Hello, Universe

by Erin Entrada Kelly

Clock Icon 38 minute read

1
Grand Failure

Eleven-year-old Virgil Salinas already regretted the rest of middle school, and he’d only just finished sixth grade. He imagined all those years stretching ahead of him like a long line of hurdles, each of them getting taller, thicker, and heavier, and him standing in front of them on his weak and skinny legs. He was no good at hurdles. He’d found this out the hard way: in gym class, where he was the smallest, most forgettable, and always picked last.

All things considered, he should have been happy on the last day of school. The year was over. He should have been skipping home, ready to tackle the bright summer ahead. Instead he walked through the front door like a defeated athlete—head low, shoulders hunched, a sack of disappointment sitting on his chest like an anvil. Because today, it was official: he was a Grand Failure.

“Oy, Virgilio,” said his grandmother—his Lola—when he came in. She didn’t look up. She was in the kitchen, slicing a mango. “Come take one of these. Your mother bought too many again. They were on sale, so she buys ten. And what do we need ten mangoes for? They’re not even from the Philippines. They’re from Venezuela. Your mother bought ten Venezuelan mangoes, and for what? That woman would buy kisses from Judas if they were on sale.”

She shook her head.

Virgil straightened his posture so Lola wouldn’t suspect anything was wrong. He took a mango from the fruit bowl. Lola’s eyebrows immediately scrunched together. Only they weren’t really eyebrows, because she’d plucked them clean.

“What’s wrong? Why you have that look?” she said.

“What look?” Virgil said.

“You know.” Lola didn’t like to explain herself. “Is that pug-faced boy at school being mean to you again?”

“No, Lola.” For once, that was the least of his worries. “Everything’s fine.”

“Hmm,” said Lola. She knew everything wasn’t fine. She noticed everything about him. They had a secret kinship. It’d been that way ever since the first day she’d come from the Philippines to live with them. On the morning she arrived, Virgil’s parents and identical twin brothers immediately rushed her in a flood of hugs and hellos. With the exception of Virgil, that’s how the Salinas family was—big personalities that bubbled over like pots of soup. Virgil felt like unbuttered toast standing next to them.

Ay sus, my first moments in America will be filled with a pulsing headache,” Lola said. She pressed her fingertips to her temples and waved toward Virgil’s older brothers, who were tall and lean and muscled, even then. “Joselito, Julius, fetch my bags, hah? I want to say hello to my youngest grandson.”

After Joselito and Julius scurried off—ever the helpful brothers—Virgil’s parents presented him like a rare exhibit they didn’t quite understand.

“This is Turtle,” his mother said.

That was their name for him: Turtle. Because he wouldn’t “come out of his shell.” Every time they said it, a piece of him broke.

Lola had squatted in front of him and whispered, “You are my favorite, Virgilio.” Then she put her fingers to her lips and said, “Don’t tell your brothers.”

That was six years ago, and he knew he was still her favorite, even though she’d never said so again.

He could trust Lola. And maybe one day he would confess his secret to her, the one that made him a Grand Failure. But not now. Not today.

Lola took the mango from him.

“Let me slice that for you,” she said.

Virgil stood next to her and watched. Lola was old and her fingers felt like paper, but she sliced mangoes like an artist. She started slowly, biding her time. “You know,” she began, “I had a dream about the Stone Boy again last night.”

She’d been dreaming about the Stone Boy for days now. The dream was always the same: a shy boy—not unlike Virgil—gets terribly lonely, takes a walk in the forest, and begs a rock to eat him. The biggest stone opens its gravelly mouth and the boy jumps inside, never to be seen again. When his parents find the stone, there is nothing they can do. Virgil wasn’t sure how hard his parents would try to get him out anyway, but he knew Lola would hand chisel that rock to pieces if she had to.

“I promise not to jump into any rocks,” Virgil said.

“I know there’s something going on with you, anak. You have the face of Frederico the Sorrowful.”

“Who is Frederico the Sorrowful?”

“He was a boy king who was sad all the time. But he didn’t want anyone to know he was sad, because he wanted people to think he was a strong king. But one day he couldn’t hold in his sorrows anymore. It all came out, just like a fountain.” She lifted her hands in the air to mimic splashing water, still holding the paring knife in one of them. “He wept and wept until the whole land flooded and all the islands drifted away from each other. He wound up trapped on an island all alone until a crocodile came and ate him.” She handed a beautiful slice of mango to Virgil. “Here.”

Virgil took it. “Lola, can I ask you a question?”

“If you ever have a question, ask it.”

“How come so many of your stories have boys getting eaten by stuff, like rocks or crocodiles?”

“Not all of them are about boys getting eaten. Sometimes it’s girls.” Lola tossed the knife into the sink and raised her non-eyebrows. “If you decide to talk, you come find your Lola. Don’t burst like a fountain and float away.”

“Okay,” Virgil said. “I’m going to my room to check on Gulliver, make sure he’s okay.”

Gulliver, his pet guinea pig, was always happy to see him. He would chirp as soon as Virgil opened the door; he knew it. Maybe he wouldn’t feel like such a failure then.

“Why wouldn’t he be okay?” Lola called out as Virgil walked toward his room. “Guinea pigs can’t get in much trouble, anak.”

Virgil could hear her laughing as he placed the mango between his teeth.

2
Valencia

I’m not sure what God looks like. I don’t know if there’s one big God in heaven or if there’s two or three or thirty, or maybe one for each person. I’m not sure if God is a boy or a girl or an old man with a white beard. But it doesn’t matter. I just feel safe knowing someone’s listening.

I mostly talk to Saint Rene. His real name is Renatus Goupil. He was a French missionary who traveled to Canada. While he was there, he made the sign of the cross over a kid’s head and they thought he was spreading curses, so they took him prisoner and killed him.

