Read an Excerpt
In A World Just Right
IT’S TWO O’CLOCK IN THE morning, and the streetlight stretches my shadow across Kylie’s lawn up into her mother’s English garden. My shadow’s head is where the fat yellow lilies will bloom after graduation this summer. Bunches of smaller flowers her mom planted yesterday, a rainbow of color in sunlight, sleep under a blanket of moonlight gray.
I glance up and down the street at a neighborhood of unlit windows, to confirm no one saw me appear out of thin air.
Without crushing anything, I navigate Kylie’s garden and squeeze between bushes to reach the window. Her curtains are drawn, so I can’t see inside. With a kick to the mulch, I uncover the butter knife we hid there and slide it along the window’s edge to unhitch the screen. I push the unlocked window up, then part the curtains to see into the room.
Kylie’s sitting up in bed. Awake. Startled. Watching me come through the window.
She relaxes when she figures out it’s just me, Jonathan, the messed-up boyfriend.
I crash into the room as quietly as I can and slip off my sneakers. Kylie slides over and pulls back the covers for me to lie down. She won’t ask if I’m okay, because clearly I’m not. I don’t make surprise nighttime visits casually.
“Did I scare you?” I ask.
She props her head on her hand, her long red-brown hair looking black as it trails to the pillow. The darkness smooths her face, gives her two wide eyes over a bump of nose and kissable lips. Lips denied me in the real world. She presses closer, and our lips meet. For a few glorious moments we kiss each other, and I start to feel better. She’s warm and smells like she showered before bed, all coconutty or pineappley or something.
Then she pulls away. Her eyes search my face, waiting.
I don’t actually want to talk. I want more kissing. I want more her. I reach for her hand, separate out her index finger, and draw it down the left side of my face, from my eye practically to my jaw. She doesn’t flinch, and that is exactly what I need. I pull up my shirt and place her hand on my chest, where the scarring is the worst. She moves her fingers over the snarls and craters, caresses them, then replaces my shirt and kisses the scar on my face.
Her eyes look into mine. Most people can’t look me in the eyes. The real Kylie has never looked me in the eyes, but this Kylie seeps into me with a gaze. She is not disgusted by me. She loves me.
She puts a finger to the scar on my face. “Is this bothering you again?”
“I don’t know.” Actually, that’s a lie. What’s bothering me is the weird cosmic whisper I got just before I came here, which scared me more than my near-death memories, but I do not discuss cosmic topics with Kylie.
Thankfully, she rolls with my faked ignorance and stays focused on my scar. “It’s just a line.” She moves a little deeper into the covers and puts her head on my chest, ear to my heart. “And evidence that you’re a miracle.”
I enfold her in my arms and say nothing. No one in the real world cares that I’m a miracle, not since the doctors congratulated themselves and discharged me.
“Seriously,” she says, and I can feel her words vibrate against my chest. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Talking won’t help. Sometimes the truth cannot set you free. Sometimes, when the night is bad and the universe taunts me, I just need to be with my girlfriend.
“I feel better now,” I say.
Kylie breathes a contented sigh and snuggles against me. My body practically shivers with the ecstasy of being with her. She’s everything I need to live, and she’s not even real.
* * *
Here’s a story for you. Once upon a time there was this kid named Jonathan Aubrey. He was eight years old. He had a mom and a dad and a six-year-old sister, Tess, and an Auntie Carrie and Uncle Joey. One day they all got on a plane to Disney World. Except for Uncle Joey, who was on some business trip or other. It was going to be the funnest, most perfect trip of a lifetime. The airplane took off . . . and fell out of the sky into Boston Harbor. (Yes, the Tragedy in the Harbor, the famous crash they contrasted with the Miracle on the Hudson.)
Little Jonathan was one of three people who survived. He spent three months at Massachusetts General Hospital in a coma, and when he woke up, they sent him home. Except there wasn’t anyone at home anymore. They were in the ground at Pine Street Cemetery, and he had missed all the funerals and everything.
He went to live at Uncle Joey’s house instead. Uncle Joey tried to be good to Jonathan, but there was that business thing that often kept him away, and Uncle Joey was grieving just as bad because he’d lost Auntie Carrie.
Jonathan didn’t come out of that coma the same way he went in. He had a little lag in his speech. He limped. He had burns and scars on parts of his body. Most of the ugly skin he kept covered with long sleeves and pants, even on days when it got to be almost a hundred degrees. But one uncoverable, ragged red scar ran from his eye to his jaw, and the marks of the stitches made a railroad track on his face. When he returned to school, kids were afraid of him. Teachers tried to be nice, but they just couldn’t stop every kid who whispered “Frankenstein.” Jonathan learned to take it quietly. At recess he’d sit on the monkey bars pretending he was part of everyone’s play, even though he got thoroughly ignored. He paid attention in school and liked his teachers, but teachers’ attention wasn’t enough, and they tried too hard to make him feel normal. He wanted so much to be asked to play kickball. The closest he got was when Hunter LeRoy made him fetch the ball out of some poison ivy, saying that if he got a rash, it couldn’t make him any uglier. He really said that. Hunter LeRoy is a jerk to this day.
