Wolf Boy

( 2 )

Overview

On a frosty winter’s day, Francis—the sweet, generous, responsible eldest child of the Harrelson family—dies in a car accident on an ice-covered highway, and Wolf Boy is born.

The earth doesn’t rumble, no angels descend, and the sun doesn’t weep. Nothing, in short, to signify the deep change that each member of the Harrelson household will undergo. Parents Gene and Helen turn away from each other and look inward, losing themselves in private fantasies. Ten-year-old Crispy ...

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Overview

On a frosty winter’s day, Francis—the sweet, generous, responsible eldest child of the Harrelson family—dies in a car accident on an ice-covered highway, and Wolf Boy is born.

The earth doesn’t rumble, no angels descend, and the sun doesn’t weep. Nothing, in short, to signify the deep change that each member of the Harrelson household will undergo. Parents Gene and Helen turn away from each other and look inward, losing themselves in private fantasies. Ten-year-old Crispy devises elaborate strategies for her escape from the suffocating clutch of the Harrelson home and into the waiting arms of pop star Marky Mark.

But the heart of this family portrait is younger brother Stephen, who, along with his quirky and creative friend Nicole, crafts an alternative reality in which their comic book hero, Wolf Boy, battles the forces of evil, champions the powers of good, and fights to keep his family intact. Through Wolf Boy, Stephen finds an outlet for his grief and a concrete expression for his place in a family spiraling out of control and for all the natural yearnings and hopes of a typical thirteen-year-old. Wolf Boy’s adventures are featured throughout the book, introducing a graphic-novel subplot that adds humor and visual interest and stretches the limits of the conventional novel.

With warmth, humor, hope, and empathy, Evan Kuhlman’s debut novel is truly unforgettable and signals a fresh new voice in today’s fiction.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
A comic strip about a brother's death? Unusual, but very little is usual in Kuhlman's understated yet searing novel, Wolf Boy, which chronicles a year in the life of a family that has suffered an unthinkable loss.

College student Francis Harrelson leaves home one morning to drive to a conference in Chicago. It's such an ordinary day that his family barely registers his departure. But before the afternoon ends, Francis will be killed in a car accident. His father, Gene, is the recipient of the crushing news and informs the rest of the family, in effect "firing the gun," as Kuhlman skillfully puts in, that will set the family on an excruciating course.

The Harrelsons feel startlingly alone in the wake of this death. Gene wonders whether he might have changed the turn of events by delaying Francis with a few additional words that morning. Mrs. Harrelson believes that her insistence that Francis live at home instead of on campus makes her culpable. Ten-year-old Crispy takes comfort in her fantasies about a pop musician. But 13-year-old Stephen's reaction is perhaps most poignant: He creates a comic strip, "The Adventures of Wolf Boy," as a way to mourn the loss and regain control of his life. His comics appear throughout the book, helping both Stephen and readers cope with a world in which creativity and imagination can prove reliable assets. (Summer 2006 Selection)
From the Publisher
“I dipped into Evan Kuhlman’s Wolf Boy and couldn’t put it down. Interspersed throughout the pages of this imaginative and compelling novel is a unique graphic novel, cleverly drawn by Brendon and Brian Fraim, making Wolf Boy a rare treat.” —Stan Lee, comic book legend

Wolf Boy is absolutely beguiling. Evan Kuhlman has boundless empathy for all his characters, and his wonderful protagonist Stephen is, in turn, boundlessly inventive. . . . This is an auspicious debut.” —Valerie Sayers, author of Who Do You Love

“Rarely is the pain of losing someone expressed with such directness, energy, and, yes, humor. The grief in Evan Kuhlman’s Wolf Boy is palpable and so is the flawed, honest humanity of his characters. Here is real loss and, somehow, real catharsis.” —Peter Orner, author of Esther Stories

“An air of sweet sorrow mixed with hope suffuses Evan Kuhlman’s remarkable first novel . . . . Stephen Harrelson . . . is one of the most engaging adolescents to grace the pages of American fiction in a very long time.” —Eric Goodman, author of Child of My Right Hand

“Kuhlman draws careful, exacting portraits. . . . [He is] a fine stylist with an excellent eye and ear.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Kuhlman wryly dissects seemingly innocent moments. . . . The novel offers inventive twists on the story of a boy trying to save his own world.” —Publishers Weekly

From the Hardcover edition.

Publishers Weekly
Gene and Helen Harrelson sleep in separate bedrooms after a car accident in an ice storm kills their oldest child, Francis, a sophomore at the local University of Illinois, Carbondale, while younger siblings Stephen and Crispy struggle to cope with the loss of their mentor. In this dysfunctional family tale, happiness escapes the characters in a "slow, persistent leak" as Kuhlman wryly dissects seemingly innocent moments, like Stephen's assumption that the stranger on the phone is a telemarketer and not the messenger of his older brother's death. Stephen, more or less at the center of the book, channels his grief into stories for a comic called The Adventures of Wolf Boy, illustrated by his charmingly odd girlfriend, Nicole, and woven beautifully throughout the novel. Wolf Boy lives in Forgotten City and grapples with the death of older brother Johnny Laredo while battling villains and trying to save the world. But while the novel offers inventive twists on the story of a boy trying to save his own world (i.e., his grieving family), Kuhlman can't quite pack everything in, so that the small and subtle opening chapters end up getting inked out. (Apr.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
When Francis dies, his parents spin apart, his little sister dreams of pop-star romance, and his fianc e communes with his ghost. Meanwhile, Wolf Boy, his 13-year-old brother, becomes the center of a comic-strip universe he creates with a friend. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A 13-year-old struggles to come to terms with his brother's death in a fiction debut that neatly incorporates elements of the graphic novel. When Francis Harrelson, a college student, dies in a car wreck in southern Illinois in January 1993, his family is understandably heartbroken, with all members retreating into their own worlds. Helen, Francis's mother, becomes increasingly unstable, briefly checking herself into a psychiatric ward; Gene, his father, pursues an affair; Crispy, his ten-year-old sister, ponders running away from home. Stephen, Francis's brother and the book's hero, not only has to manage this turmoil, he also believes that his brother's ghost still haunts him-as does Francis's fiancee, Jasmine. To make sense of it all, he starts channeling his grief and confusion into a comic book he creates with his girlfriend, Nicole, in which Wolf Boy (a stand-in for Stephen) and his family members battle evildoers-like the man driving the truck that hit Francis's car. If the comic-book interludes are metaphorically obvious, they're still a nice touch-they capture the ways in which adolescent boys fantasize, and underscore just how much Stephen has to work through. (The illustrations, moreover, by the brothers Fraim, possess all the energy of a good superhero comic.) The novel is tidily organized to track the year following Francis's death, and that formalism is its greatest weakness. Kuhlman draws careful, exacting portraits of each member of the Harrelson family, spending real time detailing, say, Crispy's growing crush on Marky Mark, or Gene's mistress's wardrobe, which drives Gene wild. But getting those elements right means the narrative itself gets less attention, and thoughKuhlman's a fine stylist with an excellent eye and ear, Stephen's concluding revelations about his late brother feel forced and overly melodramatic. A little too pat and familiar, but nicely drawn.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307337986
  • Publisher: Crown/Archetype
  • Publication date: 11/28/2006
  • Edition description: Reprinted Edition
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 1,055,896
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Evan Kuhlman’s stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, Salt Hill, The Madison Review, Third Coast, and The Vincent Brothers Review. He is the winner of the Short-Story Award for New Writers and several journalism prizes. This is his first novel. He lives in Ohio.

