Main They Both Die at the End
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DEDICATION For those who need a reminder to make every day count. Shout-out to Mom for all the love and Cecilia for all the tough love. I’ve always needed both. CONTENTS Dedication Part One: Death-Cast September 5, 2017: Mateo Torrez Rufus Emeterio Mateo Rufus Mateo Rufus Mateo Rufus Mateo Rufus Mateo Rufus Mateo Part Two: The Last Friend Andrea Donahue Rufus Malcolm Anthony Mateo Rufus Aimee Dubois Mateo Rufus Mateo Delilah Grey Mateo Rufus Mateo Rufus Patrick “Peck” Gavin Rufus Aimee Dubois Mateo Rufus Mateo Lidia Vargas Rufus Tagoe Hayes Kendrick O’Connell Mateo Rufus Mateo Delilah Grey Mateo Part Three: The Beginning Mateo Rufus Delilah Grey Vin Pearce Mateo Rufus Mateo Rufus Deirdre Clayton Mateo Rufus Damien Rivas Mateo Zoe Landon Mateo Peck Mateo Rufus Officer Andrade Patrick “Peck” Gavin Rufus Patrick “Peck” Gavin Part Four: The End Mateo Howie Maldonado The Gang with no Name Delilah Grey Rufus Mateo Rufus Dalma Young Mateo The Plutos Rufus Mateo Rufus Mateo Rufus Lidia Vargas Delilah Grey Victor Gallaher Rufus Acknowledgments Back Ad About the Author Books by Adam Silvera Credits Copyright About the Publisher PART ONE Death-Cast To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that’s all. —Oscar Wilde September 5, 2017 MATEO TORREZ 12:22 a.m. Death-Cast is calling with the warning of a lifetime—I’m going to die today. Forget that, “warning” is too strong a word since warnings suggest something can be avoided, like a car honking at someone who’s crossing the street when it isn’t their light, giving them the chance to step back; this is more of a heads-up. The alert, a distinctive and endless gong, like a church bell one block away, is blasting from my phone on the other side of the room. I’m freaking out already, a hundred thoughts immediately drowning out everything around me. I bet this chaos is what a first-time skydiver feels as she’s plummeting ; out of a plane, or a pianist playing his first concert. Not that I will ever know for sure. It’s crazy. One minute ago I was reading yesterday’s blog entry from CountDowners—where Deckers chronicle their final hours through statuses and photos via live feeds, this particular one about a college junior trying to find a home for his golden retriever—and now I’m going to die. I’m going to . . . no . . . yes. Yes. My chest tightens. I’m dying today. I’ve always been afraid of dying. I don’t know why I thought this would jinx it from actually happening. Not forever, obviously, but long enough so I could grow up. Dad has even been drilling it into my head that I should pretend I’m the main character of a story that nothing bad ever happens to, most especially death, because the hero has to be around to save the day. But the noise in my head is quieting down and there’s a Death-Cast herald on the other end of the phone waiting to tell me I’m going to die today at eighteen years old. Wow, I’m actually . . . I don’t want to pick up the phone. I’d rather run into Dad’s bedroom and curse into a pillow because he chose the wrong time to land himself in intensive care, or punch a wall because my mom marked me for an early death when she died giving birth to me. The phone rings for what’s got to be the thirtieth time, and I can’t avoid it any more than I can avoid what’s going down sometime today. I slide my laptop off my crossed legs and get up from my bed, swaying to the side, feeling really faint. I’m like a zombie moving toward my desk, slow and walking-dead. The caller ID reads DEATH-CAST, of course. I’m shaking but manage to press Talk. I don’t say anything. I’m not sure what to say. I just breathe because I have fewer than twenty-eight thousand breaths left in me—the average number of breaths a nondying person takes per day—and I might as well use them up while I can. “Hello, I’m calling from Death-Cast. I’m Andrea. You there, Timothy?” Timothy. My name isn’t Timothy. “You’ve got the wrong person,” I tell Andrea. My heart settles down, even though I feel for this Timothy person. I truly do. “My name is Mateo.” I got the name from my father and he wants me to pass it down eventually. Now I can, if having a kid is a thing that happens for me. Computer keys are tapping on her end, probably correcting the entry or something in her database. “Oh, apologies. Timothy is the gentleman I just got off the phone with; he didn’t take the news very well, poor thing. You’re Mateo Torrez, right?” And just like that, my last hope is obliterated. “Mateo, kindly confirm this is indeed you. I’m afraid I have many other calls to make tonight.” I always imagined my herald—their official name, not mine—would sound sympathetic and ease me into this news, maybe even harp on how it’s especially tragic because I’m so young. To be honest, I would’ve been okay with her being chipper, telling me how I should have fun and make the most of the day since I at least know what’s going to happen. That way I’m not stuck at home starting one-thousand-piece puzzles I’ll never finish or masturbating because sex with an actual person scares me. But this herald makes me feel like I should stop wasting her time because, unlike me, she has so much of it. “Okay. Mateo’s me. I’m Mateo.” “Mateo, I regret to inform you that sometime in the next twenty-four hours you’ll be meeting an untimely death. And while there isn’t anything we can do to suspend that, you still have a chance to live.” The herald goes on about how life isn’t always fair, then lists some events I could participate in today. I shouldn’t be mad at her, but it’s obvious she’s bored reciting these lines that have been burned into memory from telling hundreds, maybe thousands, about how they’ll soon be dead. She has no sympathy to offer me. She’s probably filing her nails or playing tic-tac-toe against herself as she talks to me. On CountDowners, Deckers post entries about everything from their phone call to how they’re spending their End Day. It’s basically Twitter for Deckers. I’ve read tons of feeds where Deckers admitted to asking their heralds how they would die, but it’s basic knowledge that those specifics aren’t available to anyone, not even former President Reynolds, who tried to hide from Death in an underground bunker four years ago and was assassinated by one of his own secret service agents. Death-Cast can only provide a date for when someone is going to die, but not the exact minute or how it’ll happen. “. . . Do you understand all of this?” “Yeah.” “Log on to death-cast.com and fill out any special requests you may have for your funeral in addition to the inscription you’d like engraved on your headstone. Or perhaps you would like to be cremated, in which case . . .” I’ve only ever been to one funeral. My grandmother died when I was seven, and at her funeral I threw a tantrum because she wasn’t waking up. Fast-forward five years when Death-Cast came into the picture and suddenly everyone was awake at their own funerals. Having the chance to say goodbye before you die is an incredible opportunity, but isn’t that time better spent actually living? Maybe I would feel differently if I could count on people showing up to my funeral. If I had more friends than I do fingers. “And Timothy, on behalf of everyone here at Death-Cast, we are so sorry to lose you. Live this day to the fullest, okay?” “I’m Mateo.” “Sorry about that, Mateo. I’m mortified. It’s been a long day and these calls can be so stressful and—” I hang up, which is rude, I know. I know. But I can’t listen to someone tell me what a stressful day she’s been having when I might drop dead in the next hour, or even the next ten minutes: I could choke on a cough drop; I could leave my apartment to do something with myself and fall down the stairs and snap my neck before I even make it outside; someone could break in and murder me. The only thing I can confidently rule out is dying of old age. I sink to the floor, on my knees. It’s all ending today and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. I can’t journey across dragon-infested lands to retrieve scepters that can halt death. I can’t hop onto a flying carpet in search of a genie to grant my wish for a full and simple life. I could maybe find some mad scientist to cryogenically freeze me, but chances are I’d die in the middle of that wacky experiment. Death is inevitable for everyone and it’s absolute for me today. The list of people I will miss, if the dead can miss anyone, is so short I shouldn’t even call it a list: there’s Dad, for doing his best; my best friend, Lidia, not only for not ignoring me in the hallways, but for actually sitting down across from me in lunch, partnering with me in earth science, and talking to me about how she wants to become an environmentalist who will save the world and I can repay her by living in it. And that’s it. If someone were interested in my list of people I won’t miss, I’d have nothing for them. No one has ever wronged me. And I even get why some people didn’t take a shot on me. Really, I do. I’m such a paranoid mess. The few times I was invited to do something fun with classmates, like roller-skating in the park or going for a drive late at night, I bowed out because we might be setting ourselves up for death, maybe. I guess what I’ll miss most are the wasted opportunities to live my life and the lost potential to make great friends with everyone I sat next to for four years. I’ll miss how we never got to bond over sleepovers where everyone stayed up and played Xbox Infinity and board games all night, all because I was too scared. The number one person I’ll miss the most is Future Mateo, who maybe loosened up and lived. It’s hard to picture him clearly, but I imagine Future Mateo trying out new things, like smoking pot with friends, getting a driver’s license, and hopping on a plane to Puerto Rico to learn more about his roots. Maybe he’s dating someone, and maybe he likes that company. He probably plays piano for his friends, sings in front of them, and he would definitely have a crowded funeral service, one that would stretch over an entire weekend after he’s gone—one where the room is packed with new people who didn’t get a chance to hug him one last time. Future Mateo would have a longer list of friends he’ll miss. But I will never grow up to be Future Mateo. No one will ever get high with me, no one will be my audience as I play piano, and no one will sit shotgun in my dad’s car after I get my license. I’ll never fight with friends over who gets the better bowling shoes or who gets to be Wolverine when we play video games. I collapse back onto the floor, thinking about how it’s do or die now. Not even that. Do, and then die. 12:42 a.m. Dad takes hot showers to cool down whenever he’s upset or disappointed in himself. I copied him around the time I turned thirteen because confusing Mateo Thoughts surfaced and I needed tons of Mateo Time to sort through them. I’m showering now because I feel guilty for hoping the world, or some part of it beyond Lidia and my dad, will be sad to see me go. Because I refused to live invincibly on all the days I didn’t get an alert, I wasted all those yesterdays and am completely out of tomorrows. I’m not going to tell anyone. Except Dad, but he’s not even awake so it doesn’t really count. I don’t want to spend my last day wondering if people are being genuine when they throw sad words at me. No one should spend their last hours second-guessing people. I’ve got to get out into the world, though, trick myself into thinking it is any other day. I’ve got to see Dad at the hospital and hold his hand for the first time since I was a kid and for what will be the last . . . wow, the last time ever. I’ll be gone before I can adjust to my mortality. I also have to see Lidia and her one-year-old, Penny. Lidia named me Penny’s godfather when the baby was born, and it sucks how I’m the person expected to take care of her in case Lidia passes away since Lidia’s boyfriend, Christian, died a little over a year ago. Sure, how is an eighteen-year-old with no income going to take care of a baby? Short answer: He isn’t. But I was supposed to get older and tell Penny stories of her world-saving mother and chill father and welcome her into my home when I was financially secure and emotionally prepared to do so. Now I’m being whisked out of her life before I can become more than some guy in a photo album who Lidia may tell stories about, during which Penny will nod her head, maybe make fun of my glasses, and then flip the page to family she actually knows and cares about. I won’t even be a ghost to her. But that’s no reason to not go tickle her one more time or wipe squash and green peas off her face, or give Lidia a little break so she can focus on studying for her GED or brush her teeth or comb her hair or take a nap. After that, I will somehow pull myself away from my best friend and her daughter, and I will have to go and live. I turn off the faucet and the water stops raining down on me; today isn’t the day for an hour shower. I grab my glasses off the sink and put them on. I step out of the tub, slipping on a puddle of water, and while falling backward I’m expecting to see if that theory of your life flashing before your eyes carries any truth to it when I grab hold of the towel rack and catch myself. I breathe in and out, in and out, because dying this way would just be an extremely unfortunate way to go; someone would add me to the “Shower KO” feed on the DumbDeaths blog, a high-traffic site that grosses me out on so many levels. I need to get out of here and live—but first I have to make it out of this apartment alive. 