Every now and then while reading a book, you come across a line that makes you stop exactly where you are. You’ve been plowing through, reading the lines from left to right, turning the pages. But then you can’t go on anymore. You’ve hit a line, a sentence, a paragraph that you have to keep rereading. You have to hold the book in your hands, look up, and think about what you’ve just read.
This is what Sara Zarr does to her readers.
Zarr’s first novel, Story of a Girl, was a National Book Award Finalist. Her second novel, Sweethearts, a 2008 Cybil Awards Finalist and an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults. All of her novels share what it’s like to be a teenager when there are so many aspects of your life that you can’t control, like a missing thirteen-year-old girl and your mother’s decision to adopt a baby—and invite the teenage mother into your home.
Zarr’s fifth novel, The Lucy Variations, which came out on May 7 from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, has already received several starred reviews. The story of the death and betrayal that caused Lucy Beck-Moreau to abandon her future as a concert pianist and then learn to play just for herself teaches that it is possible to find joy again, even when things don’t go according to plan.
YARN is thrilled to share a Sara Zarr original short story, exclusive to YARN. It has everything you love about her work, in a small summery package.
By Sara Zarr
When he did something it made you think you could do it, too.
Whether it was skating or writing a story or getting up in front of the whole school to give a speech, like at the assembly after Ricky died and the rest of us were lost (still, three weeks out from what happened) and all our parents were freaking out and not wanting to let us out of our houses as if what happened to Ricky could happen to anyone else. I don’t know, maybe it could. Seemed unlikely.
Bret got up and said the thing that we obviously all needed to hear but no number of school district grief counselors or parents or pastors or dads sitting on edges of beds at night with their hands on knees had managed to come up with.
Which was this:
“Ricky is dead. We’re not. Okay?”
Then Mr. McCoy got up and said some b.s. about how we needed to grieve and heal and it was okay to be angry, even at Ricky and blah blah blah have a safe summer.
I walked home on the last day of school. It wasn’t that long after the assembly and parents were still all nerves and looks of concerns, and my dad offered to come pick me up. “I want to walk,” I told him. It had rained all that week, just exactly the way it seemed it should, but on that last day the clouds parted sort of biblically and there was sun, so much sun, and the air had that after-rain squeaky clean freshness and I wanted to be in it.
I heard skateboard wheels on the street behind me and I knew it was Bret. No one rides with his kind of confidence, and his kind of confidence makes a specific sound, a specific sound I’d practiced identifying for months. I could identify distance, too, and judged him to be about a hundred feet behind me and gaining ground fast.
If I turned around, it might look like I’d been expecting him, wanting him to roll up behind me. It might look like I’d been wishing for this moment of Bret and me, finally alone, ever since he read one of his stories in English—a story about a ten-year-old boy and a dead grandpa and a broken flower pot.
Or maybe I should have turned around. Maybe me not turning around told him more about things than if I had.
Then there was the skid of him jumping the curb and the bump-bump-bump of the sidewalk lines, and that slowed until he was next to me, just pushing along with that loose body, staying close.
“Hey,” he said.
“I like your hair like that. It’s kinda…reddish? More than before?”
I’d spent eighty-five dollars on a cut and color the same day Ricky jumped in front of the train, before I knew what had happened. And I really liked how my hair turned out. It gave me a whole new feeling about myself and what the summer could be. I felt set free, like the only thing holding me back all this time had been my old hair. But I felt bad being so happy about it, at least at school. At home I looked at it for a long time in the mirror those mornings after Ricky.
I tried not to act surprised or glad that Bret noticed. “Redder. And shorter,” I said, letting my eyes slide over to him for the smallest second. I wanted to remember what he looked like, even though I’d just seen him at his locker which I always made sure to pass at least once each day in case he’d be there, wrestling his board into it, or just leaning. It was never enough, though, to really remember, to know-know what he looked like. Because he had a million different looks depending on the angle from which you saw him. Or depending on his mood or the length of his hair. Sometimes he had it short, almost shaved, and then you could really see the unusual angle of his nose and the way his lower lip came out at you, like a dare.
When his hair got long it curled in shiny, almost-black random swoops around his head. And what you noticed then were his eyes. The curls softened the angles of his nose and lip and made you want to stare, long and bold, longer than anyone should stare into another person’s eyes unless you were married or engaged or engaged to be engaged.
So I looked at him quick as I could.
His hair was halfway between clipped and curly and I couldn’t decide whether to look at his lip or his eyes. He had some dye in his hair, too, a more orangey red than the maroon-ish shade of mine.
“What you said at the assembly…” My voice came out stupid-sounding. Needy? And sort of higher than I normally talk. “You’re right,” I said, because, one, it was too late to stop, and two, I remembered my hair and how I’d been set free. Though I did make an effort to drop my tone into something less expectant. “We’re not dead.”
A simple truth.
He pushed against the cement with his purple sneaker, slowly bump-bump-bumping through spots of sun and shade until he got to the corner of this big intersection and had to wait for the light to turn green.
“I wrote a story,” he said when I caught up to him. “A new one.” He leaned his hand into the pedestrian signal button.
“About Ricky?” I asked.
And he looked at me like I hadn’t been paying attention to anything, ever, my whole entire life. “Everything has been about Ricky. Aren’t you tired of that? Of everything being about Ricky? Like the rest of us don’t exist anymore?”
