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Zachary, living with his divorced mother in California, finds violence gradually invading his life and making significant changes in his day-to-day existence....
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Zachary, living with his divorced mother in California, finds violence gradually invading his life and making significant changes in his day-to-day existence.
With his parents divorced and his best friend, Perry, moved away, Zachary seems content to spend his days delivering hot tubs and his nights bloodying his fists in Oakland brawls. But when his father is critically injured during a carjacking, Zachary's life changes. While he watches his mother and his father's new wife grudgingly achieve a truce, Zachary is left to grieve over his father's fate: Will he ever be able to speak or walk again? Cadnum conveys an intimate and authentic sense of the pain Zachary feels over his father's paralysis, and what could have descended into banal sentimentality is explored with grace and sincerity. Zachary, a realistically complex protagonist, may be a "high-school drop- out," but his sense of humor is quick and adult, his understanding of his high-strung mother comprehensive as well as responsive; and, to his surprise, his loyalty to a distant but amiable patriarch knows no limit. When his father's assailant escapes legal punishment, Zachary acts out of his own rage-filled past and considers retribution, and readers will forget to draw breath until he makes his final decision. This haunting, life-affirming novel further burnishes Cadnum's reputation as an outstanding novelist.
The traffic at the Bay Bridge toll plaza tends to back up. Brake lights everywhere, nothing moving. Rhonda was right: I wouldn't have been able to drive, feeling the way I did. No, that wasn't quite the case. I could have driven to San Francisco alone, fighting traffic in my Honda, but it wouldn't be right to let me do it by myself, not now. People owe some things to each other.
I had to admire the way Rhonda whipped the van from one lane to another, leaning on the horn. A dotted arrow on a Caltrans truck was directing traffic to merge to the left.
"It's not as bad as they think it is," I said. Or maybe I didn't actually say the words. Maybe I just kept repeating them over and over in my head.
The horn had a solemn, muted quality, sounding from somewhere down below our feet. I hated the way it sounded, too soft. "UC Medical Center," said Rhonda, talking mostly to herself. "I think I know how to get there."
"You think," I heard myself say, unable to keep from sounding like my mother.
"Don't worry," she said.
In surgery for hours.
It was a long sundown, no fog tonight, city lights just now coming on. Rhonda held her arm out the window like a wide receiver giving a straight-arm, holding off traffic while she maneuvered into another lane.
The hair clip vibrated with the engine, a dry, buzzing sound from the beanbag ashtray. My mother's news had to be all exaggeration, something we would think about a few weeks from now, a minor incident that got blown out of all proportion. I folded my arms, feeling cold with no sense of time passing. We had always been here on the bridge, stuck, going nowhere.
I should turn on some quiet music, the kind the dentist plays, soothing, music that gets you thinking the world isn't real. I didn't touch the radio. I just sat there, trying not to think.
It was a phrase I had heard on the news. The words had never had any special, personal meaning for me. Condition critical.
"You can't park there," said a very stout, tall man with a zipper jacket and a glittering badge, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA POLICE. "This is emergency vehicles only."
My legs were stiff, the shrubbery unreal, people in quiet conversation, searching their pockets for keys. How wonderfully normal it all was, a newspaper machine beside a green bin decorated with a picture, a stick figure, dotted lines showing the path of his litter into a receptacle. It was probably over already, good news. Mom didn't bother to call -- she wanted to tell me in person.
The man looked me up and down, his eyes hidden behind tinted glasses, black plastic frames. "We have visitor parking in lot B across the street."
Rhonda was there beside me, then, putting her keys into her purse, and some of the telephone company executive was in her voice when she said, "I'll move the car in just a minute. We have an emergency."
The man with the badge seemed to grow taller. His whole world was full of people with emergencies.
Rhonda added, like it was easy to say, an afterthought that might help explain, just a little detail, "His father's been shot."
My mother didn't even glance at Rhonda, stepping right up to me and giving me a hug. It was a real rib-crusher.
"What happened?" I asked, my voice sounding pretty calm, although higher than usual.
My mom said, hearing what I was really saying, not just my words, "I don't believe it either."
"Are they still..." My voice did one of its fade-outs. I couldn't even complete a question: still operating?
"They wouldn't tell us, Zachary. You know that. We're just the ex-family." Sometimes my mother's argumentative manner drove me crazy. But now I found it familiar, the two of us sharing the same paranoia. It was just a tradition with her, sounding relaxed and pissed-off at the same time.
"Did it happen downtown?" said Rhonda.
I winced inwardly. You had to use irony with my mother, sarcasm, adopt my mother's tone. My mom gave Rhonda a look now, her face dead. "No," she said. Then, deciding to communicate to me, if not to Rhonda, she added, "Nineteenth Street. In an ordinary neighborhood, not far from Golden Gate Park. He stopped at a red light."
"In broad daylight," said Rhonda.
Again, Rhonda's style was all wrong, her eyes full of feeling. "Right after late lunch at his favorite restaurant," said my mom.
John's Grill, I thought. Dad liked the mashed potatoes there; he was one of those guys who never gain much weight. Right about the time Chief had been showing the man in the bikini bathing suit how to focus his Leica so he could take our picture delivering his brand-new spa.
"A car-jacking," said Rhonda, plainly trying to fit words we had all heard on the news to what was happening.
"Robbery," said my mom, with a flip of her hand -- what difference did it make. "There's a police detective in there now, along with -- "She didn't want to say the name of Dad's new wife just now. She gave a little shrug. "You know everything I do."
"Did they catch whoever did it?" asked Rhonda, her voice breathy, not meaning any harm but doing it anyway, forcing my mom to say things she wasn't ready to. Maybe Rhonda was doing it deliberately, now, forcing the answers like a newspaper reporter. She had a copy of every one of my dad's books.
"No," said my mom. "They didn't catch who did it. His car went through the intersection and ran into something."
"It's terrible, Florence," said Rhonda. My mother wasn't crazy about being named after a city in Italy. She preferred the pet names my dad used to call her. My mother acts like a person cheated by life, carrying on with humor but not expecting much. She thanked Rhonda in a tone that surprised me, gentle, dignified.
"But he's going to be all right," I said.
Mom took my hand. Her fingers were very cold. My parents had never suffered the heavy-artillery sort of divorce you hear about all the time. She was always in a hurry to get back to a bank before it closed, and Dad was always off to the Yucatan or Honolulu. When he fell in love with a younger woman, Mom reacted by cutting costs at the office she managed, installing new computers, firing half the staff, and winning a seat on the Governor's Economic Task Force. I think she always imagined Dad would remarry for a third time, to her, his first wife, my mom. Maybe I even hoped it was possible in some wistful cul-de-sac of my mind. Dad had always been upbeat with Mom and me, but that was how he dealt with everything, quick to get his way.
She walked me down to look out a window, the glass crosshatched with wire mesh so no one could break in, or out.
"How did your test go today?" she asked.
I didn't respond. She wouldn't let go of my hand.
"Zachary," she said. "The police detective is in the operating room in case your father says something." She liked saying police detective, two words, taking solace in the way it sounded, like there were authorities in charge.
Excerpt reprinted from EDGE by Michael Cadnum copyright © 1997 by Michael Cadnum. Used by permission of Viking Children's Books, a division of Penguin Books USA, Inc.