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Read the First 4 Chapters of When My Heart Joins the Thousand!

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Read the First 4 Chapters of When My Heart Joins the Thousand!

Read the First 4 Chapters of When My Heart Joins the Thousand!

Prepare yourself for one of the sweetest, most heartbreaking and gorgeous stories you’ll ever read. WHEN MY HEART JOINS THE THOUSAND is about a girl named Alvie, a neuroatypical girl with a tragic history, and what happens when she meets a chronically ill boy named Stanley…who just might be even stranger than she is. But it’s not just a love story – it’s also a story that dives into the subjects of emancipation, autism, and survival. 

Basically, get ready to feel ALL the emotions. While the book doesn’t come out until February 6th, 2018, you don’t have to wait that long to start reading. We’ve got an exclusive excerpt for you so scroll down and check out the first 4 chapters now! 

 

Prologue

For rabbits, the process of courtship and mating combined takes about thirty to forty seconds.

I am not a rabbit. If I were, my life would be simpler in many ways.

“Are you sure about this?” Stanley asks. “You can still change your mind, you know.”

I tug twice on my left braid. “If I didn’t want this, I wouldn’t have asked.” Though I didn’t expect him to say yes.

We are in a motel room with an ancient, rattling heater and a factory painting of a windmill. Stanley sits on the edge of the bed, fidgeting, his crutch leaning next to him. His hands are clasped tightly in his lap.

I take a few steps toward him. He lifts his hands, then stops. “No touching, right?”

“No touching,” I reply. That’s the agreement. I touch him. He doesn’t touch me.

His pulse beats in his throat. I count twenty beats in ten seconds. One hundred and twenty beats per minute.

This is, I suppose, very sudden. Technically we just met for the first time today. But I want to try. Just once. This should be instinctive. Any animal can do this. Surely I can, too. Even I am not that broken.

Slowly I reach out and take his hand in both of mine. He makes a sound like he’s about to sneeze—that sharp intake of breath. I study his fingers, which are long and slender. I don’t like being touched, because it hurts, but when I’m the one controlling it, it’s bearable. “You know,” I say, “all whiptail lizards are female. They reproduce themselves by cloning. Females will mount each other to stimulate egg production.”

He doesn’t say anything, just looks at me.

“With seahorses, the sex roles are reversed. The female injects her egg into the male, and he carries and bears the young.”

Stanley places his free hand on his stomach.

“Emperor penguins have only one mate per breeding season. The mated pair can locate each other by their distinct calls. The male stays in one place and bugles to the female until she finds him. They bow to each other, stand breast to breast, and sing.”

“They sing?”

“Yes.”

I wonder—what am I? A rabbit, a penguin, a hyena, a gibbon? Something else entirely? The only thing I know for sure is that I don’t identify very well with humans.

“Are you sure about this?”

It’s the second time he’s asked that question, but maybe he’s right to ask it. I wonder if I’ve gone crazy. This could easily turn into a disaster.

“Let’s proceed,” I say.

 

CHAPTER ONE

Three weeks earlier

During certain times of day, my apartment smells like rancid Gouda. Apparently no one else in the building has noticed. I’ve written four letters to Mrs. Schultz, my landlady, but I stopped when I learned she was putting them all in a file folder marked CRAZY, which I happened to glimpse when I went down to her office to pay my rent.

So now, when the smell gets too intense, I just go to the park and play online Go on my laptop.

It’s October 5, 5:59 p.m. The temperature in the park is roughly fifty-six degrees. Silence fills my ears. When I listen more deeply, I can hear the sounds woven into it—the dull roar of distant traffic, the shh-shh of leaves in the wind, the whoosh of my own blood through my veins—but no human voices.

I pull up the hood of my sweatshirt, which offers the dual advantage of keeping my ears warm while hiding my face, giving me a sense of privacy. All around me, the park is quiet and still, an expanse of sleepy green grass. A few maples have already started to drop their bloodred leaves. Nearby, a small pond glimmers. Anas platyrhynchos glide across the water, and the heads of the males gleam like carved emerald studded with bright onyx eyes. When they rear up, wings spread, the iridescent blue-black of their speculum feathers catches the light.

I glance at the empty bench by the pond and check the time on my cell phone. I am waiting for the boy with the cane.

Every day, at precisely six o’clock, a boy about my age—perhaps a few years older—emerges from a salmon-colored building across the street, limps to the park, and sits on the bench. Sometimes he reads. Sometimes he just watches the ducks. For the past three weeks, this has been his routine.

When he first started coming here, I resented his encroachment on my territory. I didn’t want to talk to him—I dislike talking to people—but I didn’t want to abandon my park, either. So I hid. After a while, something shifted. He became a part of the scenery, like the ducks, and his presence ceased to annoy me. The clockwork regularity of his visits became—almost comforting.

Sure enough, at six o’clock, the door opens, and he emerges, looking the same as ever: slender, pale, and not too tall, with light brown hair that looks like it hasn’t been trimmed for some time. His open blue windbreaker flaps in the breeze. I watch him make his way to the bench, leaning on his cane. He sits. I turn away, satisfied. Leaning back against a tree, I open my laptop, prop it against my knees, and start a game of Go with a random opponent.

The boy is unaware of my presence. I’m careful to keep it that way.

By the time I leave the park, it’s almost night. On the way home I stop at the Quik-Mart, grab two packages of ramen, a loaf of white bread, a jug of orange soda, and a cellophane-wrapped vanilla cupcake.

