Get ready for a love story that will make you laugh, smile, cry, and fall in love again and again! TOP TEN is a sweet and funny novel starring Ryan and Gabby, two unlikely best friends turned maybe-something-more. They’re counting down the top ten (get it?!) moments in their relationship, and by the end of this novel (yeah, you probably see where we’re going) you’ll want them to be your BFFs too!
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01. The Hookup
Sitting with his ankles crossed in Gabby’s leafy green backyard two hours after their high school graduation, Ryan tilted his head back and squinted up at the proud June sun. “Okay,” he said, breathing in grill smoke and the smell of new grass, the yard buzzing with the hum of a couple dozen people all talking at once. “Top ten moments of senior year, go. Actually no,” he amended, before Gabby could say anything. “Top ten moments of high school.”
Gabby groaned. “That’s an ambitious list, my friend,” she told him, heaving herself indelicately out of the hammock they’d been sharing and edging through the crowd of her aunts and uncles, neighbors and family friends. “Also, extremely corny.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Ryan followed her over toward the folding tables at the far end of the lawn, watched her fill a plastic cup with an exacting assortment of chips and pretzels and M&M’s. She was still in the outfit she’d worn to the ceremony that morning, a silky blue dress that was cut like a big V-neck T-shirt and made her eyes look very bright. Her blond hair hung long and smooth down her back. “You’re just embarrassed that all the most important moments of your adolescence include me.”
“Screw off,” Gabby said cheerfully, dropping a couple of pretzels into his outstretched palm. Ryan looked out at the yard as he crunched. He and Gabby had been best friends since freshman year, but it was rare for their families to spend any actual time together. He’d thought it might be weird, but the party seemed to be going fine so far. His mom was yakking away with Gabby’s aunt Liz while Gabby’s sisters, Celia and Kristina, set up a game of cornhole on the long stretch of grass on the side of the house. Her little cousins ran circles around the Adirondack chairs, bright red Popsicles dripping in their hands.
“Hi, lovey,” Ryan’s mom said, coming up behind him in her sundress and off-brand Birkenstocks, tucking herself under his arm. He was a full foot taller than her by now, which made him feel like a giant. “How you doing?”
“I’m good,” Ryan said, ducking his head away. He knew why she was asking—and why she’d asked him twice already—which was that his dad had made noise about coming to graduation and then just blatantly hadn’t, not even bothering with a perfunctory sorry, kid text this time. Ryan knew he ought to be used to stuff like that by now, but it always managed to surprise him. Still, he definitely did not want to have a moment with his mom about it in the middle of Gabby’s backyard. He didn’t want to have a moment about it, period. It was what it was. It was fine.
Over by the grill Mr. Hart was holding his cup in the air now, proposing a toast: “To the graduates,” he began, “our daughter Gabby, National Merit Scholar and winner of the Colson High Prize for Photography, and to her best friend, Ryan, who—”
“Who managed to graduate at all,” Ryan called out. He liked Gabby’s dad, and wanted to let him off the hook before he got to the end of that sentence and realized Ryan had virtually nothing to distinguish him.
Gabby shot him a look. “Don’t do that,” she murmured, shaking her head. Then, loud enough so the whole party could hear her, she called out, “And who also got a giant hockey scholarship to University of Minnesota, PS.”
Ryan was surprised at that, and dorkily pleased that she’d said it—it wasn’t like Gabby at all to draw attention to herself in any context, but especially not in a big group of people. He grinned, lifting his can of Coke in the air amid everyone’s assorted congratulations. Gabby made a face in return. The sun shone through the gaps between the leaves in the oak trees, making patterns on the early-summer grass.
Kristina turned the music up, the yuppie Paul Simon–type stuff they were always listening to at the Hart house. He and Gabby wandered back over to the hammock, made themselves comfortable for the rest of the afternoon. It was weird, thinking all this would be ancient history in less than three months, everybody he knew scattering in all different directions. Ryan wasn’t one of those people who thought life would never get better than high school, but at least he knew where he fit in, as far as Colson High went. He wasn’t sure about the rest of the world.
He rubbed a hand over his head, which was aching a little—although, he told himself firmly, not any worse than usual. Probably he was thinking too much. After all, it wasn’t like he didn’t want to play hockey for Minnesota. It just didn’t always feel like something he’d actively picked.
He was trying to figure out how to ask Gabby about it when one of her little cousins flung himself onto the other side of the hammock, shifting their center of gravity enough that Gabby tumbled over into Ryan’s side, her long hair brushing the bare skin of his arm. “Easy, tiger,” Gabby called as the kid picked himself up and careened off in the opposite direction, but she didn’t straighten up right away. “You smell nice today,” she said to Ryan, the weight of her body warm against him. “Did you bathe or something?”
“It was a special occasion,” Ryan informed her, his skin prickling in a way that wasn’t entirely unpleasant. Ugh, this was stupid, dangerous ground. “Come on,” he said, standing up too quickly in an attempt to shake off whatever dumb old feelings were bubbling up, ghosts of crushes long past. It was because of graduation, probably, because things were changing. It didn’t actually mean anything. “I want more cake.”
The party wound down past four o’clock, the crowd starting to thin, Mrs. Hart pressing leftover potato salad and slices of six-foot Italian sub on everybody to take home. “You driving to the thing at Harrison’s tonight?” Ryan asked Gabby as her mom handed him a Tupperware full of magic bars. “Or do you want me to?”
Gabby grimaced. “We’re going to the thing at Harrison’s tonight?”
“Yes, dear.” Ryan smiled at the familiarity of it. This was their routine: she dragged her feet about going out places, and Ryan either convinced her or didn’t. Today, he was hoping he could.
She was an easier sell than he was expecting, actually. “Well,” she said, lips twisting, the sun catching the golden threads in her hair. “I suppose.”
“What are you guys going to do at college?” asked Celia, appearing behind them holding a crumbly brownie on a napkin. She was home from Swarthmore for the summer, where she was learning to be a psychologist and also to act like she knew more than anyone else, although she basically already had a PhD in that last part. “Without each other to chew your food for you, I mean?”
“Oh, come on now, I chew my own food,” Ryan defended himself. “It’s only gum Gabby helps me with.”
“And only if it’s been sitting around a long time,” Gabby put in. “Soft gum he can chew all on his own.”
Celia rolled her eyes at them; Gabby only grinned. But as they said their good-byes, Ryan felt a tiny nip of something unfamiliar, a creeping unease curling up in his stomach like a snake lounging on a rock. He looked at her once more across the yard, lifted his hand to wave at her.
“Pick you up at nine!” Gabby called.
It was more like nine thirty by the time she’d gotten to Ryan’s—she’d had a little bit of a wobble over whether her hair looked greasy, had needed a generous sprinkle of dry shampoo and half a dozen reassurances from her sisters before she made it out the door—and Gabby stuck close behind him as they headed up the front walk. The party was at Harrison Chambers’s house, a center-hall colonial full of china cabinets that held enough breakables to make her faintly nervous. The whole senior class had been invited, and from the looks of things most of them had actually showed: bodies crowded the hallways and the stairwells, perched on the arms of couches and sprawled cross-legged on the shag rug in the den. It was hot inside, despite the AC cranking. It felt like there were too many people breathing the air.
“You okay?” Ryan murmured, quiet enough so only she could hear him. Gabby nodded. It was rare for a party to throw her into panic mode anymore, though it still happened sometimes. Lately, for the most part, the anxiety that had plagued her since she’d exited the womb was more of a low simmer than a full-on boil. Which wasn’t to say she didn’t still freak out for no reason on occasion: two days ago she’d had a grade-A panicker in the shower curtain aisle of Bed Bath & Beyond, though she hadn’t told anybody about it. She’d had to sit on a pile of bath mats with her head between her legs while she waited for it to pass.
