On the book tour for Marti Leimbach’s new book called ‘Dragonfly Girl’, sit back and enjoy an extract from the book.
My brain isn’t normal. I forget all the dates on history tests. I can’t memorize verb tenses in Spanish. Important facts escape me: the order of presidents, the start of World War II. Please don’t ask. I know this isn’t normal for a supposedly “high IQ individual,” but it’s normal for me.
There are other embarrassments: my stubby bitten fingernails, my pencils with chewed-off erasers. The art teacher who said that I should stop taking the class if I can’t actually make anything.
Science is different. When I’m studying science or math, my concentration is smooth, complete. I don’t fidget. I don’t chew my hands. Instead I glide through equations, seeing numbers and symbols as though they are there in front of me. It’s not as freaky as it sounds.
But I get teased a lot. In school, they call me a cyborg. They say I should donate my brain to science—like, immediately. Or a girl might say, “My hair is doing a Kira,” meaning her hair looks bad. Or she’ll say, “I’ve got a Kira face,” because she thinks she looks bad. Most people just ignore me. Ignoring me might be worse. I’m invisible until I do something stupid. Then I’m laughable.
And because I can only do math and science, it’s not exactly like I’m getting much love from the teachers either.
Not that smart after all, I heard one say. I was behind her on the staircase between periods. She didn’t know I was there. Very inconsistent, the other agreed. Her little friend.
Are you angry at your teachers? the guidance counselor asks me. It’s the same question at the end of every year.
No. It’s me that’s the problem.
Everything all right at home?
She knows it isn’t. My mother is sick. But that’s not why.
Will you please try harder next year?
Yes, I always promise.
As though I’m not already trying my guts out.
Senior year, fall semester, the school’s principal, Dr. Jackson Greevy, walks back to his office sloshing the coffee in his mug to find me waiting for him on the bench with a note in my hand. I’ve been sent by Mrs. Callahan, my English teacher.
“Let me guess why you’re here,” he says. “You got too rowdy at the pep rally.”
It’s supposed to be a joke. Greevy knows I am incapable of getting “rowdy” at anything. And I can’t stand pep rallies. All that stomping of feet, all that whistling.
“Maybe you got caught smoking in the bathroom?” He grunts out a laugh. I think the “joke” is supposed to be funny because last year I developed an idea for measuring the toxicity of chemicals that linger on clothes after a cigarette is put out. I won a hundred bucks for it. It’s what I do: enter student science contests to win money. We have a lot of bills, but, as my mother says, at least there are a lot of contests.
I follow Greevy into his office, the only room in the building with carpet. I stand grimly in front of his desk, fiddling with my hair, a mop of loose curls that always escapes its elastic. On the desk is a photograph of the Greevy family: two girls in summer dresses and a baby in the arms of a pretty woman with ebony skin, smiling into the camera.
I’m in so much trouble.
“Don’t sit down,” he says, lowering himself into his big office chair. “I don’t want you here that long.”
He puts out his hand for the note from Mrs. Callahan, tips back in his seat, and takes a long breath as he reads. Then, I see his expression change. He sits up straight, staring hard at me.
“You walked out of English class without permission? You then went to your locker to conduct a chemistry experiment?” he says, his voice rising. “A chemistry experiment in your locker?”
“I was just . . . uh . . . storing the experiment to bring home later. But I thought I smelled leaking gas—”
“Did you say leaking gas?” Suddenly, his hand is on the phone, his eye on the clock.
“But it wasn’t!” I add quickly. “It was only residual fumes. So I came back to class and—”
I see him relax about the experiment. That is, the worry is gone, but here comes the anger.
“So, you’re storing chemistry experiments in your locker—that stops now, by the way—and you walked out of an in-class essay for which you now have a mark of zero. Are you trying to sabotage yourself?” He shakes his head as though ridding himself of a bad thought. “Everyone knows you can write an essay! Didn’t I read in the paper that you won a big prize for a science essay?”
The newspaper announced it last week. A big cash prize, money my mother and I desperately need. But the essay Greevy is talking about, the one that got me the prize, might be the worst mistake I’ve ever made. If we didn’t need the money so badly, I’d rip that prizewinning essay into little pieces.
Greevy says, “You want to tell me what’s really going on?”
I keep my mouth shut. I’m hardly going to tell him I fudged my entry for an international science prize. Or worse, that my mother keeps borrowing money from a loan shark (his name is Biba) who is now threatening me for repayment. I found him leaning against my car this morning, looking like the gangster that he is. He pulled out a square of newspaper from his back pocket, a clipping of the article that mentioned my prize. You won some cash! he said. An accusation. So why haven’t you paid me?
