Brief Candle 
Jenna Wengler

Overall Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult Literature

Fair is foul, and foul is fair.

—Shakespeare, Macbeth

 

After school, Blanca takes me to the Sonic across the street for half-price happy-hour limeades to apologize for making me almost-late for the history final. I love their limeade—the fizz stinging my nose, the crushed ice slushing against the Styrofoam cup like boots in week-old snow—but today it’s hard to be in the mood for it.

By now, Blanca knows how I work: Before a final, I needed time to review my notes, fill my water bottle, take some deep breaths, line my pencils up at the top of my desk. For that, we need to be at school by 7:10, but this morning she didn’t roll into my driveway until 7:20. “Sorry, Macy,” she said, looking at her phone as I slid into the passenger seat of her Prius, but she didn’t really seem sorry. “I was about to leave, and then I got another message from Flora, and our conversation just kind of snowballed. I don’t want her to think I’ll be the kind of roommate who would just leave her on read.”

It made it even worse that her lateness was because of Flora, her new college roommate who she hasn’t even met, but who has suddenly become her best friend.

“I want cherry,” I mutter as Blanca rolls down her window and presses the button to order. The spring air is muggy and still, the kind of air that foretells tornados, or at the very least, storms. I roll my window down too, in a futile attempt to get some cross breeze.

Blanca grimaces. “Cherry dye looks so gross. Like blood.” A voice crackles over the speaker, and she orders two large limeades, one regular and one cherry.

“Blood’s not bright red,” I snap when she’s done. “It’s got a rusty undertone.”

Blanca rolls her eyes.

I know I’m being argumentative about stupid things, but I’m still irritated with Blanca for this morning. The whole way to school she blabbed on and on about Flora Garcia, her future roommate at Missouri State. Flora is from St. Louis, practically a five-hour drive away from Southwest Missouri, but they met on a Facebook page for MO State housing. Flora messaged Blanca because they had the same last name. “But it turns out we’re not even related!” Blanca said, as if in awe of the coincidence, when she first told me about Flora.

“Duh,” I said. “There are millions of people with the last name Garcia.” What I really meant is that she shouldn’t be getting a roommate at all. I should be her roommate. Only I don’t know yet if I’m going to Missouri State, or if I’m staying here to go to community college. And of course I can’t expect Blanca to wait for me. If I don’t end up going, then everyone normal will have already paired up, and she’ll get put with some weird loser who couldn’t find anyone. I can’t ask Blanca to risk that for me, but I wish she wanted to without me asking.

“Have you talked to anyone who’s taken the calc final?” I ask as we wait for our limeades. We have it tomorrow, and Mrs. Duncan’s tests are notoriously hard.

“We are not talking about finals, Macy,” Blanca says. “I’m trying to get your mind off school. Think about how we’re finally about to graduate. Think about Project Grad. I heard they hired a hypnotist.” Project Grad is the lock-in the PTA puts on to prevent us from drinking on graduation night, but I’m not ready to celebrate yet.

I sigh and shift my backpack so it’s resting between my knees, positioned as if I birthed its contents from my hips. In a way, I did, throughout my four-year labor of AP classes and all-night study sessions. I can’t falter now. Not with the Hecate Fund on the line.

In eighth grade Melinda Hecate died of leukemia, and in the midst of the candlelight vigil and army of extra guidance counselors, her parents announced the creation of a scholarship fund in her honor, with its first payout going to the valedictorian of her would-have-been graduating class. Technically, there are seventy of us in the running, but only four have ever had a shot: me, Blanca, Theresa Cawdor, and Madison Duff. Blanca resigned herself to the loss when she got a B+ in physics last semester and fell to fourth in class rank, but I’m still in the thick of it. Theresa was first for a while, but last month she got caught smoking pot in the parking lot during lunch, making her ineligible to be valedictorian and pushing Madison to first and me to second. But if I get an A in calc and she gets an A, I’ll pull ahead of Madison.

As if I conjured her with my thoughts, Madison pulls into the slot next to us and rolls down her window to order. All three of her passengers are fellow members of Club 121, the group that gathers around the flagpole every Wednesday morning before school, praying as if it’s the dusty hem of Jesus’s robes billowing in the wind above them.

“Hi, Blanca!” Madison says, extra chipper. Even though it’s my open window she’s talking through, she looks straight past me, as usual since she found out about me and Lonna. Even for the Bible Belt, Madison Duff takes Christianity to another level. She’s wearing a shirt with the Frito-Lay logo, except it says “He’s the Way.” Madison has tons of shirts like this, with logos that look like one thing but end up being about Jesus.