I found out about him because on my tenth birthday, this girl Roberta gave me a book called Famous Deaf People in History. I would have never given Roberta a book about Famous Blond People or Famous People Who Talk Too Much or Famous People Who Tried to Cheat Off My Spelling Paper—all of which describe Roberta—but the good thing was that I found out about Saint Rene.

I don’t know sign language but I taught myself the alphabet so I made up a sign name for Saint Rene. I cross my middle finger over my index finger—the sign for R—and tap it three times lightly against my lips. That’s one of the first things I do after I take off my hearing aids for the night. Then I stare at the ceiling and imagine my prayers traveling up, up, up and hovering over my bed until they lift all the way through the roof. Then I imagine them landing on a cloud and sitting there, waiting to be answered.

When I was younger, I thought the cloud would get so heavy that all my prayers would come falling down and I’d have everything I wished for, but now I’m eleven so I know better. I still picture them sailing up, though. There’s no harm in that.

I only pray at night, because it’s my least favorite time of day. Everything is still and dark, and I have too much time to think. One thought leads to another until it’s two in the morning and I haven’t slept a wink. Or I’ve slept, but not well.

I didn’t always hate the nighttime.

I used to crawl into bed and drift off to sleep, no problem.

It’s not because of the dark. That’s never bothered me. One time my parents took me to this place called Crystal Caverns where you went underground and couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face. I wasn’t scared at all. I loved it down there. I felt like an explorer. Afterward my dad bought me a souvenir snow globe, only there are bats inside instead of snow. I keep it right next to me, on my nightstand, and I shake it before I go to sleep, just because.

So it’s not the dark that keeps me awake.

It’s the nightmare.

The nightmare goes like this.

I’m standing in a big open field—one I’ve never stood in before. The grass is yellow and brown under my feet, and I’m surrounded by thick crowds of people. Nightmare Me knows who they are, even though they don’t look like anyone I know in real life. They all look at me with round black eyes. Eyes without whites in them. Then a girl in a blue dress steps forward, away from the crowd. She says two words: “solar eclipse.” I know what she’s saying even though I’m not wearing my hearing aids and she doesn’t move her mouth. That’s how it is in dreams sometimes.

The girl is pointing skyward.

Nightmare Me looks up to where she’s pointing and watches attentively, not scared yet. I crane my neck, along with everyone else. We all watch as the moon moves in front of the sun. The blazing blue sky turns gray, then dark, and Nightmare Me thinks it’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.

It’s strange how nightmares work, though.

Somehow Nightmare Me knows things won’t end well. As soon as the moon finishes passing the sun, my blood rushes into my ears and my palms dampen with sweat. I look down from the sky—slowly, slowly, not wanting to see—and just as I suspected, everyone is gone. The whole crowd. Even the girl in the dress. Nothing moves. Not one single blade of grass. The field stretches on for miles and miles. The moon has pulled everyone away. All but Nightmare Me.

I’m the only person on the face of the earth.

I can’t tell what time it is, but I know it’s late. Like, past-midnight late. As hard as I want to not think about the nightmare, here I am, lying in bed and thinking about it. I shake my Crystal Caverns globe and watch the bats flutter around. Then I try to focus on the bumpy paint on my bedroom ceiling. My dad calls it popcorn paint. When I was a little girl, we’d pretend the ceiling was really made of popcorn and we’d open our mouths wide, wide and let it fall in.

“Next time I’ll paint a licorice ceiling,” my dad would say. He liked to say that Twizzlers were one of his favorite food groups. I’d shake my head and say, “Chocolate, chocolate, chocolate.”

It was our routine. But we don’t do things like that anymore.

I don’t think he knows how to be a dad to an eleven-year-old girl. You can’t sit an eleven-year-old girl on your shoulders, especially not when she’s all knees and elbows and five foot five, and you can’t make hot chocolate and wait up for Santa Claus or read picture books.

But it was still nice to remember the popcorn-licorice-chocolate ceiling.

It’s better than thinking about the nightmare.

I close my eyes and feel the hum of the ceiling fan against my cheeks. I make a promise to myself: if I have another nightmare tonight, I’ll talk to someone and ask for help. I don’t know who. But someone. Not my mom.

Don’t get me wrong. There are times when my mom is easy to talk to. If you catch her on a good day, she isn’t too mom-like. But I can never tell which mom I’ll get. Sometimes she is overprotective, overbearing, overeverything. I once asked her flat out if she treated me that way because I’m deaf, because that’s what it feels like sometimes.

“I’m not overprotective because you’re deaf. I’m overprotective because I’m your mother,” she’d said.

But something in her eyes told me that wasn’t the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

I’m good at reading eyes. Same as lips.

I most definitely don’t want Mom to know about the nightmare. She’d start asking me about it every morning and every night and insist that I see a psychiatrist or something.

Then again, maybe that wouldn’t be so bad.

Maybe then I’d get some sleep.

I close my eyes.

Think of something nice.

The coming summer. Yes. That’s what I’ll think about. Sixth grade is over and the nice, lazy summer stretches ahead. Okay, so maybe I don’t have a gazillion friends to hang out with. So what? I’ll make my own fun. I’ll explore the woods and take notes for my zoological diary. Maybe draw some bird sketches.

There is plenty to do.

I don’t need a gazillion friends.

I don’t even need one.

All I need is me, right?

Solo—it’s the best way to go.

It’s a lot less trouble.

3
Help of a Different Nature

Gulliver was a good friend, guinea pig or not. Virgil could tell him anything and he wouldn’t judge. And that’s what Virgil needed, only he also needed real, practical guidance.

He needed help of a different nature.

Lola had once told Virgil a story about a woman named Dayapan who’d been hungry for seven years because she didn’t know how to grow food. One day Dayapan wept because all she wanted was one grain of rice and one pea pod—anything to put in her belly. She took a bath in a spring to wash away her tears, and a Great Spirit appeared to her with armfuls of sugarcane and rice. The Great Spirit gave it all to Dayapan and told her exactly what she needed to do to grow more. Dayapan was never hungry again.

