It’s lunch period, and while the other students are passing out invitations to some party that’s happening on Friday or just kicking through the piles of damp autumn leaves, Gita and Sam are sitting side-by-side at one of the picnic tables on the lawn. The signup sheet for the radio club is taped to the table with pink lace-patterned washi tape—which one of the teachers saw and got mad about, until Gita explained to her that washi tape is completely harmless because it’s made of paper, and the custodian definitely won’t need to repaint the wood afterwards.
The teacher just squinted at her and said, “Remember that I trust you, Jackson,” before walking off to pull apart two of the kids who were making out on the bleachers.
Gita has her 64-crayon box of Crayolas out, and is coloring in one of the pages of her science textbook. “Being thirteen sucks,” Gita says, selecting Sonic Silver and starting on Albert Einstein’s wild mass of hair. “I thought we were supposed to be kings of the school by now. Instead I just feel like the same weird girl who used to get elbowed on the playground, and got her lunchbox stolen off the rack and thrown in the toilet in second grade.”
“I’m sorry I wasn’t there to give you half my sandwich and tell you you weren’t weird,” Sam replies with feeling. He started off just watching Gita color, but eventually he joined in, and now he’s covering the Milky Way galaxy with blocks of different shades of blue.
“It happened to me again last week, actually. But I had two emergency KitKats in my backpack. The giant ones, so it was okay.”
“See, we have leveled up since elementary school!” Sam nudges Gita’s foot with his. “Good things about being in junior high, go.”
“Electives,” Gita says immediately, slamming her fist down on the table. “Electives electives electives. Creative writing is going to be the only thing keeping me alive.”
“The lunches,” Sam says.
“The cheesesteaks aren’t that bad! They’re better than the peanut butter and warm milk we used to get, remember?”
“Point taken. Okay...well, the graffiti in the bathrooms is more interesting in junior high. I mean, I’ve learned more just from going to wash my hands than I ever learned sitting in health class.”
“I like getting excused to help the little kids go to the doctor’s office during checkup week.”
“That only ever happens to you, Sam.” Gita slumps over onto the table. “Ughhh, let’s face it, no one’s gonna sign up. And Mr. Walker said we need at least three people, so the club is getting dissolved.” It’s not like the radio club is their only extracurricular—she’s on the school newspaper, and Sam’s in the film club, which thankfully both have enough members for them to never have to worry about getting dissolved—but Gita is personally sick of the boring old secretary reading out the morning announcements in that droning, paper-dry voice, and she has so many ideas for the radio club written in the back of her journal already, and also she’s kind of fantasized about saying Hey, Dixon, it’s Gita Jackson, coming to you live from the sound booth every morning.
“Have faith,” Sam says wisely. “If we give off positive energy, the universe will give us positive energy back.”
“Tell that to my eternally hopeful, eternally empty piggybank.” From her sideways position on the table, Gita tilts her head, adjusting her ruby-colored glasses frames. “Hey, is it just me, or is that guy over there coming over here?”
Sam looks up and sees the curly-haired boy in a windbreaker, jogging down the lawn with a basketball tucked under his arm. “That’s the new kid,” Sam says. “Patrick something. I think he’s in my English class. He’s kind of a jock. Like, a half-jock? Semi-jock?”
“Is he planning on throwing the ball at us?” Gita sits up straight, ready to fight.
The new kid is still running in their direction, and keeps on running until he stops right in front of their table. “Hey,” he says, a little breathlessly. “This the radio club? I wanna sign up.”
Gita and Sam look at each other. “No you don’t,” Gita says.
The new kid looks confused. “Why not?”
“You just wanna make fun of us,” Gita accuses. “And have an opportunity to say thinly veiled double entendres over the school PA system.”
“I don’t know what a double Aunt Sandra is...but I promise I won’t make fun of you.” The new kid sticks out his hand and smiles. “And I’m Patrick.”
Sam takes the new kid’s hand first. “Positive energy, Gita,” he says out of the corner of his mouth, before turning back to face Patrick. “Hi, I’m Sam! You wanna be a DJ, or do you wanna do the techie stuff?”
“Uh, both, I guess?” Patrick kicks idly at something in the grass. He has Cheetos dust all over the front of his shirt, Gita notices, and a small smudge of it on his cheek.
“Cool. You got any experience?” Sam folds his hands.
“We rotated student DJs at my old school, so I DJed for like a month. It was pretty fun.” Patrick swipes quickly at his chin with the sleeve of his windbreaker, and still misses the smudge of fake cheese.
