- Used Books
- Staff Picks
- Gifts & Gift Cards
- Sell Books
- Stores & Events
- Let's Talk Books
Special Offers see all
More at Powell's
Recently Viewed clear list
Used Mass Market
Ships in 1 to 3 days
Whirligig (Laurel Leaf Books)by Paul Fleischman
The day's first squirt of sunlight hit the window. The bus changed gears. Brent opened his eyes. They were climbing through mountains now. The other passengers around him were sleeping. Twitched alert by the light, he craned his neck to get a better view, pressed his head to the tinted glass, and raptly observed the sun's rising. After night came another day. And after death another life. Mornings seemed mysterious gifts. He inspected the dawn with fascination.
The bus's gears growled. Behind him he heard a faint conversation in another language. This is the afterlife, he told himself. To be crowded in with a collection of strangers, plunging through a foreign landscape, headed toward an unknown destiny. The bus was his ferry across the river Styx. It descended now into an unlit valley. Brent squinted at his map and realized he was in the Cascades. Seattle wasn't far off. He'd been riding for two days, watching new souls board in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Fargo, Bozeman, Butte, Coeur d'Alene, Spokane. He'd speculated on their previous lives. He had surprisingly little interest in his own. His second life had eclipsed his first. Its moment of birth had been the crash.
He didn't remember the actual impact. He did recall the ambulance lights, the policeman asking how he felt, the discovery that he'd escaped with only cuts and a minor head injury. Then came the alcohol test. Then the drive to the police station, being booked for drunk driving, the photographs and fingerprints--registering his new birth, he thought now. Then the realization that the ambulance at the scene had been tending someone else, that he'd hit another car. His father had arrived at the station. There was talk of the Chevy, its back end mangled, the car probably totaled. Then the news, delivered by one of the officers, that the woman he'd hit had died.
The muteness had begun in that moment. He spoke not at all driving home with his father, slept fourteen hours, and didn't speak the next day. He remembered the party and that he'd tried to kill himself. That he'd ended up killing someone else left him frozen, numb from scalp to soles. Words returned on the second day. His turmoil, though, wasn't translatable into words.
His mother got rid of the newspaper that had a story about the crash, but Brent dug it out of the bottom of the trash can. His car had apparently hit the divider, spun, then been struck by the driver behind him. His blood alcohol was 11. The story was brief and gave only the victim's name, age, and residence: Lea Zamora, 18, Chicago. He plumbed those few facts. She was nearly his own age. He was determined to know more. He tried the obituaries, but her name wasn't listed. He rummaged through the trash for the following day's paper, turned to the gravy-stained obituaries--and found her. Daughter of Cesar and Tamara Zamora, senior at Niles North High School, an honor student, member of the student council, the orchestra, the track team, active in the Filipino community, volunteer at Resurrection Hospital. Why did he have to kill someone like that? Then he realized with a surge of relief that he could perhaps go to the funeral. The police had confiscated his license, but he could take a cab, stand in the back, leave an anonymous offering of some kind. He checked the paper. It had been held the day before.
He ate little, spoke little, and no longer listened to music. He turned seventeen, an event he scarcely noticed. He heard his parents whisper about the blow to his head and his personality change. He'd been diagnosed with a mild concussion. The headaches, like a wrecking ball working on his skull, came less often, replaced by the endless tolling in his mind of the word murderer. Everyone knew. He refused to go to school and made arrangemeets to finish his classwork at home. He disliked being seen in his neighborhood, where the glances he drew were too long or too short. Among strangers he felt no less an outcast, their blind assumption that he was one of them making him wince inside. He studied their carefree innocence with envy: an old woman reading on a bench in a mall, a baby sleeping in a stroller, a pretzel seller joking with a customer. He was no longer of their kind and never would be.
There was a hearing with a judge soon after the crash. Like a ghost, Brent listened to other people discuss the accident and his fate. He was charged with DUI and manslaughter. He hadn't contested his guilt; his punishment was the issue at hand. The judge asked for more information and set a date for a second hearing. It was then that the interviewing began. Social workers and psychologists questioned him, his parents, his friends. He found the fact that he'd tried to kill himself impossible to share with another soul. He could scarcely believe he'd actually tried it and wondered how he could have given no thought to the other cars he would hit. His parents hired their own lawyer and a psychologist. Their job was to argue that sending him to the juvenile detention center would be detrimental to his worrisome mental state. His father tried to cheer him up, promising he would serve no time, telling him to put it behind him, assuring him people would forget.
"I won't," Brent answered silently. He took the obituary from its hiding place, looked up Cesar Zamora in the phone book, and spent all of one day composing what became a four-sentence apology. He mailed it on a Monday. The reply came on Friday--an envelope with his own letter inside, mutilated with scissors, stabbed, defaced with cigarette burns.
Nightmares about Mr. Zamora stalking him through the Philippine jungle joined those about the detention center. Entering the courthouse for his second hearing, the latest dream of being beaten by a circle of inmates recurred to him. He passed a young man, his arms swarming with tattoos, whom he was certain he'd seen in the dream. He and his parents found their room. The psychologists spoke, then the lawyers. Brent suddenly wondered if Mr. Zamora might be there. He was trying to scan the faces to his rear when his father squeezed his forearm. The judge was addressing him, sentencing him to probation in place of the detention center. His parents beamed. He felt relief, but also an unanswered hunger. He realized he wanted a punishment. Brent knew also that, grim as the detention center might be, he'd have welcomed the chance to leave his family and his previous life behind. The listing of the terms of his probation hardly registered with him--alcohol counseling, therapy for depression, volunteering in an emergency room. Then the judge came to the final item: meeting with the victim's family, if they desired, to discuss restitution.