Virgil wished that he had a Great Spirit that could tell him exactly what to do, but he only had Kaori Tanaka.

Virgil fed Gulliver and texted Kaori as he walked down the hall for breakfast. Under normal circumstances, he wouldn’t text someone at seven forty-five in the morning, especially not on the first day of summer—but nothing about Kaori was normal. Besides, she always seemed to be awake.

need appointment this afternoon if thats ok

Virgil slipped his phone into the pocket of his pajamas and followed the unmistakable sounds of his parents and brothers, who were early risers because they seemed to have an endless stream of soccer practices.

In the kitchen, Mom, Dad, and the J’s were drinking orange juice and letting their personalities bubble over, while Virgil tried to maneuver through all the excitement so he could get a piece of fruit or boil an egg.

“Good morning, Virgilio!” said Joselito.

“Good morning, Turtle,” said his parents, almost in unison.

Then Julius: “Maayong buntag, little brother.”

Virgil grumbled something like hello. His parents and brothers were sitting in the high-back chairs at the counter. Lola was at the breakfast table, reading the newspaper.

“Your mother bought too many clementines, so eat as many as you can,” said Lola without looking up. Then she clucked her tongue at all the wastefulness. Virgil grabbed two clementines in each hand and tried hard not to drop them as he sat next to her. His phone buzzed in his pocket.

“What’re you reading about, Lola?” Virgil asked. He arranged the clementines in a perfect line in front of him, then checked his phone.

I am available. Be here at noon SHARP!

Virgil laid the phone facedown on the table next to the clementines.

“Death and destruction across the universe,” said Lola. “Godlessness around every corner.”

Julius craned his neck their way. “Aw, Lola, don’t be such a downer.”

Virgil had long suspected that his brothers were crafted out of a factory that made perfect, athletic, perpetually happy children, and he was made from all the leftover parts. The only sign that something went wrong with Joselito and Julius were their pinkie fingers, which turned slightly inward.

Virgil studied his own hands as they worked away at the peel on a clementine. His fingers were long and slender. None of them turned inward.

“Lola, do you know anything about hands?” he asked. He glanced at Joselito and Julius, but they were busy talking about soccer. Their father had recently joined a grown-up soccer league. Everyone was wild about soccer except Virgil.

Lola set down her newspaper. “I know that they have five fingers each, most of the time.”

“What do you mean, most of the time?”

“I once knew a girl in my village who was born with an extra thumb.”

“Really? What did they do with it? Did she go to the doctor and get it chopped off?”

“No. Her family was poor. They couldn’t afford a doctor.”

“What did they do, then?”

“Kept the extra thumb. What else?”

“Did she feel like a freak?”

“Maybe. But I told her God must know something she didn’t, and that’s why He did it.”

“Maybe He wanted her to be an excellent hitchhiker,” Virgil said.

“Maybe. Or maybe she was like Ruby San Salvador.”

“Who is Ruby San Salvador?”

“Another girl from my village. She had seven sisters. Each time one of them was born, her parents had their fortunes read. But when they got to Ruby San Salvador, no one was able to see her future. Any time someone tried, they just got a blank picture. No one knew what it meant. She walked around all the time saying, ‘What is my destiny? What is my destiny?’ Finally I said, ‘No one knows, but you’re driving us all crazy.’”

Virgil thought of poor Ruby San Salvador, watching all her sisters get something that she couldn’t have.

“What happened to her?” Virgil asked.

“She left to go figure it out. The village got much quieter without all the questions.” Lola narrowed her eyes at him. “What’s this about, Virgilio? Of all the questions in the world you could ask, why are you asking about hands?”

“I just noticed that all my fingers are nice and straight. Don’t you think?”

He set the clementine peels aside and put his hands on the table to show her.

Lola nodded. “Yes, you have beautiful hands. You have the hands of a gifted pianist. We should put you in piano lessons. Li!” she called to Virgil’s mother. “Li!”

“Yes, manang?” said Virgil’s mother, who was in the middle of laughing. She was always in the middle of laughing.

“How come we never put Virgilio in piano lessons, hah? He has the hands of a pianist!”

But Virgil’s father answered instead. “Because boys need to play sports, not fool around on a silly piano. Right, Turtle?”

Virgil shoved half a clementine in his mouth.

Mr. Salinas lifted his glass of orange juice. “He just needs to put meat on his bones!”

Lola fixed her eyes on Virgil’s hands and shook her head. “Ay sus,” she mumbled. “You should play the piano, anak. You could play in Madison Square Garden with fingers like that. I have no doubt!”

“Maybe I’ll take lessons,” Virgil said, his voice garbled from the fruit.

“Yes, yes, good idea, good idea,” said Lola. She shifted her eyes to his face and studied it. “You feeling better today, anak?”

Virgil swallowed the clementine and nodded.

“Hmm,” said Lola. “How is that little pet of yours?”

“He’s okay. But last night I read online that guinea pigs aren’t supposed to live alone because they’re very social animals.”

“So?”

“So, Gulliver’s alone.”

“Is that what’s bothering you?”

Gulliver had nothing to do with his Grand Failure. And normally Virgil wouldn’t tell a lie. But this was a situation where saying yes would kill two birds with one stone (or feed two birds with one seed, as Kaori liked to say). He might get another guinea pig, and Lola would stop asking about his sorrowful face.

So he said, “Yes?”

Lola nodded. She didn’t understand why anyone would want a pet guinea pig, but everyone knew what it was like to be lonely.

“I’ll talk to your mother,” she said.

4
Bells of the Buddhist Monastery

Twelve-year-old Kaori Tanaka—a proud Gemini—liked to tell people her parents were born in the high, misty mountains of a samurai village. In truth, they were both second-generation Japanese-Americans from Ohio. No matter. Kaori knew in her bones that they were meant to be born in the mountains. Sometimes people were just delivered to the wrong birthplace. How else could she explain her powers of second sight, which could only come from someplace magical?