“Oh, cool! Here, just write your name and number down—” Plucking a red crayon out of Gita’s box, Sam slides it across the table to Patrick, who takes it without missing a beat and starts filling in the first slot on the signup sheet. As he does, he puts one foot up on the picnic bench, resting the basketball against his knee. The basketball looks brand-new, and so do his sneakers, stiff and shiny white.
Gita just watches Patrick critically. She’s had her fair share of kids like this, who walk down the hallway whistling because they’ve never been shoved into a locker, who smile like if they do it enough they can trick the whole world into being their friend and giving them whatever they want. “I’m Gita,” is all she says when he’s done, folding her arms coolly.
Patrick grins and bounces his basketball off his knee. “Hi, Gita.”
“Just so you know, my dad could beat up your dad,” Gita warns, lifting her chin.
“Probably,” Patrick agrees amiably, bobbing his head; his curly hair bobs with it.
This isn’t the response Gita was expecting. “I could beat you up,” she adds, just in case.
Patrick keeps grinning at her. “That I’m absolutely sure of.”
The radio club has its first meeting after school in Cheeseplosion, the second-most popular pizza parlor in the district. (The most popular is Jerry’s, but they don’t go there because it’s always full of noisy high-schoolers on quadruple dates, and once Sam accidentally knocked a picture frame off the wall with his hair and the cashier’s given him a suspicious look every time he’s walked in since.) Patrick orders one slice of pepperoni, one slice with The Works, and a double chocolate milkshake; and Sam orders the vegetable lasagna, which he always insists on even though Gita keeps telling him it’s dumb to go to a pizza place and never actually try the pizza. Gita gets plain cheese and a Diet Coke, and claims the hot sauce bottle for herself as soon as they slide into the booth.
“Mr. Walker said we could do segments, right?” she says while they chew, tapping her notebook with her purple highlighter. “So I was thinking we start with general news and school announcements—duh—and then we could also do special features and interview somebody, like a club president or someone who won some inter-school competition or whatever. And in between all of that we could have music, like, our own top five hits...and then something else?” Gita looks up.
“You could give everyone a weekly French lesson,” Sam suggests.
Gita giggles. “Ma violon d’Ingres,” she says proudly.
“Omelette du fromage,” Patrick replies with a straight face.
“Actually, the correct grammar is omelette au fromage.” Gita knows, she knows he was making a Dexter’s Lab joke, but she can’t help herself—she’s feeling kind of mean, and it just comes out.
Patrick still seems unfazed, though, and just says, “Cool. I didn’t know that.”
“How about a, what d’you call it, a pop culture segment?” Sam scrapes at the dried globs of cheese on his plate with his fork.
“Yeah!” Patrick’s eyes widen. “We could talk about, like, movies and stuff, like what’s just come out and whether it’s cool or not. And video games!”
“Video games?” Gita almost-yells, because she loves video games. “Do you pl—“ And then she remembers she’s not sure she trusts the new kid, so the rest of her sentence dies, and she presses her lips together.
“No, what?” Patrick is looking at her across the table, like he really wants to know. “Do I play what?”
“Never mind. It wasn’t important.” Gita uncaps her pen and furiously writes “pop culture segment” in big letters on the next line of the notebook page, underlining it twice.
“Hey, speaking of video games, there’s an arcade like right next door. Do you have to get home, or?” Sam asks Patrick, and Gita shoots Sam a look like no, no, what are you doing, because the arcade is their place.
But Patrick says, “Nah, I don’t have to be home yet,” and Sam is already scooting out of the booth and rooting around in his pockets for change, so Gita has no choice.
The arcade is dark and a little old and smelly, but the dancing neon lights and the familiar cacophony of blips and beeps have always made Gita feel at home. Not this time, though. Sam sees that Stacker is free and makes a beeline for it, leaving Gita standing there in the chilly entrance, directly underneath the AC unit, with Patrick.
At first Gita thinks about leaving Patrick too and going off to play Technika by herself, but then she glances sideways at him. “Challenge you to Tekken,” she says casually, and he nods.
They sit down on the wobbly plastic stools in front of one of the two-player machines, and Gita automatically picks Xiaoyu, her favorite. Patrick, after a lot of switching back and forth, picks Kuma.
“Really?” Gita says. “With those short little arms?”
Patrick shrugs. “I love the bear dude,” he says easily, as the screen cycles rapidly through random stages and he taps the button to select one, landing finally on a peaceful green forest. “He’s hilarious.”
