At the time I first realized I might be fictional, my weekdays were spent at a publicly funded institution on the north side of Indianapolis called White River High School, where I was required to eat lunch at a particular time — between 12:37 p.m. and 1:14 p.m. — by forces so much larger than myself that I couldn’t even begin to identify them. If those forces had given me a different lunch period, or if the tablemates who helped author my fate had chosen a different topic of conversation that September day, I would’ve met a different end — or at least a different middle. But I was beginning to learn that your life is a story told about you, not one that you tell.
Of course, you pretend to be the author. You have to. You think, I now choose to go to lunch, when that monotone beep rings from on high at 12:37. But really, the bell decides. You think you’re the painter, but you’re the canvas.
Hundreds of voices were shouting over one another in the cafeteria, so that the conversation became mere sound, the rushing of a river over rocks. And as I sat beneath fluorescent cylinders spewing aggressively artificial light, I thought about how we all believed ourselves to be the hero of some personal epic, when in fact we were basically identical organisms colonizing a vast and windowless room that smelled of Lysol and lard.
I was eating a peanut butter and honey sandwich and drinking a Dr Pepper. To be honest, I find the whole process of masticating plants and animals and then shoving them down my esophagus kind of disgusting, so I was trying not to think about the fact that I was eating, which is a form of thinking about it.
Across the table from me, Mychal Turner was scribbling in a yellow-paper notebook. Our lunch table was like a long-running play on Broadway: The cast changed over the years, but the roles never did. Mychal was The Artsy One. He was talking with Daisy Ramirez, who’d played the role of my Best and Most Fearless Friend since elementary school, but I couldn’t follow their conversation over the noise of all the others.
What was my part in this play? The Sidekick. I was Daisy’s Friend, or Ms. Holmes’s Daughter. I was somebody’s something.
I felt my stomach begin to work on the sandwich, and even over everybody’s talking, I could hear it digesting, all the bacteria chewing the slime of peanut butter — the students inside of me eating at my internal cafeteria. A shiver convulsed through me.
“Didn’t you go to camp with him?” Daisy asked me.
“Davis Pickett,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Why?”
“Aren’t you listening?” Daisy asked. I am listening, I thought, to the cacophony of my digestive tract. Of course I’d long known that I was playing host to a massive collection of parasitic organisms, but I didn’t much like being reminded of it. By cell count, humans are approximately 50 percent microbial, meaning that about half of the cells that make you up are not yours at all. There are something like a thousand times more microbes living in my particular biome than there are human beings on Earth, and it often seems like I can feel them living and breeding and dying in and on me. I wiped my sweaty palms on my jeans and tried to control my breathing. Admittedly, I have some anxiety problems, but I would argue it isn’t irrational to be concerned about the fact that you are a skin-encased bacterial colony.
Mychal said, “His dad was about to be arrested for bribery or something, but the night before the raid he disappeared. There’s a $100,000 reward out for him.”
“And you know his kid,” Daisy said.
“Knew him,” I answered.
I watched Daisy attack her school-provided rectangular pizza and green beans with a fork. She kept glancing up at me, her eyes widening as if to say, Well? I could tell she wanted me to ask her about something, but I couldn’t tell what, because my stomach wouldn’t shut up, which was forcing me deep inside a worry that I’d somehow contracted a parasitic infection.
I could half hear Mychal telling Daisy about his new art project, in which he was using Photoshop to average the faces of 100 people named Mychal, and the average of their faces would be this new, 101st Mychal, which was an interesting idea, and I wanted to listen, but the cafeteria was so loud, and I couldn’t stop wondering whether there was something wrong with the microbial balance of power inside me.
Excessive abdominal noise is an uncommon, but not unprecedented, presenting symptom of infection with the bacteria Clostridium difficile, which can be fatal. I pulled out my phone and searched “human microbiome” to reread Wikipedia’s introduction to the trillions of microorganisms currently inside me. I clicked over to the article about C. diff, scrolling to the part about how most C. diff infections occur in hospitals. I scrolled down farther to a list of symptoms, none of which I had, except for the excessive abdominal noises, although I knew from previous searches that the Cleveland Clinic had reported the case of one person who’d died of C. diff after presenting at the hospital with only abdominal pain and fever. I reminded myself that I didn’t have a fever, and my self replied: You don’t have a fever YET.
