The Loose Ends List


By Carrie Firestone

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A refreshing, funny, and moving debut novel about first loves, last wishes, and letting go.

Seventeen-year-old Maddie O’Neill Levine lives a charmed life, and is primed to spend the perfect pre-college summer with her best friends and young-at-heart socialite grandmother (also Maddie’s closest confidante), tying up high school loose ends. Maddie’s plans change the instant Gram announces that she is terminally ill and has booked the family on a secret “death with dignity” cruise ship so that she can leave the world in her own unconventional way – and give the O’Neill clan an unforgettable summer of dreams-come-true in the process.

Soon, Maddie is on the trip of a lifetime with her over-the-top family. As they travel the globe, Maddie bonds with other passengers and falls for Enzo, who is processing his own grief. But despite the laughter, headiness of first love, and excitement of glamorous destinations, Maddie knows she is on the brink of losing Gram. She struggles to find the strength to say good-bye in a whirlwind summer shaped by love, loss, and the power of forgiveness.


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I TOUCHED DEATH with my fingertips. It wasn't cold or hard like I had heard. I knew it was coming before I touched it. It scattered funny, random objects: a trumpet, a sapphire, a Jules Verne book, a macaroon, a worry doll, a snow globe, and 531 bottles made of paper. There were other things, but those were my favorites.


WHEN GRAM CALLS, I ignore it. Lizzie and I are at Starbucks waiting for Kyle and Ethan to get out of lacrosse practice. We're working on our Loose Ends lists, and they're just getting good. I scroll through mine while Lizzie sticks her straw into another iced tea lemonade. It's uncomfortably hot for May.

One.       Save enough lifeguarding money to pay for a road trip.

Last year I blew all my money on a stupid designer bag that now has ink all over the inside.

Two.       Have an alone day with each of the E's.

I love my three closest friends deeply, but those girls glom onto one another like puke under a toilet seat. The noise, the drama, and the differing opinions can be maddening.

Three.    Learn how to cook an entire meal to perfection so I can survive on my own.

Mom bakes constantly, but she doesn't cook. And Dad's Thanksgivings are amazing, but most nights we get hummus and lentil chips. I want my uncle Wes to design a menu and teach me to cook from scratch.

Four.      Discover a new constellation.

Dad and Jeb and I have been studying the sky since we were curled-up marsupials wrapped in Dad's sweatshirt. Jeb enjoys stargazing because he's a stoner. I like it because I appreciate vastness, and it's the only thing I have in common with Dad.

As much as my friends make fun of it, my astronomy hobby helped me get Ethan last winter during a sledding party. I have a well-known weakness for team captains, and I had been eyeing Ethan since he landed that esteemed lacrosse title, beating out Lizzie's precious Kyle. I jumped on the sled behind Ethan, and we flew into a snowdrift. I wrapped my legs around his, and broke the silence with, "Look, it's the Big Dipper. Isn't it cool?" He looked up, and I kissed his cheek.

I pointed out four constellations that night before he kissed me back on the lips. It tasted like beer and watermelon gum, but I had snagged Ethan, the hottest captain of them all.

Five.       Rewatch all the eighties movies during a weekend marathon, preferably with Abby, since she's the only other one willing to eat massive amounts of junk food without complaining about fatness.

Gram calls again.

"It's just my grandmother," I say. "She's probably at Saks. She hates my graduation dress and won't give up on trying to find me a better one." I take a swig of iced chai. "Okay, I have a few more loose ends and then we can finish with something big."

"Isn't a road trip big enough?" Lizzie also missed out on the doomed road trip last summer, after her dad found out about a certain topless selfie. Gram says Lizzie leaves nothing to the imagination, which is pretty ironic coming from an elderly woman with a library full of VHS porn.

Six.         Find a drive-in movie theater somewhere in Connecticut and watch from the car in my pajamas.

I plan to do this with my friends because Ethan will just try to bone me again.

Seven.    Let Ethan try to bone me again.

The first time was a disaster. Ethan had an "accident" the second we got into his twin bed. I try not to dwell on the details, but it was gross, and his apologizing no fewer than five thousand times annoyed me so much I had to leave. Now he's insecure and telling me it happened because I'm so pretty.

