Excerpt Alert: FREE RADICALS by Lila Riesen
Excerpt alert! Start reading Lila Riesen’s debut Free Radicals. Afghan-American Mafi’s sophomore year gets a whole lot more complicated when she accidentally exposes family secrets, putting her family back in Afghanistan in danger in this smartly written YA debut.
Scroll down to read a sneak peek!
I have four rules as Ghost.
Don’t get caught rooting around in the SOL tree. Never reveal my identity. Ensure justice is served without police involvement. And most important . . . don’t get emotionally invested.
In the fall of my sophomore year, I broke every rule.
Rafi has It over again. America and its paper-thin walls.
Mom and Dad are downstairs and I know they can hear it, too. But Rafi’s the firstborn male in our Afghan family, so when the chandelier shakes in the living room, Dad pretends it’s Mr. Meowgi galumphing upstairs, orange belly swaying. And it’s not like Baba notices much; he’s nodded off on his pea-green rocker listening to ancient rubab music on his equally ancient Walkman.
Chunky as he is, the cat can’t make the chandelier shake like that.
Mom drowns the noise by vacuuming the Daulatabad rugs with the circles, triangles, and tassels,
lost in her own Geometric Daulatabad Dimension of Denial, soon rousing Baba and cueing his usual “Watch the fringe, the fringe! Your baba brought the rug all the way from—”
“Kabul, yes, yes.”
Mom’s thinking about her son, upstairs, yesterday only a smiley squish splashing in the kitchen sink, now seventeen and untamable, putting his girlfriend’s my body my choice into action. It.
And It chose Rafi.
I say It because she’s basically this thing that’s attached herself to my brother. It wasn’t always like that.
God forbid if I brought a guy over. No boy—friend or no—has been allowed past the threshold and upstairs to my room. They can only sit on the curb, like stray dogs.
Baba usually means Dad in Farsi, but in our house, Baba is my grandfather, Father of Fathers. Being who he is, it’s Baba’s way or the highway, and Baba thinks dogs are nejin. Unclean.
Tired of Mom’s obnoxious vacuuming, I fill Dad’s colossal UC Irvine Mathematics Dept. mug with jumbo marshmallows and homemade hot cocoa, my favorite fall creation. Then retire upstairs to my room, slather on one of those clay face masks, and shut-ish the door, since Dad gets mad when our bedroom doors are closed. Rafi’s ignoring the door open! rule tonight, and thank god.
I rummage for my headphone case in a pile of dirty laundry, pull up Spotify, and wheedle out the dog-eared California DMV manual from underneath my A&P textbook. Baba likes to remind me he failed his driver’s test twice before he got his license. I cannot, will not, follow in the old man’s footsteps. Because driver’s license = freedom. And freedom = boys.
One boy in particular.
Honestly, the DMV should’ve failed Baba on his third attempt. When he backs out of the drive, he putters onto the wrong side of the street, flamenco music blasting from the blown-out speakers.
“California’s Basic Speed Law says . . .” I read aloud, then gingerly tip the mug to my lips; spongy marshmallows tickle my nose.
Blergh!—cocoa dribbles down my chin. Through the window’s sheer curtain crouches a stooped silhouette.
About the no-guy rule: Cole Dawicki is the only exception. Not that he counts. First, he’s my neighbor. Second, he’s a pubescent.
Cole brings me letters once or twice a month, depending on the season, maybe three times. Especially come fall because that’s when everyone at Santa Margarita North crawls over each other like the undead looking for a beating heart in a pile of bodies. So fall is cheating season and winter, breakup season. Why smash the piggy bank to buy a gift for your S.O. if you’re gonna call it quits anyway?
My classmates, whatever shenanigans they get up to, they leave the Final Ruling to the Ghost.
Me, Mafi Shahin.
And if found guilty, Ghosting—my brand of it, anyway—is worth shattering the piggy bank for.
In the glow of the desk lamp that pours onto the roof, Cole’s face is splotched in the telltale reds and purples of exertion. He’s panting from tearing around on his bike and climbing the oak tree. Wind turns his XL gray sweatshirt into a parachute. Cole wants to be a baller like Rafi, but Coach Gordan told him he needs to grow before high school. So his rationale is if he sizes up, the Baller Genie will help him fill out his clothes overnight like she did for my big brother.