Kaori was mildly surprised to get a text from one of her clients (her only client, truth be told) on the first day of summer, particularly at seven forty-five in the morning. But the night before, just as she was gliding to sleep, she’d had the vision of a hawk perched on a giant fence post. Only now she realized it must have been a vulture, not a hawk. And vulture started with V, just like Virgil’s name. The connection couldn’t have been clearer.

She was already awake—she believed in waking up with the dawn whenever possible—when she heard the bells of a Buddhist monastery chime from her phone. A text message alert. She snatched it immediately and read Virgil’s message.

“This must be a matter of some urgency,” she said, from her bed. She liked to talk aloud when she was alone, just in case any spirits were listening.

After replying to the text, Kaori lit a stick of incense, walked across her zodiac circle rug, and stepped into the hallway. She knocked gently on her younger sister’s bedroom door. No one was awake yet, least of all seven-year-old Gen. Gen was a Cancer; morning wasn’t her best time of day. Cancers were notorious night owls.

“Knocking is fruitless,” Kaori said.

She opened the door and was once again assaulted and mildly offended by her sister’s hot-pink dresser, hot-pink curtains, hot-pink rug, and hot-pink comforter. It was truly the room of a second grader, complete with teddy bears scattered all over the floor and plastic teacups and teapots toppled here and there. Gen was monstrously untidy. She also had a tendency to run through hobbies. Gen was determined to become the champion of something one day. It used to be hopscotch. Then monkey bars. Then checkers. There was a discarded recorder on the floor that she had once planned to master and a chapter book on Abraham Lincoln from the time she decided to become an amateur historian. A pink jump rope lay coiled like a snake near the foot of the narrow twin bed—evidence of her latest obsession.

“One day she’ll mature,” Kaori said, to the spirits. She walked up to her sister and kicked the jump rope out of the way with a sigh of irritation. Gen had been jump roping around the house for a week straight, driving everyone mad. She’d already broken three water glasses.

“Gen,” Kaori said, poking her sister’s shoulder. “Wake up. We have a client coming today, and we need to prepare.”

Gen’s eyelids fluttered but didn’t open.

“Gen.” Kaori poked a little harder. Her sister was wearing bunny-print pajamas. Really. “Get up.”

Gen grumbled and pulled the comforter over her head.

Kaori smoothed the front of her own pajamas—coal black, with red trim—and said, “Okay, then. I’ll just prepare the spirit stones alone.”

Gen tossed off the covers, eyes wide. Her dark hair stuck up in every direction. “You’re using the spirit stones?”

“I have reason to suspect I’ll need them. Just a sense. But if you’re too busy sleeping . . .”

“I’m getting up, I’m getting up.” And she did.

“Meet me in the spirit chamber,” Kaori said. She waved toward Gen’s pajamas. “But get rid of the bunnies first.”

5
Turtle

It was true about guinea pigs. They weren’t supposed to live alone. Virgil wished he’d never learned that, because now he was convinced that Gulliver suffered from debilitating depression. The poor black-and-white rodent had been by himself for the past eighteen months, and Virgil couldn’t help but think he’d been pining the hours away in desperate loneliness.

Before his appointment with Kaori, Virgil unloaded everything from his backpack and stuffed it with fleece blankets that he secretly swiped from the linen closet. Then he tucked Gulliver inside. They would journey together to the Tanakas. Then neither of them would have to be alone.

Gulliver didn’t chirp once when Virgil lifted him out of his cage—another sign of his misery and resentment.

“The guy at the pet shop didn’t tell me guinea pigs were social creatures,” Virgil said, staring into Gulliver’s beady, round black eyes. “I’m sorry.”

Virgil set Gulliver carefully atop the blankets and zipped the backpack. He made sure to leave it partially open so Gulliver could breathe.

“If it makes you feel any better, I know what you’re going through,” he said. At the moment, Virgil’s Grand Failure made them kindred spirits.

Once Gulliver was tucked safely away, Virgil pulled the straps over his shoulders. It was a Thursday, which meant his mother didn’t work at the hospital until the night shift. She was on the couch with her legs tucked up, watching something on television. This was a disappointment, since Virgil hoped to slip out the front door without having an actual conversation with either of his parents.

No such luck.

“Where you going, Turtle?” she asked.

When they called him Turtle, it was like when Chet Bullens at school called him a retard. He knew his parents weren’t like Chet Bullens, but he also knew that they were poking fun at his shyness, just like Chet Bullens was making fun of the fact that Virgil was eleven years old and didn’t know his multiplication tables.

Did they know how much he hated that nickname?

“Kaori’s,” Virgil mumbled.

Mrs. Salinas and Mrs. Tanaka knew each other from the hospital. They were both nurses.

“Bring her a mango and tell her not to eat it until it’s ripe.”

Virgil hurried to the kitchen, conscious of the passing minutes, and snatched a mango from the fruit bowl. Lola had been complaining about his mother’s fruit buying for the past three days, so he knew his mom was trying to prove a point by putting every mango and clementine to good use.

Just as he turned the knob of the front door, his mother said, “Don’t wander too far, Turtle. Mahal kita. Be careful.”

He hesitated at the half-open door. “Mom?”

“Yeah?”

Don’t call me that.

It makes me feel like I’m six years old.

It makes me feel like a loser.

“Mahal kita,” he said, which meant “I love you.”

He stepped into the warm sun.

6
The Tiger of Elm Street

The Tanakas lived in an ordinary house on the opposite side of dense, hilly woods, at 1401 Maple Street. It wasn’t a far walk for Virgil; just cut through the woods, cross Elm and Ash, and voilà, he was there. But that would’ve just been too easy. Instead, fate (or bad luck, Virgil wasn’t sure which) had placed Chet Bullens’s house directly on the way to the Tanakas’, at 1417 Elm. And ninety percent of the time Chet, aka the Bull, was in his driveway shooting a basketball. Virgil’s parents complained that kids today never spent any time outside because they were too busy playing video games. But not the Bull. He haunted Elm Street like a tiger on the loose.

