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What You Wish For


I was the one dancing with Max when it happened.

No one ever remembers who it was now, but it was me.

Actually, pretty much everything that night was me. Max and Babette had gone on a last-minute, two-week, second-honeymoon cruise around the boot of Italy that they’d found for a steal—and the return date just happened to be two days before Max’s sixtieth birthday party—smack in the middle of summer.

Babette had worried that she couldn’t book a trip with an end date so close to the party, but I stopped her. “I’ve got this. I’ll get everything ready.”

“I’m not sure you realize what a big undertaking a party like this is,” Babette said. “We’ve got the whole school coming. Three hundred people—maybe more. It’s a huge job.”

“I think I can handle it.”

“But it’s your summer,” Babette said. “I want you to be carefree.”

“And I want you,” I said, pointing at her, “to take a dirt-cheap second honeymoon to Italy.”

I didn’t have to twist their arms. They went.

And I was happy to take charge of the party. Max and Babette were not technically my parents—but they were the nearest thing I had. My mom died when I was ten, and let’s just say my dad was not my closest relative.

Actually … technically he was my closest relative.

But we weren’t close.

Plus, I didn’t have any siblings—just a few scattered cousins, but no family anywhere nearby. God, now that I’m laying it out like this, I have to add: no boyfriend, either. Not for a long time. Not even any pets.

I did have friends, though. Lest I make myself sound too sad. Especially my friend Alice. Six feet tall, friendly, and relentlessly positive Alice, who was a math specialist and wore a T-shirt with a math joke on it every day to work.

The first day I met her, her shirt said, NERD SQUAD.

“Great shirt,” I said.

She said, “Usually, I wear math jokes.”

“Is there such a thing as math jokes?” I asked.

“Wait and see.”

To sum up: Yes. There are more math jokes in the world than you can possibly imagine. And Alice had a T-shirt for all of them. Most of which I didn’t understand.

We had almost none of the same interests, Alice and me, but it didn’t matter. She was a tall, sporty, mathy person, and I was the opposite of all those things. I was an early riser, and she was a night owl. She wore the exact same version of Levi’s and T-shirts to work every day, and every day I put together some wildly different concoction of clothes. She read spy novels—exclusively—and I read anything I could get my hands on. She played on an intramural beach volleyball team, for Pete’s sake.

But we were great friends.

I was lucky to be a librarian at a very special, very legendary elementary school on Galveston Island called the Kempner School—and not only did I adore my job, and the kids, and the other teachers, I also lived in Babette and Max Kempner’s garage apartment. Though, “garage apartment” doesn’t quite capture it. The real term was “carriage house” because it had once been the apartment above the stables.

Back when horses-and-buggies were a thing.

Living with Max and Babette was kind of like living with the king and queen. They had founded Kempner, and they’d run it together all these years, and they were just … beloved. Their historic mansion—that’s right: real estate is super cheap in Galveston—was just blocks from school, too, so teachers were constantly stopping by, hanging out on the porch, helping Max in his woodshop. Max and Babette were just the kind of people other people just wanted to be near.

The point is, I was glad to do something wonderful for them.

They did wonderful things for me all the time.

In fact, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a rare opportunity to really astonish them with the greatest party ever. I started a Pinterest board, and I went through magazines for décor ideas. I got so excited, I even called up their daughter Tina to see if she might like to do the project together.

Ironically, their daughter Tina was one of the rare people in town who didn’t hang out at Max and Babette’s all the time. So I didn’t know her all that well.

Also: she didn’t like me.

I suspected she thought I was trying to take her place.

Fair enough. She wasn’t totally wrong.

“Why are you decorating for my dad’s party?” she said, when I called—her voice tight.

“You know,” I said, “just—timing.” It’s such a disorienting thing when people openly dislike you. It made me a little tongue-tied around her. “They’re on that trip…”

I waited for a noise of recognition.

“To Italy…”


“So I just offered to get the party done for them.”

“They should have called me,” she said.

They hadn’t called her because they knew she wouldn’t have time. She had one of those husbands who kept her very busy. “They wanted to,” I lied. “I just jumped in and offered so fast … they never got the chance.”

“How unusual,” she said.

“But that’s why I’m calling. I thought maybe we could do it together.”

I could feel her weighing her options. Planning her own father’s sixtieth birthday party was kind of her rightful job … but now, if she said yes, she’d have no way to avoid me.

“I’ll pass,” she said.

And so the job was mine.

Alice wound up helping me, because Alice was the kind of person who was always happiest when she was helping. Babette had been thinking streamers and cake, but I couldn’t leave it at that. I wanted to go big. This was Max! Principal, founder, living legend—and genuinely good-hearted human. His whole philosophy was, Never miss a chance to celebrate. He celebrated everybody else all the time.

Dammit, it was time to celebrate the man himself.

I wanted to do something epic. Magical. Unforgettable.

But Babette had left an envelope on her kitchen table labeled “For Party Supplies,” and when I opened it up, it held a budget of sixty-seven dollars. Many of them in ones.

Babette was pretty thrifty.

That’s when Alice suggested we call the maintenance guys to see if we could borrow the school’s twinkle lights from the storage facility. When I told them what we were up to, they said, “Hell, yes,” and offered to hang everything for me. “Do you want the Christmas wreaths, too?” they asked.

“Just the lights, thank you.”

See that? Everybody loved Max.

The more people found out what we were doing, the more everybody wanted in. It seemed like half the adults in this town had been Max’s students, or had him for a baseball coach, or volunteered with him for beach cleanups.

I started getting messages on Facebook and texts I didn’t recognize: The florist on Winnie Street wanted to donate bouquets for the tables, and the lady who owned the fabric shop on Sealy Avenue wanted to offer some bolts of tulle to drape around the room, and a local seventies cover band wanted to play for free. I got offers for free food, free cookies, free booze, and free balloons. I got texts from a busker who wanted to do a fire-eating show, an ice sculptor who wanted to carve a bust of Max for the buffet table, and a fancy wedding photographer who offered to capture the whole night—no charge.

