For fans of Patrick Ness and Tom McNeal comes a page-turning novel that’s part ghost story, part love story.
Aidan Lockwood lives in a sleepy farming community known for its cattle ranches and not much else. That is, until Jarrod, a friend he hasn’t seen in years, moves back to town. It’s Jarrod who opens Aidan’s eyes to events he’s long since forgotten, and who awakes in him feelings that go beyond mere friendship. But as Aidan’s memories return, so do some unsettling truths about his family. As Aidan begins to probe into long-buried secrets, the lines between the past and the present, tales and truths, friends and lovers begin to blur, and Aidan will need to confront a family curse before he can lay claim to his life once more.
“Brilliant storytelling that unearths new intersections of love and magic.” —Scott Westerfeld, New York Times bestselling author of Zeroes
“The unpredictability of curses, magic, and love are inexorably entwined in this gracefully written story.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
“A captivating exploration of the power of place, family, memory, and time itself.”
“Barzak expertly balances magical realism, historical flashbacks, and contemporary teen romance in Aidan’s journey of self-discovery.” —Booklist
About the Author
Christopher Barzak’s fiction includes the award-winning adult novel One for Sorrow, which was made into the major motion picture Jamie Marks Is Dead; the Nebula Award finalist The Love We Share Without Knowing; and the short-story collection Before and Afterlives, which won the Shirley Jackson Award. Christopher grew up in rural Ohio, has lived in a Southern California beach town and the capital of Michigan, and has taught English outside of Tokyo. Currently he teaches fiction writing in the Northeast Ohio MFA program at Youngstown State University. Learn more about him at christopherbarzak.com.
Read an Excerpt
My Life in Paper
Here’s the thing: we’re all as thin as paper. Like those paper people you used to find in old children’s magazines, inhabiting a two-page spread with other paper people, all of them hanging out somewhere togetherat the park, at church, at school, at the mall, in the family roomuntil some kid took a pair of scissors to the dotted lines surrounding them and cut them out of their paper world. That’s us, that’s anyone. That was me. A cut-out paper person removed from the world I once belonged to.
Until, one day, someone called my name.
“Hey, Aidan. Aidan Lockwood!”
And I looked up, startled, as if I’d just woken from a dream.
I was leaning over, grabbing my copy of Hamlet from the bottom of my locker so I’d have it with me after history and not have to come back for it, when I heard my name. Normally I can recognize people by voice alonea loud laugh from Aaron Anderson as he moves through the hallway with other basketball players flanking his sides, or the sound of Natalie Miller as she sings an old blues song in the choir roombut this was a voice I didn’t recognize. I could feel my brow furrow even as I pulled Shakespeare out of the locker and turned toward this voice, which, in a school as small as mine, should have been easy to place.
“Look at you!” the voice said, almost like a command. And after peering down at myself like I might have a stain on my clothes or some unknown wound gushing blood, I looked up and spotted the guy who’d said it.
He was my age, tall and lean, and he was carrying a couple of books under one muscle-braided arm as he came toward me, pushing a wave of floppy brown hair away from his even darker brown eyes. When he stopped in front of me, he said, “You haven’t changed a bit,” like we were old friends meeting for the first time in a long time. I looked around, hoping someone else would recognize him, would see him and say, “Hey, So-and-So, where have you been?”
But no one did. It might as well have been just the two of us in that hallway, two strangers looking at each other, blinking.
Two paper people in a high school background.
I cocked my head, as if looking at him from a different angle might help me place him, but it was no good. Eventually I had to give up on the idea of identifying him and say, “I’m sorry?”
He shook his head, biting his bottom lip a little. Then, after releasing his lip from the pinch of his teeth, he said, “I can’t believe it. You really don’t remember me, do you?”
“Should I?” I asked. And it was a serious question, though it probably sounded more serious than I meant it to. But here was the truth of the matter: there were only three hundred students at Temperance High School, freshmen through seniors, and this guy didn’t look like any of them.
“Jarrod,” he said, and I blinked a few times, hoping the name would register. “Jarrod Doyle?” he said, raising his eyebrows. “Come on, Lockwood. We were best friends in elementary and middle school!”
The name sank into my memory, and like a stone thrown into a pond, it made ripples. Jarrod Doyle, I thought. Jarrod Doyle, who used to play catch with me at recess or pair up with me to run during gym, even though I sucked at anything remotely athletic. Jarrod Doyle, who used to have me over to his place to spend the night watching horror movies before his mom and dad split up and he moved away in the seventh grade, seemingly overnight, as if he’d never existed.