“Are you going to Project Grad?” Blanca asks, and they start their usual canned niceties. Blanca hates Madison as much as I do, if not more, but they have Advanced Studio Art together, so Blanca finds it easier to be fake-friendly in person and bad-mouth her behind her back. I’m sure Madison does the same to Blanca. In ninth grade, she invited Blanca to get ice cream, then halfway through her butter pecan she told Blanca that she wanted to introduce her to “my very best friend, Jesus Christ.” Apparently, she assumed that as the only non-white kid in our class, Blanca must be a particular heathen. Blanca told her she was already Catholic, which Madison said didn’t count.

A voice comes through Madison’s speaker to take her order, and Blanca turns back to me. “What’s done is done,” she says, drumming her thumbs on the steering wheel in a preamble for the coming rain. “Just relax and do your best tomorrow.”

That’s easy for her to say; her parents can afford to pay for college. If I don’t get the Hecate Fund, I’ll either be buried in loans or have to keep living with my mom and go to community college. I have to be valedictorian.

A girl in a baggy red polo delivers a tray of drinks to a nearby truck. The carhop’s dyed-black hair is up in a greasy ponytail above the band of her visor, but a recalcitrant chunk has escaped and lies limp on her shoulder. She turns, revealing a dermal piercing with a diamond stud on her cheekbone, just under her eye.

“Oh my god, I can’t believe they’d let someone like Hazel Sanderson work here,” Madison, now finished ordering, says to Blanca. The gossip sprinted through school last month: Madison’s boyfriend had been busted having sex with Hazel in a band practice room, right up against the piano, keys pounding in a bodily cacophony. Most people surmised it was revenge on Hazel’s part. When we were in ninth grade, a rumor went around that Hazel had an abortion, and Madison convinced everyone to shun the “baby-killer.” The dyed hair and piercings came after.

Madison lowers her voice to a mock-whisper. “She’s been giving tarot readings at lunch. I can’t be around devil worship.” She turns to say something to her passengers and then drives off without even getting their drinks.

Blanca and I make eye contact, then burst into laughter.

A moment later, Hazel is at Blanca’s window with our limeades. Blanca passes me mine, and I pop the straw through the plastic lid while she pays.

“I heard you can tell the future,” Blanca says to Hazel, and I shoot Blanca a look, which she ignores.

“I can,” Hazel says. Up close, I notice that she has a babyish pudge in her cheeks and fine dark hairs along her upper lip. Her cat-eye liner is done meticulously, in perfect symmetrical swoops.

“Macy is freaking out about finals,” Blanca says, gesturing at me with her thumb. “Can you tell her what she got on the history exam today?”

Hazel thinks for a second. “Ninety-three point two percent,” she says.

Blanca is delighted that Hazel is playing along. “And what’s she going to get on calculus Thursday?”

Hazel smiles. “A hundred percent.”

I cough a laugh. “Yeah, right.”

Hazel’s dermal piercing catches in the light, flashing. I want to reach out and brush it off like a crumb. She shrugs at Blanca. “I’m just telling you what I know, future valedictorian.” She turns back toward the kitchen.

“See, nothing to worry about,” Blanca says, laughing.

I put my drink in the cupholder and get out my phone. “You’re stressing me out even more.”

“You’re not checking your grades, are you?” Blanca asks. I refuse to answer while I tap the PowerSchool shortcut and type in my password. My stomach pulls toward my spine as I wait for the app to load. Numbers appear. I stop breathing. A grade sits in the final exam column that wasn’t there before. In history. A ninety-three point two percent.

“Holy shit,” I say.

“What?” Blanca grabs my phone. Her eyes widen. “Well,” she says, grinning, “I guess you don’t have to worry about the calc final anymore.”

*

When Blanca drops me off at my house, there’s a beat-up Buick in my driveway. “I told Lonna I needed to study alone today,” I say, slamming Blanca’s car door. Her Prius crunches out of the driveway behind me.

Lonna’s already inside, sitting at the kitchen table eating a bowl of Froot Loops. The formerly pink peonies on the wallpaper above her faded to mud years ago, and the finish on the table is clouded by water rings. But Lonna’s never bothered by any of that the way I am.

“What did you do, jimmy the lock so you could steal our food?” I say.

“Love you too,” she says, standing and leaning down to kiss me milkily. I slip my hands into her back pockets. She’s wearing her favorite jeans, the ones with rhinestones on the ass that she got at Goodwill. A few of the stones are missing from their rivets, leaving indents for me to press my thumbs into. I don’t have the heart to tell Lonna these jeans have gone out of style.

Despite her dated fashion, Lonna is gorgeous. She has the soft angles of a birch tree and long hair the color of an overripe plum. She gathers it in her fist and tosses it over her shoulder as we separate. “I got here as your mom was leaving for her night shift, and she let me in,” she explains.

