Part Two: Chapter One

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Atlas Rollins sits amongst a sea of black caps and tassels as Principal Lewis, in the nasally, old man voice he uses to make announcements every morning, begins to read the list of nine hundred high school graduates. Sweat pours off the students’ necks and onto their polyester gowns, and they fight the heat with programs waved toward tomato-red faces. Who, in their infinite graduation committee wisdom, decided that placing nine hundred teens on folding chairs in the middle of the football field on a June afternoon was a good idea? In his head, “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” by Pink Floyd gets louder and louder.

To Atlas’s right Jarvis Rollo dozes, like he did in homeroom every morning, with his cap pulled down over his eyes; to his left, Priva Reddy shines her sequin-studded cap in every direction, her eager eyes waiting for a compliment about her originality. A loner during most of his high school years, Atlas feels nothing but sympathy for the hopeful faces that gaze on Principal Lewis’s certificate-bestowing hands. Unlike his classmates, Atlas has not applied for colleges next year—he has hedged his bets on a different kind of opportunity, one he hopes will bring him more happiness, less homework, and freedom from pretending to fit in when he so obviously doesn’t.

 “Atlas Rollins. Atlas Rollins?”

Atlas startles. Principal Lewis calls him a third time from the podium, and he finally stands and walks, slowly, up the wooden ramp to get his high school diploma. On the way he spots Chris and Andrea, his foster parents, watching the ceremony from the home team’s bleachers. Unlike the other parents, they sport no camera or recorder to mark this proud moment, and their faces display more disbelief than delight. Even in a summer dress Andrea seems to disappear into herself, so thin and awkward, so overshadowed. Chris, a police officer in Fairfax who accuses Atlas of committing petty crimes on an almost daily basis, frowns in Atlas’s direction. Atlas winks.

“Congratulations, son,” Principal Lewis says.

Atlas takes the diploma and shakes his hand, as well as that of the Class President, and just like that, he starts the trek back to his folding chair as a high school graduate. On the way, something silver reflects sunlight directly into his eyes, and when he shields them with his hand, he sees a familiar pirate’s hat covering a head of dark red hair.

Mary stands on the top bleacher of the away team, one hand secured on the metal railing behind her rigging holds a mast. Even in summer she’s covered in black, a billowy dress and belt that cinches the otherwise formless cloth at the waist. Atlas can’t see her feet, but he guesses they’re covered by combat boots and shifting, side to side, as if preparing to run.

After the ceremony, Atlas hurries to Chris and Andrea.

“Congratulations,” Andrea says as Atlas bends down to grab the duffle bag next to her.

“We sure didn’t think this day would come,” Chris adds. “In fact, I bet Andrea a hundred dollars that it wouldn’t.”

“Thanks for all the support.” Atlas heaves the bag onto his shoulder. “So listen, I’m headed out now. It’s been real.”

“What?” Chris asks.

“You heard me, I said I’m leaving. You can enjoy tearing my room to shreds for evidence, but I’ll warn you now, it’s a waste of time. I did leave you one of my records, however—when you get a chance, listen to “Alive” by Pearl Jam. It’s eye-opening.”

Atlas hugs his stepmother quickly—after all, she’s trapped, while he can finally leave this sorry town behind—and then leaves to find his real sister. As he hits the field, he hears a girl’s voice exclaim, “Hey! My wallet’s gone!”

“Mine too!” a boy’s voice says, and then a chorus of desperate high schoolers join in as they search their pockets and complain to their parents.

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