I said yes to them all.

And then I got the best message of all. A phone call from a guy offering me the Garten Verein.

I’m not saying Max and Babette wouldn’t have been happy with the school cafeteria—Max and Babette were pretty good at being happy anywhere—but the Garten Verein was one of the loveliest buildings in town. An octagonal, Victorian dancing pavilion built in 1880, now painted a pale green with white gingerbread. Nowadays it was mostly a venue for weddings and fancy events—a not-cheap venue. But several of Max’s former students owned the building, and they offered it for free.

“Kempner class of ’94 for the win!” the guy on the phone said. Then he added, “Never miss a chance to celebrate.”

“Spoken like a true fan of Max,” I said.

“Give him my love, will ya?” the Garten Verein guy said.

Max and Babette were too jet-lagged by the time they came home to even stop by school, so the change of venue took them completely by surprise. That evening, I met them on their front porch—Babette in her little round specs and salt-and-pepper pixie cut, forgoing her signature paint-splattered overalls for a sweet little Mexican-embroidered cotton dress, and Max looking impossibly dapper in a seersucker suit and a pink bow tie.

They held hands as we walked, and I found myself thinking, Relationship goals.

Instead of walking two blocks west, toward school, I led them north.

“You know we’re going the wrong way, right?” Max stage-whispered to me.

“Don’t you just know everything?” I teased, stalling.

“I know where my damn school is,” Max said, but his eyes were smiling.

“I think,” I said then, “if you stick with me, you’ll be glad you did.”

And that’s when the Garten Verein came into view.

An arc of balloons swayed over the iron entrance gate. Alice—amateur French horn player and faculty sponsor of the fifth-grade jazz band—was already there, just inside the garden, and as soon as she saw us, she gave them the go-sign to start honking out a rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Kids filled the park, and parents stood holding glass champagne flutes, and as soon as Max arrived, they all cheered.

As Max and Babette took in the sight, she turned to me. “What did you do?”

“We did not go over budget,” I said. “Much.”

We stepped into the garden, and their daughter Tina arrived just behind us—looking svelte and put-together, as always, with her third-grader, Clay, holding her hand. Babette and Max pulled them both into a hug, and then Max said, “Where’s Kent Buckley?”

Tina’s husband was the kind of guy everybody always called by his first and last name. He wasn’t ever just “Kent.” He was always “Kent Buckley.” Like it was all one word.

Tina turned and craned her neck to look for her husband, and I took a second to admire how elegant her dark hair looked in that low bun. Elegant, but mean. That was Tina.

“There,” she said, pointing. “Conference call.”

There he was, a hundred feet back, conducting some kind of meeting on the Bluetooth speaker attached to his ear—pacing the sidewalk, gesticulating with his arms, and clearly not too pleased.

We all watched him for a second, and it occurred to me that he probably thought he looked like a big shot. He looked kind of proud of how he was behaving, like we’d be impressed that he had the authority to yell at people. Even though, in truth, especially with that little speaker on his ear, he mostly just looked like he was yelling at himself.

A quick note about Kent and Tina Buckley. You know how there are always those couples where nobody can figure out what the wife is doing with the husband?

They were that couple.

Most of the town liked Tina—or at least extended their affection for her parents to her—and it was a fairly common thing for people to wonder out loud what a great girl like that was doing with a douchey guy like him. I’m not even sure it was anything specific that folks could put their finger on. He just had a kind of uptight, oily, snooty way about him that people on the island just didn’t appreciate.

Of course, Tina had never been “a great girl” to me.

Even now, beholding the party I’d so lovingly put together, she never even acknowledged me—just swept her eyes right past, like I wasn’t even there. “Let’s go in,” she said to her mom. “I need a drink.”

“How long can you stay?” Babette asked her in a whisper, as they started toward the building.

Tina stiffened, as though her mother had just criticized her. “About two hours. He’s got a video conference at eight.”

“We could drive you home, if you wanted to stay later,” Max said then.

Tina looked like she wanted to stay. But then she glanced Kent Buckley’s way and shook her head. “We’ll need to get back.”

Everybody was setting out their words carefully and monitoring their voices to keep everything hyper pleasant, but there were some emotional land mines in this conversation, for sure.

Of course, the biggest emotional land mine was the party itself. When we stepped inside and Max and Babette beheld the twinkle lights, and the seventies band in their bell-bottoms, and the decorations, and the mountains of food, Babette turned to me with a gasp of delight and said, “Sam! It’s magnificent!”

In the background, I saw Tina’s face go dark.

“It wasn’t just me,” I said. And then it just kind of popped out: “Tina helped. We did it together.”

I’d have to apologize to Alice later. I panicked.

Babette and Max turned toward Tina for confirmation, and she gave them a smile as stiff as a Barbie doll’s.

“And, really, the whole town’s responsible,” I went on, trying to push past the moment. “When word got out we were planning your sixtieth birthday party, everybody wanted to help. We got deluged, didn’t we, Tina?”

Tina’s smile got stiffer as her parents turned back to her. “We got deluged,” she confirmed.

That’s when Max reached out his long arms and pulled us both into a bear hug. “You two are the best daughters a guy could have.”

He was joking, of course, but Tina stiffened, then broke out of the hug. “She is not your daughter.”

Max’s smile was relaxed. “Well, no. That’s true. But we’re thinking about adopting her.” He gave me a wink.

“She doesn’t need to be adopted,” Tina said, all irritation. “She’s a grown woman.”

“He’s kidding,” I said.

“Don’t tell me what he’s doing.”

But nothing was going to kill Max’s good mood. He was already pivoting toward Babette, snaking his arm around her waist and pulling her toward the dance floor. “Your mama and I need to show these whippersnappers how it’s done,” he called back as he walked. Then he rotated to point at Tina. “You’re next, lady! Gotta grab you before you turn into a pumpkin.”

