Following the sudden death of Sebby’s mother, his father takes him to live in the family’s summer house, hoping it will give them both time and space to recover. But Sebby’s father deteriorates in this new isolation, leaving Sebby struggling to understand his mother’s death alone. Ultimately, he will reach out to a favorite teacher back home and to two nearby children, who force him out of the void of the past and help him to exist in the present.
With an “impressive ability to connect with and portray the myopic grief of a bereft child,” this novel is filled with both sorrow and sweet humor, and with the buoyant life force of its unforgettable narrator (Kirkus Reviews).
“Sebby’s innocent voice speaks for anyone bravely grasping for order and solace amid unspeakable loss.” —The Washington Post Book World
“Sebby Lane will break your heart and delight your soul.” —People
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* * *
Here it is in my head, right in the place where I keep feeling it and knowing it. Dad knocks on my head like my head is a door. He knocks softly because Dad has big, soft hands. He says my name, Sebby.
Sebby, he says, earth to Sebby.
I come back then, but the things I know stay stuck where they are and I keep knowing them. Dad picks me up and lifts me high so I can reach into the leaves of our tree. Dad tries to hold me up for a long time. His face turns red and a deep sound comes out of his throat, because I'm getting bigger and Dad isn't so strong. He puts me down.
What is it? Dad asks.
I shrug my shoulders to say, Dad, I don't know, so he'll think that it's all gone now. But it's here in my head, in the dark place where you hold things and carry them around.
* * *
One thing I know is that I'm going to live for a very, very long time.
* * *
Mother liked to run in the middle of the night.
She'd wake me up and ask if I wanted to go with her. I nodded, yes. My eyes were sticky. I had to blink a lot to make them stay open.
I held Mother's hand and we walked to the garage. She put me in my old blue stroller that smelled dirty and cold, like how the garage smelled. I was too big, but I could still fit.
Mother pushed me in fast circles around the block. The houses were dark and quiet. Nothing was moving except for us and we were going so fast.
It rained one time and we stopped under a tree.
The rain dripped off the leaves in big, slow drops.
Are you okay? Mother asked.
I nodded, yes. The rain made my stroller smell dirtier and older. Mother took off her T-shirt and her shorts. Mother was soft white like the glass on a frosty white lightbulb. The rain made her shine.
It feels nice, Mother said. She pushed my stroller and we went fast.
I liked how her feet sounded — tap, tap, tap — clean on the wet sidewalk.
* * *
I need to sleep, because my head hurts in the dark spots behind my eyes.
Sebastian, Teacher says.
I can hear Teacher's feet click-walking closer to me. Click, click, click, closer. She puts her hand on my arm.
Are you okay, Sebastian? Teacher asks.
Behind me, Ryan pinches my back.
Ouch, I say.
The kids are laughing. Katya looks at me. She is my friend.
You're okay, Teacher tells me.
I close my eyes and Teacher lets me sleep.
The bell's ringing wakes me up. It's the end of the day and everyone's lined up at the door. They push each other outside and run. I stand up to go.
Wait, Teacher says and makes her mouth smile.
She folds a piece of paper and tells me it's a note to give to Dad. I take it from her.
Okay, bye, I say and leave.
I walk until I'm outside of school and then stop to unfold the paper. The note says:
Dear Mr. Lane,
I'm worried that Sebastian may not be getting a full night of sleep at home. Recently, he's been dozing off in class. I've also noticed him squinting and rubbing his eyes — maybe he needs glasses? As you know, I am so pleased to have Sebastian in my class — I just want to ensure that he's getting as much as possible out of his school day. Please call me so we can discuss this.
Thank you, Judy Lambert
I don't want Dad to read the note, so I rip it up and then I let go. The pieces blow all around. They sound like leaves on the sidewalk.
* * *
A long time ago, Mother let her papers go in the rainstorm. I followed her outside.
She said, Go back in, you'll get yourself sick again.
I went in and watched her from the window. She ripped up her papers and let them fly in the wind. When she came back inside, her face was so white and her eyes were staring off far away, not seeing anything.