As irritating as he is sometimes, I'm staying with Ethan for now because he's firmly in my social circle and it would take way too much energy to avoid him all summer.

Eight.     Prepare for City Living.

My phone vibrates. Gram.

"God, my grandmother gets obsessive when she's shopping." I ignore again.

"She is so funny," Lizzie says. "My grandma watches Wheel of Fortune and goes to Target when she needs an adventure."

"Yeah. My grandmother gets mud wraps in remote jungles when she needs an adventure," I say. "You should see her boyfriend, Denny. He's my mom's age and wears diamond rings on both pinkies."

"I can't stand jewelry on men," Lizzie says.

"This guy is drippy diamond rich. Actually, Drippy is a good name for him." I grab Lizzie's phone. Her list is pretty conventional. Learn how to do a proper shot. Lose ten pounds.

"Lizzie, this is more like a to-do list. You're so boring."

"Maddie, I've been trying to do a shot for months, and it always comes out my nose. Perfecting my shot technique is definitely a loose end."

"Okay, but please get rid of lose ten pounds. You're already skinny, and that's a waste of a good one."

"Hey, you wrote change hair color. That's equally lame."

"I crossed it out. I do need an edgier look for New York, though. I was thinking of going strawberry blond." I wrap my unruly Medusa curls into a bun.

"No way. That would totally wash you out. My stylist says blue eyes, light skin, dark hair. Keep it brown."

"Your stylist lives in Connecticut," I say as my phone vibrates. It's a text from Gram. I need to talk to you right away. It's urgent. My stomach sinks. Gram has never texted me before. I run outside to call her.

"Gram, what's wrong?"

"You don't return my calls now? Are you too popular for your grandmother?"

"You just freaked me out. You never text me."

"You wouldn't answer your phone. I happen to know that thing is glued to you at all times."

My heart is still racing. "Can you not do that again, please?"

"So what are you doing that's so important?" Gram says.

"I was making my Loose Ends list."

"What's a Loose Ends list? Sounds fascinating."

"It's a list of the things I never got to in high school that I want to do before college."

"Like blow jobs?"

"Oh my God, Gram. You're disgusting."

"So, I need you all to come to my place tonight at seven sharp."

"But it's Friday. I have to drive everyone to a big party." Gram knows I'm the permanently designated driver of a powder-blue minivan.

"Hon, I have something important to share, and I need the family here. Somebody else will have to drive your bimbo cheerleader friends." There's a strange urgency in her voice.

"You're making me nervous." Gram always has surprises up her sleeve, but she usually blurts them out before she can build any anticipation. "Did you call Mom?"

"I got your father. He said they would be here. I had to bribe him with Indian food and theater tickets, mooch that he is." Gram thinks Dad is a weird, socially awkward freeloader and that Mom ended up with him because she has the emotional fortitude of a newborn panda.

She's kind of right.

It's a good thing I haven't had to rely on my parents for much more than stargazing and shoe shopping. Gram takes care of everything. We shop, eat out, visit museums, take amazing trips, and meet famous people. Once, just to piss off Dad, Gram got her board member friend from the planetarium to give Jeb and me a private show.

Gram always delivers. So I will play her little game and go to her mystery meeting.

"Fine, Gram. I'll be there. Can you give me a clue?"

"No." She hangs up.

"I have to go into the city." I grab my stuff and hug Lizzie good-bye.

"Wait, what are you talking about?" Lizzie yanks my T-shirt.

"My grandmother needs us for some surprise announcement. I have a feeling she's engaged to Drippy."

"Why do you have to go into the city for that? Even the college people are coming to this party." Lizzie's whining. "Can you at least come later?"

"I have no idea when I'll be back. This is bizarre, even for her."

I find Rachel, my neighbor and former best friend, watching TV in our living room. Our mothers have been friends since we were in utero. Mom spends her afternoons at Rachel's house drinking while Bev eats. They accept each other unconditionally and dwell in the underworld of the American housewife, sipping cocktails, eating cupcakes, and watching prerecorded episodes of Kathie Lee and Hoda.

My friendship with Rachel became a struggle in fourth grade. My Barbies were not compatible with Rachel's LEGOs. We tried. We even built a LEGO yacht for the Barbies, but they just couldn't get comfortable.