Of course. My mom loves Lonna. When we started dating, my mom was overjoyed to see her strangely studious, high-strung daughter with someone who smoked and drank and acted like a normal teenager. At school, people were less than thrilled. Especially Madison. But Lonna was popular, so no one ever says anything to my face, even though she graduated two years ago.

“How was the Haven today?” I ask, unzipping my backpack. Lonna is taking classes at the community college while working part-time at a daycare called Harper’s Haven.

“Terrible,” Lonna says. “I accidentally stepped on a baby doll and dented its head, which made a three-year-old cry.” She hates her job, but jobs are too hard to come by for her to quit. Too many people sticking around after high school and college, living in their parents’ basements and clogging up the job market.

Lonna winds her arms around my waist from behind, leaning around to kiss my neck. I elbow her off and pull my calculus book out of my backpack. Being with Lonna is like the breath you take when you miss a step. I can’t afford that loss of control, not now.

She sits back down across from me. “Listen,” she says. “I want to talk to you about something.”

Her tone makes me look up from my math.

“I should have told you this weeks ago,” she says.

“What?”

Lonna takes a long breath. “Remember how I was a teaching assistant for Mrs. Duncan during my free period senior year? Well, I know where she keeps her answer keys. And I know how to distract her.”

I stare at her, wondering if she’s joking. She doesn’t break my gaze. I stand, knocking my chair backward. “You want me to cheat? Who do you think I am?”

“I think that you’re the hardest-working, smartest person in your class, and I also know that tests can be subjective, can be affected by whether you studied the right question or got enough sleep or stayed calm enough to avoid simple mistakes.” She stands too. “I don’t think you should leave something so important to fate.”

“Why would you bring this up now?” I ask. “The day before the test?”

She shrinks, staring down at the table. Hunched like that, she hardly looks like herself at all. I’m used to playful Lonna, daring Lonna, romantic Lonna, but this is something new. “You’re the only good thing in my life right now,” she says. “But keeping you here would be selfish. I don’t want you to end up like—”

I take a step to Lonna and kiss her before she can finish her sentence, even though we both know how it ends. “I’m not cheating,” I say.

She wraps her arms around my waist for a moment, then lets me go.

After Lonna leaves, the sky purples and the clouds tighten into knots. The cicadas go wild, chirping a constant thrum of warning. I try to study, but too many thoughts churn within me. I hover my pencil above a derivative, thinking about Lonna. In high school, she was super-involved: student body president, varsity volleyball, Spanish club secretary, National Honor Society, Youth in Government committee chair. Everyone knew her, and everyone loved her. No one expected her to get stuck like this.

I force myself to do a row of problems and check the answers in the back of the book. In my distracted state I missed three. Rain starts all at once, smacking the kitchen window. I flick on the light above the table, switching my view of the darkening yard to my own mirrored reflection. Thunder tumbles across the sky.

I think again of Hazel’s prediction. Maybe there’s a reasonable explanation for her knowing my history grade. Maybe she saw the graded tests sitting out on Mrs. Marlow’s desk. But what are the odds that she’d remember my score so exactly? Or that she’d see me later that day and have an opportunity to use that knowledge? And there’s no way she could be right about me getting a hundred on calc; half the class usually failed Mrs. Duncan’s tests. Unless, I think. Unless she really could see the future, and she saw Lonna’s plan unfolding.

I try to replay the conversation with Hazel. I can picture her limp hair, her flashing piercing, the dark fuzz on her upper lip. But what was in her eyes as she said I’d be valedictorian? Did she look at me with admiration? With disdain? With teasing superiority?

Suddenly, lightning turns the window from mirror to transparent glass, revealing tree branches that flail in the wind like drowning arms. I gasp in realization. I can’t remember the look in Hazel’s eyes because she wasn’t looking at me at all. It wasn’t me she called valedictorian. It was Blanca.

*

I’m silent in Blanca’s passenger seat the next morning, in such a state of panic that I’ve turned the corner and become calm again. My eyes ache. Hazel’s prophecy murdered any chance of sleep last night. Instead, I knotted myself in the sweaty cords of my sheets, becoming increasingly enraged. I was still awake at four a.m. when I heard my mom get home from the Super 8 where she manages the front desk overnight and slip into her bedroom.

Lonna was right—I’ve worked so much harder for this than Blanca. Blanca whose parents both have degrees. Blanca whose mom helped her with college applications. Blanca who got a car for her sixteenth birthday. Blanca who’s never had to worry about anything.

“I’m so embarrassed,” Blanca says as she changes lanes. “Last night Flora asked me if I was going to the first LSA meeting, and I told her I hadn’t heard of LSA. Turns out it’s the Latino Student Association. She’s the president of her high school’s chapter, and she seemed kind of freaked out that I didn’t already plan on being involved.”