Tina and I stood at a hostile distance as we watched her parents launch into a very competent set of dance moves. I spotted Alice across the way and wished she would come stand next to me for some emotional backup, but she made her way to the food table, instead.

Was Alice’s party attire jeans and a math T-shirt?

It was.

The shirt said, WHY IS 6 AFRAID OF 7? And then, on the back: BECAUSE 7 8 9.

I was just about to walk over and join her, when Tina said, “You didn’t have to lie to them.”

I shrugged. “I was trying to be nice.”

“I don’t need you to be nice.”

I shrugged again. “Can’t help it.”

Confession: did I want Tina to like me?

I absolutely did.

Would I have loved to be a part of their family—a real part of it? I would. Even if the most Tina could ever be was my bitchy big sister, I’d take it. My own family was kind of … nonexistent.

I wanted so badly to belong somewhere.

I wasn’t trying to steal her family. But I would have given anything to join it.

But Tina wasn’t too keen on that idea, which seemed a little selfish because she was never around, anyway. She and Kent Buckley were always off hosting charity galas and living a fancy, ritzy social life. You’d think she could share a little.

But no.

She didn’t want them, particularly, but she didn’t want anyone else to have them, either.

She resented my presence. She resented my existence. And she was determined to keep it that way. All I could think of was to just keep on being nice to her until the day she finally just gave up, held out her arms for a defeated hug, and said, “Fine. I give up. Get in here.”

It was going to happen someday. I knew it was. Maybe.

But probably not tonight.

After a very long pause, I said something I thought she’d like. “They adore you, you know. And Clay. They talk about you both all the time.”

But she just turned toward me with an expression that fell somewhere between offense and outrage.

“Did you just try to tell me how my own parents feel about me?”


“Do you honestly believe that you’re qualified to comment on my relationship with my own parents—the people who not only brought me into this world but also spent thirty years raising me?”


“How long have you known them?”

“Four years.”

“So you’re a librarian who moved into their garage four years ago—”

“It’s a carriage house,” I muttered.

“—and I am their biological child who’s known them since before I was born. Are you trying to compete with me? Do you really think you could ever even come close to winning?”

“I’m not trying to—”

“Because I’ll tell you something else: My family is not your place, and it’s not your business, and it’s not where you belong—and it never, ever will be.”


She knew how to land a punch.

It wasn’t just the words—it was the tone of voice. It had a physical force—so sharp, I felt cut. I turned away as my throat got thick and my eyes stung.

I blinked and tried to focus on the dance floor.

An old man in a bolo tie had cut in on Babette and Max. Now Max turned his attention back toward Tina and swung an imaginary lasso above his head before tossing it over at her to rope her in. As he pulled on the rope, she walked toward him and smiled. A real smile. A genuine smile.

And I—resident of the family garage—was forgotten.


It was fine. I never danced in public, anyway.

That night, Max mostly danced with Babette. It was clear the two of them had done a lot of dancing in their almost four decades together. They knew each other’s moves without even thinking. I felt mesmerized, watching them, and I bet a lot of other people did, too.

They were the kind of couple that made you believe in couples.

Max lassoed a lot of people that night, and one of them, eventually, was me. I was surprised when it happened—almost like I’d forgotten I was there. I’d been watching from the sidelines for so long, I’d started to think I was safe—that I could just enjoy the view and the music without having to join in.


As Max pulled me onto the dance floor, I said, “I don’t dance in public.”

Max frowned. “Why not?”

I shook my head. “Too much humiliation as a child.”

And that was true. I loved to dance. And I was actually pretty good, probably. I had good rhythm, at least. I danced around my own house constantly—while cleaning, and doing laundry, and cooking, and doing dishes. I’d crank up pop music, and boogie around, and cut the drudgery in half. Dancing was joyful, and mood elevating, and absolutely one of my very favorite things to do.

But only by myself.

I couldn’t dance if anyone was looking. When anyone at all was looking, the agony of my self-consciousness made me freeze. I couldn’t bear to be looked at—especially in a crowd—and so at any party where dancing happened, I just froze. You’d have thought I’d never done it before in my life.

And Max knew enough about me to understand why. “Fair enough,” he said, not pushing—but not releasing me, either. “You just stand there, and I’ll do the rest.”

And so I stood there, laughing, while the band played a Bee Gees cover and Max danced around me in a circle, wild and goofy and silly—and it was perfect, because anybody who was looking was looking at him, and that meant we could all relax and have fun.

At one point, Max did a “King Tut” move that was so cringingly funny, I put my hand over my eyes. But when I took my hand away, I found Max suddenly, unexpectedly, standing very still—pressing his fingers to his forehead.

“Hey,” I said, stepping closer. “Are you okay?”

Max took his hand away, like he was about to lift his head to respond. But then, instead, his knees buckled, and he fell to the floor.

* * *

The music stopped. The crowd gasped. I knelt down next to Max, then looked up and called around frantically for Babette.

By the time I looked down again, Max’s eyes were open.

He blinked a couple of times, then smiled. “Don’t worry, Sam. I’m fine.”

Babette arrived on his other side and knelt beside him.

“Max!” Babette said.

“Hey, Babs,” he said. “Did I tell you how beautiful you are?”

“What happened?” she said.

“Just got a little dizzy there for a second.”

“Can somebody get Max some water?” I shouted, and then I leaned in with Babette to help him work his way up into a sitting position.

Babette’s face was tight with worry.

Max noticed. “I’m fine, sweetheart.”

But Max was not the kind of guy to go around collapsing. He was one of those sturdy-as-an-ox guys. I tried to remember if I’d ever seen him take a sick day.

Now Max was rubbing Babette’s shoulder. “It was just the long flight. I got dehydrated.”

Just as he said it, a cup of ice water arrived.

Max took a long drink. “Ah,” he said. “See that? All better.”

His color was coming back.

A crowd had formed around us. Someone handed Max another cup of water, and I looked up to realize at least ten people were standing at the ready with liquid.

He drank the next cup. “Much better,” he said, smiling up at us, looking, in fact, much better. Then he lifted his arms to wave some of the men over. “Who’s helping me back to my feet?”

