Fallingby Doug Wilhelm
Everyone expected fifteen-year-old Matt Shaw to be Jeffords Junior High's star basketball player. But Matt never went out for the team. He won't even touch a ball anymore, and he hardly talks to anyone. No one understands why he's changed, but Matt knows that it's his "golden child" older brother who's really been doing all the changing. Matt can't imagine what… See more details below
Everyone expected fifteen-year-old Matt Shaw to be Jeffords Junior High's star basketball player. But Matt never went out for the team. He won't even touch a ball anymore, and he hardly talks to anyone. No one understands why he's changed, but Matt knows that it's his "golden child" older brother who's really been doing all the changing. Matt can't imagine what would happen to his family if word got out about Neal's drug habit and the strung-out strangers he's seen coming and going from the house when their parents aren't home. Matt can't tell anyone what he knows - not his parents, not the police detective who refuses to leave him alone, not even Katie, the one girl he's ever really had feelings for. But even Matt has to wonder eventually if he's holding on to someone he may already have lost.
With his unparalleled ear for teen dialogue and emotions, Doug Wilhelm's new novel is a captivating look at falling apart, falling in love, and all the falling in between.
Gr 9 Up
Matt Shaw was the star basketball player on his junior high team in Rutland, VT, so everyone is surprised when he doesn't try out for the high school team. During his freshman year, he becomes withdrawn and walks the streets listening to his iPod and dreading the thought of going home because of the frightening change in his older brother. Neal, a former basketball star, didn't receive a scholarship, so he turned to heroin. Matt is fearful of his family's reputation if word gets out. He keeps Neal's secret from his parents, a police detective, and Katie, the only girl he has ever had feelings for, and whose narrative alternates with Matt's. Katie reluctantly tries to get him to open up. Matt eventually tells her what is wrong, and this revelation spirals into a devastating turn of events, which in the end resolves itself in an unsatisfying way. Matt's dilemma is real and heartfelt, and the dialogue is on target. However, it seems unrealistic that Matt's parents have no clue as to how their older son spends his time, and never seem to question what he is doing or what his plans are even as he deals drugs out of their suburban home. At one point, they even think that Matt is the one with problems. While it's true that many parents are in denial or unaware of their children's activities, the situation as developed here just isn't believable.-Shannon Seglin, Chantilly Regional Library, Fairfax County, VA
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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- 176 KB
- Age Range:
- 14 - 18 Years
Read an Excerpt
By Doug Wilhelm
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2007 Doug Wilhelm
All rights reserved.
The first place he wasn't going to anymore, after school, was home. Instead he put on his headphones and he walked.
It was finally getting better to be out here walking. It was finally spring. Well, more or less. You didn't get much real spring in northern New England—you'd get a tease of a nice day, then next you'd get slammed with sleet, snow, freezing rain, or just plain rain. Or all of that. It was best not to have expectations. Just put your head down and deal with it. He had walked through all of it, every day after school, all winter long, no matter what the weather was.
And today wasn't bad. The air was softer, warmer at last. Standing on the steps in front of school, ignoring the kids joking and teasing each other and flowing out around him, he started to zip up his sweatshirt as usual, but then left it open. He felt the warm, soft air through his T-shirt. He walked down the steps and turned right, as he did every day after school, and he started to walk past the gym.
The gym was the other place he wasn't going into anymore, after school. It was in a high brick block that stuck out from the rest of the school, and around the corner on the Grove Street side it had narrow windows along the top of the wall. All through the winter, when he'd looked up there as he walked past in the afternoon, he had seen the yellow gym light and heard the guys or the coach yelling and the balls bouncing and the stop-and-start squeaking of their shoes.
He had known, all winter long, that if he'd ever pulled open the gym door and walked in there during basketball practice for the ninth-grade boys' team, it would have been a big thing. A major event. The guys would have all figured he'd finally come to his senses. Why, after all, would the kid who had been the best player on every school and AAU basketball team he'd ever joined, from fourth grade on, suddenly when he got to the freshman level—when he finally got the chance to put on the city uniform, just two steps from varsity—refuse to go out? Refuse to play, to practice, even to touch the ball? It didn't make sense. But he never explained, and he never pulled open the door. Never came close. Every afternoon, all winter, he had just walked by. Now the season was over and the bouncing and squeaking had stopped.
At the Grove Street light, he turned up the music in his headphones. The light was red and there were two crossing guards. Each day he had to decide which way to turn. This was his big choice of the afternoon: turn left and walk toward the little city's downtown, or turn right toward his own neighborhood and the house he wasn't going into—not till dinnertime, when the creeps and losers were gone.
