"A story that delivers action, conspiracy, and betrayal alongside a meditation on love, family connection, and humanity." —Publishers Weekly
Sasha Stephenson's intriguing debut is a combination road trip story and sci-fi adventure about the strange, strong bond between two sisters. Fans of Under the Never Sky and The Darkest Minds will devour ICELING, the first book in a new and utterly original sci-fi series.
Seventeen-year-old Lorna loves her adoptive sister, Callie. But Callie can't say "I love you" back. In fact, Callie can't say anything at all.
Because Callie is an Icelingone of hundreds of teens who were discovered sixteen years ago on a remote Arctic island, all of them lacking the ability to speak or understand any known human language.
Mysterious and panicked events lead to the two sisters embarking on a journey to the north, and now Lorna starts to see that there's a lot more to Callie's origin story than she'd been led to believe. Little does she know what's in store, and that she's about to uncover the terrifying secret about whoand whatCallie really is.
|Publisher:||Penguin Young Readers Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)|
|Age Range:||12 - 17 Years|
About the Author
Sasha Stephenson holds an MFA in poetry from Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn, New York. This is his first novel.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2016 Sasha Stephenson
SO, HERE WE are, Dave and I. The two of us, alone in my room, with no adult supervision, ostensibly engaged in homework. My sister, Callie, is downstairs watching a thing on the Internet about carnivorous plants. Or at least that’s what she was doing the last time I checked, about forty-five minutes ago, which is usually how long I tend to go without checking in on her.
The thing about Dave is that he’s tall, like, six two, and he’s got these real broad shoulders, and he’s always wearing these baseball hats but only for teams that don’t exist anymore. He’s better than me at social studies, and I’m better than him at reading, writing, and most of the sciences. We actually do do homework together sometimes, but that’s not what we’re doing right now.
“Did you hear that?” Dave says, pulling away from me for a moment. And I do hear it: Downstairs there is a crashing and gnashing, a weeping and moaning.
Oh no, I think, and I run downstairs.
On the floor I find Callie, her eyes wide open, her legs curled up into herself while her arms flail around, as if she’s trying to dig her way through the air. For a second all I can do is stand there, looking at her on the ground, making sounds. Like what, I can’t even try to say.
Dave’s been around Callie plenty of times, but he’s never seen her like this before. I don’t think I’ve ever even seen her like this before. Callie gets these fits sometimes, and I’m usually pretty good at calming her down, but this one is a bit scarier than what I’m used to. And I think I need to get Dave out of here and help my sister.
“Dave, I’m really sorry, but I have to take Callie to the hospital and—”
But before I can finish, Dave is picking Callie up off the floor. He’s telling me to get my keys, and I do, and then I’m grabbing our coats and closing the door and clicking the dead bolt to lock it. I head out to the driveway and see that Dave’s already got Callie in the backseat, strapped in and everything. And then there’s Dave in his car, backing out of the driveway to clear the way for me, and then he parks by the curb and sits there waiting to watch us go off, and he looks at me, and I know it’ll be okay.
Well, “okay” isn’t the word. But I know that Callie’s big fit and my leaving Dave so abruptly isn’t what’s going to hurt whatever it is we have together. I smile at that, and then I don’t, because I don’t really know what this is with me and him—I don’t really know what I want it to be. But, as I’m sure you can imagine, I have bigger things to worry about right now, like my sister, Callie, and her weirdly giant fit.
Weird for Callie, that is. Lots of people these days have fits, sudden loss or acquisition of new language, mild levitations. Last month 60 Minutes ran a piece on a group of children in India who went to bed knowing only their native language and woke up speaking fluent French. When I was little I knew some kids who claimed they could move things with their minds, but I never saw any of them pull off that comic book trick with my own eyes, so the jury’s out on them. But the other stuff is real, and this is just how things are around here on earth these days. You read an article about a mother lifting a car to save her baby, and there are way more explanations than just “adrenaline rush sparked by maternal instincts.”
Callie’s pale green eyes lock with mine. She’s looking at me like she wants to say she’s sorry about all this. And also that this hurts and she doesn’t understand it either. She’s looking at me like “Yes, we both hate this,” and I want to tell her, “I know, I love you, it’s okay.” And I do, I say it out loud, and then I tap out the words with my eyes just for her. I turn my head from the road for a moment and blow her a kiss. I think she tries to too, but she can’t make her mouth work right right now, so instead she just keeps looking at me with those sorry eyes.
