Archive for Bystander

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #332: Carli Didn’t Dig the Ending

I received two quick emails from Carli . . . 

Hi James prellee I read your book bystander and I don’t really like how you ended it you should have ended it with more conflict but over all I really liked it and is there a second book

And what I really did like about the book I like that there was a lot of conflict and I like how Mary was a good friend to Eric and was introduced herself to Eric when he first arrived 

I replied . . . 
Sorry it’s taken me a couple of weeks to get back to you. I blame the turkey!
You sent two brief emails and I’ll try to answer them both here, toggling back and forth.
Let’s see: the ending.
Ah, the ending.
I know, I know. It doesn’t wrap things up in a tidy bow and it doesn’t conclude with a dramatic flourish. In many respects, you are not wrong to wish for those things. I usually do, too. But in this story, I wanted it to be as true to life as I could make it. So I sort of sidestepped “drama” in favor of “truth.” For better and for worse! I actually did write a more dramatic and “satisfying” ending w/ Eric helping to get Griffin caught for stealing bicycles, but it felt false (and forced) to me, so I ditched it.
I think in real life we kind of endure these things. We move past them over time. That annoying kid in 7th grade moves on, time passes, and we realize it’s behind us at a certain point. There’s no tidy resolution. In terms of artifice, of a fictional story, maybe that’s not the most satisfying way to go. But, hey, to be honest, I like the open-ended nature of the book. That these characters live on in our imagination, and that it’s up to individual readers to speculate about where things will go after that. I do leave a number of hints along the way.
Yes, I love Mary, too. She’s a minor but crucial character in Bystander. And one that was, I think, underwritten. My primary focus was on Eric’s experience. But Mary has guts, stands up to her friends, suffers the consequences of that decision, and undergoes the greatest change in the novel. I liked her so much, in fact, I made her the main character in my recent book, Upstander, a prequel/sequel to Bystander. The book follows Mary closely, some time before the timeline of Bystander begins. We see her meet and become friends with Griffin. We learn about her troubled home life. We learn more about her uneasy friendship with Chantel. And halfway through the book, we pick up on meeting Eric on that basketball court (chapter one of Bystander) — this time told from Mary’s point of view. We also see that horrendous, painful moment with David and the ketchup.
Everyone has a story. And if the pandemic taught us anything, it’s to withhold our judgment on other people. We just don’t know what’s going on in their lives. For Upstander, I wanted to pull back the curtain and get to know Mary much, much better.
I hope you read it. There’s also an excellent audiobook available, if you prefer to read with your ears. 
My best,
James Preller

FOR READERS OF “BYSTANDER”: Here’s the Scene That Happens Right *Before* the Book’s First Chapter (excerpt from UPSTANDER)

The book Bystander is one of my most popular and acclaimed (!) titles. Thank you for that. It begins with the perspective of Eric, alone shooting baskets behind the middle school, when he sees a boy shuffling past. He soon realizes that the runner, David Hallenback, is covered in ketchup.

Eric (and the readers) never witness what happened immediately before that moment: David Hallenback somehow splattered with ketchup packets. The ugliness of that scene is left to the imagination.

I decided against including it in the book. It would be cruel and awful and I just didn’t want to start the book that way. Maybe I wasn’t up to the task. It would be disturbing write and read, I think.

And yet, isn’t that what a book is supposed to do — disturb a reader’s universe? Shake ’em up a little bit, set ’em down like snow globes?

Anyway, when I wrote Upstander, I felt the bullying of David Hallenback was an essential scene that readers needed to see for a variety of reasons. This scene comes at the center of a stand-alone story that is also part prequel, part sequel. A turning point. I suspect that readers of Bystander might have wondered about Mary’s role in all this. She was clearly with those boys on bicycles. Riding with the bad guys. How did she get there? What exactly was her role? Why was she with Griffin in the first place (which is explained earlier in Upstander)?

We learn that the scene became a turning point not just in the book, but for Mary, too. So here’s Chapter 20 and a brief snippet of Chapter 21 from Upstander. I’ve also included Chapter 1 from Bystander immediately below that, just to demonstrate the timeline. Note: In Upstander, we replay Chapter 2 from Bystander, but this time from Mary’s point of view. 




