What started as homework ended in fireworks.
Emma has one foot out of her small Southern town. She spends her weekends memorizing facts and figures and spending time with Alex, her best friend, while she still has time. In six months, they’ll be out of there.
Nonetheless, every day that the quiet, determined high school senior hops in Alex’s hand-me-down car and goes to school, she spends more time within the confines of her favorite books than hanging out with the high school entourage—that is, until an English project becomes so much more than an assignment.
Suddenly, with the help of a bad boy on a horse, Emma embarks on a journey to find herself and escape her comfort zone, all the while learning lasting lessons about friendship and the power of love. Yet, in the end, she has to make the choice—to love or to leave?
General Release Date: 25th February 2020
Light bleached the worn book under my hand, and I shifted, listening to the wail of the chilly Mississippi winter wind. Humming, I cursed the ever-present sun and breathed in the earthy scent of freshly mown grass, somehow still thriving in the recently arrived colder temperatures. As I squinted to see the page in front of me, a fly landed on my arm and I swatted it away. Three cheers for nature, I thought.
The bell rang, so I slammed the crumpled envelope between the pages. A month ago, that very envelope had housed an acceptance letter. Now, it was a reminder that I was just biding my time.
I hurried into the school and stopped at my locker. I was a senior. I would graduate in a little over six months, then I was leaving Nomansville in the dust.
At the locker, I thrust my lunchtime light reading into its confines and slammed it closed. Just a few paces down the hall, I arrived at my last class of the day, English composition. It was funny how Nomansville rotated the same teachers. Mr. Zelner, the bright spot in all of this high school madness, had taught my freshman English class too. Before I’d stepped into his room… Well, I’d hated reading. The concept of it had baffled me. He’d opened my eyes to an entire world—a world of books and literature—and, for that, I could not be more grateful.
Inside his classroom, Mr. Zelner sat with his back to the students, examining something on his bookshelf. A tuft of dark brown hair stuck out in the wrong direction and the collar of his red button-down shirt sat uneasy, but a mug of warm coffee steamed on his messy desk. They say that the wisest people live in a state of chaos. For Mr. Zelner, that much was true.
He spun in his chair, shocking a couple of blondes on the front row. They stuffed their cell phones into their handbags in awkward unison, and Mr. Zelner nudged his glasses up the bridge of his nose. He was crookedly handsome, with little attention to it. He smiled at me. “Miss Cage,” he said, just as I slid into my desk. I startled at the attention. Catching my reaction, he grinned. “See me after class, all right?”
Great, I thought. Had I missed an assignment? Drifted off in class again? I hadn’t been sleeping that well recently. I had been too worried about college applications and surviving these last months of high school. But the handwriting was on the wall and the end was spiraling toward me. I could feel it. I could already hear the screaming and feel the whir of caps in the air. It’s so close, I thought—and that made me happy.
Zelner stood, smoothing his khakis and grabbing the mug from his desk. “Nothing is wrong,” he added then turned to address the class thoughtfully. He scrunched two bushy eyebrows together, calculating as the last few stragglers rushed into class, and he lifted a paperback from his desk, gingerly flipping it in his hands. That was Zelner’s thing. A nervous habit from college, I guessed. The little I knew about Mr. Zelner’s past dated him to a late twenty-seven. University pending, he had been an anxious scriptwriter but apparently that hadn’t gone far enough to feed his wife, so he’d become a high school teacher. Some trade out, I thought, as he walked to the chalkboard.
He wrote only three words, and the entire class released simultaneously awkward chuckles. May twenty-fifth, he’d scribed. Twenty-three some-odd seniors danced in their seats for the date of sweet, liberating graduation. I guess, in a way, that was something we all had in common. We were ready to escape.
He slapped the chalk onto the tray, and I straightened to attention. Mr. Zelner leaned against the wall, surveying us. Sometimes it seemed that he forgot his stature at the head of the classroom and became that twenty-two-year-old, straight out of college again. He looked confused—concerned, a little bit like he was the blind leading the blind. Then he forced a smile and recovered.
“Your final for this class will be a creative project,” he said. Now he walked an uneasy line away from us, shrugging his lanky shoulders. “I have assigned you a partner, and together, you and your partner will choose the medium—a song, a short story, a play…” He ran a hand through his hair. “I don’t care which, just be creative. Think,” he probed, and we all sniggered, cogs in his machine. “The idea is to be original and immerse yourself into something real.”
Everyone looked around, confusion rippling throughout the room, and he held up a hand to questions.
“The purpose of this exercise is to remember that art is just that. We can interpret, we can guess, but can we really know the inner mind of an artist? No,” he said, shaking his head. The screenwriter’s head had suddenly popped into frame, seemingly cautious and idealistic, all at the same time.
“English as a discipline broadens the mind to other possibilities, and it requires you to think past the literal, but for this project, I want you to act as the artist.” There was a wicked gleam in his dark eyes, and I reveled in it.
A hand shot up from the back of the room, but Mr. Zelner lifted a pale finger. “Don’t knock it until you try it, Mr. Roberts,” he said. Chuckling, he turned toward the window. “Now. How many days until graduation?”
My classmates’ hands darted skyward, and Mr. Zelner smiled. “Exactly,” he said. “It’s a date you all know. Well, subtract five days from your countdowns, and that is the due date for this assignment.” He rubbed his temples, a methodical gesture, and he shook his head. “I’m telling you this now so that you can forget about it until March.” He chuckled. “No,” he said. “Take Christmas to think about your project. Spend time with your partners. Become friends or cherish your luck that you are already friends. After all, you’ll be spending a lot of time together over the next semester.” He retreated behind his desk once more, shuffling papers. “Good luck.”
Chalk to chalkboard, now he set our fates as he began to post the partnership assignments. I poised my pencil on my notebook, swallowing hard. I hated partner projects, but who didn’t? Nibbling my bottom lip, I watched as he scribbled names along the board. As he wrote, there were a couple of snickers and a groan or two, but when I saw my fate, I merely stared at the blank sheet in front of me, stomach twisting with the cruel joke of it all.
Maverick English stood between me and my diploma.
Hannah Kay is a cowbell ringing, true maroon wearing writer of young adult fiction and a graduate of English from Mississippi State University. Hannah teaches high school English as a relatable language and hopes to instil a love of reading and writing into her students.
A self-proclaimed wallflower, Hannah published her first short novel, The Artist and Me, with Finch Books in April of 2016, and followed with The Separation in March of 2017. When Hannah isn’t glued to her keyboard, she can be found curled up on the couch watching reruns on TV or singing show tunes at the top of her lungs. Feel free to connect with Hannah on social media for updates!
You can follow Hannah on Instagram here and find her website here.