Brent knew the meeting would never take place, an outcome that once again left him both relieved and unsatisfied. He wanted to do something for the family. Two days later the probation officer called. The victim's mother had agreed to talk with him.
The meeting was scheduled in a building downtown. Entering, Brent wished his parents weren't with him. The room was spacious and had a view of Lake Michigan. Miss Gill, young and black and soft-voiced, was there to serve as mediator. A few minutes later Mrs. Zamora arrived, not the tiny Asian woman Brent had pictured but a heavyset redhead in an India print skirt. Among the dozen necklaces jangling on her chest, Brent picked out pendants of an astrological sign and a Native American sun symbol. Her wavy hair flowed exuberantly over her shoulders; the rest of her seemed only half-alive. She navigated the introductions with an eerie, ethereal calm. Brent gazed openly into her face, offering himself up to her, and noticed that her eyes were slightly bloodshot. Those eyes searched his own, then released him. How strange, he thought, that he'd somehow caused this woman, whom he'd never met, to cry.
"We're meeting today," said Miss Gill, "to apologize, and to understand, and to atone." Her voice was hopeful rather than accusing. "We never know all the consequences of our acts. They reach into places we can't see. And into the future, where no one can."
She looked at Brent, then invited Mrs. Zamora to describe the results of Lea's death.
"When the phone rang," she began, "I was sorting through lentils, to soak for soup the next day." Her voice had a faint flutter to it. Eyes down, she continued her detailed, dispassionate account of that night and the days that followed, of her husband's smashing a wooden chair in his rage, the younger children's endless crying, her sleeplessness, the thought of killing herself to be with Lea, the voice from Lea's photo saying, "No."
Brent closed his eyes. What murderous machine had he constructed and set in motion? When his turn finally came to speak, the long apology he'd rehearsed reduced itself to the two words "I'm sorry," words he spoke over and over, then wailed miserably through tears, not caring that his parents were watching.
Miss Gill spoke for a while. When it came time to discuss restitution, Brent saw his father shift nervously. The Zamoras hadn't sued; apparently they were content with the insurance company's payment. His father had brought his checkbook just in case. Brent spied the silver pen beside it in his jacket's inside pocket, stationed like a butler awaiting command. Miss Gill reviewed various possibilities: a written apology to each family member, service to a charity of the Zamoras' choice, service to the Zamoras themselves. Whatever it might be would have to be agreeable to both parties.
Mrs. Zamora stared back at her. "I don't believe in retribution. Lea was born in the Philippines. I was teaching English and met my husband there. I saw what an-eye-for-an-eye looks like, with the rebels fighting the government and all that. My husband feels a little differently. I also believe everything happens for a reason." She toyed with her necklaces. "That the universe required this. For some reason."
She paused, then directed her words at Brent's parents. "Lea had a very caring soul. Very strong and generous. Everybody who saw her smiled. They loved her at the hospital where she worked. This summer she was going to do volunteer work in California. In the fall, she was going to college in Boston. She would have spread joy all over the country."
Brent wondered what his own eulogy would sound like. Mrs. Zamora turned her gaze on him.
"I've thought about you, for hours and hours. What can you possibly do for me? Paint the house? Mow the lawn all summer?"
Her voice had acquired a stronger tremble. She let the questions hang in the air, then looked to Brent's left, out the window.
"My father is a very fine carpenter. Lea was his first grandchild. When she was little, he made her lots of wooden toys. Her favorite was a whirligig, of a girl with arms that spin in the wind. He painted the face to look like her. We've had it on a pole in our yard forever. Hundreds of people over the years have noticed it, and stopped, and smiled. Just like people smiled at Lea."
She opened her purse, extracted a photo, looked at it, and passed it to Brent. It showed the wind toy in motion.
"Lea is gone. I'm learning to accept that. I thought I had nothing I could ask you that would help. You can't bring back her body. Then I thought about her spirit."
Brent's skin tingled. He stared at the photo, then at her, anxious to hear her bidding.
"This is my only request. That you make four whirligigs, of a girl that looks like Lea. Put her name on them. Then set them up in Washington, California, Florida, and Maine--the corners of the United States. Let people all over the country receive joy from her even though she's gone. You make the smiles that she would have made. It's the only thing you can do for me." She exhaled. "That's what I ask."
"You must be joking," said Brent's mother.
His father strained forward in his chair. "This is crazy!" He appealed to Miss Gill. "That's not the kind of thing you ask for!" He faced Mrs. Zamora. "And how's he supposed to zip around the country? In his private jet?"
She pulled something else out of her purse. "I bought him a Greyhound bus pass. Good for forty-five days. He can go anywhere."
Miss Gill repeated that restitutions weren't imposed, but accepted voluntarily by the offender. Brent's parents raised one objection after another, from his commitment to the emergency room to his need for his family, his nonexistent carpentry skills, and the cruel and unusual conditions of bus travel. Brent was oblivious of the arguing. In the quiet storm cellar of his mind, he pondered the proposal. Strange as it was, it would get him away from Chicago, his parents, and his recent past. It would also give him a chance to do penance. He'd never traveled on his own before. The idea held sudden appeal. He smiled inside. He cleared his throat. Then he spoke the words, "I'll do it."
What Our Readers Are Saying
Other books you might like
Children's » Middle Readers » General
Young Adult » Fiction » Social Issues » Death and Dying
Young Adult » General