Identical twin illustrators Brendon and Brian Fraim are best known for their clean line style in the Knights of the Dinner Table: Illustrated comic book. Visit them at brosfraim.com.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

Episode 1

January

Twenty minutes before breakfast had started, Stephen opened his eyes for the first time that day, having just cut short a dream where he was swimming though an underwater amusement park and was nearly out of air. He had an arrangement with his unconscious where he would wake up immediately should he run into serious trouble while dreaming. If he started falling from a dream-built skyscraper or was stuck in a pterodactyl’s beak, he’d pull the plug, stop the show, and exit the theater.

He sat up in bed, scratched himself in several places, and watched snow fall quietly outside his bedroom window, prettily frosted at its edges. Stephen was usually charged with clearing snow from the stoop, sidewalks, and driveway, so quite likely later that morning he’d be shoveling the zillion snowflakes off the concrete and blacktop into piles that, had it been three or four years earlier, he and Francis would have played King of the Mountain on; but they didn’t do that anymore and his brother was going to be gone all weekend anyway. Stephen despised winter and the entire history of human migration northward. Why didn’t people stay put in tropical climates, where colorful toucans and hooting monkeys populated the trees, not just stupid robins and humdrum squirrels? Not to mention that the holidays were done and it was only Day Thirteen of the dreaded what’s-a-boy-to-do period between the end of the Bears season and the start of the White Sox season. (He didn’t much like watching Bulls basketball, where points came too easily, or Black Hawks hockey, where points were almost impossible to get.) Bears, the animals not the football players, were the smart ones, hibernating these months away.

His bedroom was filled with the things he loved. Posters of Sox stars Frank Thomas and Carlton Fisk were taped to his walls, as were pictures cut out of pro wrestling and baseball magazines. Above his bed a model of the space shuttle Columbia hung from the ceiling by a string. (The model helped spur his many dreams of space flight, he suspected.) Under his bed were two Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures, Leonardo and Raphael, which he secretly still played with, a well-thumbed-through 1991 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and some long-missing underwear and socks. The Amazing Spider-Man #372 rested on top of the bedcovers. Stephen was midway through a story where Spider-Man was battling arachnid robots, and even though the robots had the upper hand, surely good would prevail over evil once again and the robots would be destroyed. A school photo of Nicole, Stephen’s girlfriend, was wedged between his pillows: he had kissed the picture so often it no longer tasted like chemicals. The bookcase was stuffed with Mad magazines and his comic book collection, and books about baseball, UFOs, ghosts, ESP, archaeology, and dinosaurs. On his desk he kept his ancient rocks and geodes, and some of his best baseball and football cards.

He was waiting to be called to breakfast for the third time before he responded, one of the many duties of a lazybones, when the sun found an opening in the clouds and illuminated the falling snowflakes, making them appear feathery and inner-lit. “Good job,” he said to the universe. This is the best we can do in January, the universe said back.

As he often did when nature was putting on a show for him, Stephen started thinking about God, or at least the god of design. Even though the Bible, from what he knew of it, never spoke of this, Stephen believed that an artistic god existed—maybe not in heaven minding the store but somewhere—who insisted on things like patterns for each snowflake, despite the fact that plain old flaked ice would be simpler and more efficient. This same god drew unneeded yet dazzling designs on butterfly wings and turtle shells, painted stripes on tigers and zebras, and dabbed freckles on Nicole’s face and arms. He went crazy on peacocks, could have done a little more with hippos. As Gene might have put it, God was cutting into his profits with all these bonuses and freebies.

While watching the snow and thinking about its maker, Stephen concluded that the “no two snowflakes are exactly the same” notion was a bunch of baloney, that there were, in fact, only 144 possible designs. To prove his theory he would need to build dozens of snow collection stations and place them across the globe, purchase several cameras fitted with close-up lenses, recruit an international staff of volunteers and make sure they are all hooked up to his computer database . . .

“Stephen, breakfast,” his mother yelled up the stairs. “Sleepyheads never go far in life.”

Although he was certain that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of sleepyheads had gone far in life, that greats like Einstein and “Shoeless Joe” Jackson spent considerable time dreaming up the formulas or home runs they would someday make happen, Stephen nevertheless kicked off his blanket and quilt, combed his hair with his fingers, wiped his sticky mouth on a pajama sleeve, went to the window and checked out the temporary diamonds piling up in the yard, ran into the bathroom and took a whiz, splashed water on his face and told that handsome boy in the mirror, “You have the heart of a champion,” and sprinted downstairs and into the kitchen, joining his family.

The hour before Francis left home to pick up his fiancée in Carbondale was mindlessly wasted. While Francis packed his overnight bag, Crispy and Stephen fought about which cartoons they would watch on television (Stephen’s policy was to claim to like whatever shows Crispy hated), Helen emptied the dishwasher and got started on the dusting, and Gene drove to his furniture shop to make a quick check that his new apprentice, Todd Upshaw, wasn’t raiding the cash register or smoking dope in the woodshop, this last offense being what led to the firing of Mel Griffiths, the apprentice before Todd.

Shortly after eleven, Crispy and Stephen were sitting near the TV and watching the Land of the Lost kids hide from a stegosaurus (Stephen thought that Holly, one of the lost kids, was a real cutie), when Francis came into the living room and set down his bag and squeezed Stephen’s shoulder bones. Stephen smiled and peered up at his brother and said, “Bye.” Just that single word, nothing poetic or saving. Crispy did a better job in her farewells. She jumped up on Francis, wrapped her arms around his neck, and gave him three pecks on his mouth. Francis carried her all of the way to the front door, Crispy dangling like a necklace, and then she dropped to the floor and scampered back to the television set.

“I’m heading out,” Francis said loudly, pulling open the door. Stephen turned and looked at his brother and waved. Francis was always leaving and returning. It was no big deal.

“Say hello to Jasmine for us,” said Helen, coming out of the den. “And drive safely.” She was holding a feather duster in her right hand so she gave Francis a quick, one-armed hug.

“Will do. See everyone Monday,” Francis said. He slung the strap of his bag onto his shoulder and left.

Outside, Gene had just returned home and was brushing snow off Francis’s car, a maroon 1990 Plymouth. Gene started to reach for his wallet while asking his son if he needed a Jackson or two for snack money or parking fees, but Francis waved him off. “Okay then, have a good time at your mushroom shindig,” Gene said. The snow had just stopped falling and a patch of blue sky hung above them. Perhaps that’s where beauty showed itself, in the arrival of blueness on an otherwise gray day. Or in the way a chilly breeze moved Francis’s hair or how the cold had pinkened his face and made his eyes wet as he stood, alive, just a few feet from his father.