The everything: posters with Ricky’s face all over school, Facebook tribute pages by people who never even talked to him when he was alive, rumors about his ghost haunting the locker rooms. And most of all the paranoia. Teachers and parents and Petra Tate, the student body president and her Campaign for Caring that came with its own posters, acting like were all going to do it. Like we’d just line up at the closest station and take turns throwing ourselves in front of trains.
“Yeah. I guess I am.”
The light turned green, the little white figure of a man in the WALK signal striding forward into his life. We went across together. All the cars waited in their part of the street while we walked in ours but it would be so easy for one of us to break the rules. For a car to go, or not stop in the first place, and Bret and I would be dead, like that, not even by our choice. And it would be our faces in the halls and our ghosts in the locker rooms. Together, always. I shook the idea out of my head. My friend Cassie was into all these books about regular alive girls in love with ghosts or fairies or zombies—some version of a dead boy who tried to get the girls to come over to their side. I wonder what Cassie thought now that there was a real dead boy and maybe his ghost loitering around. I bet it didn’t seem so romantic now.
The day after it happened, my mom and dad sat me down and asked if I’d ever thought about it. “Killing myself?” I’d asked, just to be clear.
They looked at each other, and Mom pulled me into a hug and I promised them that if I ever felt that way I’d say something.
What exactly would I say? Who knows.
I’d told them the truth. But also, there was a difference between wanting to die and not wanting to live. I understood, sometimes, not wanting to live. Or, maybe, being disappointed with what being alive felt like. On a day like this it was hard to remember that disappointment. On a day l like this I could only think about big lungfulls of day-after-the-storm air and school being out and where my new hair might end up taking me.
But when it’s not a day like this—the last day of school, bright and golden—when it’s more like a bunch of days in a row of rain and stress over finals and your parents bickering with each other over every little stupid thing, and everybody looking happy and popular and like they were figuring it out…it could feel like: Why bother? And there did seem to be a lot of days like that sometimes.
We’d made it several blocks past the big intersection without talking. There were a lot of things I thought to say but only one thing I needed to find out. “You know how you said we’re not dead?”
Bret looked at me out from under his curls and I took in his eyes, nose, and lips. All at once. “Yeah?”
“How do you do that? How do you not be dead?” If anyone knew how to not be dead, it was him. But he didn’t say anything. Instead, he did a trick with his board, or tried to. Then he tried again, and again, and again, until I worried he’d forgotten I was standing there, too, waiting.
To remind him, I continued: “Because sometimes I can understand why Ricky or whoever would… I mean don’t you ever see the world, and want to be in it? But feel like there’s something between you? You and it?” He tried the trick again. And again. I wondered why he didn’t just stop. But then there was something beautiful, too, about the way the board flipped over and over, its truck and wheels catching the sun, even the sound it made clattering to the cement when Bret couldn’t land it. “I feel that way, sometimes,” I continued. “Like there’s something between me and the world. You know, keeping me out.”
He picked up his board. “Well there isn’t.”
We walked. I felt myself in the world.
“The story I wrote,” he said. “It kind of has you in it.”
A car accelerated by us, making a bunch of noise, and I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right but I didn’t want to ask him to say it again in case I’d imagined what he’d said. It has me in it?
So I said: “Oh.”
“Is that cool? I changed your name.”
“What’d you change it to?” I blinked a few times, and scratched a place on my neck that sometimes itched though it didn’t happen to at that moment. I’d had daydreams like this, with Bret skating me home from school and telling me he liked my hair and us talking in some deep way about life. Us laughing. Accidentally brushing arms. Him asking me if I wanted to learn how to skate and then holding my waist to make sure I didn’t fall as I tried out his board. In a daydream I wouldn’t be blinking so much and scratching my neck. So that was proof this was real.
“Melissa.” He smiled, and dropped his board back onto the sidewalk, then hopped on.
“Mostly I call you…her…Mel. For short.”
“Mel,” I said.
One story he wrote, before the boy and grandpa story, was about Bret and Nicholas Scardino and something that happened in gym class with Mr. Franklin during sophomore year. Only in the story they were called Brad and Stevo and Coach Adams. It was funny but it also made you think. Real, too, in that everyone knew the story it was based on, but also more real than that. And I pictured myself as a character in some version of my life that was inside Bret’s head. It felt in an unexpected way as much like being alive in the real world, and I couldn’t imagine, after this, ever again having that feeling of not being here.
“What do I—what does Mel do in the story?” I asked.
He pushed himself away from me again. Bump bump bump. “You can read it if you want,” he called back to me.
“When?” I asked, stopping. We were almost to my street, where I’d have to break away from him and I hadn’t accidentally brushed his arm yet. He hadn’t held my waist.
He shrugged. “Whenever.”
“No,” I said. I really said it: No. “Not whenever.”
He looked back at me, those lips in a smile. “Okay. I’ll email it when I get home.”
“When’s that?” I pressed.
“I’m going there now.” He laughed. Bobbled on his board, balancing on the curb. “I’ll walk in the door, go straight to the computer, and send it.”
“Okay,” I said. I scratched my neck; it actually itched this time. Bret skated toward his street; I turned toward mine.
If Bret would make it home to send the story, I’d make it home to read it. This summer, I’d know what he looked like, know-know. He would see me, too, and I’d see myself. No car would come over the curb. Nothing inside me would put me in front of a train.
My legs bore me. I felt the sun on my arms, the air in my lungs.
Sara Zarr was raised in San Francisco, California, and now lives with her husband in Salt Lake City, Utah. She is the author of the forthcoming The Lucy Variations (May 7, 2013), How to Save a Life, Once Was Lost, Sweethearts, and the National Book Award finalist Story of a Girl.