By seventh grade, I had found Lizzie, Remy, and Abby. We dressed one another up like Barbies, and called ourselves the E's because our names ended with the E sound. We group texted and had sleepovers, studied together, and made appearances at all the parties.

There was no place for a Rachel among E's.

Of course, our mothers were devastated. They labeled me a snot and Rachel a victim of exclusion and bitchiness. So we sat them down one afternoon, when they were all tanked up on gin and banana bread, and explained the situation.

"Mom," Rachel started, "I am not a victim. I have friends. Most of them are boys, but that's because boys are the only ones who get my computer games. Maddie and I need to go our separate ways right now. We will always be friends, but our interests are diverging."

"Good word, Rach," I said. "I promise we'll reverge—"

"Converge," Rachel interrupted.

"Converge, when we're adults and have children and our interests don't matter anymore." And that ended that. We still hang out, just not in public. Rachel is a stargazer, too, because she's obsessed with Star Trek and always on the lookout for alien life-forms.

"Rach, Gram's up to her old cryptic tricks." She looks up from her box of donut holes. "She wants us all to go to her apartment tonight for an announcement."

"Maybe she's getting another tattoo." Rachel knows Gram.

"I hope not. I saw her ass a couple weeks ago, and the seahorse is sagging like someone whacked it with a flyswatter."

Dad comes up from the basement. "Astrid wants us at her place in two hours. I'm guessing she's going to announce her engagement to that Denny."

"The one with the pinkie rings?" Rachel wiggles her pinkies.

"I was thinking engagement, too," I say. "I'm calling him Drippy from now on. Can you imagine the wedding? Who gets the bigger diamond?"

Mom comes downstairs in a perfectly pressed dress, with her full makeup face on.

"Here, Rachel, take these to Bev." Mom takes a picture of cinnamon scones on a tray for her Pinterest page and wraps the tray in plastic.

I text the E's: Family emergency. Can't drive. Will try to meet you later. I ignore the flurry of responses. My friends aren't used to me bailing before a party. Ignore. Ignore. Ignore. The E's are panicked chickens with no head.


JEB MEETS US in Gram's lobby. He's a sophomore at Pratt, an art school in Brooklyn, where he listens to angry music and paints twisted crap. He looks ridiculous in his skinny jeans and silver hoop earrings.

It's even hotter in the city, and Dad is more sweaty and disheveled than usual. Mom gives Jeb a heaping bag of groceries and hugs him like she's welcoming him back from two tours of duty.

"Mom, stop. I saw you last week." Jeb has little tolerance for Mom. He should be nicer to her. The woman spends half her life baking him cookies.

"Nice to see you, too, Jeb," Dad says.

Mom's sister, Aunt Mary, walks in with my twin cousins, Brit and Janie, who are back from their first year at college. Brit is a whiny, homely brat who has nothing better to do than stalk Janie and me online. Janie is an honorary E because of her name and because she's funny and fun and fascinatingly urban.

"I guess Mother isn't getting enough attention," Aunt Mary says. We cram into the elevator. Aunt Mary is Brit in thirty years. Her black cloud of negativity nearly suffocates us all on the ride up to the penthouse floor. I don't blame my uncle for leaving her.

The elevator opens into Gram's living room, which is sleek and pristine with white furniture and painted white floors. There are color-coordinated collections on the walls, the shelves, and the tables, gathered from all corners of the globe, and each attached to a different adventure. Only Astrid North O'Neill would set a carved Swiss music box next to an Argentinian peyote jar and a Chinese oracle shell, all because they share a shade of eggplant.

Mom's younger brother, Uncle Billy, pours white wine. His husband, Wes, gets up from the piano.

"Baby girl, look at you." Wes kisses my cheeks. He's tall and dirty blond and ruggedly handsome. Janie and I never quite understood how Wes fell for our skinny, sullen, four-eyed uncle.

"Where's Gram?" I ignore another text from Abby.

"We have no idea. Titi says she's staying locked in her room until everyone gets here," Wes says. Gram's housekeeper walks out of the butler's pantry carrying a tray of macaroons. Aunt Mary pulls her aside and berates her with whispers. Titi shakes her head repeatedly, sets down the cookie tray, and escapes to the kitchen.

