UPDATE: Just in time for Valentine's Day 2013, this wonderful love story is available for just $4.99 for a limited time.
Today’s NOOK Blog guest author post is out of the ordinary, and quite exciting. To introduce his impressive book for young readers, Every Day, acclaimed author David Levithan is sharing an exclusive short story with the NOOK Blog. I hope you enjoy it!
I wake up to the sound of footsteps and muffled giggles, and the smell of maple syrup. I wake up to a colorful room, to light, to smiling, singing faces, and the sound of “Happy Birthday to You.” I pull myself up, and a tray is lowered onto my lap. I see a stack of pancakes with a candle set in them. I wait until the end of the song and blow the candle out.
Today I am a girl named Cara, and it’s her tenth birthday. I’d wonder if it was my own tenth birthday, too, only I find that I have at least a dozen birthdays every year. Back when I had no concept of what a year was, I could believe that I was growing at exactly the same pace as whatever body I was in that day. But once I started to count, I knew the math was wrong. You cannot have more than one birthday in a year—and as a result, I had to admit that these were other people’s birthdays, not my own. I had wanted to find logic in my life, and that was a mistake.
When I was little, I could lose myself in the rapture of unwrapping, the glee of parties and cake and being treated like the center of the world. When the time came for the candles to be blown out, I would make my own wishes, because I felt that’s what was being granted. Often, I’d wish to stay in that day, to have every day be as precious as a birthday.
This morning is different, though. I do not bother to wish. If anything, I feel like I am stealing Cara’s wish away from her, because she is not here and I am.
I pretend I wish, though. Because I look at the faces of Cara’s parents, her sister, even her brother—and I know that, whatever her wish would be, they too would want it to turn true. Some families are like that.
It’s a weekday, so soon the parents will have to go to work and the children will have to go to school. I try to hold Cara in the halo of their affection for as long as I can, and I hope that when I’m gone, she will still feel the afterglow. The candle is put aside on the counter and the pancakes are eaten. As the food goes from taste to weight, the morning routine returns. The school bus will not wait for me, even though it’s my birthday.
I work hard on the ride to school to access the names and faces of Cara’s friends. Her mind creates flash cards for me, and I try to memorize them as best as I can. The practice is not in vain, because as soon as I get to the classroom, Mrs. Richardson announces my birthday and puts a construction-paper crown on the front of my desk. Even my fifth-grade enemies respect this. I am queen for the day.
I try to enjoy it. The cupcakes at lunch. The excitement about the party on Saturday. My two best friends, Jodie and Michaela, who couldn’t wait to give me their presents. Again, I find myself pretending—and since I am only ten, I don’t fully understand why the pretending also makes me sad. I should be grateful to have a day that’s covered in icing. I should be happy to have so many people happy for me, when all I had to do was get a year older.
On the bus ride home, the kids from my class ask me what I’m going to do tonight, and I tell them I don’t know. The kids who aren’t in my class are indifferent, and I almost wish I were sitting with them.
I am the first one home, letting myself in with my key. Usually, I head straight to the kitchen to get myself a snack—no matter which kitchen, no matter what snacks are available. But I have already eaten enough for one day, so I go straight to my room. Once there, I don’t know what to do. I feel like my boredom is cheating Cara out of something, that I am sabotaging her new year before it’s even begun. I have no way to articulate this to myself; it’s just a sensation.
My sister, Laura, comes home. She is three years older than me, and goes to the middle school. She calls out my name as soon as she gets in the door, and even though I don’t answer, she heads straight to my room. Hearing her approach, I try to busy myself, but since none of the toys or books call out to me, I end up making my bed.
My door isn’t closed, so it’s easy for her to peek in. She takes one look at me tucking a sheet under the mattress and says, “This isn’t acceptable.”
I access our history and get the usual muddle of love and competition that any two sisters share. An epic argument has the same weight in Cara’s memory as a single glance of back-seat understanding.
“It’s your birthday,” Laura says. “What do you want to do?”
What I want is for what I want to actually matter.
“I don’t know,” I tell her.
She gives me a look and doesn’t even have to say it again: This isn’t acceptable. Then another look, as she inventories our options. I don’t need to access to understand this look. I’ve seen it enough in other older brothers and sisters.
Finally, she says, “Okay. I’ve got it. Put on your bathing suit.”
I do as she says, and when she leaves the room, I assume she’s putting on her bathing suit as well. When she comes back, though, she’s still wearing the same sweater and jeans as before. She eyes me, standing there nearly shivering in my one-piece.
“Put something on over it!” she says, rolling her eyes.
As I do, I try to search Cara’s mind for clues about what we might be doing—it’s too cold to swim outside. But I can’t find anything that helps.
I’ll just have to trust her.
I am expecting us to walk to a community center, or a Y. But instead we head up the path to someone’s house.
“Don’t be afraid of her,” Laura says as she rings the doorbell.
An old lady with steely eyes opens the door. I access Cara for a name, and the first thing that comes up is the word witch.