I buy the same thing every time, so I know exactly how much it costs: six dollars and ninety-seven cents. I count out exact change before approaching the counter and quickly slide the money, along with my purchases, toward the clerk.

“Anything else?” he asks. I shake my head.

My apartment is just down the street. It stands on the corner, a squat brick building with a single scrawny tree out front. A blue condom hangs from one of the topmost branches like a tiny flag; it’s been there as long as I can remember. Amber shards of broken glass glitter on the pavement.

As I approach the door to the lobby, I freeze. A thin, balding, fortyish man in round glasses and a sweater vest is waiting for me outside, briefcase at his feet, arms crossed over his chest.

“Dr. Bernhardt,” I blurt out.

“Glad I caught you. I’ve been buzzing your apartment. I was about to give up.”

I clutch my groceries to my chest. “Our meeting is on Wednesday. It’s Monday. You’re not supposed to be here.”

“I needed to reschedule. I called you several times, but you never answer your phone. I realize you hate surprises, but that being the case, maybe you should try checking your voice mails now and again.” His tone holds a slant that I’ve come to identify as wry.

Dr. Bernhardt is a social worker. He’s also the reason I’m able to live on my own, despite being a minor.

“So,” he says, “are you going to let me in?”

I breathe a tense sigh and unlock the door. “Fine.”

We enter the building and climb the threadbare steps to the second floor. The hallway carpet is a faded shade between beige and blue, with a dark, sprawling stain that could be a spilled drink or dried blood. Like the tree condom, it’s been there ever since I moved in. Dr. Bernhardt wrinkles his nose as he steps over it, into my apartment.

He surveys the inside. A pair of unwashed jeans lies on the floor next to a pile of sudoku books. A half-empty glass of orange soda stands on the coffee table with crumbs strewn around it. A sports bra lies draped over the top of the TV.

“You know,” he says, “for someone who loves order and routine, I’d think you would be a little more concerned about hygiene.”

“I was planning to clean before you came over,” I mutter. Messes don’t bother me, as long as they’re my messes. The chaos of my apartment is familiar and easy to navigate.

As I enter the kitchen, an earwig scuttles into the sink and vanishes down the drain. I drop my purchases onto the kitchen counter, open the refrigerator, and slide the orange soda inside.

Dr. Bernhardt peers over my shoulders, surveying the contents of the fridge—a paper carton of leftover Chinese food, the moldy remains of a ham sandwich, a tub of Cool Whip, and some mustard. He raises his eyebrows. “Is there anything in here with nutrients?”

I shut the door. “I’m going grocery shopping tomorrow.”

“You really ought to buy a fruit or vegetable once in a while.”

“Are you obligated to report on my eating habits.”

“Remember, rising inflection for questions. Otherwise people can’t tell when you’re asking them something.”

I think the sentence structure makes it obvious, but I repeat myself, placing emphasis on the last two words: “Are you obligated to report on my eating habits?”

“No. I’m just giving you a piece of advice. You do realize that’s part of my job?”

“Are you asking me a question.”

“It’s rhetorical.” He walks into the living room. “May I sit?”

I nod.

He lowers himself to the couch and laces his fingers together, studying me over the rims of his small, round glasses. “Still working at the zoo?”

“Yes.”

“Have you given any thought to the possibility of college?”

He’s asked me this a few times, and I always give him the same answer: “I can’t afford it.” And I’m unlikely to get a scholarship, since I dropped out of high school—not because I was failing any classes, but simply because I hated being there. I have a GED, but most colleges view an actual diploma as superior. “Anyway, I like my job at the zoo.”

“You’re satisfied with your current situation, then?”

“Yes.” At least, it’s preferable to the alternative.

Before I got this apartment, I stayed in a group home for troubled teenagers. There, I shared a room with a girl who chewed her fingers bloody and woke me up at odd hours by screaming in my ear. The food was terrible, the smells worse.

I ran away on three separate occasions. On the third, I was caught sleeping on a park bench and was dragged to court for vagrancy. When asked why I kept running, I told the judge that homelessness was preferable to living in a place like that. I asked her to grant me legal emancipation—which I had been researching—so that I could live on my own.

She agreed, but only under the condition that someone check up on me regularly. Hence, Dr. Bernhardt became my guardian, at least on paper. He’s obligated to meet with me at least twice a month, but outside of that we have very little to do with each other, which suits me fine.

Still, there’s always an awareness in the back of my mind that he has the power to send me back to the group home. Or worse.

“May I ask you a personal question, Alvie?”

“If I say no, will that make a difference.”

He frowns at me, brows knitting together. He’s frustrated. Or maybe hurt; I can’t tell. I avert my gaze. “Fine. Ask.”

“Do you have any friends?”

“I have the animals at work.”

“Any friends who can talk? And parrots don’t count.”

I hesitate. “I don’t need any.”

“Are you happy?”

It’s another rhetorical question; obviously I’m not what most people would describe as happy. But that has nothing to do with anything. Happiness is not a priority. Survival is. Staying sane is. Pointing out that I’m not happy is like pointing out to a starving
homeless man that he doesn’t have a sensible retirement plan. It might be true, but it’s entirely beside the point. “I’m stable. I
haven’t had a meltdown for several months.”

“That’s not what I asked.”