All your poems, Dad said to her.
Mother said, Sebby, I'm lonely, come sit with me.
So I sat with her and hid my face in her hair. I wanted to bite her because she smelled so good.
The rain stopped and we went out to look. Little wet papers were stuck onto the house. Dad said to help, so I helped Dad peel them off. We found one with a whole word that didn't get washed off by the rain and Dad said to put it in my pocket, because it was for me.
What does it say? I asked.
Dad said the word said baby.
* * *
I want to be home now. The ripped-up note from Teacher is flying all around me. I run away from the note.
At home, the door is unlocked.
Sebby, that you? my brother's voice asks from the kitchen.
It's me, I say. My forehead is sweating. The inside air feels cold on my face. I go to the kitchen and there's Leo, eating pickles.
What'd you do, run all the way home? he asks.
I don't say anything. Leo tells me he has to go to the library.
Do you want to come with? he asks. Leo's in eleventh grade and he's in smart classes at his school because he reads so much. He can read a whole book with chapters in two hours. I like to watch his eyes moving back and forth, back and forth over the pages.
I can't tell him about the note from Teacher. The note is a secret. Now I know it was not right to rip it up because Ms. Lambert is a good teacher to me. She lets me go outside and breathe the air by myself when I need to. I like it when she comes close to look at my work and her brown-black hair touches the top of my desk and her smell is like the Chap Stick she puts on her lips.
I follow Leo to the library. I walk behind him so I can step in the same places he steps. Leo doesn't like it when I do this. He stops still all of a sudden and makes me bump into his back.
Cut it out, he says.
The library has so many books you can smell the sour smell of the pages getting old. Leo takes out all his folders and his pencil pouch. He puts up his arms and reaches as high as he can because that makes him feel ready to work. The ceiling is far away and Leo's happy because there's space for stretching and thinking. I tap him on the shoulder.
Not now, Sebby, he says, I have to study for my chemistry test.
I slide down off my chair and go under the table where it's dark. My eyes are hurting. There's too much time and I want to fall asleep, so I close my eyes, but I can't sleep, because I have a question in my head. The air is quiet. I open my eyes and watch my brother's foot tapping.
Then I crawl back up onto my chair and sit next to him. He doesn't look at me, so I write down my question in big letters at the top of one of his papers and I push it in front of him.
Who told you that? he asks me.
I don't say anything.
You don't look like a girl, he says, you need a haircut is all.
Okay, I say. I stand up and push in my chair.
Where are you going? he asks.
Just don't hide from me again, he says.
Okay, I say.
* * *
I liked to sit in the cabinet under the sink.
Dad said, I don't understand why you hide under there.
I hugged my knees tight to make myself smaller.
If you sit under there like that for too long, you'll stop growing, Dad said.
Stop it, Mother told him.
They got mad at each other then and I held very still.
Under the sink was the dirty smell, like cooked carrots. It's true that carrots grow down instead of up. I thought of growing down into the ground, deeper and deeper, and I knew then that the whole inside of the earth smelled like dirty carrots.
If he wants to hide, Mother said, let him hide.
Dad said, It's not normal. Dad's voice was loud and mean.
Why are you so worried about what's normal? Mother asked. Her voice was louder now, too.
Louise, Dad said and he put up both of his hands, like two stop signs.
You're not worried about him, she yelled, you're worried about what's normal.
Just tell me why you're so mad, will you? Dad asked.
I can't, Mother said. I'm leaving, she said and then she left.
* * *
Downstairs in the library, the books reach all the way to the ceiling. You have to climb up a ladder to touch the highest ones. I don't like how there are so many books. I don't know which one to pick out and read so I don't read any of them. I put my face up close to the pages and they smell peppery, like how the wood floor smells at home.
I walk until I find the right spot. At the very top, one shelf has a long empty space. I climb up the ladder to the empty space and make myself fit. I have to lie on my side because when I lie on my back, it feels like I'm going to fall off.
Leo said not to hide.