Brit is texting and completely ignoring Great-aunt Rose. Granted, Aunt Rose tells the same ten stories over and over again, but Brit could at least have the decency to pretend she's listening.

"I'm assuming pinkie ring Denny isn't here yet," Wes says.

"I've renamed him Drippy," I say.

"You'd think Billy could find something to say to his own damn family." Wes nods toward Uncle Billy, who is sitting on the piano bench studying The Wall Street Journal. "I mean, make an effort at least. Look at Aaron charming the pants off Mary."

Dad nods enthusiastically as Aunt Mary makes a face. Dad has no family to speak of—he was an only child, and his parents are dead. They were antisocial, so Dad barely knows his relatives. This is my whole family, for better or for worse.

"Do you like Brit's outfit?" Janie says, stuffing a macaroon into her mouth.

Wes laughs a little too loudly at Brit's ensemble of pleated, high-water khakis and metallic gladiator sandals.

Titi rings a little bell and instructs us to go into the library. She slides the fake bookcase wall in the living room to the right, revealing a hidden passageway where we used to act out all kinds of Anne Frank, Underground Railroad dramatizations. I follow Janie into the library, where Gram's longtime lawyer fidgets with a stack of papers. We sit in a semicircle of chairs arranged in front of the desk.

"Eww." I elbow Janie and point out the lawyer's crusty scalp.

Gram walks in and stands behind the desk. She pauses for a moment, taking in the visual of her entire family seated before her.

"Okay, Mother, what's up?" Aunt Mary breaks the silence.

"Hello, beloved family, and thank you for coming." Gram welcomes us like she's giving a speech to a foreign delegation.

"Where's Denny?" Aunt Rose calls out. "I hear you two are getting married."

"Oh stop, Rose, for God's sake." Aunt Rose looks wounded. "Give me more credit than that. I was only seeing that buffoon because he had great opera seats. I told you after Martin died I would never marry again, and I won't." She shakes her head. "Now, listen. I called you all here for a reason."

"What's the reason?" Aunt Rose yells. Wes stifles a laugh.

"Rose, let me speak." Gram beckons the lawyer to join her. She links her arm through his. He towers above her petite frame.

"Okay, here I go. Kids, I brought you here because I'm sick. Well, I'm basically dying. I have pancreatic cancer, and in case you don't know, that's one of the bad ones."

My stomach drops. A thick lump forms in my throat, and I can't breathe.

All the blood exits Aunt Mary's face. "Why are you telling us like this?"

"Mary, I wanted to tell you all at the same time. I just found out a couple weeks ago. I needed time to make some big decisions."

We sit, motionless, until Dad breaks the silence. "Well, thank God we're in the best city in the world for medical care," he says. "We'll get you into Sloan Kettering this week. My buddy is a top-notch oncologist there."

"I don't want to see your friend, Aaron. Could you just let me say what I brought you here to say?" She takes a deep breath and smiles. "I've booked us all on an eight-week cruise. It leaves right after Maddie graduates." She looks at me. "I'm still working on finding you a dress, by the way."

I can't tell if she's trying to be funny, if all of this is a sick Gram joke.

"Mom, we're not going on a cruise. We need to figure out treatment options," Uncle Billy says.

"There are no good treatment options. I'm not sitting around some hospital room with fluorescent lighting, stuck to a chemo drip for the last few months of my life. I've booked the cruise. It's done."

"What makes you think we can drop everything and take a cruise?" Aunt Mary raises her flinty voice. "You are not thinking clearly."

"Well, let's see. Aaron's a teacher, you and Trish are homemakers, a term I use loosely, and the kids have summer break. Wessy and Bill can turn over the business to the staff for a while. I'm thinking very clearly, dear."

The air is trying to get into my lungs, but it can't get past the growing lump.

"Ralph has a few confidentiality documents for you to sign before I continue. Titi, I need a little nibble of a macaroon, dear."

"Mom, this is absurd. What documents?" Aunt Mary is shouting now. "Don't you think we should talk to your doctors?"

