Twenty minutes before breakfast had started, Stephen opened his eyes for the first time that day, having just cut short a dream where he was swimming though an underwater amusement park and was nearly out of air. He had an arrangement with his unconscious where he would wake up immediately should he run into serious trouble while dreaming. If he started falling from a dream-built skyscraper or was stuck in a pterodactyl’s beak, he’d pull the plug, stop the show, and exit the theater.
He sat up in bed, scratched himself in several places, and watched snow fall quietly outside his bedroom window, prettily frosted at its edges. Stephen was usually charged with clearing snow from the stoop, sidewalks, and driveway, so quite likely later that morning he’d be shoveling the zillion snowflakes off the concrete and blacktop into piles that, had it been three or four years earlier, he and Francis would have played King of the Mountain on; but they didn’t do that anymore and his brother was going to be gone all weekend anyway. Stephen despised winter and the entire history of human migration northward. Why didn’t people stay put in tropical climates, where colorful toucans and hooting monkeys populated the trees, not just stupid robins and humdrum squirrels? Not to mention that the holidays were done and it was only Day Thirteen of the dreaded what’s-a-boy-to-do period between the end of the Bears season and the start of the White Sox season. (He didn’t much like watching Bulls basketball, where points came too easily, or Black Hawks hockey, where points were almost impossible to get.) Bears, the animals not the football players, were the smart ones, hibernating these months away.
His bedroom was filled with the things he loved. Posters of Sox stars Frank Thomas and Carlton Fisk were taped to his walls, as were pictures cut out of pro wrestling and baseball magazines. Above his bed a model of the space shuttle Columbia hung from the ceiling by a string. (The model helped spur his many dreams of space flight, he suspected.) Under his bed were two Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures, Leonardo and Raphael, which he secretly still played with, a well-thumbed-through 1991 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and some long-missing underwear and socks. The Amazing Spider-Man #372 rested on top of the bedcovers. Stephen was midway through a story where Spider-Man was battling arachnid robots, and even though the robots had the upper hand, surely good would prevail over evil once again and the robots would be destroyed. A school photo of Nicole, Stephen’s girlfriend, was wedged between his pillows: he had kissed the picture so often it no longer tasted like chemicals. The bookcase was stuffed with Mad magazines and his comic book collection, and books about baseball, UFOs, ghosts, ESP, archaeology, and dinosaurs. On his desk he kept his ancient rocks and geodes, and some of his best baseball and football cards.
He was waiting to be called to breakfast for the third time before he responded, one of the many duties of a lazybones, when the sun found an opening in the clouds and illuminated the falling snowflakes, making them appear feathery and inner-lit. “Good job,” he said to the universe. This is the best we can do in January, the universe said back.
As he often did when nature was putting on a show for him, Stephen started thinking about God, or at least the god of design. Even though the Bible, from what he knew of it, never spoke of this, Stephen believed that an artistic god existed—maybe not in heaven minding the store but somewhere—who insisted on things like patterns for each snowflake, despite the fact that plain old flaked ice would be simpler and more efficient. This same god drew unneeded yet dazzling designs on butterfly wings and turtle shells, painted stripes on tigers and zebras, and dabbed freckles on Nicole’s face and arms. He went crazy on peacocks, could have done a little more with hippos. As Gene might have put it, God was cutting into his profits with all these bonuses and freebies.
While watching the snow and thinking about its maker, Stephen concluded that the “no two snowflakes are exactly the same” notion was a bunch of baloney, that there were, in fact, only 144 possible designs. To prove his theory he would need to build dozens of snow collection stations and place them across the globe, purchase several cameras fitted with close-up lenses, recruit an international staff of volunteers and make sure they are all hooked up to his computer database . . .
“Stephen, breakfast,” his mother yelled up the stairs. “Sleepyheads never go far in life.”