“What do you want?” the woman asks. “I don’t eat cookies or candy. And all you kids ever seem to sell is cookies or candy.”
Laura smiles, like she’s just bumped into a friend at the mall.
“Hi, Mrs. Judge,” she says. “Today is Cara’s birthday. And when she made her wish, she wished she could swim today. So I was wondering . . . can we use your pool?”
Mrs. Judge turns to me. “How old are you?” she asks. She makes it seem like a trick question.
“And you desire to swim, more than anything else?”
I almost look to Laura for confirmation. “Yes.”
“More fool you.”
She’s looking at me so intently that it’s almost like she sees the impostor stuck inside of the birthday girl. I dread the recognition, but I also secretly crave it. Even at ten. Or especially at ten.
Mrs. Judge stands there in front of us, and I can’t tell if she’s deliberating or if we’re being silently dismissed.
Laura, undeterred, says, “Please.”
It is not as simple as this word unlocking the gates. I know this. But nonetheless, Mrs. Judge relents, in her own way.
“Do you know where it is?” she asks Laura. The implication being: Have you been spying?
Laura shakes her head. Mrs. Judge must be satisfied by my completely flummoxed look, because she doesn’t wait for me to shake my head before gesturing us in, closing the door behind us, and leading us into the darkness of her house. The corridors are crowded with bookshelves and trophy cases. There are many photographs of a man in golfing clothes, triumphantly swinging a club. In framed headlines, he’s referred to as Horace Judge. Something about the way the house feels informs me that he died a long time ago.
“I assume you are wearing proper attire?” Mrs. Judge asks as we get to an imposing door.
“Under our clothes,” Laura answers.
“And have you brought towels?”
Laura shrugs her backpack on her shoulders. “Of course.”
“Do you have your swimming certification?”
Laura nods. I don’t even know what this means.
“Good. We can’t have any drowning, can we?”
She opens the door, and suddenly it’s daylight again, even though the temperature hasn’t changed. It is a large room, and its ceiling is entirely made of glass. Beneath it, a swimming pool waits, its water the color of melted blueberry ice.
Mrs. Judge looks at her watch and tells us we have an hour. Laura thanks her, and I thank her, too. We don’t move until she’s gone.
“Come on,” Laura says, pulling off her jeans.
In no time, we are down to our swimsuits and plunging into the warm water. Mrs. Judge’s presence hangs in the room, so we don’t splash or even giggle. Instead, Laura makes like a mermaid, diving underwater and staying under as long as she can. I do the same, eyes open. We start to do it together, circling, using our limbs to call and respond. When we surface, we look at one another briefly, then arc down again.
After about ten minutes of this, Laura lifts herself into a backstroke.
“Free swim!” she calls out.
This time when I submerge myself, I close my eyes. I let myself be weightless, anonymous. I hear the thrum of the water, feel how it lifts and twists my hair. I am drawn down to my childish, essential heartbeat. I don’t think of it as Cara’s. I think of it as my own.
I start to swim. I pull myself forward, kick myself forward. To swim is to transform yourself into an unnatural creature, to take on an element that should not be your own. To swim is to experience the world differently, or to experience a different world temporarily.
I do not know any of this. I do not think about swimming or what it means. I do not marvel at the fact of swimming, that a human body can do such a thing. Instead, I marvel at the sensations. I immerse myself in water because it makes me feel like I, too, am liquid. And then I push against it and feel solid again. I do not have thoughts; in their place, I have the thrum that the body creates in the absence of thoughts. I feel more like myself than I usually do, because as I swim, I don’t need to fully exist.
I lose track of time and time loses track of me. I don’t notice when Laura steps out of the pool and dries herself off. I don’t feel her looking at me until I open my mouth at the wrong time and take in too much water. I cough myself back to reality and find her sitting on the edge of the pool, her ankles and feet dangling through the surface.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
“We need to go soon. It’s almost an hour. And if Mrs. Judge thinks we’re not listening to her, we’ll never be allowed in here again.”
The air is chilly after I emerge. Laura jumps up and gets me a towel. I dry myself off but can still feel the water clinging to me. It is no longer liquid. Now it is a scent, a drying memory, an echo.
“Don’t tell them,” Laura says as we head back to our house.
I don’t ask her why our parents can’t know. I only promise that they won’t.
Since my friend party isn’t until Saturday, my birthday dinner is just the five of us. My brother, older than Laura, has gotten me a Hello Kitty change purse. My parents have gotten me games and clothes. Laura’s gotten me music from a band she likes and wants me to like, too. I am amazed that no one else in our family can smell the afternoon on us, can understand what my birthday has really brought.
There is cake. There are more candles. I am to get another wish. I am serenaded with the same song that
I have been serenaded with in so many bodies, over so many years. I am told to close my eyes.
Again, I do not wish. But this time I don’t leave myself a blank. Instead, I make myself a promise. I mark the date in my head, and I vow that from now on, this will be my birthday. Whether or not anybody in my life that day knows it, I will know it. I will celebrate. I will give myself that, as I swim through the years.
Text © 2012 by David Levithan
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