12:56 a.m. I write thank-you notes for my neighbors in 4F and 4A, telling them it’s my End Day. With Dad in the hospital, Elliot in 4F has been checking in on me, bringing me dinner, especially since our stove has been busted for the past week after I tried making Dad’s empanadas. Sean in 4A was planning on stopping by on Saturday to fix the stove’s burner, but it’s not necessary anymore. Dad will know how to fix it and might need a distraction when I’m gone. I go into my closet and pull out the blue-and-gray flannel shirt Lidia got me for my eighteenth birthday, then put it on over my white T-shirt. I haven’t worn it outside yet. The shirt is how I get to keep Lidia close today. I check my watch—an old one of Dad’s he gave me after buying a digital one that could glow, for his bad eyes—and it’s close to 1:00 a.m. On a regular day, I would be playing video games until late at night, even if it meant going to school exhausted. At least I could fall asleep during my free periods. I shouldn’t have taken those frees for granted. I should’ve taken up another class, like art, even though I can’t draw to save my life. (Or do anything to save my life, obviously, and I want to say that’s neither here nor there, but it pretty much is everything, isn’t it?) Maybe I should’ve joined band and played piano, gotten some recognition before working my way up to singing in the chorus, then maybe a duet with someone cool, and then maybe braving a solo. Heck, even theater could’ve been fun if I’d gotten to play a role that forced me to break out. But no, I elected for another free period where I could shut down and nap. It’s 12:58 a.m. When it hits 1:00 I am forcing myself out of this apartment. It has been both my sanctuary and my prison and for once I need to go breathe in the outside air instead of tearing through it to get from Point A to Point B. I have to count trees, maybe sing a favorite song while dipping my feet in the Hudson, and just do my best to be remembered as the young man who died too early. It’s 1:00 a.m. I can’t believe I’m never returning to my bedroom. I unlock the front door, turn the knob, and pull the door open. I shake my head and slam the door shut. I’m not walking out into a world that will kill me before my time. RUFUS EMETERIO 1:05 a.m. Death-Cast is hitting me up as I’m beating my ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend to death. I’m still on top of this dude, pinning his shoulders down with my knees, and the only reason I’m not clocking him in the eye again is because of the ringing coming from my pocket, that loud Death-Cast ringtone everyone knows too damn well either from personal experience, the news, or every shitty show using the alert for that dun-dun-dun effect. My boys, Tagoe and Malcolm, are no longer cheering on the beat-down. They’re dead quiet and I’m waiting for this punk Peck’s phone to go off too. But nothing, just my phone. Maybe the call telling me I’m about to lose my life just saved his. “You gotta pick it up, Roof,” Tagoe says. He was recording the beat-down because watching fights online is his thing, but now he’s staring at his phone like he’s scared a call is coming for him too. “The hell I do,” I say. My heart is pounding mad fast, even faster than when I first moved up on Peck, even faster than when I first decked him and laid him out. Peck’s left eye is swollen already, and there’s still nothing but pure terror in his right eye. These Death-Cast calls go strong until three. He don’t know for sure if I’m about to take him down with me. I don’t know either. My phone stops ringing. “Maybe it was a mistake,” Malcolm says. My phone rings again. Malcolm stays shut. I wasn’t hopeful. I don’t know stats or nothing like that, but Death-Cast fucking up alerts isn’t exactly common news. And we Emeterios haven’t exactly been lucky with staying alive. But meeting our maker way ahead of time? We’re your guys. I’m shaking and that buzzing panic is in my head, like someone is punching me nonstop, because I have no idea how I’m gonna go, just that I am. And my life isn’t exactly flashing before my eyes, not that I expect it to later on when I’m actually at death’s edge. Peck squirms from underneath me and I raise my fist so he calms the hell down. “Maybe he got a weapon on him,” Malcolm says. He’s the giant of our group, the kind of guy who would’ve been helpful to have around when my sister couldn’t get her seat belt off as our car flipped into the Hudson River. Before the call, I would’ve bet anything Peck doesn’t have any weapon on him, since we’re the ones who jumped him when he was coming out of work. But I’m not betting my life, not like this. I drop my phone. I pat him down and flip him over, checking his waistband for a pocketknife. I stand and he stays down. Malcolm drags Peck’s backpack out from under the blue car where Tagoe threw it. He unzips the backpack and flips it over, letting some Black Panther and Hawkeye comics hit the ground. “Nothing.” Tagoe rushes toward Peck and I swear he’s about to kick him like his head’s a soccer ball, but he grabs my phone off the ground and answers the call. “Who you calling for?” His neck twitch surprises no one. “Hold up, hold up. I ain’t him. Hold up. Wait a sec.” He holds out the phone. “You want me to hang up, Roof?” I don’t know. I still have Peck, bloodied and beat, in the parking lot of this elementary school, and it’s not like I need to take this call to make sure Death-Cast isn’t actually calling to tell me I won the lottery. I snatch the phone from Tagoe, pissed and confused, and I might throw up but my parents and sister didn’t so maybe I won’t either. “Watch him,” I tell Tagoe and Malcolm. They nod. I don’t know how I became the alpha dog. I ended up in the foster home years after them. I give myself some distance, as if privacy actually matters, and make sure I stay out of the light coming from the exit sign. Not trying to get caught in the middle of the night with blood on my knuckles. “Yeah?” “Hello. This is Victor from Death-Cast calling to speak with Rufus Emmy-terio.” He butchers my last name, but there’s no point correcting him. No one else is around to carry on the Emeterio name. “Yeah, it’s me.” “Rufus, I regret to inform you that sometime in the next twenty-four hours—” “Twenty-three hours,” I interrupt, pacing back and forth from one end of this car to the other. “You’re calling after one.” It’s bullshit. Other Deckers got their alert an hour ago. Maybe if Death-Cast called an hour ago I wouldn’t have been waiting outside the restaurant where freshman-year college-dropout Peck works so I could chase him into this parking lot. “Yes, you’re right. I’m sorry,” Victor says. I’m trying to stay shut ’cause I don’t wanna take my problems out on some guy doing his job, even though I have no idea why the hell anyone applies for this position in the first place. Let’s pretend I got a future for a second, entertain me—in no universe am I ever waking up and saying, “I think I’ll get a twelve-to-three shift where I do nothing but tell people their lives are over.” But Victor and others did. I don’t wanna hear none of that don’t-kill-the-messenger business either, especially when the messenger is calling to tell me I’ll be straight wrecked by day’s end. “Rufus, I regret to inform you that sometime in the next twenty-three hours you’ll be meeting an untimely death. While there isn’t anything I can do to suspend that, I’m calling to inform you of your options for the day. First of all, how are you doing? It took a while for you to answer. Is everything okay?” He wants to know how I’m doing, yeah right. I can hear it in the stunted way he asked me, he doesn’t actually care about me any more than he does the other Deckers he gotta call tonight. These calls are probably monitored and he’s not trying to lose his job by speeding through this. “I don’t know how I’m doing.” I squeeze my phone so I don’t throw it against the wall painted with little white and brown kids holding hands underneath a rainbow. I look over my shoulder and Peck is still face-first on the ground as Malcolm and Tagoe stare at me; they better make sure he doesn’t run away before we can figure out what we’re doing with him. “Just tell me my options.” This should be good. Victor tells me the forecast for the day (supposed to rain before noon and later on as well if I make it that long), special festivals I have zero interest in attending (especially not a yoga class on the High Line, rain or no rain), formal funeral arrangements, and restaurants with the best Decker discounts if I use today’s code. I zone out on everything else ’cause I’m anxious on how the rest of my End Day is gonna play out. “How do you guys know?” I interrupt. Maybe this dude will take pity on me and I can clue in Tagoe and Malcolm on this huge mystery. “The End Days. How do you know? Some list? Crystal ball? Calendar from the future?” Everyone stays speculating on how Death-Cast receives this life-changing information. Tagoe told me about all these crazy theories he read online, like Death-Cast consulting a band of legit psychics and a really ridiculous one with an alien shackled to a bathtub and forced by the government to report End Days. There are mad things wrong with that theory, but I don’t have time to comment on them right now. “I’m afraid that information isn’t available to heralds either,” Victor claims. “We’re equally curious, but it’s not knowledge we need to perform our job.” Another flat answer. I bet you anything he knows and can’t say if he wants to keep his job. Screw this guy. “Yo, Victor, be a person for one minute. I don’t know if you know, but I’m seventeen. Three weeks from my eighteenth birthday. Doesn’t it piss you off that I’ll never go to college? Get married? Have kids? Travel? Doubt it. You’re just chilling on your little throne in your little office because you know you got another few decades ahead of you, right?” Victor clears his throat. “You want me to be a person, Rufus? You want me to get off my throne and get real with you? Okay. An hour ago I got off the phone with a woman who cried over how she won’t be a mother anymore after her four-year-old daughter dies today. She begged me to tell her how she can save her daughter’s life, but no one has that power. And then I had to put in a request to the Youth Department to dispatch a cop just in case the mother is responsible, which, believe it or not, is not the most disgusting thing I’ve done for this job. Rufus, I feel for you, I do. But I’m not at fault for your death, and I unfortunately have many more of these calls to make tonight. Can you do me a solid and cooperate?” Damn. I cooperate for the rest of the call, even though this dude has no business telling me anyone else’s, but all I can think about is the mother whose daughter will never attend the school right behind me. At the end of the call Victor gives me that company line I’ve grown used to hearing from all the new TV shows and movies incorporating Death-Cast into the characters’ day-to-days: “On behalf of Death-Cast, we are sorry to lose you. Live this day to the fullest.” I can’t tell you who hangs up first, but it doesn’t matter. The damage is done—will be done. Today is my End Day, a straight-up Rufus Armageddon. I don’t know how this is gonna go down. I’m praying I don’t drown like my parents and sis. The only person I’ve done dirty is Peck, for real, so I’m counting on not getting shot, but who knows, misfires happen too. The how doesn’t matter as much as what I do before it goes down, but not knowing is still freaking shaking me; you only die once, after all. Maybe Peck is gonna be responsible for this. I walk back over to