Christ. I did know the guy after all.
“Jarrod Doyle?” I said, trying the name out like a new word in French class. And as in French class, I couldn’t help but stutter the syllables a little. “No way. Where the heck have you been?” I asked. “Better yet,” I said in the next breath, “what the heck are you doing back here? It’s been, what? Five years?”
“Just about,” he said, grinning with obvious relief now that I’d finally remembered him. “I’m back home with my mom. Got tired of living with my dad and his girlfriend. Wanted to get back to my roots, if you know what I mean.”
I shrugged and shook my head, oblivious to anything but him standing right there in front of me. “No,” I said. “What do you mean?”
“Been living up in Cleveland,” he said, and threw one hand out like he might be offering me official documents about his previous residence. I looked down, but his hand was empty. “That’s where my dad moved after he and my mom divorced. Remember? She went to rehab, he moved up there for a job and took me with him? I thought you knew all this. Hell, I thought everyone in Temperance knew.”
I shook my head, surprised that I didn’t know, though I should have, really. Temperance was the kind of place where everyone knew everyone else’s business even as it was happening.
“Anyway,” Jarrod said, “when my mom told me she’d gotten herself back together, I decided to come home for senior year.”
“Temperance over Cleveland?” I said, raising one eyebrow skeptically. “You must have something wrong with you.”
“No way,” said Jarrod. He rocked back on his heels and looked around at the ceiling and the rows of alternating white and blue lockers, our school colors, and took the place in like he was an exile who had finally been allowed to come home. “It’ll be nice to be with my mom again,” he said, looking down. “And, well, I’ve missed this place.”
Temperance is a town of around three thousand people who work dairy or beef farms, fix cars and tractors, grow corn and soybeans, or work in the last remains of the few factories that have hung on, making paint cans or cabinetry. I reminded Jarrod of all this, in case he’d forgotten, and said, “It’s not really the sort of place anyone moves back to.”
“It’s exactly the sort of place someone like me moves back to,” said Jarrod.
Sometimes when people leave places behind, they only remember the good parts. But I didn’t say that right then.
“So what have you been up to?” he asked, as if I could fill him in on the past five years before the bell rang for first period. Then the bell for first period did ring, and we looked up at the speaker perched in the corner of the hallway like we could melt it down to scrap metal with laser eyes and then keep on talking.
When we looked down again, I said, “What’s your first class?”
“French,” said Jarrod. “Ooh la la. What about you?”
“History,” I said. “You busy after school?”
“Hoping to talk to the coach about trying out for baseball.” I noticed only then that he was wearing an unbuttoned Cleveland Indians jersey with a black T-shirt underneath.
“You can do that tomorrow,” I said. “Meet me in the parking lot after last period. We can go somewhere to catch up.”
“Look at you,” he said again, shaking his head like he couldn’t believe I was still here, like he’d never left in seventh grade and we’d just spent the night before watching a horror flick in his mom and dad’s trailer, which had sat out on the edge of town on an old back road called Cordial Run. “I still remember the thirteen-year-old Aidan Lockwood who couldn’t throw a ball worth spit and saw the weirdest shit.”
I cocked my head and narrowed my eyes. What did he mean by the weirdest shit? Before I could ask, though, he clapped one hand on my shoulder, then walked off in the direction of Madame LaFarge’s classroom.
Then the bell rang again and I knew I’d have to explain to Ms. Woodyard why I was late when I got to history. I could already see her waving a finger in the direction of my desk, saying, Just sit down, Lockwood, so I can get to work on making all of you into informed adults already.
But even as that exact scenario played itself out a minute later, I was still wondering what Jarrod Doyle had meant. I knew I couldn’t throw a baseball worth spit, but seeing the weirdest shit? He must have been thinking of someone else. He must have been remembering some other friend or classmate, some cousin or someone he met right after he moved to Cleveland. Because the only weird things I’d seen in my life were the birth of a calf when I was eight years old (unforgettably gross, but I couldn’t look away) and my grandmother’s body laid out in a casket with pearly pink satin lining a few years earlier, her face waxy, overdone with makeup, not looking real at all.
Those things had been weird, yes. Me, though? Average student, bad athlete, nice enough guy, but nothing special. Not really. I lived in Temperance, Ohio, where nothing truly weird happened. Ever.