“Come on,” Ryan said now, wrapping his hand around her wrist and squeezing, as if he suspected he wasn’t getting the full story but wasn’t going to push for it. “Let’s go outside.”
For all the time they’d spent together in the last four years, she and Ryan still didn’t have a ton of friends in common, but the ones they did were camped out on a hammock at the far corner of the backyard: Nate, who’d worked with Ryan at the hot dog hut; Sophie and Anil, who’d been together since they were freshmen. Even Michelle had shown up, though she and Ryan had never quite become the great pals Gabby had once hoped; she was sitting on the grass next to her boyfriend, Jacob, who was wearing skintight jeans and a blazer even though it had to be eighty degrees outside. Jacob always smelled a little bit like BO.
“I’m gonna get beers,” Ryan told her, waving at another guy from the hockey team. “You want a beer?”
“Sure,” Gabby told him, though she didn’t intend to drink it. Sometimes it just helped her to have something to hold. She settled back against an old tree stump, knowing that it would probably be the better part of an hour before Ryan came wandering back; he’d get distracted talking to this buddy or that teammate, catching up with some girl who was in his algebra class sophomore year who he forgot he always thought was really interesting.
Normally this would have been her worst nightmare—Ryan coaxing her out to a party she didn’t really want to go to and then disappearing, leaving her alone with her anxiety like a gnawing animal making a den inside her chest. Tonight, though, Gabby found she didn’t much mind it: the chance to sit back and listen to her friends jabber to one another, her head tilted back to stare up at the tall straight pine trees ringing the yard. Eventually he’d show up again, coming back to her with his tail wagging like a golden retriever’s. He always did.
“We should do something amazing this summer,” Sophie was saying. They were chatting about what, exactly, amazing might mean, here in the farthest, northernmost suburbs of New York City, when Gabby’s phone buzzed inside her pocket. She pulled it out and peered at the screen, heart flipping like it always did when she saw it was from Shay: Happy graduation, Gabby-Girl! So excited to finally have you in the city this fall. Coffee + catching up soon?
Gabby swallowed. They’d been broken up since March, so in theory there was no reason for a few dumb words on a screen to be enough to conjure Shay up as surely as if she was sitting here on the grass at this party: her hair and her smell and her smile, the one crooked tooth at the edge of her mouth.
She was trying to figure out how to answer when she felt a gentle knee in her shoulder: “Don’t be doing phone stuff,” Ryan scolded, like he’d somehow been able to hear Shay’s text from inside the house. “The party is right here.”
Gabby tucked her phone back into her purse and took the can of Bud Light he was proffering. It occurred to her that she didn’t want him to know she and Shay still talked every once in a while, though she wasn’t entirely sure why. “The party being you, in this scenario?”
Ryan sat down beside her, his arm solid and warm against hers. “The party’s always me,” he said.
“Uh-huh.” Gabby rolled her eyes, but it wasn’t like he was wrong. Ryan loved people—and people, in turn, loved Ryan—more than anyone else Gabby had ever met. Celia called him the Great Equalizer. He was Gabby’s social security blanket, her failsafe against miserable, crippling anxiety; she had no idea what she was going to do without him come fall. Thinking about it was terrifying on a physical, visceral level, and so mostly she did her best not to think about it at all.
“Top ten moments of high school,” she conceded now, popping the tab on her beer can and leaning back beside him. A million stars blazed bright high above their heads.
It was after one by the time they got back to Ryan’s house, Leon Bridges turned down low on the stereo and the car windows rolled down so the night air spilled in. Even Ryan’s neighborhood, which was on the scruffier, ’60s-ranch side of Colson, looked like the background of a Disney movie: all tall trees and blue-black sky, fireflies flickering away on the lawns.
Gabby turned the car off, everything still and silent. Neither one of them made any attempt to move. It occurred to Ryan that he could stay right here in this passenger seat with her forever and probably be perfectly content, provided of course they could get food delivered carside.
“So, beach tomorrow?” Gabby asked finally, and Ryan nodded. Sophie’s parents had a place down the Jersey Shore they were letting them all use for a couple of days. She kept warning them that it wasn’t anything fancy, although any house reserved specifically for vacations seemed pretty swank as far as Ryan was concerned.
“Beach tomorrow,” he agreed.
They were quiet for another moment. Ryan glanced over at her in the dark. He knew he ought to go inside, let her get home, but something stopped him: he felt irrationally nervous all of a sudden, like maybe he was never going to see her again.
“What?” Gabby was looking at him, suspicious. She’d changed her clothes for the party: a tank top with a low, swooping neckline, her hair scooped into a loose knot at the base of her skull. He knew she was pretty—of course he knew she was pretty—but he forgot about it sometimes, the way you get used to a smell. Noticing it now, or re-noticing, he suddenly felt very warm.
Ryan cleared his throat. They’d had enough near-misses over the last four years for him to know that kind of thinking wasn’t going to get him anywhere. He and Gabby were friends; they’d always been friends. And if he occasionally still thought about what it would be like to be more than that, well. That was his secret to keep. “No,” he said, “nothing.”
Gabby frowned. “Is your head bothering you?” she asked.
“You always think my head is bothering me,” Ryan said.
“Your head is always bothering you,” Gabby pointed out.
Ryan ignored that. First of all, it wasn’t true: a couple of hockey-related headaches were hardly a big deal, in the scheme of things. Second of all, even if it was true, it wasn’t worth dwelling on; after all, he was due at practice in Minneapolis in two months.
The thought of it gave Ryan that same uneasy feeling from earlier, like everything was about to change whether he wanted it to or not and he couldn’t do one single thing to stop it. “Can I tell you something without you calling me a pussy?” he heard himself blurt.
Gabby made a face. “I would never use the word pussy, first of all.”
“Okay, sure, yes,” Ryan agreed, sitting back in the passenger seat. “Sorry. But without you calling me a wimp.”
“When have I ever called you a wimp?”
Ryan rolled his eyes. “Like a thousand times, actually, but—”
“Okay, okay,” Gabby conceded, “sorry, go. I promise I won’t denigrate your manhood.”
“That’s sweet of you, considering I’m trying to tell you a nice fucking thing here.” He blew a breath out, nervous all of a sudden. His friendship with Gabby was different from any other relationship in his life for a lot of reasons, but this was one of them: the careful reveal of information, the unspoken agreement they had about what they said to each other and what they didn’t. He wondered if even this was crossing the line. “It kind of scared the shit out of me, when your sister was talking about us being apart this afternoon.”
Promise or not, Ryan was expecting her to make fun of him a little, but Gabby just nodded. “Yeah,” she said quietly, glancing down and picking at her cuticles. “Me too.”
Ryan looked at her in surprise. Usually she met feelings talk of any kind with enthusiastic retching noises. “Really?”
“Of course I’m scared!” Gabby exclaimed. “Are you kidding me? I’m terrified. I have no idea what I’m going to do without you around every second. It’s entirely possible I’ll freak out and never leave my dorm and grow into my sheets like a science experiment.”
Ryan shook his head. “That won’t happen.”
“Oh no?” Gabby asked dubiously.
“Of course not,” he said, with more confidence than he actually felt about it. “You’re a graduate of the Ryan McCullough Party Project. We have a 100 percent success rate.”
Gabby huffed a laugh at that, banging her temple lightly against the headrest. “Is that so?”
“It is,” Ryan said. “And even if it wasn’t, I know you, and I know.”
“Yeah.” Gabby cleared her throat, looking down again; her wispy blond bangs fell into her eyes. “Well, you’re going to be the king of Minnesota,” she continued after a moment, more loudly. “They’ll probably name the student center after you your first year.”
“A bar, at least.”
“I’m serious,” Gabby said, reaching out to poke him in the shoulder. “I know you, too, you know.”
“Yeah,” Ryan said, grabbing her finger and holding it for a second. He wasn’t sure if he was imagining it, or if their faces were getting closer. His heart did a weird, trippy thing inside his chest. “I guess you do.”