the three of them, fast. I pick Peck up by the back of his collar and then slam him against the brick wall. Blood slides from an open wound on his forehead, and I can’t believe this dude threw me over the edge like this. He should’ve never run his mouth about all the reasons Aimee didn’t want me anymore. If that’d never gotten back to me, my hand wouldn’t be around his throat right now, getting him even more scared than I am. “You didn’t ‘beat’ me, okay? Aimee didn’t split with me because of you, so get that out of your head right now. She loved me and we got complicated, and she would’ve taken me back eventually.” I know this is legit—Malcolm and Tagoe think so too. I lean in on Peck, looking him dead-on in his only good eye. “I better never see you again for the rest of my life.” Yeah, yeah. Not much life left. But this dude is a fucking clown and might get funny. “You feel me?” Peck nods. I let go of his throat and grab his phone out of his pocket. I hurl it against the wall and the screen is totaled. Malcolm stomps it out. “Get the hell out of here.” Malcolm grabs my shoulder. “Don’t let him go. He’s got those connections.” Peck slides along the wall, nervous, like he’s scaling across some windows high up in the city. I shake Malcolm off my shoulder. “I said get the hell out of here.” Peck takes off, running in a dizzying zigzag. He never looks back once to see if we’re coming for him or stops for his comics and backpack. “I thought you said he’s got friends in some gang,” Malcolm says. “What if they come for you?” “They’re not a real gang, and he was the gang reject. I got no reason to get scared of a gang that let Peck in. He can’t even call them or Aimee, we took care of that.” I wouldn’t want him reaching out to Aimee before I can. I gotta explain myself, and, I don’t know, she may not wanna see me if she figures out what I did, End Day or not. “Death-Cast can’t call him either,” Tagoe says, his neck twitching twice. “I wasn’t gonna kill him.” Malcolm and Tagoe are quiet. They saw the way I was laying into him, like I had no off button. I can’t stop shaking. I could’ve killed him, even if I didn’t mean to. I don’t know if I would’ve been able to live with myself or not if I did end up snuffing him gone. Nah, that’s a lie and I know it, I’m just trying to be hard. But I’m not hard. I’ve barely been able to live with myself for surviving something my family didn’t—something that wasn’t even my fault. There’s no way in hell I would’ve been chill with myself for beating someone to death. I storm toward our bikes. My handles are tangled in Tagoe’s wheel from after we chased Peck here, jumping off our bikes to tackle him. “You guys can’t follow me,” I say, picking my bike up. “You get that, right?” “Nah, we’re with you, just—” “Not happening,” I interrupt. “I’m a ticking time bomb, and even if you’re not blowing up when I do, you might get burned—maybe literally.” “You’re not ditching us,” Malcolm says. “Where you go, we go.” Tagoe nods, his head jerking to the right, like his body is betraying his instinct to follow me. He nods again, no twitch this time. “You two are straight-up shadows,” I say. “That because we’re black?” Malcolm asks. “Because you’re always following me,” I say. “Loyal to the end.” The end. That shuts us up. We get on our bikes and ride off the curb, the wheels bumping and bumping. This is the wrong day to have left my helmet behind. Tagoe and Malcolm can’t stay with me the entire day, I know that. But we’re Plutos, bros from the same foster home, and we don’t turn our backs on each other. “Let’s go home,” I say. And we out. MATEO 1:06 a.m. I’m back in my bedroom—so much for never returning here again—and I immediately feel better, like I just got an extra life in a video game where the final boss was kicking my ass. I’m not naive about dying. I know it’s going to happen. But I don’t have to rush into it. I’m buying myself more time. A longer life is all I’ve ever wanted, and I have the power to not shoot that dream in the foot by walking out that front door, especially this late at night. I jump into bed with the kind of relief you only find when you’re waking up for school and realize it’s Saturday. I throw my blanket around my shoulders, hop back on my laptop, and—ignoring the email from Death-Cast with the time-stamped receipt of my call with Andrea—continue reading yesterday’s CountDowners post from before I got the call. The Decker was twenty-two-year-old Keith. His statuses didn’t provide much context about his life, only that he’d been a loner who preferred runs with his golden retriever Turbo instead of social outings with his classmates. He was looking to find Turbo a new home because he was pretty sure his father would give ownership of Turbo to the first available person, which could be anyone because Turbo is so beautiful. Hell, I would’ve adopted him even though I’m severely allergic to dogs. But before Keith gave up his dog, he and Turbo were running through their favorite spots one last time and the feed stopped somewhere in Central Park. I don’t know how Keith died. I don’t know if Turbo made it out alive or if he died with Keith. I don’t know what would’ve been preferred for Keith or Turbo. I don’t know. I could look into any muggings or murders in Central Park yesterday around 5:40 p.m., when the feed stopped, but for my sanity this is better left a mystery. Instead I open up my music folder and play Space Sounds. A couple years ago some NASA team created this special instrument to record the sounds of different planets. I know, it sounded weird to me too, especially because of all the movies I’ve watched telling me about how there isn’t sound in space. Except there is, it just exists in magnetic vibrations. NASA converted the sounds so the human ear could hear them, and even though I was hiding out in my room, I stumbled on something magical from the universe—something those who don’t follow what’s trending online would miss out on. Some of the planets sound ominous, like something you’d find in a science fiction movie set in some alien world—“alien world” as in world with aliens, not non-Earth world. Neptune sounds like a fast current, Saturn has this terrifying howling to it that I never listen to anymore, and the same goes for Uranus except there are harsh winds whistling that sound like spaceships firing lasers at each other. The sounds of the planets make for a great conversation starter if you have people to talk to, but if you don’t, they make for great white noise when you’re going to sleep. I distract myself from my End Day by reading more CountDowners feeds and by playing the Earth track, which always reminds me of soothing birdsong and that low sound whales make, but also feels a little bit off, something suspicious I can’t put my finger on, a lot like Pluto, which is both seashell and snake hiss. I switch to the Neptune track. RUFUS 1:18 a.m. We’re riding to Pluto in the dead of night. “Pluto” is the name we came up with for the foster home we’re all staying at since our families died or turned their backs on us. Pluto got demoted from planet to dwarf planet, but we’d never treat each other as something lesser. It’s been four months that I’ve been without my people, but Tagoe and Malcolm have been getting cozy with each other a lot longer. Malcolm’s parents died in a house fire caused by some unidentified arsonist, and whoever it was, Malcolm hopes he’s burning in hell for taking away his parents when he was a thirteen-year-old troublemaker no one else wanted except the system, and barely even them. Tagoe’s mom bounced when he was a kid, and his pops ran off three years ago when he couldn’t keep up with the bills. A month later Tagoe found out his pops had committed suicide, and homeboy still hasn’t shed a tear over the guy, never even asked how or where he died. Even before I found out I was dying, I knew home, Pluto, wasn’t gonna be home for me much longer. My eighteenth birthday is coming up—same for Tagoe and Malcolm, who both hit eighteen in November. I was college bound like Tagoe, and we’d figured Malcolm would crash with us as he gets his shit together. Who knows what’s what now, and I hate that I already have an out to these problems. But right now, all that matters is we’re still together. I got Malcolm and Tagoe by my side, like they’ve been from day one when I got to the home. Whether it was for family time or bitching sessions, they were always at my left and right. I wasn’t planning on stopping, but I pull over when I see the church I came to a month after the big accident—my first weekend out with Aimee. The building is massive, with off-white bricks and maroon steeples. I’d love to take a picture of the stained-glass windows, but the flash might not catch it right. Doesn’t matter anyway. If a picture is Instagram worthy, I slap on the Moon filter for that classic black-and-white effect. The real problem is I don’t think a photo of a church taken by my nonbelieving ass is the best last thing to leave behind for my seventy followers. (Hashtag not happening.) “What’s good, Roof?” “This is the church where Aimee played piano for me,” I say. Aimee is pretty Catholic, but she wasn’t pushing any of that on me. We’d been talking about music, and I mentioned digging some of the classical stuff Olivia used to put on when she was studying, and Aimee wanted me to hear it live—and she wanted to be the one who played it for me. “I have to tell her I got the alert.” Tagoe twitches. I’m sure he’s itching to remind me that Aimee said she needs space from me, but those kinds of requests get tossed out the window on End Days. I climb off the bike, throwing down the kickstand. I don’t go far from them, just closer to the entrance right as a priest is escorting a crying woman out the church. She’s knocking her rings together, topaz, I think, like the kind my mom once pawned when she wanted to buy Olivia concert tickets for her thirteenth birthday. This woman has gotta be a Decker, or know one. The graveyard shift here is no joke. Malcolm and Tagoe are always mocking the churches that shun Death-Cast and their “unholy visions from Satan,” but it’s dope how some nuns and priests keep busy way past midnight for Deckers trying to repent, get baptized, and all that good stuff. If there’s a God guy out there like my mom believed, I hope he’s got my back right now. I call Aimee. It rings six times before going to voice mail. I call again and it’s the same thing. I try again, and it only rings three times before going to voice mail. She’s ignoring me. I type out a text: Death-Cast called me. Maybe you can too. Nah, I can’t be a dick and send that. I correct myself: Death-Cast called me. Can you call me back? My phone goes off before a minute can pass, a regular ring and not that heart-stopping Death-Cast alert. It’s Aimee. “Hey.” “Are you serious?” Aimee asks. If I weren’t serious, she’d certainly kill me for crying wolf. Tagoe once played that game for attention and Aimee shut that down real fast. “Yeah. I gotta see you.” “Where are you?” There’s no edge to her, and she’s not trying to hang up on me like she has on recent calls. “I’m by the church you took me to, actually,” I say. It’s mad peaceful, like I could stay here all day and make it to tomorrow. “I’m with Malcolm and Tagoe.” “Why aren’t you at Pluto? What are you guys doing out on a Monday night?” I need more time before answering this. Maybe another eighty years, but I don’t have that and I don’t wanna man up to it right now. “We’re headed back to Pluto now. Can you meet us there?” “What? No. Stay at the church and I’ll come to you.” “I’m not dying before I can make it back to you, trust—” “You’re not invincible, dumbass!” Aimee is crying now, and her voice is shaking like that time we got caught in the rain without jackets. “Ugh, god, I’m sorry, but you know how many Deckers make those promises and then pianos fall on their heads?” “I’m gonna guess not many,” I say. “Death by piano doesn’t seem like a high probability.” “This is not funny, Rufus. I’m getting dressed, do not move. I’ll be thirty minutes, tops.” I hope she’s gonna be able to forgive me for everything, tonight included. I’ll get to her before Peck can, and I’ll tell my side. I’m sure Peck is gonna go home, clean himself up, and call Aimee off his brother’s phone to tell her what a monster I am. He better not call the cops though, or I’ll be spending my End Day behind bars, or maybe find myself on the wrong end of some officer’s club. I don’t wanna think about any of that, I just wanna get to Aimee and say goodbye to the Plutos as the friend they know I am, not the monster I was tonight. “Meet me at home. Just . . . get