Mary didn’t have a clue what was going to happen next, but she didn’t get a good feeling based on the expression on Griffin’s face. He wore a look of disgust. David Hallenback was a stumpy-legged kid who was not the type who’d be pals with Griffin Connelly. Yet when David looked up to see the four bicyclists pedaling his way, he offered up a worshipful greeting. “Griff! Hey!”

Griffin pedaled swiftly toward David, rising on the pedals, as if he was going to ram straight into him before braking hard at the last second. 

David recoiled, then laughed with relief, looking around at the group. “Funny, Griff!” Hallenback looked hot and tired. He was dressed in jeans and his shirt had huge sweat stains along the back and under his armpits. His freckled face was flushed and blotchy.

“What are doing out here, Hallenback? Are you . . . exercising?” Griff asked in a tone of disbelief.

“Yes,” David said, raising his fists in a gesture of pumping weights. “I’m in training!”

Droopy snickered. 

The boys got off their bikes. Mary, too. 

“So, explain it to me,” Griff said. “I don’t understand. You don’t strike me as the exercising type.”

David chuckled, his small dark eyes shimmering. “My Uncle Lewis said he’d give me a fifty dollar gift certificate to any store at the mall if I can run a full mile without stopping.”

Griff whistled, “Wow, no stopping, huh? How’s it going?”

David grinned impishly. Mary thought he was almost cute, in a basset hound puppy kind of way. “Today, I almost made it once around,” he said, not without pride. 

“Once!” Griff barked. “You hear that Mary? One time. What’s a mile? Four times?”

“Four times around,” Cody said. “Yep, yep, yep.”

“Oh,” David said, somehow not aware of that basic fact. He pulled at the front his wet, sticky shirt. 

“I wonder if you are sufficiently motivated to run a full mile,” Griff mused. “What do you guys think? Is Hallenback trying hard enough?”

“No, he is not,” Droopy stated.

David laughed, eagerly looking from face to face, trying to figure out the shift in tone. 

Griff grabbed the bag from Droopy’s hand. He took out a ketchup packet, tore it open with his teeth. “Here’s the new training plan, Hallenback. You start running, right? And if you stop, we squeeze ketchup on you.”

The smile on David’s face slowly faded.

He tried laughing it off.

“I’m not kidding,” Griff said. He patted David on the shoulder. “This is a proven training strategy. We’re here to help. This will work, believe me. And then, ka-ching, you get fifty bucks. Any store in the mall! You’ll be thanking us later.”

“Griff,” Mary said. 

He ignored her.

“You ready, Hallenback? You all limber and everything? Need to do some jumping jacks before you begin?”

“I’m too tired,” David said. “It’s too hot.”

Griffin Connelly reached his hand out over David’s head and squeezed out a splatter of ketchup. It dripped onto David’s hair.

“Whoa!” Droopy roared, laughing. He clapped his hands. 

David stood in shock, wiping a hand through his hair in disbelief. 

“That’s not cool, Griff,” Mary said.

Griff pulled out another ketchup packet, stared directly at Mary as he tore it open with his teeth. “What are you waiting for, David?” Griffin flashed a wolfish smile. “Do you like being a French fry?”

“He’s a French fry, he’s a French fry!” Cody sang, bouncing around in amusement. 

Droopy reached into the bag, grabbed a handful of packets. “My turn next.”

David took one look at Droopy’s thuggish face and started to run. The halting, limping, lumbering stride of a non-athlete. He didn’t stand a chance. Halfway around the first lap, David began to clutch his side, slowed by a cramp. Griffin and the boys followed him on their bikes, cheering him on.

“Come on, David! You can do it, brother!”

“Think of those fifty dollars!”

“Don’t stop, don’t you stop,” Griff warned.

But of course he did. There was no way on Earth David Hallenback could run a full mile in that late August heat. It just wasn’t in him. He stopped, bent over, head down, hands on his knees, gasping.

Droopy splattered a packet on his back. Another one on his shoulders.

“He’s a French fry!” Cody cried, laughing.

David started jogging again.

Mary grabbed Griffin by the arm. “This is gross. What are you doing? You have to stop it.”

“Relax, we’re joking around. It’s funny,” Griff said. His eyes had gone cold. He had switched over to something else, or someone else, darker than Mary had seen before. Droopy watched them argue, amused by it.

“What are you staring at, Droop?” Mary snapped. “Do you always breathe through your mouth?”