I know Cole’ll be a heartthrob one day but I feel pervy thinking about it. The kid’s twelve.
“Beavers?” he says with a snide look at my pajama bottoms.
He doesn’t say anything about the witchy green clay mask.
Cole smells like rain and smoke. Mrs. Dawicki’s cigarette smoke’s inlaid in all the furniture in his house. His bedding. His dog. In Cole, too. Smoked while she was pregnant with him. I overheard Mom gossiping about it with my big sister, Kate, when she visited from UCLA.
According to Grandma, Kate is not a proper Afghan name. Dad chose it.
But now it’s only Baba who wants us to be Afghan, anyway. Just say Afghanistan out loud and Dad will turn into a turnip. Meanwhile, Mom wants us to be whoever we want, but says life is easier without men, without boyfriends. Whatever that means.
“Note, Coleslaw.” I cinch my robe, suspicious of Cole’s downturned chin—where those big eyes might be looking from underneath his rain-spattered hood. This is a drive-thru transaction. Get the notes, hand over the cash, and buh-bye.
“Note—s,” Cole says.
His scrawny sweatshirted arm slips through the window, clutching two folded notes.
He doesn’t let go. “Ten dollars.”
I let go so quickly he has to catch himself. The little gremlin.
“Heavens,” he says, hand fluttering over his heart. “I’m just a child, you know. Let’s break it down . . . five extra for climbing the tree,” he says, matter-of-factly, like a lawyer. A learned tactic from watching Mr. Dawicki prepare for court. “With this flimsy branch, I could get you for negligence. I mean—” He tugs on the branch and it creaks. “And you’ve got me going into the woods in the middle of the night. Trespassing on school property, you know.”
“It’s eight thirty!”
“Bedtime’s nine.” He flashes his gap-toothed smile. Cole’s mom nearly put him in braces but Cole talked her out of it; he said the gap gives him an edge. Twelve-year-olds are already worried about being edgy these days.
Cole knows he’s got me. I need those notes. If he reads them, my life as I know it—Ghost in the shadows—could be over. If he connects the dots, that is. The kid’s smart, and even though he doesn’t go to SMN yet, I can’t chance it.
I’ve made being invisible a superpower. But Cole doesn’t need to know any of that to be my efficient sidekick. And no one can know about our Courier-Ghost arrangement.
“Jesus. Fine.” I pray my voice is steady. These kids can sniff out fear.
Cole’s changed. When he was in sixth grade, he was my doe-eyed courier. He’d get the notes from the SOL tree and bring them to me, no questions asked. He’s wising up as a seventh grader. Money won’t satisfy him forever.
It’s called the SOL tree because if your name ends up in the knot . . . you’re Shit Outta Luck. Everyone knows it. Karma has spoken. Karma being me. I’m the Ghost of Santa Margarita North. Only no one at SMN knows it’s me doing the pranks.
A light flicks on across the street and streams through the branches. With an anxious look toward home, Cole snaps his fingers. “C’mon, Mom’ll notice.”
“Ughhh.” I open my desk drawer and slip him ten dollars. Cole flattens the bill on a roof tile, then holds it up to the moonlight. His hood slips off to reveal straight black hair.
“It’s not Monopoly money,” I say. “I’m good for it.”
Without donations left in the notes, I wouldn’t be able to pay Cole. I don’t know what he’s saving for, but I’ve never seen him spend a dime. He keeps everything in his Velcro wallet with the black butterfly on front.
He gives me a sideways look. “You know, you can have it back if you tell me who’s writing to y—”
With a your loss shrug, Cole pockets the money and flings the notes into my room. I catch them in midair, cursing.
One is written on heavy paper, the expensive kind from Paper Source. The other, composition grade.
I turn my back to Cole. I don’t want him to see it, this energy that runs through me whenever I’ve got one in my hand. Excitement. Fear. Who will be next?
Cole’s shoes squeak, heel reflectors winking in the dark. Perched at the edge of the roof, he makes a move for the tree branch, swaying in the breeze.
There’s a chill in the air tonight. November’s almost here. We’re about to go on the holiday roller coaster. First, Halloween. Thanksgiving. Christmas. New Year’s.
Cole used to say bye. Not anymore.
I miss the kid I used to babysit. The one who didn’t straighten his hair. The one who squealed when I chased him with the garden hose. The one whose second-grade showcase project was about the conservation of monarch butterflies, something he felt so passionate about he cried when a girl stamped on the paper wings we’d cut together with serrated craft scissors.