“Maybe you should wait for the paramedics, Max,” one of the guys said.

“You hit the floor pretty hard there, boss,” another guy offered, as an answer.

“Aw, hell. I don’t need paramedics.”

The fire department was maybe four blocks away—and just as he said it, two paramedics strode in, bags of gear over their shoulders.

“Are you partying too hard, Max?” one of them said with a big grin when he saw Max sitting on the floor.

“Kenny,” Max said, smiling back. “Will you tell this batch of worriers I’m fine?”

Just then, a man pushed through the crowd. “Can I help? I’m a doctor.”

Very gently, Max said, “You’re a psychiatrist, Phil.”

Kenny shook his head. “If he needs to talk about his feelings, we’ll call you.”

Next, Babette and I stepped back, and the paramedics knelt all around Max to do an assessment—Max protesting the whole time. “I just got dehydrated, that’s all. I feel completely fine now.”

Another medic, checking his pulse, looked at Kenny and said, “He’s tachycardic. Blood pressure’s high.”

But Max just smacked him on the head. “Of course it is, Josh. I’ve been dancing all night.”

It turned out, Max had taught both of the paramedics who showed up that night, and even though they were overly thorough, everything else seemed to check out on Max. They wanted to take him to the ER right then, but Max managed to talk them out of it. “Nobody’s ever thrown me a sixtieth birthday party before,” he told them, “and I really don’t want to miss it.”

Somehow, after they helped him up, he charmed them into having some snacks, and they agreed to give him a few minutes to drink some water and then reevaluate.

They took a few cookies, but even as they were eating, they were watching him. Babette and I were watching him, too.

But he seemed totally back to his old self. Laughing. Joking around. When the band finally started up again, it was one of Max’s favorites: ABBA’s “Dancing Queen.”

As soon as he heard it, Max was looking around for Babette. When he caught her eye about ten feet away, he pointed at her, then at himself, then at the dance floor.

“No,” Babette called. “You need to rest and hydrate!”

“Wife,” Max growled. “They are literally playing our song.”

Babette walked over to scold him—and maybe flirt with him a little, too. “Behave yourself,” she said.

“I’m fine,” he said.

“You just—”

But before she could finish, he pulled her into his arms and pressed his hand against the small of her back.

I saw her give in. I felt it.

I gave in, too. This wasn’t a mosh pit, after all. They were just swaying, for Pete’s sake. He’d had at least six glasses of water by now. He looked fine. Let the man have his birthday dance. It wasn’t like they were doing the worm.

Max spun Babette out, but gently.

He dipped her next, but carefully.

He was fine. He was fine. He was absolutely fine.

But then he started coughing.

Coughing a lot.

Coughing so hard, he let Babette go, and he stepped back and bent over.

Next, he looked up to meet Babette’s eyes, and that’s when we saw he was coughing up blood—bright red, and lots of it—all over his hand and down his chin, drenching his bow tie and his shirt.

He coughed again, and then he hit the floor.

The paramedics were back over to him in less than a second, ripping his shirt open, cutting off the bow tie, intubating him and squeezing air in with a bag, performing CPR compressions. I don’t really know what else was going on in the room then. Later, I heard that Alice rounded up all the kids and herded them right outside to the garden. I heard the school nurse dropped to her knees and started praying. Mrs. Kline, Max’s secretary for thirty years, tried helplessly to wipe up a splatter of blood with cocktail napkins.

For my part, all I could do was stare.

Babette was standing next to me, and at some point, our hands found each other’s, and we wound up squeezing so tight that I’d have a bruise for a week.

The paramedics worked on Max for what seemed like a million years—but was maybe only five minutes: intensely, bent over him, performing the same insistent, forceful movements over his chest. When they couldn’t get him back, I heard one of them say, “We need to transport him. This isn’t working.”

Transport him to the hospital, I guessed.

They stopped to check for a rhythm, but as they pulled back a little, my breath caught in my throat, and Babette made a noise that was half-gasp, half-scream.

Max, lying there on the floor, was blue.

“Oh, shit,” Kenny said. “It’s a PE.”

I glanced at Babette. What was a PE?

“Oh, God,” Josh said, “look at that demarcation line.”

Sure enough, there was a straight line across Max’s rib cage, where the color of his skin changed from healthy and pink to blue. “Get the gurney,” Kenny barked, but as he did his voice cracked.

That’s when I saw there were tears on Kenny’s face.

Then I looked over at Josh: his, too.

And then I just knew exactly what they knew. They would wipe their faces on their sleeves, and keep doing compressions on Max, and keep working him, and transport him to the hospital, but it wouldn’t do any good. Even though he was Max—our principal, our hero, our living legend.

All the love in the world wouldn’t be enough to keep him with us.

And as wrong as it was, eventually it would become the only true thing left: We would never get him back.

* * *

A PE turned out to be a pulmonary embolism. He’d developed a blood clot sometime during the flight home from Italy, apparently—and it had made its way to his lungs and blocked an artery. Deep vein thrombosis.

“He didn’t walk around during the flight?” I asked Babette. “Doesn’t everybody know to do that?”

“I thought he did,” Babette said, dazed. “But I guess he didn’t.”

It didn’t matter what he had or hadn’t done, of course. There would be no do-over. No chance to try again and get it right.

It just was what it was.

But what was it? An accident? A fluke? A bad set of circumstances? I found myself Googling “deep vein thrombosis” in the middle of the night, scrolling and reading in bed in the blue light of my laptop, trying to understand what had happened. The sites I found listed risk factors for getting it, and there were plenty, including recent surgery, birth control pills, smoking, cancer, heart failure—none of which applied to Max. And then, last on the list, on every site I went to, was the weirdest possible one: “sitting for long periods of time, such as when driving or flying.” And that was it. That was Max’s risk factor. He’d sat still for too long. He’d forgotten to get up and walk around during the flight—and that one totally innocuous thing had killed him.