“The conference might be a real ho-hummer,” Francis said. “Have you ever been in a room with three hundred mycologists, most of them professors and grad students? I’m hoping to shake things up a little if I don’t chicken out.”

Gene shrugged. He couldn’t imagine driving all the way to Chicago just to spend the weekend with three hundred anything, except maybe leggy supermodels. “You better get going,” he said. “May the road rise up to meet you, and all of that happy Irish crap.”

Francis smiled, then opened the car door with a gloved hand and tossed his bag in the backseat and slid inside. He wrapped a seat belt around his belly, glanced in the rearview mirror, pulled off his scarf and patted down his hair, started the car, pumped the accelerator, ran the windshield wipers twice, checked the mirror again, and backed down the driveway and headed north on Briarwood, waving spastically and honking the car horn three times.

As Francis and the Plymouth disappeared down the street, Gene waved the snowbrush at him. He had meant to make sure that Francis had his own brush, as well as flares, jumper cables, a bag of sand, a shovel, and a blanket, in case he got caught in a blizzard or had car trouble. But he had forgotten to ask.

Gene will soon think of himself as Francis’s last chance. Had he embraced him, or said a few more words, or even tackled Francis and pinned him to the ground for a minute he would have altered fate by delaying his departure. But he failed to act and his boy paid for it. Helen, Crispy, and Stephen will adopt similar beliefs. If they had said or done one little thing Francis might have survived that day. One stupid little thing.

After lunch, Stephen put on his coat and boots and grabbed the radio-controlled monster truck he had gotten for Christmas as his big present and ran outside. He set the truck down in the yard and pushed a lever on the control and the truck leapt forward, but soon its wheels were clogged with snow and all it wanted to do was whine and squeal and spin its wheels and not go anywhere. The truck’s cries reminded Stephen of his sister, who seemed to have a complaint attached to every exhalation of breath: the ice cream she was eating didn’t have enough chocolate chips or the buttons on her new blouse were too slippery. He let go of the lever and set the control in his coat pocket, then started kicking through the few inches of snow in the yard to make a path that the truck might follow, and for the pleasure of disturbing nature’s plans for an even dusting, a joy similar to throwing a rock into a puddle or rumpling the covers of a freshly made-up bed. When Stephen stopped his kicking he looked back at the lane of grass. He had just done a good deed, he thought, freeing up some green in very un-green January.

“Shiver me timbers,” he said, starting to feel the cold. It was one of Gene’s winter lines, while Helen sometimes said, “It’s as cold as a witch’s disposition.” The key to winter survival was to keep busy, Stephen remembered, so he bent and grabbed a glove full of snow and tried to form a snowball out of it, but the ball quickly crumbled. He was planning to make dozens of snowballs and then lure Crispy outside, or, if that failed, to build a snow fort, but it wasn’t very good snow for packing (the formula was a little off), and fort-building was likely on that growing list of fun things he was pretty sure thirteen-year-old boys could no longer get away with.

Snow started to fall again, more energetically. He caught several snowflakes on his gloves and examined them before the flakes, under orders to not reveal the secret of limited number of designs, melted themselves. But it was too late: he had definitely seen these patterns before. Stephen peered at the eyeball-white sky and imagined God sitting on a wooden stool in his workshop and joyously cranking blocks of ice through some kind of snowflake maker, one with a rotating design wheel.

The wind picked up and chilled him, and since there was no one to play with Stephen decided to go back inside his warm house. He started trudging to the front door, and when he came upon the radio-controlled truck he walked right by it. In an hour or two his mother or father would see the truck and call him a nincompoop or something worse for leaving his best toy in the front yard, where one of the bad kids in the neighborhood might see it and steal it. Stephen periodically felt the need to remind Helen and Gene that he was part of the family. They’d never own up to it, but his mother clearly favored Francis while his father loved Crispy the most. He hated being the middle child.

Pulling open the front door, that first wave of heated air felt something like love. While he admired those thick-skinned souls who rode dogsleds across the Yukon or who manned science outposts in Antarctica, for now Stephen was happy to live a warm and cozy existence. He slammed the door shut, took off his coat and boots in the foyer, then went into the living room where he sat on the carpet and placed his socked feet against a heater vent, wiggling his toes. His parents were elsewhere in the house, so he wouldn’t get busted for being a “heat hog.” When his feet were toasty he scooted over to the TV and turned it on and saw that an old Godzilla movie was playing, so he stretched out on the floor and watched the film. In a scene where Japanese citizens were running like crazy to get away from Godzilla, he inserted himself in the movie. He was the little boy wearing a white baseball cap. His name might have been Terry. His hat went flying off, in the path of Godzilla, and for a second Terry thought about going back for his beloved hat, but he decided to keep running. He could get another cap but not another life.

Crispy danced into the living room and started twirling her silver baton. Stephen didn’t understand why his parents allowed his sister to twirl the baton indoors since periodically the baton would escape her and bounce off walls, lamps, or his head. He stood up and was about to retreat to the safety of the couch when the phone, a green cordless with oversized numbers on the dial pad, which Gene had bought at the Kmart in Caswell a year earlier despite the fact that Helen had told him to get a beige or white phone so it would go with the wallpaper and carpeting (she also didn’t much like the large numbers), chimed. Stephen was the closest to the phone so he answered it.

From the Hardcover edition.