Virgil didn’t think of him as the Bull just because Chet’s last name was Bullens. The kid really was like a bull. Always ready to charge, always fired up to call Virgil a retard or pansy. Sometimes Virgil expected smoke to come spewing from Chet Bullens’s nostrils.

Virgil had to go several blocks out of his way to avoid 1417 Elm. It added minutes to the trip, but what else could he do? So when he emerged from the woods facing Elm Street, he immediately veered left, even though he could’ve walked one block right, crossed the street, and been at the Tanakas’ in no time at all.

He kept his head down and hooked his thumbs through the straps of his backpack. Walk, walk, walk. When you reach the house on the corner with the green door, turn right.

For whatever reason, Virgil had it in his head that if he didn’t make eye contact with anything, he would go unnoticed.

Not so.

“Hey, retard!”

It came from behind him, a fairly good distance. But that didn’t mean anything. The Bull knew how to close distances faster than a speeding bullet.

Virgil’s heart gave one super-loud THUMP.

The turn-at-the-green-door plan wasn’t a fail-safe. Sometimes Chet wandered away from his house, thick hands still holding his basketball. It was inevitable.

Virgil didn’t look up. He picked up his pace.

“Hey, RETARD! Don’t you know your own name?”

Virgil’s back dripped with sweat as he walked even faster. The sun was either getting hotter or Virgil’s nerves were getting weaker.

He heard quick movement behind him. Sneakers on concrete.

Would the Bull push him down from behind? Bounce the basketball off his head? At school he usually just shoved him into the wall. The Bull had never actually thrown him down or beaten him up or anything. But there was a first time for everything.

The Bull’s sneakers came into view. Virgil smelled the Bull’s sweat and wondered if that’s how he smelled too.

“Where you goin’, retardo?” the Bull asked, walking alongside him like they were old buddies.

Virgil didn’t answer. Walk, walk, walk.

“Hey, lemme ask you something,” the Bull continued. “What’s five times five?”

Walk, walk, walk.

“You’re a retardo, so you probably don’t know, but five times five equals the number of times I made out with your sister.”

The Bull howled with laughter. Walk, walk. Virgil imagined an alternate reality, one where he stopped—feet firmly planted on the ground—and looked Chet Bullens square in the eye.

“I don’t even have a sister, ignoramus,” Alternate Virgil would say. Then he’d grab the Bull’s shirt collar in his skinny little hand, the one with the fingers of a gifted pianist, and shove him against the nearest tree. “Take it back,” he’d say. But the Bull wouldn’t be able to talk because his collar would be too tight, so Virgil would lift him up with one hand and throw him across the neighborhood. The Bull would fly over thirty rooftops before landing on top of someone’s chimney, which would be burning hot even though it was summer and no one was using their fireplace. And he’d get stuck there and start cooking like a lump of pot roast.

But Alternate Virgil didn’t exist. Only Turtle. So instead of saying a single word, Virgil took off running.

The Bull didn’t chase him. He just laughed and laughed.

7
A Peculiar Future

Even after the Bull was out of sight, the laughter followed Virgil like a buzzing housefly until he finally reached the plain redbrick home of the Tanakas.

It was hard to believe that someone like Kaori lived in such an ordinary house. Then again, her parents were the ones who had bought it, and Virgil knew from firsthand experience that kids can’t pick their parents.

Gen opened the front door, just a smidge. A pink jump rope looped behind her neck like a stethoscope. Virgil remembered the last time he’d jumped rope in gym class. It hadn’t gone well.

“Password?” she said.

“I’ve been here five times. Do I have to—”

“Password.”

Virgil sighed. “Venus rises in the west.”

Gen nodded and stepped aside. Virgil glanced down at the clock on his phone. He was right on time, despite everything. He already smelled the incense drifting down the hall from Kaori’s room, which she called “the spirit chamber.” Her room was spare. Other than her bed and rug, there was a table for incense, an enormous, complicated poster of constellations tacked to one of the walls, and books shoved in corners.

Kaori sat cross-legged on the rug with a small drawstring bag in her lap. Incense smoke curled over her head and disappeared. Gen sat down next to her. Virgil sat down and perched his backpack carefully on his lap. Then he set the mango on the rug in front of him.

“My mom told me to bring you this. But don’t eat it until it’s ripe,” he said.

Kaori nodded at Gen, who picked up the mango with both hands and set it aside.

Virgil peeked inside his backpack to check on Gulliver.

“Would you like Gen to take your things?” Kaori asked.

“No,” Virgil replied quickly. “My guinea pig’s in here.”

Gen’s eyes lit up. “Really?” She made a move toward the bag, but Kaori told her to sit down.

“You have a rodent in your backpack?” said Kaori, narrowing her darkly lined eyes.

“Technically, yes,” said Virgil. “But it’s not like it’s a rat or anything. It’s a guinea pig.”

“Rodents are rodents.” Kaori paused. “Now. Let’s get down to business.”

She lifted the drawstring bag. It looked like a sack of marbles, but when Virgil reached inside, he realized they were medium-sized stones, like the kind his mother used in the garden.

“Just pick one. Don’t look. Then put it on the rug between us,” Kaori said.

The rock he selected was nothing special, as far as he could tell. Gray, smooth, kind of shaped like a crescent moon.

Kaori studied it like an archaeologist. Then she sat up straight and closed her eyes.

“You have a very peculiar future ahead of you,” she said. She placed her index fingers to her temples. Her dark hair was brushed out and spiked up, like she’d just stuck her finger in an electrical socket, and her lips were painted a light shade of blue. “Mm-hmm. Very peculiar.”

