In the wake of the post-9/11 sniper shootings, fragile love finds a stronghold in this intense, romantic novel from the author of Break and Invincible Summer.
It's a year after 9/11. Sniper shootings throughout the D.C. area have everyone on edge and trying to make sense of these random acts of violence. Meanwhile, Craig and Lio are just trying to make sense of their lives.
Craig’s crushing on quiet, distant Lio, and preoccupied with what it meant when Lio kissed him...and if he’ll do it again...and if kissing Lio will help him finally get over his ex-boyfriend, Cody.
Lio feels most alive when he's with Craig. He forgets about his broken family, his dead brother, and the messed up world. But being with Craig means being vulnerable...and Lio will have to decide whether love is worth the risk.
This intense, romantic novel from the author of Break and Invincible Summer is a poignant look at what it is to feel needed, connected, and alive.
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Hannah Moskowitz is the award-winning author of the young adult novels Break; Invincible Summer; Gone, Gone, Gone; and Teeth; as well as the middle grade novels Zombie Tag and Marco Impossible. She lives in New York City. Learn more at HannahMoskowitz.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I WAKE UP TO A QUIET WORLD.
There’s this stillness so strong that I can feel it in the hairs on the backs of my arms, and I can right away tell that this quiet is the sound of a million things and fourteen bodies not here and one boy breathing alone.
I open my eyes.
I can’t believe I slept.
I sit up and swing my feet to the floor. I’m wearing my shoes, and I’m staring at them like I don’t recognize them, but they’re the shoes I wear all the time, these black canvas high-tops from Target. My mom bought them for me. I have that kind of mom.
I can feel how cold the tile is. I can feel it through my shoes.
I make kissing noises with my mouth. Nothing answers. My brain is telling me, my brain has been telling me for every single second since I woke up, exactly what is different, but I am not going to think it, I won’t think it, because they’re all just hiding or upstairs. They’re not gone. The only thing in the whole world I am looking at is my shoes, because everything else is exactly how it’s supposed to be, because they’re not gone.
But this, this is wrong. That I’m wearing shoes. That I slept in my shoes. I think it says something about you when you don’t even untie your shoes to try to go to bed. I think it’s a dead giveaway that you are a zombie. If there is a line between zombie and garden-variety insomniac, that line is a shoelace.
I got the word “zombie” from my brother Todd. He calls me “zombie,” sometimes, when he comes home from work at three in the morning—Todd is so old, old enough to work night shifts and drink coffee without sugar—and comes down to the basement to check on me. He walks slowly, one hand on the banister, a page of the newspaper crinkling in his hand. He won’t flick on the light, just in case I’m asleep, and there I am, I’m on the couch, a cat on each of my shoulders and a man with a small penis on the TV telling me how he became a man with a big penis, and I can too. “Zombie,” Todd will say softly, a hand on top of my head. “Go to sleep.”
Todd has this way of being affectionate that I see but usually don’t feel.
I say, “Someday I might need this.”
“The penis product?”
“Yes.” Maybe not. I think my glory days are behind me. I am fifteen years old, and all I have is the vague hope that, someday, someone somewhere will once again care about my penis and whether it is big or small.
The cats don’t care. Neither do my four dogs, my three rabbits, my guinea pig, or even the bird I call Flamingo because he stands on one leg when he drinks, even though that isn’t his real name, which is Fernando.
They don’t care. And even if they did, they’re not here. I can’t avoid that fact any longer.
I am the vaguest of vague hopes of a deflated heart.
I look around the basement, where I sleep now. My alarm goes off, even though I’m already up. The animals should be scuffling around now that they hear I’m awake, mewing, rubbing against my legs, and whining for food. This morning, the alarm is set for five thirty for school, and my bedroom is a silent, frozen meat locker because the animals are gone.
Here’s what happened, my parents explain, weary over cups of coffee, cops come and gone, all while I was asleep.
What happened is that I slept.
I slept through a break-in and a break-out, but I couldn’t sleep through the quiet afterward. This has to be a metaphor for something, but I can’t think, it’s too quiet.
Broken window, jimmied locks. They took the upstairs TV and parts of the stereo. They left all the doors open. The house is as cold as October. The animals are gone.
It was a freak accident. Freak things happen. I should be used to that by now. Freaks freaks freaks.
Todd was the one to come home and discover the damage. My parents slept through it too. This house is too big.
I say, “But the break-in must have been hours ago.”
My mother nods a bit.
I say, “Why didn’t I wake up as soon as the animals escaped?”
My mom doesn’t understand what I’m talking about, but this isn’t making sense to me. None of it is. Break-ins aren’t supposed to happen to us. We live in a nice neighborhood in a nice suburb. They’re supposed to happen to other people. I am supposed to be so tied to the happiness and the comfort of those animals that I can’t sleep until every single one is fed, cleaned, hugged. Maybe if I find enough flaws in this, I can make it so it never happened.