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First Chapter

prologueThe phone call informing them of Francis's death came while Stephen was watching a Godzilla movie on TV and his sister was twirling her baton about ten feet away from him and his mother was in the kitchen making a carrot cake and his father was putzing around in the den, trying to think of something to do.It was the second Saturday in January, 1993, a day Stephen's father would later describe as "unusually beautiful," but in truth it was a rather typical winter day for southern Illinois, where it would snow for a while, let up, and start snowing again. The sun did pop out here and there, causing the snow in their yard and on the tree branches to glitter, but despite the occasional blast of sunshine the temperature stayed quite chilly, high around fifteen degrees.If that monstrous day held any beauty, perhaps it was when the family gathered for breakfast, Francis still alive and with them, talking and eating and gesturing and making plans, as the Harrelsons, five then not four, spent their last moments of innocence -- at least for Stephen and his sister, who knew almost nothing of death and its apparent lifelong sting.Breakfast began when Stephen appeared in the dining room, stretched the last molecules of sleep out of his bones, and took his seat next to Crispy, his sister, and across from Francis, his brother. His parents, Helen and Gene, were seated at opposite ends of the table like children who couldn't get along.Stephen was in the habit of complimenting his mother on her cooking skills, just to see the smile that would bloom on her face, so the first words he said that morning were, "Something sure smells good.""It's my new strawberry lip gloss," Crispy said."Not you," he said. "You smell like a donkey.""Dad!" she complained."Enough," Gene said.Stephen spooned a small portion of scrambled eggs onto his plate from an iron skillet. Helen stood up and poured Minute Maid pulp-free orange juice into four glasses and a Tom and Jerry commemorative jelly jar (for Crispy) and distributed the juice around the table. Francis, who often had problems with congestion in the morning, held a paper napkin to his mouth and made sounds like an engine that wouldn't turn over, trying to clear his raw throat. Crispy started humming the song "Good Vibrations" by Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. She bopped her head and danced in her chair, pretending that she was at least a few years older than ten. Sugar-loving Gene slopped blackberry jam on wheat toast that he had already buttered.Gene was normally a grump in the morning, so it was smart not to say anything that he might take as an invitation to respond with grunts or with words made mean through exaggerated inflection, such as saying "oh, happy day!" to Helen needing the car. But Francis didn't always play it safe."I think it's going to be a good conference," he said, while chopping at his eggs with a spoon. "Dr. Albertson from Berkeley is the keynote lecturer. He's probably the top mycology guy in the country, though Dr. Fisher at Yale might disagree." Later that day, Francis and his fiancée, Jasmine, were driving to Chicago to attend the annual Midwest Mycology Conference at the Sheraton. Francis was one of five undergraduates selected to present a paper to fellow students. Gene was glaring at the slow-drip coffeemaker, encouraging it to speed up. "Sounds like a barrel of laughs," he said in Francis's direction. Stephen grimaced and momentarily lost his appetite. Why was his father the kind of person you had to put up with instead of a great man?"Drive carefully," Helen said, reaching for the saltshaker. "Arty's predicting occasional flurries for most of the day." Arty was Arthur Gifford, the Channel 7 meteorologist for the past nineteen years. He was a handsome man with a firm chin and a healthy Nordic glow, and he was Helen's imaginary lover. Helen required a rich fantasy life. Gene stopped paying attention to her sometime during the Iran-Contra hearings."I'll probably let Jasmine drive so I can prepare for my presentation," Francis said. "I'm going to be talking about fairy rings -- you know, those mushrooms that pop up in our yard every spring. Fascinating little buggers. People once thought the rings were formed by dragons setting their butts on the ground."Crispy giggled at the word butts and spat out a piece of egg. Stephen offered his sister a grossed-out look, then glanced at his brother and watched him sip his orange juice. While he never told Francis this, he believed that his brother was lucky to be so beautiful. Francis had long eyelashes, thin blond hair, and pale blue eyes, the watered-down blue of dyed Easter eggs. His appearance was that of something delicate and unprotected, in the rabbit and kitten class, and should someone or something ever attack Francis his only hope would be to outrun him, her, or it, which he likely could do. When Stephen and his brother used to run together through the neighborhood, Francis training for his high school cross-country meets, it was usually a dead heat or close to it, though Stephen often suspected that his brother would let up at the end so they'd finish neck and neck."So what are your plans for today, deadhead?" Francis asked Stephen."Probe that girlfriend of yours?""Mind your language," Gene said, protecting Princess Crispy from the foul words that men sometimes speak."We'll probably go sledding later, if she's not grounded again," Stephen said."I'm going, too," Crispy said."I figured that already," said Stephen, sticking a finger into his mouth and pretending to gag himself.What didn't happen next: the earth didn't rumble, and the house wasn't suddenly bathed in a purplish, heavenly light. No angels descended, the sun didn't weep, and a flaming golden chariot piloted by Apollo failed to appear at the front door. Even though Francis's life was winding down, none of them heard the ticking clock. So they all just sat there, eating their eggs and drinking their juice, when they should have been smothering Francis with kisses and telling him a thousand sweet things.episode 1
January
Twenty minutes before breakfast had started, Stephen opened his eyes for the first time that day, having just cut short a dream where he was swimming though an underwater amusement park and was nearly out of air. He had an arrangement with his unconscious where he would wake up immediately should he run into serious trouble while dreaming. If he started falling from a dream-built skyscraper or was stuck in a pterodactyl's beak, he'd pull the plug, stop the show, and exit the theater.He sat up in bed, scratched himself in several places, and watched snow fall quietly outside his bedroom window, prettily frosted at its edges. Stephen was usually charged with clearing snow from the stoop, sidewalks, and driveway, so quite likely later that morning he'd be shoveling the zillion snowflakes off the concrete and blacktop into piles that, had it been three or four years earlier, he and Francis would have played King of the Mountain on; but they didn't do that anymore and his brother was going to be gone all weekend anyway. Stephen despised winter and the entire history of human migration northward. Why didn't people stay put in tropical climates, where colorful toucans and hooting monkeys populated the trees, not just stupid robins and humdrum squirrels? Not to mention that the holidays were done and it was only Day Thirteen of the dreaded what's-a-boy-to-do period between the end of the Bears season and the start of the White Sox season. (He didn't much like watching Bulls basketball, where points came too easily, or Black Hawks hockey, where points were almost impossible to get.) Bears, the animals not the football players, were the smart ones, hibernating these months away.His bedroom was filled with the things he loved. Posters of Sox stars Frank Thomas and Carlton Fisk were taped to his walls, as were pictures cut out of pro wrestling and baseball magazines. Above his bed a model of the space shuttle Columbia hung from the ceiling by a string. (The model helped spur his many dreams of space flight, he suspected.) Under his bed were two Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures, Leonardo and Raphael, which he secretly still played with, a well-thumbed-through 1991 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and some long-missing underwear and socks. The Amazing Spider-Man #372 rested on top of the bedcovers. Stephen was midway through a story where Spider-Man was battling arachnid robots, and even though the robots had the upper hand, surely good would prevail over evil once again and the robots would be destroyed. A school photo of Nicole, Stephen's girlfriend, was wedged between his pillows: he had kissed the picture so often it no longer tasted like chemicals. The bookcase was stuffed with Mad magazines and his comic book collection, and books about baseball, UFOs, ghosts, ESP, archaeology, and dinosaurs. On his desk he kept his ancient rocks and geodes, and some of his best baseball and football cards.He was waiting to be called to breakfast for the third time before he responded, one of the many duties of a lazybones, when the sun found an opening in the clouds and illuminated the falling snowflakes, making them appear feathery and inner-lit. "Good job," he said to the