In the quiet you can tell when you are doing something wrong, because the quiet gets more quiet. I try to hold very still. I think about how nobody's seeing me and nobody's hearing me and then I can pretend to be not here at all. But the shelf is hard and I can feel my body against the shelf and I know I am here.
Leo said not to hide, so I climb down the ladder.
To make the time go by, I look at all the reading posters on the wall. President George Bush reading, and Bill and Ted, from the movie Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, both reading and trying to make their faces look smart. My favorite is the one with the kittens climbing around on a pile of books. You can tell the kitten poster is old because it has yellow, turned-up corners and rips fixed with tape.
Upstairs, I go stand by Leo. He looks at me and nods, but doesn't say anything because he's in the middle of thinking about something. If he talks, then he loses what he's thinking about and gets mad. I crawl under the table and watch his foot tap. I press my ear against the floor and I can feel the tapping in the back of my head.
Why's he asleep down there? says my sister's voice. She sometimes comes with the car to give us a ride home.
I'm not asleep, I say with my eyes closed.
Why're you lying on your back like a dead man? she asks me. Why's he lying like that? she asks Leo. It's creepy, she says.
I open my eyes and Leo is bent over, looking down at me.
Why didn't you tell him to stop doing that? she asks him.
I'm not doing anything, I say.
Leo laughs at me. My sister stares hard at his face and then walks away.
Cass, Leo calls in a voice that's half-loud and half whisper, because the rule in the library is that you have to be quiet.
Cass keeps walking away.
Cass, he calls. He says her name again and that makes it sound funny, like it's someone else's name and not a name I know.
I say her name in my head, Cass, Cass, Cass.
Mother named my sister after Mama Cass because Mama Cass had such a sweet voice it could lift you right up off the floor and carry you away. That's what Mother said. Mother showed me a picture of Mama Cass singing alone on a dark stage. In the picture Mama Cass is wearing a long red dress that looks big and full like a red balloon.
I crawl out from under the table and watch Leo put all his papers into different colored folders. Then he puts the folders and books into his red backpack, and that makes his backpack so full, it's hard to zip closed.
We go to the parking lot, but Cass and the green car are gone.
Shit, Leo says.
The way home has a big hill. Leo starts walking fast because he's so mad that he can walk fast even with his heavy backpack. I try to walk fast too, but I'm tired now. I hold on to Leo's coat and practice walking with my eyes closed.
Stop pulling on me, Leo says when we get to the hill, so I let go.
I can still walk with my eyes closed. I listen to Leo's steps on the sidewalk and I copy them.
Our feet make a crunching sound when we get to our gravelly driveway. I open my eyes. Leo kicks up the gravel rocks. He looks tall and angry now and his breathing is fast.
Just go in and leave me alone, Leo says. He throws his backpack against the house and the house makes no sound.
I wait for a sound, but the house is like a giant pillow. Damn you, Leo screams at the house. He goes and picks up his backpack where it landed in Mother's garden.
* * *
We had fat, ripe tomatoes. There's a picture in Dad's office of Leo and Cass sitting on a yellow chair, holding Mother's tomatoes. It's like the really old pictures with nobody smiling. The tomatoes are big and round like empty faces.
Dad said I used to eat Mother's tomatoes just like they were apples. He said it made Mother happy to watch me eat.
Dad said, You know, it was hard to make Mother happy.
I didn't know that.
When I was little, I practiced drawing different kinds of faces.
Mother sang a song for me:
This is happy This is sad This is scared This is mad.
She made her face match the words.
* * *
Leo's mad at the house. He doesn't want to go inside, so I walk to the door by myself. Dad's music is there on the front porch. I can hear his voice singing. Dad gets loud when he sings. I open the door and all the music inside jumps out. It sounds like this: Goodbye to Rosie. I know how the Rosie in the song looks. She's blue like how the ghost lady looks on the cover of one of Mother's records. Dad says the blue lady is Joni Mitchell. We don't listen to her record, though, because her voice gives Dad the goose bumps.