He turned left and started to walk along Grove Street toward downtown. It was interesting, once you had left the school and the choices you'd made behind and you had the headphones on and the music turned up, and you were just walking and looking around. It was like watching a movie with a soundtrack—a film you could walk right through, but you weren't really part of. He wasn't in this movie anymore. He didn't want to be. So he just walked and looked around.
Cars swished past on the slightly wet street. In each, a face slipped by; you'd see it for a second and then it was gone. The sidewalk along Grove Street had been buckled here and there by the spring thaw, so that sections of it were tented up and others tilted down, like an obstacle course. He stepped off the sidewalk, onto the street, to go around the slow-walking guy in the old torn parka patched with duct tape. The guy in the patched parka always walked slowly, partly because of how he was, but also because he was looking for empty, tossed-away bottles and cans to redeem for the five-cent deposit. The man's head was bobbing around and a white plastic shopping bag drooped from his hand, with what looked like just a couple of empties inside. He had a lot of slow searching ahead before he'd have enough to take over to the redemption center. Along the street came a lady jogger in shiny purple tights, running with high steps and pushing a jogger's bicycle-wheeled baby carriage. In between the wheels was a kind of tent, of bright yellow nylon, with the baby zipped inside.
What was the point? The boy wondered this. He often did, walking and seeing the same sort of things day after day. What was the point of picking up empties for redemption, what was the point of jogging a baby inside a yellow tent? If a car were to suddenly swerve (maybe on a last patch of black ice) and kill him at this moment, would the world be any different? Not really. If the same thing were to happen to him in sixty years—let's say he still happened to be walking on Grove Street in sixty years—would it really matter then either? Was it supposed to matter? Did it ever?
He wasn't sure. Do lives have a point? All these people slipping by, these faces in the cars—do they need their lives to be something, to mean something, to leave more than a second's quick swish on a slightly wet street? Maybe they're all interchangeable faces in interchangeable cars, the way they seem to be right now: moving parts that just get tossed away after they're worn out or broken in an accident, and each part doesn't matter, not really. Maybe the whole machine is rusty and faded and creaky, like an old New England car after too many long winters.
He stepped off the sidewalk again, this time to walk around a man in a raincoat. But the man stepped aside, too. The boy stepped back on the sidewalk, but then so did the man. The boy looked up to see that the man was talking at him. He was a balding guy in a dark suit with a tan raincoat, and he was talking at him. He looked angry, or stern. The boy didn't get it. He switched off his music and took off the phones.
"It's a God-given talent," the man was saying. "When you have a talent like that, God wants you to use it. To use it. Why else would you have it, for God's sake?"
He just looked at the man.
Now the man pointed at him. "Who are you to tell God it was wasted—a wasted investment?" the man said. "Not to mention the other guys. You know what kind of season they had. They hardly won a game. It's just a shame. When a kid has something special and he just walks away from that specialness ..."
The man stepped back, looked at the boy, bunched his mouth up tight, and shook his head. He stepped past the boy and started walking. But as he did he said, loudly so the boy would hear: "It's just a goddamn shame."CHAPTER 2
That evening in their apartment a block behind Grove Street, Katie Henoch and her mom finished their dinner and their after-dinner squabble, ending with their after-dinner slamming of doors. In her room now, Katie looked at the phone and the computer and decided, the phone first.
Tamra, almost always the first choice of her three best friends, answered, to Katie's relief.
"Am I special enough?"
"Katie. Of course you are. Special enough for what?"
"For anything. For something. God, I don't know—that's just it. Am I special enough for something?" (Or someone, Katie thought, but didn't say.)
"You are very special. Exceptionally specially special," said Tam. "For example, you are the absolute queen of the unanswerable question."
Katie sputtered a laugh, spraying the phone. Then she felt grateful no one had seen her do that.
"But—please don't humor me," she said. "Everybody always humors me." By "everybody" she meant the brain trust: Tam, Sam, and Hope. For a long time, for the whole time since the four girls had started Jeffords Junior High School together in seventh grade, Katie's three best friends had been everybody to her. They had been through everything, all the changes, all the dramas of the middle-school years. They had got through it together. Now they were ninth-graders, and lately, though Katie never said this, even to herself, she didn't feel so totally complete with her best friends anymore. She didn't understand this feeling. She felt terrible for feeling it.
