|Publisher:||Whitman, Albert & Company|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
|Age Range:||13 - 18 Years|
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By S. A. Harazin
ALBERT WHITMAN & CompanyCopyright © 2015 S. A. Harazin
All rights reserved.
Dr. Goodman brings a bucket of ice water into the exam room and sets it next to me. I'm sitting on a gurney naked except for a sheet. He's already checked my heart and lungs and felt my belly.
He's old-fashioned. He thinks of simple tests.
"You know what to do," he says.
I stick my hand into the water. His nurse checks my heart rate and blood pressure. After about thirty seconds he tells me to take out my hand.
"Did I pass?" I say with a grin. This is one thing I can do better than anybody.
The nurse checks my temperature with an ear thermometer. "Ninety-eight point one," she says.
"Your vital signs remained normal," Dr. Goodman says.
I already know that most people can't stand more than ten seconds in the ice water. One time he tested my heat tolerance by putting me in a hot room and keeping track of my temperature. I lasted about two hours, and then all of a sudden I had a temperature over a hundred and three—and I didn't even know it. The good news is that I didn't have a seizure.
"Feel anything?" he asks.
"My nose itched."
Dr. Goodman frowns. "I'd like to talk to you in my office," he says.
I stare at his stethoscope hanging around his neck. What's he going to tell me this time that I don't want to hear? I think I passed his made-up test, but I don't know what I'm supposed to feel when my hand's in the ice water. I know ice is cold, but what's cold? I don't know what that means.
The nurse hands me my glasses and then leaves the room. I wear glasses because I scratched my eyes when I was so young I don't remember. I heard Nana say my mom went into my room one morning, saw blood on my face and in my eyes, and started screaming.
Maybe that's why my mother ran away never to be heard from again. Google cannot even locate her.
I dress in jeans and a T-shirt. I get my jacket and walking cane. Years ago, I walked around with a broken leg. I was kind of unsteady. My leg didn't heal properly so I ended up with a limp and using a cane.
I go to Dr. Goodman's office, and I wait trembling. I'm scared he's going to tell me something's seriously wrong that I don't want to hear.
The thing is, most people don't know how long they have to live, and that's probably a good thing. I think knowing when you're going to die stinks. I know I'm living on borrowed time.
Rod, Dr. Goodman's physician's assistant, walks into the office. "Hey, David," he says. "I heard you've graduated from high school." He places a stack of folders on Dr. Goodman's desk.
"Yes," I say. That was last month, and I didn't have a ceremony or anything.
"Waterly High?" he asks. "That's where my brother goes."
"No. I was homeschooled."
I remember when I went to kindergarten. I wore a helmet, gloves, and goggles so I couldn't hurt myself by accident. Sometimes I would chew my tongue and my hands. My baby teeth were pulled to keep me from mutilating myself more than I already had. By the time my permanent teeth came in, I had learned not to do that.
When I went to school wearing gloves, goggles, and a helmet, some kids would call me a monster and run away screaming. Some of the braver kids would pain-test me by punching me. They'd knock me down, and I'd get up again because I didn't feel anything. A couple of kids believed I was Superman, and I did too back then.
I was born not feeling pain or hot or cold, and unable to sweat.
"Congratulations," Rod says. "You are amazing."
Rod means I'm amazing because I survived for so long. I have congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis, or CIPA for short. Maybe a hundred people in the world have CIPA, and the average life span is about the same as a hamster, but I've survived for more than seventeen years.
According to my grandmother, I'm one of the unique people in the world. Unique is the word some people use for defective. Other people use words like monster or superman.
"Dr. Goodman will be with you shortly," Rod says as he leaves the room.
Nana calls me a daredevil. She says I don't know fear because I don't feel pain. You know those guys who swallow fire or walk on hot coals? I could do it if I wanted to, but I'm not nuts. My skin would fry, and I wouldn't even know it until I smelled something cooking. I could have appendicitis or a heart attack and not know it.
The truth is, even wearing a thick sweater on a hot day could kill me.
My wristwatch alarm sounds. I stand, go to the door, and look out. I don't see Dr. Goodman or anybody so I head down the hall to the bathroom.
My watch monitors my body temperature. It also beeps to tell me when to eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom. I don't like that a piece of metal knows what I can't. Why stick a microchip in a watch when it could go into my brain?
One day in kindergarten, my watch beeped. We were sitting in a circle listening to the teacher, who was reading a book and showing us the pictures. Tyler said, "You better tell the teacher you have to go to the bathroom." Tyler was my imaginary friend.
I told the teacher.
But she went back to reading and showing us the pictures. It was a story with frogs flying on magic carpets at night. When daylight came, they returned to their boring routine.
I wet my pants. Kids laughed.
That day made me remember to always follow my routine and pay attention to my watch beeping, but mostly I remember the frogs and Tyler not laughing. He could've been my best friend if he were real. In another reality, maybe he is.