universe. This is the best we can do in January, the universe said back.As he often did when nature was putting on a show for him, Stephen started thinking about God, or at least the god of design. Even though the Bible, from what he knew of it, never spoke of this, Stephen believed that an artistic god existed -- maybe not in heaven minding the store but somewhere -- who insisted on things like patterns for each snowflake, despite the fact that plain old flaked ice would be simpler and more efficient. This same god drew unneeded yet dazzling designs on butterfly wings and turtle shells, painted stripes on tigers and zebras, and dabbed freckles on Nicole's face and arms. He went crazy on peacocks, could have done a little more with hippos. As Gene might have put it, God was cutting into his profits with all these bonuses and freebies.While watching the snow and thinking about its maker, Stephen concluded that the "no two snowflakes are exactly the same" notion was a bunch of baloney, that there were, in fact, only 144 possible designs. To prove his theory he would need to build dozens of snow collection stations and place them across the globe, purchase several cameras fitted with close-up lenses, recruit an international staff of volunteers and make sure they are all hooked up to his computer database . . ."Stephen, breakfast," his mother yelled up the stairs. "Sleepyheads never go far in life."Although he was certain that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of sleepyheads had gone far in life, that greats like Einstein and "Shoeless Joe" Jackson spent considerable time dreaming up the formulas or home runs they would someday make happen, Stephen nevertheless kicked off his blanket and quilt, combed his hair with his fingers, wiped his sticky mouth on a pajama sleeve, went to the window and checked out the temporary diamonds piling up in the yard, ran into the bathroom and took a whiz, splashed water on his face and told that handsome boy in the mirror, "You have the heart of a champion," and sprinted downstairs and into the kitchen, joining his family.The hour before Francis left home to pick up his fiancée in Carbondale was mindlessly wasted. While Francis packed his overnight bag, Crispy and Stephen fought about which cartoons they would watch on television (Stephen's policy was to claim to like whatever shows Crispy hated), Helen emptied the dishwasher and got started on the dusting, and Gene drove to his furniture shop to make a quick check that his new apprentice, Todd Upshaw, wasn't raiding the cash register or smoking dope in the woodshop, this last offense being what led to the firing of Mel Griffiths, the apprentice before Todd. Shortly after eleven, Crispy and Stephen were sitting near the TV and watching the Land of the Lost kids hide from a stegosaurus (Stephen thought that Holly, one of the lost kids, was a real cutie), when Francis came into the living room and set down his bag and squeezed Stephen's shoulder bones. Stephen smiled and peered up at his brother and said, "Bye." Just that single word, nothing poetic or saving. Crispy did a better job in her farewells. She jumped up on Francis, wrapped her arms around his neck, and gave him three pecks on his mouth. Francis carried her all of the way to the front door, Crispy dangling like a necklace, and then she dropped to the floor and scampered back to the television set."I'm heading out," Francis said loudly, pulling open the door. Stephen turned and looked at his brother and waved. Francis was always leaving and returning. It was no big deal."Say hello to Jasmine for us," said Helen, coming out of the den. "And drive safely." She was holding a feather duster in her right hand so she gave Francis a quick, one-armed hug."Will do. See everyone Monday," Francis said. He slung the strap of his bag onto his shoulder and left.Outside, Gene had just returned home and was brushing snow off Francis's car, a maroon 1990 Plymouth. Gene started to reach for his wallet while asking his son if he needed a Jackson or two for snack money or parking fees, but Francis waved him off. "Okay then, have a good time at your mushroom shindig," Gene said. The snow had just stopped falling and a patch of blue sky hung above them. Perhaps that's where beauty showed itself, in the arrival of blueness on an otherwise gray day. Or in the way a chilly breeze moved Francis's hair or how the cold had pinkened his face and made his eyes wet as he stood, alive, just a few feet from his father."The conference might be a real ho-hummer," Francis said. "Have you ever been in a room with three hundred mycologists, most of them professors and grad students? I'm hoping to shake things up a little if I don't chicken out."Gene shrugged. He couldn't imagine driving all the way to Chicago just to spend the weekend with three hundred anything, except maybe leggy supermodels. "You better get going," he said. "May the road rise up to meet you, and all of that happy Irish crap."Francis smiled, then opened the car door with a gloved hand and tossed his bag in the backseat and slid inside. He wrapped a seat belt around his belly, glanced in the rearview mirror, pulled off his scarf and patted down his hair, started the car, pumped the accelerator, ran the windshield wipers twice, checked the mirror again, and backed down the driveway and headed north on Briarwood, waving spastically and honking the car horn three times.As Francis and the Plymouth disappeared down the street, Gene waved the snowbrush at him. He had meant to make sure that Francis had his own brush, as well as flares, jumper cables, a bag of sand, a shovel, and a blanket, in case he got caught in a blizzard or had car trouble. But he had forgotten to ask.Gene will soon think of himself as Francis's last chance. Had he embraced him, or said a few more words, or even tackled Francis and pinned him to the ground for a minute he would have altered fate by delaying his departure. But he failed to act and his boy paid for it. Helen, Crispy, and Stephen will adopt similar beliefs. If they had said or done one little thing Francis might have survived that day. One stupid little thing.After lunch, Stephen put on his coat and boots and grabbed the radio-controlled monster truck he had gotten for Christmas as his big present and ran outside. He set the truck down in the yard and pushed a lever on the control and the truck leapt forward, but soon its wheels were clogged with snow and all it wanted to do was whine and squeal and spin its wheels and not go anywhere. The truck's cries reminded Stephen of his sister, who seemed to have a complaint attached to every exhalation of breath: the ice cream she was eating didn't have enough chocolate chips or the buttons on her new blouse were too slippery. He let go of the lever and set the control in his coat pocket, then started kicking through the few inches of snow in the yard to make a path that the truck might follow, and for the pleasure of disturbing nature's plans for an even dusting, a joy similar to throwing a rock into a puddle or rumpling the covers of a freshly made-up bed. When Stephen stopped his kicking he looked back at the lane of grass. He had just done a good deed, he thought, freeing up some green in very un-green January."Shiver me timbers," he said, starting to feel the cold. It was one of Gene's winter lines, while Helen sometimes said, "It's as cold as a witch's disposition." The key to winter survival was to keep busy, Stephen remembered, so he bent and grabbed a glove full of snow and tried to form a snowball out of it, but the ball quickly crumbled. He was planning to make dozens of snowballs and then lure Crispy outside, or, if that failed, to build a snow fort, but it wasn't very good snow for packing (the formula was a little off), and fort-building was likely on that growing list of fun things he was pretty sure thirteen-year-old boys could no longer get away with. Snow started to fall again, more energetically. He caught several snowflakes on his gloves and examined them before the flakes, under orders to not reveal the secret of limited number of designs, melted themselves. But it was too late: he had definitely seen these patterns before. Stephen peered at the eyeball-white sky and imagined God sitting on a wooden stool in his workshop and joyously cranking blocks of ice through some kind of snowflake maker, one with a rotating design wheel.The wind picked up and chilled him, and since there was no one to play with Stephen decided to go back inside his warm house. He started trudging to the front door, and when he came upon the radio-controlled truck he walked right by it. In an hour or two his mother or father would see the truck and call him a nincompoop or something worse for leaving his best toy in the front yard, where one of the bad kids in the neighborhood might see it and steal it. Stephen periodically felt the need to remind Helen and Gene that he was part of the family. They'd never own up to it, but his mother clearly favored Francis while his father loved Crispy the most. He hated being the middle child.Pulling open the front door, that first wave of heated air felt something like love. While he admired those thick-skinned souls who rode dogsleds across the Yukon or who manned science outposts in Antarctica, for now Stephen was happy to live a warm and cozy existence. He slammed the door