- Pages: 416 Pages
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers
- ISBN: 9780399546600
An Excerpt From
A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares
The Boy at the Bus Stop
ESTHER SOLAR had been waiting outside Lilac Hill Nursing and Rehabilitation Center for half an hour when she received word that the curse had struck again.
Rosemary Solar, her mother, explained over the phone that she would no longer, under any circumstances, be able to pick her daughter up. A cat black as night with demon-yellow slits for eyes had been found sitting atop the hood of the family car—an omen dark enough to prevent her from driving.
Esther was unfazed. The spontaneous development of phobias was not a new phenomenon in the Solar family, and so she made her way to the bus stop four blocks from Lilac Hill, her red cape billowing in the evening breeze and drawing a few stares from strangers along the way.
On the walk, she thought about who normal people would call in a situation such as this. Her father was still interred in the basement he’d confined himself to six years ago, Eugene was AWOL (Esther suspected he’d slipped through another gap in reality—it happened to Eugene from time to time), and her grandfather no longer possessed the fine motor skills required to operate a vehicle (not to mention that he couldn’t remember that she was his granddaughter).
Basically, Esther had very few people who could bail her out of a crisis.
The bus stop was empty for a Friday night. Only one other person sat there, a tall black guy dressed like a character from a Wes Anderson movie, complete with lime-green corduroy pants, a suede jacket, and a beret pulled down over his hair. The boy was sobbing quietly, so Esther did what you’re supposed to do when a complete stranger is showing too much emotion in your presence—she ignored him completely. She sat next to him and took out her tattered copy of The Godfather and tried very hard to concentrate on reading it.
The lights above them hummed like a wasp’s nest, flickering on and off. If Esther had kept her eyes down, the next year of her life would’ve turned out quite differently, but she was a Solar, and Solars had a bad habit of sticking their noses where they didn’t belong.
The boy sobbed dramatically. Esther looked up. A bruise was blooming across his cheekbone, plum-dark in the fluorescent light, and blood trickled from a split at his eyebrow. His patterned button up—clearly donated to a thrift store sometime in the mid- 1970s—was torn at the collar.
The boy sobbed again, then peeked sideways at her.
Esther generally avoided talking to people if it wasn’t completely necessary; she sometimes avoided people even when it was completely necessary.
“Hey,” she said finally. “You okay?”
“Think I got mugged,” he said.
“Can’t remember.” He pointed to the wound at his forehead. “Took my phone and wallet though, so think I got mugged.”
And that’s when she recognized him. “Jonah? Jonah Smallwood?”
The years had changed him, but he still had the same wide eyes, the same strong jaw, the same intense stare he had even when he was a kid. He had more hair now: a shadow of stubble and a full head of thick black hair that sat up in a kind of pompadour style. Esther thought he resembled Finn from The Force Awakens, which was, as far as she was concerned, a very good way to look. He glanced at her, at the Jackson Pollock painting of dark freckles smattered across her face and chest and arms, at the mane of peach red hair that fell past her hips. Trying to place her. “How do you know my name?”
“You don’t remember me?”
They’d only been friends for a year, and they’d only been eight at the time, but still. Esther felt a twinge of sadness that he’d apparently forgotten about her—she had certainly not forgotten about him.
“We went to elementary school together,” Esther explained. “I was in Mrs. Price’s class with you. You asked me to be your valentine.”
Jonah had bought her a bag of Sweethearts and crafted a handmade card, on which was a drawing of two fruits and a line that read: We make the perfect pear. Inside, he had asked her to meet him at recess.
Esther had waited. Jonah hadn’t showed. In fact, she’d never seen him again.
“Oh yeah,” Jonah said slowly, recognition finally dawning on his face. “I liked you because you protested Dumbledore’s death outside the bookstore like a week after the movie came out.”
How Esther remembered it: little Esther, seven years old with a bright red bowl cut, picketing the local bookstore with a sign that read, SAVE THE WIZARDS. And then a snippet from the six o’clock news, a reporter kneeling next to her, asking her the question: “You do realize the book was published years ago and the ending can’t be changed?” and her blinking dumbly into the camera.
