The Pull of Gravity
By Gae Polisner
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2011 Gae Polisner
All rights reserved.
A fever was what started everything. That, and the water tower, and the cherry cola. Well, also, Dad and his condition, and Mom being in Philadelphia and all.
I mean, the fever alone wasn't the problem, or even the hallucination that came with it. I always got those when I was sick. "Febrile seizures" Mom calls them. But they were usually confined to my bedroom. Okay, once to the bathroom — unless there were actually giant spiders guarding the toilet — and once to the backyard. But there were definitely giant noodles dancing out there, so I had to join them. Which, according to my brother, Jeremy, was hilarious.
As far as Jeremy's concerned, I'm just one big ball of feverish entertainment.
Even Mom says she never saw anyone who can spike a fever like I can. It's like I can be fine one minute, then burning up an easy 104 degrees the next.
Jeremy is different. He's Mr. Healthy so it's an international crisis if he even sneezes or gets a headache. Really, the dude is never sick. Never misses a day of school or a game or, worse, his own birthday party. It's like my folks had him, then spent the next three years saving up the sick genes and popped me out to deal with them.
But where was I?
Oh yeah, how everything got started.
So it's the last Friday in August, and I'm a few days from starting high school, which isn't a big deal here in Glenbrook since there's only one elementary school that feeds into one middle school that feeds into Marshall J. Freeman High. So by the time we all get there, we pretty much know everyone by heart. Besides, I'm almost fifteen, so I'm ready to get the heck into high school.
Mom is at Rand Industries where she works, but not at the local factory here in Glenbrook like she normally is. She's at corporate headquarters in Philly where she is the last Thursday through Sunday of every other month, on account of she's their bookkeeper and that's where the bimonthly audit review meetings are held. Well, also, on account of she has to since Dad doesn't work much anymore. On account of him being so fat.
Rand Industries is a chemical-by-product storage and removal company, but other than that, there's not much I can tell you about it. Mom's explained it a thousand times, but honestly, I still don't know what they do. Except that a few times a month, a big puff of black smoke comes wafting out of the building, and then a bunch of people run over there with picket signs saying it's bad for the environment. It's not that I disagree with them, but I feel bad for Mom. She doesn't make the stuff. She just keeps the books for them.
Although it is kind of ironic, since clean air and clean living are the main reason she moved us up here to Glenbrook in the first place, right after Jeremy was born.
Anyway, Mom is at Rand headquarters, and Dad is belly-up on the couch in the living room like he always is. Sound asleep, like a beached whale.
I walk over and tap him on the stomach with my lacrosse stick, which I'm carrying around in my boxer shorts because I have this fever and I'm half in — and half out of — sleep, and clearly ramping up to hallucinate.
"Dad, I'm meeting Ryan," I say. "Going out laxxing."
I prod him again with the stick. He grumbles and breathes heavy.
"Dad, I'm going out. But maybe I'm sick. Can you feel my head?"
He rolls on his side, his gigantic belly hanging over the edge, and for the millionth time in the last few years I wonder if he's close to dead. But as I head to the front door he manages, "Other way, kid, you'd better go back to bed."
Now if you think I'm exaggerating about the fat part, I'm not. My dad is seriously fat. At last count, 395 pounds of jiggling, miserable fat. And add to that, just plain miserable.
Of course, he didn't start out that way. Sure, he was always big, which makes you wonder why I stay so freaking skinny. Barely 110 pounds soaking wet on a good day. Seriously, my ribs show. Not cool for a guy who's entering high school. But Dad was always a jolly sort of big, like a solid 250 or something. Then, after his heart attack a few years ago, he had to take time off because of stress and depression and all, and he got fatter and fatter by the minute. Which was like a vicious cycle, because he lost his job as a desk editor for the Albany Times Union, then sat around home writing dinky editorial pieces for the Glenbrook Weekly Sun. Which made things worse since the Albany paper was already a huge step down from the New York Daily News where he used to work before Mom dragged him up here to "the Sticks." Which is what my dad calls any place more than five minutes away from Manhattan. Where he used to live before Jeremy and I mucked it all up.
So the more I think about it, I guess it wasn't just the fever and the cherry cola and the water tower that got everything started, but also Dad's situation. Or maybe it was actually the Scoot's turn for the worse that really set things in motion.
As hard as I try to pinpoint it, maybe it wasn't one thing that led me to Jaycee Amato and the craziest weekend of my life.
All I know is once it started, it just was.
Spinning in motion, I mean.
And then nothing was the same.
So there it is the last week of August, with Mom in Philly, Dad on the couch, and me back in bed, my fever spiking, just waiting to hallucinate noodles. And Jeremy's wherever, which means everything is just like normal.
Even the Scoot is in one of the places he often is, reading in the park on Watson, which is really what saves me in the end. Because I do hallucinate, only this time it's not noodles but a giant can of black cherry cola. Dr. Brown's Black Cherry Soda, if you want to be exact.
