Read an excerpt of RIGHT WHERE I LEFT YOU by Julian Winters!
Need a read to just make you smile? We have good news for you. Right Where I Left You by Julian Winters is on shelves now! Kacen Callender meets Becky Albertalli in a deliciously geeky best friends-to lovers romance.
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Two things: This is the worst idea you’ve ever had. And I’m glad it’s you I’m stuck here with.
—-Reverb, Disaster Academy Issue #10
Spoiler alert: I’m in love with two boys.
Head over heels, smiling–at–nothing–while–walking–into–walls kind of love.
But they’re not real people. They’re comic book characters. Also, they might be in love with each other. Huge emphasis on the might.
“You’re doing that thing again, Isaac.”
I tilt my head. “What thing?”
Diego, the virtuoso of bad imitations, gives me this exaggerated smile with wide, Disneyesque heart eyes, sighing loudly. One of those I’m–helplessly–in–love sighs.
“Shut up,” I say halfheartedly.
“It’s very distracting. And annoying.”
“You’re annoying,” I tell him.
I’m lying on my back, my head resting on the edge of Diego’s bed, reading last month’s issue of my favorite comic book, Disaster Academy. He’s next to me, sitting upright, tongue between his teeth, focused on a video game.
Diego’s right—-I’m making The Face.
I can’t help it, though. The chemistry between my favorite characters, Charm and Reverb, while they’re crowded in an air vent, awaiting the signal to attack the villains below, is too much. It’s the proximity of their shoulders. Their easy banter. The way Charm’s eyebrows lift when Reverb says he wouldn’t want to be stuck with anyone else.
My heart would run through a brick wall for these two ridiculously–in–love teen superheroes.
Diego has heard all this before. He’s too chill about everything—-except video games—-to complain about my obsession with this series. Like now, with my officially licensed Disaster Academy–sock–covered feet propped against the wall, squinting at every panel, searching for the barest hint that Charm is finally going to confess his feelings to Reverb.
It doesn’t happen.
Diego’s bedroom is pure chaos. Posters of his favorite video game, Beyond the Valley of Stars, and a few vintage ones—-Super Mario Bros., Final Fantasy VI, Kingdom Hearts—-layer three of the pool–water–blue walls. Pinned high above my feet is the Puerto Rican flag. The rest of Diego’s room is mountains of clothes on the floor, sneakers in the corner, a plate of tonight’s half–eaten dinner on a cluttered desk.
Framed below the wall–mounted TV is a photo of us from five summers ago. Clunky–glasses–wearing Diego Santoyo and acne–attacked Isaac Martin. Our arms are wrapped around each other’s shoulders. We’re beaming at the lens, Diego wearing a boricua pride T–shirt while I have on an old–school Justice League one.
Since that photo, Diego’s lost the glasses, and a biblical miracle—-also known as the Aftermath of Puberty—-cleared up my skin. We both have curly hair. His is soft and swoopy on top while mine, thanks to my mom’s side of our family, is thick and sponge twisted, the sides of my head shadow faded. Diego is lean and long but still two inches shorter than me. Genetics decided that I’d be muscular but not toned, because I dare not engage in anything athletic besides riding my bike everywhere, a consequence of not learning to drive yet.
“No, you can’t just bust the door down!” Diego groans, a hand covering his eyes. “We need the Key of Tonatiuh.”
He’s not talking to me.
He rants into one of those gaming headsets, the right earphone tugged sideways so he can occasionally acknowledge me.
“That’s not how it works, Level_Zero,” he says as if one of the characters on-screen is a real person, not controlled by some rando gamer probably halfway across the world eating Doritos while slurping on a Baja Blast. His frequent fights and jokes and mildly deep discussions with other online gamers are odd to me.
I nudge his knee. “Have you escaped the nightcrawlers yet?”
“Almost.” His thumbs repeatedly jam the buttons on the controller.
I roll over onto my stomach. “What level are you on?”
“BRB,” he says into the headset before tilting his head at me, smiling. “Thirty–two. There’s seventy–five total.”
“So I’ll be minus one best friend this summer?”
“Three weeks tops,” he teases, then returns to his Gatherer’s Guild.
I scan the pages of Disaster Academy.
Thing is, the thought of being without Diego for more than a day this summer is numbing. When mid–August rolls around, I’ll be at the University of Georgia in Athens—-alone.
In retrospect, it’s kind of absurd, our situation. Diego finished in the top ten of our graduating class. Smashed the SATs. Aced every test with zero sleep and only two hours of studying. He’s also got mad coding skills. College was built for kids like him.
Suffice to say, his parents aren’t down with his decision to take a gap year and pursue his dream of designing the ultimate inclusive video game.
To be honest . . . neither am I.
A blob of sweat dribbles from my hairline to my cheek. Summers in the South are unbearable. Also, the circulation of cool air from Diego’s vents sucks. The endless scent of boys sitting in their own perspiration coats the air. Luckily, Diego’s mom loves adding extra fabric softener to their weekly wash.
Diego takes a sip of his energy drink. Cloud Strife, the Santoyos’ fluffy orange tabby, purrs at his feet. He absentmindedly scratches behind her ears.
“Another all–nighter?” I eventually ask.
“GTG,” he says into the headset. There’s only two people Diego abandons playing Beyond the Valley of Stars for—-his mom when she’s yelling, and me. Frozen on- screen is his favorite character, Delmar, a tall, elf–like character with light brown skin similar to Diego’s and blue hair. He stands with other characters from the game I don’t recognize.
