Title: What You Left Behind
Author: Jessica Verdi
Book Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Release Date: August 4th 2015
Publisher: Sourcebook Fire
Jessica Verdi, the author of My Life After Now and The Summer I Wasn’t Me, returns with a heartbreaking and poignant novel of grief and guilt that reads like Nicholas Sparks for teens.
It’s all Ryden’s fault. If he hadn’t gotten Meg pregnant, she would have never stopped her chemo treatments and would still be alive. Instead he’s failing fatherhood one dirty diaper at a time. And it’s not like he’s had time to grieve while struggling to care for their infant daughter, start his senior year, and earn the soccer scholarship he needs to go to college.
The one person who makes Ryden feel like his old self is Joni. She’s fun and energetic—and doesn’t know he has a baby. But the more time they spend together, the harder it becomes to keep his two worlds separate. Finding one of Meg’s journals only stirs up old emotions. Ryden’s convinced Meg left other notebooks for him to find, some message to help his new life make sense. But how is he going to have a future if he can’t let go of the past?
If there’s a more brain-piercing sound than a teething baby crying, I can’t tell you what it is.
I fall back on my bed, drop Meg’s journal, and rake my hands through my hair. It’s kinda funny—in an ironic way, not an LOL way—that I even notice how greasy my hair is with the wailing filling my room and ringing in my head. But I do. It’s gross. When was the last time I washed it? Three days ago? Four? I haven’t had time for anything more than a quick soap and rinse in days.
And here I used to purposely go a day or two without washing it. Girls have always liked my chin-length hair that falls in my face when I’m hunched over a test in school and that I have to pull back with a rubber band during soccer practice. But now it’s gone past sexy-straggly and straight into flat-out dirty.
God, I would kill for a long, hot, silent shower. I would lather, rinse, repeat like it was my fucking job.
Tears squeeze between Hope’s closed eyelids and her little chubby feet wiggle every which way. Her pink, gummy mouth is open wide, and you can just begin to see specks of white where her teeth are coming in.
Her crib is littered with evidence of my attempts to get her to please stop crying—a discarded teething ring, a mostly-full bottle, and this freakish, neon green, stuffed monster with huge eyes that my mom swore Hope liked when she first gave it to her, though I have no idea how she could tell that.
I pick up Hope and try massaging her gums with a damp washcloth like they say to do on all the baby websites. I bounce her on my hip and walk her around my room, trying to murmur
soothing, shhhh-ing sounds. I even rub her head, as gently as my clunky, goal-blocking hands can manage. But nothing works. The screams work their way inside me, rattling my blood cells.
Yes, I changed her diaper. I even brought her to the doctor last week to make sure nothing’s actually wrong with her, some leftover sickness from Meg or something. There’s not.
Ever since Hope was born six months ago, I’ve been learning on the fly, getting used to the diapers and bottles and sleeping when she sleeps. I spend all of my free time reading mommy-ing websites, finding out which stores have the right kind of wipes, and shopping at the secondhand store for baby clothes, because they’re basically just as good as new and Hope grows out of everything so fast anyway.
Hope’s never fully warmed to me. She always cries more when I hold her than when my mom does—but it’s never been this bad. This teething stuff is no joke. According to the Internet, anyway. It’s not like Hope’s giving me a dissertation on what she’s feeling. Whenever I get anywhere near her, she screams her head off. Which means no matter how hard I try or how many books I read or websites I scour, I’m still doing something wrong. But what else is new?
Lately I’ve had this idea that I can’t seem to shake.
What if I’m missing some crucial dad-gene because I never had one of my own? What if I’m literally incapable of being a father to this baby because I have zero concept of what a father really is? Like beyond a definition or what you see of your friends’ families and on TV.
I have no idea what that relationship’s supposed to be like. I’ve never lived it.
And inevitably that thought leads to this one:
Maybe finding my dad, Michael, is the key to all of this making some sense. Maybe if I tracked him down, I’d finally be clued in to what I’ve been missing. The real stuff. How you’re supposed to talk to each other. What the, I don’t know, energy is like between a father and a son. Not that I’m into cosmic energy bullshit or anything.