"We don't humor you, Katie," Tam said. "We love you. There's a difference."
"What's the difference between loving somebody and humoring somebody?"
Tam laughed. "There, you see? The queen."
"No, but seriously. Honestly. Why do people humor me? They don't humor you. We don't humor Sam or Hope."
"Sometimes we humor Sam."
"We don't. We tell her to snap out of it. That's not humoring her."
"So? Everybody's different. You're just you. We like you, Katie."
"I know. I do know. But ... why?"
"Why what? Why do we like you?"
"Well, yeah. I mean no. I mean, why could somebody ... you know ... like me in a different way? You know?" Katie hunched over the phone, hoping to hear something she could gather in and hold.
"Well ... you're the most loyal friend a person could have. Ever. There's nothing you wouldn't do. Second, you're smart as hell, and third, you're extremely nice-looking."
"Oh, nice-looking. God."
"What's wrong with that?"
"It's the kiss of death."
"It is not."
"It is too. It's like saying 'She has a really good personality.'"
"No it isn't, Katie, now stop!" Katie heard the sudden emotion in her best friend's voice. She felt terrible.
"I'm really sorry," she almost whispered. "I'm just ... I'm not sure about a lot of things right now."
"I know. It's okay. You're okay."
"You think so?" Katie heard her own voice waver.
"Yeah—sure. I know so."
"Well ... okay. Thanks. I better go."
"We can talk some more if you want to," Tam said.
"No, really, I better do homework. The police will be checking."
"Which, the mom police tonight or the teacher police tomorrow?"
"Does it matter?"
"Did you two get along tonight?"
"Of course not. She drives me crazy. Why can't parents stay in some glassed-in area and just, like, slide you your food?"
"You're all she's got, Katie," Tamra said.
Now Katie was tearing up. "I better ... go," she said. "I better do homework or something."
"Are you okay?"
"Yes. I think so. I'll call back later, okay? Or I'll IM. Will you be online?"
"I don't think so. I'm exhausted by instant messaging. As soon as I get on, like twenty people pop up and want to talk."
"That's' cause you're people's hero, Tam."
"Oh phoo. Do your homework."
Katie hung up. It was true about Tam—she was the one girl, at least in their grade, who had achieved status and admiration without ever seeming to care at all about status and admiration. Nobody knew how she did that. Tam didn't know; if asked she would shrug. She was just totally herself. A whole lot of other girls wanted to be Tam, had wanted to be her at one time or another. But no one else could.
Katie had wanted to be Tam most of all, for the longest time. But Katie wasn't tall like Tam, she couldn't sing like Tam, she didn't effortlessly make straight A's like Tam, and she didn't have Tam's unusual relationship with boys, which centered on beating them at every game, every sport, every contest into which Tam could dare or taunt any boy into taking her on. Tam didn't always win, but she often did; she sure tried. This made her somewhat of a controversial character—not just with certain boys who didn't appreciate losing to a girl and had to badmouth her afterward, which then Tam didn't appreciate (there had been a couple of fights, which had not ended well for either side), but also with some girls who felt Tam was ... what? Crossing the line, maybe. Or too full of herself. Or else she just made them uncomfortable, and they resented her for it. If Tam even noticed, she didn't care. This was another reason—her unconcern for what anyone else thought, at this self-conscious age—that those girls who didn't resent Tam, who weren't always running her down behind her back, tended to idolize her. If they couldn't be her, they wanted to be her best friend.
What those girls wanted, Katie had. She and Tam had been best friends for years. But lately Katie had almost begun to feel she was over Tam. This too made her feel horrible. She felt deeply disloyal—but it was true. Katie still loved Tam's escapades and her way of being so individualistic, but she wasn't infatuated with her anymore. Tam was still Tam. It was Katie who was changing.
Katie couldn't talk to anyone about this stuff. When you're feeling that you're not who you were and you're not sure who you are, and when that means you need something your best friends can't give you, you can't talk to your best friends about that, so who? Who could she talk to now?
Katie looked at the laptop on her desk, then at her backpack beside her on the bed with her homework inside. She went over to the desk, grabbed her laptop, and flopped back on the bed while pulling open the top. She woke the machine up with a tap on a key and took it online.
There was a place she'd been visiting lately, where she wanted to go again. She'd found it just messing around one day. She hadn't told Tam or anyone. Her friends were dead set against Katie visiting chat rooms, even youth-only rooms. Anyone could pretend to be anything, they said. But Katie felt okay about this room. It was on a site called justeens.com, a chat room called MeaningQuest. She'd just visited a couple of times so far, and had only listened, watching the conversations scroll along, wondering sometimes where the people were from. Were they even Americans? Sometimes she looked for clues.