I moved through that day like I was swimming, taking slow strokes through the hallways, coming up for air in classrooms every so often, listening to the slam of locker doors in this underwater way: everything distant and delayed. And as I swam through the hours, I tried to recall the days when Jarrod and I were kids. I had nothing but patchwork images to work with, though. Vague childhood memories. Laughter over little-kid jokes or stories. Climbing a tree at the edge of the woods behind my house to sit on a limb together and survey my family’s farm. The herd in the pasture, chewing on grass, raising their heads and lowing to one another. The gleam of the tin roof on the old yellow farmhouse that had been my family’s home for nearly a hundred years, according to my dad, who never had much to say about anything, but when he did, it was always a story about a dead relative or how life was harder back in his day. The sound of Sugar Creek trickling past as Jarrod and I sat on its bank, catching crayfish. My mother yelling whenever we got into something she’d told us not to.
Memories. Just basic memories. The kind of stuff anyone can remember. The kind of stuff that doesn’t tell a person anything he really needs to know.
The tree, I remembered then. Jarrod and I weren’t supposed to go near it. The tree in the old orchard across the railroad-tie bridge that spanned Sugar Creek. It was an ancient apple tree that had died ages ago, yet somehow it continued to stand, despite a hole in its trunk where a lightning bolt had burned through it, according to family stories.
We’d been told about the bolt of lightning since Toby and I were little and started asking questions about anything and everything we encountered. And because that tree somehow remained standing despite the gaping hole that had hollowed it out years earlier, Toby had once jokingly called it the Living Death Tree, which made us laugh like little idiots, and then both of us had continued to refer to it that way, making our mother sigh and shake her head. At the end of each summer, the Living Death Tree produced a small amount of deformed, rotten apples that dropped almost as quickly as they formed and spread around the base of the gnarled tree like broken Christmas ornaments.
“Stay away from that tree,” my mother warned Jarrod and me. “It isn’t safe to play around that old thing.”
“Why not?” I asked, looking up at her soft face, at her green eyes framed by long auburn hair, smelling the lilac on her skin. In my memories, my mother always looks angelic. But when she spoke, she was never as soft as she looked.
“That’s for me to know and for you to find out” was her answer, which was what my mother almost always said whenever Toby and I wanted to know the reasons behind any of her rules and regulations. It meant the discussion was over, snip-snap, case closed, and we had better not do what she’d warned against, regardless of whether she’d supplied us with reasons.
“Aidan?” Mr. Johnson said, and I swam up from my memories to find a room full of students around me, all staring at me, some turned around in their desks, grinning, some slowly closing their eyes and shaking their heads sadly, embarrassed for me, waiting for me to say something to end the awkward moment.
“I’m sorry,” I said, my voice paper-thin. “Can you repeat the question?”
“I didn’t ask a question,” said Mr. Johnson. He stood in front of the room at the dry-erase board, marker in hand, twisting the cap on and off, clicking and clicking. “I’ve just been trying to get your attention. You’ve been staring out the window for the past few minutes without the ability to recognize your own name.”
The room filled with laughter then, and after Mr. Johnson raised his hands like a traffic cop to quiet everyone, I looked at him and said, “I’m sorry. I guess . . . I guess I was daydreaming.”
“That’s probably why your grade isn’t as good as it could be.” His voice was dry enough to catch fire with the drop of a single match. “Now, please, Aidan,” he said, “try to pay attention.”
I nodded once, wanting to seem eager, even though my mind still leaned toward my memories.
Hamlet, I reminded myself upon seeing a quote Mr. Johnson had written on the board in his loopy, almost unreadable cursive. That was what we were reading.
There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
“Now that you’re back, Aidan,” said Mr. Johnson, “can you interpret what Hamlet has said to Horatio in this line?”
I squinted at the sentence for a moment, then said, “Things aren’t always how they appear, because people don’t have the ability to see everything that exists in the universe?”
“Indeed,” said Mr. Johnson, pushing his glasses a bit farther up the bridge of his nose. “Indeed,” he said again, then looked away to begin lecturing about the crisis of faith and reason that led to Hamlet’s seeing the ghost of his dead father.
When the last bell of the day rang, I shot up from my seat in study hall to make a fast exit, and as I pushed through the doors with everyone else swarming to escape another day in those fluorescent-light-filled hallways, I spotted Jarrod already leaning against my car, as if he’d left the building ten minutes before the bell rang.