If I could be the son in that interaction, even once, for a single conversation, that could jumpstart my being a father. Right? At least I’d have some frame of reference, some experience.
But that would require getting more info about Michael from my mom. And I’ve already thrown enough curveballs her way to last a lifetime.
The music blasting from Mom’s home office shuts off. Five o’clock exactly, like always nowadays. She loves her job making custom, handmade wedding invitations for rich people. Before Hope, Mom would work all hours of the day and night. But it turns out babies costa shitload of money, and despite how well Mom’s business is doing, it’s not enough. So the new arrangement is that during the day Mom gets to turn her music on and her grandma duties off while I take care of Hope. Then Mom takes over when I leave for work at 5:30.
In a few days that schedule’s going to change, and I don’t know what the hell we’re going to do. That’s another topic I haven’t brought up with Mom. She keeps saying we need to talk about our plan for “when school starts up again,” like she’s forgotten that soccer practice starts sooner than that. Like it doesn’t matter anymore or something.
But I can’t not play. Soccer is the one thing I kick ass at. It’s the whole reason I’m going back to school this fall instead of sticking with homeschooling, which I did for the last few months of last year after Hope was born. Fall is soccer season. I need to go to school in order to play on the team. And I need to play on the team because I’m going to UCLA on an athletic scholarship next year. It’s pretty much a done deal. I’ve even spoken to their head coach a few times this summer. He called me on July first, the first day he was allowed to contact me according to NCAA rules. He’s seen my game film, tracked my stats, and is sending a recruiter to watch one of my games in person. He wants me on his team. This is what I’ve been working toward my whole life. So Mom’s delusional if she thinks I’m giving it up.
I wipe the tears from Hope’s face and the drool from around her mouth. Her soft, unruly, dark hair tickles my hand as I set her down in her crib. She’s still crying. She grasps onto my finger, holding on extra tight, like she’s saying, “Do something, man. This shit is painful!”
“I’m trying,” I mumble.
I meet Mom in her office, where she’s sitting on the floor, attempting to organize her materials. Stacks of paper and calligraphy pens are scattered among plastic bags filled with real leaves from the trees in our yard. Three hot glue guns are plugged into the wall, and photos of the Happy Couple glide across Mom’s laptop screen.
“Hippie wedding in California?” I guess, nodding at the leaves. The people who hire Mom to make one-of-a-kind invitations always want a design that relates who they are. Mom and I started this game years ago. She tells me what materials she’s using, and I try to guess what kind of people the Happy Couple are. I’m usually pretty good.
Mom shakes her head. “Hikers in Boulder.”
Or I was pretty good. Now everything is so turned around that I can barely think.
“That was my next guess,” I say.
Mom smiles. She’s been so great about everything. She’s not even pissed about me making her a thirty-five-year-old grandmother. She says that she, better than anyone, gets how these things happen. But this is not your typical “oops, got pregnant in high school, what do we do now?” scenario, like what happened to her. This is the much more rare “oops, I killed the love of my life by getting her pregnant in high school, and ruined my life and the lives of all her family and friends in the process” situation.
And deep down, I know Mom knows that. Mom’s green eyes used to sparkle. They don’t anymore. It’s not because of the baby—she loves that kid to an almost ridiculous level. It’s because of me. She’s sad for me. Even though the name “Meg” is strictly off-limits in our house, I can almost see the M and E and G floating around in my mom’s eyes like alphabet soup, like she’s been bottling up everything she’s wanted to say for the past six months and it is about to overflow. I need to get out of here.
“So, I’m out,” I say quickly, clipping my Whole Foods nametag to my hoodie. “Be home at ten-fifteen.”
Mom sighs. “Okay, Ry. Have fun. Love you.”
“Love you too,” I call back as I head to the front door.
She always says that when I leave to go somewhere. Have fun. She’s been saying it for years. Doesn’t matter if I’m going to school or work or soccer practice or a freaking pediatrician’s appointment with Hope. Have fun. Like having fun is the most important thing you can do. Like you can possibly have fun when you’re such a fucking mess.