“I don’t understand the point of this question, Dr. Bernhardt.”

He sighs. “I’m not a therapist, I know, but I have been charged with looking after your well-being. I realize you like your independence, but I’d feel a lot better about your situation if you had at least one friend to rely on. When was the last time you actually started a conversation with someone outside of work?”

Until now, he’s been content to ignore my social life, or lack thereof. Why is it suddenly an issue? I rock back and forth on my heels. “I’m not like other people. You know that.”

“I think you overestimate how different you really are. Maybe to start with you could, I don’t know, try a chat room? Online communication is often easier for people with social difficulties. And it might be a good way to meet people with similar interests.”

I don’t respond.

“Look. Alvie. I’m on your side, whether you realize it or not—”

That’s a line I’ve heard before, from many adults. I’ve long since stopped believing it.

“—but the way you’re living now . . . it’s not healthy. If things don’t change, I’ll have to recommend to the judge that, as a condition of your continued independence, you start seeing a counselor.”

Panic leaps in my chest, but I keep my expression carefully neutral. “Are we done.”

He sighs. “I suppose we are.” He picks up his briefcase and walks toward the door. “See you in two weeks.” As he steps out into the hall, he pauses, glancing over his shoulder. “Happy birthday, by the way.”

The door closes.

After he’s gone, I stand in the center of the room for a few minutes, waiting for the tightness in my chest to subside.

I unwrap the cupcake I bought from the convenience store, set it on the coffee table, and stick a candle on top. At exactly 7:45 p.m., I light the candle and then blow it out.

One more year to go, and I won’t have to deal with Dr. Bern-hardt or any interfering adult from the state. All I have to do is make it to eighteen without losing my job or missing rent. Then I’ll be fully emancipated. I’ll be free.

 

CHAPTER TWO

At the Hickory Park Zoo, there’s a sign standing next to the hyena exhibit: Happy? Sad? Mad? And beneath that, in smaller letters: Attributing human feelings to animals is called anthropomorphizing. Instead of asking, “What is it feeling?” ask, “What is it doing?”

I see this sign every day when I come to work. I hate it.

Elephants grieve for their dead. Apes can learn to use sign language as skillfully as a five-year-old human child. Crows are magnificent problem solvers; in laboratory experiments, they will use and modify tools, such as pebbles or short pieces of straw, in order to obtain food. When animals do these things, it’s rationalized away as instinct or a conditioned response. When humans do these same things, it’s accepted unquestionably as evidence of our superiority. Because animals can’t vocalize their thoughts and feelings, some people assume they don’t have them.

I sometimes fantasize about breaking into the zoo at night, stealing the sign, and throwing it into the nearest river.

I sit on a bench in my khaki-colored uniform, eating a bologna sandwich with mustard, the same thing I always eat on my lunch break. The hyenas snuffle around inside the cave-like enclosure, scratching at the rock-textured walls. Kiki, the dominant female, is chewing the bars.

A woman hurries past me, dragging a chubby little boy along with her. He’s around seven years old and eating an ice-cream cone.

“Hi!” the mother trills, smiling. Her mouth is wide and smeared with candy-red lipstick. “Can you look after him a few minutes? I’m going to use the restroom.” She dashes off before I can say anything.

The little boy stands, squinting at me, ice-cream cone in hand.

What is she thinking, leaving her child alone with a total stranger? For all she knows, I could be a pedophile. Or a hungover idiot who would just watch, mouth hanging open, while the child crawled into the hyena enclosure. I’m not, but that’s beside the point.

“Hi,” the boy says.

I have no idea what to say or do, so I just keep eating, watching him from the corner of my eye to make sure he doesn’t run off.

He licks his ice cream. “Are you, like, an animal trainer? Do you get to teach them tricks and stuff?”

“No. I just feed them and clean their cages.”

He points at Kiki, who’s still chewing the bars. “Why is he doing that?”

I swallow a mouthful of sandwich. “It’s called stereotypy. It’s a nervous habit, like nail biting.”

“So he’s like a crazy hyena?”

“No. Repetitive behaviors like that are common in captive animals. It’s a normal response to an abnormal environment.” As an afterthought, I add, “Also, that’s not a he. Her name is Kiki.”

“No way. He has a thing. A penis.” He enunciates the word carefully, like he’s not sure I’ve heard it before.

I take another bite of my sandwich and mutter through a mouthful of bologna, “That’s not a penis.”

He scrunches up his freckled face. “Then what is it?”

“A phallic clitoris.”

“A what?”

“Female hyenas are unusual in the animal kingdom. They’re larger than the males, and dominant, and they have a clitoris the size of—”

I stop talking as the boy’s mother, red faced and tight lipped, grabs his hand and drags him away.

“Mom,” the boy says loudly, “what’s a clitoris?”

“It’s a kind of bird,” she mutters.

“That’s not what the lady said.”

“Well, we’re going to have to talk to the lady’s supervisor, aren’t we?”

A drop of mustard falls from my bologna sandwich and lands on the cobblestones between my feet. I take another bite, but the bread is paper-dry in my mouth. It sticks in my throat.

That afternoon, before the end of my shift, Ms. Nell—the owner of Hickory Park Zoo—calls me to her office. She glares at me from across her desk, drumming her lacquered nails on the arm of her chair. Ms. Nell is stout and short haired, and her outfits always hurt my eyes. Today her jacket is a blinding pink—the same color as Duke, the parrot who sits in a cage in the corner of her office. There’s a bare spot on his chest where he’s pulled out all his feathers, also a nervous habit.