“In what way?” asked Virgil.

Kaori pressed her lips together.

“Shh.”

Gulliver sneezed.

“Something will happen to you,” Kaori continued.

Virgil looked at Gen. She shrugged.

“That’s it?” said Virgil. “Something will happen to me?”

“I see darkness,” said Kaori.

“Your eyes are closed.”

She sighed without opening her eyes. “I know my eyes are closed, dummy. That’s not what I meant.”

“What did you mean, then?”

“What I mean is, I see you in a dark place.”

“Dark how?”

“Just dark.”

Virgil’s heart pounded. Tha-THUMP.

His second most confidential piece of information: he was afraid of the dark. Yes, he was eleven and shouldn’t be afraid anymore, but he couldn’t help it. Maybe it was the tales Lola told him about evil three-headed monkeys that thrived in the darkness, or her stories of bad children who were plucked up by birds in the dead of night. Darkness was a sightless beast, as far as Virgil was concerned.

He swallowed a lump the size of Chet’s basketball.

“I don’t see anything else,” Kaori said. She opened her eyes, then reached across Gen to pick up the mango. She sniffed it. “How will I know when this is ripe?”

“It’ll be soft, but not too soft,” said Virgil. He pushed his fear to the corner of his brain and checked on Gulliver again. “Listen, I actually came here because I have a specific problem.”

“What kind of problem?”

He looked at Kaori, then Gen, and pulled all his thoughts together. He imagined the words standing up in a perfect line and coming out of his mouth clearly, without stuttering or skipping or sounding stupid. This was a big deal. He was about to reveal his first most confidential piece of top-secret information. The one that made him a Grand Failure.

“Uh . . . ,” he said.

Kaori tossed the mango from hand to hand.

“The thing is . . . ,” he continued, “. . . there’s this girl that I know—well, I mean, that I want to talk to, and uh—well, I’ve been kinda planning to talk to her since the beginning of the school year, but uh . . . the year is over now . . . and well, um . . . I never exactly introduced myself. But I, uh, kinda have this feeling that we were meant to be friends, you know, like—”

“Like a premonition!” said Kaori. She set the mango down on the rug, on the sign for Aquarius.

“Yeah, I guess. Sure. Yeah.” Virgil’s cheeks warmed.

Gen picked at her elbow. “Why didn’t you just go up and say, ‘Hey, do you wanna be my friend?’ That’s what I do.”

Kaori shot her the evil eye. “Hush, Gen. Virgil and I are in middle school. It doesn’t work that way. Besides, Virgil’s shy. Can’t you see that?”

Flames of humiliation rose from Virgil’s chest to his neck.

“I can help you,” Kaori said. “What’s her name?”

“Uh . . .”

“We don’t even go to the same school. You can tell me. I probably don’t even know her.”

That was true. Kaori went to private school. But still. He wasn’t ready to say her name aloud. This whole situation was embarrassing enough.

“Tell me her initials, then,” Kaori said.

“Okay.” Virgil took a deep breath. “V. S.”

Kaori tilted her head, confused. “But those are your initials.”

“I know.”

Kaori’s whole demeanor lit up as if she’d just sat on a hot plate. “That’s fate! It’s like you were meant to be friends! There are no coincidences, Virgil Salinas.” Kaori was practically giddy. “Do you know her sign?”

He was almost too humiliated to admit it, but yes—he knew. All the kids in the Thursday resource room celebrated their birthdays with a sheet cake, and he had made a specific note when it was Valencia’s turn.

Birthdays were the only time the whole resource group gathered together. The rest of the time they sat at tables with their one-on-one teacher, working on whatever challenge had put them there. Virgil spent his hour with Ms. Giegrich, learning about numbers, and Valencia spent her time with Mr. King, although Virgil wasn’t sure what Valencia needed to learn; she seemed pretty smart. It sounded like all they did was review her homework assignments for the week to make sure she understood everything. Sometimes Mr. King let her spend her hour reading. One time Virgil snuck a look at her book. Untamed: The Wild Life of Jane Goodall, it was called. That night he Googled Jane Goodall and found out she was the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees. He promised himself he would read the book too. Someday.

“She’s a Scorpio,” he said.

“Ooh! Adventurous and courageous! Dynamic yet quick-tempered! Enthusiastic and confident! I can see why you’d be intimidated to talk to V. S. She’s so different from you.”

Virgil knew she didn’t mean that as an insult, but it stung.

Kaori bit her bottom lip, thinking. Gen grabbed the ends of her jump rope and pulled them taut. Virgil looked down at Gulliver.

A few heavy moments of silence ticked by.

“I know just the thing,” Kaori said finally. She scooted forward and leaned in like she was about to give Virgil the most valuable piece of knowledge in the history of information. She was so close Virgil could smell her peppermint gum.

“Find five stones, each of a different size. Then bring them to me next Saturday at eleven a.m. sharp. Got it?”

“Got it.”

“Oh, and one more thing.” Kaori reached into her pocket. “Do you still go with Lola to the Super Saver on Fridays?”

“Yes.”

She handed him a business card. “Bring this with you, if you don’t mind. Tack it on the bulletin board for me. I would do it myself, but my parents freak out when I give my name and phone number to random strangers.”

Virgil took the card from her.

Her cell phone number was printed on the back.

“Put it where people can see,” she added.

Virgil said he would.

8
Drama in the Freezer Aisle

“Why are you being so quiet, anak?” Lola asked as they turned down the freezer aisle at the Super Saver.

“I’m always quiet,” said Virgil.

“Not with your Lola. Besides, I see a different quiet. You have a quiet of the eyes.”

“I was just thinking.”

“About what?

Virgil paused. “Malaya of the Crocodiles.”

It wasn’t exactly a lie.