I’m restocking the organic taco shells in the Mexican and Asian Foods aisle, trying to block out the Celine Dion song that’s playing over the PA system, when I notice a kid, no older than six or seven, climbing the shelves at the opposite end of the aisle. His feet are two levels off the ground, and he’s holding onto a shelf above him, trying to raise himself up another level.
“Hey,” I call down the aisle. “Don’t do that.”
“It’s okay. I do it all the time,” he says, successfully pulling himself up another foot. He lets go with one hand and stretches toward something on the top shelf.
“Wait.” I start to move toward him. “I’ll get whatever you need. Just get down.”
But there’s a determined set to his jaw and he keeps reaching higher, the tips of his fingers brushing a bag of tortilla chips. I keep walking toward him, but I slow down a little. He really wants to do this on his own, you can tell. I’m a few feet away, and he’s almost got a grab on the bag, when his one-handed grip on the shelf slips and his Crocs lose their foothold.
Suddenly he’s falling backward, nothing but air between the back of his head and the hard tile floor. I move faster than I would have thought possible, given how tired I am. I shoot my arms under his armpits and catch the boy just before he hits the ground.
The kid rights himself, plants his feet safely on the floor, and looks at me. My heart is beating way too fast, but I tell it to chill the fuck out. The kid is fine. Crisis averted.
“Thanks,” he mumbles.
He ducks his head and starts to walk away.
“Hey,” I call out.
I grab a bag of chips off the top shelf—funny how easy it is for me to reach; sometimes I still feel like a little kid who the world is too big for—and hand it to him.
He takes it, no thank you this time, and disappears around the corner.
I’m dragging my feet back to the taco shells, back to the monotony, when there’s a voice behind me.
“Why, Ryden Brooks, as I live and breathe.”
My spine stiffens. I haven’t heard that voice since before I left school in February. I turn and find myself face to face with Shoshanna Harvey. Her soft, Southern Belle accent comes complete with a delicate hand to the chest and a batting of long, thick lashes. I fell for that whole act once. Before I found out about a little thing called real life.
Apparently today is weird-shit-happening at Whole Foods day. I saw her in the store once about a month ago, but ducked down a different aisle before she saw me. This time, I’m not so lucky. “You do know we live in New Hampshire, not Mississippi, right?”
Shoshanna just purses her lips and studies me. “How are things, Ryden?”
“Things are great, Shoshanna. Really, just super.”
“Really?” Her eyes are bright. Clearly, she’s never heard of sarcasm. “That’s so great to hear. We’ve been worried about you, you know.”
“We? Who’s we?” You never know with Shoshanna—she could be talking about her family or she could be talking about the whole damn school.
Just then another familiar voice carries down the aisle. “Hey, Sho, how do you know when a cantaloupe is ripe?” It’s Dave. His hands are placed dramatically on his hips and he’s got three melons under his shirt—two representing boobs and one that I’m pretty sure is supposed to be a pregnant woman’s belly. A flash of rage burns through me but I smother it deep inside me where all my unwelcome emotions reside. It’s getting pretty crowded in there.
“Dave,” Shoshanna hisses, her eyes growing as-wide-as-possible in that thing people do when they’re trying to get someone to take a hint without saying the actual words.
He follows Shoshanna’s nod toward me and drops the doofy grin. “Oh. Hey, Ryden.” He relaxes his stance and the cantaloupes fall to the floor.
I look back and forth between Shoshanna and Dave, and it all clicks. They’re the “we.” My ex-girlfriend and my former best friend are together. That kind of thing used to require at least a “Hey, man. Cool with you if I ask out Shoshanna?” text, but I guess we left the bro code behind right around the time my girlfriend up and died and I became a seventeen-year-old single father. Yeah, Dave and I don’t exactly have much in common anymore.
“You work here?” Dave asks.
“Nah, I just like helping restock supermarket shelves in my free time.”
“Oh. I thought…” Dave looks at my Whole Foods nametag, confused.
“He was kidding, Dave,” Shoshanna whispers.
Ah, look at that. Sarcasm isn’t completely lost on her after all.
“Oh. Right. We’re, uh, just getting some food for the senior picnic tomorrow down at the lake. You coming?”
