Autoboyography

TANNER

Tanner stares at the computer screen. Blinks.

His mom leans forward, squinting. “What are you looking at?”

“My grades.”

She lets out an excited “Ooooh, they’re up fast!” and then grabs him around the shoulders, squeezing when her eyes make it down the entire list.

Not that it matters. He’s already packing up his room, preparing to take the battered Camry and drive to LA. But the grades, they aren’t terrible. The A in Modern Lit wasn’t a surprise—he skated through that one. Calc, too. The rest are pleasant discoveries, but not altogether shocking. But an A in the Seminar, and he never even turned in the book.

On autopilot, he reaches for the phone, dialing the school office.

“Mr. Fujita, please?”

The head secretary Ms. Hill’s voice comes clear through the line: “One second.”

“What are you doing?” His mom leans around, trying to catch his eyes.

He points to the A, right in the middle of his screen. “This doesn’t make sense.” In fact, it feels almost wrong, like he’s getting away with the kind of mild crime Autumn always seems to accuse him of. It’s one thing to charm; it’s another to receive a stellar mark without even completing the one assignment worth a majority of his total grade.

A new line rings once, and again. “Hello?”

“Mr. Fujita?” Tanner fidgets with the sleek, black stapler on his parents’ desk.

“Yeah?”

“It’s Tanner Scott.” There’s a pause, and it’s weird how meaningful it feels. It makes anxiety bubble up in him. “I just checked my grades.”

Mr. Fujita’s gravelly voice seems even coarser over the phone. “All right?”

“I don’t understand how I got an A in your class.”

“I loved your book, kid.”

Tanner pauses. “I never turned in the book.”

The other end of the line goes quiet, almost as if it’s been cut off. But then Fujita clears his throat. “He didn’t tell you? Ah, crap. This isn’t great.”

“Tell me what?”

“Sebastian turned it in.”

Tanner squeezes his eyes closed, trying to figure out what he’s missing. “You mean the first twenty pages?”

“No.” A pause. “The whole thing.”

He opens his mouth to respond and can’t think of a single word.

“It’s great, Tann. I mean, I have thoughts on edits, because I can’t help myself, and your ending sucks, but at the time, how could it not? Overall, I sincerely enjoyed it.” He pauses, and in that time, Tanner is unable to figure out what to say.

In the past, when he’s read the words “my thoughts are reeling,” the idea of that just felt overblown. But right now images are on a loop, a flickering filmstrip: his laptop in his drawer; the words “I’m totally gay” on a page; Sebastian’s face just before he fell asleep on the couch beside him, satisfied, cocky, also, a little shy; the deteriorating, half-assed ending to his document.

“Maybe ‘enjoy’ isn’t the right word,” Fujita is saying. “I hurt for you. And him. I’ve watched this story unfold so many times, I can’t even tell you. I’m glad the two of you have worked things out.”

Fujita pauses again, and it seems like this would be a good time for Tanner to say something, but he doesn’t. Now he’s stuck on I’m glad the two of you have worked things out. Bewilderment is the predominant emotion. He hasn’t spoken to Sebastian in weeks.

“What?”

“But I think you did something here,” Fujita says, ignoring this, “showing him your heart. I think you truly did. And your voice is alive. I knew you were writing, but I didn’t realize you were writing.”

This conversation has officially gone too many steps past where Tanner last understood what the hell was going on. His laptop, as far as he knows, has been safely planted in his dresser along with socks, some shin guards, and a couple of magazines his parents can’t track on their magic software.

Tanner stands, jogging upstairs to his room. On the phone, Fujita has gone quiet.

“You okay over there?”

Tanner rummages in his drawer. His laptop is there. “Yeah. Just . . . processing this.”

“Well, if you want to come down sometime this summer and talk through my notes, I’d be happy to. I’ll be here finishing things up for the next two weeks or so.”

Tanner looks out his window at the street, at his Camry parked at the curb. How crazy would it be to just show up at Sebastian’s house? To ask him how he got a copy of his book, how he managed to get it into Fujita’s hands?

Reality sets in and panic starts to climb up the back of his neck. Sebastian read it. The whole thing.