"Mary, when have you ever known me to involve you in my medical affairs?" Gram's voice stays calm, but she's getting annoyed. She crosses her arms and watches Crusty Head pass out the documents.

I stare down at the stapled stack of papers with glazed eyes. My stomach quakes violently. I've never known how to process horrible news. When I was seven, I watched my Jack Russell terrier, Bub, get squished by my own school bus when he was running to greet me. That one required therapy with a woman who used puppets to talk about death. Dad's mother died a few months later, but it didn't bother me, for some reason. She was kind of mean and hard-edged, and she smelled like grease. The puppet lady said I probably couldn't grieve her death properly because I was still grieving Bub. Then when I was thirteen, Grandpa Martin had a heart attack and died in his golf cart twenty minutes after he and I had shared a tuna sandwich. I was so traumatized, I refused to go to his funeral.

All of that was awful. But this is my gram. She's supposed to get me settled at NYU and take me to brunch and have my future college friends over for dinner parties. She is supposed to walk me down the aisle when I get married and plan my exotic honeymoon.

I feel like puking, but I just start sobbing. I can't help it. It hurts so much. The stupid document gets blurry, and tears drip shamelessly onto the paper. I hang my head, and my hair covers my face, the paper, everything.

"Oh, my dear Maddie girl." Gram comes over. Janie starts bawling, too. "Oh, my babies." Gram kneels down on the floor in front of us. I focus on her hand, her blue veins popping out of waxy skin, her nails, still perfectly painted red. Her beloved sapphire, big as a bird's egg, seems silly now on a hand that's about to be dead.

Across the room, Mom makes a terrifying huffing sound.

"Oh, lord, Trish is hyperventilating." Gram stands up. "Titi, please bring my children some cocktails. I am old, guys. Death happens."

It takes twenty minutes for Janie and me to gain control of ourselves. As usual, my stomach is a mess. Mom has a drink. Uncle Billy has a drink. Wes holds Uncle Billy's hand and reads the document. Sour-faced Aunt Mary and Brit sit with their arms crossed. Aunt Rose asks Dad if he knows her husband, Karl. Jeb stares straight ahead. Crusty Head eats a macaroon.

My phone vibrates on my lap. OMG Abby peed on my foot. Ethan wandering. Sooooo many hot college boys. Where the fffff are u? I cannot deal with Remy's text right now.

Gram returns to her spot behind the desk and clears her throat. "Okay, where was I?" she says. "Oh, yes: I'm dying. And I want to take you on a cruise. Don't worry, it's not one of those tacky, all-you-can-eat buffet ships. It's a lovely ship, state of the art. And all the passengers are dying, or accompanying someone who is dying."

"Well, that's terrible, Astrid," Aunt Rose says.

"No, Rose. It's not terrible at all. We, the dying, get to plan the entire voyage. We get to customize it to satisfy our final wishes. Maybe we'll tie up some loose ends around the globe or add a few items to our bucket lists." Gram winks at me. I fake smile back. "The best part is while we're at sea, and when I'm ready, I will go to my private cabin where a trained physician will inject me with potassium and a sedative. Then I will go to sleep, and you charming people will see me off."

"Oh my God, Gram. You're freaking me out." Janie buries her face in her hands.

"There's nothing to freak out about," Gram says. I clutch Janie's sweaty hand. "They will bag me and release me into the sea, my last wishes fulfilled. No invasive, silly, life-prolonging meddling. No pain. It's death with dignity, the way it should be."

"Mom, there is no such thing as a death-with-dignity cruise ship. You're goddamn delusional. Aaron, do you have psychiatrist friends at Sloan Kettering, too?" Uncle Billy is turning red.

"Ralph, will you tell these jackasses the truth? I'm exhausted."

Everyone looks at Crusty Head. He steps forward. "Don't kill the messenger, folks. Astrid has indeed booked you all on a ship that caters to the dying. It is technically a death-with-dignity ship, part of a kind of underground movement. Trust me, this is all recent news to me, too." Ralph pauses and neatens the stack of papers. "The nondisclosure agreement also protects Astrid, since she has been a benefactor of the movement for a few years now, and she would prefer to keep her involvement confidential."

