I sleep in on Saturday because I’ve got no plans beyond gaming with Seth later tonight after he finishes his shift at the sock store. So after what I’ll generously call brunch, I shuffle downstairs in my joggers and an old T-shirt, sink into the living room couch, and fire up my PS4 to make some progress in this one-player game where you battle massive robot dinosaurs in a post-apocalyptic Earth.
I don’t know how many hours into this session I am when my dad’s suddenly standing behind me like he’s learned to apparate.
“Jason, can you pause your game for a second?” he asks.
“I’m almost at a checkpoint,” I say.
“Jason . . .” he starts and then falters. He tries again. “Jason, I have something important to tell you.”
“Hold on.” I know I’m being an ass, but I’m pretty sure this is probably going to be about college or something and I don’t really want to talk about that anymore. Plus, I’m in the zone fighting this mech-T-rex that’s already killed me, like, a million times.
“Jay,” he says.
I slide down a hill and draw my bow and arrow, triggering the slow-motion mode. I release two arrows in quick succession. Both hit the beast’s energy core, drawing heavy damage and narrowing its HP counter to a sliver.
“YES!” I say.
“Your Tito Maning called.” He pauses. “Jun is dead.”
My fingers slow, but I keep playing. I’m not sure I heard him right. “Wait—what?”
Dad clears his throat. “Your cousin Jun. He’s dead.”
I freeze, gripping the controller like a ledge. I suddenly feel like I’m going to be sick. On the screen, the mechanical creature mauls my avatar. My life drains to zero. The camera pans upward, mimicking the soul’s skyward path.
The words finally land, but they don’t feel real. I was just thinking about my cousin last night. . . .
“That’s impossible,” I say.
I sit up and shift so I’m facing Dad. He’s still wearing his nurse’s scrubs, and his salt-and-pepper hair is disheveled like he’s been running his fingers through it. Behind his glasses, his eyes are bloodshot. I glance at the time again. Mom’s at the hospital, and he should be, too.
“I thought you’d want to know,” he adds.
“When?” I ask, my chest tightening.
I’m quiet for a long time. “What happened? I mean, how did he . . .”
I can’t say the word.
He sighs. “It doesn’t matter.”
“What?” I ask. “Why not?”
“He’s gone. That’s it.”
“He was seventeen,” I say. “Seventeen-year-olds don’t randomly . . .”
He takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. “Sometimes they do.”
“So it was random? Like a car accident or something?”
Dad puts his glasses back on but avoids looking at me. He says nothing for a few beats, and then quietly, “What would it change if you knew?”
I don’t answer because I can’t. Doesn’t the truth itself matter?
I should be crying or throwing my controller down in anguish—but I don’t do any of this. Instead, there’s only a mild confusion, a muddy feeling of unreality that thickens when I consider the distance that had developed between Jun and me. How do you mourn someone you already let slip away? Are you even allowed to?
Longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People 2019
An Amazon Best Book of the Year So Far
A Junior Library Guild audio selection
FIVE STARRED REVIEWS
"Powerful and courageous." --Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"Deep, nuanced, and painfully real." --Booklist, starred review
"A perfect convergence of authentic voice and an emphasis on inner dialogue." -- School Library Journal, starred review
"Passionately and fearlessly, Ribay delves into matters of justice, grief, and identity." -- Publishers Weekly, starred review
"Compelling and informational" -- VOYA Magazine, starred review
“A must-read.” – Erin Entrada Kelly, author of 2018 Newbery Award-winning Hello, Universe
“Lyrical. Stunning. Searing…The real deal.”– Mark Oshiro, author of Anger Is a Gift
“Riveting, brilliantly told and deeply moving." – Francisco X. Stork, author of Disappeared
“Complex, gripping, haunting and deeply human… a story alive with longing and pain and grace. – Kelly Gilbert, author of Picture Us In The Light