Droopy was surprised by her ferocity. Griffin turned to look at him, too, perhaps curious how he’d react to Mary’s challenge. Droopy responded by giving a fierce tug on David’s shirt, ripping it along the side seam. Forced to the brink, David fought back. He pushed against Droopy, catching the larger boy off-balance. The advantage lasted a second, maybe two. Then with an explosive two-handed shove, Droopy sent David hurling to the ground. His head hit with a thud that sounded painful.

“No!” Mary yelled. She stepped between them, standing near the fallen boy. “Stop it, or so help me . . .” She pulsed with raw anger, tensed and ready to launch herself at Droopy’s throat. 

Droopy smirked, unimpressed. “Gee, you’re fun when you’re mad. You wanna wrestle?”

“Okay, fun’s over,” Griff announced with artificial sweetener in voice. He extended a hand, helping David to his feet. The curly-haired boy, covered in ketchup and shame, stood shaken. Griff smiled. “It’s all good now, no worries. Things got a little out of hand. Just kidding around.”

David couldn’t bring himself to look at the others. He nodded his head to indicate that he heard the words, but did not, Mary hoped, necessarily agree with the message. 

“Droop, apologize to Hallenback.”

Droopy stared at Griff for a long moment. “Sorry, Hallenback,” he relented.

“Are you hurt?” Griff asked.

David cautiously probed the bump on the back of the head. Checked his fingers for blood. 

“All right, you can go home now, Hallenback. Practice is over. You got lucky today. Mary here has a soft heart. She’s your guardian angel. But you keep running, Hallenback. Don’t you stop,” Griff said. “We’ll be checking on you. Go on, get going.” 

David glanced sideways at Griff. His face remained tilted down and away, the way a weaker dog might stand before an alpha. He never looked toward Mary or the others. Only Griff. “I will,” he said, scarcely above a whisper, talking to a spot on the ground. “You’ll see. I’ll get better.” And off he went in his uneven, Hallenback-styled shamble. Bizarrely determined to do his best, as if that were the lesson of the day. To try harder. Not that these guys were cruel and to be avoided at all costs. Not that he had a right to be treated with decency and respect. But that he needed to get better –- then his problems might go away. David cut around the school and behind the back. The gang of four –- Griff, Cody, Droopy and Mary –- watched him go.

“What a chimp,” Droopy said.

“You’re an idiot,” Mary replied.

“Speaking of French fries,” Cody said. “I’m hungry.”




Now it was known, the fact laid bare: Mary had witnessed firsthand the cruelty of Griffin Connelly. There was no going back. No thought of friendship or more advanced relationships. All that was over. But Mary couldn’t leave the group this minute, not with Hallenback still out there. If she wasn’t around, things could get uglier.

“Let’s follow him,” Griff said.

“Hold on,” Mary said, stalling for time. She tried to keep the distress out of her voice, didn’t want to sound weak. “Leave him alone. He’s not worth it. We can go swimming or get a slice in town.”

Griff looked at her with scorn. “Are you still here, Mary? I thought you had to go home?”

Droopy snickered. He took pleasure in their hostilities.

Mary swallowed. “I’m still here.” 

Griff eyed her for a long pause, then said, “Because if you want to go, then go. Feel free. Nobody’s stopping you.”

“I know that,” she said, staring right back. 

Mary gripped the handlebars of the bicycle. Her knuckles went white. She hated being in this position. The way Griff took charge of everyone but somehow made it all seem like it was their choice. The way he cheered on Cody to perform that dangerous stunt — just because Griff thought it would be amusing to watch. 

The group pedaled aimlessly on the grass field behind the school. Cody and Droopy chatted and laughed, loose and relaxed; neither Mary nor Griffin spoke a word. There was no sign of Hallenback, but they spotted a boy shooting  baskets by himself on the playground court in the distance. Red shorts and a sleeveless tee. Dribble, dribble, dribble –- like the sound of a steady heartbeat –- then spin, shoot, nothing but net. He was smooth. It made Mary think of Chantel, and a pinprick of regret punctured her heart. Griffin set sail in that direction.

< snip >


Now from the beginning of BYSTANDER . . . 




THE FIRST TIME ERIC HAYES EVER SAW HIM, David Hallenback was running, if you could call it that, running in a halting, choppy-stepped, stumpy-legged shamble, slowing down to look back over his shoulder, stumbling forward, pausing to catch his breath, then lurching forward again.

He was running from, not to, and not running, but fleeing.