You’d think after sixteen years of Callie not talking, I’d be used to it by now. You’d think after sixteen years of having a sister who can’t speak, or read, or even understand any language at all, nights like these wouldn’t bother me much. That the way Callie is wouldn’t keep surprising me day after day.
Dad says Callie is “non-lingual.” Me, I’m not so certain. I keep trying different languages and cadences with her to see if anything clicks. It never does. We have this thing between us that Mom calls language, but it isn’t that. It isn’t a language. It’s more that we have this way of reading each other. Of being very specific with our eyes and our faces, our postures, our vibes. We have these signals, almost, or at least I think we do.
But if Callie can talk to anyone, it’s plants. Not that plants are people. I know plants aren’t people. But she’s always been good with them, ever since she was small. She seems so calm and just generally at home around them, with her hands in the dirt, her eyes shut—not tightly, but just softly closed. As if when she’s with them, they help her remember some other home. Which is weird, considering she was born in the Arctic.
Or at least the Arctic is where Dad and his research crew found her, along with a hundred or so other infants, in a ship, all alone. Not a parent or any other human in sight, just a hundred or so babies all alone in the Arctic. I shiver, and it’s not just from the thought of the cold.
I look at Callie in the rearview. Her eyes are still sorry, but her face is going toward the window, and for a second I think she’s watching the lights of the highway count us down to the hospital. But then I realize she’s looking at herself and her sad and sorry eyes.
“Hey, kid sister,” I say. “Callie?” I say. She almost turns around. The fits have been getting worse. Mom calls them “conniptions,” but there’s no way I’ll ever say that word out loud where anyone could hear it. Whatever they are, they’re getting worse, and they’re happening to my sister, who can’t ever tell me what it’s like to be her. Whenever I look into her eyes I feel like I can almost see it, except I know that’s just me wishing I could tell a story about a time and place where everyone can be understood, where we are all able to really get to know another person and hold them close and find real comfort in that, and then we all have a pizza party and build a tent in the living room and make a scale model of the solar system and hang it from the ceiling and then go to college and then get good jobs, and the economy is stable, and the government is just, and the story only ends when nobody is scared of being alive anymore.
Stories are pretty great if you don’t mind crying sometimes.
Callie’s eyes are full of something I don’t have the words for, and the lights of the hospital are just ahead.
IN THE HOSPITAL, everything is fine.
Callie looks at the lights and the door, and after we find a parking spot close to the entrance she seems to pull it together enough to help me help her up and out of the backseat and into the lobby. I open the door for Callie, because the child locks have been on for the past few weeks, and if you were to ask me why, then I’d tell you a story about coming home one day and finding Callie sitting in the backseat of my car. Or another story that’s different but the same, about coming home and finding Callie furiously packing and unpacking suitcases. And anyway, the child locks have been on for the past few weeks.
Callie grows calmer with each step we take toward the automatic doors, and I can’t help thinking that it might not be fair for me to assume that she’s actually pulled herself together. I can’t tell if this is a situation she even has the ability to pull together, whether or not her growing calm after the worst of these fits is her attempt to control something uncontrollable, something big and terrifying that grips her in a scary part of her brain she can’t ever do a thing about. I want to ask someone about this, but I don’t really know who or how to ask in such a way that won’t make them look at me weird, or even worse, look at Callie weird, the way they’d look at someone who they think should be taken away to be observed in an environment away from “outside factors.” Because I’m pretty sure I fall under the category “outside factors.”
“Outside factors, kid sister,” I say to Callie, and she smiles a bit but doesn’t look at me. I should talk to her more, I think. “I should talk to you more, huh?” I say, and she smiles a bit more, and I smile back. Finally, she looks at me and then again over to the hospital, but her smile’s gone now. Her mouth took it back and instead gave her an expression I don’t know how to read.
“Sometimes,” I tell her, “I think we’re like different editions of the same book.”
I know that this doesn’t make any sense, but it maybe sounds nice.
AND SO HERE we are, in the hospital.