“I’m sure it’s fine,” I say as Blanca pulls up to a light and flicks on her blinker. “How can she expect you to know about campus organizations before you even get there?”

“I’m worried that she wanted to be my roommate because she thought I was Mexican,” Blanca says.

“You are Mexican.”

“I mean, like really Mexican. Not the kind of Mexican person who doesn’t speak Spanish and only has white friends.”

I don’t point out that around here it’s a choice between white friends and no friends. Instead, I stare out the window. The sky is bright, but still tinted by the storm, a slight green that makes me feel underwater.

As Blanca accelerates, the road seems to press in, tightening around us. In just one day, everything I’ve planned so carefully has flown apart as if caught in last night’s wind.

I almost don’t notice when Blanca pulls into the school lot next to a Buick. Lonna leans against the trunk, sipping a half-empty bottle of Diet Dr. Pepper, and as soon as I see her, I know what I’m going to do.

“You go ahead,” I tell Blanca, and she starts for the door.

“Okay,” I say to Lonna. “What’s the plan?”

Technically Lonna is supposed to get a visitor badge, but no one stops her as we head past the front office. The halls are still mostly empty; the few students who are here this early are in the cafeteria hanging out or cramming for exams. On our way to Mrs. Duncan’s room, Lonna swings her pop bottle at her side as she describes the filing system under her breath. In the second drawer from the bottom, Mrs. Duncan has a folder for every quarter, subdivided into “Homework,” “Handouts,” and “Tests.” In “Quarter 4Tests” I’ll find the final exam and, behind it, the answer key. All I have to do is take some quick pictures with my phone.

As we approach the classroom, I almost tell Lonna to forget it. How will it feel to get the Hecate Fund knowing that I haven’t earned it? But I have earned it, I remind myself. I’m sure neither Blanca nor Madison studied as hard as me. And yet with the storm and the prophecy, I’m not myself. Taking the answer key won’t deceive anyone about my abilities, just show them more accurately.

I wait around the corner while Lonna peeks into the classroom. I hear Mrs. Duncan’s voice. “Lonna! What a nice surprise!”

Lonna turns her charm all the way up. “I was missing the old days and wanted to say hi,” she says. I can’t hear Mrs. Duncan’s reply, but then Lonna says, “I would love to, but I also want to see Mrs. Marlow, and I only have a few minutes before I have to leave for work.” I wonder what Lonna will do if Mrs. Duncan simply says goodbye and stays in her classroom, but the ploy works, and the two of them stroll down the hall away from me, chatting merrily.

I dart into Mrs. Duncan’s room and head straight to the filing cabinet behind her desk. The answer key is exactly where Lonna described it, and it’s in my hand before I have a chance to think. I hold it for a moment, feeling the weight of its pages. The empty room is eerily silent, and I feel like someone is watching me, but of course when I turn around, no one is. I’ve never done anything like this before, and I can hardly believe I’m doing it now. I almost put the test back without taking any pictures, but then I think about the conversation Lonna is having right now, just so I can do this. How the teachers are eager to know what she, such a promising student just two years ago, is doing now. How she has to tell them that she’s working at a daycare and taking a break from school after she finishes her associate’s degree. Just a break, to save up, of course. But how many people really go back after that break? You lose momentum, and that’s the end of it. My mom has been going back to school “someday” my whole life. I imagine the teachers’ disappointed ohs, their polite smiles that will never fool Lonna. I can decide later whether to use the pictures, but I can’t make her go through that without at least taking them. It’s easy: flip, tap, flip, tap, flip, tap, and then the answer key is back in the drawer and I’m back in the hallway.

Lonna meets me in the cafeteria. She peels the label off the Diet Dr. Pepper, then transcribes the answers from my phone onto the blank side with a thin-tipped Sharpie. 1a, 2c, 3b, 4a … When she’s done, she takes a glue stick from her jacket pocket and re-adheres the label, then shows me how to tilt the bottle to make the answers appear.

She sets it on the table in front of me, her writing now hidden by the dark liquid. “Good luck,” she says, and kisses me goodbye. No luck will be needed, I almost remind her, but before I can, she’s gone.

*

The Diet Dr. Pepper taunts me from the center of my desk in Mrs. Duncan’s classroom. I’m not going through with it. Instead, I will stand and walk over to the trash can and drop the bottle in with the swish and thunk of a flightless baby bird falling from its nest. In just a minute I will do it. I really will.

The bell rings for the first exam of the day to begin. I don’t move. Blanca turns around and mouths, “You got this.” I don’t move. Mrs. Duncan tells us to put away our phones and take out a pencil and calculator. I don’t move.