shut, took off his coat and boots in the foyer, then went into the living room where he sat on the carpet and placed his socked feet against a heater vent, wiggling his toes. His parents were elsewhere in the house, so he wouldn't get busted for being a "heat hog." When his feet were toasty he scooted over to the TV and turned it on and saw that an old Godzilla movie was playing, so he stretched out on the floor and watched the film. In a scene where Japanese citizens were running like crazy to get away from Godzilla, he inserted himself in the movie. He was the little boy wearing a white baseball cap. His name might have been Terry. His hat went flying off, in the path of Godzilla, and for a second Terry thought about going back for his beloved hat, but he decided to keep running. He could get another cap but not another life.Crispy danced into the living room and started twirling her silver baton. Stephen didn't understand why his parents allowed his sister to twirl the baton indoors since periodically the baton would escape her and bounce off walls, lamps, or his head. He stood up and was about to retreat to the safety of the couch when the phone, a green cordless with oversized numbers on the dial pad, which Gene had bought at the Kmart in Caswell a year earlier despite the fact that Helen had told him to get a beige or white phone so it would go with the wallpaper and carpeting (she also didn't much like the large numbers), chimed. Stephen was the closest to the phone so he answered it."Hello," he said, hoping that it was Nicole on the other end. She was a goofy girl, and sometimes she'd phone him and say, "I'm just saying hi," and he'd say hi back, and she'd say, "Okay, bye then," and he'd say bye, and she'd say, "Double bye," and so on, and ten minutes might pass before they became tired of the game and hung up their respective phones."Is this the Harrelson residence?" asked a woman's voice. Stephen thought that the caller was a saleswoman for The Ledger. Even though they were already subscribers their salespeople kept harassing them."Yes it is," he said."I'm calling from . . . is your mother or father at home?""Hold on." Stephen was about to yell for his dad -- his mother hated talking to salespeople, whom she both despised and felt pity for, pity usually winning, so they were always changing long-distance carriers and buying lightbulbs to help support paralyzed veterans -- but Gene walked in behind him so Stephen handed him the phone and returned to the living room and plopped down on the couch. Later, he'd wish that he had run upstairs or run away, because he could hear Gene talk to the woman, every awful word, and could see blood and even more important things drain from his father's face."This is Gene Harrelson. . . . Yes, I'm his father. . . ." The first sign of trouble. Gene was the father of two male children, and unless someone was phoning to complain that Stephen had been looking up her daughter's skirt or down her blouse, crimes he was likely guilty of, the call was about Francis. He glanced at his dad. Worry was narrowing Gene's eyes and flattening his half-smile of a minute ago. "What, what are you saying?" Gene asked. "Prescott Memorial? I see. . . ." Prescott Memorial sounds like a hospital, Stephen thought. What would Francis be doing at a hospital? Did Jasmine get sick? Blood surged in Gene before leaving, reddening his face, and his mouth hung open when he wasn't talking, like he no longer had full control of its hinge."A car accident?" Gene said. "Oh shit!" No no no no no, Stephen thought. Francis was in an accident? But he has to be okay, right? He's a safe driver, hardly ever goes fast. But sometimes he does. Gene's eyes were now glistening, almost pretty, and his chest heaved, like the old man had just run a mile."So you're certain?" Gene asked. "Goddamn it! Yeah, well goody for Jasmine's family." Was Francis badly hurt? Stephen wondered. Did he lose an arm? A leg? Not a leg. How will he run? Gene's flesh was now ashen, almost bluish. He slumped against a wall while holding the phone to his ruined face and started shedding tears. The only other time Stephen had seen his father cry was a summer night a few years earlier when Gene got the news, also by phone, that his father, Marvin, had died suddenly. But this couldn't mean . . ."No, we'll manage," Gene said to the caller. "What can you do from there anyway? But tell me one thing, was he . . . was he dead on arrival or did you, was there time to try . . ." Dead on arrival. Those three words tore dozens of holes in Stephen, like a flurry of gunfire. He collapsed onto the couch and felt parts of himself escaping through the many bullet holes. Francis, his smart, handsome, and fun brother, must be dead. But how? He was alive, just hours ago. He ate breakfast, smiled, touched Stephen's shoulders, said good-bye. No. Please God. No.Gene was standing more upright now, though a tremble betrayed his new vigor, and it appeared that something other than blood was holding him up: his flesh was still lifeless. He hung up the phone, wiped his damp face with a shirtsleeve, and glanced at Stephen. It was a cold look that reached all the way to Stephen's bones, a look that said how dare you still be alive when Francis isn't. Gene took two steps toward the living room, then started to sink again. He backtracked and leaned into the wall and strained to recover a workable breathing pattern, then put a hand over his mouth. From behind that insufficient shield he said, "What the fuck? What the holy fuck?" Stephen was waiting for his father to then say terrible things to Crispy and him, but instead Gene turned and began a slow death row march toward the kitchen, hunched and pained like he was dragging a car behind him. "Helen, you in there?" Gene said, as he moved from the foyer and into the hallway that led to the kitchen. "I have some bad news." Helen had just put a carrot cake in the oven and was about to start on the frosting (the secret is to add a half cup of orange juice to the cream cheese base). Saturday dinners always featured a homemade dessert.In the living room, Stephen glared at the television set. Godzilla was still on the rampage and was now hungrily eying the contents of a passenger train car. "Stop it," he said to the beast, but Godzilla paid him no mind, smashing the train car and continuing his destruction of Tokyo. Stephen then looked at his sister. No bullet holes in her yet. Crispy was twirling her baton, tapping a foot against the carpet, and singing a Whitney Houston song, "I Will Always Love You," making up her own words when she didn't know the real ones. She had sprinkled silver glitter on her face and in her hair and was wearing blue leggings and a bright red ruffled and spangled blouse, an outfit that a famous baton twirler might wear. "Crisp," Stephen said, barely."Shut your trap, this is my favorite spot," she said, spinning the baton and seeming surprised that it stayed in her hand. But then she gazed at her brother and dropped the baton. It bounced one, two, three times and then settled on the floor near the fake fireplace."What's up?" she asked."It's Francis," he said, firing the gun.Stephen bolted upstairs to the bedroom he had once shared with Francis, and fell to his knees like those needing a big favor from God are supposed to do. He pressed his hands together in the proper way and cried ten thousand urgent prayers: "Oh God please save Francis, you have the power, please heal him fix him don't let him be dead, please God please raise him up and send him back to us you can undo all of this please please please I'll do anything you want, oh please take someone stupid and mean instead, please oh God don't let this be true, we need him here on earth, please God I will do anything, oh God please this is the last thing I will ever ask of you oh please God, please God don't let Francis be dead. Just send him back and I'll be good forever."Prayer was the only possible remedy for something this big, but it didn't appear to be working: no second phone call came, saying it had all been a terrible mistake. It was understandable that God might not listen to Stephen's pleas that the White Sox win the World Series this year or for sudden wealth and two inches more height, but asking that he return his brother to him was the biggest prayer he would ever pray. The call should have gone straight through. Or perhaps God did respond by placing a holy hand on Stephen's skull and knocking him out for several hours.Francis and Stephen are fishing at Shepherd's Lake. They sit on an old wooden dock, their legs dangling over the side and their fishing rods held outward, the lines cast into gray, still water. Francis is wearing black pants and dress shoes, and the collar of his white shirt is turned up like he's a tough guy. There are no clouds in the sky, but strangely it doesn't hurt Stephen's eyes to look at the sun. Perhaps he's wearing sunglasses, he's not sure.Francis's line is tugged and he starts to reel in a fish. "Bet it's a beaut," he says, cranking the reel. This seems to take forever. Colors even arise for a minute, the sky and lake bursting blue and Francis's flesh turning pink before going white again. Finally, the fish is pulled out of the water, jerking and trying to break free. Francis grabs the line and lets the hooked fish fall to the dock where it continues its desperate