According to Lola, Malaya was a young Filipino girl who once wandered into a starving village. The village was on the bank of a great river where lush fruits and vegetables grew, but no one was allowed to eat anything because it all belonged to the crocodile. One day Malaya appeared. She plucked a guava off the tree and ate it. The villagers were terrified. They told her she couldn’t do that or they’d all be killed. But she kept eating. She started a fire and cooked some vegetables. She fed all the villagers. They were scared, but hungry, and they couldn’t resist. Sure enough, the crocodile emerged from the water and demanded to know who had eaten all his food. Malaya stepped forward, with the whole village behind her. She jabbed her thumb into her chest—“It was me.” The crocodile said he would have to eat the villagers now that they’d taken all his food. When he opened his mouth—sharp teeth glistening—Malaya lifted one of the logs from the fire with her bare hands and shoved it down his throat, killing him.

Malaya wasn’t afraid of anything.

Neither was Valencia.

Virgil didn’t have to talk to her to know that. He could tell.

“Why Malaya?” Lola asked, snapping him out of the starving village and back into the Super Saver.

He was just about to say it. He was just about to tell her, “I’m thinking of Malaya of the Crocodiles, because there’s a girl at school named Valencia who reminds me of her,” when the strangest thing happened: Valencia appeared. Right there in the freezer aisle. Valencia Somerset. She was lagging behind her mother and staring blankly at the waffle fries. Neither of them looked very pleased.

It was an odd sensation to be thinking of someone and have her unexpectedly appear. Like thoughts come to life. It must be fate, Virgil thought. He didn’t know if he believed in fate, but it made sense. How else to explain such a coincidence? Never in eleven years had he seen Valencia Somerset outside of school, before today.

“There are no coincidences.”

“It’s like you were meant to be friends.”

“Anak?” said Lola, pushing the cart forward a little as she considered the frozen pizzas. Joselito and Julius loved them, but Lola could never decide whether they were a good idea or not. “Cheap, but garbage,” she said. “You off in la-la land?”

Valencia hadn’t seen him. She was busy ignoring her mother. Virgil knew that ignoring-your-mother look.

What if she glanced up and saw him? Would she say hello? Should he say hello? How? How do you say hello to someone who has hearing aids? Do you talk like normal or do something special? He could wave, probably. But then what? What would he say after “hello”?

Virgil was suddenly very aware of his presence. He casually stepped behind his grandmother. He couldn’t let Valencia see him now. Not when he didn’t know what to say or do. What if this was fate and he’d ruin it by being . . . well, himself?

“Sorry, Lola,” Virgil muttered. “I was just thinking about something that happened on the last day of school.”

Lola tossed the garbage pizza in the cart. “What? What happen?” She was always ready to hear gossip, no matter where it came from.

“Uh,” said Virgil. “They served green beans at lunch.”

Lola raised her eyebrows. If that’s your big news of the day, you really need to find more exciting things to do.”

Lola pulled a bag of frozen Brussels sprouts out of the freezer and plopped them into the cart, too. She inched forward. There were only four people in the aisle now—them and the Somersets. Had the lights always been so bright in here?

It was difficult to stay hidden behind Lola. First of all, she was thin as a rail. Second of all, she turned around and said, “What you doing, Virgilio? Ay sus, you are right under my feet!”

Virgil stopped in his tracks.

Mrs. Somerset put a bag of frozen French fries in her cart. Valencia was still staring off into the freezer like it was the door to Narnia.

“Uh,” said Virgil.

Fate had given him another chance and—what? He was going to hide behind his Lola?

He swallowed. “Uh,” he said, again.

Any minute, Valencia would look up and see him, and then he’d have to do something. Say something.

I’m going to do it. Right now. I’m going to wave or say hello. I don’t care if I look stupid or not.

“There are no coincidences.”

He took a step forward.

When Valencia turned her back and walked away without seeing him, he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

He exhaled, defeated, and faced Lola. She was holding a bag of frozen peas in each hand, comparing prices or brands, Virgil didn’t know which.

“Can we get ice cream?” he asked. The ice cream stood in neat rows in the opposite freezer. If he was going to be a failure, at least he could have something to look forward to. Quickly he added, “Good ice cream.” Lola had a habit of picking the cheapest kind. It didn’t make sense to Virgil. The brand she picked was three times bigger than other ice cream—it came in a big plastic tub—but it didn’t taste very good. It seemed like more ice cream would cost more money, but apparently that’s not how the world of ice cream worked. Virgil would rather have less if it tasted better.

Lola kept her eyes on the peas.

“Strawberry,” she said.

Virgil would have preferred French vanilla, but he didn’t want to press his luck.

He was scanning the ice cream, looking for the perfect kind—one with chunks of real, actual strawberries—when another familiar face appeared, reflected in the glass.

Chet Bullens, the Bull—pug-faced boy, as Lola would say, even though she’d never seen him with her own eyes—was right behind him, talking to his father.

It was as if there was a Boyd Middle School reunion at the Super Saver. The two people who ruled most of his thoughts were under this one industrial roof, right alongside two-for-one soda and bargain mangoes.

The Bull hadn’t seen him. Not yet.

Virgil immediately opened the freezer. The door fogged quickly, obscuring Bull Junior and Bull Senior (but more importantly, obscuring him). He stood there until goose bumps erupted on his arms. Until his teeth rattled. Until he was sure the Bullens boys were gone and Lola called, from the end of the aisle, “Hurry up, anak!” He grabbed the container closest to him without even looking.

9
Valencia

My name could lead people into battle.

Valencia! Valencia! Valencia!

Whether you think it or write it on paper, it’s a good, strong name. The name of someone who enters a room and says “Here I am!” instead of “Where are you?”

Valencia Somerset—yes, it’s a good name. Mom says they were going to name me Amy, but she took one look at me and saw Valencia.

My name is one of the only things that my mother and I agree on. Even right now. We’re in the freezer aisle at the grocery store and she’s reaching for the steak fries instead of the curly fries and, seriously? Who thinks steak fries are better?