I chewed on my thumb, unsure what to say. It’s hard enough for me to speak up for myself, let alone when someone like Biba is glaring at me. I mumbled something about not having the money yet and having to go to Sweden to collect it.
Sweden? You’re lying! He knows that someone like me never goes anywhere, at least not out of the country. But I wasn’t lying. Not about that, anyway.
I wish this piece of junk was worth the money you owe me, he said, and kicked at a tire with his boot. You don’t make me wait for my money too long, understand?
This took place only a few hours ago as I was setting off for school. Now, in Greevy’s office, I try to hold it together as he rants about my grades. Then he says, “How am I supposed to sign you off for a long absence just before Christmas break so you can fly off to Switzerland when you aren’t keeping up with your work here?”
Sweden, not Switzerland. They hold the Science for Our Future conference in Stockholm. But I don’t think it’s wise to correct Dr. Greevy.
“I asked you a question!” he says.
A question . . . oh God. What was it? Oh, yeah, about signing me off for an absence. “Um . . .” I say, not knowing how to answer.
“We are talking about an entire school week!” he says, shaking his head as though it’s an outrageous idea.
“It’s very important to my family,” I squeak out. We owe thousands to Biba. The money from the science prize is my only way of paying it. But I’ve got to participate in the conference in Stockholm first.
Greevy returns to his files. After a long pause, he says, “I will reluctantly grant you the time. But you need a high school diploma, you understand? Please keep that in mind on your way to Switzerland.”
Greevy was never going to stop me going; he was just trying to scare me. Even so, my eyes sting. There’s a painful knot in my throat. I’m shuffling toward the door, ready to leave, when I find myself unable to contain a little burst of defiance that sometimes visits me.
“Sweden,” I mumble, my hand on the doorknob.
Greevy looks up from his papers as I turn around to face him. “Excuse me?” he says.
I know I should say nothing, just keep walking. But I can’t help it. “Prizewinners go to the Grand Hôtel in Stockholm,” I say.
There’s a silence between us. His face is a hard stone. I think he’s going to tell me he’s changed his mind and I can’t go, but instead his expression softens. “Okay, Sweden,” he says.
I exit Greevy’s office, my mind filled with thoughts of the award ceremony that takes place in a ballroom in the Grand Hôtel. It’s called the Hall of Mirrors and is the same hall where the very first Nobel Prize was awarded in 1901. For a moment, I forget about being hauled into the principal’s office, about failing English, about the endless struggle with money. Instead, I think about that magnificent ballroom, a room made of gold—gold everywhere, even on the ceiling—and the full scale of where I’m going hits me.
My beautiful friend, Lauren, also has a beautiful a car. You can’t miss it: a Mercedes C-Class Cabriolet that her father bought as a gift for his secretary. Big mistake. The dealership called to find out how they were enjoying the new car, and Lauren’s mother was like, What new car? She scored the Mercedes in the divorce that followed, but because the car reminded her of the secretary she wouldn’t drive it. So Lauren passed her driving test, bought fingernail polish to match the car’s color (hyacinth red), dug out the keys from a kitchen drawer, and declared the Mercedes her own.
I watch through my bedroom window as she pulls up, parking along the rusting chain-link fence that borders our tiny front lawn. I’m worried Biba is going to see the car on one of his lurking missions (he occasionally drives past our house slowly in order to be intimidating, and believe me, it has the desired effect). I don’t want him near Lauren’s car, kicking its tires. Or worse.
But so far, no Biba. Lauren cuts the engine and twists around to gather some bags from the back, hoisting them onto her shoulder. I go to the front door, tiptoe in my bare feet across the dirt path, and help her with the bags. There’s a lot. She’s even trailing a suitcase.
“How do you feel about big, chunky earrings?” she asks. She’s sporting some hefty ones herself, long dangles of gold moons and stars broken up by pearls.
“Like I don’t have pierced ears.”
“Oh yeah. I always forget that. Why the hell not?”
In lots of ways, Lauren is my opposite. She lives in an enormous house, goes to a private school, loves jewelry and short dresses and shoes with big heels. But there are things we have in common. She might look like a supermodel, but the truth is she’s a science geek. Her great loves are zoology and botany. And she treats her fancy car like a truck, clocking miles along the coastline or across mountain ranges in pursuit of birds and other wildlife. Outdoors in a field coat with pouch pockets for her camera lenses, her blond hair bundled into a cap, she’ll sit for hours in the dawn light waiting for the right shot of a rare bird.
“Here,” she says, and throws me a bag of makeup. My expression must give me away, because she says, “Pleeease, just play around with it.”
We drag the bags of clothes down the narrow hall. Lauren says, “Where’s your mom?”