They looked at each other for a moment. The air in the car seemed to change. He could smell her, her skin and the laundry detergent her mom used and the smell of her car, which was always a little like french fries when you first opened the door, but also like the Ocean Breeze air freshener hanging from the rearview. Ryan liked it. She smelled like home to him. She felt like home to him, too.
“Ryan,” Gabby said quietly. “What are you—?”
“Nothing,” Ryan said, and kissed her.
For one terrifying second Gabby didn’t do anything, her mouth still and slack against his, her body hunched like a question mark across the center console. Then she made this sound, like a gasp or a tiny whimper, and kissed him back. She was a good kisser, Ryan thought, surprised and then immediately feeling kind of like a dick about it. He just thought he’d probably kissed a lot more people than her. His hand was on her arm, then on her rib cage, then rucking the back of her shirt up to rub her warm, bumpy spine. Holy shit, this was actually happening. This was happening, after all this time.
“Okay,” she said finally, pulling away from him, tucking her hair behind her ears. She sounded breathless in a good way, which made him feel pleased with himself. “Are we, like.” She laughed a little bit. “Are we?”
“I don’t know,” Ryan said, hoping with every fiber of his being that the answer was yes. “Are we?”
“You tell me.”
Ryan gazed at her, her tank top and freckled shoulders and her red, smudgy mouth. Jesus Christ, he loved her so much. “Do you want to come in?” he asked, and it sounded a lot more like pleading than he necessarily meant for it to.
Gabby didn’t answer for a second, her blue eyes unreadable in the darkness. Ryan held his breath.
“Yeah,” she said, and it sounded like something beginning. “Yeah, I want to come in.”
Gabby felt Ryan take her hand as they made their way down the short hallway that led to his bedroom, putting a finger to his lips so they wouldn’t wake up his mom. His place wasn’t entirely familiar to her: they’d never spent as much time at Ryan’s as they had at Gabby’s house. For all his I’m an open book talk, he could be cagey about it, which she thought probably had to do with how small it was in here: the low ceilings and narrow doorways, the kitchen and bathrooms that hadn’t been updated since way before they were born. To Gabby it had always felt cozy, the millions of photos on the walls in the living room and Ryan’s hockey trophies all clustered on the fireplace mantel, the wallpaper in the kitchen with its print of tiny herbs tied with bows. Ryan’s mom ran her dog grooming business out of the basement, barks and yelps perpetually echoing up the staircase, coupled with the Sleater-Kinney Luann liked to listen to while she worked.
Tonight, though, it was quiet.
“Come here,” Ryan murmured, pulling her through the door at the end of the hallway and shutting it safely behind them. His room was small and a little close smelling, worn blue carpeting and a standard boy-plaid comforter. A ragged poster of Brian Leetch from the New York Rangers was tacked on the wall above the desk. Ryan’s dad had bought it for him when he was still in diapers, Gabby knew. It had literally hung above his crib before he could walk.
Ryan clicked the desk light on now, bright enough that they could see each other’s faces, and Gabby looked at him for a moment: his scrum of messy hair and his friendly brown eyes, the tiny discoloration on the edge of his lower lip where he’d taken a hockey stick to the mouth sophomore year. God, he was so familiar in every way but this one. She couldn’t believe how this night had turned out. “Are we really doing this right now?” she asked.
“I mean, I think—” Ryan looked sheepish in the half dark, and suddenly very young. “If you—?”
Gabby nodded. It wasn’t like she’d never thought about it. Of course she’d thought about it, starting the very first night they’d met freshman year, but so many things—so many moments, so many people—had happened between then and now that Gabby had very nearly forgotten. It was like how she’d wanted a pet zebra when she was five: back then she’d imagined in great detail its personality and what she’d feed it, the adventures the two of them might have. But she never thought she’d actually get a pet zebra, not really, and now, at eighteen years old, she didn’t even want one anymore.
Except, apparently, she did.
Gabby kissed him again then, urgent. Ryan slid his hands down her back. She pulled his shirt up over his head, shocking herself with her own boldness; his chest was smooth and start-of-summer pale.
“Wait wait wait,” Ryan said suddenly. He was gasping, which surprised her. Gabby wasn’t used to him like this. He was such a lion of a person it was strange to feel like she could undo him, like she held that kind of power in her two shaking hands. “Are you too drunk to make good decisions?”
Gabby shook her head, laughing a little. “I’m not drunk at all, nerd,” she told him. “I drove, remember?”
“Oh yeah.” Ryan smiled. “Okay, good.”
“Are you drunk?”
“No,” Ryan said immediately. “Definitely not.”
Gabby raised her eyebrows. “What is that, then, the first time all week?”
“You’re a rude person,” Ryan said, and kissed her again. He walked her backward across the carpet, pulling her shirt up and tossing it onto the desk chair. For a moment, he only just looked. Gabby squirmed a bit, surprised and a little embarrassed by the expression on his face. He was gazing at her—there was no other word for this—adoringly. She hadn’t thought Ryan had it in him to look at anyone like that, really, but especially not her.
“Stop staring,” she ordered, nudging him roughly in the arm.
“I can’t,” Ryan said. Then: “Wait, really?”
“I—” Gabby paused, thought about it for a moment. Sighed theatrically. “No.”
“Okay,” Ryan said, making a big goofy show of looking her up and down. “Good.”
“Good,” Gabby echoed. She wrapped her arms around his neck, trying to relax into the warm, solid broadness of him. She wanted to do this—God, she thought as he worked the button on her jeans, she definitely wanted to do this—but try as she might she couldn’t ignore the persistent lick of anxiety at the base of her spine. After all, this was Ryan: her best friend, her Most Important Person. Even if this was a one-time thing—and that’s what it was, Gabby was pretty sure, some kind of aberrant graduation-induced insanity—the stakes felt ridiculously, absurdly high.
And then there were the practical concerns: mainly, that she knew for a fact he’d already had sex with a million other people. Whereas Gabby herself—well.
“Okay, here’s the thing, here’s the thing, though,” she finally said, peeling his hands off her body and lacing his fingers through hers, squeezing. “You realize I’ve never done this with a boy before.”
“Oh,” Ryan said, and Gabby watched understanding dawn on his face. “I—right. I guess I knew that.” He paused for a second. “Right.”
“Well, don’t think about it,” Gabby said, feeling strangely invaded. Some things were private, even from him. Especially from him. “Don’t be a perv.”
“I’m not!” Ryan defended himself, then, with a crooked smile: “Well, okay, now I am.”
Gabby frowned. “I’m serious,” she said. It had been real, what she and Shay had done together. She didn’t want him to think it was some kind of performance for his benefit. “I didn’t say that to like, turn you on or something gross like that, that’s a whole other—”
“No no no, definitely, of course, I know.” Ryan’s eyes went wide. “I didn’t mean it that way at all, I just—”
“Uh-huh.” She didn’t want to talk about this anymore, so instead she pushed him down onto the bed. His sheets were worn and pilled from years of washing and probably a couple of days past clean. Gabby barely noticed, though, because here was Ryan tugging her underwear down her legs in the darkness, here were his hands and his hipbones and his good, familiar face.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” he muttered into her neck, his mouth warm and friendly against her collarbone, “this definitely makes the Top Ten list.”
Gabby shivered as he worked one hand down between them, her bare feet sliding against the hair on his legs. “Oh yeah?” she asked, struggling to keep her voice even. “And what Top Ten list is that, exactly?”
“I don’t know,” Ryan admitted, voice muffled. “I have no idea. Every Top Ten list, maybe.”
Gabby laughed. “Shut up,” she said, and yanked his head up to kiss him, and they didn’t talk any more after that.
Ryan didn’t mean to fall asleep, but he must have, because when he woke up the sky was just starting to get light outside the window, and Gabby was pulling on her jeans across the room.