And then the test is lying in front of me, the paper tooth-white and curling. The copier blotted the ink along the left edge. The corner is stapled with a tight, electric precision.

I solve the first question, a word problem about acceleration. According to my calculation, the car is moving negative forty-five miles per hour. Shit. My pencil hand trembles. I comb through my scribbling and realize I’ve multiplied instead of adding and said that three plus four is twelve. I fix my error and carry the correction through, but now my answer is negative two miles per hour. My chest tightens. The room boils.

Slowly, I unscrew the plastic cap. I glance at Mrs. Duncan, who is absorbed in her laptop. It won’t hurt to look at just a few answers to get my confidence up.

I tilt the bottle like I’m going to take a sip and squint at the first five letters through the plastic. When the liquid reaches my lips, I press them closed in a chaste kiss. Then I return the bottle to my desk and replace the cap. I trace the sweet liquid on my mouth with the tip of my tongue. I mark five answers on the scantron and flip to the next page, where I solve the first three myself, fumbling through the calculations, before realizing that the girl sitting beside me is already two pages ahead. I take another sip of Dr. Pepper and get the rest of the page’s answers, plus correct one that I missed. There’s no point in trying to solve them myself, I realize. For the rest of the test, I stall on each page, running through meaningless calculations until it seems like I’ve taken a reasonable amount of time, then bubble in the correct answers on my scantron.

After we pass our completed tests forward for Mrs. Duncan to collect, I wait as Blanca packs up. “That was awful,” I hear Madison tell two of her Club 121 friends behind us. “I didn’t even have time to solve the last page. I had to mark c for everything.” I grin. I got one hundred percent. I made Hazel’s prophecy come true. But part of me can’t relax yet.

“I thought you didn’t like Dr. Pepper,” Blanca says, nodding toward the bottle as she slings her backpack over her shoulder.

“It’s okay,” I say. Blanca squints at me. She knows me too well. “Lonna got it for me to wish me luck, and I didn’t want to be rude,” I add.

“Then can I have the rest?” Blanca asks.

I have to think quick. “Lonna drank out of it, and I’m pretty sure she’s getting a cold,” I say as I toss it into the trash on our way out the door. I planned to throw the bottle away in the cafeteria to get the evidence away from Mrs. Duncan’s room, but I can’t risk Blanca looking at it closely.

Blanca and I head for the cafeteria, shouldering our way through clusters of freshmen walking the wrong way down the hall. A group of guys throws a football above students’ heads, relishing the fact that no teacher will feel like writing them up on the last day of school. The last day of high school ever, I think. After lunch and the English final, we’ll be done. Graduation is Saturday, just two days away, and then all this is over.

Blanca steps to the side to avoid a pop bottle that someone kicked down the hallway. It bounces off a locker just ahead of us, then skitters toward the other side of the hall and rolls to a stop. I freeze. My Diet Dr. Pepper! I look again. Of course not, it’s just a Coke. I take a deep breath. Relax. It’s done.

Blanca takes her home-packed lunch to our usual table while I get in line with a tray still steaming from the dishwasher. This is the last day of square pizza with too-floury dough. The last day of fries soggy from oil. The last day of milk from a carton that dissolves into papery mush as I drink. I smile as I punch in my lunch number and walk to our round five-seater against the back wall.

Two feet from the table, I stop. Blanca is laughing with our usual tablemates—Henry, Beatrice, and Liz. They’ve left me an open seat next to Blanca. Except it’s not open. Right where I am about to set my tray, facing me, is a half-drunk bottle of Diet Dr. Pepper, its label slick and shining.

“What the hell,” I say. Four faces turn, moons caught in the bottle’s immense gravity. “Who did this?” I shout, gesturing at the bottle. My words taste of bile.

“Sorry,” Liz mutters, pulling the bottle toward herself and laying it in her open lunchbox.

I look again at the bottle, cradled like an egg in the insulated cloth. It’s not a Diet Dr. Pepper anymore, just a regular Dr. Pepper. And it’s empty, the inside of the label clearly blank. But I know what I saw. It must have changed somehow. Someone is playing a trick on me. I just need to get my mind untangled so I can figure out how.

No, that’s ridiculous. I take a deep breath and sit.

“What’s wrong with you?” Blanca whispers as the rest of the table resumes conversation. “I know you’re stressed, but you’ve been kind of a bitch lately.”

“Are you kidding me?” I say. “You of all people think I’m being a bitch?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“All you can talk about is Flora this, Flora that,” I say. “You’re becoming someone you’re not just to impress her.”

“At least I don’t think one dumb test is going to change my life.” Blanca whips away from me and starts a conversation with Henry.

