Books I’ve Failed to Write: Excerpt 4

From the unfinished novel / novella Awake. Oddly, the only time I’ve ever gotten a character stoned, as far as I remember.  The first section of the book, called “Before,” describes the final five days of normal life for MC Lily before the sleeping sickness strikes – Saturday through Wednesday. This snippet is “Monday,” after she loses her virginity at a weekend party. Apologies to Monsieur Gopaul, my grade ten science teacher, for using his name here:

Lily sits in the back of the room, mouth dry, eyes aching, ears ringing. She saw Astrid this morning but neither of them mentioned her little crying jag the previous night. She passed Morgan in the hallway and he said, “Hey Hands,” in a shifty way that told her right off that he knew she’d had sex with his brother. So instead of going to English class (one class she could be sure of passing) she smoked up in the parking lot with Rupinder and then they trailed into Biology together, late.

Mr. Gopaul pauses for a millisecond as they come in and then carries on, as if they are ghosts, mere tremors in the air. From her seat at the back Lily stares at the formulas on the board. It is absurd that they are expected to mean something to her. They mean nothing to her. There is also a large diagram of a cell on the overhead, and she looks at that instead.

“The golgi body looks a bit like a stack of pancakes,” says Mr. Gopaul, looking right at her. A split-second later Lily can’t be sure if he actually said this or not, but it makes her hungry. There is a pause, and she feels she is expected to say something in reply. She stays wisely quiet, raising her eyebrows in a questioning way, and Mr. Gopaul continues, his eyes roving elsewhere. A bubble in her chest deflates, and she studies the diagram again. Some of this she remembers. She remembers that the mitochondria work to make energy or something. And then she can almost feel it, her entire body seething with cells, tiny stacks of pancakes, jelly and enzymes and proteins and bits and bobs, all of it her. She looks at the back of Rupinder’s head. Rupinder’s shoulders are shaking with silent laughter. It is unbearable; she will not stand for it. She stands up.

“Lily?” says Mr. Gopaul in his smooth-as-butter voice. Mr. Gopaul has a very sexy voice. Mr. Gopaul is in fact, all in all, quite a sexy man. But Lily has a craving for macaroni and cheese now and it will wait for no man’s cell diagram.

“Sorry,” she says, in a voice not her own. “I need to use the restroom.”

Rupinder slides further down in her desk, weeping with laughter behind her book as Lily passes, head held high like a queen. She sails out of the room and down the liquid hallways lined with battered lockers.

She slips a note into Astrid’s locker: Gone home for mac and cheese. See you later.

When she turns, she is face to face with Joe Glass.

Or perhaps he was just walking down the hallway and she has stepped into his path. The look on his face lends credence to this second possibility.

“Hi,” he says nervously.

“Hello,” she says, beautiful beautiful Joe and your lovely long fingers and your delectable neck, your earlobes. Shit.

“You were at Morgan’s on Saturday, right?” he says, and steps slightly to the side. He puts his hands in his pockets. He knows, of course, everybody knows. Lily’s cells are alive, revving and wandering, bumping up against each other violently. If she doesn’t have macaroni and cheese immediately she will go up in flame, if she doesn’t touch Joe Glass.

“In a sense,” she says mysteriously. Joe Glass looks confused. He mutters goodbye and steps around her and she is alone in the hallway, bereft, starved. This is the longest conversation they have ever had. She runs to her bike outside, she flies home along the quiet streets. Her mother and father are at work and Lester is ecstatic to see her. He dances around the kitchen, nearly knocking her over several times, and is rewarded with a chunk of cheese. After she eats she watches TV until Stefan comes home and Astrid calls and the day melts into ordinary. She feels like lead, entirely solid, without cells. No little pumping stacks of pancakes, no hunger that cannot wait its turn, only the awful reality that she is failing school and Lester’s hot breath on her face as she drifts off to sleep. If the universe asks her a question that night, bending close with a terrible secret, she hears nothing.

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