One girl is terrified of the end of the world; her new friend claims to know when it’s going to happen.
What could go wrong?
Buckle up, book nerds, because Katie Henry is back with Let’s Call It a Doomsday, another funny (and oh-so-touching) contemporary novel about friendship, family, anxiety, and the impending apocalypse. Let’s Call It a Doomsday follows Ellis, a girl with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), whose fears start to take over her life: What if the world ends? What if that group of kids is laughing at her? How can she learn to drive when it’s all so dangerous? Ellis’s constant inner monologue is entirely realistic and a charming mix of heartbreaking and snarky as she navigates her family, her therapy sessions, and just life overall.
Then she meets Hannah, an eccentric girl who claims to know exactly when the world will end. As they team up to decipher the details of Hannah’s doomsday premonition, their friendship grows and they lift each other up, as Ellis tries to figure out just who she is beyond her own struggles.
Let’s Call It a Doomsday is one you won’t want to miss—and lucky for you, we’re bringing you a sneak peek at the first few chapters below!
HERE IS ONE way the world could end:
In a peaceful corner of northwest Wyoming, under the feet of park rangers, herds of deer, and thousands of tourists to Yellowstone National Park, lies a giant reservoir of burning, deadly magma called the Yellowstone Caldera. First, there would be earthquakes, the kind you can’t sleep through. Then would come the supereruption, a rare seismic event. Rare, but possible. Rare, but overdue. The park would be a lake of lava, but the real problem would be the ash, which would blanket the entire United States, coast to coast. In the Rockies, the ash would crush buildings, devastate crops, suffocate animals and people. Even a few inches would make national highways impassable, ruin farms, shut down air travel. Life as we know it would be over. The entire planet would grow colder.
Here is another way the world could end: I could fail my driving test for a third time.
“Twice isn’t even that many times to fail. Two times, that’s all, and my parents look at me like I’ve murdered something. Something cute. And fuzzy.” I take a breath. “There are bigger problems in the world than me not being able to drive my sister to ballet. Millions of people don’t have clean drinking water. Two-thirds of the animals on Earth might be dead in five years, did you know that? And at any time—any time—a gamma-ray burst could destroy the ozone layer and kill us all.”
“Could we bring this conversation back to you?” Martha asks.
We’re not actually having a conversation. She’s a therapist and I’m a client, and even though her office is made to look like someone’s living room, we’re not doing this for fun.
“Sure,” I say. “Forget the world, I could have bigger problems than not being able to drive. I could be an alcoholic. I could be a shoplifter. I could be selling my dad’s muscle relaxants in the park across from school, did they think about that?”
“Do you think there are some fears wrapped up in this experience?”
“It’s not irrational to be scared of driving. It’s the most dangerous everyday activity.”
“It’s good to take safety seriously,” Martha concedes. “And I know I’ve said this before, but fear can be a very useful tool. Everyone experiences fear, and there’s a good reason for that. It helps us identify danger. It helps us survive.”
“Yeah, exactly, we should all be more scared.”
“But sometimes, people experience fear that’s constant, or very intense, or out of proportion to the situation,” Martha adds gently. “And when fear keeps you from living your life freely, that’s when it has to be addressed. Not eliminated completely. Just managed.”
“My mom says I can’t go to college if I don’t know how to drive,” I say. “Like it’s the equivalent of a high school diploma. And I’m not getting that for almost two more years, so what’s her rush?”
“It sounds like you’re feeling a lot of pressure.”
“For no good reason! I can take the bus to school, I can walk to church and your office and the library, I can get on BART if I want to go to San Francisco. I’m fine.” I pause. “People are too dependent on cars. Like, sure, if a geomagnetic storm destroyed the electricity grid and society collapsed, you could use a car to get somewhere safer—”
Martha clears her throat. I keep going.
“—but we live in a city; the freeways would pile up. And gas expires, it oxidizes, so all the cars would be rusted from the inside out, anyway. You can’t count on cars.”
“Do you think this is a worthwhile thought pattern, Ellis?”
Is anything you do worthwhile, Ellis?
I shake my head.
“Let’s talk about what happened during the driving test.”
“What do you mean?”
“I sat in the DMV parking lot with the . . . driving evaluator, or whatever—and nothing happened.” I pause. “Because I couldn’t turn the car on.”
Martha tilts her head. “Couldn’t?”
I’ve only been seeing her for a few weeks, but I know what it means when she repeats a word I’ve said. It’s like when you insert your card at the train station and the turnstile spits it back out. Try again. She’s looking for me to say wouldn’t or didn’t want to in place of couldn’t. But I really couldn’t. I had my finger on the button and my foot on the brake but my brain was already out of the parking lot and on Claremont Avenue, calculating exactly what would go wrong.
You could hit a pedestrian.
You could hit an elderly pedestrian.
You could hit a child pedestrian.
You could hit an elderly pedestrian carrying a child pedestrian and get arrested for manslaughter and your parents will have to pay restitution to the elderly/child victims and you’ll never go to college because of your horrible guilt and will instead live in the basement for the rest of your life and befriend the rats.
Alternatively, I could humiliate myself in front of a DMV employee. At least I’ve got a road map for that.
“What feelings are coming up, right now?”
I shrug. “I’m fine.”
“‘Fine’ is not a feeling.”
“Is ‘annoyed’ a feeling?”
She smiles. “Yes. Is that what you’re feeling about your driving test?”
“It’s not a big deal to me. So I guess I’m annoyed it’s such a big deal to other people.”
“That’s understandable.” Martha pushes a dark, springy ringlet back from her face. “Is this something you’ve experienced before? Or is this a new feeling?”
For someone so serene and unflappable, she talks about feelings a lot. Never hers, though. Only mine.
“It’s not new.” I hesitate. “It’s actually kind of constant.”
“Tell me about that.”
I slump back on the couch. The more information you dredge up and vomit out to someone, the more they seem to want.
Is it really that horrible to have someone listen to you? Your parents are paying for this. You’re wasting their money.
“Everything my mom and dad think is important, I don’t want anything to do with. They want me to get my license. They want me to be in AP classes. They want me to hang out with girls from church more. I don’t care about the things they care about. I just don’t.”
Not only are you wasting your parents’ money, you’re using it to talk crap about them.
“It goes the other way, too,” I say, trying to seem like less of a jerk. “They don’t care about what I care about, either.” I pause. “They don’t want me to care about the things I care about.”
“Can you give me an example?”
I give her a look like, Come on. She smiles. She waits.
“Like disaster preparedness,” I say. “Like the end of the world as we know it.”
“Where do you think your interest in survivalism comes from?” she asks.
I shake my head. “I’m not a survivalist.”
“Survivalists have skill sets. Hunting and fishing and living off the land, and I can’t do any of that. I’m a prepper. I have supplies, not skills. Or, I would have supplies, except my mom told all my relatives they can’t give me gift cards anymore because I’ll spend them on ‘bizarre internet stuff,’ as if she won’t appreciate properly filtered water you don’t even have to boil first.”
“Okay,” Martha says. “Prepping. Where do you think your interest in prepping comes from?”
My palms itch. I try to put my hands in the pockets of my cardigan, but they don’t fit. I take them out.
“Do you know,” I ask Martha, “where the word interest comes from?”
“Where it comes from?”
“The history of the word. Its etymology.” She shakes her head. “It’s Latin, if you go back far enough. The noun form of interesse, which means, literally, ‘to be between.’ It was more a legal term, though, not like we think of it now.”
