“Nicholas! Hey, Nicholas!” Nicholas stopped and turned toward the yelling. He saw his bestie, Emily, running toward him. Her graduation gown was flapping wildly around her legs, and she was waving her cap in the air, trying to get his attention. He rolled his eyes, but a genuine smile creased his face for the first time that morning. Nicholas tapped his foot in mock annoyance and waited for her.
She caught up to him, barely breathing heavy. “Hey, you. Why didn’t you wait for me in the parking lot like we planned?”
“My mom dropped me off out front. I was just about to text you.”
“Did you write the speech?”
Nicholas held up a fistful of notecards. “Not that anyone will listen, but, yeah, I wrote it.”
“Some of them might listen. The parents and teachers will probably listen.”
“But will any of them care? Will anything change? I doubt it.”
The third member of their trio walked up. “You ready for this, Nicholas?”
Yes, Griff, as ready as I’ll ever be. What I’m actually prepared for is putting this whole high school chapter of my life behind me.”
“I feel ya there, bro.” Griffin put his fist out, ready for a bump.
Nicholas smirked, and fist-bumped his friend, “We joke, but I’m serious, Griff. There are four hundred and thirty-seven kids in our class, and you and Emily are the only two who really know me. The real me. There are a few others who are friendly, and there’s a few more who wish they were even friendlier,” another eye roll, “but two out of four hundred and thirty-seven who I consider true friends. That’s pretty sad when you think about it.”
Emily wrapped her arms around Nicholas from behind and rested her head on his shoulder. “The two of you are worth more than the rest of them put together. Nicholas, you’re obviously the smartest of us, Mister valedictorian, but you’re also the sweetest and kindest boy in school. That alone I would have figured out that you’re gay even if you hadn’t told me when we were like ten!” Emily laughed, and the wind blew her long, curly blonde hair into Nicholas’ face.
Nicholas brushed away Emily’s hair, “If I were straight, I’d marry you.” He smirked. “But that’s my point. That’s why they hate me. I mean, hell, I’m a jock. I’m the co=captain of the track team. I’m the president of the senior class, and now the valedictorian. But because I’m gay, they hate me. Not just the students either. They can say stuff right in front of the teachers, and nothing happens, because they hate me too. I need to get out of this town!”
Griffin stepped in and wrapped his arms around his two best friends. “Group hug!”
Nicholas squirmed, “You’re squishing me, you big jerk.”
“Oh, stop. You love me.”
“I do. I love both of you so much, but I gotta get out of this town, or I’m gonna go crazy.”
Griffin pulled back from the hug. “Where would you go? You didn’t even apply to any colleges yet, did you?’
“No. I need time away from school. I’ve been selling the birdhouses and other yard art that I’ve been making. You wouldn’t believe how many orders I have gotten just for trellises! I’m thinking of working in my shop through the summer and taking off in the fall when I’ve saved up more money.”
“Too bad that your mom sold you dad’s RV. That would have been sweet to travel in.”
“I would love to have that. Mom didn’t even talk about selling it, just one day it was gone from the driveway. Anyway, it’s time. Let’s go get in line and get this over with.”
The line to receive your diploma wound its way through the school and out onto the big stage that they had erected in the middle of the football field. Metal folding chairs were set up in front of the stage for the students and faculty. The parents and other guests were seated in the bleachers. Nicholas, having the last name of Daniels, was called well before either Griffin Masters or Emily Sullivan. He wouldn’t have had the chance to sit with them anyway. He was stuck sitting on the stage, waiting to give his speech. His anxiety was sky high, and he tapped his foot and reread his notes while he waited.
The principal, finally, called Aaron Zurakowski to the stage to receive his diploma then announced that it was time for the Valedictorian to give his speech. He turned and looked at Nicholas. “Nicholas Daniels, the stage is yours.”
Nicholas nervously walked to the microphone. “Good afternoon, classmates, teachers, parents, and friends. I am honored to be able to give this speech today. When I looked up advice on how to write a valedictorian speech, what I found was that most people start off with a famous quote. So, I looked up quotes about high school. Here’s one I picked for all of you. It is a quote from professional football player JJ Watt, “What I remember most about high school are the memories I created with my friends.”
Someone from the crowd of students yelled, “What friends? Loser!”
The principal made a half-hearted gesture for silence but did not even stand from his seat.
Another voice yelled, “What’s your name again? Do you even go to school here?”
Nicholas looked around for an adult, any adult, to step in and take charge. When none did, he started to talk again. “I..” He had to step away to dodge an egg which splattered on the stage right at his feet. Nicholas saw his mother making her way to the front of the crowd. He knew if he was going to do anything on his own, the time was now. “That quote does mean a lot to me. I made a lot of memories here with my friends. All two of them. Griff and Emily are the best friends that I could ever ask for. I did try to make friends with the rest of you. I’m class president, I’m co-captain of the track team. I don’t know what else you expected of me.”
More insults were yelled. More eggs were thrown. And yet neither the principal nor any teacher moved to stop it. Nicholas’ mother was now on the stage and took the microphone. She glared at the students and then focused her attention on the other parents. “Mary Walker, I know you can recognize your own son’s voice while he’s yelling those nasty things at my boy.”
“Your boy is a sinner! He’s going to Hell!”
“Sin? Is that what you and Patrick Mason have been committing every day after your husband leaves for work? Oh no. I’m sorry. By the look on his face, your husband didn’t know.” Jenn Daniels turned her attention on someone else. “I think Mary is too busy to talk. How about you, Nancy Peterson? Your boy was throwing eggs, and you were sitting there laughing. Do you want to talk about sin?”
