the ghosts of East Ridge behind? Do they even want to? As they grapple with changing relationships, falling in love, and growing apart, these two friends must face the question of how to move on—and truly begin living.
About the Author
Joseph Moldover is a clinical psychologist who lives with his family in Massachusetts. www.josephmoldover.com
Read an Excerpt
— Cole —
People want to forget. No one would ever say it, but I think this town will be glad to see our class leave. They put up all the memorials you’d expect, but there was no need: we’re living reminders. Year after year, walking the streets, sitting in the diner, popping up in marching band and on the baseball team. Teachers retired right before we got to them. Like we were a wave slowly sweeping from grade two to twelve, washing away all the old and tired ones, the ones who were sick of telling people they taught school in East Ridge, New Jersey, and getting that horrible look back. The ones who couldn’t deal with staring out at our faces for a whole year. And now those who made it all the way to this afternoon have convinced themselves that they need to get through only a few more hours, as if they’ll be able to forget us after we’re gone. Even the weather knows the script today. Low gray clouds, black in the distance. A warm wind, midsixties. It will rain later, but it will hold off until after we’ve all gone home for quick parties with our parents before coming back to be bused off for Project Graduation. It will rain on empty chairs, eighteen of them still draped in black, and it will turn this field into mud. There are lots of people here now, though. Teachers, some parents, and other students who are helping to set up. Mom is toward the back, unfolding chairs from a cart. The principal and superintendent are going over paperwork together, probably making sure the superintendent knows how to pronounce all the last names. Lots of police, not surprisingly, some of them leaning against the back wall of the school and some in the parking lot, holding the press at bay. It’s a few minutes past one; we’re supposed to line up in half an hour. I’m trying to stay busy and starting to get frustrated with this uncooperative row of chairs. It’s the tenth row back, left-hand side. I can get every chair to align with the one next to it, but somehow when I get to the center aisle, the line in its entirety is veering off on a slant. I start back to try again when I hear someone calling my name and see Mrs. Kennedy, my tenth-grade history teacher, waving to me from the front. I look around to see whether anyone’s watching, push my sunglasses up the bridge of my nose, and make my way down to her. The black draperies aren’t staying on in the wind. “Help me with this, Cole,” she says. “I don’t want poor Mrs. Maiden to have to.” The fabric is a weird sort of material, heavier than a bedsheet, kind of glossy. It’s draped over the same flimsy chairs that we all have to sit in and it’s taped in a few key spots so that it folds right, but the tape isn’t holding. I study the third chair in from the aisle. If they were arranged alphabetically, whose seat would this be? Abrams, Clemson, Edwards. Susie Edwards. Unless Principal Schultz got the aisle, in which case everybody would be pushed in by one. Poor guy, having to show up for a high school graduation ceremony eleven years after his death. We should let him rest in peace. So let’s just say that this one belongs to Susie. She was a funny little girl with pigtails. We played tag together. When we went out for recess that last winter, she used to ask me for help getting her snow boots on the right feet. I go in search of stronger tape so that her chair will look good. Mrs. Maiden is collating programs at the edge of the risers, and she pauses what she’s doing to smile at me and squeeze my arm as I pass. I smile back and then instinctively look down. Some of the parents are coming today and some aren’t, but I think Mrs. Maiden is the only one who’s actually volunteering with setup, as though she had a living child getting ready to walk. I move past her as quickly as I can. Families are filtering in, setting bags and umbrellas down to reserve long lines of seats. The media is back behind the police line on the far side of the parking lot. They’ve been around all week doing retrospectives, just like they were at the first and the fifth and, to a lesser extent, the tenth anniversary. We’ve been told to notify one of the police officers if we see someone suspicious taking pictures, although I don’t know how you enforce that at a graduation, since everyone’s going to be taking pictures of everything. Anyway, I think that most people they’d want to interview have already said no. I don’t think that’s right. There’s a responsibility that comes with being a survivor. Someone nudges me hard, and I turn. “What’s up, bro?” Eddie Deangelo asks, swinging his hand around in a wide