“You’re leaving?” he asked, rolling over in his bed and looking at her. He’d never noticed the line of her neck before, the way her shoulder blades looked like bird wings moving under the pale skin of her upper back. He kind of just wanted to stare at her for the foreseeable future. He would have felt embarrassed, if he hadn’t felt so glad.
Gabby nodded. “I have to get home,” she explained, pulling last night’s tank top over her head.
“Why?” Ryan asked sleepily. “Stay. We’ll go to the diner and get eggs.”
“I can’t,” Gabby said, and Ryan wasn’t sure if he was imagining a slight edge in her voice. “I need to be there before my dad wakes up, or he’s going to freak out and think I got murdered. Not to mention the fact that I don’t want your mom to catch me walk-of-shaming it out of your house.”
Ryan frowned, sitting up on the mattress and scrubbing a hand through his hair. “I don’t know if I’d call it walk-of-shaming it, exactly.”
“Oh no?” Gabby dug one flip-flop out from underneath his bed. “What would you call it?”
“Well.” Ryan took a deep breath. Before last night he’d completely given up on the idea that any of this was still a possibility; now he felt like the universe had dropped one last chance in his lap. He’d have to be an idiot not to take it. “I mean, we could call it, like. The beginning of something. If you wanted.”
“The beginning of—” For a moment Gabby just stared at him, still crouched on his bedroom carpet with a sandal in one hand. “Wait, you want to date?”
Jesus Christ, it was like he’d suggested ritual sacrifices or a Tough Mudder. Ryan felt his spine straighten up. “Not with that tone in your voice, I don’t.”
“No, no, no,” Gabby said, tipping backward and sitting down hard on the floor. “I just mean, like. You don’t really . . . date? One person?”
“What the fuck does that mean?” Ryan demanded, stung. It wasn’t even true. “I dated Chelsea for like a full year.”
“Okay, you’re right,” Gabby conceded immediately. “You’re right, that was fucked up. I’m sorry. I guess I just mean that, like . . . you don’t usually date one person? You definitely haven’t been dating one person lately? And I worry this would be, like, a Hallie Whiting situation.”
Ryan shook his head, disbelieving. He’d hung out with Hallie Whiting for a grand total of like twenty minutes back in April, in between a softball player named Karly and a girl from the art club who called herself Fern; when he’d broken things off with Hallie, she’d sent him a note telling him to fuck himself with an ice pick along with a Spotify playlist made entirely of songs by Florence and the Machine. “You think that’s what this would be?” he asked. “You think you’d be Hallie Whiting in this situation?”
“I don’t know,” Gabby said, tucking her messy hair behind her ears. “I mean, not the ice pick thing, obviously, but—”
“Is this about Hallie Whiting?” Ryan asked suddenly, not liking at all how close to desperate he sounded. “Or other girls? Like, do you think I’m—”
“Kind of indiscriminate about who you hook up with?” Gabby supplied. “I mean, yes, but you already know that. And that’s not why—I mean, I don’t even know—” She broke off.
“What?” Ryan prodded, somehow managing to suppress the urge to tell her he was only indiscriminate because she’d never been an option. Shit, this was not how he’d pictured this happening. “It’s me, just say it.”
“I mean, I don’t know if I even want a relationship.”
“Seriously?” Ryan blinked. Didn’t girls always want relationships? He felt like he’d spent all senior spring trying to avoid getting into relationships with girls who wanted them. “With anyone? Or just with me?”
“With anyone!” Gabby exploded, then glanced nervously at his bedroom door and lowered her voice. “We’re leaving in two months. I don’t know if I think it’s a good idea to start anything with anybody.” She shook her head. “Or maybe just with you,” she admitted after a moment. “I don’t know, Ryan. Do you see any scenario in which trying to date doesn’t mean we aren’t friends anymore?”
“So then why did you just have sex with me, Gabby?”
“Wait a minute.” Gabby scrambled to her feet like the room was on fire; she was taller than Ryan suddenly, him still sitting in his bed like a little kid. “Wait a minute. Since when does casual sex automatically mean something to you? You had casual sex with half the senior class this year, but now—”
“This wasn’t casual sex to me!” Ryan hissed.
“I—” Gabby looked at him for a minute, something clicking into place behind her eyes. “Oh,” she said.
Oh. There it was. Jesus Christ, this fucking sucked. This was officially embarrassing now. This was a disaster. “Look,” Ryan said, getting up and grabbing for his T-shirt, for the boxers in a puddle on his floor. He wasn’t shy, but fuck. “Forget it, okay?”
“No,” Gabby said, like the goddamn mule she was. “I don’t want to forget it. What does that mean, that it wasn’t—”
“What does it mean?” Ryan gaped at her. It meant that he’d spent the last few years convincing himself nothing was ever going to happen between them. It meant that for a couple of hours last night he’d thought he’d been wrong. It meant that he’d let himself believe that maybe he was actually the kind of person she’d want to be with, smart or interesting or whatever, and it made him feel like an idiot of the first order to remember all over again what a total fantasy that was.
But he wasn’t going to say any of that to her, clearly. Not now.
“It means we can’t just go back to how it was now, okay?” he said finally. “Not after we—”
“But why?” Gabby asked, and it sounded almost like she was begging him. “I don’t understand—we did it, so now our friendship is over regardless?”
Ryan shook his head, frustrated; she was twisting things. “That’s not—”
“Why does sex have to be the only thing that matters? Why does it have to automatically change four years of—”
“Because it does!”
“You’re being an infant,” she said. “You’re being exactly the kind of person you hate when people think you are.”
The unfairness of it was staggering. “I’m telling you I want to try to be with you, Gabby. I’m telling you I’ve wanted that for a long time. And if you don’t want it then that’s fine, I can’t do anything about that, but you don’t get to call me an asshole on top of it.”
“I’m not calling you an asshole!” Gabby said. “And I’m not saying I don’t want it, even.”
“Then what are you saying?”
“I’m saying I’m scared.”
“Great,” Ryan snapped. “Something new and different for you, then.”
Right away he knew that was the wrong way to handle it; sure enough, Gabby’s eyes flashed. “That was mean,” she said. “You know what, that was a low blow, and now I am calling you an asshole, and I’m leaving.” She grabbed her bag from where she’d dropped it on the floor on their way in here, swiped her car keys with a rattle off his desk. “I’ll see you later, Ryan.”
“Gabby—” Ryan broke off, baffled by how fast this had gone pear-shaped on him. He wanted to grab his words right out of the air. But it was too late now; they were in this. He’d meant it. There was no turning back. “Fine,” he said, blowing a breath out. “Go, then.”
02. The Beginning
FRESHMAN YEAR, FALL
Coach Harkin kept them late again on Friday afternoon, so it was after five by the time the van dropped them back at school. Ryan showered up and shoved his hockey gear into his locker, then slung his backpack over one shoulder and ambled down the bleachy-smelling hallway out into the parking lot. It was colder than it had been this morning, Halloween coming, the oak trees on the lawn of the high school shedding their papery brown leaves in heaving gusts. The sun was already starting to set, and Ryan frowned a bit at the sky as he shoved his hands into the pockets of his varsity jacket. It creeped him out, when it got dark early like this. A lot of stuff had kind of creeped him out the last few days, truth be told.
Don’t be such a wuss, Ryan scolded himself, shaking his head like maybe he could knock the thoughts of last night loose that way. His dad had come down to get the last of his stuff from the house, loading his favorite chair and the bedroom TV and his own ancient hockey gear into a beat-up van he’d borrowed from his friend Skippy. Things had started off civilly enough between his parents—after all, what did they have left to fight about at this point?—but pretty soon they were at it again, first over some odds and ends from the kitchen that Ryan was pretty sure neither of them actually wanted, then over the waitress Ryan was pretty sure they didn’t think he knew about, and then, finally, about money. Always money, in the end.