“It’s impressive you remember all that.”
“Well, I wrote it down,” I say. “I can remember anything if I write it down.”
Absentmindedly, I touch the front pocket of my backpack. That’s where my notebook is. Kenny #14. The first Kenny was an eggshell-blue diary from Deseret Books, a gift from my aunt on my ninth birthday. My mom suggested I name it. I chose Kenny. She hated that so much I stuck with it for thirteen more notebooks.
Martha shifts in her chair. “How much progress have you made in your workbook?”
I’ve made exactly no progress in Stress Free and Happy to Be Me because I buried it in my sock drawer the first day I got it.
“The workbook is one tool,” she says. “It’s designed to give you strategies for situations like your driving test. When you feel overwhelmed, or anxious.”
Hearing that word always makes my throat tight. I’m not in denial, I know it’s what I am. Martha was the first person to say it like a diagnosis, not just as an adjective. All the diplomas on Martha’s office walls—Howard University, Smith College, UC Berkeley—only make it feel more official. Generalized anxiety
disorder. It’s not the word itself, it’s what people mean when they use it.
“But maybe it’s not the right tool for you,” she admits. “I’d like to give you an assignment for this week.”
“You’ve probably written down some facts about how the world could end. Or change drastically. Yes?”
I nod again.
“Have you looked up any of the times people thought the world would end, and then it didn’t?”
No. Those people were wrong, whoever they were, whenever they were. Why would I care about things that didn’t happen? I shake my head.
“This week, I’d like you to look up some end-of-the-world predictions that didn’t come true. They can be from last year, they can be from a thousand years ago.”
I can do research in my sleep. “So you want a list, or—?”
“Go deeper than that. Look at what happened to those people afterward. When the world kept going, what did they do? What changed in their lives, and what didn’t? How did they move on?” She looks at her watch. “And then next session, we can talk about it. Sound good?”
If it means the workbook can stay buried in my sock drawer, it sounds great. I nod.
“Wonderful.” She glances at her watch. “Our time’s about up for today.”
I grab my backpack. Martha opens the door for me.
“Have a good week,” she says. “And try not to focus too much on the driving test, okay?”
But as I walk past the other offices and the eternally wilted potted plant at the end of the hallway, that’s all I can think about. Me at the wheel of a car, and all the things that could go wrong. Martha calls this “catastrophizing.”
You could hit the gas instead of the brake. You could run over a kindergarten teacher or a volunteer firefighter or the Dalai Lama.
Never mind that the Dalai Lama doesn’t even live here.
What if he was giving a lecture at UC Berkeley and you murdered him, what then? It’s possible.
Anything terrible is possible.
When I walk into the waiting room, I expect to see the little redheaded boy who sees Martha right after me. He’s usually here when I get out, destroying a Highlights magazine and demanding more Goldfish from his exhausted mom. I’ve taken to calling him the Red Demon.
You’re a horrible person. He’s a child.
He did whip a Tonka truck at my face once.
And everyone still likes him better than they like you.
But the only person in the waiting room today is a teenage girl, sitting cross-legged in one of the armless wooden chairs, her eyes closed.
I shouldn’t stare. Emily Post may not have written about therapy, but some things are unspoken. You ignore the other people in the waiting room. You do not make small talk. You keep walking when a maladjusted third grader hurls a toy at you, though it is permissible to step on his bag of Goldfish in revenge.
I shouldn’t stare at this girl and her loose, long, wavy hair, the color of an old penny. And scraggly at the tips, like it hasn’t been cut in a while. She’s in faded jeans and a navy hoodie that’s way too big for her. It engulfs her torso and hides her hands. Her feet are tucked under her legs. I wonder if she’s even wearing shoes.
And as I’m standing there, staring, the girl in blue opens her eyes.
I squeak and stumble back.
She smiles, big and broad, like we’re best friends reunited “Hi,” she says, and the way she says it, it’s clear she remembers me, even if I can’t remember her.
“I’m sorry,” I say, and don’t even know for what. For staring at her? For forgetting her name? “Do we—how do I know you?”
She tilts her head. “You don’t know me,” she says. “Not yet.”
This is how serial-killer shows start. In five network-TV minutes, a grizzled detective is going to find my corpse by a drainage pipe, strangled with a navy blue sweatshirt.
The girl’s still smiling. It’s like she doesn’t even know I’m internally debating whether she’s a criminal mastermind. I have to say something. Anything. Anything not about murder.
I clear my throat. “Um. What?”
She opens her mouth, but closes it fast as we hear high heels clipping down the hallway. Martha appears in the waiting door almost inhumanly fast. She looks at the girl in blue, then at me. Her serene mask, the nonjudgmental face she wears in our sessions, vanishes. Only for a second.
Martha looks back at the girl in blue. “You’re very early.” She pauses, awkwardly, like she swallowed a word.
The girl gets to her feet. She is, in fact, wearing shoes. “I walked, and it didn’t take as long as I thought it would.”
“We’ll start now,” she says to the girl. She flicks her eyes to me. “See you next week.”
Martha starts to usher the girl through the door. The girl glances back at me as she goes. “See you sooner than that.”
She grins. Martha shuts the door behind them. I stand in the empty waiting room alone.
If we were in a session, Martha would ask me to name what I’m feeling right now. It’s easier to do inside my head than out loud.
Confused. Intrigued. Nervous, as always.
I can name Martha’s feelings, too, the ones on her face when the mask dropped. Surprised. Wary. Maybe even scared.
I can’t do that for the girl in blue, because I don’t know her.
I don’t know her, but I think I will.
I TAKE THE bus straight home. I’d rather have walked, but it’s Monday, and Monday means family home evening. So I squeeze myself onto a packed 51A bus. Wedged between a pack of middle school kids drawing boobs on the wall and an elderly man who clearly regrets having chosen the back row, I think about the girl in blue.
You don’t know me.
And though I rack my brain for what that could mean, even after I’m off the bus, down my block, and opening my front door, I’m no closer to figuring it out. I shake my head. I need to forget about this, for now.
Family home evening—everyone shortens it to FHE—is the one night a week reserved for family time. No extracurriculars, no late nights at the office, no holing up in your room alone. We’re Mormon, and that means we’re big on family. It makes sense. If you’re going to spend all eternity together, you might as well become close while you’re still on Earth.
I know a lot of people do this kind of thing, not just us, but we’re the only church I know of to give it a name and make it a weekly expectation. Not that I mind. As far as expectations go, this is an easy one. Hang out with your family, eat something sugary, play a game or watch a movie? It’s nice. I like my family.
“Ellis?” Mom calls from the kitchen. “Can you come in here?”
I mostly like my family.
When I walk into the kitchen, Mom is still in her work clothes, though she’s probably been home for a while.
“Hey, sweetie,” she says, closing the oven door and then straightening up to look at me. She frowns. “I wish you wouldn’t do that.”
I’d ask what I possibly could have done, since I’m standing here motionless and silent, but I know she’ll tell me.
“What’s in the oven?” I ask as she walks over to me and gently untucks the hair behind my ears.
“There,” she says, pushing the hair back away from my forehead and fluffing the ends like I’m some kind of prized Pomeranian. “It looks so much better that way. Don’t you think?”
When it’s behind my ears, it’s out of my eyes. I don’t care what it looks like. “It’s fine.”
“Or up,” she says, starting to gather it into a high ponytail. “You never wear it up.”