As a government-mandated condition of caring for an Arctic Recovery Orphan (which is the official term for Callie and the others found in the Arctic when they were infants), there are regularly scheduled check-ins with what my parents call a “caseworker.” What Callie’s particular “case” is is something I couldn’t tell you if I wanted to. I would, though. Want to. But nobody asked me. Or told me. Nobody tells me much of any use, at any rate.
Anyway, here we are in the lobby, and Jane, Callie’s caseworker, is walking toward us in a professional hurry, walking quickly yet in such a way that it’s clear she doesn’t want anyone to think she’s walking toward anything urgent, which only makes everything look even more urgent, and nobody is comfortable about any of this.
“Hi, Lorna,” Jane says. She’s coming out to greet us now, walking down a hallway I’ve never been allowed to enter. She’s wearing a white lab coat, but otherwise she’s dressed like a vaguely stylish but relatively severe woman who is somewhere between older-than- college and probably-younger-than-my-parents. “I have to say,” she goes on, “it’s a bit surprising to see you so soon after Callie’s last check-in.” She puts her hand on my shoulder a beat or two after she finishes her sentence, as if she had to think of the gesture before making it. Either that or I just don’t like her and find everything she does slightly annoying. “I have to ask: Is everything okay?”
“Oh, sure. I drove here at eleven o’clock on a school night because things are just swell” is what I don’t say. I stare at her for a minute, then I tell her, “Callie had a fit, and it was not the smallest?” Jane nods and looks from me to Callie. “She was watching this carnivorous plant doc on YouTube,” I continue. “And then all of a sudden I heard her, having the fit, from upstairs with my door closed. When I went down and found her, I got worried enough to get her in the car and come down here.” And I stop there, because that is roughly as honest as I am willing to be with Jane.
I know that with doctors you’re only hurting yourself if you don’t tell them how bad you’re really feeling on a pain scale of one to ten—if they don’t know how bad you’re hurting, then they don’t know how to treat you. But the thing about doctors is that after you tell them your symptoms, they tell you what’s going on and what they need to do to fix it. And that’s not something I feel like I get with Jane. “Oh dear,” says Jane. “Well, let’s take her back and see if we can’t figure out what the trouble is. Poor Callie, we love her so. She’s just one of the sweetest girls I’ve ever been able to work with.”
“Great,” I say, then catch myself. “I mean, I like her too,” I say. “I’ll need her back, though. I’ve kind of gotten used to having her around the house.”
Jane just looks at me, and I look right back. She smiles, then takes Callie by the hand and goes through the doors and down that hall, and once again I’m not allowed to follow.
I go back to the lobby and sit down in a waiting room chair. I text Dave, Dad, and Mom, in that order. Dad gets confused by group texts, which I learned in a pretty awkward way that I’d rather not go into, so Mom and I agreed that we would not do group texts, for the sake of all of us.
Everyone has something to say in response, but mostly I don’t care. Right now, all I care about is Callie and about getting home and going to bed. I tell my parents I can handle it, and Dad responds with nothing but confidence, and Mom responds with a hesitant OK, but call us if u need us and we’ll be right there!!!! I text Dave a whole bunch of kiss emojis and tell him again how I’m sorry, and he tells me not to even think about it, there’s nothing to even be sorry about, and I almost believe him.
The main question people have for us is how Callie, non-lingual and subject to fits, spends her days. Well, one of the perks of my mom’s position as a tenured college professor is that she usually ends up teaching, like, two classes a semester. There are office hours, but she shares a lab with Dad in our house, which means there’s pretty much always someone at home with Callie. And when there’s a blue moon and all of us have obligations outside the house at the same time, there’s a never-ending supply of grad students looking to get on my parents’ good sides.
I scan the hospital waiting room. There are a couple of coughing children sitting near me, along with a whole handful of parents whose expressions range from worried to bored. Suddenly, two more teens on the other side of the room start having mild seizures, and I’d say they were Arctic Orphans too, except they look like they’re too old. One of the parents seems to think everything’s totally fine, nothing to worry about here, and the other kid’s parent is totally freaking out. But from the way she’s freaking out, I can’t tell if it’s more that she’s embarrassed, as if she’s hoping nobody else sees this, or that somebody will come to help very, very soon. Then I start thinking that maybe it’s both of these things. That she’s hoping somebody’s going to come and say to her child, “I know this is scary and hard, but it’s okay, and it’ll be okay.” Wouldn’t it be nice if there were someone who could just come up to you and say that, and you would believe them, and it would be true?