Surprisingly, Patrick wins, two out of three—and Gita steels herself for what she knows is coming, because she’s played against stranger boys in the arcade before, and when you’re playing against a boy you have to win by a mile or you don’t count. But Patrick doesn’t gloat, or punch the air, or say “So what was that about you being able to beat me up?” He just holds up his hand to Gita for a high-five and says, “Good game.” And not in a condescending way, but like he really means it.
Gita gives him the high-five, and Patrick gives her that goofy smile of his, half-biting his lower lip, before letting go.
“The new kid’s okay,” Gita whispers to Sam later, as they’re exchanging their tickets for candy and badges at the counter.
Sam just pins his Ghostbusters badge to the front of his shirt and shakes his head at her, like he already knew that.
Mr. Walker approves their proposal, and after they learn their way around all the equipment, they schedule their first broadcast for the following Monday. The three of them get to school half an hour early, and as they’re standing in front of the door to the sound booth waiting for Mr. Walker to arrive with the key, Gita can taste her Froot Loops at the back of her throat.
“I’m so psyched, I’m so psyched,” Patrick chants, jumping up and down and rattling the contents of his backpack. Gita wants to tell him to shut up, but she also wishes she felt that confident.
“Does everybody have their scripts?” Sam asks, glancing up and down the empty hallway.
“Yes, Mom,” Patrick says, punching Sam on the shoulder.
“Owww.” Sam holds his arm and screws his face up in pain.
“Dude, what gives? I barely touched you!”
“I got my flu shot over the weekend, I told you, and my left arm is very sensitive right now, and you just had to pick that arm when you decided to go all Rocky Balboa on me—“
Gita groans, “Will you guys cut it out, I’m already on edge and you’re making me feel even more like I’m gonna barf all over the fl—“ but then Mr. Walker appears, and they all automatically get quiet, even though he’s the kind of teacher who likes it when students raise their voices and have fun in the classroom.
“Hey, hi guys!” Mr. Walker jogs past them, tossing the key ring in the air and catching it again before unlocking the door. Mr. Walker always looks jolly no matter what’s happening; his mere presence is comforting to Gita already. “All right, let’s get this show on the air!” he says, opening the door and ushering them in with a flourish.
Sam pats the wall until he finds the light switch and flicks it on, and the empty sound booth comes to life. It still smells a little like dust and mothballs in here, but at least everything is clean now (thanks to them; they’d spent one afternoon in here just wiping everything down, and used up Sam’s entire spray bottle of rubbing alcohol). Patrick instantly dumps his backpack on the floor, while Sam and Gita carefully lay theirs on an extra chair. Mr. Walker takes a seat on the side and pulls out a bunch of test papers and a red pen.
“I’m just here to monitor,” he says. “This is all you guys.”
Sitting in her swivel chair, Gita lays the folder with her script in it neatly on the table in front of her and gazes out at the hallway through the glass window. Students are already coming in, linking arms and edging their way to their lockers or lining up at the water fountain. What are they going to think, Gita wonders. Are they going to even care?
“Okay, guys, we’re ready to start,” says Sam. Heart beating fast, Gita slips the cups of her headphones over her ears, and all outside sound goes soft. Sam holds up five fingers and does a steady countdown, shoots them a thumbs up—and they’re live.
“Gooood morning, Dixon Junior High student body! And student heads, too, we hope. Don’t know how you could be listening to us without your ears,” Patrick says, and Gita rolls her eyes while Sam silently cracks up. “I’m Patrick Klepek.”
“I’m Sam Phillips,” Sam manages.
“And I’m Gita Jackson,” Gita chimes in, trying to use her Perky Voice! even though she still has butterflies bouncing in her stomach.
“And we’re your new student DJs!” they all chorus, just like they rehearsed. Mr Walker smiles and nods.
Patrick adjusts his headphones and puts his elbows up on the table, flipping a pencil in his fingers. “For the rest of the school year, we are going to be here with you every morning, giving you the 411—“
“The 411?” Gita turns her head to stare at Patrick incredulously.
“The lowdown! The deets!” Patrick is laughing.
“I really hope the microphone is capturing the disgust in my voice right now, Patrick,” Gita says.
“We’re here to give you the info,” Patrick continues, still grinning, “on everything that’s happening around school. So, first up, we’ve got some morning announcements for you, hot and fresh from Principal Myers’ office. Take it away, Sam!”
Clearing his throat, Sam holds up his script and reads, “Okay, so first up, we’ve got a pep rally this Friday!” The microphone pops a little, and Gita signals across mike, reminding Sam to face sideways instead of straight. He nods and adjusts his head position before going on. “Let’s all go to show our support for the Dixon Dinos, who are playing the Gerber Grizzlies this week.”
