ST. PETERSBURG — Brett Maddox graduated from Seminole High School on Wednesday night. Now it's Thursday, and he's already bored.
"What are you doing tonight?" he asks his friend Ari.
"Going to St. Pete High," Ari says. "My cousin is graduating."
They look at each other.
"What if," says Brett, "we graduated from St. Pete High, too?"
No. No way.
• • •
It's almost 7 when they get to Ari's house. Graduation's at 8.
Brett and Ari Sokolov are both 17. They've never been in any real trouble, unless you count the time Brett mooned a bus and missed the eighth-grade dance. At Seminole, Brett was voted "Best Personality" and Ari "Most Outgoing."
Ari has to sit with his family. So he dresses Brett in his shirt, cuff links, slacks and tie. Brett, size 12, slips into Ari's size 16 dress shoes. He stuffs Ari's cap and gown in his backpack.
They call Ari's cousin, who's already at St. Pete High.
You're an idiot, he says.
They tell Ari's mom.
You better get going, she says, or you'll be late.
Brett calls his mom, too.
Oh, Brett, she says. I wish you wouldn't.
• • •
Brett texts Ari at 7:28 p.m.
I have arrived at the school
Ari texts back: phase 1 complete
The doors are locked, but a friendly kid lets Brett in. Brett dips behind an air-conditioner and throws on his cap and gown.
Brett: Im in
Strange thing, high school. Brett sits in a classroom with a dozen students and two teachers. Nobody asks who he is.
When they head outside, Brett realizes he's not wearing a medallion like the others. He runs back to the classroom.
Bingo. There, on a desk, is an extra.
• • •
Ari's family finds seats and waits on word.
Will Brett be spotted? What if there are too few seats, or not enough diplomas? And 476 seniors are graduating. Surely someone will notice there are 477 on the field.
Then they see him, near the rear of the line, a devil among Devils. As he walks past the stands, he turns and raises his arms.
• • •
The pledge, the national anthem, the alma mater, the class president, the valedictorians. Then it's time.
Each student has a placard bearing his name. Each student. Brett borrows a piece of paper.
Ari: mom says to use a different name
Brett: matt nickel is my name
Ari: its all you now mr. nickel
A few minutes later, Ari, encouraging Brett to sound more official: make sure you say Matthew Nickel not just matt.
Brett: we can do this
• • •
Word spreads. The kid in the back is a Warhawk, not a Green Devil. The whole section knows. Brett's sweating.
Will one of them say something? Point out the traitor?
Row by row they exit and walk across the stage.
Brett: real close now
Ari: this is your moment
Ari: remember to use the full name, im gonna video it
Brett: matthew nickelson
Another name is called. Something Something "the third." Ari gets an idea.
He texts: Yo add a little to the end
When his row is called, Brett stands, walks up front, hands his paper to the guidance counselor. He whispers something about losing his card.
The woman puts her mouth to the microphone and reads from the paper.
"MATTHEW NICKELSON THE FOURTH."
Brett Maddox strides across stage, shakes hands with the principal, takes his diploma, poses for a photo.
Ari's family cheers.
"Go Matthew!" someone shouts.
The seniors from St. Pete High surround him on the field.
"Good job, man," says one.
• • •
The next day, Ari will post photos and an 18-second video of Matthew Nickelson IV graduating from St. Petersburg High on Facebook, and their friends will leave messages that say "you are the man" and "you're the most legit person I know." But that night, on the way home, Ari looks over at his best friend.
"You're a legend," he says.
Alexa Volland is a Times correspondent. Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.