I couldn’t wrap my head around it.

An entire lifetime of growing up, learning to crawl, and then to toddle, and then to walk, and then run. Years of learning table manners, and multiplication tables, and how to shave, and how to tie a bow tie. Striving and going to college and grad school and marrying Babette and raising a daughter—and a son, too, who had joined the Marines and then died in Afghanistan—and this was how it all ended.

Sitting too long on a plane.

It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t acceptable.

But it didn’t matter if I accepted it or not.

People talk about shock all the time, but you don’t know how physical it is until you’re in it. For days after it happened, my chest felt tight, like my lungs had shrunk and I couldn’t get enough oxygen into them. I’d find myself panting, even when I was just making a pot of coffee. I’d surface from deep sleep gasping for breath like I was suffocating. It left me feeling panicked, like I was in danger, even though the person who had been in danger wasn’t me.

It was physical for Babette, too.

When the two of us got home from the hospital, she lay down on the sofa in the living room and slept for twelve hours. When she was awake, she had migraines and nausea. But she was almost never awake. We closed the curtains in the living room. I brought in blankets, and a bottle of water, and a box of tissues for the coffee table. I fetched her pillow off the bed upstairs, and some soft pajamas and her chenille robe.

She would sleep downstairs on that sofa for months.

She would send me to get anything she needed from their bedroom.

She would shower in her kids’ old bathroom down the hall.

I mean, she was Max’s high school sweetheart. Can you imagine? They’d started dating in ninth grade, when their math teacher asked her to tutor him after school, and Max had been right there by her side ever since. She hadn’t been without him since she was fourteen. Now she was almost sixty. They had grown up together, almost like two trees growing side by side with their trunks and branches entangled.

Suddenly, he was gone, and she was entangled around nothing but air.

We needed time. All of us did. But there wasn’t any.

Summer was ending soon, school was starting soon, and life would have to go on.

Three days later, we held Max’s memorial service at the shore, on the sand, in the early morning—before the Texas summer heat really kicked in. The guys from maintenance built a little temporary stage in front of the waves, and in a strange mirroring that just about shredded my heart, Max got a whole new set of offerings from all those people who loved him: The florist on Winnie Street offered funeral wreaths and greenery. The photographer from the party gave Babette a great photo of Max to feature in the program. A harpist, who had gotten a D in his civics class but had loved him anyway, offered to play at the service.

There were no balloons this time, no fire-eater, no fifth-grade jazz band.

But it was packed. People brought beach towels to sit on, I remember that—and there was not an open inch of sand anywhere.

It’s amazing how funerals even happen.

The party had taken so much work and planning and forward momentum, but the funeral just … happened.

I showed up. I read a poem that Babette gave me—one of Max’s favorites—but I couldn’t even tell you which one. It’s crumpled in my dresser drawer now along with the program because I couldn’t bear to throw either of them away.

I remember that the water in the Gulf—which is usually kind of brown on our stretch of beach from all the mud at the mouth of the Mississippi—was particularly blue that day. I remember seeing a pod of dolphins go by in the water, just past the line where the waves started. I remember sitting down next to Alice on her beach towel after I tried, and failed, to give Tina a hug.

“She really doesn’t like you,” Alice said, almost impressed.

“You’d think grief would make us all friends,” I said, dragging my soggy Kleenex across my cheeks again.

After the service, we watched Tina walk away, pulling little Clay behind her in his suit and clip-on tie, Kent Buckley nowhere to be found.

Once we were back at the reception in the courtyard at school, Alice kept busy helping the caterers. I’m not sure the caterers needed help, but Alice liked to be busy even on good days, so I just let her do her thing.

I was the opposite of Alice that day. I couldn’t focus my mind enough to do anything except stare at Babette in astonishment at how graciously she received every single hug from every single well-wisher who lined up to see her. She nodded, and smiled, and agreed with every kind thing anybody said.

He had been a wonderful man.

We would all miss him.

His memory would definitely, without question, be a blessing.

But how on earth was Babette doing it? Staying upright? Smiling? Facing the rest of her life without him?

Tina had her own receiving line, just as long, and Kent Buckley was supposed to be in charge of Clay … but Kent Buckley—I swear, this is true—was wearing his Bluetooth headset. And every time a call came in, he took it.

Little Clay, for his part, would watch his dad step off into a cloistered hallway, and then stand there, blinking around at the crowd, looking lost.

I got it.

I didn’t have a receiving line, of course. I was nobody in particular. Looking around, everybody was busy comforting everybody else. Which freed me up, actually. Right then, surveying the crowd, I had a what-would-Max-do moment.

What would Max do?

He would try to help Clay feel better.

I walked over. “Hi, Clay.”

Clay looked up. “Hi, Mrs. Casey.” They all called me “Mrs.”

He knew me well from the library. He was one of my big readers. “Tough day, huh?” I said.

Clay nodded.

I looked over at Kent Buckley, off by a cloister, doing his best to whisper-yell at his employees. “Wanna take a walk?” I asked Clay then.

Clay nodded, and when we started walking, he put his soft little hand in mine.

I took him to the library. Where else? My beautiful, magical, beloved library … home of a million other lives. Home of comfort, and distraction, and getting lost—in the very best way.

“Why don’t you show me your very favorite book in this whole library,” I said.

He thought about it for a second, and then he led me to a set of low shelves under a window that looked out over downtown, then over the seawall, and out to the Gulf. I could see the stretch of beach where we’d just held the service.

This was the nonfiction nature section. Book after book about animals, and sea life, and plants. Clay knelt down in front of the section on ocean life and pulled out a book, laid it out on the floor, and said, “This is it,” he said. “My favorite book.”

I sat next to him and leaned back against the bookshelf. “Cool,” I said. “Why this one?”

Clay nodded. “My dad’s going to take me scuba diving when I’m bigger.”

My instant reaction was to doubt that would ever happen. Maybe I’d just known too many guys like Kent Buckley. But I pretended otherwise. “How fun!”

“Have you ever gone scuba diving?”