arc to grab mine. Awkward. I never know how to respond when someone calls me bro. Like, do I have to call him bro back, or is it a one-way street? And the sideways handshake, the hand clasp, I can never get the angle right. Are we shaking hands? Is it a high-five? Are we supposed to do something afterward, like a secret handshake? I manage to grab his hand and mumble a greeting that may or may not include the word bro, not that Eddie seems to notice. He slaps me hard on the shoulder. Eddie is the only other person who’s wearing sunglasses under the overcast sky, and seeing him makes me realize that mine must make me more noticeable, not less. I push them up on my forehead. “We good?” he asks. Eddie’s somehow managed to rumple and stain his gown, even though this is the only time he’s worn it. Probably will be the only time he ever wears a graduation gown, I think. Even with the wind, he reeks of pot. Eddie’s one of the select few not going off to college in the fall. Me and Eddie Deangelo: Who would have thought? “We’re good,” I say. “Your boy had some cash-flow problems, huh?” “What boy?” “Your bro, Matt!” Eddie must live in a world of people who are all bros. “Don’t sweat it,” he continues. “We got it all worked out. I’m looking forward to seeing what you got.” He slaps my shoulder again, wags his finger in my face, and turns away, leaving me to wonder what the hell he was talking about. Matt Simpson and I made an arrangement with Eddie, one I’m counting on, but Matt didn’t tell me about any problems with money. If there’s one thing you can usually count on Matt for, it’s having cash. I scan the crowd, looking for him. If there’s something you can absolutely always count on him for, it’s turning up at the last minute. Over on the other side of the field, Mom has finished setting up the chairs and is talking with some other parents. People are milling around. There’s a family standing nearby, and the mother is whispering to the grandmother. They both look in my direction. I freeze for a moment, the way I always do, feeling like a bug under a microscope. Is she pointing me out? Are they looking at me? The Boy in the Picture, all grown up. That photo won a Pulitzer for the reporter and a lifetime of wearing sunglasses for me. I pull them back down over my eyes and hurry toward the school. There was a lot of discussion about how the ceremony was going to go. First, the governor was going to come and speak, but that got scrapped. We have a Republican governor for a change, and I read that it was because he hasn’t been great on gun control. So, you know, awkward to be facing all those empty chairs. Then the senator was going to come. He’s the opposite of the governor; every year on the anniversary, he puts enlarged photos of everyone who died up on the floor of Congress and asks why they still haven’t done anything about guns. But now the senator’s not coming either. The same article I read about the governor said that the senator didn’t want to be seen as making it political after all this time. I don’t pay much attention to politicians, but one thing I do notice: for a while it was too soon for them to talk about it or do anything, and then right after that, it was too late, like they were dredging up the past. I don’t know when it would have been the right time for someone to do something. I don’t know what anyone could have done, though I do think they should have gotten rid of the big guns. A crazy dude isn’t going to kill seventeen first-graders and their principal with a knife. Probably not with a pistol. Not even with a hunting rifle, people said, though I’m not a gun person and I’ve never checked one out. But there’s one thing I do know: an assault rifle made it pretty fucking easy. I make my way up the center aisle and step to the side to let Chris Thayer’s wheelchair roll by, narrowly avoiding getting my feet run over in the process. He can basically move one arm, and even that’s hard for him, so he steers the thing with a joystick. Chris knows everyone, and everyone loves him. It was no surprise when he was elected our senior class president. “Hey, Cole,” he says, pausing and turning toward me, “how’re you doing?” His voice is always soft and unsteady, like he can’t quite control it. “I’m okay, Chris. How are you?” He shakes his head. “Can you believe all the reporters?” I shrug. “We’re still a story.” “A few of them tried to take a picture of me, but my mom blocked them.” “Crazy.” “You know what I think, though?” he asks, dropping his voice. I lean in to hear him. “I think it would have been more terrible if they didn’t show up. You know?” “Maybe it would have been,” I say. “Maybe they’ll forget about us after this, and then we’ll know whether it’s worse than being remembered.” “That’s a good line. I should use it.” Chris gets to give a speech as class president. “It’s all yours.” He considers for a moment. “Nah, I’m trying to be upbeat. I’ll