Scared witless.

Eric had never seen the boy before. But in this town, a place called Bellport, Long Island, it was true of most kids. Eric didn’t know anybody. He bounced the basketball, flicking it with his fingertips, not looking at the ball, or the rim, or anything else on the vast, empty grounds behind the middle school except for that curly-haired kid who couldn’t run to save his life. Which was too bad, really, because it looked to Eric like he might be doing exactly that—running for his life.

Eric took a halfhearted jumper, missed. No lift in his legs. The ball bounced to the left wing, off the asphalt court and onto the grass, where it rolled and settled, unchased. Eric had been shooting for almost an hour. Working on his game or just killing time, Eric wasn’t sure. He was tired and hot and a little bored or else he would have bounded after the ball like a pup, pounced on it after the first bounce, spun on spindly legs, and fired up a follow-up shot. Instead he let the ball roll to the grass and, hands on his hips, dripping sweat, watched the running boy as he continued across the great lawn in his direction.

He doesn’t see me, Eric thought.

Behind him there was the sprawling Final Rest Pet Cemetery. According to Eric’s mother, it was supposedly the third-largest pet cemetery in the United States. And it’s not like Eric’s mom was making that up just to make Eric feel better about “the big move” from Ohio to Long Island. Because, duh, nobody is going to get all pumped up just because there’s a big cemetery in your new hometown, stuffed with dead cats and dogs and whatever else people want to bury. Were there pet lizards, tucked into little felt-lined coffins? Vietnamese potbellied pigs? Parakeets? People were funny about pets. But burying them in a real cemetery, complete with engraved tombstones? That was a new one on Eric. A little excessive, he thought.

As the boy drew closer, Eric could see that his shirt was torn. Ripped along the side seam, so that it flapped as he ran. And . . . was that blood? There were dark red splotches on the boy’s shirt and jeans (crazy to wear those on a hot August afternoon). Maybe it was just paint. The whole scene didn’t look right, that much was sure. No one seemed to be chasing after the boy. He had come from the far side of the school and now traveled across the back of it. The boy’s eyes kept returning to the corner of the building, now one hundred yards away. Nothing there. No monsters, no goblins, no ghosts, no thing at all.

Eric walked to his basketball, picked it up, tucked it under his arm, and stood watching the boy. He still hadn’t spotted Eric, even though he was headed in Eric’s direction.

At last, Eric spoke up. “You okay?” he asked. Eric’s voice was soft, even gentle, but his words stopped the boy like a cannon shot to the chest. He came to a halt and stared at Eric. The boy’s face was pale, freckled, mushy, with small, deep-set eyes and a fat lower lip that hung like a tire tube. He looked distrustful, a dog that had been hit by too many rolled-up newspapers.

Eric stepped forward, gestured to the boy’s shirt. “Is that blood?”

The boy’s face was blank, unresponsive. He didn’t seem to understand.

“On your shirt,” Eric pointed out.

The boy looked down, and when his eyes again lifted to meet Eric’s, they seemed distant and cheerless. There was a flash of something else there, just a fleeting something in the boy’s eyes: hatred.

Hot, dark hatred.

“No, no. Not. . . bl-blood,” the boy said. There might have been a trace of a stutter in his voice, something in the way he paused over the “bl” consonant blend.

Whatever it was, the red glop was splattered all over the boy’s pants and shirt. Eric could see traces of it in the boy’s hair. Then Eric smelled it, a familiar whiff, and he knew. Ketchup. The boy was covered with ketchup.

Eric took another step. A look of panic filled the boy’s eyes. He tensed, stepped back, swiveled his head to again check the far corner of the building. Then he took off without a word. He moved past Eric, beyond the court, through a gap in the fence, and into the cemetery.

“Hey!” Eric called after him. “I’m not—”

But the ketchup boy was long gone.


Excerpted from Upstander and Bystander by James Preller. Copyright © 2009 and @ 2021 by James Preller. Published in 2009 and 2021 by Feiwel and Friends. All rights reserved. These works are protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #312: Follow-Up Questions After a Zoom Visit

Ye Olde Fan Mail Wednesday has been quiet of late for an assortment of reasons, including summer — all exaggerated by Covid. This past week I thoroughly enjoyed a  Zoom visit with 6th-graders who all read Bystander over the summer. The class was impressive, prepared, and focused. A pleasure all around. At the end of the visit, we still hadn’t gotten to all the questions. I agreed to answer the remaining questions via email. 