to me. Bye, Aimee.” I hang up before she can protest. I get my bike, climbing on it as she calls nonstop. “What’s the plan?” Malcolm asks. “We’re going back to Pluto,” I tell them. “You guys are gonna throw me a funeral.” I check the time: 1:30. There’s still time for the other Plutos to get the alert. I’m not wishing it on them, but maybe I won’t have to die alone. Or maybe that’s how it has to be. MATEO 1:32 a.m. Scrolling through CountDowners is a very serious downer. But I can’t look away because every registered Decker has a story they want to share. When someone puts their journey out there for you to watch, you pay attention—even if you know they’ll die at the end. If I’m not going outside, I can be online for others. There are five tabs on the site—Popular, New, Local, Promoted, Random—and I browse through Local searches first, as usual, to make sure I don’t recognize anyone. . . . No one; good. It could’ve been nice to have some company today, I guess. I randomly select a Decker. Username: Geoff_Nevada88. Geoff received his call four minutes after midnight and is already out in the world, heading to his favorite bar, where he hopes he doesn’t get carded because he’s a twenty-year-old who recently lost his fake ID. I’m sure he’ll get through okay. I pin his feed and will receive a chime next time he updates. I switch to another feed. Username: WebMavenMarc. Marc is a former social media manager for a soda company, which he’s mentioned twice in his profile, and he isn’t sure if his daughter will reach him in time. It’s almost as if this Decker is right in front of me, snapping his fingers in my face. I have to visit Dad, even if he’s unconscious. He has to know I made my way to him before I died. I put down my laptop, ignoring the chimes from the couple accounts I’ve pinned, and go straight to Dad’s bedroom. His bed was unmade the morning he left for work, but I’ve made it for him since then, making sure to tuck the comforter completely under the pillows, as he prefers it. I sit on his side of the bed—the right side, since my mother apparently always favored the left, and even with her gone he still lives his life in two sides, never writing her out—and I pick up the framed photo of Dad helping me blow out the candles of my Toy Story cake on my sixth birthday. Well, Dad did all the work. I was laughing at him. He says the gleeful look on my face is why he keeps this picture so close. I know it’s sort of strange, but Dad is just as much my best friend as Lidia is. I could never admit that out loud without someone making fun of me, I’m sure, but we’ve always had a great relationship. Not perfect, but I’m sure every two people out there—in my school, in this city, on the other side of the world—struggle with dumb and important things, and the closest pairs just find a way to get over them. Dad and I would never have one of those relationships where we had a falling-out and never talked to each other again, not like these Deckers on some CountDowners feeds who hate their fathers so much they either never visited them on their deathbeds or refused to make amends before they themselves died. I slip the photo out of the frame, fold it, and put it in my pocket—the creases won’t bother Dad, I don’t think—and get up to go to the hospital and say my goodbye and make sure this photo is by his side when he finally wakes up. I want to make sure he quickly finds some peace, like it’s an ordinary morning, before someone tells him I’m gone. I leave his room, pumped to go out and do this, when I see the stack of dishes in the sink. I should clean those up so Dad doesn’t come home to dirty plates and mugs with impossible stains from all the hot chocolate I’ve been drinking. I swear this isn’t an excuse to not go outside. Seriously. RUFUS 1:41 a.m. We used to beast through the streets on our bikes like we were racing without brakes, but not tonight. We look both ways constantly and stop for red lights, like now, even when the street is clear of cars. We’re on the block with that Decker-friendly club, Clint’s Graveyard. There’s a crowd forming of twentysomething-year-olds and the line is straight chaos, which has gotta be keeping the paychecks coming for the bouncers dealing with all these Deckers and their friends trying to get crazy on the dance floor one last time before their time is up. This brunette girl, mad pretty, is bawling when a guy advances on her with some tired-ass pickup line (“Maybe you’ll live to see another day with some Vitamin Me in your system.”), and her friend swings her purse at him until he backs up. Poor girl can’t even get a break from assholes hitting on her when she’s grieving herself. It’s a green light and we ride on, finally reaching Pluto minutes later. The foster home is a jacked-up duplex with the face of a battered building—bricks missing, indecipherable and colorful graffiti. There are bars on the ground floor windows, not because we’re criminals or anything like that, but so no one busts in and steals from a bunch of kids who’ve already lost enough. We leave our bikes down at the bottom of the steps, racing up to the door and letting ourselves in. We go down the hall, not bothering to tiptoe across the tacky, chessboard-like tiled floor into the living room, and even though there’s a bulletin board with information about sex, getting tested for HIV, abortion and adoption clinics, and other sheets of that nature, this place still feels like a home and not some institution. There’s the fireplace that doesn’t work but still looks dope. The warm orange paint covering the walls, which had me ready for fall this summer. The oak table we’d gather around to play Cards Against Humanity and Taboo on weeknights after dinner. The TV where I’d watch this reality show Hipster House with Tagoe, even though Aimee hated all those hipsters so much she wished I watched cartoon porn instead. The couch where we’d take turns napping since it’s more comfortable than our beds. We go up to the second floor, where our bedroom is, this tight spot that wouldn’t really be all that comfortable for one person, let alone three, but we make it work. There’s a window we keep open on the nights Tagoe eats beans, even if it’s mad loud outside. “I gotta say it,” Tagoe says, closing the door behind us. “You’ve come really far. Think about all you’ve done since coming here.” “There’s so much more I could be doing.” I sit on my bed and throw my head back on my pillow. “It’s mad pressure to do all my living in one day.” Might not even be a full day. I’ll be lucky to get twelve hours. “No one’s expecting you to cure cancer or save endangered pandas,” Malcolm says. “Yo, Death-Cast is lucky they can’t predict when an animal is gonna die,” Tagoe says, and I suck my teeth and shake my head because he’s speaking up for pandas when his best friend is dying. “What, it’s true! You would be the most hated dude on the planet if you called up the last panda ever. Imagine the media, there’d be selfies and—” “We get it,” I interrupt. I’m not a panda so the media doesn’t give a shit about me. “You guys gotta do me the biggest favor. Wake up Jenn Lori and Francis. Tell them I wanna have a funeral before heading out.” Francis never really took a liking to me, but I got a home out of this arrangement and that’s more than others get. “You should stay here,” Malcolm says. He opens up the only closet. “Maybe we can beat this. You can be the exception! We can lock you in here.” “I’ll suffocate or the shelf with your heavy-ass clothes will collapse on my head.” He should know better than to believe in exceptions and shit like that. I sit up. “I don’t have a lot of time, guys.” I shake a little, but I get it together. I can’t let them see me freaking. Tagoe twitches. “You gonna be okay by yourself?” It takes a few seconds before I get what he’s really asking me. “I’m not offing myself,” I say. I’m not trying to die. They leave me alone in the room with laundry I’ll never have to worry about washing and summer course work I’ll never have to finish—or start. Bunched up in the corner of my bed is Aimee’s blanket, this yellow thing with a pattern of colorful cranes, which I wrap around my shoulders. It belonged to Aimee as a kid, a relic from her mother’s childhood. We started dating when she was still here at Pluto, and we’d rest underneath the blanket together and use it for the occasional living room picnic. Those were mad chill times. She didn’t ask for the blanket back after we broke up, which I think was her way of keeping me around, even when she wanted distance. Like I still have a chance with her. This room couldn’t be more different from the bedroom I grew up in—beige walls instead of green; two extra beds, and roommates; half the size; no weights or video game posters—but it still feels like home, and it showed me how people matter more than stuff. Malcolm learned that lesson after firefighters put out the flames that burned his house, parents, and favorite things. We keep it simple here. Behind my bed, I have pictures thumb-tacked to the wall, all printed out by Aimee from my Instagram: Althea Park, where I always go to think; my sweaty white T-shirt hanging from my bike’s handlebars, taken after my first marathon last summer; an abandoned stereo on Christopher Street, playing a song I’d never heard before and never heard again; Tagoe with a bloody nose from that time we tried creating a handshake for the Plutos and it all went wrong because of a stupid head-butt; two sneakers—one size eleven, the other size nine—from that time I bought new kicks but didn’t make sure they matched before leaving the store; me and Aimee, my eyes uneven, kind of like when I’m high, which I wasn’t (yet), but it’s still a keeper because the streetlight threw a cool glow on her; footprints in the mud from when I chased Aimee around the park after a long week of rain; two shadows sitting beside each other, which Malcolm wanted no part of, but I took anyway; and tons more I gotta leave behind for my boys when I walk out of here. Walking out of here . . . I really don’t wanna go. MATEO 1:52 a.m. I’m almost ready to go. I did the dishes, swept dust and candy wrappers out from underneath the couch, mopped the living room floor, wiped the bathroom sink clean of my toothpaste smears, and even made my bed. I’m back in front of my laptop, faced with a greater challenge: the inscription for my headstone in no more than eight words. How do I sum up my life in eight words? He Lived Where He Died: In His Bedroom. What a Waste of a Life. Children Take More Risks Than Him. I have to do better. Everyone wanted so much more out of me, myself included. I have to honor this. It’s my last day to do so. Here Lies Mateo: He Lived for Everyone. I hit Submit. There’s no going back. Yeah, I can edit, but that’s not how promises work, and living for everyone is a promise to the world. I know it’s early in the day, but my chest squeezes because it’s also getting late, for a Decker, at least. I can’t do this alone, the leaving part. I’m really not dragging Lidia into my End Day. Once I get out of here—not if—I’ll go see Lidia and Penny, but I’m not telling Lidia. I don’t want her to consider me dead before I am, or ever bring her any sadness. Maybe I’ll send her a postcard explaining everything while I’m out living. What I need is a coach who can double as a friend for me, or a friend who can serve as a coach for me. And that’s what this popular app often promoted on CountDowners provides. The Last Friend app is designed for lonely Deckers and for any good soul who wants to keep a Decker company in their final hours. This isn’t to be confused with Necro, which is intended for anyone who wants a one-night stand with a Decker—the ultimate no-strings-attached app. I’ve always been so disturbed by Necro, and not just because sex makes me nervous. But no, the Last Friend app was created so people can feel worthy and loved before they die. There are no user charges, unlike Necro, which goes for $7.99 a day, which disturbs me because I can’t help but feel as if a human is worth more than eight bucks. Anyway, just like any potential new friendship, the relationships born from the Last Friend app can be pretty hit-or-miss. I was once following this CountDowners feed where this Decker met a Last Friend, and she was slow about updating, sometimes for hours, to the point where viewers in the chat room assumed she’d died. She was actually very much alive, just living her last day right, and after she died her Last Friend wrote a brief eulogy that taught me more about the girl than I’d learned in any of her updates. But it’s not always sweet like that. A few months ago this