I shrug her off. “Mom, stop.”
She lets my hair down. Steps back. She nods at a bowl on the counter next to the sink.
“Can you wash your hands and mix that coleslaw for me, please? I’m bringing it to the Jensens tomorrow. You can put it in the fridge when you’re done.”
She knows I don’t like the feeling of cold food on my hands, but the last time I reminded her, she said, “Well, there’s not much you do like, is there?” And the Jensens just had a baby, which makes this an act of service. So I roll up my sleeves and start.
It’s quiet, but the wrong kind. Maybe she’s counting down the seconds, just like I’m counting down the seconds until my dad or little sister comes home and rescues me.
“So.” I hear Mom turn toward me. “How was it?”
“How was what?”
She tries to sound casual. “Therapy.”
Now I know why she gave me this job. My hands are covered in mayo and I can’t walk out. I mix the slaw with shredded carrots and shredded trust.
“It was fine,” I say, and can almost hear Martha: “Fine” is not a feeling. Mom doesn’t know that, though.
Or maybe she does.
“I talked. She talked. I didn’t cry,” I say. “So, yeah. Just fine.”
“It’s a lot of money for ‘just fine,’ Ellis.”
“It’s therapy, not Disneyland, Mom.”
Mom closes the oven door and checks the slaw over my shoulder. “It’s not mixed enough.”
“I’m not done, I—”
“What did you talk about?”
I close my eyes. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“You don’t know what you talked about for an hour?”
“I mean, a lot of stuff,” I say. “I didn’t take notes.”
She waits a beat. “Did you talk about me?”
She has the absolute audacity to look shocked. “You don’t have to yell.”
“Why do you always ask that?” I’ve stopped mixing.
“I have a right to know what’s being said about me.”
I shake my head and start mixing again.
“No, Ellis, not like that—here.” She digs her hands into the bowl, taking over.
“Do you have to criticize every little thing I do?” I snap, but step back.
“You’re being dramatic.”
“You’re kind of proving my point.”
Her nostrils flare, but at that moment, Dad steps into the kitchen, two reusable grocery bags over his shoulders. He was smiling, but that dies when he sees the way Mom and I are looking at each other.
“Hey,” he says, cautiously, hands out like a zookeeper faced with two snarling wolverines.
Mom flicks one last look at me before kissing him hello and rinsing her hands off at the sink. “I told my sister I’d call her back before dinner. Can you check the lasagna in five?”
“Sure,” he says. I unload the groceries. Once we hear the click of her heels on the second floor, Dad turns to me. “What happened?”
I don’t say anything for a moment.
“Come on, Elk,” he says, knowing I can’t resist my childhood nickname. Elk, for my initials—Ellis Leah Kimball.
“She wanted to know what I talked about in therapy.”
“She wanted to know if I talked about her.”
“She likes to be in the loop,” he says. “Just like you.”
I roll my eyes. Mom and I could not be more different. Like I’d ever host parties or stand up in front of a crowd to teach Sunday school. Like I’d ever have as many friends as she does, or know how to comfort someone who’s grieving, or argue with a salesperson over a gift card balance and win.
Mom is afraid of nothing and no one. And I’m—well, there’s a reason she asked Dad to check the oven, not me.
“I’ll talk to her,” Dad assures me, running a hand through hair that’s the same deep brown as mine, the same thickness and inability to curl. My sister inherited my mom’s dark yellow hair—she won’t let anyone call it “dirty blond”—her slight build and light coloring. Dad was adopted as a baby, so I’m the only one in our entire extended family that looks like him. Tall and broad-shouldered, capable of tanning when the rest of them just burn. Oddballs in a family of pocket-size blonds.
There’s a lot I don’t like about myself, but I do like the way I look. I can stand in the back row and still see, unlike my mom. I can go outside in summer without putting on sunscreen every ten seconds, unlike Em.
I didn’t always like it. Like when I was nine and at a family reunion, running around with my cousins, and one of my dad’s sisters said I was like a “moose in a deer herd.” I was old enough to know it wasn’t a compliment. When I told Dad, he said, “You like eating venison, right, Ellis?”
“And that’s deer.”
“Have you ever eaten a moose?”
“That’s because it’s a lot harder to take down a moose.” He winked. “Or an elk.”
He talked to Aunt Karissa, and she never said anything like that again. So maybe he can get through to Mom. Eventually.
Mom’s phone call and the lasagna are both done before Em bursts through the door—late, as always. Ballet slippers falling out of her dance bag, bun half unraveled, talking about eighteen things at once, as always.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry I’m late.” She dumps her bag and kicks off her shoes in the middle of the kitchen doorway. I start counting the seconds until she trips over them. “Lizzy’s mom drove me home but first she—oh wait, I have a permission slip for—” She turns back for her bag. “Whoops.” There’s the trip, seven seconds in. She retrieves a crumpled blue form. “But so anyway, Lizzy’s mom wanted to ask about the date for the winter recital—are we going to Utah for Christmas this year? Because we can’t fly until it’s over—okay, but then so after Lizzy’s mom asked, I remembered I wanted to talk to Miss Orstrevsky about—ugh, these tights are killing me.”
She plops down in a kitchen chair and rolls her dance tights farther up her legs. “I was thinking it would be cool if we did a piece from Tchaikovsky’s The Snow Maiden because it’s not like I don’t like The Nutcracker but it’s kind of played out.”
“I hope you didn’t hold up Lizzy’s mom too long,” Mom says. “She’s very nice to drive you home.”
“Don’t worry,” Em says to Mom, as if they aren’t both biologically incapable of worrying about anything. “She loves me.”
Of course she does. Everyone loves Em.
“If we could start eating before midnight, please,” Mom says, and ushers us all into the dining room.
We fold our arms as Dad says the blessing over the food, then dig in. Conversation is, as usual, heavily dominated by Em. Today at school, she had to complete a ten-year plan. She thought this was exciting, which only shows how different we are. Not only do I not know what I’d do in a decade, I’m increasingly unsure the world will even last that long. But my sister’s got plans.
“First I’m going to graduate high school,” she reports. “Then I’ll go to college on the East Coast, then I’ll go on a mission, then I’ll get married in the temple and become a wildlife biologist.”
Mom raises her eyebrows. “I thought you wanted to be a nurse.”
“Yeah, but I don’t know, you have to be inside all day.”
“Didn’t you want to be a garbage truck driver?” Dad says, and Em groans.
“Ugh, Dad, when I was, like, six.”
“Why a wildlife biologist?” I ask her. “I mean, it’s cool, but why?”
“I watched this thing on YouTube about this lady wildlife biologist who lived out in the Canadian wilderness for years tracking this wolf pack,” Em says, “and she eventually made friends with them and became, like, a member of the pack and—it was so cool. She wasn’t studying them, she was part of them, you know?”
“I bet she didn’t have any children,” Mom says. Dad clears his throat.
“Maybe,” Em says. “She didn’t say. What’s it matter?”
“I think it would be very hard to do something like that and raise children, too.”
Emmy’s knife squeaks against her plate. “Maybe I won’t have kids.”
Dad looks at Mom. Mom looks at Em. “Don’t be silly, you love babies.”
“Well, you just said I can’t do both.”
“That’s not what I said. You weren’t listening closely.”
“Lisa,” Dad says.
“I said it would be very hard,” Mom says. “You’d have to think carefully about what was important to you. Or most important to you. And I don’t really think that’s following wolves around, but I could be wrong.”
