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Grief can sometimes feel like being caught in the jaws of a great white shark.
J.C., who goes by the nickname Sharky, has been having a hard time ever since his best friend died in front of him in what might or might not have been an accident. Shell-shocked, Sharky spends countless hours holed up in his room, obsessively watching documentaries about sharks and climate change—and texting his dead friend.
Hoping a change of location will help, Sharky’s mom sends him to visit his dad on a remote island in Canada. There, Sharky meets a girl who just may show him how to live—and love—again.
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|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|File size:||380 KB|
|Age Range:||12 - 18 Years|
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Before We Go Extinct
By Karen Rivers
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2016 Karen Rivers
All rights reserved.
My foot is stuck in the toilet bowl in the closet-sized bathroom in the two-bedroom walk-up I live in with my mom on the corner above Alf's Bodega.
I fell in hard, footfirst. I was trying to see the roof of the For Reel Fish Market, checking for shark fins drying out there in the hotter-than-it-should-be June sun.
It's not that I don't like the owner, Mrs. Stein, I do. I just thought maybe she was cashing in so she could move to Florida. There's more money in shark fins, pound for pound, than anything else in the sea. Somewhere along the line I stopped trusting everyone, even the lady who gives me free shrimp when I walk by, calls me "boychick," and cried when I broke my arm trying to take off from the fire hydrant out front when I was five.
Spoiler: people can't fly.
Mrs. S. has an old yellowed photo of Key West taped to the peeling wall over the cash register. She talks about how she'd do anything she could to get there, to have that life, to smell those flowers and the sunscreen and sea salt. In the Keys, it's all sand and rusty bikes and tropical drinks and music. She won't take her troubles with her. There will be no Mr. S. scratching his eczema-encrusted arms and grunting and no customers shouting about the price of crab these days. It will be so perfect, empty, free, and blue that she maybe wouldn't feel guilty about her part in destroying the ocean's balance and depleting the atmosphere of oxygen, killing us all.
The truth is, that's what's happening and no one cares. The sharks will be all fished out sooner than you think, the balance of the food chain will be tipped. You think it doesn't matter, but it does. Most of our oxygen comes from plankton in the sea. If there isn't enough oxygen, our lungs will fill up with carbon dioxide. The end. The failure of the species.
The failure of us.
Not tomorrow, not next week, but soon enough that we should be panicking. We should be doing everything we can to stop it. But we aren't. We're going to let it happen. We'll just sit here and slowly die, pacified by our own dumb existences that don't even matter. Not really. Not to the whole big world.
As it happens, there aren't any shark fins on the Steins' roof, and now my foot is wedged into the bowl at an angle that looks like a joke picture someone should post on social media. But it sure doesn't feel like a joke, and I don't post stuff like that and LOL. Not anymore. #becausenothingisfunnynow
If there had been even one triangular hunk of flesh up there, I could have been a hero, shutting down another illegal finning operation, just like the guy who made that movie Sharkwater. That movie changed my life. The movie that turned me into Sharkboy, which turned into Sharky. The movie that I happened to see before my first day at the Richer-Than-You Academy for Famous People's Kids and One Charity Case — guess which one I am? — so that when they put me on the spot and told me that I had to introduce myself to the school by doing an impromptu speech about something I cared about, the sharks were right there, still sinking, bleeding, finless, in my mind and it was all I could think to talk about. I didn't think I'd cry. People don't forget stuff like that, as it turns out: the new guy, six feet tall, sweating into his hair, nervous, then bursting into real, actual tears at the podium on their fancy stage.
Because we're all going to die!
But if you think about it, what better thing is there to cry about? People? You want to cry about people dying? Why?
People die. No one is immortal. We're just a bunch of organs stuffed into a skin sack, waiting for something to fail.
Waiting to fall.
After that, the sharks and I were forever linked. I was Sharkboy to most people; Great White to The King, which was kind of two types of jokes: one about my race, and one about the shark of the same name. There were ruder things to be called. They could have gone with Crybaby, or worse. And me, well, I like being lumped in with the sharks. Sharks have always been my favorite things. Think about it. They are amazing in a hundred different ways. A thousand.
Besides, the ocean is my kind of place, full of silence and mysteries and species people haven't even discovered yet. Things that have never been seen, never been co-opted by humans, never been destroyed by greed. We always kill the stuff that matters. Who needs outer space when we have so much we don't understand yet right here, our own secret universe that we mostly ignore, take for granted, and throw plastic garbage into, destroying everything?
Not me. I don't take anything for granted.
I flip my cell phone around and around in my hand, slapping it against my palm over and over. My sweaty fingers leave marks on the screen. I can feel my pulse in my foot, thrumming like the music I can sometimes feel coming up through the floor from 3B. Not today though. Today, it's quiet.
I'd call someone to help me out here, but I stopped talking a while back and I can't think when or why I'll ever start again. My foot is stuck in the toilet doesn't seem like reason enough to break this impenetrable barrier that I've made by being silent for so long that it's gelled like that and no one can reach all the way through. It's a lot like being underwater and there's a reason why fish don't make sounds.