At the cafeteria, where a shrinking slice of my consciousness still resided, Daisy was telling Mychal that his averaging project shouldn’t be about people named Mychal but about imprisoned men who’d later been exonerated. “It’ll be easier, anyway,” she said, “because they all have mugshots taken from the same angle, and then it’s not just about names but about race and class and mass incarceration,” and Mychal was like, “You’re a genius, Daisy,” and she said, “You sound surprised,” and meanwhile I was thinking that if half the cells inside of you are not you, doesn’t that challenge the whole notion of me as a singular pronoun, let alone as the author of my fate? And I fell pretty far down that recursive wormhole until it transported me completely out of the White River High School cafeteria into some nonsensorial place only properly crazy people get to visit.
Ever since I was little, I’ve pressed my right thumbnail into the finger pad of my middle finger, and so now there’s this weird callus over my fingerprint. After so many years of doing this, I can open up a crack in the skin really easily, so I cover it up with a Band-Aid to try to prevent infection. But sometimes I get worried that there already is an infection, and so I need to drain it, and the only way to do that is to reopen the wound and press out any blood that will come. Once I start thinking about splitting the skin apart, I literally cannot not do it. I apologize for the double negative, but it’s a real double negative of a situation, a bind from which negating the negation is truly the only escape. So anyway, I started to want to feel my thumbnail biting into the skin of my finger pad, and I knew that resistance was more or less futile, so beneath the cafeteria table, I slipped the Band-Aid off my finger and dug my thumbnail into the callused skin until I felt the crack open.
“Holmesy,” Daisy said. I looked up at her. “We’re almost through lunch and you haven’t even mentioned my hair.” She shook out her hair, with so-red-they-were-pink highlights. Right. She’d dyed her hair.
I swum up out of the depths and said, “It’s bold.”
“I know, right? It says, ‘Ladies and gentlemen and also people who do not identify as ladies or gentlemen, Daisy Ramirez won’t break her promises, but she will break your heart.” Daisy’s self-proclaimed life motto was “Break Hearts, Not Promises.” She kept threatening to get it tattooed on her ankle when she turned 18. Daisy turned back to Mychal, and I to my thoughts. The stomach grumbling had grown, if anything, louder. I felt like I might vomit. For someone who actively dislikes bodily fluids, I throw up quite a lot.
“Holmesy, you okay?” Daisy asked. I nodded. Sometimes I wondered why she liked me, or at least tolerated me. Why any of them did. Even I found myself annoying.
I could feel sweat sprouting from my forehead, and once I begin to sweat, it’s impossible to stop. I’ll keep sweating for hours, and not just my face or my armpits. My neck sweats. My boobs sweat. My calves sweat. Maybe I did have a fever.
Beneath the table, I slid the old Band-Aid into my pocket and, without looking, pulled out a new one, unwrapped it, and then glanced down to apply it to my finger. All the while, I was breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth, in the manner advised by Dr. Karen Singh, exhaling at a pace “that would make a candle flicker but not go out. Imagine that candle, Aza, flickering from your breath but still there, always there.” So I tried that, but the thought spiral kept tightening anyway. I could hear Dr. Singh saying I shouldn’t get out my phone, that I mustn’t look up the same questions over and over, but I got it out anyway, and reread the “Human Microbiota” Wikipedia article.
The thing about a spiral is, if you follow it inward, it never actually ends. It just keeps tightening, infinitely.
I sealed the Ziploc bag around the last quarter of my sandwich, got up, and tossed it into an overfilled trash can. I heard a voice from behind me. “How concerned should I be that you haven’t said more than two words in a row all day?”
“Thought spiral,” I mumbled in reply. Daisy had known me since we were 6, long enough to get it.
“I figured. Sorry, man. Let’s hang out today.”