I shook my head. “I’ve only read about it.”

Clay nodded. “Well,” he said, “that’s almost the same thing.”

Talk about the way to a librarian’s heart. “I agree.”

We flipped through the pages for a long time, with Clay narrating a tour through the book. It was clear he’d absorbed most of the information in it, and so all he needed was a picture to prompt conversation. He told me that the earth’s largest mountain range is underwater, that coral can produce its own sunscreen, that the Atlantic Ocean is wider than the moon, and that his favorite creature in the Gulf of Mexico was the vampire squid.

I shivered. “Is that a real thing?”

“It’s real. Its lower body looks like bat wings—and it can turn itself inside out and hide in them.” Then he added, “But it’s not really a squid. It’s a cephalopod. ‘Squid’ is a misnomer.’”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “did you just say ‘misnomer’?”

He blinked and looked at me. “It means ‘wrong name.’ From the Latin.”

I blinked back at him.

“Clay,” I asked. “Are you a pretty big reader?”

“Yep,” Clay said, turning his attention back toward the book.

“I don’t think I’ve ever met a third-grader who knew the word ‘misnomer,’ much less anything about its Latin origins.”

Clay shrugged. “I just really like words.”

“I’ll say.”

“Plus my dad does flash cards with me.”

“He does?”

“Yeah. My dad loves flash cards.”

Honestly, I’d never worked very hard to get to know Clay. He was in the library a ton—almost whenever he could be—but he knew his way around, and he didn’t need my help, and, well … he was reading. I didn’t want to bother him.

Plus, yes, also: I was afraid of his mother.

It’s true in a school that even the kids who need help don’t always get it—so a kid who doesn’t need help? He’s gonna be on his own.

At least, until now. Clay was going to need some love this year, and it would be right here waiting for him in the library, if he needed it.

I don’t know how long we’d been gone—an hour, maybe—when Alice came running into the library, breathless, her face worried. She had on a black skirt and a black blouse—one of the only times I’d seen her not in jeans—and she almost didn’t look like herself.

“Oh, my God,” she said, when she found us, bending over to breathe for a second before grabbing Clay by the shoulders and steering him out. “They’re looking for him everywhere! Tina Buckley is freaking out.”

Oh. Oops. Guess we’d lost track of time.

“Found him!” Alice shouted as we strode back into the courtyard, shaking Clay’s shoulders for proof. “Got him! He’s right here!”

Tina plowed through the crowd to seize him in her arms.

“I’m sorry,” I said, catching Babette’s eye as I arrived behind them. “We went to the library.”

Babette waved me off, but that’s when Tina stood up and glared at me. “Really?” she said, all bitter.

I lifted my shoulders. “We were just looking through Clay’s favorite book.”

“You couldn’t—I don’t know—mention that to anyone?”

“Everybody seemed pretty busy.”

“Clay’s father was watching him.”

Um. Sorry, lady. His father was not watching him. His father was taking business calls on his cell phone. At a funeral. “I’m sorry,” I said again.

“You bet you are.”

“I just wanted … to help.”

“Well, you can’t help. But here’s one thing you can do. You can leave my family alone.”

Leave them alone?

What did that even mean? I lived with Babette. Clay was about to be in my third-grade library class. “How would that even work, Tina? I live on your mother’s property.”

“Maybe you should find somewhere else to live.”

But whatever this weirdness was with Tina, it had gone on too long. “No,” I said.

She frowned. “No?”

“No. That’s ridiculous. I’m not doing that. I love my carriage house—”

“Garage apartment,” she corrected.

“And I’m not leaving. Why would you even want me to? Would you really rather your mom be all alone in that big house than have me nearby?”

We both looked over at Babette, who was back in her greeting line, now with her arm around Clay, who was watching us with his big eyes.

“She wouldn’t be all alone,” Tina said.

“Who would be with her?” I demanded. “You?”

Across the courtyard, Kent Buckley was back on another call.

I saw Tina’s eyes flick from Babette to Kent. I saw her take in what he was doing. I saw her nostrils flare—just the tiniest bit, enough to ripple across her composure for a second. I knew she was suppressing some rage. Her husband was talking on his cell phone during her father’s funeral reception. It wasn’t just inappropriate, it bordered on pathological.

In a different context, I could have felt very sorry for Tina Buckley.

But not today.

She’d married that dude, after all—and no matter if it was a mistake, she chose to stay with him. Yes, I should have been more compassionate. But what can I say? I was grieving, too—and she’d done nothing all day but make it worse.

When her eyes came back to mine, I jutted my chin in Kent Buckley’s direction, and then I said, “You think he’s going to let you look after your mom? He didn’t even let you out of the house when Max was alive.”

Too much.

Too soon.

Tina went rigid. I saw her angry eyes turn to ice. And if I’d thought her voice had ever sounded vicious before, I now realized I hadn’t known the meaning of the word. All that rage about her husband she was suppressing? She found a place to release it.

“Get out,” she said, like a snake. “Get out of here.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond.

She stepped closer and her voice was all hiss. “Get out—or I will absolutely fucking lose it right now.”

Now the ice in Tina’s eyes had turned to fire. Crazy fire. Did I doubt that she would lose it? Did I think she was bluffing?

I did not.

I looked over at Babette—lovely, wise Babette, who was using every micron of strength she had left to hold it together. In the past decade, I knew, she’d lost her parents, a son, and now her husband. Did I want Tina Buckley to make things worse? Did I want to reduce the funeral of Max Kempner—the final punctuation mark on his long and extraordinary life—to a single image of his daughter screaming like a banshee in the courtyard?

No. On all counts.

And so I left.

And that’s the story of how I got kicked out of the funeral of my beloved landlord, best-ever boss, and closest thing I’d had in years to a father.


Just over a week after the service, Kent Buckley called an all-faculty meeting to “detail our school-wide plan for moving forward.”

I guess I should mention that, in addition to being Tina’s husband, he was also the chairman of the board of directors at the school. Honestly, I’d almost forgotten, myself—until he called us all in for a meeting by announcing that he was going to name Max’s replacement.