Em’s mouth twists. “It was just an idea.”
“It’s a great idea,” I jump in. Mom’s always on me to hold people’s tiny, extremely breakable babies, but that’s because she knows I don’t want to. Em’s always wanted to cuddle newborns and wipe snot off toddlers’ faces. Why does Mom push like this when she doesn’t even have to?
“Emmy,” Dad says. “It’s okay. You’re thirteen. Don’t worry about this right now.”
Em stabs at her lasagna with a fork. Mom touches her shoulder.
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” Mom says, and Em smiles. But she smiles like she thinks she’s supposed to. Not because what Mom said didn’t hurt.
“You know what we should really be worrying about,” I say “Emergency food storage.”
Em frowns. Mom closes her eyes.
“You don’t need to worry about that, either,” Dad assures Em, who’s closely watching Mom’s reaction.
“No one’s going to get to live with wolves or have babies if we can’t get through an earthquake,” I say.
“Okay,” Dad says. “Let’s not do this tonight.”
“We only have three months’ worth of food.”
“That’s enough,” Mom says, and I don’t know whether she means that’s enough out of me, or that we have enough food.
“Bad things can happen,” I say. “They do. And when people aren’t prepared, they suffer. I don’t want to us to suffer, what’s so terrible about that?”
Em looks to Dad. He sighs. “No one is saying it’s bad to be prepared, but we are, and the more you obsess over this, the worse it gets for you—”
“The worse it gets for all of us,” Mom cuts in. “It’s not only about her.”
You’d think I was holding them at gunpoint or forcing them to eat dirt. All I want is to make sure we survive. All of us, together.
“What do you think’s going to happen?” Em says with a tilt of her head.
Biological weapons released into the air. Superviruses that can’t be cured. Terror attacks at the university, at my school, on the Golden Gate Bridge. I open my mouth to answer.
She’s a kid. She’s your little sister. You want her to have nightmares? You want her to start checking for fire exits whenever she walks in a room? You want her to be like you?
I shrug. “Earthquakes.”
Mom and Dad share a look. They know it’s more than that, but I doubt they want Em to know about it, either.
“We’re perfectly prepared for an earthquake,” Mom says. “A power outage, a fire—this is California. We don’t have hurricanes, we don’t have tornadoes or snowstorms. We. Are. Prepared.”
“Three months of food storage is the bare minimum,” I argue. “Aunt Karissa has three years.”
“She also doesn’t vaccinate her kids,” Dad mumbles. “She should not be your role model.”
“Your aunt lives in the middle of nowhere,” Mom points out. “If something happened—and nothing is going to happen—it might be a while before help could get to her.”
“We have Safeway right down the street,” Em says, taking a bite of lasagna.
“We have five grocery stores in walking distance. And food banks. And—” Mom holds up her hands. “No, you know what? I’m not doing this.” She turns to Em. “Emmy, why don’t you
go pick out a board game for after dinner? Anything you want.” She quickly adds, “Anything but Trivial Pursuit.”
“Why not Trivial Pursuit?” I ask.
“Uh, you know why not,” Em says, getting up from the table.
“Sometimes the answers on the cards really are wrong, Em,” I call after her as she pads into the living room.
The second Em’s out of sight, Mom grabs my wrist, not lightly. I try to pull away.
“No,” she says. “No more of this. I know you worry about these things. But it’s irrational.”
“Lisa,” Dad says. “She can’t control what she worries about.”
“She can control what she says,” Mom counters. “I know it’s hard. And I’m glad you’re working on it with Martha.” She tightens her grip. “But you are not allowed to hold this whole family hostage because you’re anxious, Ellis.”
There’s the word. The word that always tightens my chest, but only slices my skin when she says it. She drops my wrist.
I don’t always like my family, but I love them. And I’m going to keep all of us safe, whether they like it or not.
HERE ARE THREE things my school doesn’t have:
- A dress code
- Any real rules besides “no murder, no arson, no water guns”
Here are three things my school does have:
- A campus the length and width of several city blocks
- Nearly four thousand students
- A halfway decent library
So though we also have an open campus during lunch, there’s only one place I’ll eat, and that’s the library.
No one’s actually supposed to eat in the library, which I understand, but it does present practical difficulties. Late in the spring semester of my freshman year, I went looking in the library stacks for a book on extreme weather patterns. It took me all of lunch to find it—the shelf it was on was in the back corner, with a wide, perpendicular set of bookshelves blocking outside sightlines. My first thought was, This would be a perfect place for a mass shooter to hide. My second thought was, This would be a perfect place for me to eat lunch.
It’s a perfect place within another perfect place. And maybe a public school library wouldn’t be everyone’s perfect place, but it’s mine. Everything about the library is routine. Every time I walk inside, the steps I take are as replicable as a lab experiment, and much safer.
I walk in the A-building and up the stairs to the second floor. I push open the glass door. I smile and say hi to Rhonda the Lunch Librarian, who does not smile back. Ours is a clandestine friendship. I head straight to the reference section and scoop up the heavy maroon book on the top shelf, five books from the left: Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology. I make a beeline for the corner by the Meteorology/Climatology section. I sit with my back against the corner stack, the most tactically advantageous position. I spread the etymology dictionary out on the mauve synthetic carpet. I take out Kenny #14. I breathe in the solitude, the books on every side of me like a cocoon, the smell of old paper and ink and a little mildew.
And for the first time all day, I can breathe out.
I unwrap my PB&J sandwich as I flip through the etymology dictionary. Sometimes I’ll go in order, word by word, page by page, but today, I skip around. Parabola. Galore. Kestrel.
I feel someone standing close by. Ugh. Rhonda the Lunch Librarian, here to demand I throw away my sandwich even though I never leave crumbs.
“Okay, okay, I’ll put it away,” I mumble without looking up, though it doesn’t seem fair. Food is a human need. Books are a human need. It’s cruel to make a person choose.
“Put what away?” asks someone who is not Rhonda.
My head snaps up. Standing a foot away from me is the girl from Martha’s waiting room, the girl in blue. She’s still in blue, actually—same shoes, same Cal Berkeley hoodie. It might even be the same outfit, which is weird, but not as weird as the fact that she’s standing here, in my corner where nobody else goes.
Half her body is still behind one of the other bookshelves. She’s leaning in like she knows she’s invading something private. But she doesn’t look nearly as surprised as I feel—she doesn’t look surprised at all.
I think she knew I’d be here.
“Can I sit?” she asks, indicating a vague portion of the carpet next to me.
I peek my head around the stacks. There are many available chairs in the center of the library.
“Um. Sure.” She plops down but keeps her backpack on. She says nothing as her eyes move up from the tips of my sneakers to the tips of my hair. I untuck the strands behind my ear.
“Yeah,” she says softly, on a breath out. “It’s you.”
I still have no clue how we know each other. But we must; she wouldn’t say it like that otherwise. But where? Church girls’ camp? Freshman-year PE? The two weeks I played soccer before discovering that I lack both hand-eye and foot-eye coordination?
“I’m really sorry,” I say. “I don’t remember your name.”
“It’s Hannah,” she says. “Hannah Marks. And you don’t have be sorry. We only met on Monday. And I didn’t tell you my name then.”
What? “We met on Monday?” I bleat.
“Yeah,” she says, then looks concerned. “In Martha’s office? I mean, in her waiting room. You came out of your appointment and—”
“No, I remember,” I say. “I thought maybe we were on the same sports team, or in the same grade.”
