Read an Excerpt
It had taken me five years, but I’d finally found my way to Zooey Andrews’s heart. Now I was going to die there.
The world around me felt like it was shaking itself to pieces, the deafening thump and whoosh of blood roaring through the great vessels, spinning me around in a whirlpool, sucking away whatever remained of my equilibrium.
I knew that if I had thirty seconds to think about it, to analyze the data, I could figure this out. But I didn’t. It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Not at all.
I’m sorry, Zooey.
Everything tightened, and I felt the elastic bands of cardiac muscle shaking like a runaway roller coaster. White blood cells came bursting through, crowding my vision, sticky white leukocytes lunging forward from all sides in a swarm of doomed immunity. Who could’ve guessed that the heart of a fourteen-year-old girl was such a violent place?
My back was to the wall of the left ventricle. It was a little over a centimeter thick, but it might as well have been made of reinforced concrete. There was no place to run. After less than six hours inside Zooey’s system, I’d almost managed to kill her. Now she was returning the favor.
I guess we weren’t meant to be together after all.
You can’t blame a guy for trying.
One : : : Lenny
Love and science don’t mix.
You could say that I should’ve known that from the start, and you’d probably be right, but it wouldn’t change the way that I felt about Zooey. I’d been in love with her since the day we first met, and in a way, everything I ever did, everything I ever dreamed of achieving, was all for her.
I’d known her since third grade when she saved my butt on the playground. A kid named Mick Mason had been teasing me, trying to pick a fight for some reason. Maybe he didn’t like the color of my backpack. Maybe it was because it was a Monday, or the cafeteria had served fish sticks that day. Who knows? Whatever it was, he finally got sick of waiting and just started punching. He had me pinned me down under the tetherball post and landed two or three good hits when a hand with chipped pink fingernail polish grabbed him and hauled him off.
I looked up. The dark-haired presence in jeans and a vintage Nirvana T-shirt was hovering over me, early-afternoon sunlight blazing from behind her. She reached down and helped me up, brushing the black crumbs of asphalt from my cheek and looking at me strangely.
"Are you crying?"
"What? No. No. I’m just . . . sweating."
"From your eyes?"
I gazed at her, unable to speak. I was only eight years old, but I knew true beauty when I saw it. She had smooth hair that swung down past her shoulders and the kind of scratchy voice that made it sound like she’d just stopped laughing or was about to start again. Behind her glasses, her eyes were that pure methylene blue that you only see in perfectly balanced chemical solutions.
Zooey smiled. "So, you’re okay?"
"Yeah," I said. "Thanks. My name’s—"
"Lenny Cyrus," she said. "I know."
"You . . ." The sting of the attack disappeared instantly in a warm buzz of disbelief. "You know my name?"
From that moment on, all the kids in school talked about me in a whole new way.
"Lenny Cyrus got saved by a girl!"
You’d think that something like that would only last a few days, a couple weeks at the most, definitely no more than a month, until people found something more interesting to talk about. At least that’s what my mom and dad said.
"The average attention span of a third-grader is six seconds," my father said from behind his laptop. It was dinnertime, and he was typing an e-mail in between bites of chicken Kiev. "Trust me, they’ll move on to something else before you know it."
"Listen to your father." That was my mom, from behind her laptop, on the other side of the table, clicking away even faster while she picked at her salad. "He knows what it’s like to be ostracized by his peers." She glanced up at him. "Remember the Gluck fellowship, honey?"
"Don’t remind me," Dad said, reaching over to touch her hand.
She smiled. "Poor baby."
My parents always talked that way. They’d been high school sweethearts, and the two things they had in common were that a) after sixteen years of marriage they were both still crazy in love, and b) they were both geniuses. And by that, I don’t mean that they were just, you know, really smart. They were both adjunct professors at the University of Chicago, they had IQs of 194 and 187 (Dad never quite forgave Mom for those extra seven points), with a total of six doctorates, three newly discovered subatomic particles, and the shared Nobel Prize for physics for their work "in helping discover the mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry on the microscopic level." We had an x-ray crystallography rig in the basement and a pulsar timing array on the roof, next to the Santa Claus sled and reindeer that Dad had forgotten to take down after Christmas. Merging supermassive black holes had always been one of Dad’s weekend hobbies, along with Civil War relics and home brewing.
So, when it came to my problems at school, I did what any kid with genius parents would have done.
I listened to them.