see you, Cole.” “Good luck, Chris.” Chris moves along, and I go in the opposite direction. A few parents greet me, and one gives me a hug. She looks teary. I can’t remember whose mother she is, but I half hug her back without fully stopping. I don’t like big crowds, and this one is getting bigger by the minute. I zigzag back and forth, feeling my tension rising, sort of looking for the custodian but mostly looking for someone else. I wind up momentarily wedged against the back wall of the school as an old man with a cane is being helped along by a woman with three toddlers trailing behind her, and I take this moment to look for Viola. This is how I’ve walked through most of senior year. No matter what else was happening, no matter what I was doing, a very significant part of my brain was devoted to Viola Grey. I’m constantly thinking about where she might be, what she might be doing, who she’s with, and what I can say if and when I see her. It’s amazing how much time I spend thinking about her. It’s amazing how many things I think of to say, and it’s even more amazing how few of them ever actually wind up coming out of my mouth. The family finally trickles past, and I’m able to make my way around the bleachers and into the school through one of the rear doors. I find the custodian in the gym; he’s pushing his mop around, which seems stupid, given that no one’s coming in here and he has the whole summer to clean the place up. He tells me where the tape is, and I notice that he seems uncomfortable. A lot of people are around me. Like I said, people want to forget. So here we are, hours away from being gone forever, and I know it will be a relief for the custodian and for lots of other people. I get the tape from his closet and head back out to the field, weaving through the thickening crowd, making for the empty black chairs. I spot a few other survivors, scattered like islands. Mrs. Kennedy thanks me for the tape and, apparently recognizing that it’s not at all the sort of thing I’m good at, starts fixing the chairs herself. I feel eyes on me and don’t want to stay down front, so I go back to the tenth row and start over, keeping my head down. It’s like there’s some microscopic problem I’m having in lining this up, and it’s so small that I can’t see it when I look at one seat next to another, but when it’s amplified over a whole row, it looks like it was done by a toddler. How does everyone else’s look better? “Cole, say hello to the Gerbers.” Mom has snuck up on me with Frank and Ruth Gerber, and their son, Paul. Frank and Ruth size me up the way they always do, looking me up and down with sad, surprised smiles. There used to be three of us: me, Matt, and Andy Gerber. Always together. Seeing me must make them remember how long Andy’s been gone. “My God, Cole,” Mr. Gerber says, “look at the size of you.” I shake his hand, and then Mrs. Gerber’s, and then look awkwardly to Paul, who, as usual, isn’t acknowledging anyone around him. “You’re looking good, kid,” Mr. Gerber says, and I smile and nod. I glance at Paul again. He has his gown on, but it’s misbuttoned. He’s shifting his weight from one foot to another, staring down at his shoes in the grass, making a sort of high-pitched humming noise. “Paulie,” Mr. Gerber says, “Paulie, say hi to Cole.” Paul doesn’t respond, just keeps shifting his weight and humming. “You look good, Paul,” I offer. He does, relatively speaking. He’s lost about a hundred pounds since they took him off the medicine he was on. I mean that: a literal hundred pounds. Sophomore year, Paul Gerber blew up like an absolute blimp. Not that it was his fault; it wasn’t anyone’s fault, except maybe the doctor who was prescribing for him. I guess he needed the meds—he was getting out of control and all—but it was sad because when he was younger, he looked just like Andy, although you would never confuse them. Paul was always flapping his hands and spinning in circles, staring at the ceiling fan in their kitchen, not talking. It’s a weird thing, but it’s true: you can have identical twins where one has autism and one doesn’t. Same genes, same family, different random quirks of the brain. “Cole,” Mrs. Gerber says, “when everyone lines up, can you help make sure Paul’s in the right spot for us?” Gerber is a few places before Hewitt. I promise I will and then stand looking at the grass while my mom makes small talk. She seems well, for the moment. She has makeup on and is chatty and lively. There’s a family taking a picture off to my left. I can see them from the corner of my eye, and for a moment I think they’re trying to get a photo of me. Then I tell myself that’s ridiculous and that I’m being paranoid. I’m a curiosity, not a celebrity. I kick at a small tuft of tickseed. Coreopsis, I think automatically. Coreopsis . . . lanceolata. That’s it. C. lanceolata. As always, the scientific name comes to me in Dad’s voice. As always, it calms me. I