The freaked-out woman is starting to put me on edge, so I look away and see, sitting across from me, Stan.
Stan is like me in that he has a brother who is also an Arctic Recovery Orphan, whose name is Ted, I think, but I’m not 100 percent sure. Ned? Anyway, I can’t remember the last time I saw Stan, but here he is now, in gym shorts and new but dirtied Nikes and a hoodie. We’ve been together in this waiting room enough times that I smile and wave at him now. But we’ve never really talked before, and never outside the hospital. For some reason there isn’t, like, I don’t know, a listserv or a message board for people like us. It’s not as if the government or whoever makes up the rules for our sisters and brothers has actively tried to make sure that none of us ever meet, but it’s also not as if anyone’s ever encouraged it.
I’ve seen Stan, like, three times, and I’ve never seen his brother before. Once, once, maybe three years ago, I remember he and I were sitting with our parents in this very same room, waiting for Callie. Jane, her caseworker, came out alone, and Stan and I both stood up to greet her, and his eyes fell a bit when she came over to us instead of him. That’s how I figured out who Stan was and why he was there. Later I saw Jane talking to him, and I heard her say “conniption,” and it is not like everyone just goes around saying “conniption” like it’s a fashionable new turn of phrase. So it’s always a bit weird to see him here, I guess. Seeing Stan could mean that his brother and my sister are having seizures at the same time.
I want to ask Stan if his brother’s getting weirder too. And also about Jane and what he thinks of her.
See, Jane always talks to me in this sweet, concerned, authority-figure voice. But her eyes are cold. She’ll be smiling at me and calling me “dear,” but she’ll look at me with these eyes that let me know that my life or death would mean nothing to her. Maybe I’m just being melodramatic or projecting because here she is, this stranger who is in total control of Callie and what happens to her during check-ins and after she has fits. And because I know all about what’s involved in caring for and about Callie, knowing that is a little terrifying to me. And I’ve seen how her posture changes as soon as she walks away from me, like she only cares about making me see her as kind and nurturing for as long as I’m in her line of sight. Anyway, suffice it to say, I’m not her biggest fan.
“Hey,” I say to Stan, after we catch each other’s eyes. “How’s yours?”
He kind of coughs and kind of laughs, and then he takes down his hood as if to let the world in a little. “Been better,” he says.
“Mine too.” “Sorry to hear it.” “Mine too.”
He smiles at that, which is nice, but he does it in this way that makes me think it’s been a while.
“So,” I say.
“Is he getting worse? Than usual?” He takes a breath and holds it in a bit.
“I know how weird it is to talk about them. You know, with anyone besides family. And Jane,” I say. He looks at me like he agrees, so I lean in, and I decide I’m just going to go for it. “But my sister is getting worse, and I don’t really have anyone to talk to about it. She’s been having fits more and more, and, I don’t know, maybe I’m just being paranoid, but I feel that if I talk to my parents, all they’ll do is worry and maybe just make things worse, and if I talk to Jane . . . I don’t even want to know.”
“Ugh, Jane,” he says, then pauses to think. “Jane is either, like, a vice principal desperate for you to like her, or she’s completely terrifying and her whole life is a front.
“Ted’s,” he starts, but then stops. “I don’t know how your sister is,” he says, restarting. “I used to like to think that, like . . . that they were all the same. But now I feel like maybe they’re not.” He pauses, looking more thoughtful than I would have assumed he could. “Ted is pretty aggressive. My dad has us, like, wrestle, to let his aggression out. We can play football. We can’t really play basketball. When I say ‘football,’ I mean my dad throws me passes and Ted tries to tackle me. And when we play ‘basketball,’ it’s just layups and dunks. And his fits,” he tells me, “have been getting rough. Dad feels as though this means we should work harder to give Ted outlets.”
“And what do you feel?” I ask.
Stan shrugs. He makes a face, and then another one, but I can’t read either and don’t know if I want to try to right now.
“With Callie,” I say, giving him a break from talking about Ted, “what’s scary is how quiet and under control she is until something just, like, grabs her.”