Here are the questions . . .

Good morning! I hope you had a great weekend. Here are some follow up questions from my students. Thank you again!

1. After Upstander, will you consider making a trequal?
2. Do you see yourself in any of the characters and why?

3. Is there anything you would want to change about the book? 

4. Do any of the characters/events relate to an event/thing that happened to you/others.
5. Do you get unmotivated when writing books? If so, how do you get motivated again.? 
6. When Griffin and David were talking in the book, were they able to connect because of any similar or shared experiences?
Thank you so much.

I replied . . .

I want to begin by thanking you for that Zoom visit the other day. I don’t often get the opportunity to do a deep dive on my books, and it’s a pleasure to talk thoughtfully about the art & craft & intentions that go into a work of fiction. 
We ran out of time and you still had a few questions. Let’s do this.
Would I consider writing another sequel to Bystander? Yes, if the market was there —- meaning if my publisher believed it was worth putting out, i.e., that they’d make money doing so. With Upstander, I began by thinking of it not as a “longer” story, but as a “larger” one. A bigger canvas. Everyone has stories. By focusing on Mary’s story, it gave me a glimpse into how to enlarge the canvas even further to accommodate future narratives. If there’s another book in the world of this middle school, I think it should be about Griffin. Honestly, I think Upstander has to sell enough to encourage my publisher, Macmillan, to keep going with it. I don’t control that stuff, I can only put it out into the universe and hope that readers will find my books in a crowded, cluttered world. 
Do I see myself in any of the characters? Well, yeah, sure. The writer Eudora Welty had a good line about this. She said, “In fiction, while we do not necessarily write about ourselves, we write out of ourselves, using ourselves.; what we learn from, what we are sensitive to, what we feel strongly about —- these become our characters and go to make our plots.” I really couldn’t say it better than that. There’s a part of me in every character, each one grew out of me. But as I’ve developed as a writer, across many years, I’ve learned to give those characters the space to be Not-Me, Not-Jimmy, and become their own fictional selves.
Would I like to change anything about the book? No, not really. Which is not to suggest that I think it’s flawless. Far from it. But I’ve learned to let it go, allow it to exist as it exists, and move forward. I don’t linger and look back too often. I did like how with Upstander I was able to add a new wrinkle to the ending, Eric’s wish for his father in the stands. While his exact wish doesn’t come true (at least so far, in the written record), now there is at least someone there for him, cheering. It pleases me when the two books “talk” to each other.
Do events/characters relate to specific events in my life? Yes and no. I mean, yes, of course, it all grows from my life experiences. For example: I was once mugged in NYC and when the thieves handed back my wallet —- sans money, of course —- I actually said, “Thank you.” What a well-mannered dope! I took that emotion and gave it to Eric on the basketball court, when Griffin returned his ball. But, again, this is important: readers seem to want to be able to trace these direct lines from real life to fiction. But I think when you are fully successful with a fictional story, those sources become obscured, more hidden, the lines disappear, and the characters operate fully in their own fictional world. 
Do I get unmotivated? Oh, yes, it’s a recurring problem. Sometime the problem is the idea, that I’m not ready to write it, or that my idea lacks layers, depth: something, in short, is missing. Another problem for me is audience. That nagging doubt that no one really cares whether I write another book or not. And I guess the answer to that is . . . so what. I’ll do it anyway. I’ll create something for the sake of the story, for the satisfaction of making something and putting it out into the world. Something that nobody else in the world could make. Would I love to be super popular, the worth breathless in anticipation for my next book? I think so, yeah. But in the absence of that, somehow I still have to keep going, keep writing. Write the poem, paint the picture, sing the song. There’s joy there, and happiness, and personal fulfillment —- regardless of audience or “acclaim” or awards or any outside approval. I find that to write requires a gathering of energy, enthusiasm. When that’s not there, the writing doesn’t go well. Sadly, I don’t know how to bottle it.
Regarding David and Griffin, that’s an interesting question. How were they able to connect? To be honest, I don’t think that I examined their relationship that deeply. To me, I saw it as Griffin, the manipulator, using David for his own purposes. David was a puppet on strings. As to why David allowed this to happen, I think it goes back to his desperate longing to fit in, for approval at almost any cost. That’s a dangerous place to be, the quality that made him vulnerable. And because Griffin is such a smart, perceptive guy, he recognized that vulnerability in David and used it.
Ah, I think that covers it. I just wrote almost a thousand words to you guys. You are probably sleeping already! Forgive me, I realize that I replied with a high-level of sophistication. I’d probably answer much in the same way to college freshman. I figure you are smart and should be treated that way. Have a good school year — and if any of you read Upstander, please feel free to write and let me know. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.
My best, 
James Preller
For Zoom visits,
educators and reading groups
may contact me directly

LISTEN NOW: Check Out My Interview on Spotify & All Your Wildest Dreams Will Come True!