“Whoo-whoo, Dinos!” Patrick cheers, clapping. “Let’s kick some teddy-bear butt!” In the back of the booth, Mr. Walker opens his mouth as if he’s not sure he should allow the use of the word butt, but then appears to let it slide and goes back to grading.
As Sam keeps reading the announcements, Gita watches the students still milling around in the hall through the glass. Some of them are still doing whatever they were doing—but some of them are looking toward the sound booth and nodding in approval. We’re doing okay, she thinks, and feels herself start to relax.
Sam’s wrapping up his segment, and he glances at Gita. “Now over to you, Gita! You’ve got kind of a special story for us this morning, right?”
“Yup yup!” Gita nods. Last week she interviewed one of the elementary school teachers about the new buddy program they want to tie up with the middle school for, and although she couldn’t get the teacher on the show this morning, she took note of all the important details. Flipping open her folder, Gita looks down, ready to read from her script.
It’s not her script.
It’s her history paper, and with a horrible jolt Gita realizes that means her script is right at this minute sitting uselessly in Ms. Nadal’s inbox—and now Sam is giving her a questioning look, and there’s nothing but dead air and Gita’s mind is completely blank except for the thought oh my god oh my god, I totally screwed this up. And then Patrick is leaning into the microphone and saying, “So Gita, you’re going to talk about the project your lit elective is doing, right?”
It’s like he’s splashed cold water in her face, but in the nicest way possible. Gita unclenches her fists and unsticks her tongue from the roof of her mouth. “Yeah! Um, it’s, I’m taking the creative writing elective, actually, and last week we came up with the idea of starting a literary folio for the whole middle school.”
“What is a literary folio, exactly? Could you tell us about that?” Patrick calmly meets her gaze. He’s a total natural at this, Gita realizes. She only mentioned the lit folio once in passing, while they were dusting off the soundboard; she didn’t think Patrick had even been listening.
“Well, the folio is going to be like an anthology,” Gita says, careful to slow down and speak clearly. “A collection of students’ short stories, essays, even poems. We’re going to get the art club to illustrate it, and we’re going to get it printed and distributed to everyone in school.”
“That sounds great,” Sam muses, joining in. “And is it just for the students in the elective?”
“No,” Gita replies firmly. “We’re planning on opening up submissions to everyone in school, so everybody gets a chance to share their stories and make their voices heard. We talked about it, and we decided we’re even going to allow anonymous submissions, because we know a lot of people are shy, or write about stuff that’s a little sad or tough to read.”
“Well, that sounds really cool, Gita, and I know everybody is gonna love it when it comes out,” Patrick says confidently. “So look out for the first-ever Dixon Junior High literary folio, guys, and uh, maybe think about submitting some of your own work! When we come back, we’re going to discuss the new cafeteria menu—spoiler, Sam loves it—“
“Guilty,” Sam laughs, holding his hands up. “Me and those cheesesteaks, we’re tight.”
“But first, we’re gonna wake you up with some music! Here’s ‘Nintendo’ by Todd Carey!” Patrick announces, and Sam fades the audio out and starts the music.
Gita takes off her glasses and polishes them on the hem of her shirt, staring down at her lap. She looks back up. Thank you, she mouths to Patrick. He just waves her off and smiles, wiggling his shoulders to the beat of the song.
The rest of the half hour flies by, and then before they know it they’re saying, “Thanks for listening, everybody—this is Gita, Patrick, and Sam, your student DJs, signing off until next Monday!” And then the bell is ringing to signal the start of class, and Mr. Walker is clapping, and the three of them are tearing off their headphones and hugging each other and jumping up and down.
“We did it,” Gita squeals. “We actually did it. We’re the freakin’ radio club!”
“We were awesome!” Patrick yells.
“Ow, my arm,” says Sam.
It’s not like they become best friends overnight. Patrick still has lunch and plays basketball with his jock friends, and Gita tends to give up her lunch periods to work on the school paper. Sam complains about being abandoned, but somehow he always finds some random girl to eat with every week, and Patrick points out that womanizers don’t get to whine about being lonely. (“I’m not a womanizer,” Sam protests. “I’m just friendly! I have a lot of girl-space-friends.”)