The teacher called my house sometimes, and then my father or mother would ask me if I hit the other kids. Didn't I know I hurt them? Didn't I know I caused trouble?
I became a kindergarten dropout.
After I use the bathroom, I wash my hands and glance in the mirror to make sure I haven't been chewing on my lip. I always try to remember not to bite myself because I can't feel it when I do.
I look okay.
When I was fifteen I had several operations on my face and hands to fix scarring left from me biting and scratching. My jaw and nose were fixed too. After the last surgery was over, Nana cried because of some swelling and bruising, but I didn't suffer at all. I probably would've suffered if I looked into a mirror, but I was surprised how much my operation hurt Nana.
A couple of months later, Spencer saw me for the first time since my surgery and did not recognize me. He said I looked great. He made me look in the mirror. I didn't look bad anymore. I looked like me but different without the messed-up face.
Spencer's my personal assistant and best friend. It's not like I'm his boss. He'd work for free, but I think it's hard to turn down easy money when you don't have any. We're both almost eighteen, but sometimes I feel more like he's twenty or thirty and I'm ten.
I still have a few scars.
One thick, ugly scar runs across my forehead. A dog bit me when I was a little kid before I went to live with Nana. I had stitches. They itched all the time so I picked at my face and pulled the stitches out. I kept scratching the spot. I didn't feel anything except the itching that wouldn't go away.
The next thing I remember is going to visit my grandparents. My dad left me there and didn't come back. That was eleven years ago. One of these days I'll find him and my mom. I'll ask them why.
Dr. Goodman walks into his office, pulls over a chair, and sits facing me. "You need to become more independent."
"Are you serious?" I wrinkle my forehead.
Dr. Goodman has said his educated guess is that my pain tolerance is about thirty times that of a normal person. My best guess is that I don't know. I don't know what normal is. "You need to get outside," he says. "You don't need to be afraid of the hot or cold if you use caution. There's more to surviving than staying inside most of the time."
I want to shake my head. Dr. Goodman's wrong. Everything's dangerous. I look away from him. "Have you had any other patients with CIPA?"
"No," he says. "But Dr. DeLorenzo has."
My point exactly. Dr. Goodman doesn't understand.
Dr. DeLorenzo is a researcher at a university. I knew him back before he became an expert. Dr. Goodman sometimes consults with him about me.
"One of his patients lived until she was twenty-five. But you know what? She was okay with it. She went to her junior prom. She volunteered at an animal shelter. She had her driver's license. She got engaged."
I shift in the chair. "Why'd she die?" "Complications from CIPA."
He's proving my point. "Was she in a wheelchair?"
"That's irrelevant. She had a rewarding life."
Dr. Goodman doesn't know anything.
"David, you have done better than anyone ever imagined. You're a good kid. You deserve a life. Get a driver's license, fall in love, do something nice for your grandmother. Make a list of things you want to do."
"A bucket list?" I say.
"Call it whatever you want to."
I'm not about to make a list of stuff to do before I die. I don't need to be reminded that I won't live long.
My grandmother says that when somebody dies, they've bought the farm, and their soul is free to wander through fields and grassy meadows with streams so clear you can see fish waggling back and forth.
I ride the elevator down to the lobby where Spencer is sitting in a chair and texting. He stands when he sees me. "Do you want to have lunch?" he asks.
"Sure," I say. I can't feel hunger, but I have great senses of smell and taste. One time when Spencer and I were eating pizza, he asked if I could eat too much and explode. He was grinning so I knew he was joking around. I told him to sit back and watch.
Another time he asked me if I'd ever had sex.
"Only by myself," I told Spencer. "What about you?"
"Same here," he said. "But that doesn't count."
When he said that, I felt almost normal.
But I've never kissed a girl.
Everything I know about sex I learned from my grandfather's Playboy magazines stored out of sight in the basement. I make frequent trips to the basement in the middle of the night.
We walk out the automatic doors. Spencer clears his throat. "It's below freezing," he says.
I slip on my jacket. "I know," I say as my freakin' watch starts beeping.
When the weather's warm, I go outside once a day to swim. It's the only real exercise I can do. It's therapy. I do what I have to do to stay alive because I don't want to die. The thing is, I want to have some excitement in my life and to have more than a paper girlfriend.
Spencer watches me to make sure I don't drown or get overheated or hypothermic. Since I can't feel hot or cold, my body temperature can soar in a short time, and I can't sweat to bring it down. Then I'll have a seizure and maybe wet my pants. When my body temperature drops too much, it's like a tidal wave has hit me until I become unconscious.
The body temperature problem is mostly why I need a personal assistant.
We go to a pizza place and order a vegetarian pizza with extra cheese. Spencer gobbles down his slice while he watches me eat slowly and carefully. He really does a good job of making sure I don't hurt myself. Once, years ago, he saw me after I'd bitten my fingers, and they were bleeding. Unlike my mom, he didn't run away screaming. Instead he cried and ran to Nana for help.