I stare in Dave’s general direction, unthinking, unseeing. I forgot all about the picnic, even though it’s been a Downey High School tradition for pretty much ever.
Dave keeps talking. “Coach said you’re coming back to school in September. You are, right? We really need you on the te—”
“Hey, Ryden, can you help me with a cleanup in dairy?” a female voice asks, cutting him off. “Some asshole kids decided to play hacky sack with a carton of eggs.”
I blink a few times, push the picnic out of my mind, and look down to find what used to be a box of blue corn taco shells crumpled in my hands. Oops.
The source of the voice is a girl with short, medium brown hair that is juuust long enough to fall in her eyes, skin just a shade or two lighter than her hair, earrings stuck in weird places in her ears, and tie-dyed overalls over a black tank top. She looks like she works in a Whole Foods. Definitely a lesbian.
“Uh, yeah. Sure,” I say. I turn back to Shoshanna and Dave, glad to have an excuse to bail on this happy little reunion. “Gotta go.”
“Bye, Ryden!” Shoshanna’s voice travels down the aisle after me.
“Yeah, see ya tomorrow, Ry.”
I shake my head to myself as I follow tie-dye girl to dairy. Good thing that wasn’t awkward or anything.
Once we’re out of sight of the Mexican and Asian aisle, tie-dye girl stops walking and spins on her heel. “Right, so…” she says as I screech to a halt behind her. “There’s no cleanup in dairy.”
“Huh?” That’s all I got. I’m so tired.
“Sorry, it just looked like you were having a moment there. Thought you might need a little help with your getaway.”
I lean back against a display of recycled paper towels. They’re soft. I could totally curl up right here on the floor and use one of the rolls as a pillow.
“Thanks,” I say. “How did you know my name?”
She points to my nametag.
“Right” I say. “Where’s yours? Or do you not even work here?”
She pulls the top of her overalls to the side to reveal a nametag pinned to her tank top. Joni. “I’m new. Started the day before yesterday and already blew my first week’s paycheck on ungodly amounts of pomegranate-flavored soda. That stuff is like crack.”
I smile for the first time in centuries. “Nice to meet you, Joni,” I say.
“I saw you catch that kid,” she says.
“That was cool.”
I shrug. “I guess.” There’s an awkward pause, like she’s waiting for me to say something else. “Well, see ya,” I mumble and book it out of there as fast as I can.
“Nice to meet you too, Ryden,” Joni calls after me.
Jessica Verdi lives in Brooklyn, NY and received her MFA in Writing for Children from The New School. Her favorite pastimes include singing show tunes at the top of her lungs (much to her husband’s chagrin), watching cheesy TV, and scoring awesome non-leather shoes in a size 5. She’s still trying to figure out a way to put her uncanny ability to remember both song lyrics and the intricacies of vampire lore to good use.
Praise for What You Left Behind
“A powerful indictment of reparative therapy--a sweet love story--and an unforgettable main character!” --Nancy Garden, author of Annie on My Mind
“Ryden’s story is a moving illustration of how sometimes you have to let go of the life you planned to embrace the life you’ve been given. A strong, character-driven story that teen readers will love.”
--Carrie Arcos, National Book Award Finalist for Out of Reach
Praise for The Summer I Wasn’t Me:
“Verdi has written a book that I wish I wrote.” --Sara Farizan, author of If You Could Be Mine
“His [Ryden’s] candid voice is endearing, and although his present-tense narration at first seems like every other teen novel on the shelf, the granulated iteration of baby details helps to illuminate the crushing burden he feels. Other characters are also well-drawn, and the plot moves along tidily to a satisfying conclusion. Verdi balances her plot elements deftly.” — Kirkus Reviews
“Verdi holds nothing back, shedding a realistic light on Ryden's situation, his decisions, and their very real consequences. His voice is spot-on and doesn't sugarcoat the harsh realities that he faces. It isn’t often that a book nails the male teen voice as well as Verdi does in this work. An excellent addition to YA collections.” — School Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW
“Teens will be hooked by the premise but will stick with Ryden and
his friends in this all-too-real portrait of a modern family.” — Booklist