The sky had been a deep black by the time his dad finally backed the van out of the driveway, with a slap on Ryan’s shoulder and a promise to call and figure out a time for him to come visit, which Ryan knew from experience might or might not actually happen. He tried not to think about the fact that his dad had never once suggested Ryan come with him to Schenectady. Not that he’d have wanted to go, necessarily, or that his mom would have let him in a million years. But it would have been nice to be asked.
Now the gym door slammed open behind him: Remy Dolan, who was a sophomore and Ryan’s Colson Cavaliers Big Brother, ambled out of it, along with a couple of other guys from the team. “My house tonight, McCullough!” Remy yelled, bumping into Ryan hard on purpose before heading for his own car. Ryan winced. He liked partying with those guys—he liked partying, period—but he hadn’t realized when he made varsity that it was going to mean drinking until he blacked out every Friday and Saturday night, plus one particularly ugly Thursday after which he’d woken up with a giant dick drawn on his face. It could have been worse, he reasoned—he was the only freshman on the team, so a certain amount of hazing was probably inevitable, and so far they hadn’t beat him up or made him do anything weird with farm animals—but still. He was tired.
Ryan lifted his hand in a wave as Dolan and the others drove off in Dolan’s brand-new Explorer, then dug his phone out to see if his mom was close, so that he could run down the block to meet her on the corner instead of having her drive all the way up to school. It made Ryan feel like shit every single time he did this, but the last thing he wanted was for one of his teammates to catch him getting into the passenger seat of her bright red minivan: old and dinged and dog-smelling, with the logo of her grooming business, Pampered Paws, emblazoned on the side.
His mom hadn’t texted yet, but Ryan was about to head down the block anyway when the side door of the building creaked open and somebody else came out: that girl Gabby, from the party last weekend. He hadn’t seen her at all since he’d bailed out of her house at top speed on Sunday morning, which seemed strange now that Ryan thought about it: their high school wasn’t huge, maybe six hundred people total. Still, he guessed he hadn’t exactly been looking.
He looked now, though: she was wearing jeans and a pair of gray Converse, hands shoved into the pockets of her jacket and blond hair tucked into a wispy ponytail at the crown of her head. She was sort of pretty, in a quiet kind of way, and Ryan wondered why he hadn’t noticed that at the party. Probably because he had been very, very drunk.
“Hey,” Ryan said, lifting his hand in a wave and smiling at her. “Long time no see.”
Gabby did not smile back. “Hey,” she said. Her cheeks were very pink. “What’s up.”
“Just waiting for a ride,” he explained. “How’s your week been?”
“Fine,” Gabby said, keeping space for the Holy Spirit between them. She looked suspicious, like she thought it was possible he was about to throw a soda in her face or carry her to the bathroom and give her a swirly—which was strange, because he thought he remembered them being friends at the party. But Ryan had noticed that people looked at him like that sometimes since he made varsity, like being popular or well-known around school automatically also made him an asshole. It made Ryan, who did not like to think of himself as an asshole, feel kind of bad, but he was never exactly sure how to address it.
“You have practice?” Ryan asked, trying his best to sound extra friendly. Gabby stared at him blankly in return. “Is that why you’re here late, I mean? You play a sport?”
Gabby snorted like that was hilarious. “Definitely not,” she said. Then, after a moment of apparent internal debate: “I was editing photos.”
Ryan squinted. “Do we have a darkroom I don’t know about?”
“No, not developing them,” she corrected. “Editing. On the computer. The software in the yearbook office is better than the kind I have at home.”
“You take pictures?”
Gabby made a face like he should have already known this, somehow. “Sometimes.” She shrugged.
“Are you good at it?”
“I’m okay,” Gabby told him, in a voice like he’d asked what color her underwear was.
“Cool,” Ryan said. It was, too: it was interesting to Ryan, all the different ecosystems in high school. All the different stuff people did. People were interesting to him. They always had been, ever since he was a little kid.
Ryan himself was not interesting to Gabby, apparently; she nodded but didn’t say anything back to him, crossing her arms and staring hotly at the parking lot like she could conjure her ride through sheer force of will. The silence stretched out in front of them, huge and vaguely menacing. Ryan hated silence. It gave him the weirds.
He meant to just say bye and get out of there, to chalk it up to not everybody liking him all the time, but when he opened his mouth what came out was, “So am I still invited to Monopoly later?”
Gabby looked—this was a word his mom used, and it always made Ryan laugh—flabbergasted. “You remember us talking about Monopoly?” she asked. “The other night?”
“Yeah,” he said, though he hadn’t thought about it at all until this moment. The whole party was kind of a blur. He’d had a really good time, he remembered that much. The details were a little bit harder to place. “You play every Friday with your family, right?”
Gabby nodded slowly, like she wasn’t sure whether or not she wanted to admit to this. “What else do you remember?” she asked.
Ryan shook his head. “Not much, honestly,” he admitted. “Talking about BuzzFeed lists. Puking all over your solar system bathroom.”
“It’s constellations, not the solar system,” Gabby snapped. “I’m not a third-grade boy.”
It was all the same to Ryan, but that didn’t seem like the kind of thing he should say out loud. “Constellations, then,” he agreed. He looked at her, something tickling at the very back of his brain. “Why?” he asked, voice cautious. “Is there something else I should remember?”
For just a second Gabby’s face flickered like a burned-
out lightbulb. Then she shook her head. “Nope,” she said finally. “Although the truth is I kind of only invited you to Monopoly because I figured you were too drunk to ever
take me up on it.”
“Ouch,” Ryan said, huffing out a laugh to cover the fact that he was strangely stung by the rejection. His friend Anil said his need to be everyone’s favorite person was pathological, although for some reason this felt like more than just that. It occurred to him suddenly that he didn’t really want to spend tonight getting drunk out of his brain at Remy Dolan’s party, or home at his mom’s, where everything was empty and quiet and strange. It occurred to him suddenly that he really, honestly just wanted to go play Monopoly at this girl’s house.
“I’m kidding,” Gabby said after a moment, shaking her head like he was a ridiculous person. “Sort of.” She shifted her weight. “We play at like eight, usually. Clearly you know where I live.”
Ryan grinned his most winning smile. He felt like he’d won something, himself. “I do,” he agreed. “I’ll see you then.”
“Sure,” Gabby said. There was another pause then, and he thought she was going to walk away, but instead she gestured at his face in a way that sort of looked like she was going to punch him. “What’s that from?” she asked.
“Oh.” Ryan had almost forgotten about it; sheepishly, he touched the yellowing bruise on his cheekbone. “Practice. I got hit in the face on Wednesday.”
Girls were generally impressed by this, Ryan had learned over the last couple of days, asking about the details or running their delicate fingers along his cheekbone, cooing. Gabby, clearly, was not. “Does everybody get hurt so much, playing hockey?” she asked. “Or just you?”
Ryan bristled. “I don’t get hurt a lot,” he said, trying not to sound defensive. “I mean, I guess I got a concussion a couple months ago, but mostly it’s just, like, a normal amount.”
Gabby looked like she might be about to ask what a normal amount was, exactly, but instead she nodded at the red Pampered Paws van pulling into the cul-de-sac in front of the building. “Is that your ride?” she asked as his mom beeped a little tattoo with the horn, cheerful. Ryan winced.
Michelle came over once Gabby got home that afternoon, the two of them sitting in Gabby’s room listening to music on her laptop, Gabby skimming Teen Vogue while Michelle scrolled through Instagram. Michelle was Gabby’s easiest friend in that she didn’t need to talk all the time, the two of them content to be alone together, each of them doing their own thing while occupying the same physical space. They’d known each other since elementary school carpool; Gabby, as a general rule, much preferred old friends to new ones.
Michelle was also Gabby’s only friend, really, but Gabby didn’t like to dwell on that too much. It wasn’t like she was lonely or anything like that. She was choosy. It was different.