“You know why you’re here, don’t you?” she asks.

I shift in my chair. “Because of something I said. But I was just answering—”

“Alvie.”

I stop talking.

“I know you ain’t as dumb as you act sometimes.” She only says ain’t when she’s very agitated. It makes me nervous. “You ought to have enough sense to know that you don’t start explaining the birds and bees to a kid you’ve just met. Particularly not while his mother’s in earshot.”

“I was explaining hyena anatomy. It’s part of my job to answer any questions the guests have about the animals. You told me so.”

She closes her eyes briefly and squeezes the bridge of her nose. “Cut the crap.”

From his cage in the corner, Duke the parrot squawks, “Cut the crap.”

I stare at my feet. “I’ll apologize to the boy’s mother if you want me to.”

“No. You’d probably make things worse.”

I say nothing, because she’s right.

“You know,” she says, “this isn’t the first complaint I’ve gotten about you.”

I tense. “Please give me another chance. I’ll—”

She holds up a hand. “Relax, I ain’t gonna fire you. But I want you to keep your fool mouth shut around the guests. Stick to feeding and cleaning.”

I hesitate. “What if someone asks me a question.”

“Pretend you’re deaf.”

“How do I do that.”

“I don’t know. Start signing.” She moves her hands around like she’s making an invisible cat’s cradle, or maybe casting a magic spell. “Like this.”

“I don’t know sign language.”

“Fake it,” she snaps.

I nod, afraid that if I argue, she might change her mind.

Though I’ve been working here for over a year now, I’m well aware that my position is precarious. I have less than two hundred dollars in savings. I make just enough to cover rent, groceries, and car payments, and if I fail to fulfill my financial responsibilities, I’ll become a ward of the state once again. It has occurred to me that, if I’m not able to successfully live as an adult, a judge might even declare me incompetent, resulting in a permanent loss of my freedom. Given my history, it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility. I might end up trapped in a place like the group home, not just until my eighteenth birthday but for the rest of my life.

I can’t lose this job.

That evening, after changing out of my work clothes, I go to the park with the duck pond and sit in my usual spot under the tree. After a while, I check my watch. It’s 6:05, and the boy with the cane isn’t here.

I don’t like the fact that he’s late. I’m not sure why that should bother me, why I should care at all, but after the unsettling, unexpected meeting with Bernhardt and the lecture from Ms. Nell, I feel like my world has been knocked askew. This is one more incongruity, one more sign of discord.

I pace for a bit, sit on the grass, and pick at a hole in the knee of my left stocking. I keep picking, widening it, until the boy finally emerges from the door of the building. I dart behind a tree and peek out as he limps across the street, toward the park.

He seems different today, somehow. He moves slowly and stiffly, like he’s in pain, as he sits down on the bench. He’s facing away from me, so I can’t see his expression.

I wait, watching, holding my breath.

At first, he doesn’t move, just stares straight ahead. Then his head drops into his cupped hands and his shoulders shake in silent, shuddering spasms.

He’s crying.

I hold very still, not breathing. After a few minutes, his shoulders stop shaking, and he sits very still, slumped. Slowly he stands. Then he takes his cell phone out of his pocket and throws it into the pond. The splash startles several ducks, who fly away with a chorus of quacks.

He limps out of the park. For a while, I don’t move.

I retrace his steps to the salmon-pink building. Beyond the glass double doors is a lobby with a TV and a fake potted plant. I touch the rough brick wall, slide my fingers over the glossier stone of the sign outside the door, and trace its chiseled letters. ELKLAND MEADOWS.

I don’t have my laptop with me, so I flip open my phone. It’s a TracFone—I pay by the minute, so I’m very careful about when and how I use it, but it is internet enabled. A quick online search reveals that Elkland Meadows is an assisted-living facility for people with brain injuries or degenerative neurological diseases, and I wonder for a moment if he’s a patient there. But this isn’t an outpatient clinic. That leaves only one conclusion: he’s visiting someone.

When I walk to the edge of the pond, I see the phone’s silver curve in the mud, winking in the sunlight. I don’t want to reach into the water—I don’t like water—so I hunt through the grass until I find a stick with a hooked end, and I use it to fish the cell phone out of the pond. On the back, printed on thin white tape, are the words PROPERTY OF STANLEY FINKEL. Below that is an email address.

It seems a little silly, putting his contact information on the phone. If he’s so concerned about it getting lost, why did he throw it away? I press the on button. The phone flickers once, then dies. I’m about to toss it back into the pond, but something stops me. After a few seconds, I slip it into my pocket.

 

CHAPTER THREE

It’s late.

I’m sitting on the mattress in my bedroom, legs crossed in front of me, eating Cool Whip from a plastic tub with a spoon. A glob falls onto my shirt; I scoop it up with one finger and suck it clean. The lights are off, the room illuminated only by the faint glow of my laptop, which rests on my pillow. I am playing Go.

Abruptly Dr. Bernhardt’s voice invades my thoughts: If things don’t change, I’ll have to recommend to the judge that, as a condition of your continued independence, you start seeing a counselor.