Besides, there's always texting.
Help, I type with my greasy finger. I've fallen and I can't get up. I take a picture of my foot down there, a million miles away, white sock in blue water. #footinthebowl #awkward #helpme Then I run it through a filter that makes it look like Mrs. Stein's Florida snapshot: white border, water turned aquamarine. She doesn't just want to go to Florida, she wants to go to Florida in 1960, through a time travel machine that erases all the crappy big box stores that make every city in America virtually the same as every other one. Not that I'd ever tell her that. What does it hurt that she believes that that Florida still exists? She'll never get there. Most people spend their whole lives dreaming of a future that never comes.
There's nothing wrong with dreaming. I'd like to do a little time traveling myself. I'd like to go back exactly twenty-four days, give or take an hour or two. I'd like to do something completely different on that day. I'd like to change everything.
I tap Send. The phone makes that sound that makes me think of carrier pigeons, swooping between buildings with my message strapped to their leg. They'll have a long way to fly to get it to The King, who is buried in a graveyard in Connecticut, where his dad and wife Number Seven have a summer place that they go to on hot long weekends to drink their pompous sparkling drinks, clattering with ice cubes. It's what counts as hobbies to those people: congratulating themselves for being rich, smugly offering each other handshakes and air kisses like they are blessings from the pope, and drinking, always sipping something from a goblet held in their manicured hands.
I think they buried The King's phone with him. I bet it's buzzing right now, down there in the marble box where he is lying.
#LOL, I type, even though nothing is funny.
I finally yank my stupid foot out of the bowl — which is harder than you'd think it would be, a crunching and popping comes from the joint and I feel it in my stomach — and push the handle, wishing I could flush my whole self. I'd disappear and be gone for good, spat out into the sea where I'd swim away from shore instead of toward it, swim and swim and swim until finally a fin would surface beside me, then another, and there I'd be, surrounded. And for some reason, they would be saying, Thanks, Sharkboy, thanks. And I'd be like, Think nothing of it, friends. (This is a fantasy, so obviously being able to speak to sharks is totally a given.) And that would be that, me floating there on my back, ears filled up with water, muffling everything. Me, in the gray waves, staring up at the sky, and the sharks swimming around and around and around, slipping through the water like something too graceful to exist on land, something too beautiful. All of us out there together, away from this, so far away that somehow we'd be saved.CHAPTER 2
Let's get this part straight:
No matter what you might have heard or read on the Internet, falling was not in The King's plan when he fell from the steel beam jutting out of the forty-second floor of his dad's newest building, which was under construction on Eleventh and Fifty-Third, three Tuesdays ago at 4:27 in the afternoon. What the media hacks didn't mention was we did that all the time. Not the falling, you understand. Obviously. But it was where we hung out. The husks of incomplete skyscrapers were our playground. We skateboarded on the huge, empty floors. We balanced on the steel beams. We ran up the walls, leaving dusty footprints higher than you'd think would be possible, backflipping off. We taught ourselves parkour because the buildings were there and we had the keys and why not? It felt just dangerous enough. Sometimes we didn't make it, we'd lie in the dust bleeding but high from it all the same. We flew from one side of the building to another, careering off piles of tiles, toolboxes, scrap metal, or Sheetrock. Then, when we got tired of that, we'd get daring. Like superheroes who never actually did anything heroic, we'd stand above the city, above everyone. We'd look down, fighting the part of our brain that wanted us to get away from the edge, to stay away from all the edges. We clawed it back, that's what it felt like, like you were actually tearing your sanity away to force yourself to stand there, looking down. There was adrenaline in our knees and our guts but doing it felt like winning. Nothing would happen but also everything could. Anything.
It felt like absolute power, if you want to know the truth. Being able to get past that part of you that says stop. Pushing through and past. It felt like infinity would feel if it could be a feeling. It was everything.
The King would stand out there and yell down to the street, "YOU WALK IN OUR SHADOWS, PEASANTS." He wasn't being a jerk. Not really. He was just being a voice, a huge voice that was like weather, like anything immutable and imperfect and enormous. He was this tiny little guy, but his voice was the voice of a giant. Anyway, no one could hear him, not from that far away. Afterward, we'd lie back on the concrete floors, howling like wolves, dust in our mouths, in our lungs, the bruises pressed into our skin like victory scars. After a while, it became a normal thing.
It might be a different normal from most people's but that doesn't make it any less true.
After a while, it was normal the way sometimes it felt like you were falling, even when you weren't, the street pulsing up toward you and then away, the yellow cabs like rows of bright plastic ants, swirling in the sweet chaos of your vertigo.
It was normal to force yourself to sit down, legs dangling, your shoes looking like seagulls flying miles above the ground.
That's how I know what happened that day was an accident.
Which means that Daff is a liar.
It's been twenty-one days since I spoke to Daffodil Blue of "He died because of love!" Gawker fame. She was an instant Internet darling, with her red lips puffed up like shiny new Volkswagen Beetles, glistening on the screen, all those fake tears spilling from her overly made-up eyes. It helps that her dad is so famous: Big Doc, a rap producer ("crap producer," as she'd say). She was born to this, born famous, like The King, just waiting for her chance to appear on your screens, biting her lip, looking up through her lashes, daring you to comment on her ridiculously puffy head of hair.