The test is over. I’m valedictorian. I’m supposed to be happy.

I eat my now-cold fries, grinding salt crystals between my molars.

*

The English final after lunch is easy, and I finish early. After I turn it in, I refresh PowerSchool on my phone, but there aren’t any changes. I sneak a look at Hazel across the room. She’s still writing, her dark head bobbing gently. I refresh PowerSchool again, and there it is. The calculus final: one hundred percent. I let out a breath. Seeing the official score gives it a wonderful sense of finality.

I text Blanca: im sorry, youre totally right. ive just been so stressed.

Yeah, Blanca doesn’t understand what I’ve been going through, but she’s just excited for college. As I should be, now that I’m going to get the Hecate Fund.

I just need to confirm a few things, and then everything will be okay. I’m actually looking forward to Project Grad. Lonna is coming as my guest, and she and Blanca and I can hang out all night. I know Blanca will accept my apology. We’ve been friends forever, and we’ve gotten through bigger fights.

When the bell rings, I text Blanca again to say that my mom is picking me up. Then, I head to Mrs. Duncan’s classroom. The teachers wave goodbye to the busses on the last day, so I know she won’t be there. I press the door handle, and it’s unlocked.

I shut the door behind me and peer into the trash can. It was a dumb place to throw away the bottle, but now I can fix that mistake.

The bag is bunched up, hiding its contents in its folds. I work my hands around the inner sides, smoothing the bag, but all that’s in the trash can are scraps of paper and a red jolly rancher, slick with saliva, glistening against its open wrapper. I reach all the way in, avoiding the candy, and press my hand against the bottom to make sure there isn’t anything else. There isn’t.

I straighten back up, heartbeat in my ears. Maybe the janitor already came to empty the bag, and the paper and candy just got stuck. Surely that’s it. It has to be.

But now the second part of my plan is even more important.

The school parking lot is already emptying. I pass the line of pickup trucks blasting the first songs of summer on their subwoofers as I race to Sonic. I perch on a table on the center concrete island. As I wait, I pick at a misshapen gob of plastic on the table’s edge with my thumbnail.

A few minutes later, Hazel parks in an employee spot and goes in the back door, then emerges carrying a drink tray that she delivers to a nearby car. As she slips the money from the order into her apron, she sees me and smiles. She counts change and hands it through the window, and then she’s beaming down at me.

“You must be happy, valedictorian,” she says. The wings of her eyeliner seem even thicker than yesterday.

“That’s what I came to ask you about,” I say. “You said that Blanca would be valedictorian.”

Hazel laughs. “Blanca will be valedictorian when Madison Duff does doggy style in front of our graduating class and trees grow through the floor of the gymnasium.”

“So … never?”

Hazel grins, revealing that one of her incisors is turned sideways. I wonder if her parents couldn’t afford braces either. Then, before I can thank her, she’s gone.

It takes me an hour to walk home, but I don’t mind.

*

Graduation is held at the church next door to our school, the only place in town with enough seating for the seventy graduates, our teachers, and our guests. I part ways with my mom and Lonna in the atrium. They follow the families into the sanctuary, while I go to the rec room to put on my cap and gown, both red, our school color. I find Blanca standing under the folded-up basketball hoop and help her pin her cap to her hair. She texted me last night to say she forgave me and she was sorry too, but today she is quiet.

I’ve wanted to be valedictorian for so long that I forgot one day it would actually be happening. I imagined Valedictorian-Macy as a smarter, steadier version of myself. But here I am, just the regular me. I flap my arms like a bat in my gown, which makes Blanca laugh, and I know she’s softening.

“You have your speech?” she asks.

“Yep.” Writing it yesterday was the perfect release for my pent-up emotions.

As class president, Madison gathers us in a circle around the perimeter of the room and leads us in a prayer, which I don’t mind as much as I usually would. “Separation of church and state, my ass,” Blanca whispers, but it feels nice to stand together, all seventy of us, one final time.

Everyone lines up in alphabetical order except me and Blanca. We stand in the front as valedictorian and salutatorian. Madison must have really bombed Mrs. Duncan’s test, because Blanca ended up second in class rank, after me. We lead the procession into the sanctuary and take our seats. The president of the school board makes some remarks, then Principal Wright, and then it’s my turn.