I make a stupid move, and my opponent captures several of my stones. Irritated with myself, I quit the game and close the laptop. I don’t feel like sleeping, so I retrieve my yellowing, dog-eared copy of Watership Down from the shelf, open it, and begin reading. I try to fall into the familiar rhythm of the sentences. The primroses were over. Toward the edge of the wood, where the ground became open and sloped down to an old fence and a brambly ditch beyond, only a few fading patches of pale yellow still showed . . .

I’ve read the book countless times. Returning to its world of intelligent rabbits and their struggle for survival is a comfortable ritual. But tonight, my thoughts keep wandering. I close the book with a sigh.

Dr. Bernhardt doesn’t understand, and I can’t explain it to him. He thinks my aversion to human contact is just fear of rejection. It goes so much deeper.

Inside my head, there’s a place I call the Vault. I keep certain memories there, sealed off from the rest of my mind. Psychologists call this repression. I call it doing what’s necessary to survive. If I didn’t have the Vault, I’d still be in the institution, or on so many heavy-duty medications I’d barely know my own name.

When I close my eyes and concentrate, I can see it in front of me—a towering pair of metal doors at the end of a long, dark hallway. The doors are strong and solid, with a massive bolt lock holding them shut, protecting me from what lies on the other side. I spent several years constructing this place, brick by brick, forming a sort of mental quarantine unit.

If Dr. Bernhardt forces me to go to counseling, the doctor will pick and pry at those doors and try to dismantle the fortress I’ve built to protect myself. Psychologists think the solution to everything is to talk about it.

My hands are shaking. I need to reduce my stimulation.

If I had a bed, I would hide beneath it, but there’s only my mattress on the bedroom floor. So I go into the bathroom, curl up in the empty bathtub, and cocoon myself with blankets. I wrap them tightly around me, covering even my face, so that there’s only a small slit for air. The pressure helps. Alone, in darkness, I breathe.

Quiet, enclosed spaces have always felt safe. When I was in second grade, my teacher, Mrs. Crantz, put a cardboard box around my desk and cut a small window out of the front so I could only see straight ahead. Because my gaze wandered, she thought I was distracted by my surroundings, that the box would help me pay attention. She didn’t understand that I was lost in my own thoughts. Cut off from the outside world, it was easier to withdraw inside myself. I spent my time drawing mazes and three-dimensional hexagons in my notebook, which was more fun than listening to Mrs. Crantz read Little House on the Prairie in her droning, nasally voice. Then one day, she tried to take away the box, and I screamed. When she put a hand on my shoulder, I kicked her in the knee. She hauled me to the principal’s office and called my mother.

Mama arrived wearing sweatpants, her hair still damp from a recent shower. In my head, I can see her now, sitting in the principal’s office, gray eyes wide, fingers clenched tightly on the strap of her purse. “Alvie,” she said quietly, “why did you kick your teacher?”

“She grabbed me,” I replied in a small voice. “It hurt.”

“I barely touched her,” Mrs. Crantz protested. “It couldn’t possibly have hurt.”

But it had. Lots of things hurt me—bright lights, loud noises, itchy dresses—but no one ever believed me when I told them. “It burned me,” I insisted.

“Burned?” Mrs. Crantz frowned.

The principal cleared his throat. “Ms. Fitz . . . perhaps you should take your daughter to see a behavioral specialist.”

Mama’s brow creased. “A doctor? But why?”

“She’s been having difficulty at school for some time now. I can give you a number to call, if you wish.” He slid a card across the desk. “Please understand . . . we’re just trying to help. For now, maybe you should take her home.”

I sat in the chair, head down, hands fisted in my lap.

As we drove home, Mama was quiet, staring straight ahead. Little pieces of her hair caught the sun, turning brighter red. “Does it hurt when I touch you?” she asked.

“No. Not when you do it.”

Her stiff shoulders unstiffened. “I’m glad.” She was quiet again for a while.

It was hot in the car. Sweat glued my shirt to my back. “Why does the principal want me to see a doctor. I’m not sick.”

“Maybe not, but . . .” She bit her lower lip. “Maybe we should go. Just to be safe.” Her eyes were watery from the bright sunlight. “I love you very much, Alvie. You know that, don’t you?”

The musty smell of blankets seeps into my awareness, pulling me back to the present. Suddenly the fabric around me doesn’t seem protective so much as constrictive. I gasp, overcome with the feeling that I’m suffocating. I jerk upward, clawing free.

Moonlight from the tiny window gleams on the tiles, illuminates the pattern of cracks in the walls and the spots of rust blooming on the tub.

I slump, leaning my head against the wall. My throat thickens briefly, and I choke down the feeling. Mama is gone now. Dwelling on the past won’t help anything. I push the memory of that day back into the depths of my mind, where it belongs.

Focus. Isolate the problem: Dr. Bernhardt wants me to have a social life. But he can’t hold me accountable if other people avoid me, so if I can just present him with some evidence that I’ve been making an effort, maybe he’ll leave me alone.

The phone I retrieved from the pond is still sitting on my coffee table. I retrieve it and study the information on the back.

Stanley Finkel. The name of the boy in the park, the boy with the cane. What would I say to him, anyway?

It doesn’t matter, I remind myself. I open my laptop, log in to my email and plug Stanley’s address into the “to” box. I type the first question that pops into my head: What do you think of the Copenhagen interpretation?

Stanley will probably assume the message is spam. And even if he doesn’t, he has no idea who I am, so why would he care?