Every year, I’ve gotta get to know the kid all over again. Is this how it is to be a mother?
There’s a weighty bonk and a muffled giggle on the other side of my bedroom wall.
It is still here. And Cole heard it, too.
His hand falls from the branch. “Oh, brother,” he says, amused.
He crouches, crab-walking past my window . . .
“Oi!” My arm flails. There’s the brush of his sweatshirt against my fingertips. I can’t go after him. I’m barefooted and the contractors left nails half-hammered all over the roof—toe mines. Sometimes I wonder if Dad told them to do it on purpose to prevent us kids from sneaking out.
“It’s a no-go anyway,” Cole whispers below Rafi’s window. “Curtain’s shut. Wait . . .” He’s spotted the old silver BMW in the driveway. “It again? You must be haaaating this.” He laughs in a chorus of pubescent croaks and squeaks.
Cole says again like that because my bro and It break up like every other week.
Before last year, Raf was nothing but a benchwarmer and It ignored him. He was put on the radar when he basically became a giant (the dude grew a foot in a year) and Coach Gordan tripped over himself to put Rafi in the starting lineup.
Now six foot eight and a center, Raf’s King of the Court at Santa Margarita North—along with the other Ball Giants.
But Big Bro leaves skid marks on his tighty-whities, and that’s knowledge no one can take from me.
Cole’s laugh swells in the night.
Downstairs, the vacuum’s concluded its fringe-chomping quest. Every time It comes over, the rug fringe looks like Meowgi when he had a showdown with Nutter Butter, the squirrel that lives in the tree outside my window. He got his name after I woke to the thief helping himself to a Nutter Butter left on my desk.
If the wind carries Cole’s laughter into the living room window . . . Dad’s a no weapons type of guy, but Baba does have some ancient pulwar sword mounted above his bed.
“Shh! Damnit, Cole!”
“Reeeelax,” Cole says. “It’s nothing I haven’t seen online before.”
“Ew. You’re like—eight.”
As his former babysitter, a burning rises in my chest. I’ve got an urge to scold him for watching porn at such a young age. But I was twelve, too, when I first watched it with my best friend.
Well, ex–best friend now.
Cole won’t budge from Rafi’s window, hopeful the curtain will miraculously swish. There’s sniggering coming from the other side now, which means it’s likely over.
There’s another thump and I cringe.
Part of this is Dad’s fault; he bought Raf a king bed since his calves stuck halfway off the twin like hairy tree trunks. More space, more room to romp with It.
“Ope, it’s a boob!” Cole squeaks in his maniacal voice, to get a rise out of me. “I saw boob!”
“COLE DAWICKI!” I whisper. There’s nothing worse than when a kid disobeys orders and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. He hobbles past my window again, fist-bumps my head with a “Pew,” and leaps for the branch.
I want to tell him to stop swinging like an orangutan, to be careful. Instead, I say, “I can find another courier, you know.”
“Just say messenger,” he says, anchoring his foot on the branch below. “You’re turning into
“You take that back!”
“You’re turning into Kate, Rafi’s sis! Accept it!”
Cole shrugs. “Jalen says it sometimes.”
“He talks about me?” I place a hand on the ledge.
Cole snickers and rests his chin on the branch. “Not you, too.”
“You like JT.”
Aka walking thirst trap. Junior. And to top it off, hella smart. A ball player at SMN, so a quick thinker by nature.
“I don’t”—then realizing I don’t need to explain myself to a middle schooler—“you’re the one who follows him everywhere.”
“We’re friends,” Cole says in a duh sort of way.
“Uhhh, seventeen-year-olds aren’t friends with middle schoolers.”
“Jalen’s not like other guys, Rafi’s sis.”
I’ve got nothing.
Jalen’s invited Cole for sleepovers, and vice versa. It’s not weird. It’s just—Jalen.
“Don’t call me Rafi’s sis, Coleslaw!”
But he’s still singing his little jig as he shimmies down the tree. “Rafi’s sis, sis, sis.”
I hold my breath. The tree shakes. Then there’s the unmistakable fwump of shoes against dirt. I
Shoulders hunched, Cole’s scrawny figure skulks across the street, sneaker reflectors flashing with each step. One, two. One, two.