This girl Molly walked up to us, smiling, and said, “Uh, Daisy, just FYI, your Kool-Aid dye job is staining your shirt.”
Daisy looked down at her shoulders, and indeed, her striped top had turned pink in spots. She flinched for a second, then straightened her spine. “Yeah, it’s part of the look, Molly. Stained shirts are huge in Paris right now.” She turned away from Molly and said, “Right, so we’ll go to your house and watch Star Wars: Rebels.” Daisy was really into Star Wars — and not just the movies, but also the books and the animated shows and the kids’ show where they’re all made out of Legos. Like, she wrote fan fiction about Chewbacca’s love life. “And we will improve your mood until you are able to say three or even four words in a row; sound good?”
“And then you can take me to work. Sorry, but I need a ride.”
“Okay.” I wanted to say more, but the thoughts kept coming, unbidden and unwanted. If I’d been the author, I would’ve stopped thinking about my microbiome. I would’ve told Daisy how much I liked her idea for Mychal’s art project, and I would’ve told her that I did remember Davis Pickett, that I remembered being 11 and carrying a vague but constant fear. I would’ve told her that I remembered once at camp lying next to Davis on the edge of a dock, our legs dangling over, our backs against the rough-hewn planks of wood, staring together up at a cloudless summer sky. I would’ve told her that Davis
and I never talked much, or even looked at each other, but it didn’t matter, because we were looking at the same sky together, which is maybe more intimate than eye contact anyway. Anybody can look at you. It’s quite rare to find someone who sees the same world you see.
The fear had mostly sweated out of me, but as I walked from the cafeteria to history class, I couldn’t stop myself from taking out my phone and rereading the horror story that is the “Human Microbiota” Wikipedia article. I was reading and walking when I heard my mother shout at me through her open classroom door. She was seated behind her metal desk, leaning over a book. Mom was a math teacher, but reading was her great love.
“No phones in the hallway, Aza!” I put my phone away and went into her classroom. There were four minutes remaining in my lunch period, which was the perfect length for a Mom conversation. She looked up and must’ve seen something in my eyes. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“You’re not anxious?” she asked. At some point, Dr. Singh had told Mom not to ask if I was feeling anxious, so she’d stopped phrasing it as a direct question.
“You’ve been taking your meds,” she said. Again, not a direct question.
“Yeah,” I said, which was broadly true. I’d had a bit of a crack-up my freshman year, after which I was prescribed a circular white pill to be taken once daily. I took it, on average, maybe thrice weekly.
“You look...” Sweaty, is what I knew she meant.
“Who decides when the bells ring?” I asked. “Like, the school bells?”
“You know what, I have no idea. I suppose that’s decided by someone on the superintendent’s staff.”
“Like, why are lunch periods 37 minutes long instead of 50? Or 22? Or whatever?”
“Your brain seems like a very intense place,” Mom answered.
“It’s just weird, how this is decided by someone I don’t know and then I have to live by it. Like, I live on someone else’s schedule. And I’ve never even met them.”
“Yes, well, in that respect and many others, American high schools do rather resemble prisons.”
My eyes widened. “Oh my God, Mom, you’re so right. The metal detectors. The cinder-block walls.”
“They’re both overcrowded and underfunded,” Mom said. “And both have bells that ring to tell you when to move.”
“And you don’t get to choose when you eat lunch,” I said. “And prisons have power-thirsty, corrupt guards, just like schools have teachers.”
She shot me a look, but then started laughing. “You headed straight home after school?”
“Yeah, then I gotta take Daisy to work.”
Mom nodded. “Sometimes I miss you being a little kid, but then I remember Chuck E. Cheese.”
“She’s just trying to save money for college.”
My mom glanced back down at her book. “You know, if we lived in Europe, college wouldn’t cost much.” I braced myself for Mom’s cost-of-college rant. “There are free universities in Brazil. Most of Europe. China. But here they want to charge you $25,000 a year, for in-state tuition. I just finished paying off my loans a few years ago, and soon we’ll have to take out ones for you.”
“I’m only a junior. I’ve got plenty of time to win the lottery. And if that doesn’t work out, I’ll just pay for school by selling meth.”