“Tanner? You still there?”

“Yeah,” he says, voice cracking. “Thanks.”

“You headed to the signing later?”

Tanner blinks out of his daze. His upper lip is damp now; his whole body is on the verge of a frantic, feverish shiver. “The what?”

“The signing, down at—” Fujita pauses. “What am I thinking? Of course you aren’t. Or, are you?”

“I honestly have no idea what we’re talking about.”

Tanner can hear the creak of Fujita’s desk chair as he shifts. Maybe he’s sitting up, paying attention now. “Sebastian’s book came out yesterday.”

Time seems to slow.

“He’s signing at Deseret Book over at University Place, at seven tonight. But I don’t know whether to expect you there.” An awkward laugh and then, “I hope you come. I hope this goes the way it does in my head. I need an end to that story.”

• • •

Autumn climbs into the car. “You’re being oddly broody and cryptic. Where are we going?”

“I need best friend powers, activated.” He leaves the car in park at the curb and turns to face her. “I don’t know how it happened, but Sebastian turned in my book to—”

One look at her complexion—splotchy pink, awareness dawning—and he knows.

He isn’t even sure why it didn’t immediately occur to him. Maybe he liked the image that a heroic Sebastian would climb in through his window, dig around in his drawers for the laptop, copy the file over, and ride on his loyal steed (his bike) to school to turn in the manuscript and save Tanner’s ass. But of course the more banal explanation is at play: Autumn. She read it. Gave it to Sebastian as a bit of a Look at this broken soul. You did this, you monster, and boom. Sebastian’s guilt overtook him, and he couldn’t let Tanner fail.

He did it out of pity.

Tanner deflates. “Oh.”

“You’re telling me he turned it in?”

“You’re telling me you didn’t know?”

She leans in, her expression urgent. “I didn’t know he gave it to Fujita. I swear. I just thought he should read it. I thought maybe he could grade it. He had my drive for about a day, and then he gave it back.”

“That’s a pretty big decision to make for me.”

“I was emotional,” she says, only mildly remorseful. “And your book was awesome. It was a crazy time, okay?” She grins. “I’d just lost my virginity.”

Tanner laughs, playfully pinching her leg. At least that much has returned to normal in the past few weeks. And in truth, Autumn gets as many free passes as she wants these days. Despite the return of easiness between them, he still isn’t entirely comfortable holding her feet to the fire.

“Well, I got an A,” he tells her. “And the world didn’t end. Still, I can’t imagine what it took for him to do that. Fujita knows now, obviously.” It’s been a couple of weeks since school ended. Maybe everyone knows. Or maybe Sebastian took three steps backward, right back into the closet. “Sebastian’s book came out yesterday, and he’s signing at the Deseret down on University.”

Autumn’s eyes widen with thrill as she understands what they’re doing in the car. “We aren’t.”

“We are.”

• • •

The line begins in front of the store and snakes around, outside the strip mall and down University almost half a block. It reminds Tanner of the airport when there are mobs of people waiting at the baggage claim for their missionaries coming home. When the Mormons come out, they come out en masse.

Tanner and Autumn tack themselves onto the end of the line. It’s early June, and the wind is dry and hot. Other than the mountains, which jut straight up from the earth, the city feels unendingly flat. It isn’t, not really, but it has that same low-expectations vibe, the bland urban design to an unambitious town.

A tiny thrill builds in Tanner’s stomach, spreading warmth outward. He’s going to miss Autumn, but he’ll be near the ocean again.

A man in a short-sleeved plaid shirt approaches. His left arm holds a stack of at least ten books. “Are you here for the signing?”

Tanner nods. “Yeah.”

“Did you bring a book, or are you purchasing here?”

Autumn and Tanner exchange an unsure look. “Buying here?” Autumn wagers.

The man hands them each a book from the dwindling stack in his arms and peels two Post-it notes from the top of a pad. Tanner nearly laughs. They’re blue, just like the ones holding all his angst and love and melodrama.

“Put your names on these,” the man says. “It will make it easier for Sebastian to personalize it when you get up front.”