“Do you know that you have like, three thousand followers on this thing?” Michelle asked now, holding her phone up so that Gabby could see her own Instagram profile.
“Yeah.” Gabby shrugged, rolling over on the mattress and flicking past an ad for lip balm. “They’re not people I actually know or anything.”
“No, that’s my point,” Michelle said. “They’re strangers. And considering you’re not taking pictures of your boobs, that’s a huge number.”
Gabby smiled. “I guess.” She’d started posting her own photos the previous summer and was secretly proud of the modest collection she’d put together: Celia’s feet poking out of the deep end at the town pool while she did a handstand, a shot of the sparklers at her cousin Madison’s wedding, a bin of fat orange pumpkins she’d seen outside the hardware store one Saturday morning with her mom. Most of them were just iPhone pictures, but she’d gotten a cranky secondhand DSLR with her eighth-grade graduation money and was slowly teaching herself how to use it, experimenting with f-stops and exposures. She’d been surprised and kind of embarrassed when people started following her, but by now it had become a game she played with herself, amassing a little audience like she’d collected stickers in her Sandylion book when she was a kid.
“Okay,” Gabby said, closing the magazine and peering over the edge of the mattress. She’d thought about her ridiculous conversation with Ryan all through dinner, working it over like a particularly gristly bite of steak. She knew she’d probably sounded cold, bitchy even, but she hadn’t been able to help it. She was just so irritated. He’d ignored her all week. “So can I tell you something kind of weird that happened?”
Michelle raised her pale eyebrows. “Always,” she said.
“Okay,” she began again, then promptly broke off when she heard the telltale squeak of Kristina’s footsteps in the hallway. “Come in here and stop lurking,” she called.
Silence; then, a moment later, Kristina appeared in the doorway. “I wasn’t lurking,” she protested, looking injured. “I was passing by.”
Gabby rolled her eyes. “Whatever you say.” Kristina was ten and small for her age, with big round glasses and a slightly crooked haircut that made her look like a Williamsburg hipster. Gabby loved her like all hell. “I need you to tell Mom something for me anyway,” she instructed. “Go downstairs and tell her there is an extremely slim possibility that Ryan McCullough is going to come for Monopoly.”
“Who’s Ryan McCullough?” Kristina asked.
“The hockey player?” Michelle said, sitting upright on the fluffy white area rug. Then, to Kristina: “He’s a super-hot hockey player; he’s the only freshman on varsity.”
“And he’s coming here?” Kristina asked.
“I don’t know,” Gabby said, feeling her stomach flip over again at the possibility. “Probably not, in reality. I just saw him after school today and we were talking—”
“And you randomly invited him to Monopoly and he said yes?” Michelle asked. “How did you not tell me this?”
“I mean, not randomly,” Gabby admitted, already wishing she hadn’t said anything. Now when he inevitably didn’t show up she was going to look pathetic on top of being let down. “He was here for Celia’s party last week.”
“Really?” Michelle’s eyes were wide. “He was here? You didn’t say that.”
Gabby shrugged. “It wasn’t a big deal,” she lied. The last thing she wanted was to admit what a full-on idiot she’d made of herself that night. She should never have left her room to begin with. “We talked a little, it was just—” She shook her head, pushing the conversation—and Ryan’s dumb smile—out of her mind. “Whatever. I don’t actually think he’s even coming.”
“Uh-huh.” Michelle was looking at her with great skepticism. “Is this going to be like the time you told everyone that Hillary Clinton RSVP’d yes to your birthday party?”
“That was in second grade!” Gabby said, frowning. “I told one lie in second grade. I’d like to be let off the hook now.”
“Girls?” That was Gabby’s mom on the landing, her ash-blond hair in a short, stubby ponytail and her tortoiseshell glasses perched on top of her head. “Daddy’s got snacks ready, if you want to come down and play.”
“Gabby invited a boy to Monopoly,” Kristina reported immediately.
“Really?” her mom asked.
Gabby sighed noisily. She didn’t entirely appreciate the gobsmacked tone they were all using, like she was a dog walking on its hind legs or a chimpanzee using sign language, some kind of circus act. Granted, it wasn’t like she’d ever invited a boy—or a girl who wasn’t just a friend—or a girl who was just a friend who wasn’t Michelle, for that matter, over before. But still. “I mean, technically yes, but again, I don’t think he’s actually going to come, so there’s no reason for everybody to be—”
“What’s going on?” That was her dad at the bottom of the stairs in an apron with the De Cecco pasta logo on it, which he’d gotten by sending in a dozen carefully detached boxtops: her dad was a sucker for both any promotional giveaway and any complex carbohydrate.
“Gabby invited a boy to Monopoly,” her mom informed him.
Celia appeared from the living room in a drapey black sweater, her perfect fashion-blogger hair falling over her shoulders in bouncy yellow waves. “She did?”
“Oh my god, stop!” Gabby almost laughed, but only to avoid some other, less desirable reaction. “Please do not be weird about this. I don’t know how many times I can say there’s no way he’s even going to show.”
Then the doorbell rang.
Gabby swung the door open wearing a plaid shirt and a disbelieving expression, her hair a flyaway blond cloud around her face. “You came,” she said, not sounding entirely pleased about it.
“Uh, yeah,” Ryan said. “I hope that’s okay.” He held up the bag of sour-cream-and-onion Ruffles he’d dug out of his mom’s pantry before coming over. “I brought chips.”
“You brought chips,” Gabby repeated, stepping back to let him inside. As she did, a tiny bespectacled girl in a SUNY Binghamton hoodie scrambled down the hallway behind her, peering around Gabby’s shoulder before darting away again.
“He brought chips,” Ryan heard the girl report.
“Jesus Christ, Kristina!” Gabby called over her shoulder. Then, turning back to Ryan, “Come inside, I guess. We’re just about to start.”
The first thing Ryan registered about Gabby’s house was how many girls there were in it. There was Gabby herself, obviously, plus her sister Celia, the junior with the movie-star hair. The littlest sister from the hallway, Kristina, sat on the carpet with her legs pretzeled, next to a girl from school whose name Ryan thought was Michelle and whom he had noticed only because she frowned literally all of the time.
“This is Ryan,” Gabby announced. “He brought chips.”
“Well, that’s very nice,” said a tall woman coming in from the kitchen. She looked like an older version of Gabby, in a crisp Oxford shirt and glasses that took up the whole top half of her face. “Hi, Ryan,” she said. “Welcome.”
“Hi, ma’am,” he said, reaching out to shake her hand.
Gabby rolled her eyes. “Come on,” she said, gesturing for him to sit down on the carpet. “The only piece left is the iron.”
The second thing Ryan registered about Gabby’s house, now that he had the chance to look around in a non-party context, was how nice it was in here. Not fancy, exactly—not like his friend Anil’s house, which was one of the new fake colonials in the golf course development on the other side of town—but definitely decorated in a way that his own house wasn’t. There were built-in bookcases housing an expensive-looking stereo system, brightly colored paintings studding the light gray walls. A giant stag’s head made of papier-mâché hung over the fireplace, a stack of newspapers in a mesh basket off to one side. It seemed immediately clear to Ryan that this was a house where people ate their sandwiches on whole wheat bread.
“Is this your friend, Gabby?” asked a tall, heavyset man coming into the living room carrying a big plate heaped with some kind of fancy-looking hors d’oeuvre. To Ryan: “I have to say, it’s rare there’s another man in this house. I’m glad for the reinforcements.”
“Oh my god,” Gabby said, dealing out the money from the bank. “Please stop. What are we eating?”
“Devils on horseback!” Mr. Hart said. “Dates stuffed with blue cheese and wrapped in bacon.”
“He makes something different every week,” Gabby explained, reaching up to pick one off the plate as her dad set it down on the coffee table. “He has a book.”
“1,001 Crowd-Pleasing Party Appetizers,” Mr. Hart crowed. “The girls got it for me for Christmas last year.”