Although he was certain that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of sleepyheads had gone far in life, that greats like Einstein and “Shoeless Joe” Jackson spent considerable time dreaming up the formulas or home runs they would someday make happen, Stephen nevertheless kicked off his blanket and quilt, combed his hair with his fingers, wiped his sticky mouth on a pajama sleeve, went to the window and checked out the temporary diamonds piling up in the yard, ran into the bathroom and took a whiz, splashed water on his face and told that handsome boy in the mirror, “You have the heart of a champion,” and sprinted downstairs and into the kitchen, joining his family.
The hour before Francis left home to pick up his fiancée in Carbondale was mindlessly wasted. While Francis packed his overnight bag, Crispy and Stephen fought about which cartoons they would watch on television (Stephen’s policy was to claim to like whatever shows Crispy hated), Helen emptied the dishwasher and got started on the dusting, and Gene drove to his furniture shop to make a quick check that his new apprentice, Todd Upshaw, wasn’t raiding the cash register or smoking dope in the woodshop, this last offense being what led to the firing of Mel Griffiths, the apprentice before Todd.
Shortly after eleven, Crispy and Stephen were sitting near the TV and watching the Land of the Lost kids hide from a stegosaurus (Stephen thought that Holly, one of the lost kids, was a real cutie), when Francis came into the living room and set down his bag and squeezed Stephen’s shoulder bones. Stephen smiled and peered up at his brother and said, “Bye.” Just that single word, nothing poetic or saving. Crispy did a better job in her farewells. She jumped up on Francis, wrapped her arms around his neck, and gave him three pecks on his mouth. Francis carried her all of the way to the front door, Crispy dangling like a necklace, and then she dropped to the floor and scampered back to the television set.
“I’m heading out,” Francis said loudly, pulling open the door. Stephen turned and looked at his brother and waved. Francis was always leaving and returning. It was no big deal.
“Say hello to Jasmine for us,” said Helen, coming out of the den. “And drive safely.” She was holding a feather duster in her right hand so she gave Francis a quick, one-armed hug.
“Will do. See everyone Monday,” Francis said. He slung the strap of his bag onto his shoulder and left.
Outside, Gene had just returned home and was brushing snow off Francis’s car, a maroon 1990 Plymouth. Gene started to reach for his wallet while asking his son if he needed a Jackson or two for snack money or parking fees, but Francis waved him off. “Okay then, have a good time at your mushroom shindig,” Gene said. The snow had just stopped falling and a patch of blue sky hung above them. Perhaps that’s where beauty showed itself, in the arrival of blueness on an otherwise gray day. Or in the way a chilly breeze moved Francis’s hair or how the cold had pinkened his face and made his eyes wet as he stood, alive, just a few feet from his father.
“The conference might be a real ho-hummer,” Francis said. “Have you ever been in a room with three hundred mycologists, most of them professors and grad students? I’m hoping to shake things up a little if I don’t chicken out.”
Gene shrugged. He couldn’t imagine driving all the way to Chicago just to spend the weekend with three hundred anything, except maybe leggy supermodels. “You better get going,” he said. “May the road rise up to meet you, and all of that happy Irish crap.”
Francis smiled, then opened the car door with a gloved hand and tossed his bag in the backseat and slid inside. He wrapped a seat belt around his belly, glanced in the rearview mirror, pulled off his scarf and patted down his hair, started the car, pumped the accelerator, ran the windshield wipers twice, checked the mirror again, and backed down the driveway and headed north on Briarwood, waving spastically and honking the car horn three times.
As Francis and the Plymouth disappeared down the street, Gene waved the snowbrush at him. He had meant to make sure that Francis had his own brush, as well as flares, jumper cables, a bag of sand, a shovel, and a blanket, in case he got caught in a blizzard or had car trouble. But he had forgotten to ask.
Gene will soon think of himself as Francis’s last chance. Had he embraced him, or said a few more words, or even tackled Francis and pinned him to the ground for a minute he would have altered fate by delaying his departure. But he failed to act and his boy paid for it. Helen, Crispy, and Stephen will adopt similar beliefs. If they had said or done one little thing Francis might have survived that day. One stupid little thing.