tell Mom I have to keep helping with the chairs. I say goodbye to the Gerbers, and a few moments later, I’m alone again, jealously contemplating the architectural precision with which Rosie Horowitz has set up rows eleven through fourteen. I am seriously considering moving at least a few of her chairs off-kilter when I hear a voice behind me. It’s the one I’ve been waiting all day to hear: light English accent, slower paced than we talk in Jersey. Excellent diction, the last consonant in my last name snapped off clean. Maybe just a hint of a tease, though I might only be kidding myself. “Cole Anthony Hewitt.” I turn around, and there is Viola, standing just a few feet away. She’s holding a program and her cap. The wind picks up a little bit and ruffles both our gowns, blowing a strand of hair over her face. She reaches up to loop it back over an ear. She is beautiful. Her chestnut-brown hair is up in a twist, and if the sun were out, her eyes would be a bright green, but with the clouds, they’ve faded to a sort of steel blue. I could go on all day about Viola’s eyes, by the way. Green can be described by all sorts of things: emeralds, the ocean, budding leaves in early spring. I think I’ve used them all; I have notebooks full of poems at home, lined up on a shelf in chronological order. If you went back a few years and read forward, you’d find me writing about nature, about the lake, about kids at school. As you went along, you’d find a few minor crushes, and then you’d find my dad getting sick. It would get heavy fast. And then you’d start to read my poems about Viola, and you’d find every way the English language offers to describe green eyes. She looks me up and down with a crooked smile, and I can’t help but grin back, even though my mind has gone completely blank. I spend so much time thinking about her when she’s not around that I’m always shocked when I come face-to-face with the real person. “You look good in black,” she says. “It suits you, too,” I say. I resist the impulse to comment that I’ve already worn too much black this year; it’s the kind of self-pitying crap I’m prone to, and I know it’s no way to make a girl fall for you. Viola knows that my father died. “Seen your best friend around?” she asks. “I have a funny story for him.” “Matt? No, I haven’t seen him. Haven’t seen him since yesterday. No idea where he is.” I glance over her shoulder to where Matt is walking across the parking lot as we speak, black gown streaming behind him like a cape, cap held in one hand, the other held aloft with the middle finger extended toward the crowd of reporters. We’ve been told not to acknowledge them; reference to the shooting is to be confined to one moment of silence, followed by a reading of the names, and to the silent tribute of the black, empty chairs. No one, in other words, is to turn to the crowd after taking their diploma and shout, “Fuck Sam Keeley!” Or do the sort of thing that Matt is doing right now. “What’s the funny story?” I ask. “Oh, it’s about someone I don’t think you know. She’s a junior on the volleyball team. She had a thing for Matt.” She shrugs, apparently resigned to talking to me instead of my friend. “You didn’t play any sports, did you?” “No. No sports.” “Were you in any clubs?” “No clubs.” She gives me a quizzical smile. “What exactly did you do in high school, Cole?” Think about you, I want to tell her. “Mostly wait for it to be over,” I say. She pauses for a moment and then bursts out laughing. I love the way she throws her head back but keeps her eyes on me, as if she’s watching to make sure I don’t pull something on her in this moment of vulnerability. I want to surprise her and make her laugh so hard that she closes her eyes. Viola moved to town midway through the ninth grade. She came from England, and everything about her has always been different. She did lots of things in high school: field hockey; the fall play a couple of times; speech and debate. She had a fair number of friends, but she always seemed like she was watching us from a little bit of a distance. “I was just talking to Paul Gerber’s parents,” I say, trying to keep her talking. “You know, about helping him line up.” “I don’t think he’s actually graduating, is he?” she asks. “I think that kids like him get a blank diploma and then come back to school next year to do life skills.” “Do you think he understands that all the rest of us are done with school? I’m just imagining when he gets home and takes his piece of paper out of the tube, unrolls it, and finds that it’s blank. Will he feel left behind? Does he know we’re all leaving?” She must see a look on my face, because she quickly adds: “I mean, you’re going too, Cole. Eventually, right?” “Right,” I say. “Right. Next year. That’s heavy, about Paul. I don’t know.” I can’t remember any of the thoughtful, reflective lines I came up with for a serious moment. Matt has reached the field, but Viola still