She smiled wanly. Mom really worried about paying for me to go to school. “You sure you’re okay?” she asked.
I nodded as the bell sounded from on high, sending me to history.
By the time I made it to my car after school, Daisy was already in the passenger seat. She’d changed out of the stained shirt she’d been wearing into her red Chuck E. Cheese polo, and was sitting with her backpack in her lap, drinking a container of school milk. Daisy was the only person I’d trusted with a key to Harold. Mom didn’t even have her own Harold key, but Daisy did.
“Please do not drink nonclear liquids in Harold,” I told her.
“Milk is a clear liquid,” she said.
“Lies,” I answered, and before we set off, I drove Harold over to the front entrance and waited while Daisy threw away her milk.
Maybe you’ve been in love. I mean real love, the kind my grandmother used to describe by quoting the Apostle Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, the love that is kind and patient, that does not envy or boast, that beareth all things and believeth all things and endureth all things. I don’t like to throw the L-word around; it’s too good and rare a feeling to cheapen with overuse. You can live a good life without ever knowing real love, of the Corinthians variety, but I was fortunate to have found it with Harold.
He was a 16-year-old Toyota Corolla with a paint color called Mystic Teal Mica and an engine that clanked in a steady rhythm like the beating of his immaculate metallic heart. Harold had been my dad’s car — in fact, Dad had named him Harold. Mom never sold him, so he stayed in the garage for eight years, until my 16th birthday.
Getting Harold’s engine running after so long took all of the $400 dollars I’d saved over the course of my life — allowances, change ferreted away when Mom sent me down the street to buy something at the Circle K, summer work at Subway, Christmas gifts from my grandparents — so, in a way, Harold was the culmination of my whole being, at least financially speaking. And I loved him. I dreamed about him quite a lot. He had an exceptionally spacious trunk, a custom-installed, huge white steering wheel, and a backseat bench clad in pebble-beige leather. He accelerated with the gentle serenity of the Buddhist Zen master who knows nothing really needs to be done quickly, and his brakes whined like metal machine music, and I loved him.
However, Harold did not have Bluetooth connectivity, or for that matter a CD player, meaning that while in Harold’s company, one had three choices: 1. Drive in silence; 2. Listen to the radio; or 3. Listen to side B of my dad’s cassette of Missy Elliott’s excellent album So Addictive, which — because it would not eject from the cassette player — I’d already heard hundreds of times in my life.
And in the end, Harold’s imperfect audio system happened to be the last note in the melody of coincidences that changed my life.
Daisy and I were scanning stations in search of a song by a particular brilliant and underappreciated boy band when we landed upon a news story. “—Indianapolis-based -Pickett Engineering, a construction firm employing more than 10,000 people worldwide, today—” I moved my hand toward the scan button, but Daisy pushed it away.
“This is what I was telling you about!” she said as the radio continued, “—one-hundred-thousand-dollar reward for information leading to the whereabouts of company CEO Russell Pickett. Pickett, who disappeared the night before a police raid on his home related to a fraud and bribery investigation, was last seen at his riverside compound on September 8. Anyone with information regarding his whereabouts is encouraged to call the Indianapolis Police Department.”
“A hundred thousand dollars,” Daisy said. “And you know his kid.”
“Knew,” I said. For two summers, after fifth and sixth grades, Davis and I had gone to Sad Camp together, which is what we’d called Camp Spero, this place down in Brown County for kids with dead parents.
Aside from hanging out together at Sad Camp, Davis and I would also sometimes see each other during the school year, because he lived just down the river from me, but on the opposite bank. Mom and I lived on the side that sometimes flooded. The Picketts lived on the side with the stone-gabled walls that forced the rising water in our direction.
“He probably wouldn’t even remember me.”
“Everyone remembers you, Holmesy,” she said.
“It’s not a value judgment. I’m not saying you’re good or generous or kind or whatever. I’m just saying you’re memorable.”
“I haven’t seen him in years,” I said. But of course you don’t forget playdates at a mansion that contains a golf course, a pool with an island, and five waterslides. Davis was the closest thing to a proper celebrity I’d ever encountered.