Jonathan would sit in his room in Uncle Joey’s house and stare out the window. Sometimes he would pretend the street crawled with kids fighting some kind of rebellion against alien invaders, and he was their leader. He would have friends and daring escapades with a healthy dose of heroics, and his scar would be a badge of honor, a war wound.
One day he squeezed his eyes shut so tightly with longing that when he opened them . . . he was standing in the middle of a battle with a gun in his hands. There were people and aliens running in the street. Laser blasts shot craters into the manicured lawns. Tanks, helicopters, bodysuits full of gadgetry everywhere. He was wearing a bodysuit full of gadgetry. “Commander Aubrey!” someone yelled. Jonathan made a motion with his arm, and a dozen kid soldiers followed him down the street to fight the alien invaders.
This new world was Jonathan-is-a-hero. He went there a lot. Until he figured out it was not the only world he could make.
* * *
I’m awake before Kylie, watching the red digital numbers count down the time till her alarm. Two more minutes.
She has rolled away from me, forehead pressing against the wall, and most of the covers are bunched in her curled arms. I’m on my back, lying at the other edge of the bed, not touching her with my disturbed thoughts.
I am here because something happened last night—a breath, a murmur, a shift in the earth, like everything under me slid a millimeter off center from where it should be, which is a weird feeling when everything looks perfectly normal and no sound at all has been made. But I got all creeped-out in a way I feel silly trying to explain, and the shiver I got was so powerful, it sent me scrambling out of bed and over to Kylie’s, just so she could put right the world.
To a certain extent I just have to put up with weirdness in my totally weird life. Kylie fixed my mood, so all’s quiet on the western front this morning.
I can’t reward her for her good deed by letting the squawk of the alarm wake her, so I carefully turn it off and roll myself over to fit my body to hers. She makes a little groany wake-up noise and pulls my arm over her.
“What time is it?” she whispers.
“Would you believe me if I said school’s canceled?”
She takes a deep breath and sighs it out, and we lie there together, content for a moment before we roll back the covers and rise. We exchange a few kisses laced with morning breath, which are sweet anyway.
“You okay?” she asks.
“All better.” I convince her with a smile. She reflects it back at me, magnified by her beautifulness, and I come this close to dragging her back under the covers.
With a final kiss she leaves for the bathroom. I slip out the window, replace the screen, and rebury the butter knife. Since witnesses are waking in the surrounding houses, I crouch in the bushes to vanish back to reality.
Step one: Squeeze eyes closed.
Step two: Picture world. (That would be the real world this time.)
Step three: Open eyes.
That’s all there is to it.
I’m standing perfectly still in the woods behind Pennington High School, sensing the world around me. Nothing seems out of place. Relief carries away my tension like rain washing down a roof. Whatever was worrying me last night has passed.
I trudge up a path through the woods to the school. Because my house is pretty far away, there wasn’t enough time to walk here and still get to class by the bell, so my sacrifice for a few hours earlier with Kylie is a shower at school.
The back door is always open in the morning, so I sneak inside, grab stuff from my gym locker, and clean up. My shampoo’s not coconutty or pineappley, but it squelches any thoughts my scalp might have about starting a dandruff habit. I wore (mostly) clean jeans to Kylie’s last night, so they’re good to go again today, and the T-shirt I pull out of my backpack smells much better than the one I slept in. Okay. Ready to face another day.
I push open the locker room door as someone else yanks from the outside. There’s a second of shock before I recognize the other guy and try to lighten things with a “Hey, Mark,” but he brushes past me like I’m not there. Not even a grunt of acknowledgment from the kid voted this year’s class chatterbox.
This real-world invisible treatment, after so many years, has lost its sting. The locker room door shuts behind me, sealing me in the empty hallway. I shortcut to my E-Hall locker through the weight room, and a wall of mirrors announces that I, Jonathan Aubrey, do in fact exist. I create a reflection in a real mirror in the real world, so I can only assume I’m not actually invisible.
Granted, invisibility would be a great superpower to have, but world-making will have to do, since it’s the power I got.
There’s still about ten minutes before first period, so I take my time at my yellow-over-blue-over-brown-over-orange-painted locker. There are so many layers, the lockers stick when you open and close the doors. Pennington High School is something like sixty years old, a building that’s out of date without being charming. The desks and chairs are chiseled, and graffitied, and covered in the grime from thousands of student bodies. About half the windows are Plexiglas replacements that’ve yellowed with time.
Fellow seniors in this hallway grab books and move on, talking about college plans, sports practice, homework they need to copy. When I feel that stalling another second at my locker will be overkill loser-ish, I slam the door shut and head off for a walk around the more crowded halls of freshmen, sophomores, and juniors, who take the bus and therefore arrive sooner. I’ll be just another anonymous walker until it’s safely late enough to grab my seat in first period.
As usual, no one greets me in passing. No one looks at me in their rush to do whatever they need to do. I could be here or not, and the school day would go on just the same. I’m missed only by the computer that adds up the absences my teachers input when I’m gone to Kylie-Simms-is-my-girlfriend.