Max’s replacement?

Um. That would be Babette.

When the king dies, power transfers to the queen, right?

I didn’t see why the meeting was necessary.

We gathered in the cafeteria at the appointed time. Babette, normally a front-row lady, took the very last seat in the back row, and sat slumped in a chair, her eyes looking dull, like it was all she could do just to be there.

Alice came up front and plopped into the seat I’d been saving for Babette. She was wearing a shirt that said, I’VE GOT 99 PROBLEMS. JEALOUS?

We waited for the meeting to start in an eerie, deflated, heartbroken silence.

Kent Buckley wound up striding in fifteen minutes late, still talking on that damned Bluetooth, and even though he said, “Gotta go—gotta go—I’m taking the stage,” and hung up as he turned to stand in front of us, he left the Bluetooth in place on his ear.

I swear: he left it there the whole time.

Then he began. “We’ve all had a shock. Max’s sudden passing was a tragedy. This community is grieving,” Kent Buckley said, sounding like he’d just looked all those words up in a thesaurus. He’d contorted his face into such a bad facsimile of sympathy, I couldn’t look at him.

He paused dramatically, so we could all feel moved.

“But,” he said then, “life has to go on.”

I looked around to meet eyes with Babette, but her eyes were trained on Kent Buckley.

“We have an opportunity here to make the most of this…”

I could see him mentally searching for a synonym for “tragedy.”

“Tragedy,” he finished.

Oh, well.

“But we’re going to need someone to take us into our next phase. We need someone to step into Max’s shoes and lead us forward. And I’m proud to report that I have found that person.”

Why all this buildup for Babette? Kent Buckley didn’t even like her.

“He’s been quite the rising star the past two years in Baltimore.”

Wait—what? He? Baltimore? I turned to look at Babette. She snapped her eyes to mine, face totally stoic, and gave me a tiny, barely there head shake, like Don’t freak out.

And then, before I had even turned back to Kent Buckley, I heard him announce to the room the name of Max’s replacement.

“The new principal of the Kempner School will be … a rising star in the world of independent administration … a guy we were unbelievably lucky to get at this late date on such short notice…” Kent Buckley paused as if we were all having fun. As if a drumroll might magically come out of nowhere. Then he said, “Duncan Carpenter.”

I don’t know if Kent Buckley was expecting cheers or clapping or what. But there was just silence. That name was just a name. It didn’t mean anything to anybody.

Anybody except me.

I knew that name.

At the sound of it, I stood straight up in the middle of the room.

Just popped right up.

Just … burst upward, like a reflex. Like a leg at the doctor’s office.

But then, unlike a leg, I stayed up—my brain frozen.

Everybody stared at me. Including Kent Buckley, who was not exactly pleased.

There was no universe where Kent Buckley would have been a fan of mine, given that I was his wife’s nemesis. But he really, especially detested me ever since the time he’d overheard me calling him a “douchebag” at a school function.

In my defense, he was a douchebag, and I bet you nine out of every ten people would pick that exact word. But I guarantee you none of them would say it to his face.

Not even me.

Kent Buckley wanted me to sit back down. That much was clear.

But I couldn’t.

The name he’d just spoken was holding me suspended in shock.

“I’m sorry.” I shook my head, as if to clear it. “Did you just announce Max’s replacement … and tell us that it would be … that it would be…”

I paused at the impossibility of it.

Kent Buckley had zero time for this. “Duncan Carpenter,” he repeated, like he was talking to a dumb kid.

So many questions. I didn’t know where to start. “Do you mean the Duncan Carpenter?”

Kent Buckley frowned. “Is there more than one?”

“That’s what I’m asking you.”

The whole room was watching. Was this a conversation that needed to happen right now?

Um, yes.

“Tall and lanky?” I asked Kent Buckley then, lifting my hand way above my head. “Sandy hair? Super goofy?”

Kent Buckley’s voice was clipped. “No. Not ‘super goofy.’”

Maybe we had different definitions of that phrase. I tried to clarify. “Like, wearing crazy golf pants?” I went on. “Or a tie with rubber duckies on it?”

I was on borrowed time. “Just a normal suit,” Kent Buckley said.

I paused. A normal suit. Huh.

The whole room could tell I was having a moment. I don’t know a word, or even a category, for what I felt at the sound of that name, but it was more like a cocktail of emotions than any simple substance. Equal parts horror and ecstasy, with a twist of panic, and a little zest of disbelief—all poured over the cold ice of comprehension about what Kent Buckley’s announcement meant for my immediate future.

It wasn’t good.

The clock was ticking on everybody’s patience—Kent Buckley’s the most. Before I could ask another question, he pointed decisively at my seat, like We’re done here.

I sat. More out of stupefaction than obedience. Then I stayed still, trying to will the adrenaline out of my system.

Could there be more than one Duncan Carpenter in the world? I guessed it was possible. The world was a big place. But … more than one Duncan Carpenter in the world of independent elementary education?

Less likely.

The reality of the odds hit me.

Duncan Carpenter was coming here. To my sleepy little town on Galveston Island. To replace my beloved principal and run my beloved school.

The Duncan Carpenter.

“He’s a stellar candidate,” Kent Buckley continued to the room at last, glad to have his rightful stage back. “An assistant principal that took a nightmare of a school and pulled it together in the course of one year. They counteroffered several times to keep him, but he needed a change of location for personal reasons, and he’s ours now. He’s going to get in here and shake things up. Give this place the kick in the pants it’s needed for so long.”

Did our sweet little utopia of a school need a kick in the pants?

No. Not at all.

Of course, we would need somebody to be in charge. But why wasn’t it Babette? I guarantee every single teacher in that room would have voted for Babette.

But this was Kent Buckley. He wasn’t asking us to vote.

As far as he was concerned, his vote was the only vote that mattered.