I tap her on the shoulder so she’s facing me and say, “Can’t we get the curly kind?”

The buzz of the freezers hums in my hearing aids and drowns out most of her words, but I don’t need to hear her clearly to know that she’s saying no and talking about how I can buy whatever kind of fries I want when I’m older and have my own money for groceries, blah blah blah.

Whatever.

I didn’t even want to come to the grocery store because it’s boring and she never lets me get anything I want, but she said I had to come because my dad wasn’t home from work yet and she needed help loading and unloading the groceries. There’s no arguing with her, anyway. You never win—never. So now I’m here against my will, and I’m already grouchy because I had the nightmare again last night. I woke up with my heart pounding so hard I thought it would burst right out of my chest. I couldn’t go back to sleep after that. So I’ve been awake since before dawn.

The only good thing about waking up before dawn is you get to see the sunrise. It happens slow and fast all at once, which is my favorite thing about it. You have to catch it at just the right time. If you do, you can watch the sky shift from gray to auburn and next thing you know, it’s morning. No more darkness.

So I survived one nightmare, and now I’m stuck in another: the Super Saver with Mom.

“Go get me three avocados,” she says, like I’m her personal servant. Then she gestures toward the produce section, which is like five hundred aisles away. Great. Now I have to find the avocados, and I don’t even like them.

I decide to take my time. I walk super-slow and think about all the cool things I could be doing instead of grocery shopping, like studying the bird’s nest outside my parents’ bedroom window. There are two baby birds inside. There used to be three. I pretend the third one went off on a fantastic journey somewhere, but I know better because I’ve read all about the nestling stage and I know how tough life can be for baby birds. It’s hard to protect yourself when you can’t fly. Sometimes they fall out of the nest. Sometimes another animal kidnaps and eats them. If I wasn’t searching for avocados at the Super Saver, I could be at home watching over the other two birds, even though the tree is too high for me to reach them and I have to turn my head at a crazy angle to even get a peek. But still—at least they would know someone was watching over them. Like Saint Rene watches over me.

Even though I think avocados are weird and gross, I’m excellent at choosing the perfect ones. You have to pick an avocado that is darker in color, not too green. Then you place it in the palm of your hand and squeeze—gently, real gently. If you squeeze too hard, your avocado will get all bruised up. You want it to be soft but firm. If it squishes too much, it could be rotten. But if it squishes just a little, it’s probably ripe and ready.

As soon as I have three perfect avocados, an announcement comes over the loudspeaker and roars in my hearing aids. Sometimes I think life is better when you can’t hear all the noise. I can’t make out every word, but I think I hear “specials of the week,” which means it’s going to be a five-hour-long announcement. I’m close to the automatic door, so I step through to get away from the sound, but then I remember I’m holding the avocados and I don’t want to be a shoplifter so I stop where I am and look at this bulletin board near the entryway, like that was my plan the whole time.

The announcement stops as soon as I see something interesting.

Psychic?

No adults?

I didn’t know there were psychics who only specialized in certain age groups.

I nibble at my bottom lip and stare at the words “PSYCHIC” and “NO ADULTS” for what seems like a hundred years. A thought forms in my head.

I know psychics focus on the future, but I don’t care about my future. I’m worried about my right now. And right now, I’m sleep-deprived.

I yank off the card, get the number, and pull my phone out of my back pocket. I text the number one-handed, trying hard not to drop the avocados. I’m not as worried about my phone because my mom bought this super-protector so the screen wouldn’t break if I dropped it. Except she said “when,” not if—even though I’ve never broken anything in my whole life. Well, not that she knows of.

Hi. just saw ur card at store. do u know anything ab dreams?

I wait. Right away, the word bubble pops up. She’s typing.

Yes. I know everything about dreams. I’ve studied Freud. Would you like an appointment?

Someone bumps into me, and I realize that I’m standing too close to the automatic doors. I take a step closer to the bulletin board. I’m just about to text back when it dawns on me that the person I’m texting could be a mass murderer or something. Just because the card says “Kaori Tanaka” doesn’t mean the person is actually Kaori Tanaka. Or maybe the person is Kaori Tanaka, but Kaori Tanaka is an insane escaped madwoman who likes to eat eleven-year-olds for breakfast.

how old are u? how do I know ur not crazy killer?

I’m 12 and don’t be ridiculous.
U dont sound 12.

The bubble appears again.

That’s because I’m the reincarnated spirit of a 65-year-old freedom fighter.

Hmm. I’m not sure if this makes me feel better or not.

I should give this some thought.

I slip the phone back into my pocket and walk toward the other end of the store to search for my mother. Along the way I see this scrunchy-faced boy from school. I think his name is Chet. The reason I know this is because Mr. Piper likes to write names on the board when kids act up, which is totally juvenile, but sometimes teachers treat us like we’re seven years old. Teachers and parents have a lot in common.

Anyway, this boy’s name is always on the board because he acts like a complete moron most of the time. I don’t know his last name, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t even think of him as Chet. I think of him as Scrunch. I know that’s not very nice, but what can I say? His face is scrunched up, like he’s sniffing something offensive. He’s got beady eyes and round cheeks and they’re all shoved up together. Meanness always shows on people’s faces. Sometimes you have to look hard for it. Sometimes it’s just a part of a person’s features. That’s how it is with this Chet.

So Scrunch is walking toward the checkout lanes with a grown-up Scrunch—his dad, I guess—as I’m walking in the opposite direction. I stare right at him as I walk by, because I already know something’s coming. And it does. He sticks his fingers in both of his ears, crosses his eyes, and juts his tongue out of the side of his mouth. He’s been doing this ever since the first day of school, when he realized I was deaf. He really needs to come up with new material.

“You’re a doofus,” I say.

I don’t know if he hears me or not, but I don’t care.

Let him hear.

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