I stroke the touchpad, dragging the cursor toward the corner of the screen to close my email program. But before I can, a new message appears in my inbox: Hi, ThousandEnemies. 🙂 That’s an interesting handle. Uh, do I know you?

I sit, frozen. Sweat trickles down my sides, tiny cold beads. He asked me a question; I should at least answer it. I send: No.

How did you get my address?

It was on your phone. I found it in the park. It doesn’t work anymore.

A pause. Oh. Well, that’s fine. I’m overdue for a new one, anyway. So, what’s the Copenhagen interpretation?

I didn’t expect him to respond at all. I take a few minutes to compose myself, and then I respond, fingers flitting rapidly over the keys: It’s a common interpretation of quantum physics. It holds that quantum particles don’t conform to one objective reality, but instead exist as multiple probabilities. Only the act of observing or measuring those particles causes them to collapse into a single reality. The thought experiment known as “Schrödinger’s cat” is the most common example. In it, there’s a cat in a box. The cat’s life or death depends on the behavior of a subatomic particle. If the particle spins in one direction, a flask of poison gas is opened. If it spins in the other, the flask remains sealed. According to the Copenhagen’s interpretation, while the box is closed, both exist as possibilities, so the cat is both alive and dead. Only when the box is opened does a single reality emerge.

I hit send. My palms are damp, so I rub them on my shorts.

His reply comes a minute later: Well, that’s definitely one of the more unique conversation starters I’ve heard. People usually say something about the weather. Or sports. Though, come to think of it, I never know how to respond to that, either.

Of course. He doesn’t want to hear about quantum theory. People usually don’t.

Do you want me to leave you alone? I send.

No, he replies quickly. You can talk to me about Copenhagen all night if you like. Hey, you want to sign on to Gchat? It’ll be easier.

Fine. I sign on.

So what’s your name? he types.

I suppose there’s no harm in giving him that information. Alvie Fitz.

Alvie, huh? Like that guy from the Annie Hall movie?

It can be a girl’s name, too.

Oh. You’re a girl?

I’m female, yes.

I like it, he sends. Your name, I mean. It’s better than mine, anyway. I mean, Stanley Finkel. It sounds like a skeevy game show host or something. Also it rhymes with “tinkle.” Which, needless to say, made grade school a blast.

It sounds like a normal name to me.

Well, thank you. 🙂 And then: I have to ask. How did you come across my phone?

I saw you throw it into the pond. There’s no response. I wait. Why did you throw it away?

Several minutes pass without a reply, and I begin to wonder if he’s gone. Then a new message appears: I didn’t think I’d need it anymore. I was being stupid. It doesn’t matter now.

I’m not sure how to respond, so I don’t. After a minute, another line of text pops up: Alvie? Thank you.

For what?

Nothing. I just wanted to say thank you.

I can’t remember the last time someone has thanked me. It’s a strange feeling.

I have to go, I say.

I close my laptop. For a while, I sit, staring into space. My heart is beating faster than normal.

 

CHAPTER FOUR

I don’t sleep much that night. Variations from my routine always upset my sleeping schedule, and the past few days have been full of aberrations.

Finally I drift off on the couch and wake to the glare of sunlight through the curtains. The light brightens and spills across the floor, illuminating the shabby blue-gray carpet, the cluttered stacks of books and newspapers in the corners of my living room. The rancid cheese smell permeates the air.

I pry myself off the couch and plod to the kitchen, where I start a pot of strong coffee. My shift starts in less than an hour. I need to get ready for work.

I brush my teeth, comb and re-braid my hair, and wash myself with a rag and a pot of soapy water. I don’t like showers or baths, but it’s possible to stay clean without them—not to mention I waste less water this way. Even hair can be washed in the sink. It just takes a little longer.

It’s cold out, and it takes me a few tries to start the car. I turn the key, and there’s only a dry click and a faint wheezing sound. I try a few more times, and the engine sputters to life.

At work, I clock in and walk down the cobblestone path. There’s a prickling itch in my skin, like an allergic reaction, as I pass the sign about anthropomorphizing.

I’m on feeding duty this morning, so I retrieve bags of trout and squid from the walk-in refrigerator in the storage shed; cut the slippery, pinkish-gray meat into tiny chunks; then feed it to the two river otters. Afterward, I give the gibbons their fruit. The gibbons are a mated pair named Persephone and Hades. This, I believe, is intended as irony.

The pale golden female leans down to pull my braid, and I let her. The touch of animals has never bothered me the way human contact does.

I move on. Inside a large, barred enclosure, a red-tailed hawk named Chance perches on the branch of a fake tree. He’s the zoo’s first hawk, acquired from a wildlife rehabilitation facility a few weeks ago. His eyes are a clear, light copper gold, somewhere between the color of champagne and a worn penny.

I unlock the door, very slowly, and remove a dead mouse—sealed in a little plastic bag—from my pocket. My hands are covered by thick protective gloves, the same khaki color as my uniform. I remove the mouse from its plastic sleeve and hold it by its tail. “Breakfast,” I say.

Chance’s yellow toes clench on his perch. His claws are long and black, very sharp—weapons for seizing prey and puncturing vital organs. But his hunting days are over. He flexes the stump, which is all that remains of his left wing.

I open the cage door, place the dead mouse inside, and nudge it toward him with my foot. Chance cocks his head, eyeing the rodent, but doesn’t move.