“We are. You’re a junior, right?” I nod. “Me too.”
I wait for her to elaborate, as if all I could possibly want to know is that she’s Hannah, a junior. After a long silence, it’s clear I’ll have to speak first.
I clear my throat. “I’m Ellis.”
“Okay,” I say. “That’s kind of creepy.”
I didn’t really mean to say that last part aloud, but she brushes it off with a wave of her hand.
“I only know because I snuck a look at Martha’s appointment book.”
“That’s . . . actually creepier.”
She shrugs apologetically. “Martha wouldn’t tell me, so.”
“You asked her about me?”
“Only what your name was.”
She blinks. “Because I didn’t know.”
“Why did you want to know?”
“I’ve seen you before,” she says, though I’m not sure that answers my question.
“Where? Did we have class together?” I ask. “Like last year or something?”
“No,” she says. She nods at the dictionary, still flipped open to kestrel. “What are you reading?”
“You’re reading the dictionary?”
“An etymology dictionary,” I clarify. Like that makes it better.
“Whose class is that for?” she asks.
“Oh, no, it’s for . . . fun.”
“Oh. Okay. Cool,” she says, so now I know she is Hannah, a junior and a liar. Her eyes move to my half-eaten sandwich.
“Do you eat lunch in here?”
I nod, slower.
She sits back on her hands. “You should eat lunch with us.”
She ignores the question. “We hang out in the park. During lunch and usually after school, too. We meet under the tree across from the Little Theatre. Look for knitting needles.”
I’m overwhelmed by the number of things that don’t make sense here. I’ll start with the most basic.
“We haven’t had class together, I didn’t even know your name, but you want me to eat lunch with your friends?”
“We should be friends,” she says. “We’re supposed to be friends.”
“Supposed to—I don’t—why?”
She considers this. “I have a couple working theories.”
I should leave. I should get up and walk away from this weird girl with her cryptic riddles who invaded my secret spot. But I don’t get up. It’s my secret spot, after all. Why should I leave?
“That’s really nice of you,” I say, and focus back at my book, “but I like eating lunch here.”
She stirs beside me. “It doesn’t have to be lunch. You could come after school.”
I stare so hard at the words on the page they blur. “I have chemistry lab.”
“We could get coffee.”
“I can’t drink coffee—look.” I close the book. I’ve never had someone work this hard to hang out with me. “You don’t want to be friends with me.”
She wrinkles her nose. “Yeah, I do.”
“No, you don’t. I’m not fun, okay? To hang out with. I’m . . . the opposite of fun.”
“Boring is the opposite of interesting, not fun, the word ‘fun’ implies—” I shut my eyes. “Do you see what I mean? Please save yourself. Save us both.”
I keep my eyes closed for a long moment. When I open them, I expect to see that Hannah’s left, like any normal person would. But Hannah hasn’t moved from her spot on the carpet.
“Why do you see Martha?” she asks.
My mouth drops. “You’re not supposed to ask that.”
“It’s . . . private.”
“What if I guessed?” she suggests.
“Um,” I say, which she somehow interprets as “Sure, go ahead.”
She rests her chin on one hand. “Are you secretly convinced your entire body is made of glass?”
“No, I’m not—how is that your first guess?”
“Do you suffer from dancing mania?”
“I don’t know that means.”
“Oh my gosh, no, I have anxiety. I see Martha for anxiety.”
“Oh.” She looks disappointed. “That’s not so bad. Everyone has anxiety, right?”
I think that’s supposed to make me feel better, but it only makes my temper flare. “No,” I snap. “Everyone feels anxious. Sometimes. About normal things, about tests, or getting into college, or—” I swallow. “I’m anxious about everything.”
“Not everything,” she says. “I’m sure not every single thing.”
“I worry that people are talking about me, I worry that people hate me, I worry that the guy sitting next to me on the bus is a kidnapper or a murderer or a Scientologist. I worry that I talk to my lab partner in chemistry too much, I worry I talk to him too little. I’m worried that I’ll fail chemistry and every other class because I’m bad at school, and of course I am, I’m bad at everything, so yeah, I do worry about everything—every single little thing.”
I suck in a deep breath. Hannah folds her hands in her lap. “That,” she says, “must really suck.”
A laugh bursts out from somewhere near my rapidly beating heart. “It’s not great.” I sigh. “I don’t mean to make it seem . . . it’s not just silly stuff like that. I worry about big stuff, too. Terrorist attacks, the apocalypse, MRSA—”
“Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, it’s this bacterium that doesn’t respond to most antibiotics.”
“No, I know what—” She shakes her head. “The apocalypse? You’re scared of the apocalypse?”
“Yeah.” She closes her mouth, looking at me intently, purposefully.
She looks like someone trying to do multivariable calculus in their head. Or me trying to do math at all.
“Not the Four Horsemen, specifically.” She only looks more confused. “I mean, not necessarily a biblical apocalypse, though it could be, but it could also be a flood, or an asteroid, or a human-created black hole. I worry about all the ways it could happen.”
“The end of the world?”
“Yeah. That’s my biggest one, probably. Doomsday, the apocalypse, the end of the world. That’s what I worry about most.”
She nods once, then again. “The end of the world. That’s awesome.”
It’s not awesome. It is not awesome to dream about tsunamis and wake up in a panic. It is not awesome to sweat through your shirt at airport security because there might be a bomb by the baggage carousel. It is not awesome to imagine your skin peeling off in the wake of a nuclear attack.
I try to say all these things, but I’m so flustered that it comes out more like, “Bflugh.”
Hannah moves closer to me. “Ellis. You and I were—” She hesitates. When she speaks again, each word is deliberate, like she’s choosing them carefully. “We were meant to meet.”
I shake my head. “I don’t understand.”
She doesn’t hesitate this time. “We were meant to meet. It’s fate.”
Fate, from the Latin fata, the neuter-plural of fatum. Fate, which broken down literally means a thing spoken by the gods. Fate, a word that people use in both wedding announcements and obituaries.
“Fate?” I whisper. She nods, but I can’t tell which kind of fate she means.
The bell rings, sudden and jarring. Hannah jumps up. She tightens her backpack straps, ready to go. The spell’s been broken.
“I meant what I said. You should hang out with us,” Hannah says, hand on the edge of the Human Anthropology bookshelf, two steps away from turning the corner and out of my view. “You remember where?”
“The park, a tree,” I say. “But—wait—”
“Look for knitting needles,” she says, interrupting smoothly. “And dead writer ladies. That’s how you’ll know which tree.”
“That doesn’t make any sense!” I say, as if one single part of this interaction has made sense. “A dead writer—?”
“Dead writer ladies,” she clarifies.
“Let’s go, everyone.” I hear shoes scuffing the floor and Rhonda the Lunch Librarian shooing kids out, from what seems like a million miles away.
Hannah looks over her shoulder. “I’ll see you soon, Ellis.” She moves to slip around the corner.
“You didn’t answer my question!” I yell after her, scrambling to gather my things.
“Which one?” she says.
Not a bad point, since she barely answered any. “You said we were meant to meet, that it was—fate?”
She takes her time answering. “You’re afraid of the end of the world.”
Is that all she can do, repeat what I already know? I throw down my bag in frustration. “Yes. I am. So what?”
Hannah takes a step toward me. She leans down, and for the first time since she came into the library, she speaks in a whisper.
“So I know how it’s going to happen.”