And instantly, she became one of them, one of the people we hated, layers of fake nothingness concealing an empty bubble. She became someone who wasn't Daff. She became Daffodil Blue: the quirky beautiful rich kid that the weird ugly rich kid had killed himself over.
For love, don't you know?
But that's a lie.
It was an accident.
I know it was.
I was there.
"Je suis désolé," was the last thing that I said to her, right before I sidestepped away from her fake take-pictures-of-me hug and walked out the church door where the sun outside was burning the pigeons' feet on the sidewalk and people wilted downward to subways that might take them away from the heat. I walked only a few yards before my knees started to liquefy and I knelt right there on those famous stone steps and fought the urge to press my face into the filthy pavement, to push through it to the other side.
There were media vans parked up and down the road, reporters hanging around with microphones and cameras so maybe they could get a sound bite from The King's dad afterward, maybe a glimpse of a real tear on the great man's famous, chiseled African face or the equally famous faces of his plastic, soulless friends. And yeah, they might get a tear from this actress or that model, but it's not like he'd cry. As if.
To cry, he'd have to be human.
A few of them stared at me, too hot to bother raising their lenses for the most part, but a couple of cameras caught me. You probably saw that shot, too. I guess some jackass won an award for that image of me bent over on my knees on the steps of the church, looking at the gray hard stone that my black rubber-soled school shoes were melting on.
My knees burned.
What I was thinking then, at that exact moment, were the words pink mist.
See, I did this paper on 9/11 last year for my Social History class. I had to read all the news stories, eyewitness accounts, details. The details are what get to you when you start to look closely at things like that. One guy said that when people jumped out of the Twin Towers, they fell so hard onto the pavement that a pink mist was coming up off the ground.
I threw up all over the church stairs, my puke running in rivulets between the stones. It surprised me as much as any of the gawking journalists. I haven't vomited since I was a little kid. It hurt, acid in my nose, the whole bit. Someone's cigarette butt moved along in my river of steaming puke, which made little tributaries around a piece of chewed gum. A candy wrapper. Cigarette butts ground into two-dimensional images of themselves. When I finally got up and walked past the reporters, no one looked me in the eye. My kind of mourning wasn't camera-ready, I guess.
I wasn't famous.
I was nobody.
The King has now been gone for twenty-four days. He was more than just the strange-looking kid of an obnoxiously rich real estate tycoon. He was The King. He was complicated, funny, smart, crazy, kind, brilliant, and sometimes a total jerk. He was my best friend. And no one knew him like I did.
But now he's nothing.
He's dead. A body in a box underground.
Well, what's left of a body.
Dead is a word like a smooth marble you've put in your mouth to see what it was like and then inhaled by mistake leaving your windpipe suddenly and perfectly blocked. I wonder if the dead try to breathe right after they die, not knowing yet that they can't, that they won't. Not ever again. I wonder what that must feel like, knowing that the air isn't coming in to fill you up, not this time.
I wonder when The King stopped breathing.
If he thought, What happened?
When he fell, there was a whoomp as the wind filled his white school shirt. It billowed so big, a cleanly laundered sheet against the clouds, like a parachute in cartoons. For a split second, I thought he might be lifted back up into the sky.
For a split second, he looked beautiful.
But that thin white shirt didn't even slow him down. He was gone so fast, he couldn't have really thought anything. He probably didn't even hear me screaming. He probably couldn't even see me standing there, helpless, doing nothing.
He didn't know there wasn't anything I could do to save him.CHAPTER 3
The phone in my hand vibrates.
Daff: R U there?
I squeeze my eyes shut like you do when you're a kid and you don't want anyone to see you. I half wish I had a blanket fort to crawl into, to hide away in for good. Maybe with a glass of milk and some cookies and some Lego guys and a video game and a life that is not this life.
Not my life.
Non, I type. Je ne suis pas ici maintenant.
French seems to be the only way I can type back to her without saying anything, the only way I can answer without being myself.
I put the phone in the sink and turn on the tap, hard, water splashing off it and onto the mirror, onto me. But it's one of those phones that are waterproof, which, as it happens, The King gave me for my birthday. He said my old flip phone was embarrassing to everyone. "Seriously," he said. "No one needs to see that." Like my flip phone was actually insulting people's eyes. I'd taken it, but the gift stung. Did my phone matter? What else mattered? That I didn't have anything and that he was as rich as Trump? How soon was it going to be that money mattered more than all the other stuff we had, all the other stuff we did? Our dusty footprints that were twin shadows up on the brick walls, the jokes that no one else got, the way we moved through the school like it was ours, and so, we owned it. We got each other. That was a pretty big thing. Not everyone gets you in life. Not everyone understands. But we were tight and we were untouchable: me, Daff, and The King. Undisputed royalty of the School of the Sons and Daughters of Rich Pricks (and me).
Excerpted from Before We Go Extinct by Karen Rivers. Copyright © 2016 Karen Rivers. 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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