But sometimes the three of them do eat lunch together, and it’s...kind of great. At first Gita isn’t sure how to feel, she’s so used to it being just Gita-and-Sam; making eye contact with just one other person when you talk, sometimes not even having to make eye contact at all because you’re that close. And at first Patrick doesn’t seem to fit, with his too-loud voice and his dumb jokes and his funny faces, and his guy friends don’t seem to get it either, because they keep calling him away to do—whatever stupid stuff it is they get up to. But it’s not long before Patrick stops feeling like the new kid, the extra guy, and starts feeling like the block that’s filling in a hole they didn’t even know was there.
While they plan for the pop culture segments of the show, they inevitably end up talking about their favorite movies, TV shows, and video games. It turns out they’re into a lot of the same things; and the ones they disagree about, they try to win each other over on. Patrick tries to get them into Myst by bringing his game journal to school and explaining Atrus’ backstory in detail, while Sam keeps giving them all these weird little mobile games which take up way too much space on their phones. After a lot of coaxing, Gita convinces Patrick to try Hatoful Boyfriend, and he calls her on the phone one night just to grumble about how he keeps winding up with the teacher pigeon, and how the heck is he supposed to know which beans to pick on Legumentine’s?
Sometimes if they’re not busy after school, and if they have enough quarters, the three of them go to the arcade. They quickly get used to taking turns swapping out when they’re playing a game that’s built for two people, House of the Dead or Time Crisis or Dance Dance Revolution. But they always try to play at least one round of Mario Kart, because that’s the one all three of them can do together.
The radio show turns out to be more fun than work to them, and they fall into a good rhythm of banter and bouncing off each other (and sometimes interrupting each other or arguing with one another on air, but that’s to be expected). They think they’re getting a good response from the other students—occasionally one of them will be walking down the hall and a random kid will tell them “Hey, great show this morning”—and they even get a couple nods from the faculty. But after a while even they feel like their format’s become a little stale, and also they’ve run out of people to interview because none of the school teams who are competing are winning anything. Then Sam has a brainwave and comes up with Dear DJs—a sort of advice column segment, since the school paper doesn’t have one of their own. At first nobody writes in, of course, so they have to make the letters up.
“How’s this sound?” Patrick asks, as they’re sitting on the lawn table that’s become their near-usual spot. “Dear DJs, my parents are getting a divorce, and they’ve asked me which of them I want to live with. I feel like I get along better with my dad, but he’s moving to Florida, and I don’t want to leave school and all my friends. What should I do? Sincerely, All Torn Up.” Lowering his notebook, he looks at Sam and Gita expectantly.
“I don’t think we’re qualified to even pretend to answer that one. We’re radio show hosts, not guidance counselors,” Gita says.
“Well, it’s gotta be interesting and relevant, right?” Patrick tears out the page and balls it up with a sigh, tossing it carelessly onto the grass. Sam makes a dive for it and goes off to deposit it in the proper garbage can.
“Dear DJs,” Gita pretends to read off her hotdog wrapper. “My friend is a terrible litterbug, and also a terrible person. Should I stay friends with him or not? XOXO, Gossip Gita.”
“Ha, ha.” Patrick sticks his tongue out at her.
Sam comes jogging back from the garbage can, his breath releasing small puffs in the cool October air. “What the fudge,” he pants. “You can’t just go throwing stuff on the ground—“
“Fudge?” Patrick repeats, snickering.
Gita sighs deeply. “Sam refuses to say ‘the F word,’” she explains, over-emphasizing her air quotes.
Sam looks apologetic. “It’s not that, it’s...I don’t think I was born with, like, the facial muscles needed to say the F word. F—fffuuhhh—see, nothing.”
“It’s because you’re so fucking nice,” Gita says in an accusing tone, popping the tab on her soda.
“Maybe you could start with ‘crap’ and then work your way up,” suggests Patrick helpfully.
Sam gives him a hurt look. “I already say ‘crap.’ I’m not four.”
“Dear DJs, I’m turning fourteen this year but I still don’t know how to swear properly,” Gita laughs. “Please give me some advice. Signed, Soapy Mouth.” Sam turns his Eeyore face on Gita, and she reaches up and pats him on the head.
They launch Dear DJs the next week, and although the first few times the segment is entirely composed of them trying not to laugh at their own letters, pretty soon real letters from students start coming in, and they stop having to make them up.
(They still do sometimes, though, just for fun—and also because Patrick and Sam have some kind of bet to see who can come up with the best fake name, and neither of them is about to give up without a fight.)
After three whole months of successful broadcasts, they decide to have a Christmas-slash-radio-club-is-the-best-club party at Patrick’s house, before his family goes back to San Francisco to visit their other relatives. Patrick introduces Sam and Gita to his mom, who gives all of them a hug, and then before they go into Patrick’s room she also gives them two beers to share, because she’s cool.