Bob Nuse and Anna Van Scoyoc are librarians in the Mercer Country Library System. Which I believe is somewhere in deepest, darkest New Jersey.

I first encountered Bob in the early months of the pandemic. At the time, many of us in the children’s book world were trying to figure out how to proceed, how to connect, how to keep the book thing alive — and, yes, how to contribute something positive to this awful situation. I made a bunch of videos and created a Youtube channel. Bob began by enlisting authors to make short videos for their locked-out library patrons. That initiative eventually grew into a podcast, “Behind the Books,” which is extremely well done and  incredibly impressive.

I hope that other librarians take note of the possibilities (and contact me if you need a guinea pig).

When Bob invited me to talk about my new book, Upstander, a prequel/sequel to Bystander, I didn’t hesitate. After all, I have a face for podcasting. I hope you give it a listen. I’m on at about 14:30, so you can skip that other stuff and jump to yours truly. It’s a ten-minute conversation. We also talk a bit about my book of linked haiku, All Welcome Here

I’m usually somebody who can’t stand to look at or hear myself — I was on “The Today Show” once with Katie Couric, long ago, and I’ve never watched it. But here, thanks to Anna’s expert editing, deleting all my stammering, fumbling mutterings, I come off as sober and reasonably intelligent. I can live with that!

I assume you might need to open Spotify in order to listen. Not sure about that. Thanks again, Bob and Anna, I’m grateful for the work you do.

Chapter 5, UPSTANDER: An Excerpt

It’s not a simple thing, selecting the right excerpt to share. So many factors to consider. The selection can’t be from too late in the book, too riddled with spoilers. But you don’t want the isolated excerpt to mislead the reader into thinking, Oh, so that’s what the book is about! Because, obviously, it’s about so much more. This is but one chapter out of thirty-eight.

When reading aloud to large groups, I tend to go with two options: 1) Something funny, or 2) Something dramaticI think curious fans of Bystander might particularly enjoy Chapter 11, which details the origins of Griffin and Mary’s relationship. But I didn’t go with that here. Instead, we’re early in the book, a look into Mary’s home life. Is that the heart of the book, where our main character is more witness than participant? An innocent bystander watching the struggle between her brother and her mother? 

Sigh. Who knows.

Will six people even read this? Instead of “Who knows,” maybe I should have typed, “Who cares!”

The chapter below is just a taste of the writing, I guess, and some of the themes explored in the book. It’s a domestic scene, centered around a kitchen table. And that does feel right for many of my works of realistic fiction. I’m fascinated by closely observed moments that take place in families, the literature of the kitchen table.

It is summer, school is soon to begin, and Mary makes the mistake of entering her own home . . . 


5 [marshmallows]

Walking home, Mary resolved not to think about Griffin Connelly. That boy had jangled her nerves. We have a connection. Yeah, right. She looked forward to popping a marshmallow—or, okay, three— into her mouth. Not at the same time, of course. Eating marshmallows always helped bring her world into balance. Namaste, Mary thought, grinning to herself. She imagined a chubby marshmallow, with little stick arms and legs, doing yoga. Downward dog, maybe, or meditating. That might be funny to draw. Ohmmmm. If she could think of a clever caption, it might even be a cartoon: the mindful marshmallow.

Mary kept a secret stash of marshmallows in the back of her bottom dresser drawer. The big, extra-fat ones they sold at Stewart’s for s’mores. Marshmallows were Mary’s weakness. But, seriously, that wasn’t the best way to express it: a weakness. It’s not like Mary wolfed down an entire bag in one sitting. It wasn’t a problem; she wasn’t in a marshmallow crisis or any- thing. Mary knew that sugar was super bad for you— everyone saw the same videos in health class—but a couple a day wasn’t going to kill anybody.