So I go on and tell him how her body is calm, but her eyes look to me like she wants to escape. But maybe “escape” isn’t the right word. It’s more like she’s running from something, but she doesn’t know what it is, or if she does know she’s afraid to think about it, and she can’t escape it, and it’s everywhere. And it’s like I think that maybe when I’m feeling like everything is calm and under control, maybe it actually isn’t. I tell him how sometimes I feel like maybe she’s always fighting this thing.
I stop talking, and he just looks at me. I don’t know what to say. I want to ask him for his number, so we can keep talking like this. Before I can think more about it, I’m handing him my phone to have him put his number in it. Just as he’s finishing up, I hear someone saying something about needing a turkey wrap on rye with pastrami instead of turkey. Someone else says, “That’s not a real thing,” and then the first person responds, in vaguely threatening overtones, saying something along the lines of “You know what will happen if she finds out failure is even on the table as an option.”
All of which seems pretty extreme for a hospital, let alone a dinner order. Who gets that serious about dinner? Then Jane comes striding through those doors to that hallway.
She beckons me over, as if I’m simultaneously her best friend and a worker minion over whom she can exert some ominous administrative authority. I got my phone back from Stan just before she walked through the doors, but she’s still looking at it in my hand like she wants to ask me about it. But she doesn’t.
“Lorna, dear,” she says instead, “has Callie been acting . . . strange? Lately?”
Whenever Jane calls me “dear,” I feel like a deer, in that I feel like she is trying to trap me or track me. I am not completely certain about this metaphor, but I am certain about this feeling.
I try to look thoughtful before telling her no, and then I put on a face of sincere determination to make sure she knows I have nothing more to say on the matter. “Things are fine you know, other than the fit.”
“She hasn’t seemed . . . I don’t know . . . anxious to travel or leave the house or anything like that?” Her face, while she’s saying this, looks totally inquisitive, but like she’s acting. Like she wants this answer from me, an answer she already knows, and for a minute I want to give it to her.
“I mean,” I say and then stop, because I haven’t thought my answer through, and I’m starting to think that I need to start being more cautious around Jane. “No.”
“Okay!” says Jane. She says it like Wow, what a relief! And there’s this flicker of something on her face for an instant. As if she’s silently trying to tell me how no is totally a good answer to give and I did a great job giving it. “Well, long story short, Callie’s fine. Nothing to worry about! I know it was scary, but it was nothing major. We still don’t know exactly what happened to those poor children abandoned up there like that. All of us involved just shudder to think . . .” And her words trail off as she actually shudders here. “Anyway. It’s clear your sister loves you very much, Lorna. You’re such a genuinely calming presence to her.” She puts her hand on my shoulder again, just a beat faster than last time.
“SO . . . SHE’S FINE?” I ask. “I can see her?”
“All of Callie’s treatments are closed to friends and family,” Jane says. “You know that, Lorna.”
Right. I do. Because of “the rules.”
So, pretty much right after the babies were brought back from the Arctic, the government came up with a guide for adoptive families about the care and treatment of Arctic Recovery Orphans. Some of the more memorable selections are as follows:
-To ease the transition to American culture, and to ensure companionship, only those adoptive parent(s) with at least one existing biological child no more than one year older than the Arctic Recovery Orphans (AROs) are eligible to participate in the Arctic Recovery Orphan Adoption Pro- gram (AROAP).
-Before taking AROs on extended (three days or longer) trips or vacations, doctors and caseworkers must give medical clearance and assign in-network care providers in areas of travel, in case of emergencies.
-All adoptive parents must sign a medical waiver stating that the government-appointed caseworker—not the adoptive parents/legal guardians—will serve as medical proxy and/or in loco parentis decision-maker regard- ing all medical issues and emergencies.
-Make sure AROs stay hydrated, as they will easily become dehydrated, exhibiting such symptoms as fatigue, jaundiced and flaky skin, and a generally depressed disposition.
-Conniptions are common and expected in AROs. Conniptions, however, should always be reported. Not all conniptions are alike, but common symptoms are as follows:
• The ARO appears to be in distress.
• His or her eyes may be rolling up in his or her head.
• His or her limbs may be flailing about.
• He or she may be exhibiting behavior that warrants outside attention.