A rope tightens around Tanner’s chest, and Autumn lets out a tiny groan of sympathy.

“After it’s signed, you can pay at the register.” It would never occur to the staff that someone might be handed a book and take off without ever going inside.

The man leaves, and Autumn turns to him, clutching her copy. “This is weird in so many ways.”

“Yeah.” Tanner stares at the novel in his hands. On the cover is a fiery landscape—a burnt valley, mountains still alive with green, looming over the encroaching flames. It’s beautiful. The colors are rich, nearly three-dimensional. A cloaked boy stands at the foot of a mountain, holding a torch. At his feet, the title rises from the paper in thick foil.

FIRESTORM

Sebastian Brother

The title doesn’t have any meaning yet to Tanner. Maybe it never will. The idea of spending—he flips to the back—four hundred pages with Sebastian’s creative brain seems nearly unbearable. Maybe someday, when he’s moved on and this all just seems like a tender bruise in his history, he’ll open it up, look at his name scrawled generically there, and actually be able to appreciate the story between the covers.

“No, I mean, this is weird for me,” Autumn says, breaking into his thoughts. “I can’t even imagine what it’s like for you.”

“I’m starting to wonder what the hell we’re doing here. This could be a disaster.”

“You don’t think he half expects you?”

Tanner gives it some more thought. He hasn’t tried to contact Sebastian, not since the brush-off e-mail. No doubt he thinks Tanner will just disappear. He probably should just disappear. “No.”

She points ahead of them, down the block. “Well, we are conveniently close to the Emergency Essentials store if you need anything.”

“That is such an LDS thing to have in a town,” Tanner mumbles.

Autumn doesn’t argue. They stare at the strip mall sign, with the three largest businesses advertised in bold letters: Deseret Book. Emergency Essentials. Avenia Bridal.

“This is all very LDS,” she agrees.

“Do you miss the church?”

She leans into him. Her head barely reaches the top of his shoulder, so when he puts an arm around her, she tucks neatly beneath his chin.

“Sometimes.” She looks up at him. Anyone watching would think they were a couple. “I miss the activities and that certainty that if everyone is happy with you, you’re doing everything right.”

Tanner wrinkles his nose at her. “Gross.”

“Exactly,” she says, patting his chest. “That’s exactly my point. Sebastian wasn’t doing anything wrong with you.”

He looks around meaningfully and lowers his voice, “So we say.”

This time Autumn whispers. “You aren’t wrong to be here.”

The line starts to move, and Tanner’s stomach drops. Aren’t they wrong to be here, at least a little? If this isn’t the definition of blindsiding, it’s awfully close. Yeah, Sebastian and Autumn went behind his back to turn in the book, but this is public. Sebastian will have to keep it together. Tanner will have to keep it together.

He takes the pen from Autumn’s hand when she finishes writing down her name and writes his own. He doesn’t do it to be cheeky; he does it out of practicality: It’s entirely possible that Sebastian will be too flustered to remember how to spell T-a-n-n-e-r.

The line moves slowly. Tanner imagines Sebastian behind a counter or a table, charming everyone who comes through.

His stomach growls, and the sun hangs low in the sky before giving up and diving below the mountains. With the sun gone, the air cools down for the first time all day.

Autumn swats a mosquito on his arm. “Okay, let’s go through this.”

“Go through what?”

She gives him a concerned look. “What you’re doing here.”

He takes a deep, sharp breath. “I’m just going to thank him for what he did—he’ll know what I mean—and wish him good luck on his tour, and his mission.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

She stretches, kissing his jaw. “You’re sweet.”

“You’re a menace.”

“At least I’m not a virgin menace anymore.”

The people in front of them turn around, eyes wide in scandal.

Autumn lets out a faux-mortified “Oops.”

Tanner ducks, trying not to laugh. “One of these days, that joke is going to land very, very badly.”

“That was pretty close.”

They’re almost to the door now, and can see inside that the line goes only about fifteen more people before it reaches the end. Sebastian.

Tanner can’t see him, but he has a front-row view of the odd, jovial vibe. The roomful of men in suits, women in dresses, celebratory cups of punch. There’s a table with cupcakes and veggies with dip off to the side. Someone made a cake. Not only is this a signing; it’s a launch party.

