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As Far as You'll Take Me
Author: Phil Stamper

ONE

As it turns out, I’m pretty good at lying.

On paper, there’s nothing about me that says I’d be a great liar. I follow whatever obscure rules have been set by fake authority figures—No running near the pool! Turn off your phone in the theater! I won’t even jaywalk. I was shoved into Christian youth groups for most of my upbringing, and, well, the Bible is pretty clear on what happens to liars.

But maybe that’s why I’m so good at it. I’m incognito. Why would Marty possibly lie? The answer, of course, is simple:

I’m gay, and I’m suffocating.

I came to a realization about the former a long time ago, but the suffocating? That crept slowly into my chest, shortening my breaths until I realized I wasn’t breathing at all.

“You’re being melodramatic.” Keeping one hand on the steering wheel, Megan flips her long hair out the car window so strands sway and tangle in the wind.

She has a habit of doing that. The hair flip and the dismissal. Like my worries don’t matter. Like my looming international trip is nothing.

“My flight leaves in five hours. I don’t have a return ticket. My parents don’t know I don’t have a return ticket.” I grip the oh-shit handle harder. “I’m freaked.”

“I can tell. You’re panting harder than when we did that hot yoga class.”

“God, don’t remind me.”

“You’ve got to believe me when I say this. You know how I hate giving compliments, but this is just fact. You are the most competent seventeen-year-old on the planet.”

Her voice puts me at ease. It’s a suspended chord—unsettling at first, both soft and harsh, followed by a clear resolution that feels like home. I lift my double chocolate Oreo milkshake out of the cup holder and wipe the French fry crumbs off the bottom of the cup, these now-ancient reminders of all the fast-food adventures we’ve gone through in this car. Megan in the driver’s seat. Me, the passenger.

Always the passenger.

“I don’t know how I could have prepared so much, yet still feel so unprepared,” I say. “It defies logic.”

I know it’s partly because of Megan. We’ve got this yin-yang thing going on. She’s so chill it’s like she’s constantly high on pot, and I’m about as high-strung as Hilary Hahn. (Because she’s a violinist. And violins are high-pitched and have strings. High-strung? Okay, never mind.)

“You graduated early,” she says. “You saved money working at that shit diner all year. You performed in about every ensemble in the tristate area to beef up your resume. You figured out your dual citizenship and visa process in the middle of Brexit.” She lowers her voice to a whisper, the wind in the car taking away the words as soon as they leave her mouth. “You’ve been trying to escape Avery for years. You’re more than prepared for it, Marty.”

Her words sting and soothe at the same time. Is she bitter that I’m abandoning her? My best of two friends—no offense to Skye. But a lot of history is there. It took me ten years to meet her, five years to stop hating her, and two years of hanging out near constantly to get where we’re at now.

“I’m not escaping.” Of course I’m not escaping.

“Finish your milkshake,” she says. I do. “We’ve got two more ice cream stops before I roll you into the airport.”

My gaze drifts out my window at the glory that is I-75 just before rush hour. The evidence of downtown Cincinnati evaporates from the exit signs, and we’re left with the suburbs—Arlington Heights, Lockland, Evendale.

“Maybe we should abandon the milkshake plan. 275 will take us right there, and I’ll have extra time.”

She sighs. I knew she’d sigh. “And what, exactly, would you do with this extra time?”

“Read?”

“If by ‘read’ you mean get to the gate and stare at the screen, freaking about delays that aren’t going to happen, then—”

Now I sigh. It’s like a steam engine in here. “I get it. Carry on. What’s next?”

“Young’s Jersey Dairy. We can feed the goats there. This is going to be an experience.”

I appreciate Megan’s need to make even the most mundane drives to the airport into an adventure, but I can’t let it go this time. In just a few hours I’ll be up in the air. Away from Avery, Kentucky. Away from the shitheads at my school and the shittier shitheads who ate at the diner where I waited tables.

Away from my parents.

“Maybe I feel bad for lying to them,” I say.

“The Bible-thumpers?”

“Yes, that’s their official name.” I roll my eyes. “Though I call them Mom and Dad.”

Megan hasn’t said two words to my parents since everything went down last year in London. Not like she was even there, but she got the full story. And, well, she is not one for nuance.

“You know how I feel about them.” Her voice softens and I soak it up. “But I get that this is hard for you, Mart. Really I do. When do you think you’ll tell them you’re not coming back?”

The planner in me wins out this time, and a confidence rises along with my chest. “The summer program lasts three months, which means I have plenty of time to get a paying gig. Maybe that’s what I’ll do. Once one of these auditions works out, I can announce it. They’ll be so happy their son got a spot in the London Philharmonic, they won’t be mad that I’m—”

Megan butts in. “—never seeing them again?”

“Okay, now who’s being melodramatic?”

Three months. That’s plenty of time—and it’s not like I’m super picky. It doesn’t have to be the London Phil. It could be the Royal Opera House, or a regional theatre like the open-air one in Regent’s Park, or … well, we’ll see.

“It would have been a lot less complicated if I actually got into that summer program.” I’m kind of rambling, but what else do you do when you’re nervous? Make sense? Not a chance. “But I think it’s a good thing. Because otherwise, I’d be wasting so much time in class and not out there booking gigs.”

The program is at the Knightsbridge Academy of Music. According to what I told my parents, I auditioned last year and got accepted. I even have a letter to prove it.

But that’s not the truth. Unbeknownst to my parents, I flopped at the audition after the whole London Pride meltdown. Hell, technically, that program started a couple of weeks ago. Thank god no one researches everything to the extent I do.

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