I’m halfway up B-Hall when I see her talking to a teacher at the far end.
The real Kylie Simms.
She looks exactly like my Kylie, from her ponytail to the toes poking out of her sandals. Gorgeous. Athletic. Smart. Confident. Kind. A million other adjectives to fall in love with. She’s wearing a royal-blue T-shirt with a winged-foot logo and Pennington Track and Field in white. There’s a meet today, so all the track girls will be wearing them. Kylie is team captain and one of the top sprinters in the state. Her devotion to the sport is the reason I joined the track team myself in Kylie-Simms-is-my-girlfriend.
I try not to stare at her, but I can’t help myself. One would think that having an exact Kylie copy all to myself in another world would satisfy my craving for her, but one would be dead wrong. My curiosity knows no bounds.
She doesn’t spare a glance in my direction as I walk by. Not that I expect her to. Kylie Simms might be a nice girl, but she doesn’t have much reason to talk to a loner like me. As I keep going down the hall, forcing myself not to look back, I feel the small thrill of potential fading away. Whenever I see Kylie, there’s always the chance she’ll notice me, but I haven’t hit that lottery yet.
How would she feel to know that in another world not only does Jonathan Aubrey love her but she loves him right back?
It’s sick, I know. What I’ve done. But it’s all I have for happiness, and just thinking about Kylie in Kylie-Simms-is-my-girlfriend makes me realize I forgot to give her the yearbook form I picked up for her that’s due today. I look at my watch. Six minutes to first period is enough time for a quick errand.
I duck into the nearest bathroom, second stall, and find it empty. Without wasting time I squeeze my eyes shut, picture the same exact bathroom in Kylie-Simms-is-my-girlfriend, and open them.
I’m crouching on top of the toilet. Since this stall’s been locked for ages due to a broken flusher, it’s the safest place to switch worlds in a hurry. Before I can crawl out, the main door creaks open and then bangs closed. I’m stuck listening to the sounds of someone doing their business while at least a minute ticks by. When whoever it is finally finishes washing his hands and exits, I look again at my watch. I can still make it.
After a careful listen to make sure I’m really alone, I climb off the toilet and under the locked stall door, ready to find Kylie.
It doesn’t take long. School in Kylie-Simms-is-my-girlfriend appears pretty much the same as it does in the real world, so I’m not surprised to see a lot of the same people in this hallway as I did a moment ago. I expected to search for Kylie by her locker in D-Hall, but she’s here, in B-Hall not far from the doorway where real Kylie was talking to the teacher. She’s with Lilly DeMarco, who is also dressed in the blue-and-white Pennington High track shirt, and they’re headed my way. Some teeny part of my brain finds this odd, since Kylie isn’t usually this early for class, but I dismiss it so I can get back to the real world in time for my own class.
Locker doors slam. Cell phone screens flash as students shield them from teachers. The hallway is backpacks and hair and books and voices. Arms brush in passing. I hold my books a little more tightly and prepare to greet Kylie with our usual peck on the lips. Her red-brown hair, tied up in a ponytail, sweeps back and forth with her stride. She flashes a smile at another track girl pulling books out of a locker. Lilly says something to make Kylie laugh.
I’m smiling myself. I know I just saw her this morning, but sappy smiles just burst out whenever I see her. I slow my stride to meet up with them and offer that kiss. Kylie doesn’t take any notice of me. I’m right in front of her, but she keeps talking to Lilly as if I’m just another kid going to class. I’ve moved into the middle of the hallway to join her, and I get bumped by a freshman with an enormous backpack. I take a step to catch myself, and I’m touching Kylie. She finally looks at me and my smile, and as I lean toward her face, I sense that something is very, very not okay. I pull away, kiss aborted, and register the shock on her face. It might even be horror as her eyes travel down my scar.
Lilly takes her arm and pulls her down the hall away from me. They giggle, exchange a few words I can’t hear. Kylie looks back at me strangely. Then they sort themselves into their separate classrooms.
Slowly the realization of what has happened dawns on me. I think I’ve just done something I’ve never, ever done before. But how? HOW? I started the day in the real world and switched in the bathroom. I know I did. But somehow, maybe, I didn’t.
I mixed up my worlds.
I check the hallway for the truth, but my two school worlds are mostly the same except for track and Kylie. Maybe today they are a little too identical. Although my worlds contain the same people, they’re rarely doing the same exact things at the same exact times. The answer comes when Rob Finkelstein passes me. Rob is in my running group and a good friend in Kylie-Simms-is-my-girlfriend. He totally ignores me on his way down the hall.
Oh, God. How did this happen?
My gut twists and my tether to the real world goes slack. I lean against a locker and take a shaky breath. I just tried to kiss the real Kylie Simms. Lilly will tell the whole school by third period.
Later I’ll have to go to real creative writing class and face Kylie. I think of how much we mean to each other in Kylie-Simms-is-my-girlfriend, how good it feels to run side by side for a few miles, to make out on the couch with the TV on mute, to talk for hours over hot chocolate at Lacy Pastry. The reminder that in reality I mean nothing to her at all makes me sick. I stumble back into the bathroom.
I’m pretty sure nobody notices.