“I can’t wait until I’m old enough to get my own place, and maybe a boyfriend but definitely my own cat. Cats, plural.” Gita has her period, so she’s lying on her back engulfed in Patrick’s beanbag, staring up at his ceiling. There’s a poster of David Bowie taped directly above his bed, right next to a Super Mario Brothers poster. The light from the red lava lamp on top of the dresser is doing a slow, oozy dance across the walls, making the room feel smaller, safer.
“Sometimes I don’t know how you can think about that stuff.” Sam is on his stomach with one fist under his chin, idly pushing a Lego car back and forth with his finger. “I can’t even daydream about getting a girlfriend without thinking, but what’s going to happen the first time we have sex, and then I panic because I imagine myself being there and just, like, throwing up from nerves.”
Patrick scrunches his face up and leans back against the foot of his bed. “I don’t think about any of that stuff. I dunno, I just like...don’t. I like being a kid. I like still being able to get toys at Christmas. I like being a geek.”
“Easy for you to say,” Gita tells him, “you’re like the most normal out of the three of us.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Patrick frowns, shoving a fistful of popcorn into his mouth.
“You know!” Gita waves her hands in the air. “You’re like, oh hey, look at me, bro, I can shoot a three-point layup from the other side of the court, and high school girls ask me to parties aaaallll the time.”
“That was one time! One!” Patrick throws a pillow at her. “And I don’t even sound like that.”
“What I mean is, you’re the one who’s gonna have the least problems growing up, so of course you’re not worried about it. For people like me, growing up and moving away and starting over is the only way I’m gonna finally get to be, y’know, cool.” Gita pulls the pillow up over her head and sighs.
“We’re all already cool,” she hears Patrick’s muffled voice say, and it sounds honest enough that she lowers the pillow.
“I mean it,” Patrick continues. “Like, who cares what anyone thinks? We march to the beat of our own freakin’ drums.” He sticks one fist in the air. “Geeks rule.”
“We kind of do, don’t we?” Sam grins. “My dream is still that like, someday I’ll be in some life-threatening situation with a bunch of people, like locked in a chamber that’s being flooded with water by a crazy guy, and the crazy guy will only let us out if one of us can name all the Zelda games in order, and I’ll be able to do it and save everyone. But even if that doesn’t happen, I mean, this is okay too.”
Gita laughs. “Dream on, Link,” she says, but she sticks her fist in the air too.
“Oh, hey, almost forgot—“ Patrick gets up and knee-walks over to his closet, pulling the door open and saying “whoops” as a couple of balled-up socks and a plastic bag of GameBoy cartridges falls out. He rummages around in the back for a while and finally emerges with a lumpy present in each hand, holding both hands out to Gita and Sam respectively. “Merry Christmas,” he says.
Gita’s surprised. She has Christmas gifts for both of them in her backpack, but she’s not sure she actually expected anything from Patrick. He obviously wrapped these himself, too, because they’re covered in brown lunch bags instead of actual wrapping paper, and sealed with like a million pieces of Scotch tape.
“Open ‘em,” Patrick says, drumming his thighs with his palms. Carefully, Sam starts peeling off every individual piece of tape, and he’s so slow that Patrick groans, “Oh my god, Sam, I’ll open it for you,” and tries to swipe the bag out of his hands.
“No!” Sam laughs, rolling away. “I like the anticipation! Heyyyy,” he says approvingly, as he finally pulls out a deck of glow-in-the-dark cards and an album of postcards with photos of modern art installations on them. “Thanks, man! These are great!”
Patrick is beaming from ear to ear, his cheeks pink—from happiness or from the beer, or maybe both. “Gita?” he says.
Gita sits up and tears open her bag to find a giant sparkly pencil case covered in purple and yellow stars, and a book, Batman and Robin and Philosophy. “Um,” she says, swallowing. “I...thanks, Patrick.”
He reaches over and just ruffles her hair, like he already knows everything else she wants to say.
After that, Gita gives them her presents, matching beanies that she knitted herself—and then Sam gives them the matching mittens that he knitted himself, and they all put them on and then burst out laughing and Patrick accidentally spills the popcorn all over the floor. And Gita thinks that maybe she doesn’t want to grow up, not just yet, because right now she can’t imagine anything better than this.
Two days after Christmas, Gita’s home phone rings while she’s in the kitchen eating leftover gingerbread cookies and doing an essay for her creative writing class. Her mom sticks her head in from the hallway. “It’s your friend from school?” she says. “Patrick?”