Before he tugs off his headset, Diego winces, cheeks darkening. “Whatever, Level_Zero. Catch you tomorrow.” I raise an eyebrow as he lowers his controller. “I have to find the second Imperio Stone before Valencia locates the Death Stone,” he explains.
I don’t understand any of that, but I get Diego’s obsession with video games in general. That earnest look in his eyes as he plays. The need to be immersed in something so different from your own reality.
He motions toward my comic. “So what, you’re gonna spend the night pining over those two?”
“Pining is an art, Diego. It takes practiced discipline.”
He smirks. “Which means you’re gonna practice all that disciplined pining by whacking it to poorly written fanfics again.”
Blush heats my cheeks like a nuclear explosion. It’s nearly undetectable against my deep brown skin, but I still cover my face with the comic. “It happened one time!”
“But it happened.”
“I hate you.”
“I’m your best friend, dude.” Dude is Diego’s favorite word. “I’m your only friend.”
It’s a fact that burns coming from him. For a few years, I counted my older sister, Isabella, in the friend category until it started feeling kind of silly. We’re family. And I wish this were a strategic choice—-my lack of friends—-but it’s not.
I’m awkward with new people. Most times it’s hard for me to relate or open up to them. There’s no natural flow to our conversations. No easy silence like you can have with a person you’ve known for more than a year. I can’t remember when it started, but the moment I’m introduced to someone, a barrier appears. It prevents them from getting too close. They can’t hurt me, and I’ll never disappoint them.
On paper, branching out sounds nice. But I’ve never done it. Diego and I found each other. We were both reaching for the same swing at a park while our parents watched from afar. Our bond was so instantaneous and natural, something that hasn’t happened for me since.
“Don’t give me shit right now,” I warn, refocusing on Disaster Academy. “Charm is three seconds away from confessing his undying lo—-”
“No, he’s not. He didn’t last issue. The three issues before that—-”
“Haven’t you heard of slow burn?”
Diego shoots me one of those “sure, Jan” looks he’s been perfecting since we were kids. His eyes are light brown as if there’s a constant glow behind them.
Mine are plain, tree–bark–brown eyes.
“It’s called queer baiting,” he says. “Happens all the time.”
“Whatever,” I mumble.
I recognize my own fixation with the idea of Charm and Reverb being a thing. I’ve waited so long for them to finally admit their feelings on-page. Seeing them kiss has been my secret hope since Issue #3 when Charm came out as gay to the other students at the Webster Academy for the Different. Since Issue #4 when Reverb and Charm became roommates. And Issue #5 when Charm gave Reverb that smile—-you know the one—-and Reverb blushed.
Issue #6 . . .
I can’t even think about that moment without having heart palpitations. Issue #6 is a milestone in the fandom.
“You’ll see at Legends Con.” A flood of confidence washes over me. “Jorge and Peter will confirm it’s canon once I ask them about it.”
Peter Heinberg and Jorge Prados are the writer–artist duo behind Disaster Academy. In a few weeks, they’ll be here in Atlanta taking audience questions during their private panel at Legends Con.
I plan to be one of those lucky fans.
For the last six months I’ve worked for my mom on the weekends, saving money to afford con passes. You can’t just purchase them on the internet either. Legends Con is so exclusive you have to enter and win an online lottery to get a unique access code before you even get the chance to buy entry–level badges. On the day badges are released you have a ten–minute window to log in and purchase up to a maximum of three before you’re locked out.
It’s seriously some Hamilton level ridiculousness.
We both entered the lottery, but guess who won? Yup. Isaac the Obsessed.
All that’s left is logging in and securing our passes tomorrow at 1:00 p.m.
“I can’t believe you’re really doing this,” Diego says, smiling quietly.
“We’re doing this,” I remind him.
He’s been saving up money since last year when we watched online clips of the con from this very bed.
I elbow his thigh. “You’re going to meet your girl soon.”
Saturday is all about my quest to meet the Two True Legends, but Sunday is Gameathon, the convention block dedicated to gamers. It’s Diego’s opportunity to see his own idol, the creator of BtVoS, Elena Sánchez.
Diego winces. This is another one of his looks I know, though it’s a more recent development.
“Is your mom still giving you shit?” I ask.
“She drops daily reminders about how this is a big mistake.”
Diego’s been excited for months at the prospect of pitching his video game ideas to Elena. The last half of senior year was dedicated to him talking about it. It’s his dream.
Cloud Strife paws her way through a pile of clothes. Cool moonlight blankets the room from the window behind the bed. Silvers and blues glow against his skin as Diego runs his fingers through my hair. He’s the only person allowed to do this besides my mom and Isabella.
My phone buzzes. I yank it out of my jeans to check the display name in case it’s Mom.
It’s not her, though.
I don’t answer. If I haven’t spoken to him the other three hundred times he’s called in the last five years, I don’t know why he thinks I’ll start now.
Diego snatches the phone from me. I don’t put up a fight. We don’t have secrets. He reads the name on-screen before tossing it facedown onto the sheets. The made in america with mexican parts phone case my grandpa bought me is all that’s visible now.
“¡Mi culpa!” Diego says, turning back to the TV to start a new game.
I slip back into my comic. On the page, Charm and Reverb are clumsily plotting their escape from the air shaft. It’s the perfect moment, with their heads so close, to confess how absurdly in love they are.
My big, hopeful heart dies a little when they don’t.