This couldn’t have happened.
At night, Sandwich and Carolina and Zebra sleep down at my feet. Flamingo goes quiet as soon as I put a sheet over his cage. Peggy snuggles in between my arm and my body. Caramel won’t settle down until he’s tried and failed, at least four or five times, to fall asleep right on my face. Shamrock always sleeps on the couch downstairs, no matter how many times I try to settle him on the bed with me, and Marigold has a spot under the window that she really likes, but sometimes she sleeps in her kennel instead, and I can never find Michelangelo in the morning and it always scares me, but he always turns up in my laundry basket or in the box with my tapes or under the bed, or sometimes he sneaks upstairs and sleeps with Todd, and the five others sleep all on top of each other in the corner on top of the extra comforter, but I checked all of those places this morning—every single one—and they’re all gone, gone, gone.
Mom always tried to open windows because of the smell, but I’d stop her because I was afraid they would escape. Every day I breathe in feathers and dander and urine so they will not escape.
My mother sometimes curls her hand into a loose fist and presses her knuckles against my cheek. When she does, I smell her lotion, always lemongrass. Todd will do something similar, but it feels different, more urgent, when he does.
The animals. They were with me when I fell asleep last night. I didn’t notice I was sleeping in my shoes, and I didn’t notice when they left.
This is why I need more sleep. This is how things slip through my fingers.
My head is spinning with fourteen names I didn’t protect.
“We’ll find them, Craig,” Mom says, with a hand on the back of my head. “They were probably just scared from the noise. They’ll come back.”
“They should have stayed in the basement,” I whisper. “Why did they run away?”
Why were a few open doors enough incentive for them to leave?
I shouldn’t have fallen asleep. I suck.
“We’ll put up posters, Craig, okay?” Mom says. Like she doesn’t have enough to worry about and people to call— insurance companies, someone to fix the window, and her mother to assure her that being this close to D.C. really doesn’t mean we’re going to die. It’s been thirteen months, almost, since the terrorist attacks, and we’re still convinced that any mishap means someone will steer a plane into one of our buildings.
We don’t say that out loud.
Usually this time in the morning, I take all the different kinds of food and I fill all the bowls. They come running, tripping over themselves, rubbing against me, nipping my face and my hands like I am the food, like I just poured myself into a bowl and offered myself to them. Then I clean the litter boxes and the cages and take the dogs out for a walk. I can do this all really, really quickly, after a year of practice.
Mom helps, usually, and sometimes I hear her counting under her breath, or staring at one of the animals, trying to figure out if one is new—sometimes yes, sometimes no.
The deal Mom and I have is no new animals. The deal is I don’t have to give them away, I don’t have to see a therapist, but I can’t have any more animals. I don’t want a therapist because therapists are stupid, and I am not crazy.
And the truth is it’s not my fault. The animals find me. A kitten behind a Dumpster, a rabbit the girl at school can’t keep. A dog too old for anyone to want. I just hope they find me again now that they’re gone.
Part of the deal was also that Mom got to name a few of the newer ones, which is how I ended up with a few with really girly names.
But I love them. I tell them all the time. I’ll pick Hail up and cuddle him to my face in that way that makes his ears get all twitchy. I’ll make loose fists and hold them up to Marigold and Jupiter’s cheeks. They’ll lick my knuckles. “I love you,” I tell them. It’s always been really easy for me to say. I’ve never been one of those people who can’t say it.
It’s October 4th. Just starting to get cold, but it gets cold fast around here.
God, I hope they’re okay.
I’m up way too early now that I don’t have to feed the animals, but I don’t know what else to do but get dressed and get ready for school. It takes like two minutes, and now what?
A year ago, back when it was still 2001 . . .
Back when we still clung . . .
Back when I slept upstairs . . .
There was a boy.
A very, very, very important boy.
Now . . .
Lio. I knew how it was spelled before I ever heard it out loud. It sounds normal, like Leo, but it looks so special. I love that.
I started talking to Lio back in June. I’m this thing for my school called an ambassador, which basically means I get good grades and I don’t smoke, so they give out my email and a little bit about me to incoming students so I can gush about how cool this place is or something like that.
He sent me a message. He said he’s about to move here, he’s going to be at my school, we’re the same age, and this is so creepy stalker, but you like Jefferson Airplane and I like Jefferson Airplane too, so cool, do you think we could IM sometime?
So he did and we are and I do and we did.
Lio is, to sum him up quickly, a koala. I realized that pretty early on.
He gets good grades, but he smokes, so he could never be an ambassador. There are a few reasons it’s really, really stupid for Lio to smoke, but that doesn’t seem to stop him. I don’t know him well enough to admit that it scares me to death. And really, it seems like everything scares me to death now, so I’ve learned to shut up about it.