And then there’s this particularly instructive section:
-To prevent any ARO from becoming the topic of gossip or conjecture among curious, confused, or otherwise uncouth strangers, be up front about who the ARO is and where he or she comes from. Inform interlopers that your adopted child is an ARO and is therefore a victim of trauma. Inform them that even though your adopted child cannot speak, they are nevertheless a human being and should be treated thusly. [I can never tell if this one should freak me out, or if I should be glad that someone came up with the idea to dole out a polite, reasonable line to use in these uncomfortable but inevitable situations. Although referring to everyone else as “interlopers” is really weird, and also, you wonder what had to happen for someone to come up with this idea/polite line in the first place. Right?]
-Sunlight is a must! [I’m kidding. I think. Although there is another pamphlet, and it says something like “AROs require plenty of personal space and privacy—the same amount as your biological child—and a private bedroom with access to windows. And also, please have a garden.”]
-All Arctic Recovery Orphans must attend monthly medical check-ups at their designated hospitals. Friends and family members are strictly forbidden in the exam room during check-ups.
So, yeah, Jane. I know the rules. And I want to see my sister.
“Most of these rules seem just as arbitrary to me as they do to you,” says Jane unconvincingly. “But we do need to follow them. Though, honestly, you probably know more about the history behind those rules than many of my colleagues.” She means because of my parents. “When your father found those poor babies . . .”
Yes, Jane, I know.
But I like the way I tell it better. It’s the 1990s, and it’s very cold. My mom and dad are part of a university-funded expedition, but my mom can’t make this particular trip due to me being a baby that she just had. And so! It is very cold in the Arctic, on their ship, en route to this remote Arctic island that has been exhibiting some completely bizarre seismic activity. Suddenly, off the portside bow, a crew member spots another ship. They try to signal to it; it doesn’t respond. My dad and a couple of others board the ship, and they find it completely abandoned. Except for hundreds of infants, who happen to be totally and completely silent, just huddled there with no parental supervision or guidance, just a bunch of really quiet and totally alone babies, on an abandoned ship, in the middle of the Arctic.
So my dad and his team haul the babies on board. And then, as if this day wasn’t already full of sadness, most of the babies end up dying. From the state and style of the boat, the scientists deduce that it probably came from some Balkan state and that someone had hurried all of the babies into it before pushing it off to sea in some desperate attempt to give them a fighting chance at a life. But that’s just conjecture. I guess wherever they came from was a place that was already full to the brim with some fate worse than death at sea. Because whatever’s happening around you that makes you think putting a hundred babies into a boat and setting it adrift, unmanned, into the sea . . . whatever makes you think that that is the safest alternative . . . whatever that is must be horrifying.
And so my dad and his team shelter and feed and care for the babies that live. And soon they notice that something seems off. Though they seem to be able to see and hear, and they understand what food is, and they understand blankets, they don’t react to normal stimuli. Other than some screams, they’re basically totally silent. Which to me and based on what I know about babies doesn’t seem so odd, but to these scientists it was something worth getting alarmed about.
So Dad alerts the sponsors of the university-funded expedition, and he wrangles permission to bring the babies to the United States, where they will be processed into adoptive families that meet a very specific set of requirements, some of which we’ve already discussed. Jane is still going on with her version of the story, but I think she’s wrapping it up. She gives a heavy sigh and tells me Callie will be right out, and then she is, escorted by a familiar-looking doctor in a lab coat that matches Jane’s. I want to say bye to Stan, but I also can’t tell if we’re not supposed to know about each other. So what I do is I text Stan: stan it’s lorna. this is me saying goodbye, like a spy, because of jane. i hope ted’s ok. :/ Stan almost looks up at me, but instead he makes a small smile and texts back: Good thinking. We r real spies now. And thanks. Me too.
And then there’s Callie.
I almost feel bad about throwing my arms around her in front of Stan, considering all he’s maybe had to deal with. But I do anyway, I hug her close, and I smile, and I feel her hug me back a bit too. Which is not her usual thing, but man, it is nice right now.
I put my arm around her shoulder and say, “How are things, kid sister?” She sort of looks ahead, and her face doesn’t look too sad, or too hurt, and I smile at her, and we make tracks to the door, which will lead us to the parking lot, wherein is parked the car, which will take us home.