Since he arrived, I’ve been spending a lot of time with him. He’s still skittish around people. All wild-born animals are, at first . . . and since Chance has been through a severe injury, he’s easily agitated. If he were human, his condition might be called post-traumatic stress disorder. A zoo probably isn’t the ideal environment for him, but since he’s stuck here, he needs to adjust to the presence of humans. It will take time, but I’ve already made progress. In the beginning, he would go into a panic whenever anyone entered his cage. One day, perhaps, he’ll take food from my hand—but for now, I’m just trying to get him to eat in my presence.

The mouse lies on the dirt floor between us.

Chance hops down to the cage floor, snatches the mouse, and climbs back up to his perch, using his wing stump for leverage as he grips the branches with his talons. I’m impressed at his adaptability.

“What happened to that bird, anyway?”

The familiar, nasally voice grates like sandpaper on my brain. I turn to see Toby—a newly hired part-timer—standing with a can of grape soda in one hand. His long face is speckled with acne, and a few straggly strands of brown hair hang out from under his cap. “He was injured in the wild,” I reply. “Probably by a coyote or a fox. His wing was badly broken and had to be amputated.”

Toby raises his soda can and takes a long slurp. “That sucks,” he says. “Nothing more depressing than a bird that can’t fly.”

“I can think of a few things more depressing than that. The Holocaust, for instance.”

Toby laughs, loud enough to make me flinch. “True.” He takes another swig and wipes the back of one hand across his mouth. “Hey, can I feed him?”

I bristle. Toby mostly works the concession stand and changes the garbage bags; he’s not qualified to deal with the animals. “No.”

“Why not?”

“Because he’s not used to you.”

“So what? It’s not that complicated, is it?” Toby knocks on the cage bars. “Hey! Hey, birdy!”

Chance shrinks away.

I tense. “Don’t do that. He perceives sudden movements as a threat.”

Toby grins, showing a pair of oversized incisors. “Relax. I’m just messing with him. Don’t you have a sense of humor?”

I want to ask him how he’d feel if a noisy giant locked him in a cage and then started banging on the walls. Would he find that funny? “You should be working,” I say. “You’re not supposed to have beverages while you’re on the clock.”

“I’m on my lunch break.” He digs around in one ear with a pinkie, then glances at his watch. “Guess I should go clock back in. Be seeing you.” He walks away.

I breathe in slowly, then out. I doubt he’ll last another week. Ms. Nell has no patience for slackers; it’s one of her more admirable traits. I just have to wait until he gets fired.

I fetch another bag of dead mice from the storage shed and go to feed the snakes in the reptile house. On the way, I pass a young couple lingering near the hyena enclosure. Their arms are draped around each other. The boy whispers something into the girl’s ear, and she giggles and kisses him.

Watching people share affection with each other in public has always made me uncomfortable. But now, for some reason, I can’t look away. They both look so happy. They make it seem so easy, so natural.

The girl notices me staring, and the smile fades. Her lips form the word creep. She takes the boy’s hand and leads him away, and I’m left standing alone. A dull heat spreads over my forehead and the back of my neck, burning in my ears.

Creep.

The world falls away, and I am six years old, approaching a group of girls on the playground during recess. My heart skips, and there’s a hard little nut lodged somewhere behind my belly button. The girls are giggling and talking together. As I approach, they fall silent and turn to stare at me. Their smiles disappear.

My legs quiver. I twist my shirt and grip one braid, pulling until I feel the tingling pressure in my scalp. When I open my mouth, the words come out all in a rush: “Hi my name is Alvie Fitz can I play with you.”

The girls exchange glances. They’re talking without words, beaming silent messages with their eyes, something I have never learned how to do.

A blond girl turns to me with a wide smile. “Okay, let’s play a game. It’s called ‘puppy.’ Since you’re new, you can be the puppy.”

I keep pulling on my braid with one hand and twisting my shirt with the other. “How do you play.”

“Get down on your hands and knees and start barking.”

The tightness in my stomach loosens. That’s easy. I drop down to my hands and knees. “Ruff-ruff! Ruff-ruff-ruff!”

The girls giggle. I bark louder and faster, and they laugh harder. I pant and roll over, then I start to dig in the wood chips with my hands, and they practically squeal.

More kids are gathering now. Someone throws a stick and calls, “Fetch, girl!” I pick it up in my mouth. More laughter. Excitement flutters inside me. I never knew it would be so easy to make friends.

One girl looks at another, rolls her eyes, and twirls a finger around her temple.

I freeze. The stick falls from my mouth. I’ve seen people do that before. I know what it means.

A large group of children stands around me, staring, mouths open. My chest hurts. I’m breathing too fast, but I can’t stop.

Whispers echo in my ears. Weirdo. Freak.

I drop the stick and start to run. I run off the playground, away from the school, but I can still hear their voices, echoing over and over inside my head.

Back in my apartment, I grab a box of Cocoa Puffs from the kitchen, sit on the couch, and turn on the TV. I scoop out handfuls of dry cereal and eat them as I watch a rerun of Cosmos. My gaze strays to the laptop sitting on my coffee table.

Has Stanley sent me another email since last night?

I turn off the TV and sit, turning a Rubik’s Cube over in my hands. I twist the rows of color this way and that, not really trying to solve it, just focusing on the smooth plastic under my fingertips, the click as a section snaps into place. My gaze wanders, again, to my laptop.