Tonight, though, she wanted to talk.
KTbug: Is anybody there?
KTbug: Just somebody?
1wanderR: i guess. anybody else here?
1wanderR: i guess not
KTbug: But u r still somebody, right?
1wanderR: i could say no but ... here I am
KTbug: U ever wonder if u are enough?
1wanderR: huh? no. i wonder what's the point
KTbug: Isn't it to find your destiny?
1wanderR: you really think there's destiny?
KTbug: Well ... sure. I feel like I'm in a big play, and I'm standing offstage waiting to go on but nobody's told me what my part is yet. I don't know how I'm supposed to find out.
1wanderR: if it's a play what happens when it's over and the curtain comes down?
KTbug: Don't know ... We get to go home?
1wanderR: or maybe there's new actors tomorrow and there is no home?
KTbug: Whoa! Can you please come in out of the void?
KTbug: Isn't it cold out there?
KTbug: I bet
1wanderR: come in out of the void ... that's not bad
KTbug: It just came to me
1wanderR: or at least put your voidcoat on
KTbug: Voidcoat? Is that like a raincoat?
1wanderR: whoa you are quick
KTbug: Hey be nice
1wanderR: be NICE? we're at the edge of the void and you say be NICE?
KTbug: What better time?
1wanderR: oh right ... that what mom would say?
KTbug: Mom would say, put your voidcoat on dear, I'm empty
1wanderR: my mom would never say that. not improving enough
KTbug: So u don't need a mom. That's good : )
1wanderR: i hate all smiley faces
KTbug: I can see why
1wanderR: so what IS the point?
KTbug: Goddess knows
1wanderR: whoa a goddess fancier ... female no doubt
KTbug: Put your voidcoat on now dear
1wanderR: when do I get to take it off?
KTbug: Hey! this is a spiritual room. R u just some slimeball? If u r I'm signing off.
1wanderR: no don't go
KTbug: U r not really 50 & male & disgusting, right?
1wanderR: only male & disgusting
KTbug: Well sure. This is fun though. I mean kind of
1wanderR: kind of definitely
KTbug: Tell me about u? A little? Just so I know a little
1wanderR: 15 kind of out there, holes in voidcoat
KTbug: Patch voidcoat with black holes u know. More?
1wanderR: live in Vermont, of all nowhere places, depressing town. spend days confined to prisonlike setting called jeffords junior high
1wanderR: you never heard of it
KTbug: Sure, I mean no ... What you do after school?
1wanderR: spend it walking streets of depressing town
KTbug: Uh ... OK ...
1wanderR: hey you are not a black widow, right?
1wanderR: you know—black widow. mates, then digests mate
KTbug: O. No. No digestion. Or mate. So far
1wanderR: what a relief. I mean about the digestion. the mate too
1wanderR: still there? yo?
KTbug: Yes. If ... someone were to see this wanderer ... what would someone see?
1wanderR: i dunno ... hood up, headphones on. the usual. why?
KTbug: Well ... just imagining. Anything else u do? In school or whatever?
1wanderR: no. used to but stopped
KTbug: Used to what?
1wanderR: played ball. but stopped
1wanderR: bball. basket
KTbug: Not too good? I can't make basket if dropped thru while clutching ball
1wanderR: i was leading scorer last year—all last years. but play no more right now
KTbug: No more? Uh ... 9 grade?
1wanderR: yeah. howd you know?
KTbug: Well ... You said 15. Lucky guess I guess
1wanderR: hey gotta go
KTbug: OK but ... tomorrow night? Same time? 8?
1wanderR: if you wanna
KTbug: Sure ... I mean why not? But on regular IM this time, not public room. OK?
1wanderR: swear you are no black widow
KTbug: I swear. Wear your voidcoat till then OK?
1wanderR: sure bye
KTbug: 8 tomorrow OK bye : )
KTbug: Sorry about the face! R u there?
<1wanderR has signed off at 8:46 p.m.>
Katie signed off, too, feeling her heart thumping in her ears. She lunged across the bed and grabbed the phone.
"Something just happened!"
"Did you get any work done?"
"No—Tamra! You will not believe who I was just in a chat room with!"
Excerpted from Falling by Doug Wilhelm. Copyright © 2007 Doug Wilhelm. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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