I mean, maybe it's stuck in my memory how I used to love that stuff when I was little, how Dad used to bring it home in six-packs every Friday night, and we'd eat pizza and drink black cherry cola until our stomachs were ready to bust. Until Mom banned it, that is, on account of Dad ballooning up big-time.
Only this cherry cola is evil-looking, with long dangling arms and white-gloved Mickey Mouse hands. I know it sounds cute, but it isn't. It's got beady eyes and a black twirly mustache, and it's wielding a machete in its hands.
Which is where the water tower comes into the story. The giant blue, trapezoidal one west of Watson Street that looks like a Star Wars AT-AT Walker. Because when Cola Dude starts chasing me, I jump out of bed, fly downstairs and out of the house, down Carver, left on Main, two blocks west on Camelia Street, and right onto Watson, where I run smack into that water tower and start scrambling up to the top.
In my boxer shorts underwear, that is.
Which is bad enough on its own, but these are my Christmas boxers, the red ones with the white polka dots that say "Ho! Ho! Ho!" all over them. And it's August. And I'm climbing a water tower in a public park, yelling at a giant invisible cola.
It's not a pretty sight.
But, of course, I'm delirious. I don't know what I'm doing.
I make it maybe twenty feet before someone yells, "Hey, Nick, get down from there!" It's Scooter's high, raspy voice, and somehow it penetrates and I come to. Although not as fully as I need to in order to stop from crashing down.
My leg snaps on impact. Which hurts like a mothertrucker.
But still, I'm pretty lucky. Because the way the Scoot tells it, I'm climbing so fast I'd have reached the top in no time, which is like eighty feet up in the air. And if I'd fallen from there, I'd surely have broken my neck instead of just my leg.
Which is where Dad comes back into the story.
Because he sleeps through it all. Through the fever and the hallucination, and the running, and climbing, and falling, and right through all of Scooter's frantic calls. Even through the ambulance siren racing to get me just a few short blocks away. Through my trip to Mercy Hospital, and the doctors casting me up, and the first of Mom's fuming-angry calls.
You name it, my dad sleeps right through it.
Which leads to Mom coming home early, and to the days and days of screaming. And to Dad packing up and setting out to walk to New York City. And to the news crew showing up, and my collision course with Jaycee Amato.
But first, Scooter saves me, which is pretty ironic because the kid is half-dead himself. Which makes him a temporary hero, instead of a pariah for a change.
So at least some good comes out of it.
Which is nice, because, after that, everything goes downhill.
I've been thinking long and hard the past few months about what I'm about to do. I know I need to do something, anything, other than sit around on the couch waiting for the right answers to come. There's no such thing as a perfect time, so this seems like as good a time and place as any to begin.
I'll be back soon. I hope you understand.
But first I should explain the Scoot, so you'll fully understand.
Scooter Reyland is our next-door neighbor and a year older than I am. You wouldn't know it to look at him, though, because he's the smallest, weirdest-looking dude you've ever seen. I'm not being cruel, it isn't a secret. The Scoot would be the first to agree.
The Scoot wasn't born weird, but for as long as I can remember, he's been the messed up way that he is. Jeremy remembers him different, when he was a cute normal baby. But normal didn't last very long before total freakishness set in.
By the time I was two and the Scoot was three, he had stopped growing altogether. His head looked too big for his body and his hair fell out, or maybe it never came in. Plus, his skin started to wrinkle and got so thin you could see all the veins underneath. By the time he reached preschool, he looked like a shrunken old man.
And they all watched it happen, Mom, Dad, Jeremy, and worst of all, his mother, MaeLynn. Not me, though. I only remember him the way he is, so he mostly just seems like the Scoot, and not some freakish kid.
Now if you saw MaeLynn, you'd never believe that Scooter was her kid. She's a nurse, originally from the South, and looks like a magazine model. Thin, long blond hair, you know the drill. But his mom she was, and the Scoot was her whole entire world.
Anyway, back then, when all this stuff with the Scoot went wrong, his dad, some jerk named Guy, just up and disappeared. Left forever, without even saying goodbye. The way MaeLynn tells it, one day he's there, and the next, he's gone. Period. End of story. He never even calls or sends money.
Dad says he just freaked out, couldn't handle the pressure of what was happening to his son. But MaeLynn says he was lame to begin with, lived in a fantasy world, even before Scooter was born. She says it didn't matter anyway, because his leaving was the best thing for them, that he was a two-bit, wing-flapping chicken who couldn't stand the heat, so better that he clucked on out of her kitchen.
Still, it left MaeLynn to do all the hard work alone. Every week she dragged the Scoot's sorry little ass to doctors, until someone finally told her what was wrong. The Scoot had Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome, which speeds up the aging process and is totally incurable and rare. Like only one in eight million kids ever has it, and the Scoot's got it, so what are his chances there?