Talking to someone online should be safe enough. As long as I’m careful about keeping my distance, confining the conversation to non-risky topics, what harm could it do?

I pick up my laptop and open my email. Sure enough, there’s a message from Stanley.

So, the cat in the box, the one that’s alive and dead . . . I mean, is that really how the world works? Like things don’t become real until we observe them? But what does that mean for us?

I sign on to Google Chat. He’s there, waiting. A funny, hollow feeling fills my stomach, like the swooping sensation of being on a roller coaster.

He asked me a question about physics. That’s something I can understand, something I can deal with.

Schrödinger’s cat is just a thought experiment. Originally it was meant to illustrate the absurdity of the Copenhagen’s interpretation, but some people take it seriously.

Are you studying this stuff? I mean, are you a physics major, or something?

I’m not in college. I’m seventeen.

I bet you’re in AP courses. 🙂

I don’t go to school, I reply.

A brief pause. Homeschooled, then? My mom homeschooled me for a few years. Some people can be judgy about stuff like that, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with learning from your parents.

I don’t have parents.

Another pause. I’m sorry, he sends.

Why are you sorry?

No response. I shift my weight, wondering if I said something wrong. I don’t often talk about my situation with people—the fact that I have no living relatives, at least none close enough to take me in—that my mother died when I was eleven, that I never even knew my father. The few times I have mentioned this, it’s usually resulted in sudden silence followed by a rapid change of subject.

Then more text appears: I know how tough it is, being on your own.

My heart lurches. You lost your parents, too?

Kind of. I mean, my dad is still alive, but we don’t talk much. I’m nineteen, so I can live by myself now, anyway. I’m getting by. But still, it’s not easy. It must be even harder for you.

He’s alone. Like me.

My body rocks lightly back and forth. My hand drifts to my left braid and starts tugging. I recognize the anxiety mounting within myself; I need to steer the conversation to safer topics. I do all right, I send. Anyway. You don’t need a teacher to learn about physics. Anyone can look up the information if they take the time. And a library card is a lot less expensive than college.

Lol. Well, I am a college student, so I can vouch for that, he replies. I’m not studying physics, though. I’m kind of a humanities guy. I’m taking neurobiology for my science requirement because I thought it would be all about how we think and what makes us human, but it’s more like, “memorize these 50 different processes that are involved in eye movement.” Pretty boring stuff.

It doesn’t sound boring. I like reading about the brain. It helps me make sense of human behavior.

There’s a lot about the brain that we don’t understand, though, isn’t there?

I tell myself that I’m only going to stay online for a few more minutes.

We talk about perception and the nature of reality, which shifts to a discussion about truth and how much of what we believe is simply because other people have told us to believe it. That, in turn, transitions into a conversation about the lies adults tell to children.

We tell each other our respective childhood reactions to finding out that Santa Claus is just a story. He cried; I was indifferent because the idea of a magical, omniscient fat man breaking into my house every Christmas Eve never made much sense to me in the first place.

I tell him how, as a little girl, I was told that oatmeal sticks to your ribs—which is not exactly a lie but an expression, something you’re not meant to believe literally. As a child, it took me a while to understand the difference, and to this day I can’t eat oatmeal because I visualize all those sticky white clumps coagulating against my heart and lungs.

I learn how, when he was little, his mother told him that thunder means the angels are bowling, and that the crescent moon is God’s fingernail.

I reply that the moon is a ball of iron and rock, and that it’s getting farther and farther away from us all the time. It moves away from Earth by a distance of 3.8 centimeters each year. We are losing it.

You know, you’re kind of a pessimist, he remarks.

It’s just a fact, I reply.

But 3.8 centimeters is hardly anything. That won’t make any difference, will it?

Probably not for millions of years. The human race may not even be around then. But nonetheless, the things we think of as permanent are not. Eventually the sun will expand, engulf our entire solar system, and then die.

There’s a pause. It’s beautiful tonight, he sends. The moon, I mean. Can you see it from your window?

I look. It’s nearly full; there’s a misty ring of light around it. Yes.

If it’s going away, he says, we should enjoy it while it’s here.

Clouds glide slowly across the moon. The world goes dark, then bright again, bathed in a ghostly glow.

You don’t have to stay up with me, you know, he sends. I know it’s late. You probably have to get to bed.

I glance at the clock. 4:00 a.m. You’re an insomniac, aren’t you?

Lol, guess you found me out. Yeah, I’m not eager to go back to tossing and turning.

I know what he means. There’s no worse feeling than being alone and unable to sleep at four in the morning, with the tick-tick-tick of the clock echoing in your skull. I’ll stay up with you, if you want, I offer, surprising myself. But the truth is that I want to keep talking to him. It’s a curiously addictive experience.

I appreciate that. But I don’t want you being exhausted tomorrow on my account. I should probably at least try to sleep, anyway. I’ve got class in the morning, and I don’t want to be a zombie.

I’ll send you some alpha brain wave recordings, then. They’re supposed to be for meditation, but I use them when I’m trying to sleep. Sometimes they help.

Cool. That’s really nice of you. 🙂

Not really. It won’t take much effort on my part.

Well, thanks anyway.

I upload the recordings and send him the links, then sign off. For a while, I sit there on the couch. The moon shines through the curtains. It’s very bright. I rise, spread my fingers and press my palm against the window, over the pearly sphere, as if I can capture its light.

 

 


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