Decker with a sad life unwittingly befriended the infamous Last Friend serial killer, and that was so tragic to read about, and one of the many reasons I struggle with trusting this world. I think engaging with a Last Friend could do me some good. Then again, I don’t know if it’s sadder to die alone or in the company of someone who not only doesn’t mean anything to you, but also probably doesn’t care much for you either. Time is wasting. I have to take a shot and find the same bravery hundreds of thousands of Deckers before me have found. I check my bank account online, and what remains from my college funds has been automatically deposited into my account, which is only about two thousand dollars, but it’s more than enough money to get through the day. I can visit the World Travel Arena downtown, where Deckers and guests can experience the cultures and environments of different countries and cities. I download the Last Friend app on my phone. It’s the fastest download ever, like it’s some sentient being who understands the whole point of its existence is that time is running out for someone. The app has a blue interface with an animation of a gray clock as two silhouettes approach each other and high five. LAST FRIEND zooms into the center and a menu drops down. Dying Today Not Dying Today I click Dying Today. A message pops up: We here at Last Friend Inc. are collectively sorry for this loss of you. Our deepest sympathies extend to those who love you and those who will never meet you. We hope you find a new friend of value to spend your final hours with today. Please fill out the profile for best results. Deeply sorry to lose you, Last Friend Inc. A blank profile pops up and I fill it out. Name: Mateo Torrez Age: 18 Gender: Male Height: 5’10” Weight: 164 lbs. Ethnicity: Puerto Rican Orientation: <skip> Job: <skip> Interests: Music; Wandering Favorite Movies / TV Shows / Books: Timberwolves by Gabriel Reeds; “Plaid Is the New Black”; the Scorpius Hawthorne series Who You Were in Life: I’m an only child and I’ve only ever really had my dad. But my dad has been in a coma for two weeks and will probably wake up after I’m gone. I want to make him proud and break out. I can’t go on being the kid who keeps his head low, because all that did was rob me of being out there with you all—maybe I could’ve met some of you sooner. Bucket List: I want to go to the hospital and say goodbye to my dad. And then my best friend, but I don’t want to tell her I’m dying. After that, I don’t know. I want to make a difference for others and find a different Mateo while I’m at it. Final Thoughts: I’m going for it. I submit my answers. The app prompts me to upload a photo. I scroll through my phone’s album and there are a lot of photos of Penny and screenshots of songs I’d recommend to Lidia. There are others of me out in the living room with Dad. There’s my junior year photo, which is lame. I stumble on one I took of myself wearing the Luigi hat I won in June for entering this Mario Kart contest online. I was supposed to send the contest host my picture to be featured on the website, but I didn’t think the boy-goofing-around-in-the-Luigi-hat was very me so I never submitted it. But I was wrong, go figure. This is exactly the person I always wanted to be—loose, fun, carefree. No one will look at this photo and think it was out of character, because none of these people know me, and their only expectations of me are to be the person I’m presenting myself as in my profile. I upload the photo and a final message pops up: Be well, Mateo. RUFUS 1:59 a.m. My foster parents are waiting downstairs. They tried rushing in here the second they found out, but Malcolm played bodyguard because he knew I still needed a minute. I change into my cycling gear—my gym tights with blue basketball shorts over them so my package isn’t poking out there like Spider-Man’s, and my favorite gray fleece—because there’s no other way I can imagine getting around this city on my End Day except on my bike. I grab my helmet because safety first. I take one last look at the room. I don’t break down or nothing like that, seriously, even as I remember playing catch with my boys. I leave the light on as I step out and keep the door open so Malcolm and Tagoe don’t get weird about going back in. Malcolm gives me a little smile. His playing-it-cool game is weak ’cause I know he’s been losing his head, they all are. I would too if the cards were reversed. “You actually got Francis awake?” I ask. “Yeah.” It’s possible I’m gonna die at the hands of my foster father; if you’re not his alarm clock, you shouldn’t wake him up. I follow Malcolm downstairs. Tagoe, Jenn Lori, and Francis are there, but they don’t say anything. The first thing I wanna ask is if anyone has heard from Aimee, like if her aunt is holding her up, but that’s not right. I really hope she didn’t change her mind about wanting to see me. It’s gonna be okay, I gotta focus on everyone who is here. Francis is wide awake and wearing his favorite-slash-only bathrobe, like he’s some kingpin whose business makes him stacks on stacks of money instead of a technician spending the little he makes on us. Good guy, but he looks mad wild because his hair is patchy since he cuts it himself to save a few bucks, which is crazy stupid because Tagoe is a haircut artist. I kid you not, Tagoe gives the best fades in the city and that bastard better open up his own barbershop one day and give up his screenwriting dreams. Francis is too white to rock a fade, though. Jenn Lori dries her eyes with the collar of her old college T-shirt before putting her glasses back on. She’s at the edge of her seat, like when we’d watch Tagoe’s favorite slasher flicks, and just like then, she gets up, but not because of some gross spontaneous combustion. She hugs me and cries into my shoulder, and it’s the first time anyone’s hugged me since I got the alert and I don’t want her to let go, but I have to keep it moving. Jenn stays by my side as I stare at the floor. “One less mouth to feed, right?” No one laughs. I shrug. I don’t know how to do this. No one gives you lessons on how to brace everyone for your death, especially when you’re seventeen and healthy. We’ve all been through enough seriousness and I want them to laugh. “Rock, Paper, Scissors, anyone?” I clap my fist against my palm, playing Scissors against no one. I do it again, this time playing Rock, still against no one. “Come on, guys.” I go again and Malcolm plays Paper against my Scissors. It takes another minute, but we get several rounds going. Francis and Jenn Lori are easy to beat. I go up against Tagoe and Rock beats Scissors. “Do-over,” Malcolm says. “Tagoe switched from Paper to Rock last second.” “Man, of all days to cheat Roof, why today?” Tagoe shakes his head. I give Tagoe a friendly bro push. “Because you’re a dick.” The doorbell rings. I dart to the door, heart racing like whoa, and open it. Aimee’s face is so flushed I almost can’t make out the huge birthmark on her cheek. “Are you kidding me?” Aimee asks. I shake my head. “I can show you the time stamp on my phone.” “Not about your End Day,” Aimee says. “This.” She steps to the side and points at the bottom of the stairs—at Peck and his wrecked face. The one I said I never wanted to see again as long as I lived. MATEO 2:02 a.m. I don’t know how many Last Friend accounts are active in the world, but there are currently forty-two online in New York City alone, and staring down these users feels a lot like being in my high school auditorium on the first day of classes. There’s all this pressure, and I don’t know where to start—until I receive a message. There’s a bright blue envelope in my inbox, and it glows in pulses, waiting to be clicked open. There’s no subject line, just some basic information: Wendy Mae Greene. 19 years old. Female. Manhattan, New York (2 miles away). I click her profile. She isn’t a Decker, just a girl who’s up late looking to console one. In her bio she’s a self-described “bookworm obsessed with all things Scorpius Hawthorne,” and this common link is probably why she’s reaching out. She also likes walking around, too, “especially in late May when the weather is perfect.” I won’t be around for late May, Wendy Mae. I wonder how long she’s had this profile and if anyone’s told her that speaking about the future like that might offend some Deckers, how it might be mistaken as showing off how much life she still has left to live. I move past it and click her photo. She seems nice—light skinned, brown eyes, brown hair, a nose piercing, and a big smile. I open the message. Wendy Mae G. (2:02 a.m.): hi mateo. u have great taste in bks. bet ur wishing u had a death cloaking spell, huh?? I’m sure she means well, but between her bio and this message, she’s hammering me with nails instead of giving me the pat on the back I was hoping for. I won’t be rude, though. Mateo T. (2:03 a.m.): Hey, Wendy Mae. Thanks, you have great taste in books too. Wendy Mae G. (2:03 a.m.): scorpius hawthorne 4 life . . . how r u doing? Mateo T. (2:03 a.m.): Not great. I don’t want to leave my room, but I know I have to get out of here. Wendy Mae G. (2:03 a.m.): what was the call like? were you scared? Mateo T. (2:04 a.m.): I freaked out a little bit—a lot of bit, actually. Wendy Mae G. (2:04 a.m.): lol. ur funny. n really cute. ur mom n dad must be losing their heads 2 rite? Mateo T. (2:05 a.m.): I don’t mean to be rude, but I have to go now. Have a nice night, Wendy Mae. Wendy Mae G. (2:05 a.m.): wat did i say? y do u dead guys always stop talking 2 me? Mateo T. (2:05 a.m.): It’s no big deal, really. It’s hard for my parents to lose their heads when my mom is out of the picture and my dad is in a coma. Wendy Mae G. (2:05 a.m.): how was i supposed 2 kno that? Mateo T. (2:05 a.m.): It’s in my profile. Wendy Mae G. (2:05 a.m.): fine, watevr. do u have an open house then? i’m supposed to lose my virginity to my bf but i want to practice first and maybe u can help me out. I click out while she’s typing another message and block her for good measure. I get her insecurities, I guess, and I feel bad for her and her boyfriend if she manages to cheat on him, but I’m not some miracle worker. I receive some more messages, these with subject lines: Subject: 420? Kevin and Kelly. 21 years old. Male. Bronx, New York (4 miles away). Decker? No. Subject: My condolences, Mateo (great name) Philly Buiser. 24 years old. Male. Manhattan, New York (3 miles away). Decker? No. Subject: u selling a couch? good condition? J. Marc. 26 years old. Male. Manhattan, New York (1 mile away). Decker? No. Subject: Dying sucks, huh? Elle R. 20 years old. Female. Manhattan, New York (3 miles away). Decker? Yes. I ignore Kevin and Kelly’s message; not interested in pot. I delete J. Marc’s message because I’m not selling the couch Dad will need again for his weekend naps. I’m going to answer Philly’s message—because it came first. Philly B. (2:06 a.m.): Hey, Mateo. How’s it going? Mateo T. (2:08 a.m.): Hey, Philly. Is it too lame to say I’m hanging in there? Philly B. (2:08 a.m.): Nah, I’m sure it’s rough. Not looking forward to the day Death-Cast calls me. Are you sick or something? Pretty young to be dying. Mateo T. (2:09 a.m.): I’m healthy, yeah. I’m terrified of how it’s going to happen, but I’m nervous I’ll somehow disappoint myself if I don’t get out there. I definitely don’t want to stink up the apartment by dying in here. Philly B. (2:09 a.m.): I can help with that, Mateo. Mateo T. (2:09 a.m.): Help with what? Philly B. (2:09 a.m.): Making sure you don’t die. Mateo T. (2:09 a.m.): That’s not a thing anyone can promise. Philly B. (2:10 a.m.): I can. You seem like a cool guy who doesn’t deserve to die so you should come over to my apartment. It’ll have to be a secret, though, but I have the cure to death in my pants. I block Philly and open up Elle’s message. Maybe the third time will be the charm. RUFUS 2:21 a.m. Aimee gets in my face and pushes me against the fridge. She doesn’t play when it comes to violence because her parents got real extra when they tag-team-robbed a convenience store, assaulting the owner and his twenty-year-old son. Shoving me around isn’t gonna get her locked up like them, though. “Look at him, Rufus. What the fuck were you thinking?” I refuse to look at Peck, who’s leaning against the kitchen counter. I already saw the damage I did when he walked in—one eye shut, a cut on his lip, spots of dried blood on his swollen forehead. Jenn Lori is right next to him, pressing ice against his forehead. I can’t look at her either, she’s so disappointed in me, End Day or not. Tagoe and Malcolm flank me, quiet too since she and