He’s not a boy to me, not yet, because boy implies some kind of intimacy, but Lio is a boy in the natural sense of the word, at least I assume so, since I’ve never seen him with his clothes off and barely with his coat off, to be honest. Though I can imagine. And sometimes I do. Oh, God.
He wears a lot of hats. That’s how we met for real, once his family moved here. I thought he’d come looking for me as soon as school started, but I couldn’t find him anywhere, which was immediately a shame, because I was beginning to get sick of eating my lunch alone every day.
Then Ms. Hoole made both of us take our hats off in honors precalculus last month, on the third day of school.
“Lio, Craig,” she said. “Your hats, present them here.” And of course I didn’t give a shit about my hat, because I had found Lio.
Lio didn’t say anything, but his eyes said, bitch, and when he took his hat off I could see his hair was a chopped-up mess of four different colors, all of them muted and faded and fraying. Lio has a head like an old couch.
After class, he didn’t go up to collect his hat, so I got both and brought his to him. He was rushing down the hallway, unlit cigarette between his fingers.
I said, “Lio?”
He looked at me and nodded.
I smiled a bit. “You weren’t listening? I’m Craig.”
He bit his bottom lip like he was trying not to laugh, but not in a bad way. In a really, really warm way, and I could tell because his eyes were locked onto mine.
There was a whole mess of people and he was still walking, but he kept looking at me.
“I like your hair,” I told him, because it was difficult not to make some sort of comment.
Lio leaned against the wall and studied me. And even though I know now that Lio’s really uncomfortable without a hat on, and he was really mad at Ms. Hoole for taking it and really mad at himself for being too afraid of talking to go up and ask for it back, he didn’t pull the hat back on right away. He kept it crumpled up in his hand and he watched me instead.
And he covered his mouth a little and he smiled.
So here are some facts about Lio:
He has either five or six older sisters, I can’t remember, and one younger sister, and they are all very nice and love him a lot and call him nearly every day, except for his little sister, Michelle, and the youngest of the older sisters, Jasper, who are in middle school and high school, respectively, and therefore live with him and therefore only call him when he’s in trouble or they want to borrow his clothes. I’ve only met Jasper. She is a senior, and much prettier than Lio. They all have cell phones, every single one of them, because they are from New York, and Lio says everyone has them there, and I don’t know if that’s true, but I’m really jealous.
He likes Colin Farrell, so when that movie Phone Booth comes out next month, we’re going to go see it together. I don’t know if this is a date or what, but I’ve already decided that I’m going to pay, and if he tries to protest I’m going to give him this smile and be like “No, no, let me.”
He used to be a cancer kid—bald, skinny, mouth sores, leukemia. That was when he was five until he was seven, I think. He got to go to Alaska to see polar bears because of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He said one time that the thing about cancer kids is no one knows what to do with them if they don’t die. He’s fine now, but he shouldn’t be smoking cigarettes. He had a twin brother who died.
Today I come up to Lio’s locker and he nods to me. The principal gave us American flags to put up on our lockers on September 11th, for the anniversary. Most of us put them up, but we also took them down again afterward, because they were cheap and flimsy and because it’s been a year and patriotism is lame again. Lio still has his on his locker, but three weeks later it’s started to fray. My father gave his school flags too. He’s an elementary school principal. My mother is a social worker. My family is a little adorable.
Lio’s flag flaps while he roots through his locker. He takes out a very small cage and hands it to me. I’m excited for a minute, thinking he’s found one of the animals, maybe Peggy, the guinea pig. Even though there’s no way she could fit in there, I’m still hoping, because maybe maybe maybe. But it’s a small white mouse. Really, really pretty.
But it makes my head immediately list everyone that I’ve lost.
Four dogs: Jupiter, Casablanca, Kremlin, Marigold.
Five cats: Beaumont, Zebra, Shamrock, Sandwich, Caramel.
One bird: Fernando.
Three rabbits: Carolina, Hail, Michelangelo.
A guinea pig: Peggy.
“Made me think of you,” he says, softly.
Because Lio says so few words, every single one has deep, metaphorical, cosmic significance in my life. And my words are like pennies.
I talk to the mouse very quietly on my way back to my locker. I think I’ll name her Zippers. I’m not sure why. I’m never sure why I choose the names I do. Maybe I should let Mom handle all of them, although she’d probably name this one Princess or something.
I should ask Lio what he’d like her to be named. Or where he got her. He doesn’t know about the deal I have with my mom, and I feel no need to tell him.
I set her cage on top of my books.
Lio’s there a minute later. He bites his thumbnail and fusses with his hat. His hair’s still a mess, but it has nothing to do with the cance...
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