Gita grabs her soda can and pads to the phone. “Hey, Patty,” she says through all the gingerbread in her mouth, sitting on top of the pile of phone books on the chair and cradling the receiver to her ear. “What’s the matter, getting lonely over there in Fog City without us?”
Patrick laughs, his voice crackly over the line. “Yeah, none of my cousins have reached puberty yet. Some of them aren’t even potty-trained yet, so, not a lot of conversation partners. I’ve gotten great at singing Old MacDonald for hours at a time, though. Bet you didn’t know Old MacDonald has elephants, dolphins, and T-rexes on his farm.”
“I gotta see a video of that,” Gita says dryly. “So why are you really calling? You stuck climbing that tower in Assassin’s Creed again?”
The instant Patrick answers, Gita can tell something is wrong. He takes a deep, slow breath before speaking, and his voice is softer than she’s ever heard it. “Um, so listen, when we get back to school...I’m...I’m dropping out of radio club.”
The cookie turns to cardboard on Gita’s tongue. “What?”
“It’s just, I’ve got a lot of stuff to do, and I dunno, I was thinking about it, and...” Patrick’s making his voice light. Casual. “I just don’t think I have time for extra-curriculars right now. Y’know?”
Gita stares at the picture frame on the opposite wall. She used to be able to see the faces in it clearly from here, but now they’ve melted into each other in one giant blob. “But...but the show,” she croaks. “We won’t...we won’t have a club if we don’t have enough memb—“
“No, no, it’s okay. I talked to Mr. Walker, and he said since the show’s doing so good, it wouldn’t make sense to dissolve the club just ‘cause I’m—you know.”
It takes a second for Gita to process this. “So—so you mean, what, you were planning this?” She stands up, and one of the phone books falls to the floor. “You were planning this since before Christmas, you jerk, and you’re calling all the way from San Francisco to tell us only now?” she shouts.
“Gita, why are you yelling?” her mom calls from the living room. “What’s going on?”
“I couldn’t find a good time to tell you,” Patrick pleads, his voice filtering through the static. “I thought this would be easier, I—this doesn’t change anything, we’re still friends, okay?”
“Like heck we are,” Gita says. Her hands are shaking. “There’s no, there’s no reason you can give me that won’t be totally full of crap. No time for extra-curriculars? You just don’t wanna be associated with us, do you? Who—“ Then Gita hiccups, and stamps her foot in frustration. Of course her body would choose this exact moment to give her hiccups. “Who was it? Dev? Josh?” She chokes back another hiccup. “Or was this all you?”
“It wasn’t like that. It’s not like that,” Patrick says—a little angrily, she thinks, but he doesn’t get to be angry here.
“Whatever.” Gita hiccups. “Don’t call me again. Don’t call Sam, either. He doesn’t deserve to hear all your bullshit.”
“Okay. Fine. I won’t. I’m just—Gita, I’m sorry,” Patrick whispers, and it sounds like he fumbles with the receiver before hanging up.
Gita calls Sam right after that to tell him what happened. There’s a long silence on the other end before Sam responds.
“Well, fuck him,” Sam says, and Gita doesn’t even react to the fact that Sam just said the F word without stammering, because she agrees too much, and also she might be crying into her Diet Coke.
“Missing the new kid?” Sam asks. They’re sitting on the swings in the park, and Sam is drawing circles in the sand with his toes.
“Pfff, no. Why? Are you missing the new kid?” Gita kicks off from the ground violently, spinning into the air and shifting her weight so that she wobbles on the way back down and starts swinging in a circle.
“Kind of,” Sam admits, as Gita flies past him. “He was fun, when he wasn’t being annoying.”
“He was always annoying.” Gita sticks her legs out straight, relishing the wind raking through her thick hair.
“Hey, don’t forget, we have to plan the next show,” Sam calls after her, and Gita sighs. Planning the show used to be fun, shouting across the picnic table and leaning way over to scribble in each other’s notebooks. Now it’s just work, like everything else.
They’re Gita-and-Sam again, and it’s not lacking, it’s just...different.
Gita hasn’t told anyone this, but a couple of months ago, she actually made Patrick a Sim. A Sim. (He’s still in her house, too, lounging around on her couch and playing Frisbee with the dog. Maybe she should just delete him.)
The funny thing is, they don’t even see Patrick playing basketball with the other guys at lunchtime anymore. Maybe he’s hiding because he’s too ashamed to show his face. Gita really hopes so.