I learned that I was hurting myself, and I hardly ever bit my tongue or lips or fingers after that. I didn't like seeing Spencer cry.
I can't make tears, and I've never cried in my entire life. I guess that makes me lucky. Otherwise, I'd probably be crying a lot.
"I got into Vanderbilt," Spencer says. He stretches a smile across his freckled face, and his oversized ears wiggle. His coppery hair shimmers like wet pine straw. I'm lucky I don't have big ears.
I blink at him. "That's terrific," I say. "Really terrific."
"I'm going to be busier than ever the last semester of school," Spencer says.
He means he won't be hanging around as much. His words kind of shake something up inside me. Spencer's my only friend, I guess, and he'll be moving on in a few months.CHAPTER 2
After dinner on Christmas Eve, Nana and I go into the living room. The stockings are hung over the fireplace and the tree's lit up. Spencer and Veronica, the housekeeper, left earlier.
Nana sits in the recliner, and I move her walker to the side of the chair. Cataracts fog her eyeballs, and dementia has rewired her brain. Sometimes her mind's okay, and sometimes she stares like she can't see what's in front of her face.
Nana turns on the TV and clicks to a station that shows a fireplace and plays Christmas music. "Isn't this nice?" she says.
"Yes," I say. I get a hollow feeling inside watching the logs burn on TV.
I open gifts. A sweater. Shirt. Tie. Jacket. Underwear. There should be a rule against giving underwear. Next gift is a Bible. I flip through the yellowed pages. It was printed in 1850. Nana has written on a front page: David, don't ever forget me. I love you.
Then I open a package containing a VHS tape. The label's yellow and the writing faded. I turn around and hold it up. "Thanks. What's on it?"
I can't wait. It's probably a movie she taped twenty or thirty years ago. She's got a whole shelf of them in the study.
I give her a framed collage of pictures taken of Nana and her family before I came along and got dumped here. I found the photos in a box in the attic.
I look over her shoulder at the pictures.
Nana and Grandpa getting married.
Nana and Grandpa playing tennis.
Nana and Grandpa at the Olympics thirty years ago.
Nana swimming in the pool.
Nana and Grandpa's rafting trip.
Nana holding my dad on the day he was born.
My dad's high-school graduation picture.
My dad waving good-bye.
Grandpa smiling and holding a plaque at a banquet.
My grandfather was a smart man who made a lot of money selling antiques at auctions. He sold one book for a couple of million dollars.
It's a good thing he left Nana money when he died or else she couldn't have afforded me.
There are no other family members except for Nana's cousin, Ruby, and Ruby's grandson, Allen. Once Ruby brought Allen over to play with me, and we pretended to be ninjas. He kicked me in the belly, and I socked him in the face. He cried. I had broken his front tooth and his nose. Ruby said I was dangerous. They never came back.
Nana smiles and says the perfect spot for the collage is on the fireplace mantel, so that's where I place it. "Check—check—your stocking," she says.
My heart's in my throat when I pull out two things. A wallet from Veronica. A gift card from Joe.
He's my grandmother's attorney and my guardian if something happens. He's the guy in charge of running my life. He's got me on speed dial on his phone. I'm number two. It's hard for me to talk to him, and it's usually when something's gone wrong.
"We need to have a party soon," Nana says out of the blue. "I haven't been to a party in years. We used to have parties. We'd dance and sing karaoke as if tomorrow would never come." She suddenly changes the subject again and talks about the rafting trip she went on with Grandpa and their friends. I've heard that story before.
It makes me feel empty—like the world is moving on, and we're moving backward in time.
I can remember when it wasn't so lonely around here. I guess loneliness makes you remember the good times, and then you go looking for something like love or excitement or maybe drugs. I chose excitement.
One time when I was sick of my room, I sneaked out to the railroad tracks and waited for the ten p.m. train. When the whistle blew and the lights were so close that I was breathing terror, I jumped out of the way. A wild sensation came over me. My heart was beating fast, and I was shaking.
I loved the adrenaline rush, but I'd rather find other ways to get it.
"We should've rode around and looked at Christmas lights," Nana says.
That would be some adrenaline rush with Nana driving on ice and not seeing where she's going.
"It's too late," I say. It was too late six months ago when she started showing signs of dementia. She left the house one day and got lost on the nature trail behind our house. Spencer and I found her a few hours later. I had to call Joe because we sent her to the hospital. He didn't yell at me or anything, but I thought he would. He was taking his yearly vacation. He never talks about his yearly vacation. It's a big secret.
"Why don't we watch the tape?" Nana asks.
"We don't have a VCR."
"We had a VCR," Nana says.
"Maybe twenty years ago. I've never seen it."
She says I need to get into the spirit of Christmas.
I'm trying. "I'll look for the VCR," I say. I hurry to my room.
Excerpted from Painless by S. A. Harazin. Copyright © 2015 S. A. Harazin. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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