Mary then made the strategic mistake of opening the front door. Home sweet home.

Her mother’s voice came from the kitchen, sharp and urgent, “Are you high right now? Just tell me.”

“Jesus, Mom, no!” Jonny shot back.

They were fighting again. It felt as if the air in the house was crowded with charged particles. Mary could sense the electrons and protons ricocheting off the furniture like steel balls from a shotgun. The muscles in her lower neck tensed and tightened.

“You’re lying—” her mother shouted.

“Hi! I’m home!” Mary called out in her sunniest voice. It was as much a plea as a greeting: I’m home; you can stop now, please. Mary heard the rattling of dishes in the sink, the scraping of a chair across the floor, but no greeting in response. She waited, slipped off her sandals. This is ridiculous, she decided. I’m in my own house. I live here.

“If you love me, you’ll stop.” It was her mother’s voice, raw with emotion.

“I told you. I’m not using,” Jonny retorted.

Mary stood at the entranceway to the kitchen. Her mother leaned against the counter, arms crossed, scowling. Jonny sat at the table, cereal floating in a bowl of milk. He wore an unbuttoned cardigan sweater. Yes, in August. The rules of this particular contest: no punching, no kicking, just words. Winner takes nothing. Jonny tapped a spoon in agitated rhythm on his right thigh. That was his giveaway. The way his eyes darted and his body vibrated with pent-up energy. The muscles of his jaw tightened from clenched teeth.

“Don’t come in here, May,” Jonny warned, not looking in her direction. “Mom’s acting like a crazy person again.”

There was a prickly edge to his voice, like razors strung across wire. His hair looked oily and uncombed. His pale skin appeared nearly translucent, except for the dark circles under his eyes. Mary thought, Don’t pretend I’m on your side. I’m not your ally, brother. I’m not on anyone’s side.

“I don’t even recognize you anymore,” her mother said. “This isn’t you, Jonny. It’s not you.”

“Oh, Jesus, here it comes,” Jonny muttered, the spoon rat-a-tat-tatting against his leg. He raked a hand through his hair.

Mary’s mother stepped toward her only son, palms open. “You’ve got to listen to me, Jonny. We can’t go on like this.”

Jonny flicked the spoon into the cereal bowl, splashing the milk. The spoon bounced and rattled to the floor, hitting his mother’s leg. “I’m trying to eat one bowl of cereal in this insane house,” he roared. “So freaking what? I slept late. Lots of people do. Besides, I have a stomachache. It hurts. I probably have an ulcer. Do you even care? Besides, what temperature do you keep it in here? I’m freezing!”

“It’s set at seventy-two degrees—”

“It’s too cold. I get the chills living here. It’s ridiculous, Mom. I’m nineteen years old. I party a little bit. A regular, normal amount. It’s one of the few things in the world that actually feels good. That’s my big federal crime, Ma? That I go out with my friends?”

“Your friends,” her mother scoffed. She brushed the thought away with a wave of her hand.

“Yeah, my friends.” Jonny rose to his feet, his movement sudden and alarming. “Real people who actually care about me.”

Mary stood paralyzed, watching it all. They had forgotten she was there. She had become invisible in her own kitchen.

Mary’s mother stepped back. She brought a hand to the side of her head, trying to collect her thoughts— or to keep them from exploding. With obvious effort, she adopted a softer voice. More soothing, calmer. “Jonny, please, listen to me. Please. You need help. I think you have a prob—”

“Oh no. No, no, no. I’m not going back to that place,” he said.

Her mother held out a hand, patting the air. “Okay, okay, just . . . sit . . . okay?”

“You can’t make me. I’d rather die than go back to Western Winds,” Jonny replied. He sat back down. Swiveled his head, stared coldly at his sister. “Good luck when I’m gone,” he said. “It’ll be just you, Mom, and the Garden Gnome in this demented house.”

The Garden Gnome was Jonny’s nickname for Ernesto, their mother’s boyfriend. Ernesto was short and paunchy, and he wore a scraggly, elfish beard. Not his fault, but those were the facts. Mary stifled a grin. She caught herself and flashed a time-out sign with her hands. “Stop,” she said. “Just stop.”

She crossed to the refrigerator. Grabbed two clementines, checked her phone, looked from her mother to Jonny. “I’ll be in my room,” she announced. “Headphones on.”