It’s their third show without Patrick. Gita tells herself to stop counting them like that, because Patrick doesn’t matter anymore.
They’re almost done setting up, and Mr. Walker’s just gone out for a quick bathroom break, when they hear a shuffling noise just outside the door. Gita looks down and sees a piece of notebook paper slide through the gap underneath, landing squarely between her shoes. She bends down to pick it up without a second thought; they sometimes get Dear DJ letters this way, and they respect their listeners’ privacy enough to not try opening the door and catching the person in the act.
“We got a letter,” Gita calls to Sam, who’s in the back fiddling with some cables.
“Read it out loud,” he says over his shoulder. “Maybe if we have time we can squeeze it into today’s show.”
Unfolding the paper square, Gita runs her fingertips along the back, where the writer pressed down hard with the pen. “Dear DJs,” she reads. “About a month ago I did something really stupid. I told my friends I couldn’t be a part of their club anymore because I didn’t have time. The truth is, I’m flunking a bunch of my subjects, and my homeroom teacher told me I had to drop my extra-curriculars and go for extra tutoring.” She’s blinking rapidly now. “I was too embarrassed to tell them, so I made up a lie instead, and now they won’t talk to me because they think I ditched them. I know it was my fault, but should I still try asking them for forgiveness? Signed, Dum-Dum Dugan. P.S. The show is great, keep it up.”
“Huh. This is a tough one.” Sam turns around. He’s raising his voice a little, and he pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “I don’t know, what do you think, Gita?”
Gita folds her arms, tapping her foot. “First off, let’s establish that this Dum-Dum was totally a dum-dum.”
“He certainly was,” Sam agrees. The scuffling sound outside the door gets a little louder.
“But I think we can say that his admitting he was wrong is the first step, and that if his friends are his real friends—which I’m sure they are—it won’t hurt them if he asks for forgiveness.”
Sam nods. “Sounds like good advice to me.”
Gita goes over and opens the door, and Patrick falls in. He crashes into her and sends her stumbling back into her swivel chair, which falls over and stabs her in the leg with a wheel.
“Ow!” Gita yelps. “God, Patrick.” She doubles over and grabs her calf, while Patrick holds his hands out to her in apology. “What are you doing?”
“I just wanted to explain everything,” Patrick blurts out.
“We got that, I mean why were you leaning on the door?”
“Sorry, I was trying to listen in and I, uh, forgot it opened that way.” Patrick runs a hand through his hair. “Look, I, I told Mr. Walker the truth before winter break, and he said he wouldn’t dissolve the radio club without me. For you guys. And then I asked him not to tell you the real reason why I had to drop out...I didn’t want you to know.”
“Well, that was stupid,” Gita says.
“I was embarrassed, okay? How was I supposed to tell you I’m failing?”
“You just tell us,” Sam insists. “That’s what friends do. Did you think we were gonna, like, make you sit by the garbage cans just because you don’t have a B-plus average?”
“D average,” Patrick mutters. “And you guys are smart.”
“Well, it’s because we’re so smart that we’re willing to help you, not judge you,” Sam says, throwing an arm around Patrick’s shoulders. “It just so happens I found this great online game that teaches you algebra. I’ll even tutor you personally in English.”
“I’ll tutor you both in English,” Gita says. “I’m obviously the Hermione in this situation.”
“Wait, so who does that make me?” Patrick frowns. “Am I Ron?”
“Nah, you’re more of a Harry,” Sam says authoritatively. “Anyway, I’m sick of being Harry by default just ‘cause I wear glasses. I’ll be Ron, I can marry Gita.”
“Nobody has to marry anybody,” Gita informs them. “It’s stupid the way people think that. Why can’t everybody just be friends and stay friends?”
“We will be,” Sam reassures her. “Now that we’re all being honest with each other.”
“Well,” Patrick replies, “if we’re being honest...Sam, I’m sorry, but those cheesesteaks are gross.”
They all crack up.
“Hey, if we hurry, you can join us for the show,” Sam suggests.
Patrick blinks. “But I’m not prepared,” he says.
“You’ll wing it,” Gita says easily, hopping into her chair and spinning around a couple of times before ending neatly with her knees underneath the desk. “You’re good at that.”
“I am, am-en’t I?” Patrick picks up his pair of headphones; somehow they never got around to putting them away. “Ah, I missed you,” he tells the headphones, giving them a noisy kiss before clapping them over his head and settling in his chair. He grins at Gita, and she grins back.
“Okay, guys, here we go.” Sam flicks the switch and raises his hand. “In five, four, three, two—“