I look over at Stan, who has to wait around for Ted a while longer. He waves, like It’s fine to go, don’t wait up for me, is how I choose to interpret that. As we’re heading to the door, I hear Jane say, “Ted’ll be with you in a moment, Stan. We gave him a little something to cool him down a bit, nothing to worry about.” I look back at Stan one last time before we push through the doors, and from the look on his face, this is not the first time that a conversation with Jane about Ted has ended this way.
Only about a mile into our journey, it starts to rain.
“It’s raining,” I tell Callie. I glance at her and watch my words wash over her like the rain does over us, here, now, in the car, just gliding off and sliding to the floor in a puddle to be stepped in.
IT’S BEEN A few days since the hospital, and Callie’s calmed down a bit. Mom and Dad are acting a little off, walking around the house as if trying not to wake a sleeping monster, whispering furtively. Why they would whisper instead of text, I have no idea. I ask Callie if she thinks that Mom and Dad whispering instead of texting has something to do with them being old, and a general reluctance to change or grow or adapt. Callie smiles at me and puts an entire Ritz cracker in her mouth.
“What was that, honey?” asks Mom from the other room, thinking I was talking to her.
“Oh, nothing. I was just talking to Callie. Just remarking on progress and its wants,” I tell her.
“Well, look at you,” she says, entering the kitchen.
“We have something to tell you, sport,” says Dad, coming down the stairs behind her.
“But first,” says Mom, “do you have your fake ID on you?”
ABOUT FORTY OR fifty minutes later we’re sitting at their favorite restaurant, this Italian place, which is great since I gave up being a vegetarian around the time I realized that idealism wouldn’t save me from my own feelings, and their chicken parm is amazing. I’m looking over the menu like I have any idea about wine, or like there’s any chance I’m going to order anything other than chicken parm. We’re in the back, behind a wall that separates us from the rest of the restaurant, with Callie vaguely boxed in, like we usually sit at family gatherings. Callie’s going to have the salad, I know, and is right now really into eating all of those breadsticks that are basically sticks.
Me, I’m trying really hard to be nonchalant about Mom’s nonchalance about my fake ID. Was she just assuming I have one because she knows all of her college students have had one since freshman year? Or did she actually find mine in the laundry or something? I’m starting to worry that all of this is just a trap and a prelude to a big punishment, and then they start in with it, using their sincerest voices. Their change in tone causes Callie to look over at me, smile, and then put an entire dinner roll in her mouth.
“Kid sister,” I say to her conspiratorially, “did you just make a joke? ’Cuz of what you did earlier, with the cracker?” Callie stares straight ahead, keeps mum. “And did I just ruin the joke by explaining it?” Probably I did, and I could swear she’s nodding at me. “I did,” I say, and then the parents begin to speak.
“Honey, we are just so proud of you for the other night.” “Just the proudest, sport.”
“The way you took care of your sister shows true strength of character. Port in a storm, good in a crisis.”
Callie starts nodding again, assuming she even stopped in the first place, after I ruined her joke. Mom and Dad are looking at me and smiling, and so is she. Or that’s why she’s smiling, because Mom and Dad are. I can look at it however I want, right? Because I’m special and important and reliable and basically the world’s best big sister.
“Tom, what are you getting?” Mom shifts topics when the server arrives to take our orders. The server smiles at us, but especially at Callie. Everyone here loves Callie. She’s cute, she smiles, she’s quiet, and she has never had a fit here. When we were littler, I used to think we should just live here and then she’d be fine forever.
Dad gets the oxtail ravioli in a bone marrow sauce, Mom the linguine with lobster. I get the chicken parm, and then they ask for a Montepulciano or something, and we get wineglasses all around. Except Callie. Obviously. I order Callie a few salads, because Mom’s doing her thing of sort of talking around her, and Dad’s doing his thing where he includes her in the conversation, even though, you know, no language.
The appetizers and the first of Callie’s salads come. Do I take some of Dad’s fried calamari? I do. Does Callie take them off my plate? She does. Does anyone else notice how adorable this is? They do not seem to.
“Listen, sport,” Dad says halfway through dinner. “We have an announcement. There’s a research expedition coming up. In the Galápagos Islands.”
Wait. Are they going to invite me? They could be inviting me! Visions of beachside accommodations, giant turtles—there are giant turtles there, right?—begin to fill my head, then Dad speaks up again. “There's all kinds of weird stuff going on down there in terms of seismic/meteorological confluences.”