It turned out to be a huge mistake. Not only did Zooey Andrews and I not become friends after what happened on the playground, but she stopped talking to me completely. At the end of fourth grade, she got new glasses, big black-framed ones, which somehow made her look even prettier. She’d started sitting off in the corner of the cafeteria by herself, writing in black spiral notebooks, glancing up once in a while to make sure that the world hadn’t changed in any profound way while she’d been finishing her last sentence. In sixth grade, she joined the drama club and helped build sets and make costumes for the middle school play, Mary Poppins, and I kept wondering what she was really working on in those notebooks.
Meanwhile, I just disappeared.
It wasn’t on purpose. I won the regional science fair, got my picture in the paper for the model cold-fusion reactor that I built in my garage, and helped a high school quarterback who was five years older than me get through basic math—but I couldn’t change my status to save my life. By the end of seventh grade, I had sprouted up four inches and was one of the tallest kids in my class, but it didn’t matter. I was so radioactive that most of the kids in school didn’t even bother picking on me except when some overgrown glandular case had to release some testosterone. I had completely faded into the realm of the invisible, lost among the misfits whose freakishness was so extreme that it was just easier to pretend they didn’t exist.
My parents seemed to think all this was good news.
"I know you don’t understand this now," my mom said one night, as she and Dad were finishing their application for research time on Brookhaven’s polarized proton collider, "but someday when you’re on the cover of Newsweek, advising the president on how to solve the energy crisis, you’ll look back on middle school and smile."
That wasn’t what I wanted. I was going to be fourteen in April, with the rest of my teenage years stretching out in front of me like the endless desert of an atomic test site. I thought about Zooey Andrews.
Being invisible wasn’t enough anymore.
"Any other advice?"
"Just be yourself, honey," my mom said. "Trust me, if this Zephyr person is worth the effort—"
"—Right. If she’s worth your time, then she’ll eventually realize how special you really are." ***
My best friend, Harlan, had another way of putting it.
"You just have to do something so cool that even Zooey can’t deny its awesomeness." We were walking down the hall on the way to the cafeteria, which, according to Harlan, was where he did his best thinking. He had a Mountain Dew in one hand and a Snickers bar in the other.
"That’s not very helpful," I said. "Anything more specific?"
"Start small. Maybe try freezing the whole school so we all get to go home early or something."
"Yeah, right," I said. Harlan definitely wasn’t stupid, but he wasn’t exactly a rocket scientist either. He listened to hip-hop, rode a skateboard, and had lived down the street from me since we were in kindergarten. In fact, he was shockingly normal. The weirdest thing about him, besides his ability to make tropical bird noises in the back of social studies class, was that in spite of everything I’d done, he was still my best friend.
I looked up the hallway and stopped.
Up ahead, I saw Mick Mason and one of his lackeys change direction and start heading toward us at what my brain automatically calculated as a perfect fifty-two-degree angle. The moment they saw us—saw me—a predatory glint flashed through Mick’s expression. Anybody who doubts that middle school is like a Discovery Channel documentary on natural selection just hasn’t been paying attention.
Harlan skimmed between them without even noticing they were there, but when I tried to follow, Mick and his pal both came in close, popped out their elbows, and jammed them into my ribs from either side as they passed. By the time Harlan realized what had happened and turned around, they were gone.
"Lenny, are you all right?"
"I’m . . . fine." My rib cage felt like it had been popped open with giant set of nutcrackers, but I didn’t see any need to tell him that.
Harlan glanced back. "Did those guys do something to you, Lenny?"
"No, I’m good," I managed. "You were saying something about . . . freezing the school?"
"Yeah, or maybe, like . . . send it back in time, or something." He shrugged and stepped into the lunch line. "You’re the genius. You’ll figure something out."
Twenty minutes later, as we were sitting in the computer lab, killing time before the next class, I came across the answer.
"Harlan, check this out."
"The Singer Prize?" He squinted at the screen, barely distracted from the page of dirt bikes and ATVs that he’d been checking out. "Never heard of it."
"Every year the U.S. Department of Education gives an award for the greatest scientific achievement by a middle school student." I grabbed a quick breath. Sometimes when I talk fast, I forget to breathe. "It is, hands down, the most prestigious award in the middle school scientific community."
"Dude." Harlan looked at me. "You’re going to win Zooey over with a science project?"
"Dude," I said, imitating him, "the kid who won last year got to have dinner with the president."
"They flew him to the White House on Air Force One." I actually wasn’t sure about that last part, but the visual of me stepping off the jet at Dulles International and gazing out at a crowd of reporters with Zooey Andrews on my arm as a plus-one was too good to resist.
"Okay," Harlan admitted, "that might do it. If you could come up with the right idea."
"No problem," I said. "I’ve already got it."