It's so rare, MaeLynn says, that in the history of recorded cases, Scooter's is 103rd. I mean, 103 people ever, out of all the billions in the world.
Over and over Scooter tries to explain to me how it's caused by this mutant gene that gets copied twice, one time fine, but the other time crazy wrong. I still don't get it. I can't make it stick in my brain.
The other thing Scooter tells me is that he's going to die.
This is years ago. We're like nine and ten, and we're playing Nerf guns in my yard. We're running around and shooting each other, but Scooter has to keep slowing down. Because already the symptoms are bad enough that his heart is weak, so he's constantly short of breath. Suddenly he stops and bends over, hands on knees, all red and panting and wheezing. So I stop too, and he looks up at me and says, "You know, Nick, this mutant gene thing, it's going to kill me soon."
No kidding. Just like that, that's what Scooter says.
Well, of course I don't know it; I don't know anything like it, because I'm just a little kid. Still, I nod my head and say something dumb like "Don't be an idiot, Scooter," then nudge him to keep playing our game.
But I never forget it. I never forget those words.
Anyway, this is how it was. Until a few years ago, the Scoot was my best friend. Especially on days MaeLynn worked, he was always at our house chilling with me or Dad. Then, near the end of middle school, things changed. We were both really different to begin with, and it was hard enough being a teen. Or, maybe, I finally got a little tired of how he was always hanging around, how Dad seemed to muster more energy for him, and was constantly worrying for MaeLynn. Maybe I resented how it felt like he was somehow our obligation. I started to spend less time with him and more and more time with my other friends.
The Scoot didn't seem too bothered by the shift in our friendship. He still hung around Dad, and Dad welcomed it. Plus, last year, he moved up to the high school, and he was barely in classes by then. Because by fifteen his body is like eighty, and he's older than most kids with progeria live. Seriously, his heart is failing and his liver's shot, which are not your usual teenage problems. So the minute he gets a cough or a cold, or something's just going around, MaeLynn pulls him from school and keeps him home safe with her. And when she's at work, he still knocks around with my dad. Or maybe he heads over to the park on Watson to read or scribble in that marble notebook of his.
Which is what he is doing there the day I break my leg.
Which, of course, leads to the mess with Mom and Dad, and to Jeremy being an ass. And to Dad taking off, and to Jaycee and the six o'clock news.
And to me deciding to do something crazy I wouldn't otherwise normally do.
Or maybe the truth is different.
Maybe I'm itching to do something crazy, and I just need someone to egg me on.
To: Nick Gardner
They say the beginning of any new thing is the hardest. Well, whoever "They" are, they're right. It is way harder than I thought, just walking.
More than that, it is hard leaving you guys, hard to be away.
I hope you know that, kid.
But I need to do this. I can't believe I am.
So what happens is Dad morphs into Fat Man 2 and disappears. And just so you know, the whole "Fat Man" thing isn't nearly as original as it sounds.
FatManWalking was actually the user name for this 400-pound guy from California who decided to lose weight by walking across the whole country to New York. For more than a year he walked and lost more than a hundred pounds. At the time, Dad was obsessed with the guy, followed his every move. For months it was all he talked about, like maybe he thought he could do it too.
He didn't, of course, not that any of us believed him in the first place. And eventually, he just stopped talking about it anymore.
Then, a few days after the water tower incident and another screaming match with Mom, he goes and digs out his Fat Man Walking T-shirt and starts packing his bags.
"Where'd you get that?" I say. I stand at his bedroom door, my toes throbbing fat and purple where they poke from my cast, my crutch hiked under my armpit, and watch as he shoves sweats into some high-tech backpack I've never seen before.
He looks up and frowns. "Hey, kid, you startled me."
"Sorry. So, what are you doing? Where'd all the Bear Grylls stuff come from?" I nod at the new hiking things piled up on the bed.
"I'm gonna do it, Nicky. Or at least try. I have to try." He stops packing, sighs. "Now is the time," he says.
"Time for what? When?" My ankle kills. I blink in disbelief.
"I'm aiming for this weekend."
He pauses, then goes back to what he's doing, as if this is all the explanation I need.
A few days later he stands at our front door, his laptop in a new waterproof sleeve, his backpack full, a compact, ultra-lightweight tent bungeed to its frame. I've been up, anxious, all morning, but Jeremy isn't even home. The jerk left for a friend's house without even saying goodbye.
"Figure a month, month and a half tops," he says to Mom. She nods, head down, arms crossed tight to her chest. "Worst case would be end of October. It'll be too cold beyond that." He laughs. "If I make it that long."
"You will," Mom says quietly. She looks up at him now, tightens a strap on the backpack. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Pull of Gravity by Gae Polisner. Copyright © 2011 Gae Polisner. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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