hasn’t turned and seen him. “So,” I say, “are you supposed to be giving a speech today? Going to quote some Eliot? Tell us not to live out our lives in coffee spoons?” “Measure out our lives with coffee spoons, not in them. And the salutatorian doesn’t get to speak, Cole; only the valedictorian. There’s no silver medal, and if there were, I wouldn’t want it.” “Right. Uh, right. Well, it was so close, I thought they might put you in anyway. What were you off by, a thousandth of a GPA point or something?” I laugh. She doesn’t. This is pretty much why I talk to her only a fraction as much as I plan to: I will inevitably say something agonizingly stupid. I quickly start blathering on about summer plans and whatever else comes to mind, which honestly is not much. I haven’t met many British people, but Viola is listening and nodding with one raised eyebrow in what I interpret as a classic posture of resigned English indulgence. I love that she can raise one eyebrow like that. Matt has disappeared into the crowd, and I soon run out of things to talk about. Viola’s family is nearby, and she excuses herself to go and join them. I ache as I watch her walk away. Things have to work out this summer. I don’t know what will happen to me if I have to watch her walk away for good in August. I look around, wanting something to stay busy with. Mom has found a seat with the Gerbers. Paul is with one of his special-education teachers and seems to be all right. The clouds are a little bit darker. A bunch of younger kids are milling around, looking bored. Something stirs down front, near the podium. There’s a change in tone, a little murmur, people looking and then quickly looking away. Maybe someone is having a breakdown, I think. Maybe seeing those black-draped chairs was too much. Maybe the school shouldn’t have done that. We couldn’t have done nothing, though. There’s never a right thing to do or not to do. Say something, don’t say something—it doesn’t change it. I start to make my way down to get a look. Whatever’s happening can’t be too serious, or else the police would be getting involved. I get a little closer, craning my head to look in the direction where Mrs. Maiden had been standing; for some reason, I think the most likely thing is that she’s collapsed. There are a few parents by the risers, arms crossed on their chests, speaking quietly to one another. One of them turns and looks over her shoulder. I follow her eyes, and I see him. Matt is sitting in one of the chairs. Right there, in the front row, all alone. He’s set himself down in one of the black-draped seats and he’s just sitting, staring at the stage, rubbing his right elbow. I stop and watch for a moment, but no one is doing anything, so I go over and stand in front of him. He looks right through me. Matt Simpson has always had a special status. I don’t mind saying he’s handsome: over six feet tall, big and athletic, sandy blond hair. The guy’s going off to college on a Division I baseball scholarship, and he looks the part: all American. He even has the square jaw. Right now, though, he just looks lost. No one else is coming over. For the last eleven years, the school has always made a big deal out of providing counselors for everything, and now here we are at the finish line, and there’s no one to be seen. “Matt,” I say. He doesn’t look at me. “Matt, get the fuck up.” He just sits, holding his elbow. “I thought your arm was getting better.” “It was.” “Is your blood sugar low?” I ask. “Do you need some juice?” He doesn’t respond, but he doesn’t look like that’s the problem. He usually gets all sweaty when his sugar’s low. “Do you smell something?” Matt asks. I sniff the air. “No.” “It’s some sort of chemical or something.” I shake my head. He has to get up. “Matt,” I say, “you’re being disrespectful. These chairs are supposed to be empty. They’re memorials, you know? You can’t just sit in them. It’s wrong. It’s like you’re taking a leak in a reflecting pool.” “Why are they empty?” he asks. “Why do you think they’re supposed to be empty?” What a stupid question. “Because they’re gone,” I say. “Because they’re never coming back and . . . and they’ve left a gap here. It’s symbolic. The holes never closed up, you know?” I shouldn’t have to explain it to him. My eyes turn toward the press on the far side of the parking lot, and I wonder whether that’s what he’s upset about, whether he thinks the chairs are some sort of media stunt. That’s the sort of thing that would drive him nuts. Matt’s always had a hard time with the tributes and memorials. I don’t think he’s ever gotten over not being at school that day. “Think of Andy,” I say. “That chair is for Andy. You have to get out of it. I know you hate shit like this, but you have to go along with it. This is the last time.” He shakes his head. “You remember that movie Andy liked?” he asks. “The cartoon one with the spaceman?” “Yeah? “What was the stupid line