MARTHA SWITCHES MY appointment day. She tells Mom it’s because she’s had to rearrange her Monday schedule for personal reasons, but I know it’s really because she doesn’t want me running into Hannah again. Not that it would make a difference at this point. Not that I’ll tell her that.
I was raised to be honest. Since I was a toddler in the church nursery, someone’s always been telling me to “Choose the Right,” which makes it seem so obvious. What’s right should be clear. Martha might not know Hannah thinks the end of the world is coming. Knows. Hannah is Martha’s client, and Martha deserves to know that kind of thing about someone she’s trying to help. It would be right to tell her.
But when I sit down on Martha’s couch on Tuesday, and she asks me how my week’s been, I enter a morally ambiguous fugue state. I hear myself say, “Fine.”
“The first couple weeks of school can be stressful.”
“It’s been okay,” I say.
She knows, she knows you’re a lying liar who lies.
Bail. Bail on this lie. Bail on this therapy session.
Set the couch on fire as a distraction.
“I think you can give me more than okay,” she says gently.
She knows you’ve been stalked by a doomsday prophet. She knows you want to talk to Hannah again. Immolate this polyester blend sofa and run.
But I’m scared of fire, so I decide on something less destructive but still evasive. “I did the assignment you gave me. On eschatology.”
“Eschatology. The study of things at the . . . end. End of life, end of eras, end of the world. It’s a good word, right? I’d never heard it before.”
“It’s a great word,” she says. “So what did you discover?”
“It’s weird,” I admit, “reading all these accounts of people who are so sure the end of the world is coming—and knowing it won’t. Because it hasn’t.”
“But they believed it, very strongly,” she says. “How does that make you feel, when you read about these . . . true believers, you might call them?”
She wants you to call them stupid, she wants you to call them gullible. Hannah knows you’re stupid and gullible, that’s why she found you in the library. It’s a joke, a big practical joke. If you even went to find Hannah in the park, she wouldn’t be there. It’s been a week. She’s probably forgotten about you.
I look away. “The hoaxes are actually more interesting.”
Martha tilts her head. “The hoaxes?”
“People who knew the world wasn’t ending but wanted other people to believe it was.”
“Can you give me an example?”
“Okay.” I pull out Kenny #14 and flip through, looking for the page. “So in 1806, there was this woman named Mary Bateman. She lived near Leeds, in England, and everyone in the area knew her as a—well, as a witch, but a good one. Someone who could cure curses. No one wanted to burn her or anything. But then she started telling people that the end of the world was coming. Because of her chicken.”
“Its eggs. Her hen started laying these eggs and they all said ‘Christ is coming’ on them.”
Martha laughs, and then I do, too. Because it is ridiculous, hearing it out loud.
“How did her neighbors react, when she told them?” Martha says.
“Oh, they freaked out. People started coming from miles around and paid money for a glimpse of the prophet hen laying its miracle eggs. Everyone started getting real religious. But then, one day, two visitors dropped by the farmhouse. Early in the morning. And they saw Mary Bateman writing on a fresh egg and stuffing it back inside the hen.”
Martha leans forward. “Really?”
“Really. It was all an elaborate hoax.” I pause. “And also animal abuse.”
“So what happened to all those people? The ones who had believed Mary?”
“I don’t know. No one wrote about them. Just Mary.”
“But what do you think?” she presses. “Do you think they were relieved?”
“Well,” Martha says, “they were scared the world was ending. And now they knew it wouldn’t. I’d be relieved.”
I shake my head. “They only knew this wasn’t how the world was ending. I think . . .” I pick at the couch threads. “I think maybe they were more relieved before. When they thought they knew for sure. Maybe they wanted to know, even if it was bad.”
“That’s important to you, having as much information as you can,” Martha says.
“You can’t do anything unless you have all the facts. You can’t make choices.” No, that’s not exactly right. “You can’t make the best choice.”
“What about the choices the townspeople made?” Martha asks. “Do you think they made the best choices?”
Not the people who paid money to see fake prophetic eggs. Why would a woman who believed the apocalypse was imminent want money? What would she do with money,
during Armageddon? They should have seen they were being
“The two men,” I say. “They made the best choice, those two men who caught her in the lie. They didn’t go along with everyone else, they didn’t believe or disbelieve anything based on what other people told them to. They went and looked for themselves.”
“So when you’re looking for answers,” Martha asks, “what do you think your next step will be?”
Hannah believes the world is ending. Maybe she’s Mary Bateman in twenty-first-century clothes, a hoaxer waiting to shake me down for money. Or maybe she’s a true believer, like the Leeds townspeople who desperately cleansed their souls.
And maybe she’s wrong.
But maybe she isn’t.
“Ellis?” Martha prompts. “What will you do?”
I look at Martha straight on. “I’ll do exactly what they did,” I say. “I’ll investigate.”
My mom has this saying: “Avoid the appearance of evil.”
She didn’t make it up, it’s a church thing. Basically, it means you should be careful about where you find yourself. It’s not enough just to technically avoid breaking the rules; you shouldn’t even look like you might be breaking them. Like my cousin Sarah, who won’t buy hot chocolate from Starbucks because people might think she was drinking coffee. My mom rolled her eyes when Sarah told her that, but I think she’d feel differently about Civic Center Park.
Everyone at school just calls it “the Park.” During lunch and after school, it transforms from a public park into a bacchanalian fun-fest of drugs, cigarettes, and the occasional bottle of something clear and very alcoholic on special occasions like St. Patrick’s Day. Or so I’ve heard.
At the edge of the park, the corner closest to my bus stop, I scan the groups of kids on the grass, looking for Hannah.
Everyone’s looking at you. Everyone sees you’re alone. Everyone’s looking at you and if they aren’t looking at you it’s because they’re embarrassed for you and how alone you are.
She’s nowhere to be seen, and neither are knitting needles or dead literary figures. For a second, I lock eyes with Paloma from English class, lounging with the rest of the field hockey girls, their sticks tossed in a pile behind them. She smiles at me, and I make myself smile back, closemouthed, before looking down at the ground.
Don’t stare at her. Why were you staring at her?
I squeeze my eyes shut. I have to make a choice, either way. The longer I stand here at the edge, the more people are going to stare at me, and the worse I’ll feel. Hannah mentioned being close to the Little Theatre, I think, which is almost one block south, along the park. I’m not going to happen upon her by chance. I’ll have to look for her. I’ll have to want to find her. With the tips of my shoes on the grass and the rest of me still on the concrete sidewalk, I wonder if I’m the person who walks forward or walks away.
I walk forward, shoes squishing into damp grass, past kids I know and kids I’ve never seen before, until I’m standing with the Little Theatre behind me and a particularly sturdy tree in front of me. There are three boys under it, none of whom, obviously, are Hannah.
“I’m not saying you’re wrong, Theo, but—no, you know what, you are wrong,” says a boy with sandy hair who I half recognize. Sam. He sat in front of me in Latin freshman year and spent the whole time drawing party hats and astronaut costumes on the portraits of Roman emperors in our textbook. “You are wrong like people who recline their airplane seats,” Sam says to the lanky kid next to him. “You are wrong like pineapple on pizza.”
The boy—Theo, I guess—looks unmoved. “I don’t know why you think ad hominem tactics will convince me.”
“I don’t know why you think I know what that means,” Sam says.
“It means you’re attacking Theo, not his argument,” says the third boy, tan and curly haired and oddly familiar, though I don’t think we’ve had a class together. “You might know if you hadn’t skipped AP Language and Composition today.”