“The amount of activity is ridiculous for that area,” Mom adds. “It makes hardly any sense. We could almost explain it away as some kind of wandering pressure system, but that doesn’t really explain the seismic stuff, and we haven’t seen something like this in years, and I’ve never even seen it up close.”
I start to tune out a bit, because I know for a fact that I’m not going to follow any of this, and they haven’t invited me yet, which means the chances that they will are growing slimmer by the second. No vacation for us, kid sister, I mouth to Callie, who has already finished her salad.
“But anyway, sport,” says Dad, “here’s the thing.” Wait. Are they going on this trip together? “We’re going on this trip together,” Mom says.
Because they never go on trips together. Because one of them always stays home with me and Callie. Those are the rules. I mean, Callie isn’t some freak or anything, but she’s special, and she has needs and thrives best in certain conditions, so when these trips happen one of them always stays home with us.
“And we feel totally confident leaving you home with Callie for a few weeks.”
I pour us all a bit more wine, and they smile at each other and at me, and for some reason I’m feeling a little weird right now. I think about how we’ve watched movies together where the parents go out of town, and almost immediately the kids start running through the house drunk and naked, and then Mom says something like “What kind of idiots would leave their kids alone and expect something like this not to happen?”
Maybe Callie’s the reason they’re so cool with this? Like I wouldn’t dare have a party at our house because doing so would be uncomfortable and scary for my sister? But honestly I kind of think they just haven’t even thought of it. Like maybe they’ve waited my whole life to do something like this together, and now, for the first time, they can, because I’m just barely grown up enough to take care of stuff. They’re talking about something else now, but I’m basically lost in these thoughts, and it takes me a minute to focus back on them.
“Anyway, sport. We just want you to know. And you too, Callie!” Dad says, looking at Callie, then looking at Mom.
“That this is just one of the many reasons why we know we can always count on you, always, no matter what,” Mom finishes.
“For real and for always.” “Exactly.”
“Thanks, guys,” I say. “And, I was just wondering . . .”
“Yes?” says Dad.
“Well,” I say, finishing my glass of wine, “I was just wondering, since I’m the world’s greatest big sister and all, when am I going to get my trophy, and my certificate, my cash reward . . .”
Mom laughs, and Dad says, “Your certificate’s at the print shop, kid,” and Mom finishes his glass of wine.
ON THE WAY home, Callie naps next to me, though it’s impossible to tell whether or not she’s actually sleeping.
Dad looks back at us in the rearview and asks, “How’s Callie been?”
“She’s been fine,” I tell him.
He looks at me in the mirror and makes his face into the shape of a question, and that question is: Really? And it is real skeptical.
I tell him that since the hospital she’s been fine, if not better than fine. I tell him that if I were worried, I’d let them know. It works okay, I guess. His face unfurls from its question, and we keep driving.
But the more I think about it, it’s weird as hell that they’re going on this trip together. I keep thinking about this even though all I want, just for a minute, is to pretend it isn’t there, so I could just enjoy this happy family feeling a little bit more.
And I’m tired. And maybe I had a little bit more wine than I should have. And then I hear something.
“We just worry is all,” Dad says quietly.
Mom is asleep in the front seat, or so it seems. Then, more to himself, I think, than to me, Dad says, “That day . . . that day, it . . . just. It just wasn’t what we were expecting to find out there. But mostly what I remember was the sky. My God. It was purple and yellow, and it smelled like lightning, but I couldn’t see any. Do you know what lightning smells like? Don’t. Don’t know that. And the clouds were so low and heavy and with a mind of their own, opening a hole in the sky to let the light in,” he says. He says this to whom, I don’t know.
“How did you guys find the boat?” I ask.
“The boat?” he says, as if just remembering that I’m in the car with him. “The boat. The boat was . . . just there. It was just there. In the middle of all this, there they all were.” He pauses. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to come out the other end of whatever they came out the other end of. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be . . . to not have the words . . . to not have any words to put to your experiences.”
Then he tells me—or himself, I still can’t tell— “You’re a good sister, Lorna. You’ve got a good heart even if you like to keep it under wraps sometimes. There’s nothing wrong with that, but just be careful.”
He tells me, “I love you, sport.” And then we’re home.