“He only cooks from it on Fridays,” Gabby said. “Which means we’ve got about twenty years before he gets through all of it.”
“People with long-term goals and projects live longer,” her father informed her. “Let’s play.”
It was a quicker-moving game than Ryan usually thought of Monopoly as being, all of them playing with the ruthless efficiency of people who did this a lot. Gabby trounced them all from the outset, buying up all the railroads and utilities and building hotels on all three green properties. “Do you have, like, a strategy for Monopoly?” Ryan asked finally.
“Gabby has a strategy for most things,” the little sister piped up. She’d been watching him carefully, Ryan noticed, all big eyes and intelligent expression behind her giant glasses. All five Harts had that look, actually, like when they weren’t playing board games maybe they sat around the living room discussing the themes of the various works of literature they were reading. It made Ryan, who could not remember the last time he’d read a book that wasn’t for school, feel a little nervous.
“So Ryan,” Mr. Hart said as he scooped the Free Parking money off the board and set about organizing it into neat piles in front of him, “how are you liking high school so far?”
Gabby groaned. “Please don’t interrogate him.”
“It’s okay,” Ryan said, reaching for another devil on horseback. He’d never eaten a date before; they tasted kind of like fruit snacks, but better. “I like it a lot, actually. It’s a lot bigger than my old school, so I’ve met a lot of new people so far.”
“Did you go to Colson Middle?” Mrs. Hart asked.
“No ma’am,” Ryan said without explaining the reason, which was that his dad thought the hockey coach at Colson Middle was a buffoon so his parents had sent him to a Catholic school they 100 percent couldn’t afford, TUITION PAST DUE notices stacking up on the kitchen table. It had been a relief to get out of there. “I went to Saint Thomas Aquinas.”
Mrs. Hart nodded. “I have some clients who send their kids there,” she told him. “But they were a bit younger than you.”
“My wife owns an interior design business,” Mr. Hart explained, smiling at her over the coffee table. Ryan could tell that the Harts were the kind of parents who kissed each other in public. “She did this whole house, actually.”
“Not my room,” Kristina piped up. “I did my own room, really. The color is Lavender Secrets.”
“And there you have it,” Gabby said, voice dripping with faux-brightness. “Now you know everything about us.”
“Well, not everything,” Mr. Hart pointed out, not missing a beat. “He hasn’t seen your baby pictures. I could whip those out, if you’re so inclined, or—”
“Oh, you people are hilarious,” Gabby said, but she was smiling. Ryan liked her around her family, he realized; she was more relaxed than she’d been outside school earlier, cross-legged on the rug and leaning against the arm of the sofa, tilting her head back a bit while Celia played idly with her hair.
“Do you guys have any classes together?” Mrs. Hart asked, reaching for her wineglass. Ryan and Gabby didn’t, but he and Michelle shared fifth-period Algebra I, which led to a long discussion of Mr. DiBenedetto’s chronic, audible flatulence.
“It was like that when I had him too,” Celia said, leaning forward to roll the dice. Kristina moved the Scottie dog around the board on her behalf. “Like a freaking foghorn every time he went up to the whiteboard.”
“Honestly, Celia,” Mrs. Hart said, clearly trying not to laugh and mostly failing. “That’s terrible.”
“It was terrible!” Celia agreed as Kristina reached one hand inside her sweatshirt, letting out a noisy armpit fart that Ryan found truly impressive.
“Nice work,” he told her admiringly. Kristina beamed.
It was strange and good, being around this family: how easy they were with each other, how they made each other laugh. Ryan loved his parents, obviously, and it wasn’t like they never spent any time together, but even back when things between his mom and dad had been friendly as they ever were, they certainly hadn’t had a weekly game night. It should have been corny—it was corny—but it was also . . . nice?
Michelle took off pretty soon after they were finished, and Ryan meant to follow—he needed to go by Remy’s party for at least a little while, or he’d never hear the end of it on Monday—but he found himself stalling, sorting the money back into the bank and carrying a couple of dirty glasses into the kitchen. When he made a move to put them in the dishwasher, Gabby looked at him like she thought he was about to try and steal their fancy silverware. “Okay, enough,” she said, leaning against the counter with her arms crossed. “Real talk. Why are you actually here?”
“Why am I—?” Ryan broke off, looking at her for a moment. Her eyes were very, very blue. He thought about telling her the truth, about explaining it to her: his dad and the van and the waitress, that he’d wanted to be somewhere solid and safe-feeling and something about the way Gabby was holding herself this afternoon in the school parking lot made her house seem like a good bet. She seemed like the kind of person who would understand that, and he was surprised to realize that he actually wanted to say it, but just as he was opening his mouth Celia came into the kitchen with a stack of tiny appetizer plates, stopping in the doorway with her head tilted to the side.
“Sorry,” she said, eyes cutting back and forth between them. “Didn’t mean to interrupt.”
Gabby took a giant step back like Ryan was radioactive. “You’re not, Celia, Jesus,” she said irritably. “We’re just talking.”
Celia did not look convinced. “Okay,” she said, setting the plates in the sink and backing away with her hands up. “Whatever you say.”
Gabby waited until Celia was gone, then turned back to him. “So?” she prodded. “Are you gonna answer me or what?”
Ryan shrugged. “I really like Monopoly,” he lied.
Gabby heaved out a noisy sigh, like she’d expected about as much from him. “Whatever,” she said. “Don’t you have a party to be at?”
Ryan considered that. “I do, actually,” he admitted after a moment. “You wanna come?”
“Really?” Celia asked ten minutes later as Gabby shrugged into her jacket, Ryan’s friends waiting in their SUV outside. “You’re going to a party?”
“Can you stop?” Gabby asked sharply, eyes cutting to Ryan. She didn’t want him to know what a weirdo she was any more than he already knew it, and she didn’t want to think about why.
“Sorry,” Celia said. Then, to Ryan, in a voice like she was explaining a terrible illness: “Gabby just doesn’t usually like parties that much, is all.”
“I already told him that,” Gabby said, although the look on Ryan’s face clearly indicated he had no recollection of the event—just like he apparently had no recollection of most of last Saturday night, which was a blessing. The more Gabby thought about it, the surer she was that the memory lapse on his part was for the best. So she’d had a little crush on him for five minutes before she realized what an idiotic proposition that was on her part. Who cared? No harm, no foul.
She’d fully intended to tell him to go screw when he’d asked her to go to this party. After all, there was no effing way. She could just imagine the baffled looks on people’s faces when they walked in, everybody wondering what on earth somebody like her was doing there with Ryan McCullough, like maybe he was part of some outreach program that paired popular kids with socially inept shut-ins. On top of which, it probably wasn’t even a real invitation—after all, why would he want her hanging around when he was with his actual friends? She was weird. She was awkward. She played Monopoly with her family every Friday night, for Pete’s sake. Gabby knew herself well enough to know she was nobody’s idea of a fun time.
But: “I mean it,” Ryan had said, leaning comfortably against the counter in her parents’ kitchen, that dumb earnest expression on his face like he was sincerely interested in having her around. He was stupidly, annoyingly good-looking. It made Gabby want to knee him in the nuts. “It’ll be a good time.”
She opened her mouth again to say she couldn’t. She opened her mouth to tell him he should leave. She could feel herself starting to get anxious just thinking about it, heart skipping like a stone across a pond, but then she’d remembered how he’d talked to her last weekend in her bedroom. How he’d looked at her like she wasn’t odd at all.
“Sure,” Gabby said, before she could talk herself back out of it. “I can tag along.”
Now her mom pulled her into the stairwell, reaching out and tucking Gabby’s hair behind her ears. “Hey. You want me to say you can’t go?”
That was exactly what Gabby wanted, actually; she’d used her mom as a fall guy a million times before, starting back when she was seven and didn’t want to go to Lily Jackson’s trampoline party. But this felt different, for some reason. Being with Ryan felt different.