flopping."Throw it back," Stephen says. "We aren't going to eat it.""I just like watching it struggle," Francis says. "Hard to imagine, not belonging in this world of oxygen."Francis takes hold of the fish, twists the hook free, and says, "Don't worry, he can't feel any pain," but blood begins spurting from the fish's mouth, gallons and gallons of it, splashing onto the dock and spilling into the water and making it a darker gray. Francis tells the fish to steer clear of worms on hooks from now on and drops it into the lake. The fish swims away, and when Stephen loses sight of it he turns toward his brother but Francis is gone. He sets down his fishing pole and stands up and peers back at the shore but doesn't see his brother anywhere. The dock, originally about ten feet long, is now at least fifty feet in length, and there are gaps in it, missing planks that have to be jumped over.His fishing rod goes flying into the lake and skims atop the water. A really big fish, a marlin maybe, must have bitten down on the hook. But it's not a fish speeding away, it's Francis, more being tugged than swimming. "Hey, come back here," Stephen says, wanting both his brother and his fishing pole back.Before he can dive into the water and swim after Francis the tide goes out, leaving behind a bed of sand littered with football helmets, broken bicycles, lumbering crabs, and strange luminous rocks that shoot silver light. Stephen jumps onto the sand, grabs one of the rocks, and feels around for a battery compartment but there aren't any seams. Where's its power source? The rock's light is almost too much so he closes his eyes.In his bedroom Stephen opened his eyes. It was dark outside, meaning that he had been asleep for hours, maybe days. The house was quiet. Why had no one called for him? Come for him? His eyes and lungs ached from all of the crying he had done. A record cry, possibly, but he didn't want to call the people at Guinness Book of World Records and tell them about it."Francis, come home," Stephen said. Man or ghost, either one. Just come home.Light from a streetlamp was creeping into his room and making shadows on the walls. Years ago, Francis used to create hand shadows with that light, rabbits mostly, or bugs with wiggly antennae. Or he would make the doo doo doo doo something-bad-is-about-to-happen sound from the movie Jaws, and soon Unsuspecting Hand, just out for a stroll, would be swallowed up by Shark Hand. Unsuspecting Hand would put up a valiant fight but in time his pinky and thumb would go limp. Shark Hand might then come after Stephen and he'd have to cover his mouth to keep from shrieking.When Francis moved home from college, Stephen was certain that he would want to share the upstairs bedroom with him again, but it didn't happen. A man has to have his own space, Francis explained, as they carried his stuff to the basement. Stephen said that he understood but he really didn't. How could his brother prefer the basement, where every upstairs toilet flush sounded like a monsoon coming your way, to the funny jokes and fake farts offered in Stephen's bedroom? Those were the best times, when he and Francis lived in the same room and they'd wrestle and play and fall asleep on each other's bed. Even after Francis said that they had to pretend there was an invisible wall between their beds from now on so people wouldn't think they were gay boys, they still had fun. The fake wall wasn't soundproof so Stephen and his brother would talk to each other, sharing secrets, often made up, or tired ghost stories about the many one-armed child killers who lived in the neighborhood.Fuck the world. If Stephen had owned anything deadlier than a squirt gun he would have shot out the streetlights on Briarwood, every last one of them. "Francis come home," he tried again, louder this time. "Stop screwing around."It made no sense, Francis dying. While most kids may only think their older brothers are unstoppable, Stephen knew this to be true about Francis. As an infant, Francis swallowed a bottleful of St. Joseph's baby aspirin but survived. Helen must have told that story a hundred times. When he was fifteen, Francis was on a Science Club field trip when the school van lost its brakes and crashed into a mail truck. The van driver and all of the kids suffered broken bones or bad bumps and bruises, except for Francis, who walked away unhurt. And, two summers ago, Francis slipped on the high board at the city pool and hit his head on the board but suffered only a small cut. It was then that Stephen became convinced that his brother had an invisible protective shield around him, like the spaceships on Star Trek. Three times Death's dark ship had come for Francis and three times Starfleet forces repelled it. But it came a fourth time. He stood up and stumbled into the bathroom and peed for what seemed to be a very long time -- even emptied the reserve tank. He was all liquid now, tears and piss, and maybe throw-up soon if his stomach didn't settle. Flushing the toilet, he hoped that the rumbles would remind his family that he was upstairs all by himself.Hearing noises downstairs, Stephen went to the stairwell and sat on the top step. His mother was speaking to a neighbor, Mrs. Borden, and two other women, probably from First Community Church, gathered in the living room."This is a terrible tragedy," said one of the churchwomen."Yes," said Helen."He was so young," said Mrs. Borden."Yes," said Helen."And so gifted, so full of promise," said a second churchwoman."I know," said Helen, her voice cracking.Stephen hung his head and cried. He had thought he was all out of tears. "Please God, do something," he asked. "This is your last chance."A minute later he gave God another final chance.In time the visitors left and the lights were dimmed. Stephen, wanting something simple in his belly like a graham cracker, crept down the steps. Only the chandelier in the foyer was lit, turned low, so he twisted the knob a half turn, adding more light. The house smelled like burnt cake, and he was curious as to whether his parents and sister had eaten dinner. Did Mom make sandwiches? Were such things still possible? There was a tap at the front door so he opened it and saw a chubby man smiling one of those smiles where the edges of the mouth rose but the person didn't look the least bit happy. The man said he was a reporter for The Ledger named Clifford Harper. "I'm sorry to bug you at a time like this but we need a picture of Francis Harrelson for the morning edition," he said. Stephen wondered if the man was a government agent, disguised as a fat reporter. Francis wasn't really dead, that was just a cover story. His brother was working for the CIA, Mycology Division. First fake the boy's death, say in a car accident, then hire some fatso to pose as a reporter . . ."We've been trying to call all night," Clifford said. "I was about to turn around but then I saw the light come on. So do you think you could get a picture for me? I'm afraid I'm bumping right up against deadline." The reporter reached into an inside jacket pocket, and Stephen expected him to pull out a gun or one of those glowing rocks, but instead it was a writing pad and a pen.Stephen glanced at the phone and saw that the plug had been yanked from the outlet, then he hustled into the den and found the big box of family photos that Helen had been promising for years to put into albums. He pulled out a snapshot from the previous summer of Francis cheerfully holding a cat-sized mushroom he had picked in a Minnesota woods. He returned to the living room and handed the picture to the reporter."This should do it," the man said, examining the photo."You can't keep it. We need it back.""I'll return it within forty-eight hours.""Cross your heart and hope to die?"Clifford reluctantly crossed his heart. "Hey, are your parents still awake? I'd like to get a few words from them for the article. A few words about the deceased.""Just say that he was the best brother in the whole world.""Sure, but could you please get your mom and dad? I'll only need them for a minute.""They're dead," Stephen said, closing and locking the door. Through a side window he watched the reporter schlep to his car, a compact that he could barely squeeze into, and drive off. Why Francis? Stephen wondered for the hundredth time. Why did Francis have to leave this world while the dumb and (he suspected) smelly reporter was allowed to stay? Why Francis?Still hungry for a graham cracker, Stephen started shuffling to the kitchen when he saw that Crispy was asleep on the couch. He wasn't normally the thoughtful, caring kind of brother, but this day was unlike any other he had ever lived through, so he went to his sister and pulled a wool blanket over her and tucked the sides under the cushions so she'd stay tightly wrapped. There was still glitter in her hair and on her damp face. He kissed her on the cheek and smelled strawberries."Francis?" she asked, opening her eyes."No, sorry," he said.He looked at the phone and suddenly remembered that Francis owned a pager, so he dashed over to it and plugged it in and quickly punched in the number followed by 911. "Call back," Stephen begged his brother. The pager buzzed somewhere, at a hospital, or in a smashed car, or alongside a dangerous road, but Francis never called back.
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Reading Group Guide