After lunch, Stephen put on his coat and boots and grabbed the radio-controlled monster truck he had gotten for Christmas as his big present and ran outside. He set the truck down in the yard and pushed a lever on the control and the truck leapt forward, but soon its wheels were clogged with snow and all it wanted to do was whine and squeal and spin its wheels and not go anywhere. The truck’s cries reminded Stephen of his sister, who seemed to have a complaint attached to every exhalation of breath: the ice cream she was eating didn’t have enough chocolate chips or the buttons on her new blouse were too slippery. He let go of the lever and set the control in his coat pocket, then started kicking through the few inches of snow in the yard to make a path that the truck might follow, and for the pleasure of disturbing nature’s plans for an even dusting, a joy similar to throwing a rock into a puddle or rumpling the covers of a freshly made-up bed. When Stephen stopped his kicking he looked back at the lane of grass. He had just done a good deed, he thought, freeing up some green in very un-green January.
“Shiver me timbers,” he said, starting to feel the cold. It was one of Gene’s winter lines, while Helen sometimes said, “It’s as cold as a witch’s disposition.” The key to winter survival was to keep busy, Stephen remembered, so he bent and grabbed a glove full of snow and tried to form a snowball out of it, but the ball quickly crumbled. He was planning to make dozens of snowballs and then lure Crispy outside, or, if that failed, to build a snow fort, but it wasn’t very good snow for packing (the formula was a little off), and fort-building was likely on that growing list of fun things he was pretty sure thirteen-year-old boys could no longer get away with.
Snow started to fall again, more energetically. He caught several snowflakes on his gloves and examined them before the flakes, under orders to not reveal the secret of limited number of designs, melted themselves. But it was too late: he had definitely seen these patterns before. Stephen peered at the eyeball-white sky and imagined God sitting on a wooden stool in his workshop and joyously cranking blocks of ice through some kind of snowflake maker, one with a rotating design wheel.
The wind picked up and chilled him, and since there was no one to play with Stephen decided to go back inside his warm house. He started trudging to the front door, and when he came upon the radio-controlled truck he walked right by it. In an hour or two his mother or father would see the truck and call him a nincompoop or something worse for leaving his best toy in the front yard, where one of the bad kids in the neighborhood might see it and steal it. Stephen periodically felt the need to remind Helen and Gene that he was part of the family. They’d never own up to it, but his mother clearly favored Francis while his father loved Crispy the most. He hated being the middle child.
Pulling open the front door, that first wave of heated air felt something like love. While he admired those thick-skinned souls who rode dogsleds across the Yukon or who manned science outposts in Antarctica, for now Stephen was happy to live a warm and cozy existence. He slammed the door shut, took off his coat and boots in the foyer, then went into the living room where he sat on the carpet and placed his socked feet against a heater vent, wiggling his toes. His parents were elsewhere in the house, so he wouldn’t get busted for being a “heat hog.” When his feet were toasty he scooted over to the TV and turned it on and saw that an old Godzilla movie was playing, so he stretched out on the floor and watched the film. In a scene where Japanese citizens were running like crazy to get away from Godzilla, he inserted himself in the movie. He was the little boy wearing a white baseball cap. His name might have been Terry. His hat went flying off, in the path of Godzilla, and for a second Terry thought about going back for his beloved hat, but he decided to keep running. He could get another cap but not another life.
Crispy danced into the living room and started twirling her silver baton. Stephen didn’t understand why his parents allowed his sister to twirl the baton indoors since periodically the baton would escape her and bounce off walls, lamps, or his head. He stood up and was about to retreat to the safety of the couch when the phone, a green cordless with oversized numbers on the dial pad, which Gene had bought at the Kmart in Caswell a year earlier despite the fact that Helen had told him to get a beige or white phone so it would go with the wallpaper and carpeting (she also didn’t much like the large numbers), chimed. Stephen was the closest to the phone so he answered it.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Wolf Boy by Evan Kuhlman. Copyright © 2006 by Evan Kuhlman. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.