I arrive at the front of the room without remembering walking there. I smooth my paper on the pulpit. After I thank everyone for coming and our parents and teachers for their support, I take a deep breath and begin the heart of my speech:

“In this school, and in this town, a few people have all the advantages. Some people in our class had resources and opportunities that I did not. For them, life came easy. But they didn’t work as hard as me. Standing up here, I have proven that effort and determination are rewarded, that the further down we start, the higher we can rise.” I pause, gazing out over the light-bleached faces of my audience. Then I let them blur in my vision and return to the page in front of me. “But even if my hard work in high school has paid off, it’s not enough to bask in my success. Plenty of people around here have early success, but never amount to anything. I have to keep pushing forward and never give up.” Then I look back over the audience and conclude with the lines I’ve memorized: “High school was only a brief candle in our lives, and now it’s burned out. It’s time to look toward tomorrow. Tomorrow we will be dedicated. Tomorrow we will be ambitious. Tomorrow we will do anything it takes to meet our goals. Thank you.”

I swim through the applause back to my seat.

After we’ve all received our diplomas and shaken hands with a line of official-looking adults, we march to the lawn for the cap toss. I spot Blanca in the crowd and bump her with my hip.

She rolls her eyes and turns away.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

Madison’s voice comes over a megaphone, telling us to flip our tassels to the other side. I walk around Blanca to see her face. She looks pissed.

“Was your speech about me?” she says as she unpins her cap, holding her hair clips in her open palm like shining beetles. “Do you think I had it easy? That I didn’t work hard?”

“Of course not,” I say. “But it is true you don’t have to worry about things like I do.”

“Seriously?” Blanca says. “I’ve been the token brown girl my whole life, and just when that might start to change, my best friend tells me I’m being fake. I’m too brown for the white kids, and now I’m afraid I might be too white for the brown kids, and when I tried to confide in you about it, you ignored me because you’re so wrapped up in yourself.”

Madison gives the signal and the caps rise like birds, hanging against the sky for a moment before plummeting back to earth. “And you should know I’ve worked my ass off in high school,” Blanca finishes. As everyone scrambles to reclaim their cap, she disappears into the chaos.

My mom appears with Lonna hovering behind her in a floral-print dress. “I’m so proud,” my mom says. “I just saw Mrs. Hecate, and she gave me her contact information so we can make arrangements for the college money they’re giving you.” She smiles. “I mean, the college money you earned.”

I feel sick. I did earn it, didn’t I?

The graduates start shedding their gowns into pools of cloth on the grass. My mom takes mine, kisses me on the forehead, and tells me and Lonna to have fun at Project Grad. When she’s gone, Lonna turns to me. “I’m going to head out.”

“But you’re coming to Project Grad with me.”

She shakes her head. “You should enjoy your time with your class.”

“But I want you there.”

“Really?” She tilts her head at me. “You want to spend time with someone who never amounted to anything?”

I gape at her. “I didn’t—”

“You can’t tell me you weren’t thinking about me when you talked about people giving up after high school.” Kids are kicking balloons around, and one floats near Lonna’s face, but she bats it away.

“You said you didn’t want me to end up like you,” I say. “You said it, not me.”

“That’s the worst thing I think about myself,” Lonna says. “You’re supposed to be the one who tells me it’s not true.”

I watch her walk toward the parking lot, her heels sticking in the grass with each step. How did Blanca and Lonna both interpret my speech so wrong? I was trying to air my frustrations with the way the world works. I wasn’t trying to say those things about people I love.

But you were thinking them, says a tiny voice inside me.

*

The PTA volunteers decorated each section of the school in a different theme for Project Grad. The atrium is Old Hollywood, with a “red carpet” made of butcher paper taped to the floor and silver cardboard stars hanging from the ceiling on fishing line. A mom standing between two giant inflatable Oscars hands me a raffle ticket and directs me to a table with plastic champagne glasses full of sparkling grape juice. I look around, unsure where to go without Blanca or Lonna. The group beside me heads for the cafeteria, so I follow.

The cafeteria is dark, and everyone is either wearing glow sticks or waving them in time to the music, creating streaks and arcs in the air. Neon and black lights illuminate a game area where people are playing cornhole and life-size Jenga, near a food table with bowls of Chex Mix and rows of homemade baked goods. I search for Blanca. Surely I can get her to understand she misunderstood me. But did she? the voice asks. Shut up, I tell it. Shut up.

I spot Blanca at the front of the cafeteria by a low portable stage. But before I can get to her, a crowd forms. The ripe bodies press in, pinning me to my spot. Someone turns on the section of lights over the stage, and a man wearing a purple sequined vest introduces himself as Mr. Mesmerize, hypnotist. The cornhole game ends as more people wander over, curious. Mr. Mesmerize asks for volunteers, and among the frantic hand raising I try to get to the front of the crowd, but someone blocks me with his elbow.

When Mr. Mesmerize has picked his ten victims, including both Madison and Hazel, he makes the rest of us back up and sit down. There’s a commotion as half the crowd sits on the feet of the people behind them, and everyone has to scoot to make space. I’ll have to wait until after the show to talk to Blanca. As Mr. Mesmerize tells those on stage to close their eyes and relax, I text Lonna: im really sorry and i want to talk to you. theyre keeping the doors open for 30 more min. please come.