On a frosty winter’s day, Francis–the sweet, generous, responsible eldest child of the Harrelson family–dies in a car accident on an ice-covered highway, and Wolf Boy is born.

The earth doesn’t rumble, no angels descend, and the sun doesn’t weep. Nothing, in short, to signify the deep change that each member of the Harrelson household will undergo. Parents Gene and Helen turn away from each other and look inward, losing themselves in private fantasies. Ten-year-old Crispy devises elaborate strategies for her escape from the suffocating clutch of the Harrelson home and into the waiting arms of pop star Marky Mark.

But the heart of this family portrait is younger brother Stephen, who, along with his quirky and creative friend Nicole, crafts an alternative reality in which their comic book hero, Wolf Boy, battles the forces of evil, champions the powers of good, and fights to keep his family intact. Through Wolf Boy, Stephen finds an outlet for his grief and a concrete expression for his place in a family spiraling out of control and for all the natural yearnings and hopes of a typical thirteen-year-old. Wolf Boy’s adventures are featured throughout the book, introducing a graphic-novel subplot that adds humor and visual interest and stretches the limits of the conventional novel.

The questions in this guide are intended as a framework for your group’s discussion of Wolf Boy.

1. Throughout the novel, all of the members of the family express the belief that, had they done one small thing differently the day Francis died, the accident would not have happened. What did you think of each person’s fears that they are to blame? Did you fault any of them for their actions (or lack of action)? Why or why not? Why do you think these thoughts occur to everyone? Have you ever felt similarly?

2. In the throes of loss, a couple of the characters have encounters with Francis in their dreams. Discuss these dreams and what you think the subconscious message of them is. Specifically, look at the first dream Stephen has on page 15. What feelings do you see manifesting themselves?

3. Why is it that even after the loss of one son, Gene remains so distant from Stephen? Do you think it’s a function of the difference in his relationships with each of them, as Stephen suspects? Or that he’s simply too wrapped up in his own grief to see and help his children? Do you think that parents really do love one child more than the others?

4. Discuss the character of Nicole. What does she gain from her relationship with Stephen? What do they have in common, and what needs to they fill for each other? What kind of woman do you think she will grow up to be? Why does she collect “fucked-up things”?

5. Why does Francis keep appearing to Jasmine and Stephen either actually in water or in motion as if he’s swimming? What is the significance of the water imagery to the novel?

6. In Wolf Boy, the reader is party to the thoughts and perspective of almost every character. Whose story resonated the most with you, and why? Who were you really rooting for? Did any one of them strike more of a chord than the others with you?

7. Jasmine’s reaction to her visions of Francis are different than Stephen’s. Why is it that she is afraid, despite her love and the fact that she misses him? Several times, she sees the ghost, runs away, then tries to return to it, only to find it gone. Why is Stephen never similarly fearful?

8. Consider the relationship between Helen and Gene. What is your opinion of their marriage, throughout the course of the novel? Did you ever think it was over? Did you think it should have been over? What holds them together in the end, and do you think it will last?

9. Discuss the cycle of Helen’s grief. For one who seems to be dealing so well with her loss at the outset, she has the most dramatic breakdown of anyone in the family, culminating in the attack on Dotty at the County Clerk’s office. What did you make of her? Did you see her angry outburst coming? What were your feelings about her while you were reading? What would you have liked to see her do that she didn’t, or vice versa?

10. How did the comic book sequences add to your reading experience? What additional insights did you gain from seeing Stephen and Nicole’s creation as it unfolds? What did you make of their vision of God?

11. Who or what do you think is to blame for Francis’s death? Of the many players who blame themselves and the seemingly random events that led to the accident, which, if any, do you think directly led to his losing his life that day on the highway? Who or what would you hold accountable, and in what ways?

12. On page 257, Helen and Viv talk about the concept of reincarnation as compared to the idea of Heaven and ask the question: Would you rather have your departed loved ones away from this world and someplace eternally peaceful and happy, or would you prefer to have them here, reincarnated somewhere, despite all the things that could go wrong in their new lives? They disagree on the answer. What do you think? What would you want for your loved ones who have passed away? Are you more comfortable with them being in this world, despite the fact that they could end up with a bad life, or do you prefer the idea that they have moved on to a better place, even if it is far away and unknown to you?

13. Discuss the moments of realization that all of the characters have that snap them out of the haze of grief and back onto the path of their own lives. What similarities do you see between them?

14. Do you think that Stephen will see Francis again after the last encounter through the telescope? Why or why not?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 31, 2006

    Read at all costs

    The proverbial 'if you can only read one book make it this one' phase is one, that if anything, only serves as an inadequate understatment when used to describe this totally captivating and uniquely moving book. First time novelist, Evan Kuhlman, has crafted a simple yet emotionally overpowering story of death and the extraordinary means a young brother (Stephen) will adopt to deal with the loss of his older sibling (Francis.) In this case, create a comic book super hero - hence the book's title - that provides the outlet young Stephen needs to overcome his sorrow. This 'graphic novel within a novel' concept is a unique touch that weaves this poignant tale together and showcases the ample artistic talents of co-illustrators, Brendon and Brian Fraim. Buy this book and share it with everyone you know.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 4, 2006

    A novel you won't soon forget

    I normally read reviews, not write them, but I absolutely love this novel so I am spurred into action. First of all 'Wolf Boy' is something that I've never seen before, a novel spliced together with a graphic novel, but more importantly the characters, Stephen Harrelson and his family, etc, are very heartfelt and come across as totally real, lovely people, even when they aren't doing lovely things. The main story, about a family struggling with the sudden loss of a child, is one that will grab onto you from the start and not let go, or at least it did that to me. I am strongly recommending this book to all of my book- loving friends and also to strangers, such as you! My only idea would have been to make Marky Mark (the little sister has a crush on him like I used to) appear in the novel part or the graphic novel part or both. Summary: a beautiful and unusual book worth reading. One of a kind, really.

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