It was cold outside, and the car's heater smelled like a wet dog--even though they didn't have a dog. Truman Cragmeal had always wanted one, but he was allergic to fur--well, to pet dander, actually.
Truman was allergic to a lot of things. Strawberries made him break out in itchy hives. Nuts made his throat tighten. Bee stings caused him to swell up all over. Chocolate gave him a headache. Pollen clogged his nose. He was lactose intolerant and mildly asthmatic. He carried an inhaler in one front pocket of his pants and an EpiPen, in case of severe allergic reactions, in the other at all times.
Worst of all for Truman at this very moment was the fact that he easily became carsick and his mother was driving along back roads that curved and twisted, dipping in and out of a misty fog.
To take his mind off his carsickness, Truman was trying to concentrate on the dog he'd never have. With his stomach full of belchy air, he decided on a Chinese fighting dog--the kind with all the extra skin and the smushed, wrinkly face. He closed his eyes and pictured the Chinese fighting dog but, in his imagination, the dog quickly sprouted horns and then wings and then webbed claws. Truman's brain always seemed to play tricks like that. It was the kind of thing that made his mind wander in class and got him in trouble with his teacher, Ms. Quillum.
He burped and opened his eyes. He thought it'd be good to have a dog, especially now that his dad was gone. Boys need dogs, he thought, even though he knew he'd never be allowed to have one and wouldn't be able to breathe if he did.
Truman's twin sister, Camille, was sitting next to him. She was reading a book about someone who'd climbed a mountain and almost died and ended up having to have his nose amputated because of frostbite.
One month earlier, before their father left, Camille had been a girl who wore pink Girl Power sweatshirts and wrote her homework in sparkle gel pens and dotted her i's with hearts.
But now she wore black T-shirts and camouflage pants and spent her spare time watching TV shows where people were dropped off in the middle of the jungle with only a piece of flint, and reading books on disasters--plane crashes, circus fires, shipwrecks, tsunamis, earthquakes, floods. She tied back her curly dark hair with leather shoelaces and sometimes insisted on eating without silverware.
She never got carsick, and unlike Truman, she wasn't lactose intolerant, never got hives, and didn't swell up when stung by a bee. She wasn't allergic to pet dander or pollen. She didn't need an inhaler. She didn't even wear glasses. Truman's glasses had thick lenses that weighed them down, and he always had to keep pushing them back up the bridge of his small nose. Truman didn't understand how he and Camille could be twins. They were complete opposites.
The car crested a small hill and Truman's stomach flipped and he moaned a little.
"Really, Truman," Camille said. "Please don't barf."
"I don't barf on purpose, you know!"
"This is the right way, don't you think?" Truman's mother said nervously. She was sitting right on the edge of the seat, in close to the wheel, squinting through the windshield. She'd forgotten the map, as well as the directions and her glasses. Since their father left, she'd had to work harder and harder, taking on an extra job at night where she answered phones for doctors who were on call but were at the opera or something. She worked so hard that she forgot things. She was dropping Camille and Truman at their grandmother's so that she could work extra hours over the holidays and get paid overtime. Truman wondered whether she might work so hard over the holidays that she'd forget to come back for him and Camille. He knew it wasn't logical--his mother would never forget them--but still the idea worried him a bit. "Swallow Road? Is that what we're looking for? Like the little bird, the swallow?" his mother asked.
It was a strange name for a road, and Truman remembered it distinctly. "That's what you said before," he told her. "Swallow Road. It seems like the kind of road that could get swallowed up." There were only a few houses and bare trees and lots of cloud-clotted sky. Truman felt the hot itch of panic in his chest. He was afraid now that the car trip might go on forever. What if they never found the place?
"A road being swallowed?" Camille said. "It's named after the bird. Trust me."
"Did I say left or right?" his mother asked.
"Are we still lost?" Camille asked.
"We're not lost," their mother said. "Just misplaced."
"Ah, right, misplaced," Camille said. "Like Dad, I guess. He isn't lost. He's just misplaced?"
Camille was fearless about bringing up their father. Every time she did, Truman started breathing heavily, as if he were going to have an asthma attack, just to distract everyone, which was what he did now. He began a wheezy inhale, but Camille glared at him.
Truman stopped midbreath. He was a little scared of Camille these days.
"Your father isn't lost or misplaced," his mother said. "He's just been called away on business."
"He's a manager of three Taco Grills," Camille said flatly. "Has he been called in to Taco Grill headquarters? Is he a Taco Grill spy now?"
"Stop it," his mother said. "Just have a little faith in him. That's all I ask." And she sighed with deep exhaustion. She sometimes reminded Truman of a rowboat without oars, drifting out across a lake. She used to have lots of energy, and she'd been the type to charge around with purpose and wear lipstick and brush her hair, but now her lips were pale and she pulled her hair back in a tangled ponytail and she seemed to shuffle and drift, usually forgetting to take her name tag off, and so there was a plastic badge pinned to her shirt that read.
"Hello. My Name is Peggy Cragmeal. May I help you?" Sometimes Truman could pretend that his father was still living with them and was just out picking up something at the dry cleaner or making a grocery-store run. But then he would look at his mother's tired eyes or at Camille wearing her camouflage backpack and he couldn't pretend anymore. He sometimes wondered if he'd changed, but he didn't think he had.
"Must be a nice house to be on a golf course!" Truman said brightly. Their grandmother's house supposedly had a view of the seventeenth hole at a ritzy club, and Truman was trying to change the mood a little. His teacher, Ms. Quillum, often said, "Happiness is contagious!" She smiled when she said this, an enormous smile that took up most of her small round face.
"I'm sure it will be a lot of fun," his mother said. She didn't sound convincing.
And then, as if by sheer luck, Truman saw a sign for the Gilded Capital Country Club. His mother had passed it. "There it is!" he shouted, twisting around in his seat. "Back there!"From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Ever Breath by Julianna Baggott. Copyright © 2009 by Julianna Baggott. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.