Holding On to All That Hope

August is Summer Reading Month in Daily Nutmeg, and Maddie Dawson is this week’s featured author. Please enjoy this excerpt from Dawson’s 2016 novel, The Survivor’s Guide to Family Happiness.

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So he was really, really leaving, like his parents had told him he had to, and even though she already knew he wouldn’t stand up to them, she had held out the tiniest bit of hope that something would happen and there would be a reprieve.

But no. Sometime between tomorrow morning and the end of the world, Tilton O’Malley would be taken by his father to attend the University of Snobs and Rich People, but right now, he was still theirs—hers and A.J.’s—and it was just another oppressively hot August night and they were running the streets. Only difference was that Tilton was wearing a wrinkled, button-down white shirt with his red-striped tie loosened—he’d been liberated from his parents’ official preppy goodbye party for him, after all—but he was drunk and stoned and red faced and laughing way too much, like always. He kept bumping his hip into Phoebe Mullen’s as they walked down the middle of the street, trying to get her to smile at him.

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She did even better than smile: she lifted her arms overhead and danced her flamenco moves, singing and flipping her long red hair and swinging her hips into his friend A.J.’s hip instead, looking right at Tilton, daring him to react.

Tilton flushed and turned away, but shit, he deserved it. He hadn’t even insisted to his mom that they invite Phoebe to the party, for Christ’s sake. That’s how bad things had gotten. He had no guts. None, not one gut.

It was weird now to think that Phoebe had once thought he might take her with him. Tilton could get her a place near the college, her and the baby. Correction: babies; the other one would be born soon. She’d even worked out a budget for them: he’d have the campus meal plan his parents were paying for, and she could get by on beans and rice and Hamburger Helper. He’d live in the dorm, of course, but he could come and visit on weekends, maybe even do his studying at their kitchen table. And as for money, she was only seventeen, but she’d start a babysitting business in the apartment, a little day care, so she could be home with the kids.

Oh, she had been an idiot, as her sister had told her. And everyone knew it. She was the worst kind of idiot, making those plans. Holding on to all that hope.

She tucked her arm inside A.J.’s and smirked at Tilton.

“Come on, Pheebs, stop acting weird,” Tilton said. “It’s our last night! Can’t we have fuuuuun?”

A.J. Barnes—skinny, appease-at-any-cost A.J.—agreed with him. He disengaged himself from Phoebe and passed Tilton the joint. “Let’s go to the ball field and take care of that scoreboard. Once and for all, man.”

It was a guy thing, this need to hit out the lights. Once they got to the ball field, Tilton jimmied the hinge to the supply shed, and the two of them threw themselves against the door, laughing as the plywood splintered into shards. Bats and balls crashed down around them. A.J. jumped back so fast that his cowboy hat came off, and he scurried to get it in the dirt.

For this she had sneaked out of the apartment, leaving her sleeping rosy-faced toddler with her sister. She’d had to—it was their last night, and she had to be here, to feel it all, because when she became a famous actress she would need to remember every single moment of the end of this relationship. And—she had to be resolved about this—this was the end. She, A.J., and Tilton had spent the past three years of high school sneaking out late at night, dodging headlights and cop cars, laughing and smoking joints, talking about stuff, reciting comedy, passing between them the Budweisers that A.J. filched from his stepfather’s stash. And it had all been wonderful, the best thing she’d probably ever have in her whole life. Tilton was the first guy who listened to her, who thought she was smart and pretty, and made her feel like it didn’t matter that she didn’t have parents anymore and had to live with her sister in the most crowded, pathetic apartment ever. She—red-haired, freckled, artistically dorky—had somehow become cool, respected, acting with him in plays, singing in choruses, being his girlfriend.

And, well, there was the other thing, the sex. After they shooed A.J. away, she and Tilton would come back down here to the ball field and have sex under the bleachers. Baseball sex, he called it. They’d figured out how to do it just about anywhere—backstage at the high school, in the hallway of her apartment building—but his favorite place was in his mom’s BMW while it was parked in the family’s garage (“suicide sex,” he’d called it, because he’d have to immolate himself if his mother caught him).

But not tonight. No, no, no. Tonight, sitting there on the bleachers watching him being so happy, she realized she was filled with hate. It was like a physical thing inside of her, a ball of hate that she could beam toward anything. She directed that hate toward his floppy blond hair as it caught the weak light from the street; then it went to the way he laughed and stuck his butt out, leaning into the strike zone. She turned her head and hated that the dirt was red, that the bleachers were blue and needed paint, and that she shouldn’t be drinking because of the baby—not the sweet-smelling thirteen-month-old baby Kate who was asleep in her sister’s apartment, but the new baby who would be born after Tilton was enrolled in his stupid college. The hate told her to stand up, and then she heard her own raspy voice screaming, “Come on, Tilty! Hit it like you mean it!”

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The Survivor’s Guide to Family Happiness
by Maddie Dawson
Where to buy: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBoundRJ Julia

Image, photographed by Dan Mims, depicts Maddie Dawson at Jacobs Beach in Guilford, Connecticut.

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