Sam throws up his hands. “You skipped with me!”
“Yeah, but I did the reading.”
From behind him, Theo pulls out a periwinkle ball of yarn and two shiny knitting needles.
Wait. Knitting needles?
Just like Hannah said. Maybe she’s around here after all. I take a couple of steps closer to the tree and pull out my phone, pretending to text someone.
“Ms. Heaney’s having after-school tutoring today. You should go,” Theo says. “Maybe she could help you construct a better argument than ‘If you don’t jizz yourself over Jane Austen, you might as well be an actual monster.’”
“She’s a genius,” Sam says. “The way she writes dialogue. Revolutionary.”
“It’s just people being dicks to one another. But they’re British, which makes it culture, I guess.”
“You don’t give her enough credit,” Sam says. “So she’s not all serious and dark and borderline sanctimonious like the Victorian princess of your heart, George Eliot.”
“Now, she was a genius,” Theo says.
Jane Austen. George Eliot. Both writers, both dead, both ladies. Just like Hannah said. This has to be the place; she must just not be here yet. I’ll wait for her. I continue to fake-text on my phone. But then I hear someone say, “Hey, are you waiting for someone?”
I look up, and they’re all staring at me. I guess I was more conspicuous than I thought. And much closer to the tree.
“Um,” I say.
“Because no one’s walked by or anything,” Sam says.
“Hannah,” I blurt out. “I’m looking for Hannah, she told me to go across from the Little Theatre, to a tree, and she said to look for dead lady writers which I took more literally than I probably should have.” I gulp in air.
“Okay,” Sam says.
“She used us as, like, treasure map directions?” Theo says “That’s weird, Hannah, even for you.”
I look behind me, but she’s not there.
“She’ll come back soon,” Sam says, scooting over so there’s space between him and Theo. “You can sit down.”
“Thanks.” I sit. The curly-haired boy stares at me like I’m a particularly unattractive fish at the aquarium.
“Your name’s Ellis, right?” Sam asks.
I nod. “Ellis Kimball. And you’re Sam . . .”
“Segel-Katz, yeah. You still doing Latin?”
I nod again.
“Of your own free will?”
“It’s a lot more fun once you start translating.”
He shrugs. “I’ll take your word for it.”
Theo shifts his knitting supplies to one hand and holds out the other. “Theo Singh.”
I shake his hand and turn to the last boy, expectantly, but he’s only frowning harder. Sam clears his throat. “And this ray of absolute sunshine is Tal.”
“Hi,” Tal says, digging his hands deep into his hoodie pockets.
“Do I know you from somewhere?” I ask him.
“No,” he says definitively. So definitively I don’t think it’s true.
Sam turns back to Theo. “What I was going to say was, you can’t say you hate Jane Austen if you’ve only read Pride and Prejudice. So you don’t like that one book. She did write others.”
“I don’t hate the book,” Theo says. “I hate Mr. Darcy.”
“Yeah, because you wish girls liked you as much as they like Mr. Darcy.”
“Oh hell no,” Theo says. “He is literature’s biggest asshole.”
Tal sticks his hand up. “Bigger than Voldemort?”
“Fine, he’s literature biggest non-genocidal asshole,” Theo says. “Happy, Tal?”
“He loves Lizzie Bennett,” Sam protests. “They’re perfect for each other.”
“He’s not even nice to her for most of it—he spends the entire first half brooding in a corner and refusing to dance. And then he tries to wave it away with, ‘Oh, I’m so weird and fucked up and how could anyone ever love me.’”
“You refused to dance at my bar mitzvah,” Sam points out.
“Only the Electric Slide,” Theo says. “Because it sucks.”
“Wow, are all your opinions this wrong?”
“Screw you.” Theo leans back into the grass and stares up at the sky. “You’re with me, right, Hannah?”
Hannah—where? I swivel my head around. Sam sees me looking and taps my arm. He points up. From somewhere in the tree branches, a voice says, “I haven’t read it. Sorry.”
No way. I’ve only heard Hannah’s voice once, and that did sound like her, but . . .
“Is she—?” I ask. “She’s not in the—?”
Sam and Theo crack up. Tal tilts his face up at the tree.
“Would you come down now? This girl’s not here to see us.”
He hates you. They all hate you, but he really hates you. He hates you so much he called you “this girl.” He hates you so much he won’t even say your name.
Mom would say “kill with kindness”—which really means shut up and smile—but I don’t like how he said this girl. I open my mouth to remind him of my name, but then a pair of blue Converse hits the grass with a thump. Hannah stands at the base of the tree, the legs of her jeans dusty and a couple of reddish leaves mixed into her hair. We lock eyes, and she brightens.
“Hey,” she says, taking a seat next to me. “Awesome, I wasn’t sure you’d show.”
She didn’t really want you to come. She hangs out in trees and probably makes friends with the squirrels and birds, but you are a bridge too far.
“Have you met everybody?” Hannah says. “Theo, and Sam, and—”
“She’s been here awhile,” Tal cuts in.
Hannah looks surprised. “How long was I gone?”
Gone? She was in the tree. Wasn’t she in the tree?
Theo shrugs. “Same as usual.”
“I wish you’d start doing it on the ground,” Tal says.
“Doing what?” I ask. “Where do you go?”
“She teleports,” Sam says.
“To another plane of existence,” Theo says.
Hannah shakes her head. “I’m only meditating,” she says. “I don’t really go anywhere, my brain does.”
I’m not a meditation person, despite a semester-long, mandatory “elective” on mindfulness in middle school. I can’t make my mind go quiet like that. My brain stays right where it wants to, thumping inside my skull like a migraine that never stops.
“But why in a tree?” I ask.
“Because she has a death wish,” Tal answers.
“People used to meditate in all kinds of places. In caves. In forests. On top of poles in the desert.” She carefully pulls a leaf from her hair. “It helps. To go somewhere no one can see you, and you can’t see them. It helps me see . . . things. More clearly.”
Things is such a vague word. It didn’t used to be. It used to mean a meeting, a council, a matter of great importance. Maybe she means it blandly, metaphorically. See things the way
they are. But that pause, that little hesitation, makes me think it might be something more.
“Do you see it?” I blurt out before the smarter half of my brain can pump the brakes. “Is that how you know— Is that how you see it?”
Hannah freezes, her fingers around another leaf in her hair.
She stares at me, wide-eyed and quiet.
“What did you say?” Tal asks.
“See it?” Sam repeats.
“Oh, do you mean, is that how I see things?” Hannah smiles back at me, with the barest hint of strain.
“Uh,” I say. “Yes.”
Hannah crumples the leaf. “Then yes.”
“It’s colloquial, Sam,” Theo says. “Go to class for once.”
“I know what a colloquialism is!”
Tal’s eyes bore into me. “Where did you two meet, again?” he asks Hannah.
“Library,” I say.
“Therapy,” Hannah says at the same time. I close my eyes.
“That’s great,” Tal says, in a tone that strongly implies otherwise. “So how—”
“Hey,” Hannah interrupts, reaching across me to nudge Sam, still arguing with Theo about colloquial language. “Can you smoke me out?”
Sam puts his hand to his heart. “I’m offended. To just assume I have the necessary supplies for such a thing. I am a scholar, an artist—”
She rolls her eyes. “Yeah, you’re some kind of artist.”