he liked to say? I’ve been trying to remember.” “Get up and I’ll tell you.” “He said it all the time. I can’t remember.” “I remember. Get up and I’ll tell you.” He gazes off to his left, down the long line of black seats. “I don’t know, Cole,” he finally says. “Maybe this is where I was meant to be sitting.” Before I can think of a response, he looks up and really focuses on me for the first time. “You want to hear something crazy?” I’m not sure I do, but I nod. It’s something you do for your best friend. You listen to the crazy stuff. He’s always done it for me. “I don’t think I can remember what Andy even looked like anymore.” I remember. Andy had curly black hair and dark eyes and a dimple in his chin. He looked like his dad and, of course, like Paul. “I have some photos,” I say. “I can show you.” He shakes his head. “I don’t want to remember.” He gets up and turns to stand next to me, gazing out over the crowd like nothing happened. I look up at the sky: not a hint of blue. It’s time to start lining up. I put my hand on Matt’s shoulder, and he lets me guide him back to the center aisle and to the rear of the field, where people are taking their positions in line. Matt heads toward the S’s. I remember to look for Paul and make sure he’s in the right spot, and then I stand and wait for the ceremony to begin. It’s only when we start walking that I realize Matt forgot to ask me what Andy used to say, and that I forgot to tell him.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Eleven years ago there was a terrible tragedy. Seventeen 1st grade students and their principal were gunned down in a classroom. Every student in that class has been defined by that single event. Labeled survivor, victim, or the lucky one. Cole and Matt fall in the last two. Now that class is done with school. They graduate and have to figure out how to move on from the identities they have lived with most of their lives. Cole was there. He remembers nothing but he is still the "face" of the day, thanks to a single picture. The children on both sides of him, he's told, are both gone. But he isn't "The Luck One." He doesn't want to be that kid. He hates being noticed and recognized everywhere he goes. He lives through his poetry and is well liked but extremely introverted. Except for his friendship with Matt. Matt, his best friend, is the one who got lucky. But it doesn't feel like it. He wasn't there that day. He was home sick when he heard the sirens. And now he is associated with something forever that he knows almost nothing about. He feels like he outside of everything, the worried town and the kids in that room. He's got his future ahead of him. He has a scholarship to play baseball in another state. He also has serious survivor's guilt about his "luck." Matt and Cole are held together by their lifelong friendship and their memory of the former third in their group who was in that first group. The guilt of living to graduation while their best friend didn't make it until second grade makes them each act out in different ways in response to this massive change in their lives. Every moment since that one event has guided almost everyone in their town. Everyone was touched by it. I was worried that this would be exploitive. That it would focus on the shooter and the crime. It does not. We know very little of the crime itself. We see the story through the eyes of Cole, who doesn't remember, and Matt, who wasn't there. Along the way they get the insight of parents and police and how they felt that day. This is about how this one choice by one person, a seemingly random choice of victims, changed everything for so many people.
I had the unique opportunity to be an early reader for this amazing novel by Joe Moldover. Moldover has created a story that captures the lasting impact of what it means to be a survivor of a school shooting and the legacy that imparts on an entire community. The story is told in the two voices of Cole and Matt...two graduating seniors who survived a school shooting in elementary school. Moldover portrays both individual voices with incredible authenticity while also showing the depth of their shared friendship and the tragedy that connects them. However, this book does not dwell in this place of loss…the story unfolds as the two main characters are graduating (years after the shooting) and embarking on the first tentative steps of what it will mean to navigate the world as young adults. Both Cole and Matt struggle to find their best path (don’t want to spoil anything, so that is all I will say here), but find that their friendship is a critical source of support and solid ground when they both need it the most. This portrayal of male friendship is one of the most positive I have seen in contemporary YA literature and is an inspiring foundation to the entire story. I highly recommend this novel to both adult and YA readers…it will be one that stays you.