Francis already gave them shit for hitting the streets with me way past bedtime to rough Peck up. “Not feeling so brave now, right?” Peck asks. “Shut up.” Aimee whips around, slamming her phone against the counter, startling everyone. “Don’t follow us.” She pushes open the kitchen door and Francis is not-so-casually hanging out by the staircase, trying to stay in the know but also keep back so he doesn’t have to shame or punish a Decker. Aimee drags me into the living room by my wrist. “So, what? Death-Cast calls and so you’re free to lay into whoever the fuck you want?” I guess Peck didn’t tell her I was beating his ass before I got the alert. “I . . .” “What?” “There’s no point lying. I was coming for him.” Aimee takes a step back, like I’m some monster who might lash out at her next, which kills me. “Look, Ames, I was freaking out. I already felt like I didn’t have a future before Death-Cast dropped that grenade in my lap. My grades have always been shit, I’m almost eighteen, I lost you, and I was wilding out because I didn’t know what I was gonna do. I felt like a straight-up nobody and Peck pretty much said the same damn thing.” “You’re not a nobody,” Aimee says, shaking a little as she comes toward me, no longer scared. She takes my hand and we sit on the couch where she first told me she was leaving Pluto because her aunt on her mom’s side had enough dough to take her in. A minute later, she also broke up with me because she wanted a clean slate, some cheap-ass tip from her elementary school classmate—Peck. “We didn’t make sense anymore. And there’s no point lying, like you said, even on your last day.” She holds my hand while she cries, which I was doubting she’d even do because she was so pissed when she got here. “I read our love wrong, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love you. You were there for me when I needed to act out and be angry, and you made me happy when I was tired of hating everything. Nobodies can’t make someone feel all of that.” She hugs me, resting her chin on my shoulder the same way she would relax on my chest whenever she was about to watch one of her historical documentaries. I hold her because I don’t have anything new to say. I wanna kiss her, but I don’t need some fakeness from her. She’s mad close though, and I pull back so I can see her face because maybe one last kiss might be real for her too. She’s staring at me and I lean in— Tagoe comes into the living room and covers his eyes. “Oh! Sorry.” I back up. “Nah, you good.” “We should do the funeral,” Tagoe says. “But take your time. It’s your day. Sorry, it’s not your day, it’s not like a birthday, it’s the opposite.” He twitches. “I’m gonna get everyone in here.” He steps. “I don’t want to hog you,” Aimee says. She doesn’t let me go, not until everyone comes in. I needed that hug. I’m looking forward to hugging the Plutos for a final Pluto Solar System group hug after the funeral. I stay seated in the center of the couch. I’m battling my lungs for my next breath, hard-core. Malcolm sits to my left, Aimee to my right, and Tagoe at my feet. Peck keeps his distance, playing around on Aimee’s phone. I hate that he’s on her phone, but I broke his so I gotta stay shut. This is my first Decker funeral, since my family didn’t care about throwing one for themselves because we all had each other and didn’t need anyone else, not coworkers or old friends. Maybe if I’d gone to others I’d be ready for the way Jenn Lori speaks directly to me and not the other attendees. It makes me feel vulnerable and seen, and it gets me teary eyed, like when someone sings “Happy Birthday” to me—seriously, every year, it never fails. Failed. “. . . You never cried even though you had every reason to, like you were trying to prove something. The others . . .” Jenn Lori doesn’t turn to the Plutos, not even a little. She doesn’t break eye contact, like we’re in a staring contest. Respect. “They all cried, but your eyes were so sad, Rufus. You didn’t look at any of us for a couple days. I was convinced if someone posed as me you wouldn’t have known any better. Your hollowness was heavy until you found friends, and more.” I turn and Aimee won’t take her eyes off me—same sad look she gave me when she broke up with me. “I always felt good when you were all together,” Francis says. He’s not talking about tonight, I know that. Dying sucks, I bet, but getting locked up in prison while life keeps going on without you has gotta be worse. Francis keeps staring but doesn’t say anything else. “We don’t have all day.” He waves Malcolm over. “Your turn.” Malcolm steps to the center of the room, his hunched back to the kitchen. He clears his throat, and it’s harsh, like he’s got something stuck in his pipes, and some spit flies out of his mouth. He’s always been a mess, the kind of dude who will unintentionally embarrass you because he has bad table manners and no filter. But he can also tutor you in algebra and keep a secret, and that’s the stuff I would talk about if I were giving his eulogy. “You were—you are our bro, Roof. This is bullshit. Total fucking bullshit.” His head hangs low as he picks at the cuticles on his left hand. “They should take me instead.” “Don’t say that. Seriously, shut up.” “I’m serious,” he says. “I know no one’s living forever, but you should live longer than others. You matter more than other people. That’s life. I’m this big nothing who can’t keep a job bagging groceries, and you’re—” “Dying!” I interrupt, standing. I’m heated and I punch him mad hard in the arm. Not saying sorry either. “I’m dying and we can’t trade lives. You’re not a big nothing, but you can step your damn game up anyway.” Tagoe stands, massaging his neck, beating back a twitch. “Roof, I’ll miss you shutting us up like this. You stop me from assassinating Malcolm whenever he eats off our plates and doesn’t flush twice. I was ready to see your damn mug until we were old.” Tagoe takes off his glasses, wiping his tears with the back of his hand, and closes it into a tight fist. He looks up, like he’s waiting for some Death piñata to drop from the ceiling. “You’re supposed to be a lifer.” No one says anything, they just cry harder. The sound of everyone grieving me before I’m gone gives me crazy chills. I wanna console them and stuff, but I can’t snap out of my daze. I spent a lot of time feeling guilty for living after I lost my family, but now I can’t beat this weird Decker guilt for dying, knowing I’m leaving this crew behind. Aimee steps up to the center and we all know this is about to get mad real. Brutal. “Is it lame to say I think I’m stuck in a nightmare? I always thought everyone was being so dramatic when they said that: ‘This feels like a nightmare.’ Like, really, that’s all you feel when tragedy happens? I don’t know how I wanted them to feel, but I can say now they hit the nail on the head. There’s another cliché for you, whatever. I want to wake up. And if I can’t wake up, I want to go to sleep forever where there’s a chance I dream everything beautiful about you, like how you looked at me for me and not because you wanted to gawk at this fuckery on my face.” Aimee touches her heart, choking on her next words. “It hurts so much, Rufus, to think you won’t be around for me to call or hug and . . .” She stops looking at me; she’s squinting at something behind me, and her hand drops. “Did someone call the police?” I jump out of my seat and see the flashes of red and blue in front of the duplex. I’m in full-on panic mode that feels insanely brief and mad long, like eight forevers. There’s only one person who isn’t surprised or freaking out. I turn to Aimee and her eyes follow mine back to Peck. “You didn’t,” Aimee says, charging toward him. She snatches her phone from him. “He assaulted me!” Peck shouts. “I don’t care if he’s on his way out!” “He’s not expired meat, he’s another human being!” Aimee shouts back. Holy shit. I don’t know how Peck did it because he hasn’t made any calls here, but he got the cops on me at my own funeral. I hope Death-Cast calls that bastard in the next few minutes. “Go out the back,” Tagoe says, twitches running wild. “You have to come with me, you guys were there.” “We’ll slow them down,” Malcolm says. “Talk them out of it.” There’s a knock on the door. Jenn Lori points at the kitchen. “Go.” I grab my helmet, walking backward toward the kitchen, taking in all the Plutos. My pops once said goodbyes are “the most possible impossible” ’cause you never wanna say them, but you’d be stupid not to when given the shot. I’m getting cheated out of mine because the wrong person showed up at my funeral. I shake my head and run out the back, catching my breath. I rush through the backyard we all hated because of relentless mosquitoes and fruit flies, then hop the fence. I sneak back around to the front of the house to see if there’s a chance I can grab my bike before having to book it on my feet. The cop car is parked outside, but both officers must be inside, maybe even in the backyard by now if Peck snitched. I grab my bike and run with it down the sidewalk, hopping onto the seat once I get enough momentum. I don’t know where I’m going, but I keep going. I lived through my funeral, but I wish I was already dead. MATEO 2:52 a.m. The third time was not the charm. I can’t even tell you if Elle is actually a Decker, but I blocked her without investigating because she spammed me with links to “funny snuff videos gone wrong.” I closed the app afterward. Have to admit it, I feel a little vindicated in how I’ve lived my life because people can be the worst. It’s hard to have a respectful conversation, let alone make a Last Friend. I keep receiving pop-up notifications for new messages, but I ignore them because I’m on the tenth level of A Dark Vanishing, this brutal Xbox Infinity game that has me wanting to look up cheat codes. My hero, Cove, a level-seventeen sorcerer with fire for hair, can’t advance through this poverty-stricken kingdom without an offering to the princess. So I walk (well, Cove walks) past all the hawkers trying to sell off their bronze pins and rusty locks and go straight for the pirates. I must’ve gotten lost in my head on the way to the harbor because Cove steps on a land mine and I don’t have time to ghost-phase through the explosion—Cove’s arm flies through a hut’s window, his head rockets into the sky, and his legs burst completely. My heart pounds all through the loading screen until Cove is suddenly back, good as new. Cove’s got it good. I won’t be able to respawn later. I’m wasting away in here and . . . There are two bookcases in my room. The blue bookcase on the bottom holds my favorite books that I could never get myself to purge when I did my monthly book donations to the teen health clinic down the block. The white bookcase on top is stacked with books I always planned on reading. . . . I grab the books as if I’ll have time to read them all: I want to know how this boy deals with a life that’s moved on without him after he’s resurrected by a ritual. Or what it was like for the little girl who couldn’t perform at the school talent show because her parents received the Death-Cast alert while she was dreaming of pianos. Or how this hero known as the People’s Hope receives a message from these Death-Cast-like prophets telling him he’s going to die six days before the final battle where he was the key to victory against the King of All Evil. I throw these books across the room and even kick some of my favorites off their shelves because the line between favorites and books that will never be favorites doesn’t matter anymore. I rush over to my speakers and almost hurl them against the wall, stopping myself at the last second. Books don’t require electricity, but speakers do, and it can all end here. The speakers and piano taunt me, reminding me of all the times I rushed home from school to have as much private time as I could with my music before Dad returned from his managerial shifts at the crafts store. I would sing, but not too loudly so my neighbors couldn’t overhear me. I tear down a map from the wall. I have never traveled outside of New York and will never get on a plane to touch down in Egypt to see temples and pyramids or travel to Dad’s hometown in Puerto Rico to visit the rainforest he frequented as a kid. I rip up the map, letting all the countries and cities and towns fall at my feet. It’s chaos in here. It’s a lot like when the hero in some blockbuster fantasy film is standing in the rubble of his war-ravaged village, bombed because the villains couldn’t find him. Except instead of demolished buildings and disintegrated bricks, there are books open face-first on the