Sebastian’s parents are there, talking in a small half circle to a woman with a name tag and another person—a man in a suit and tie. Autumn steps inside, and Tanner follows, holding the door for the person in line behind him. The door knocks into a display table, and at the sound, Dan Brother looks up, smiling on instinct, before his expression turns stony.

It hadn’t occurred to Tanner that he would see Sebastian’s parents, that they would recognize him, that they would associate him with the cancer infecting their son. But of course they do.

“And there’s the dad,” Autumn says, nodding to Dan across the room.

“Yeah.”

Sebastian’s mother looks up at Dan Brother to gauge his reaction, as if seeking guidance. After a pause, they both manage to shift their expressions back to neutral.

Autumn tucks her arm through Tanner’s. “You okay?”

“I want to leave. But it’s too late.”

It is too late. They’re two people back now, and Tanner can see Sebastian. He gets an eyeful of him too, wearing a neatly pressed blue dress shirt and dark tie. His hair is shorter. He’s wearing his mask of a smile. But even in this LDS bookstore, behind a wall of LDS people, he still looks like the guy on the hike, the guy eating Chinese food, the guy on the hood of the car.

Then Sebastian looks up and sees who is next in line, and the mask crumbles, for just a second. No—longer. It’s a double take, and it’s so achingly familiar.

Tanner steps up, holding his book out. “Hi. Congratulations.”

Sebastian’s jaw tics, and he clears his throat, brow furrowed. “Hi.” He looks down, pulling Autumn’s book closer, slowly peeling the Post-it from the front. “Um . . .” He exhales, and it trembles its way out of him. He clears his throat again, flipping the book open to the title page, lifting his pen with a shaking hand.

Autumn looks frantically back and forth between them. “Hey, Sebastian.”

He looks up at her, seeming to blink into focus. “Autumn. Hi. How are you?”

“I’m good. Leaving for Connecticut in a couple weeks. Where’s your first tour stop?”

“After this? I head to Denver.” He ticks off the cities robotically: “Portland, San Francisco, Phoenix, Austin, Dallas, Atlanta, Charleston, Chicago, Minneapolis . . . um . . . Philadelphia, New York, and then home.”

“Wow,” she says. “That’s insane.”

Sebastian lets out a dry laugh as he signs her book first, writing a simple Good luck at Yale. Best wishes, and thank you, Sebastian Brother.

He hands Autumn her book and then pulls Tanner’s copy closer. After a brief scowl at the Post-it note, he balls it up in his fist and drops it into the trash can at his feet.

Tanner has been quiet for a few seconds, and Autumn gently elbows him in the side. Say something, she mouths.

“I came to say thank you,” he says quietly, hoping he’s out of earshot from the people around them—specifically, Sebastian’s parents. Sebastian stiffens, and focuses on whatever it is he’s writing. “For what you did. I’m not sure I understand why you did it, but I’m grateful.”

“Thank you so much for coming tonight, Tanner,” Sebastian says magnanimously. Having recovered his composure somewhat, his voice projects out beyond the protected space of the table.

The tone is so sickeningly false that Tanner nearly laughs. Finally, he meets Sebastian’s eyes again, and it’s devastating. His voice may have recovered, but his eyes haven’t. They’re tight and shiny with tears.

“Oh my God, I’m sorry,” Tanner says quietly. “I shouldn’t have come.”

“Are you a fan of the fantasy genre?” Sebastian’s voice is still forcibly bright. He widens his eyes, working to pull the tears back inside.

This hurts them both, and now Tanner feels like a monster. “I hope your book tour is amazing,” he says, not bothering to carry on the other side of a fake conversation. “I hope your mission is too. I leave for LA in August, but call me anytime.” He gives one final glance up. “Anytime.”

He takes the book from Sebastian’s hand without even looking at it and turns, leaving Autumn to pay inside. Tanner pushes through the crowd and back out onto the street, where there is oxygen, and space, and a complete lack of dancing, lake-in-the-sun eyes staring up at him.