“No,” she said, surprising herself. “It’s okay.”
And it was okay, she thought, sitting sandwiched in the middle of the backseat of some upperclassman’s SUV, Ryan on her left side and a kid from her biology class on her right. Rihanna blared on the stereo; the autumn wind ruffled Gabby’s hair through the open window as they pulled up to a tidy-looking Cape Cod–style house on the corner. This was normal; this was what people did. Totally, totally fine.
She made it almost all the way up to the front door before the panic hit.
Gabby closed her eyes for a moment, though she knew she was powerless to stop it. All she could do was hang on. She’d been anxious as long as she could remember; she’d been having panic attacks since she was eleven, when Kristina found her curled into a hysterical ball underneath her bed. Sometimes, like now, Gabby knew why they were happening. Other times they came on for what felt like no reason, halfway through math class or in the middle of the night. They always started the same way: her heart skittering in her chest like she’d been electrocuted, her armpits prickling damply with sweat. In another second she was going to be gasping for air like a hooked fish, and she did not not not want to be walking into a stranger’s party when that happened.
She made herself slow her walk as her heart thumped and her throat constricted, dropping back to the rear of the group stealthily enough that Ryan and the rest of his friends wouldn’t notice. She was an expert at this, the ninja exit. Celia would pick her up, maybe. Celia would make fun of her, but Celia would pick her up.
Ryan’s friends crushed through the front door of the house, loud and rowdy. Ryan held it open behind him, then did an actual double take as he realized Gabby was still standing at the bottom of the stoop.
“Hey,” he said, coming back down a step, “are you okay?”
“Oh, yeah, totally.” Gabby nodded. God, the only thing worse than having a panic attack was trying to have one in secret while someone else was watching. It was like trying to go to the bathroom without making any noise. “I’m good.”
“Are you sure? You kind of look like you’re going to hurl.” Ryan came all the way back down, putting his hand on her arm. Gabby flinched and he pulled it right back. “Sorry,” he said.
Gabby shook her head. “It’s fine,” she said. “I just need a minute.” A minute, sure. A minute for her breath to stop coming in gross, ragged gasps like she’d just run a marathon with no training; a minute for the golem sitting on her chest to relax his grip around her heart.
Ryan looked at her. “Wow,” he said, sounding almost conversational. “Your sister was like, not fucking around, huh?”
God, she could not believe this was happening right now. “No, Ryan,” she said tightly. “She was not fucking around.”
Ryan nodded. “Okay,” he said. “What usually helps?”
Gabby curled her hand around the skinny trunk of a freshly planted tree on the front lawn. “You wanna know, like, what I do when I’m having a panicker?”
“Yeah,” he said, “if that’s what’s happening to you now.”
Gabby could hear the party from inside the house, music and somebody laughing shrilly. She wished he would just go in there and leave her alone. “Stop,” she said. She didn’t trust this tree to be holding her weight. Wouldn’t that be perfect, if on top of everything she ripped these people’s brand-new sapling out by the roots like the Incredible Hulk in front of the cutest boy at Colson. “This is embarrassing.”
“Why is it embarrassing?” Ryan asked, sitting down on the bottom step. “It’s like, an illness, right? You wouldn’t be embarrassed if you were having an asthma attack.”
Gabby hesitated. She appreciated the sentiment—she thought it was surprisingly evolved of him, actually—but she didn’t know how to explain to him that this wasn’t like an asthma attack, not really. If she had asthma, nobody would make her do triathlons to build her character. But going to parties, joining clubs, calling for pizza—people always thought she should be trying a little harder to do stuff like that.
Ryan stretched his long legs out in front of him, casual. “Do you see a doctor about it?” he asked.
Oh, god, here they went. “No,” Gabby said, crossing her arms and wiping her clammy hands on the sleeves of her jacket. She wanted to make herself small enough that nobody would be able to look at her. She wanted to run all the way home. “I can handle it myself.”
“Really?” Ryan asked. “Because, no offense, but it doesn’t really seem like you’re handling it super great right now.”
Gabby’s eyes narrowed. “Because you know me so well, right?”
“Not at all,” Ryan said. “I’m just a casual observer.”
“You should mind your own business, then.” In fact Gabby had seen a therapist, for three long months when she was twelve, a guy with a gray goatee named Dr. Steiner, who asked her annoying, redundant questions while he let her win at checkers. Gabby had not been impressed. Now whenever she thought about trying again, it just felt like so much work. Having to go in there every week and talk about her stupid emotions. Having to explain herself to somebody new.
“My dad left,” Ryan announced out of nowhere.
Gabby blinked. “Huh?” Then, realizing abruptly what a rude response that was, she said, “I’m sorry.” She blinked again, letting go of the tree and standing upright, taking a step toward him. “Like, today?”
Ryan shook his head. “A week or so ago. The night I met you, actually. He came and picked his stuff up today, though.”
“I’m sorry,” Gabby said again. She had no idea why he was telling her this in the middle of her panic attack—jocks were exactly as self-absorbed as she’d always figured they were, maybe—but she was interested in spite of herself. She sat down next to him on the stoop, trying again to swallow down the wad of panic stuffed like a gym sock in her throat. “Did you know it was going to happen, or—”
“See, that’s the thing,” Ryan said. “You’d think I would have, right? Because they fought literally all the time. But actually I sort of—” He broke off with a shrug.
“Didn’t see it coming?” Gabby supplied.
“I did not see it coming,” Ryan admitted. “I know it’s probably better in the long run, for my mom at least. But it still sucks a massive wang, Gabby, I will tell you.” He shrugged again. “Thanks for letting me borrow your normal family tonight, is I guess what I’m saying.”
Gabby snorted. “They’re not normal,” she assured him, glancing down and picking at a loose thread in the seam of her jeans. “I think I’m pretty solid evidence of that.”
“Whatever,” Ryan said, and it sounded like he meant it. “Everybody’s got something, right?” When she looked up he was smiling at her, lopsided. She wished she didn’t like his smile so much. “You feeling any better now?” he asked.
Gabby hesitated, realizing with no small amount of surprise that she was. He had, in fact, successfully distracted her out of her panic attack. It wasn’t a thing a lot of people knew how to accomplish, and she doubted he’d done it on purpose or even with any awareness that that’s what he was doing, but there it was.
“Yeah,” she said slowly. “I am. I mean, not better like I want to go into your party? But better like I’m not going to suffocate and die.”
Ryan nodded. “Fair enough,” he said. “Do you want me to—” He broke off as the door opened and a giant dude with a crew cut ambled out through it, beer in hand. “Hey, McCullough,” he said, looking at Gabby with an expression that wasn’t quite a leer. “Who’s your lady?”
Ryan didn’t move at all, sprawled casual and content across the stoop, but Gabby watched as something in his expression changed in a way that made her think of goalies putting on a thousand layers of protective gear. She felt her heart trip again, anxiety spiking, but Ryan’s grin, when it came, was calm as the surface of a lake.
“Don’t be a dick,” he said, tilting his chin in her direction. “This is my friend Gabby.”
About Top Ten
Perfect for fans of Sarah Dessen, Jenny Han, and Morgan Matson.
Ryan McCullough and Gabby Hart are the unlikeliest of best friends. Prickly, anxious Gabby would rather do literally anything than go to a party. Ultra-popular Ryan is a hockey star who can get any girl he wants—and frequently does. But somehow their relationship just works; from dorky Monopoly nights to rowdy house parties to the top ten lists they make about everything under the sun.
Now, on the night of high school graduation, everything is suddenly changing—in their lives, and in their relationship. As they try to figure out what they mean to each other and where to go from here, they make a final top ten list: this time, counting down the top ten moments of their friendship.
Are you already rooting for Ryan and Gabby to get together like we are? Let us know by dropping a comment below!