floor, their damaged spines poking up, while others are piled on one another. I can’t put everything back together or I’ll find myself alphabetizing all the books and taping the map back together. (I swear this isn’t some excuse to not clean my room.) I turn off the Xbox Infinity, where Cove has respawned, all limbs together as if he didn’t just explode minutes ago. Cove is standing at the start point, idly dangling his staff. I have to make a move. I pick up my phone again, reopening the Last Friend app. I hope I step over the people who are dangerous like land mines. RUFUS 2:59 a.m. Wish Death-Cast called before I ruined my life tonight. If Death-Cast hit me up last night, they would’ve knocked me out of that dream I was having where I was losing a marathon to some little kids on tricycles. If Death-Cast hit me up one week ago, I wouldn’t have been up late reading all the notes Aimee wrote me when we were still a thing. If Death-Cast called two weeks ago, they would’ve interrupted that argument I was having with Malcolm and Tagoe about how Marvel heroes are better than DC heroes (and maybe I would’ve asked the herald to weigh in). If Death-Cast called one month ago, they would’ve killed the dead silence that came with me not wanting to talk with anyone after Aimee left. But nah, Death-Cast called tonight while I was pounding on Peck, which led to Aimee dragging him to the duplex to confront me, which led to Peck getting the cops involved and cutting my funeral short, which led to me being one hundred percent alone right now. None of that would’ve happened if Death-Cast called one day sooner. I hear police sirens and keep pedaling. I hope something else is happening. I give it a few more minutes before I take a break, stopping between a McDonald’s and a gas station. It’s mad bright, maybe kneeling over here is stupid, but staying in plain sight might be a good hiding spot. I don’t know, I’m not James Bond, I don’t have some guidebook on how to hide from the bad guys. Shit, I’m the bad guy. I can’t keep moving, though. My heart is racing, my legs are on fire, and I gotta catch my breath. I sit on the curb outside the gas station. It smells like piss and cheap beer. There’s graffiti of two silhouettes on the wall with the air pumps for bike tires. The silhouettes are both shaped like the dude on the men’s bathroom sign. In orange spray paint it says: The Last Friend App. I keep getting dicked out of proper goodbyes. No final hug with my family, no final hug with the Plutos. It’s not even the goodbyes, man, it’s not getting to thank everyone for all they did for me. The loyalty Malcolm showed me time and time again. The entertainment Tagoe delivered with his B-movie scripts, like Canary Clown and the Carnival of Doom and Snake Taxi—though Substitute Doctor was just so bad, even for a bad movie. Francis’s character impressions had me dying so hard I’d beg him to shut up because my rib cage hurt. The afternoon Jenn Lori taught me to play solitaire so I could keep myself moving, but also have alone time. The really great chat I had with Francis when we were the last two awake, about how instead of complimenting an attractive anyone on their looks my pickup lines should be more personal because “anyone can have pretty eyes, but only the right kind of person can hum the alphabet and make it your new favorite beat.” The way Aimee always kept it real, even just now when she set me free by telling me she wasn’t in love with me. I could’ve really gone for one last Pluto Solar System group hug. I can’t go back now. Maybe I shouldn’t have run. The charges probably went up for running, but I didn’t have time to think. I gotta make this up to the Plutos. They spoke nothing but truth during their eulogies. I’ve messed up a bit lately, but I’m good. Malcolm and Tagoe wouldn’t have been my boys if I weren’t, and Aimee wouldn’t have been my girl if I were scum. They can’t be with me, but that doesn’t mean I have to be alone. I really don’t wanna be alone. I pick myself up and walk over to the wall with the graffiti and some oil-stained poster for something called Make-A-Moment. I stare at the Last Friend silhouettes on the wall. Ever since my family died, I would’ve bet anything I was gonna die alone. Maybe I will, but just because I was left behind doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have a Last Friend. I know there’s a good Rufus in me, the Rufus I used to be, and maybe a Last Friend can drag him out of me. Apps really aren’t my thing, but neither is beating in people’s faces, so I’m already out of my element today. I enter the app store and I download Last Friend. The download is mad fast; probably a bitch on my data, but who cares. I register as a Decker, set up my profile, upload an old photo off my Instagram, and I’m good to go. Nothing like receiving seven messages in my first five minutes to make me feel a little less lonely—even though one guy is throwing some bullshit about having the cure to death in his pants and yo, I’ll take death instead. MATEO 3:14 a.m. I adjust the settings on my profile so I’ll only be visible to anyone between the ages of sixteen and eighteen; older men and women can no longer hit on me. I take it one step further and now only registered Deckers can connect with me so I don’t have to deal with anyone looking to buy a couch or pot. This diminishes the online numbers significantly. I’m sure there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of teens who received the alert today, but there are only eighty-nine registered Deckers between the ages of sixteen and eighteen online right now. I receive a message from an eighteen-year-old girl named Zoe, but I ignore it when I see a profile for a seventeen-year-old named Rufus; I’ve always liked that name. I click on his profile. Name: Rufus Emeterio Age: 17. Gender: Male. Height: 5’10”. Weight: 169 lbs. Ethnicity: Cuban-American. Orientation: Bisexual. Job: Professional Time Waster. Interests: Cycling. Photography. Favorite Movies / TV Shows / Books: <skip> Who You Were in Life: I survived something I shouldn’t have. Bucket List: Do it up. Final Thoughts: It’s about time. I’ve made mistakes, but I’m gonna go out right. I want more time, more lives, and this Rufus Emeterio has already accepted his fate. Maybe he’s suicidal. Suicide can’t be predicted specifically, but the death itself is still foreseen. If he is self-destructive, I shouldn’t be around him—he might actually be the reason I’m about to clock out. But his photo clashes with that theory: he’s smiling and he has welcoming eyes. I’ll chat with him and, if I get a good vibe, he might be the kind of guy whose honesty will make me face myself. I’m going to reach out. There’s nothing risky about hello. Mateo T. (3:17 a.m.): sorry you’ll be lost, Rufus. I’m not used to reaching out to strangers like this. There have been a few times in the past I considered setting up a profile to keep Deckers company, but I didn’t think I could provide much for them. Now that I’m a Decker myself I understand the desperation to connect even more. Rufus E. (3:19 a.m.): Hey, Mateo. Nice hat. He not only responded, but he likes my Luigi hat from my profile picture. He’s already connecting to the person I want to become. Mateo T. (3:19 a.m.): Thanks. Think I’m going to leave the hat here at home. I don’t want the attention. Rufus E. (3:19 a.m.): Good call. A Luigi hat isn’t exactly a baseball cap, right? Mateo T. (3:19 a.m.): Exactly. Rufus E. (3:20 a.m.): Wait. You haven’t left your house yet? Mateo T. (3:20 a.m.): Nope. Rufus E. (3:20 a.m.): Did you just get the alert a few minutes ago? Mateo T. (3:20 a.m.): Death-Cast called me a little after midnight. Rufus E. (3:20 a.m.): What have you been doing all night? Mateo T. (3:20 a.m.): Cleaning and playing video games. Rufus E. (3:20 a.m.): Which game? Rufus E. (3:21 a.m.): N/m the game doesn’t matter. Don’t you have stuff you wanna do? What are you waiting for? Mateo T. (3:21 a.m.): I was talking to potential Last Friends and they were . . . not great, is the kindest way to put it. Rufus E. (3:21 a.m.): Why do you need a Last Friend before starting your day? Mateo T. (3:22 a.m.): Why do YOU need a Last Friend when you have friends? Rufus E. (3:22 a.m.): I asked you first. Mateo T. (3:22 a.m.): Fair. I think it’s insane to leave the apartment knowing something or SOMEONE is going to kill me. Also because there are “Last Friends” out there claiming they have the cure to death in their pants. Rufus E. (3:23 a.m.): I spoke to that dick too! Not his dick, exactly. But I reported and blocked him afterward. I promise I’m better than that guy. I guess that’s not saying much. Do you wanna video-chat? I’ll send you the invite. An icon of a silhouette speaking into a phone flashes. I almost reject the call, too confused about the suddenness of this moment, but I answer before the call goes away, before Rufus goes away. The screen goes black for a second, and then a total stranger with the face Rufus has in his profile appears. He’s sweating and looking down, but his eyes quickly find me and I feel exposed, maybe even a little threatened, like he’s some scary childhood legend that can reach through the screen and drag me into a dark underworld. In my overactive imagination’s defense, Rufus has already tried bullying me out of my own world and into the world beyond, so— “Yo,” Rufus says. “You see me?” “Yeah, hey. I’m Mateo.” “Hey, Mateo. My bad for springing the video chat on you,” Rufus says. “Kind of hard to trust someone you can’t see, you get me?” “No worries,” I say. There’s a glare, which is a little blinding wherever he is, but I can still make out his light brown face. I wonder why he’s so sweaty. “You wanted to know why I’d prefer a Last Friend over my real-life friends, right?” “Yeah,” I say. “Unless that’s too personal.” “Nah, don’t worry about that. I don’t think ‘too personal’ should exist between Last Friends. Long story short: I was with my parents and sister when our car crashed into the Hudson River and I had to watch them die. Living with that guilt isn’t something I want for my friends. I have to throw that out there and make sure that you’re okay with this.” “With you leaving your friends behind?” “No. The chance you might have to watch me die.” I’m being faced with the heaviest of chances today: I may have to watch him die, unless it’s the other way around, and both possibilities make me want to throw up. It’s not that I feel a deep connection or anything to him already, but the idea of watching anyone die makes me sick and sad and angry—and that’s why he’s asking. But not doing anything is hardly comforting, either. “Okay, yeah. I can do it.” “Can you? There’s the whole you-not-leaving-your-house problem. Last Friend or not, I’m not spending the rest of my life holed up in someone’s apartment—and I don’t want you to either, but you gotta meet me halfway, Mateo,” Rufus says. The way he says my name is a little more comforting than the way I imagined that creep Philly would say it; it’s more like a conductor giving a pep talk before a sold-out performance. “Believe me, I know it can get ugly out here. There was a point where I didn’t think any of this was worthwhile.” “Well, what changed?” I don’t mean it to sound like a challenge, but it kind of is. I’m not leaving the safety of my apartment that easily. “You lost your family and then what?” “I wasn’t about this life,” Rufus says, looking away. “And I would’ve been game with game over. But that’s not what my parents and sis wanted for me. It’s mad twisted, but surviving showed me it’s better to be alive wishing I was dead than dying wishing I could live forever. If I can lose it all and change my attitude, you need to do the same before it’s too late, dude. You gotta go for it.” Go for it. That’s what I said in my profile. He’s paid more attention than the others and cared about me the way a friend should. “Okay,” I say. “How do we do this? Is there a handshake or something?” I’m really hoping my trust isn’t betrayed the way it’s been in the past. “We can get a handshake going when we meet, but until then I promise to be the Mario to your Luigi, except I won’t hog the spotlight. Where we should we meet? I’m by the drugstore south of—” “I have one condition,” I say. His eyes squint; he’s probably nervous about the curveball I’m throwing his way. “You said I have to meet you halfway, but you need to pick me up from home. It’s not a trap, I swear.” “Sounds like a trap,” Rufus says. “I’m gonna find a different Last Friend.” “It’s really not! I swear.” I almost drop the phone. I’ve screwed everything up. “Seriously, I—” “I’m kidding, dude,” he says. “I’ll send you my