Are you wondering how it’s possible that Kent Buckley was the chairman of the board even though absolutely nobody liked him? Because, seriously: nobody liked him. Nobody liked his scheming, or his striving, or his ill-informed opinions on “what you people need.”

But when I say nobody, I really mean the faculty and the staff.

Let’s just say, we weren’t charmed by his BMW.

He campaigned hard to get voted chairman, and while Max was alive, it wasn’t that much of a job. Max made all the decisions, anyway—and this school was as much a cult of personality as anything else.

Max had known that Kent Buckley’s values were not in line with the school’s. But he just wasn’t too worried about it. “Just let him be the chairman. He wants it so bad.”

So they let him be the chairman. And then, less than a year later, Max died on us. And now Kent Buckley, of all people—a guy who had never liked Max, or the school, and who only sent his kid here because it was the one thing his wife had ever insisted on in their entire marriage—was suddenly in charge.

What. The. Hell.

And his first decision was to hire Duncan Carpenter as our new principal.

Which was … unexpected.

I would have expected Kent Buckley to hire somebody weaselly and petty, like himself. But he’d hired Duncan Carpenter. Duncan Carpenter. Probably the most Max-like person I’d ever met … besides Max himself.

It had to have been a mistake somehow.

* * *

In the wake of his announcement, Kent Buckley got some IT guys to project a photo of Duncan Carpenter up on a screen for us all to see. At first, I felt a buzz of relief.

For a half-second, I thought: Never mind.

The Duncan Carpenter I’d known had a lopsided smile, and perpetually mussed-up, shaggy hair—and he did something crazy in his official school portrait every year: deely boppers, or a fake punk-rock mohawk, or a giant stick-on mustache. The Duncan Carpenter I’d known had never taken a serious photo in his life. He had an irrepressible streak of joyful, anti-authoritarian naughtiness that he brought to every photo.

Not this guy.

No way was this guy Duncan Carpenter.

This guy had perfectly trimmed hair, styled up in front in a neat, businessman’s coif. And a gray suit with a navy tie. And he was just … sitting there. He wasn’t even smiling.

The guy in this photo was a stiff.

But once my eyes adjusted, once I accounted for the missing mop of hair, and the missing Hawaiian-print tie, and the missing mischievous smile, I had to admit … the face was essentially a lot like Duncan Carpenter’s face. Different, somehow—but the same.

His nose. His eyes. And definitely his mouth.

I felt an electric buzz—part agony, part thrill—at the moment of recognition.

It was him, after all. It was Duncan.

I’d thought I’d never see him again, ever. I’d planned to never see him again.

But now there he was.

Sort of. Though he looked so wrong. So unlike himself. He looked like he was in costume. And that was the most likely explanation, actually: that he might really be in costume—that he’d taken a parody photo of a hard-ass administrator, and Kent Buckley, in all his humorlessness, had thought it was real.

Because it couldn’t be real.

“Meet your new principal,” Kent Buckley said then to the room. “He knows a thing or two, that’s for sure. He starts next week, so you’ll have to be ready to hit the ground running when he arrives.”

What was this guy even talking about? We didn’t take orders from him.

Alice raised her hand. “We all thought Babette was going to take over.”

Kent Buckley’s eyes flicked over in Babette’s direction.

Babette was our art teacher at the school. She was the lady responsible for all the painted tiles in the courtyard. And the mosaic stepping-stones. And the painted lanterns. And the friendship quilt that hung in the office. And pretty much every inch of color or whimsy in the place.

But she wasn’t just the art teacher. Max and Babette had been a team of wise and kindly co-parents since the beginning.

“Babette,” Kent Buckley declared, “is grieving. She’s in no state to run a school.”

We all looked over at Babette.

She didn’t argue … but she didn’t agree, either.

For months following that moment, there would be a raging debate among the faculty over why Babette hadn’t been given the job. Most people got the sense that Kent Buckley had snubbed her and withheld her rightful position.

The conventional wisdom would become that Kent Buckley had refused to even consider Babette. That her power and devotion from the community was threatening to him. That he’d used technicalities to keep her from her rightful place.

But a second theory would also take root: that she had turned him down. One look at her confirmed she wasn’t doing well. If she’d eaten anything since the funeral, I couldn’t tell you what. And her hands, I noticed every day, were still shaking. She was listless and deflated. Despite all her years of wisdom and strength, looking at her now, it was possible that losing Max was more than she could handle.

Anyway … fair or not, right or not, it was happening.

Under Kent Buckley’s leadership, we were suddenly about to bring a total stranger into our stunned, lost, grieving school family.

Except—not a total stranger to me.

I stared at the photo while Kent Buckley talked on and on, building up to a genuine rant about how the American school system had gone soft, and how we all needed to toughen up, and how if we weren’t careful, these kids were going to be a generation of hippies, nerds, and weaklings.

This to a group of teachers made up exclusively of hippies, nerds, and weaklings.

Yet another reason Kent Buckley was unlikable.

He had no idea how to read a room.

As he brought his rant to a close, and before anyone could respond, or even ask a question, Kent Buckley’s Bluetooth rang—and he decided to take the call. He turned his attention back to his ear, announced, “Meeting adjourned,” and walked on out of the room, berating whoever was on the other end of his earpiece with, “Dammit, that’s not what we told them to do.”

What was Kent Buckley’s job, again? Some kind of “business.” I thought maybe he did commercial real estate. I felt like he built mini-malls. How important could that call possibly have been?

But there it was. He was gone. And we were left with a new principal.

In the wake of that moment, nobody moved.

Everybody stayed put, looking around, as the room filled up with murmurs. What the hell had just happened? everybody wanted to know—and nobody more than me. I sat still, blinking at the floor, trying to let it all sink in.

Duncan Carpenter was coming here.

My Duncan Carpenter.

And it was, somehow—at the exact same time—both the best and the worst news I’d ever heard.

Copyright © 2020 by Katherine Pannill Center.

What You Wish For
by by Katherine Center

  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
  • ISBN-10: 125021937X
  • ISBN-13: 9781250219374