“Jenn, you’ve made your point. We’re sorry. Take Nick and go home.”
“See what I mean. You don’t even know that Nicholas hates being called Nick. Our sons have gone to the same school since kindergarten, yet you laugh while he and others make a mockery of what should be his shining high school moment.”
“Mom, it’s ok. Let’s go home.”
“No, Nicholas, I’m not done with these hypocrites yet.”
“Nicholas has the right idea. Go home, Jenn.”
She spun back towards Nancy Peterson. “Afraid of all your friends finding out your sins, Nancy. Don’t worry. I’m not that petty. Just make sure none of these animals,” She motioned towards the students, “bully my son ever again. I know this whole town’s secrets.” Jenn threw the microphone at the principal and stormed off the stage, closely followed by Nicholas, Emily, and Griffin.
Out in the parking lot, Nicholas was about to get in his mom’s car, but Emily stopped him. “Ride with me, Nicholas.”
Nicholas shrugged, “Mom, is it okay if I get a ride from Emily?”
“Sure, sweetie, just be home soon. I have graduation gifts for all three of you.”
Griffin gave Jenn a huge hug, “Aw, Momma D, you didn’t have to do that!”
“I may as well. You’re at my house more than you’re at your own.”
Griff blushed and released the hug. “You’re a better cook than my mom.”
Jenn patted his arm. “I’m sure that’s all it is.” She smiled at Nicholas and then turned and got in her car. “I’ll see you all at my house in twenty minutes.”
“Come on, boys. I need to stop at my house and change before we go to Nicholas’ anyway.” The three friends piled into Emily’s car and took off, leaving their high school behind forever. They got to Emily’s house, and she ran upstairs to change, leaving Griff and Nicholas waiting for her in the living room.
“Do you think she knows?” Griff asked his best friend.
“Do I think who knows what?”
“Your mom. Us. Do you think she knows that we’ve messed around? The way she talked just before we left. I don’t know. Did you tell her?”
“There’s nothing to tell, Griff. It’s not like we’re boyfriends. I mean it’s loads of fun,” he raised his eyebrows and winked, “but no, I didn’t tell my mom, because there’s really nothing to tell. I mean, hell, she might know. She seems to know everything, but I never said a word.”
“I guess you’re right. Nothing to tell,” Griffin looked away to hide his disappointment. “I hope she doesn’t know. It would be weird.”
Emily practically bounced down the stairs. “If you two drama queens are done moaning let’s go.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice.” Griffin nearly ran for the door.
“What’s with him?”
“Nothing, Em. Let’s go.”
Emily slowed down as they turned the corner onto Nicholas’ street. Nicholas nearly screeched as he leaned forward from the backseat. “Is that? No. It can’t be, can it? Griff, is that what I think it is?”
Griffin’s eyes grew wide. “Wow. Nicholas, I think it is. It looks just like it anyway. Doesn’t it, Emily?” They both turned to look at Emily and saw her smile nearly splitting her face in two.
Nicholas lightly slapped Emily’s shoulder. “Whatever is going on, you already knew!” He looked back at Griffin. “You both knew! Stop the car and let me out!” Nicholas nearly leaped out of the car and ran to the driveway of his house and stared in awe. He saw the familiar bumper stickers and peered in the windows and saw mostly the same furniture that he remembered. It was his dad’s RV. Through the tears in his own eyes, he turned and saw his mother standing beside him, tears streaming down her face.
“Congratulations, son. You’ve made me so proud. I love you.” She dropped the keys into the palm of his hand.
“You’re giving this to me? It’s mine. To keep?”
“Yes, Nicholas. Your father wanted you to have it. I also went to the bank and withdrew the money he left.”
“Mom? What’s going on? You told me that I couldn’t have that money until I was twenty-one.”
Jenn held her only son’s face in her hands and looked into his eyes. “I know how much you hate living in this town. I know you planned on leaving anyway. I will miss you terribly, but I want you to be happy. Leave with my blessing.” Her tears started flowing again.
Nicholas hugged his mother tight. “Thank you so much! I love you, mom. I won’t be leaving you; I’ll be leaving this stupid, bigoted town. I’ll call you all the time.” He turned to look at his two best friends. “I’ll miss you guys, too! I can’t believe that I’ll be leaving before you now. I thought I’d leave right after you both left for college!”
Griff clapped Nicholas on the back. “I hate to tell you, but you won’t be getting rid of me that easily. You’re giving me a lift to college. I already cleared it with my parents. I’m already packed and ready to go.”
Emily pulled the two boys in for a hug. “I can’t go. Plus, I’m heading in the opposite direction than Griff. Clemson for me. You boys have fun but stay out of trouble!”
Nicholas could still hardly believe what had just happened. “I can’t believe I’m leaving.” He stared at Griffin. “I can’t believe you’re coming with me. This is gonna be so much fun! I gotta go pack!”
“I’ll meet you back here first thing in the morning. Seven? Lots of coffee?”
“Seven is perfect! I’ll see you in the morning!” Nicholas gave Emily another hug. “I’m going to miss you so much, Em. Have a great time at Clemson!” He gave his mother another hug and then ran into the house to pack his clothes and prepare for the next chapter in his life. Nicholas couldn’t even imagine what sorts of adventures lay ahead for him and Griffin as they would soon head out on their very own RV road trip.