phone number and you can text me your address. Then we can come up with a plan.” I’m just as relieved as I was when Andrea from Death-Cast called me Timothy during the call, when I thought I’d actually lucked into more life. Except this time it’s okay to fully relax—I think. “Will do,” I say. He doesn’t say bye or anything, he just looks at me for a little longer, likely sizing me up, or maybe questioning whether or not I’m actually luring him into a trap. “See you in a bit, Mateo. Try not to die before I get there.” “Try not to die getting here,” I say. “Be safe, Rufus.” Rufus nods and ends the video chat. He sends me his phone number and I’m tempted to call it to make sure he’s the one who picks up, and not some creep who’s paying him to collect addresses of young vulnerable guys. But if I keep second-guessing Rufus, this Last Friend business won’t work. I am a little concerned about spending my End Day with someone who’s accepted dying, someone who’s made mistakes. I don’t know him, obviously, and he might turn out to be insanely destructive—he is outside in the middle of the night on a day he’s slated for death, after all. But no matter what choices we make—solo or together—our finish line remains the same. It doesn’t matter how many times we look both ways. It doesn’t matter if we don’t go skydiving to play it safe, even though it means we’ll never get to fly like my favorite superheroes do. It doesn’t matter if we keep our heads low when passing a gang in a bad neighborhood. No matter how we choose to live, we both die at the end. PART TWO The Last Friend A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for. —John A. Shedd ANDREA DONAHUE 3:30 a.m. Death-Cast did not call Andrea Donahue because she isn’t dying today. Andrea herself, one of Death-Cast’s top reps since their inception seven years ago, has made her fair share of End Day calls. Tonight, between midnight and three, Andrea called sixty-seven Deckers; not her best number, but it’s proven difficult to beat her record of ninety-two calls in one shift ever since she was put under inspection for rushing through calls. Allegedly. On her way out of the building, limping, with her cane, Andrea hopes HR won’t review her call log tonight, even though she knows hope is a dangerous thing in this profession. Andrea mixed up several names, too eager to get from one Decker to the next. It’d be terrible timing to lose her job, with all the physical therapy she needs after her accident on top of her daughter’s mounting tuition. Not to mention it’s the only job she’s ever been great at because of one major life hack she discovered that has sent others out the door and on to less distressing jobs. Rule number one of one: Deckers are no longer people. That’s it. Abide by this one and only rule and you won’t find yourself wasting hours with the company’s counselors. Andrea knows there’s nothing she can do for these Deckers. She can’t fluff their pillows or serve them last meals or keep them alive. She won’t waste her breath praying for them. She won’t get invested in their life stories and cry for them. She simply tells them they’re dying and moves on. The sooner she gets off the phone, the sooner she reaches the next Decker. Andrea reminds herself every night how lucky these Deckers are to have her at their service. She doesn’t just tell people they’re dying. She gives them a chance to really live. But she can’t live for them. That’s on them. She’s already done her part, and she does it well. RUFUS 3:31 a.m. I’m biking toward that Mateo kid’s house. He better not be a serial killer or so help me . . . Nah, he’s chill. It’s obvious he spends way too much time in his head and is probably too antisocial for his own damn good. I mean, check this: I’m legit gonna pick him up from his house, like he’s some prince stuck in a high tower in need of rescuing. I think once the awkwardness is out of the way he’ll make for a solid partner-in-crime. If not, we can always part ways. It’ll suck ’cause that’s a waste of time we don’t have, but it is what it is. If nothing else, having a Last Friend should make my friends feel a little better about me running wild around the city. It makes me feel a little better, at least. MALCOLM ANTHONY 3:34 a.m. Death-Cast did not call Malcolm Anthony tonight because he isn’t dying today, but his future has been threatened. Malcom and his best friend Tagoe didn’t offer the police any clues as to where they believe Rufus may be headed. Malcolm told the police Rufus is a Decker and absolutely not worth chasing, but the officers couldn’t let Rufus go unpursued, not after his act of aggravated assault. So Malcolm came up with a genius, life-ruining idea: get himself arrested. Malcolm argued with the police officer and resisted arrest, but the great flaw in his plan was being unable to communicate it to Tagoe, who jumped into the argument too with more aggression than Malcolm himself was using. Both Malcolm and Tagoe are currently being taken to the police station. “This is pointless,” Tagoe says in the back of the cop car. He’s no longer sucking his teeth or shouting about how he did nothing, the way he did when the handcuffs first went on, even though Malcolm and Aimee urged him to shut up. “They’re not gonna find Rufus. He’ll dust them on his—” “Shut up.” This time Malcolm isn’t worried about extra charges coming Tagoe’s way. Malcolm already knows Rufus managed to get away on his bike. The bike wasn’t there when they were being escorted out of the house. And he knows Rufus can dust the police on his bike, but he doesn’t want them keeping an eye out for boys on bikes and find him. If they want him, they’re gonna have to work for it. Malcolm can’t give his friend an extra day, but he can find him extra time to live. This is assuming Rufus is still alive. Malcolm is game to take this hit for Rufus, and he knows he’s not innocent himself, that’s common sense. The Plutos snuck out earlier tonight with the intention of kicking Peck’s ass, which Rufus did a fine job of all by himself. Malcolm has never even been in a fight before, even though many paint him to be a violent young man because he’s six feet tall, black, and close to two hundred pounds. Just because he’s built like a wrestler doesn’t mean he’s a criminal. And now Malcolm and Tagoe will be tagged as juvenile delinquents. But they’ll have their lives. Malcolm stares out the window, wishing he could glimpse Rufus on his bike turning a corner, and finally he cries, these loud, stuttering sobs, not because he’ll now have a criminal record, not because he’s scared to go to the police station, not even because Rufus is dying, but because the biggest crime of all tonight was not being able to hug his best friend goodbye. MATEO 3:42 a.m. There’s a knock at the front door and I stop pacing. Different nerves hit me all at once: What if it’s not Rufus, even though no one else should be knocking at my door this late at night? What if it is Rufus and he’s got a gang of thieves with him or something? What if it’s Dad, who didn’t tell me he woke up so that he could surprise me—the sort of End Day miracle they make Lifetime movies about? I approach the door slowly, nudge up the peephole’s cover, and squint at Rufus, who’s looking right at me, even though I know he can’t actually make me out. “It’s Rufus,” he says from the other side. I hope it’s only him out there as I slide the chain free from its track. I pull the door open, finding a very three-dimensional Rufus in front of me, not someone I’m looking at through video chat or a peephole. He’s in a dark gray fleece and is wearing blue basketball shorts over these Adidas gym tights. He nods at me. There’s no smile or anything, but it’s friendly all the same. I lean forward, my heart pounding, and peek out into the hallway to see if he has some friends hiding against the walls, ready to jump me for the little I have. But the hallway is empty and now Rufus is smiling. “I’m on your turf, dude,” Rufus says. “If anyone should be suspicious, it’s me. This better not be some fake sheltered-kid act, yo.” “It’s no act,” I promise. “I’m sorry, I’m just . . . on edge.” “We’re in the same boat.” He holds out his hand and I shake it. His palm is sweaty. “You ready to bounce? This is a trick question, obviously.” “I’m ready-ish,” I answer. He’s come straight to my door for my company today, to lead me outside my sanctuary so we can live until we don’t. “Let me grab a couple of things.” I don’t invite him in, nor does he invite himself inside. He holds the door open from the outside while I grab the notes for my neighbors and my keys. I turn off the lights and walk past Rufus, and he closes the door behind me. I lock up. Rufus heads toward the elevator while I go the opposite way. “Where you going?” “I don’t want my neighbors to be surprised or worried when I’m not answering.” I drop off one note in front of 4F. “Elliot cooked extra food for me because I was only eating waffles.” I come back Rufus’s way and leave the second note in front of 4A. “And Sean was going to take a look at our busted stove, but he doesn’t have to worry about that now.” “That’s chill of you,” he says. “I didn’t think to do that.” I approach the elevator and peek over my shoulder at Rufus, this stranger who’s following me. I don’t feel uneasy, but I am guarded. He talks like we’ve been friends for a while, but I’m still suspicious. Which is fair, since the only things I know about him are that his name is Rufus, he rides a bike, he survived a tragedy, and he wants to be the Mario to my Luigi. And that he’s also dying today. “Whoa, we’re not taking the elevator,” Rufus says. “Two Deckers riding an elevator on their End Day is either a death wish or the start to a bad joke.” “Good point,” I say. The elevator is risky. Best-case scenario? We get stuck. Worst-case scenario? Obvious. Thankfully, I have Rufus here to be calculating for me; I guess Last Friends double as life coaches that way. “Let’s take the stairs,” I say, as if there’s some other option to get outside, like a rope hanging from the hallway window or one of those aircraft emergency slides. I go down the four flights like a child being trusted with stairs for the first time, its parents a couple steps ahead—except no one is here to catch me should I fall, or should Rufus trip and tumble into me. We get downstairs safely. My hand hovers over the lobby door. I can’t do it. I’m ready to retreat back upstairs until Rufus moves past me and pushes open the door, and the wet late-summer air brings me some relief. I’m even hit with hope that I, and only I—sorry, Rufus—can beat death. It’s a nice second away from reality. “Go ahead,” Rufus says. He’s pressuring me, but that’s the whole point of our dynamic. I don’t want to disappoint either of us, especially myself. I exit the lobby but stop once the door is behind me. I was last outside yesterday afternoon, when I was coming home from visiting Dad, an uneventful Labor Day. But being out here now is different. I check out the buildings I’ve grown up with but never paid any special attention to. There are lights on in my neighbors’ apartments. I can even hear one couple moaning; the roaring audience laughter from a comedy special; someone else laughing from another window, possibly at the very loud comedy show or possibly because they’re being tickled by a lover or laughing at a joke someone cared enough to text them at this late hour. Rufus claps, snapping me out of my trance. “You get ten points.” He goes to a railing and unlocks his steel-gray bike. “Where are we going?” I ask, inching farther away from the door. “We should have a battle plan.” “Battle plans usually involve bullets and bombs,” Rufus says. “Let’s roll with game plan.” He wheels his bike toward the street corner. “Bucket lists are pointless. You’re not gonna get everything done. You gotta go with the flow.” “You sound like a pro at dying.” That was stupid. I know it before Rufus shakes his head. “Yeah, well,” Rufus says. “I’m sorry. I just . . .” A panic attack is coming on; my chest is tightening, my face is burning up, my skin and scalp are itchy. “I can’t wrap my head around the fact that I’m living a day where I might need a bucket list.” I scratch my head and take a deep breath. “This isn’t going to work. It’s going to backfire on us. Hanging out together is a bad idea because it’ll only double our chances of dying sooner. Like a Decker hot zone. What if we’re walking down the block and I trip and bang my head against a fire hydrant and—” I shut up, cringing from the phantom pain you get when you think about falling face-first onto spiked fences or having your teeth punched out of your mouth.