“A hundred thousand dollars,” Daisy said again. We pulled onto I-465, the beltway that circumscribes Indianapolis. “I’m fixing Skee-Ball machines for $8.40 an hour and there’s a hundred grand waiting for us.”
“I wouldn’t say waiting for us. Anyway, I have to read about the effects of smallpox on indigenous populations tonight, so I can’t really solve The Case of the Fugitive Billionaire.” I eased Harold up to highway speed. I never drove him faster than the speed limit. I loved him too much.
“Well, you know him better than I do, so to quote the infallible boys in the world’s greatest pop group, ‘You’re the One,’” which was this super-cheesy song I was way too old to love, but loved nonetheless.
“I want to disagree with you, but that is such a great song.”
“You’re. The. One. ‘You’re the one that I choose. The one I’ll never lose. You’re my forever. My stars. My sky. My air. It’s you.’”
We laughed, and I changed the radio station and thought it was over, but then Daisy started reading me an Indianapolis Star story from her phone. “ ‘Russell Pickett, the controversial CEO and founder of Pickett Engineering, wasn’t home when a search warrant was served by the Indianapolis police Friday morning, and he hasn’t been home since. Pickett’s lawyer, Simon Morris, says he has no information about Pickett’s whereabouts, and in a press conference today, Detective Dwight Allen said that no activity on Pickett’s credit cards or bank accounts has been noted since the evening before the raid.’ Blah-blah-blah... ‘Allen also asserted that aside from a camera at the front gate, there were no surveillance cameras on the property. A copy of a police report obtained by the Star says that Pickett was last seen Thursday evening by his sons, Davis and Noah.’ Blah-blah-blah... ‘estate just north of 38th Street, lots of lawsuits, supports the zoo,’ blah-blah-blah... ‘call the police if you know anything,’ blah-blah-blah. Wait, how are there no security cameras? What kind of billionaire doesn’t have security cameras?”
“The kind who doesn’t want his shady business recorded,” I said. As we drove, I kept turning the story over in my head. I knew some edge of it was jagged, but I couldn’t figure out which one, until I snagged a memory of eerie green coyotes with white eyes. “Wait, there was a camera. Not a security one, but Davis and his brother had a motion-capture camera in the woods by the river. It had, like, night vision, and it would snap a picture whenever something walked past — deer or coyotes or whatever.”
“Holmesy,” she said. “We have a lead.”
“And because of the camera at the front gate, he couldn’t have just driven off,” I said. “So either he climbs over his own wall, or else he walks through the woods down to the river and leaves from there, right?”
“So he could’ve tripped that camera. I mean, it’s been a few years since I was there; maybe it’s gone.”
“And maybe it’s not!” Daisy said.
“Yeah. Maybe it’s not.”
“Exit here,” she said suddenly, and I did. I knew it was the wrong exit, but I took it anyway, and without Daisy even telling me to, I got in the right lane to drive back into the city, toward my house. Toward Davis’s house.
Daisy took out her phone and raised it to her ear. “Hey, Eric. It’s Daisy. Listen, I’m really sorry, but I’ve got the stomach flu. Could be norovirus.”
“Yeah, no problem. Sorry again.” She hung up, put her phone in her bag, and said, “If you even imply diarrhea, they tell you to stay home because they’re so scared of outbreaks. Right, okay, we’re doing this. You still got that canoe?” ●
John Green is the award-winning, #1 bestselling author of Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines, Paper Towns, Will Grayson, Will Grayson (with David Levithan), and The Fault in Our Stars. His many accolades include the Printz Medal, a Printz Honor, and the Edgar Award. John has twice been a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize and was selected by TIME magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. With his brother, Hank, John is one half of the Vlogbrothers and co-created the online educational series CrashCourse. You can join the millions who follow him on Twitter @johngreen and Instagram @johngreenwritesbooks or visit him online at johngreenbooks.com. John lives with his family in Indianapolis, Indiana.
You can also watch a video of John Green reading the first chapter of the book here.