“You shouldn’t insult your personal charity service.” Sam pulls a film canister out of his backpack. “What would Emily Post say?”
Hopefully nothing, considering she’s dead. Next to me, Sam tips a small rolled joint from the film canister into his hand. You can’t grow up in Berkeley and not know what weed looks and smells like, even if you’re part of a religion that strictly forbids it. But I’ve never seen a joint this close. It almost feels like a setup.
“Who’s got a light?” Sam says. “Mine’s out.”
“Hey, um,” I say, trying to sound casual, “you guys know City Hall is sort of . . . right there?” I point across the street at the domed white building.
“Not like it’s new,” Tal mumbles, digging a lighter out of his pocket.
“But there are, I mean, there are police officers there,” I say. “Who might see what you have?”
Hannah smiles at me like I’m a cute toddler. Sam laughs. “They’ve way got bigger problems. They’re not going to bother us.”
“Sam,” Theo says, leaning back on his hands. “That might be the whitest thing you’ve ever said.”
Sam grins. “I can do better—‘Megan, turn off NPR and get in the Kia, we’re late for Hunter’s lacrosse game.’” He holds out his hand for Tal’s red lighter. “Or, or—‘I lost my North Face jacket at Whole Foods, so I have to replace it at REI before we go camping in Yosemite.’”
“‘This casserole needs more mayo,’” Theo offers up.
“Weak,” Sam says.
“Yeah, well, I’m Indian, give me a break.”
I watch as flame sears the end of the joint, smoking and blackening the tip. My parents would lose it if they knew about this. I should leave. I should tell them to stop. I should avoid the appearance of evil.
But they were nice to me. Most of them. They didn’t have to be, and they were. And even though the smell wrinkles my nose and I’m still half certain a Berkeley cop is going to pull up in his department-issued Prius, I don’t get up. It feels good to be sitting here. It feels good to have someone to sit with.
After taking a hit, Sam extends the joint toward me like a Christmas present.
“I don’t do that,” I say, and cringe at how sharp it sounds.
He shrugs and passes it across my body into Theo’s hand.
I feel like I need to explain myself. “It’s against my health code.”
“It’s cool, doesn’t matter why,” Sam says.
“What do you mean, health code?” Hannah asks. “Like a diet, or are you asthmatic?”
I steel myself for an inevitable turn as Mormon Ambassador. It’s a really fun game in which I explain that yes, I’m a Mormon, so yes, I have a health code that involves no drugs, no tobacco, no alcohol or coffee or tea. Then I have to cheerfully field whatever questions come next, no matter how insensitive or condescending. Half the people in Berkeley are gluten-free or vegan or freegans—actual, literal dumpster divers—but sure, my diet’s the weird one.
Before I can open my mouth, Tal says, “She means the Word of Wisdom. She’s a Mormon.”
I spin around to stare at him. Not because he’s wrong; that is what we call our health code. But it’s what we call it. How does he even know what church I belong to? I never said.
Then it clicks, in a tumble of disjointed, hazy, little-kid memories. Shorter hair, a collared shirt and tie in place of a hoodie, and instead of a Zippo lighter in his hand—actually, no. There was a lighter then, too.
“I do know you,” I say to Tal, more accusingly than I intended. He avoids my eyes. “You’re a member, you’re LDS.”
“What?” Theo says.
“LDS,” I repeat.
“No, this is weed,” Sam says.
“Latter-day Saint,” I clarify, gesturing at Tal. “I’m one, and he’s one, too.”
“No, I’m not,” Tal says.
“Yes, you are. You’re the one who accidentally lit the auditorium curtains on fire at the Oakland Stake musical when we were nine.”
“Shit,” he mutters, and takes a drag on the joint.
“You’re Mormon?” Hannah says. “I thought you were Jewish.”
“No way. He gets his bagels toasted,” Sam mock-whispers.
“I’ve seen it.”
“His name is Tal,” Hannah says to Sam. “I have a cousin in Israel named Tal.”
“It’s not really Tal,” I say, bits of old memories piecing together. Playing in the basement of the Oakland Ward building one Sunday when I was five. Red Kool-Aid and cookies at someone’s baptism. “Your name is Talmage. Isn’t it?”
Theo and Sam look at each other. They collapse into giggles.
Tal gives me the blackest of glares. “It’s a nickname.”
“Where did your parents get Talmage?” Hannah asks.
“Family name. My mom’s idea.”
“James E. Talmage was an apostle in our church,” I add.
“It’s not our church,” Tal says.
Hannah checks the watch around her wrist. “Oh, shit.” She reaches behind the tree trunk and drags out her backpack. “I’ve got to go, you guys.” She stands, and I experience a moment of pure panic. She’s not leaving me here with these boys, is she?
“Which way are you going?” I ask, scrambling to my feet so fast I almost slip on the wet grass.
“Um—” For the first time, she doesn’t look serene and all-knowing. She almost looks panicked. “You can walk me as far as Yogurt Park, if you want.”
“I have to get something out of my locker,” Hannah says. “I’ll meet you at the gate.”
She’s gone in a whirl of hair and leaves. I roll up my jacket and stuff it in my backpack. “It was nice to meet you,” I say to the boys as I leave. I only make it a few feet away before Tal catches up and steps in front of me.
“Hold up,” he says.
“I’m sorry I embarrassed you,” I say, and then for some reason start saying everything. “I didn’t know you didn’t like your name; I mean, I like your name, and I’m sorry I told them you were a Mormon, though, you know, you can tell people, I tell people—”
“I’m not a Mormon,” he says, cutting me off.
“But I know you. I’ve seen you at—”
“I used to be. I’m not anymore.”
Used to be is different from never was. I stand still for a moment, trying to wrap my head around the idea of leaving the church. I know people do. I know they don’t do it without a reason. But I can’t quite imagine it. It’s like leaving your whole family. Not just on Earth. After, too.
“I’m sorry,” I say, like I’ve forgotten how to say anything else.
He shakes his head. “I didn’t want to— This isn’t about that. This is about Hannah.”
“Why did Hannah invite you to hang out?”
What, because my very presence ruined his afternoon? My cheeks burn. “I don’t know. Ask her.”
“I don’t know what your deal is or why she’s suddenly decided you’ve got to be besties, but Hannah’s dealing with a lot, okay?” he says. “More than just that thing with Paloma. A lot more.”
Paloma from my English class? “Paloma Flores? What about her?”
Tal raises his eyebrows. “They broke up, right before school ended last year. In the cafeteria. Very publicly, very loudly?”
I shake my head.
“Are you sure you go to this school?” Tal asks.
“I don’t know why you’re telling me this,” I say.
“Hannah’s having a hard time. And she’s coping with it in . . . her own way. But it’s a problem.” He pauses, then leans closer to me. “Don’t be part of the problem.”
I hate the word problem. My dad uses it a lot, when he doesn’t want to say what he means. He used it when we were late to Em’s kindergarten ballet recital because I had to check all the doors in the house and make sure they were locked. And when it took us forever to get home from Sea Ranch because the mountain roads were too narrow and I couldn’t stop hyperventilating and asking him to drive slower. “Everything’s fine. We just had a small problem,” he told people when they asked why we were late.
The problem was me, and everyone knew it.
I wonder if Tal understands what that feels like, knowing things would be easier for everyone if you weren’t around. If you were different from how you are.
“I won’t be,” I say, and I leave Tal in the grass. And I mean it.
Hannah and I aren’t problems. But we might be each other’s solution.
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