Dad's sitting cross-legged on the floor, facing the speakers, so he can't see me. I reach out and touch the back of his neck with one finger. He turns around fast.
Jesus Christ, Sebby, don't do that, Dad says. He grabs my hands and rubs them between his hands. Your hands are freezing, he says.
Cass comes and turns down the music.
Where's Leo? she asks me.
Outside, I say.
What's going on? Dad asks.
Nothing, Cass says.
Dad looks at me and I don't say anything.
Let him stay outside, Cass says.
Dad goes to the door.
Just leave him alone, Cass shouts.
But Dad goes out. He closes the door slowly so it doesn't make any noise.
We're going to eat, Cass says to me.
She takes my hand and pulls me into the kitchen. The table is already set with the brown place mats that have orange and yellow and red leaves on them. Cass pushes down hard on my shoulders to make me sit.
Here, she says.
Cass puts a plateful of steaming spaghetti down on my place mat. I lean forward and let the steam make my face sweaty wet.
Stop it, Cass says. She sits down next to me and uses my knife and fork to cut up the spaghetti.
Dad treats everyone like a baby, Cass says and leans back in her chair. I hear the front door open and then close. There are steps, but Leo and Dad don't come to the kitchen to eat. I look down at my spaghetti because I don't want to see Cass.
Eat, Cass tells me.
It's too hot, I say.
Cass takes a bite of my spaghetti with her fork.
It's fine, she says.
I try a bite.
See, Cass says, it's fine.
She takes another bite and then it's my turn again. We keep taking turns.
How was school? Cass asks.
Long, I tell her.
Cass doesn't have to go to school anymore because she finished twelfth grade and had a graduation. I'm in third, so that means I have nine more grades.
Cass takes another bite and then says, Stop. Stop eating, she says, it doesn't taste right. She gets up and carries the plate over to the sink, then dumps off all the spaghetti.
I stand up and watch her.
Go take a bath, she says.
I don't move. I don't want to take a bath.
I'm tired, I say.
Cass turns off the water. She doesn't look at me.
Whatever, she says, then go to sleep.
I go upstairs and sit down on the top step. If I go to sleep now, then morning will come and I'll have to go back to school. I don't want to go to school, I'll say, and Cass will say there's nowhere else for me to go. In my head, the song says, Goodbye to Rosie. I look at the white wall until it makes my eyes go blurry. There are bright spots where Mother touched that haven't been touched by anybody else. You have to look for a long time before you can see a bright spot. Then the spot glows and that's how you know where Mother still is. The spot glows and it's like the spot is glowing inside of you, because it makes you warm inside your chest and that feels good. You want to touch the spot, but you can't because then it will be gone. What's wrong is that everybody always goes around touching everything and Cass is always cleaning and that erases the spots.
* * *
I know that when I was three, I was standing on the couch looking out the window at all the flowers. The window was open so I pushed myself out and fell two stories. I landed on my back in Grandmother Bernie's summer garden.
Mother put her hand on her chest and screamed. She could feel her heart in her chest. Her heart felt like it was getting bigger. She kept screaming and ran down the stairs, out the door to me.
I was quiet there in the dirt. Mother picked me up and held me tight. Then I started screaming, too.
Dad was watching from the upstairs window. He ran down to me and Mother. Dad looked at the ground and saw how my head left a dent in the soil. He bent down and kissed the dent. Then he blew a kiss up to Grandmother Bernie and everybody watching us and he couldn't stop blowing kisses because Grandmother Bernie had just put the new garden there with fresh, soft dirt.
Mother held me and she screamed louder and louder — louder than me. Dad put his hands over his ears. I stopped crying and I listened. I could hear everything inside of her.
* * *
I didn't talk until after I fell.
Dad tried to get me to talk before that. He sang me songs. He carried me around the house and pointed at everything we saw and told me what it was. He put the words in my head.
Dad took me to the doctor, but Mother wouldn't listen to what the doctor said about me. Mother said I would talk as soon as I had something to say.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Up High In The Trees"
Copyright © 2007 Kiara Brinkman.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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