When I look up, Mr. Mesmerize is sending three people back into the crowd for not being “susceptible enough to the power of suggestion,” but the remaining seven slump, eyes closed. I think of a puppet show I saw on an elementary school field trip and the unused marionettes hanging limply backstage.

Sweeping his hands above the still bodies, Mr. Mesmerize announces that when he claps, they will wake and begin barking. We wait. Clap! They spring to attention, baying like chained pit bulls. He claps again, and they all freeze; their heads drop. Those in the crowd who were laughing, assuming Mr. Mesmerize was full of it and the hypnotized subjects were just playing along, fall silent, clearly spooked.

I check my phone, but Lonna hasn’t responded.

The hypnotist makes his victims laugh uncontrollably, then do the chicken dance, then point to the sky as if they see UFOs, falling back to sleep between each performance. “Now,” Mr. Mesmerize says, “I will rest my hands on one set of shoulders. When I do, they will not simply bark, no! They will transform into the dog. Embody the dog. Become the dog!” He hovers his hands over a few different victims, milking the crowd until people are cheering for who they most want to see make a fool of themselves. He finally settles on Madison. As soon as he touches her, she drops out of her chair and onto her hands and knees. She barks into the crowd, then pants a few times and wags her butt like a tail. The kids erupt. “Get it, Madison!” someone yells.

I’m laughing too—Madison in her right mind would be mortified by this—and then I stop. At the end of the row, Hazel is not under like the rest of the hypnotized people. Her eyes are open, and she’s looking straight at me, smiling. Her words fly back into my mind: “Blanca will be valedictorian when Madison Duff does doggy style in front of our graduating class and trees grow through the floor of the gymnasium.”

I leap up, prompting a “Hey!” from someone sitting behind me, and sprint out of the cafeteria and toward the gym. Once inside, I stop in horror. A DJ is playing for a group of graduates dancing in the center, but the room as a whole has been transformed into an enchanted forest. Fairy lights and paper butterflies hang from the mezzanine. A wire archway leads to a photo booth with a glittery backdrop. And the columns that stretch from the floor to support the balcony above are wound with crinkled brown paper that branches across the ceiling between clusters of fake leaves.

Someone says my name, and I turn to see Principal Wright. “Can I see you in my office?”

*

Mrs. Duncan is already in the office when I arrive. “Hello, Macy,” she says, but her eyes well with disappointment.

Principal Wright sits at her desk and sighs. “Is there anything you need to tell us about your grade on the calculus final?” she asks.

I know I should tell the truth, but my voice has vanished. Even though I know it’s over, I feel myself shaking my head no.

Mrs. Duncan closes her eyes for a moment, and I can tell that my answer is worse than if I’d confessed, but I still can’t bring myself to say anything. She reaches under the desk and pulls out my Diet Dr. Pepper bottle, now empty, with the test answers visible through the plastic.

“A concerned individual brought this to us after graduation,” Principal Wright explains, “and I’m afraid we can’t ignore it. You scored the only one hundred on the test, and the video footage from the hallway shows you bringing a bottle like this into the classroom.”

For a moment, I’m sure Madison must have ratted me out. But she would have brought the evidence to them immediately. Maybe it was Blanca. She could have taken the bottle out of the trash the day of the test but waited to turn it in until she’d decided what kind of friend I really was. Or maybe it was Lonna, regretting the sacrifice she’d made on my behalf. Or Hazel, making her own prophecy come true.

Principal Wright tells me that I will receive an F on the test and a disciplinary infraction on my record, which will be sent to any colleges who request updated transcripts. And, of course, I will be stripped of my valedictorian title. Mrs. Hecate will be informed, and the fund will go to the runner-up. If Blanca doesn’t already know what I did, she’s going to find out, and this time she will never forgive me.

When I leave the office, I’m not sure where to go. This part of the school isn’t open for Project Grad, so the hallway is dark and quiet. I slump against the wall.

I said in my speech that high school was nothing more than a brief candle, but that doesn’t feel true anymore. It’s more like a wildfire—impossible to contain, destroying everything in its path—and I’m in the center, the flames licking my skin, reducing me to a charred pile of ash and bone. All that’s left is to wait and see what remains when the blaze subsides.

Jenna Wengler is an MFA candidate in fiction at Indiana University & the former Fiction Editor of Indiana Review. Originally from Kansas City, Missouri, she earned a BS in Secondary Education & English from Vanderbilt University and taught high school English in Tennessee. She is currently at work on a YA fantasy novel. This is her first publication.