"What are you even talking about?" Aunt Mary says. "Speak English, Ralph. Are you saying there are ships where they kill people and throw them overboard? And Mom has been bankrolling this?"

"Not overboard, Mary. There's a cute little door they slide you through. You're so melodramatic." Gram walks around the desk and stands next to Ralph. "I had the privilege of joining my friend Ruth on her ship. We took quite a ride around the Horn of Africa."

"You said Ruth had a heart attack at the McDonald's drive-thru," Mom says.

"That was her alibi. Mine will be more nuanced. So that's it. I have a fantastic 'Astrid's Last Hurrah Mystery Tour' planned for us, kids. Are you in or out? I need to know tonight."

"How much is this going to cost?" Aunt Mary says.

"Oh, of course Mary brings up the money," Uncle Billy says, throwing his arms up in the air.

Aunt Mary glares at Uncle Billy. "It's a valid—"

"I don't know." Gram cuts Aunt Mary off. "It's a lot. Don't worry, there's plenty more for you to squander when I'm gone. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need a minute." Gram leaves through the secret passageway.

"Nice going, Mary," Mom says. "You know what? Maybe this isn't about you. Maybe Mother is serious about all of this."

"Oh, shut up, Trish. I still don't believe she's dying. She's a drama queen. I can tell you I will not be going on a death-with-dignity cruise. I just can't believe she's doing this."

Mom shakes her head back and forth violently. "No!" she shouts. "Mary, you will not do this. It's always about you and your life and your issues and what's going to inconvenience Mary. So, for once, just stop. She may or may not be dying, but we're going to do what she wants." Dad puts his arms around Mom and plants kisses all over her face.

"Gag." Janie turns away from them.

"Tell me about it," I whisper. "But good for Mom, though, standing up to her." I nod toward Aunt Mary, who sits staring straight ahead.

"What are we going to do with the business?" Uncle Billy's face is still flushed.

"We'll figure it out. Donna can take over," Wes says. "And we'll find a temporary chef. Whatever, Billy. We need to do what Assy wants to do." Only Wes is allowed to call Gram Assy.

Brit sits hunched in her chair, texting furiously, with an ugly scowl on her face.

"Brit, come sit with us," I try.

"No thanks, Maddie. Don't you have a party to attend?" asks the cyberstalker.

"Did you not hear anything Gram said? She's dying, Brit. Gram is dying." Janie's eye makeup is smeared all over her face. I grab a tissue from the desk and dab around her eyes. Janie has always been the prettiest cousin. She looks like her dad, blond and cute and Scandinavian. Brit got all the ugly Aunt Mary troll genes.

I used to be so jealous that the twins lived two blocks away from Gram. She kept snacks for them in her pantry and had Titi fix them dinner on school nights. Please let me live with you, I begged her. I won't be difficult like the twins. She always responded the same way: Your parents wouldn't like that very much.

The room buzzes with all kinds of tones and salty language. Nobody's crying anymore. There's too much to complain about.


  • * "Maddie's first-person account is filled with humor and fun, introducing readers to a raunchy, heartwarming, and endearingly dysfunctional family. The story is made all the richer by a cast of quirky supporting characters... Best of all is the achingly romantic love story that unexpectedly blossoms between Maddie and a fellow shipmate and lends the story much-appreciated moments of passion and levity. A poignant and important story about compassion, love, and the decision to live life on your own terms-right up to the very last minute"—Kirkus Reviews

  • Filled with equal amounts of laugh- and tear-inducing moments, this debut novel will be impossible to put down. Fans of Jenny Downham's Before I Die or Jonathan Tropper's This Is Where I Leave You will enjoy this unique story about dying on one's own terms. With its fresh, original plot and thought-provoking themes, this title will have a high teen appeal.
    School Library Journal

  • "A bright, promising debut that will resonate."—Booklist

  • "A sweet story of a young girl growing and learning about the depths that exist in everyone...Maddie is an accessible and relatable character."

On Sale
Jun 7, 2016
Page Count
304 pages

Carrie Firestone

About the Author

Carrie Firestone is the author of The Loose Ends List and The Unlikelies. A former NYC high school teacher, she currently lives in Connecticut with her husband, two daughters, and their pets.

Learn more about this author