Back to reality: “I hate that there’s video evidence of that.”
Jonah nodded at her outfit, at the bloodred cape held at her throat by a ribbon and the wicker basket resting at her feet. “Looks like you’re still strange. Why are you dressed like Red Riding Hood?”
Esther hadn’t had to answer questions about her predisposition for costumes for several years. Strangers on the street always assumed she was on her way to or from a costume party. Her teachers—much to their vexation—could find no fault with her outfits as far as the school’s dress code was concerned, and her classmates were used to her coming in dressed as Alice in Wonderland or Bellatrix Lestrange or whatever, and didn’t really care what she wore so long as she kept smuggling them cake. (More on this in a moment.)
“I was visiting a grandparent. It seemed appropriate,” she said in reply, which appeared to satisfy Jonah, because he nodded like he understood.
“Look, you got any cash on you?”
Esther did have cash on her, in her Little Red Riding Hood picnic basket. She had $55, all of it earmarked for her Get the Hell Out of This Podunk Town fund, which now stood at $2,235 in total.
Back to the previously mentioned cake. You see, in Esther’s junior year, East River High had instituted sweeping changes in the cafeteria until only healthy food was available. Gone were the pizzas and chicken nuggets and tots and fries and sloppy joes and nachos that made high school semibearable. The words “Michelle Obama” were now muttered in exasperation every time a new item was added to the menu, like leek and cauliflower soup or steamed broccoli pie. Esther had seen a budding business opportunity and made a box mix of double chocolate fudge brownies. She brought them into school the next day, where she sold each one for five dollars and made a cool profit of fifty bucks. Since then, she’d become the Walter White of junk food; such was the extent of her empire that her customers at school had dubbed her “Cakenberg.”
She’d recently expanded her territory to Lilac Hill Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, where the most exciting things on the menu were overcooked hot dog and bland mashed potato. Business was booming.
“Why?” she said slowly.
“I need money for a bus fare. You give me cash, and I can use your phone to transfer funds from my bank account directly into yours.”
It sounded slippery as all hell, but Jonah was bruised and bleeding and crying, and she still halfway saw him as the sweet young boy who’d once liked her enough to draw her a picture of two pears.
So Esther said: “How much do you need?”
“How much you got? I’ll take it all and transfer you that.”
“I have fifty-five dollars.”
“I’ll take fifty-five dollars.”
Jonah stood up and came to sit next to her. He was much taller than she thought, and thinner too, like a stalk of corn. She watched as he opened the banking app on her phone, logged in, filled in her account details as she gave them to him, and authorized the transfer.
Funds transfer successful, the app read.
So she leaned down and opened her basket and gave him the fifty-five dollars she’d made at Lilac Hill today.
“Thank you,” Jonah said as he shook her hand. “You’re all right, Esther.” Then he stood, and winked, and was gone. Again.
And that’s how, on a warm, damp evening at the end of summer, Jonah Smallwood swindled her out of fifty-five dollars and pickpocketed, in the space of approximately four minutes:
-her grandmother’s bracelet, right off her wrist
-a Fruit Roll-Up from her basket that she’d been saving for the ride home
-her library card (which he later used to rack up $19.99 in replacement fees for defacing a copy of Romeo and Juliet with lobster graffiti)
-her copy of The Godfather
-her semi-definitive list of worst nightmares
-and her dignity
Esther kept replaying the cringeworthy memory of her Dumbledore protest in her head, and didn’t realize she’d been robbed until her bus arrived six minutes and nineteen seconds later, at which point she exclaimed to the driver, “I’ve been robbed!” To which the driver said, “No riffraff!” and closed the doors in her face.
(Perhaps Jonah didn’t steal all of her dignity—the bus driver took what shreds he hadn’t managed to scrape away from her bones.)
So you see, the story of how Esther Solar was robbed by Jonah Smallwood is quite straightforward. The story of how she came to love Jonah Smallwood is a little bit more complicated.