“Resting,” I tell her. My mother is always resting. Once in a while there’s a crisis and I brace myself. Everybody knows you can’t live forever with her kind of cancer. But my mother isn’t everybody, and sometimes I think she may just pull it off.
“I’ll keep my voice down,” Lauren whispers.
Lauren loves my mom almost as much as I do. And my mother calls us both “her girls.”
“Do I hear my girls?” she calls from her bedroom.
We pause by the door. She’s in bed, propped up. I can hear the live lottery drawing on the television. I know without looking that there’s a fan of lottery tickets in her hand that she’s checking carefully as the winning numbers float across the screen.
Lauren steps into the room and waves. “Hi, Diane!” she says. “You win anything?”
“Not yet. But last week I got ten dollars.”
“Fingers crossed!” Lauren says.
“Please don’t encourage her,” I whisper.
“It’s harmless,” Lauren whispers back.
But it’s not harmless. The odds are one in forty-five million. We go into my bedroom and I tell Lauren, “She might’ve won ten dollars, but she just spent thirty on new tickets, and we’ve got bills.”
I don’t mention Biba. Or the monthly bills we can’t pay. I’ve never told anyone our problems with money, not even Lauren.
“Fine, whatever,” she says, standing at the foot of my bed, unsheathing dress after dress from veils of dry-cleaning plastic, then tossing them onto the mattress. “Some of these might be a tad short for you,” she says. We’re interrupted by the booming sound of a loud bass from a car outside driving slowly past, windows down, stereo blaring. The sound vibrates through the air, practically shaking the walls. Finally, the car passes. “I guess the children are out tonight,” she says.
“The children” is what Lauren calls the gangs of kids that used to be in abundance in this neighborhood. It’s better now, but vandalism and burglaries are still a problem, and frankly, the kids aren’t kids.
“I feel bad about borrowing your clothes,” I tell her.
“And now I feel bad that you feel bad. Let’s all feel bad, okay?” she says, and we both laugh.
She lays out dresses and suits and shoes. It reminds me of the day we met in science camp back when we were ten years old. My mother applied for me to get a scholarship to the camp, which was an expensive residential thing that would have been impossible for us to afford. I was always entering contests, even then. But guess what? I won the scholarship, and Lauren and I got bunks next to each other. She brought so many different outfits she needed all her trunk space and most of mine. Since then, we’ve been best friends.
“Anything useful in here?” she says, flinging open the thin doors of my closet. She quickly scans the few clothes on hangers and says, “Why is everything you own black?”
“Because they haven’t come up with a darker color?” I say, staring at Lauren’s designer dresses and boxed shoes now covering my mattress. The colors here are deep and regal: gold, crimson, emerald, ivory. All delicate, perfectly made, and from what I can tell, hardly worn. It would be easy to wreck something. I could snag a hem or stain a cuff or break a heel. “I’m worried your stuff could be, like, injured,” I say. “And what if the airline loses my suitcase?”
“They won’t. This is your suitcase.” Lauren points to the suitcase she’s brought, a candy pink Rimowa on four wheels.
“I can’t take that,” I say. I’m thinking of the price tag, not the garish color.
“It’s just sitting in my closet, which isn’t really the life a suitcase wants to lead, is it?” Then she looks at me more carefully and says, “What’s wrong? You’re going to freaking Switzerland! You should be psyched!”
“Sweden,” I say, breathing out a sigh. I’m not only un-psyched, I’m seriously nervous. How do I explain this? “It’s just that the event . . . well . . . it isn’t a high school thing. I mean, I can’t look like a teenager.”
She holds up a cashmere tunic. “Nobody will think you’re a teenager wearing this!” she says, then, “Wait . . .” She peers at me closely, no doubt noticing the strain on my face. “You don’t want to go, do you?” she says finally.
“I have to go.” I glance at the table by the bed where my brand-new, immaculate American passport waits. “I’m just not sure I should go.”
“Why not? I mean, look at this dress!” She twirls a gauzy gown into the air. A sparkle of beads float throughout the fabric, which seems to go on forever, the hem grazing Lauren’s shoe. “This dress guarantees you’ll have a great time!”
She thinks it’s nerves holding me back.
I look at the dress. I swear I’ve never seen anything so elegant. The lines of beads woven through the cloth are actually sparkling dragonflies. Coincidentally, the paper I wrote—the one that won a prize—discusses the hunting skills of dragonflies.
“You worked yourself blind on that stupid essay,” Lauren says. I can feel her mind racing, ticking through all the reasons I might suddenly not want to go to the prize ceremony, the banquets, the whole week of activities that are focused on the subject I love.
Lauren is the only person I can tell. And she deserves to know, so I say, “I don’t want to go because I’m not qualified to win. My entry isn’t . . . um . . . well, it didn’t follow the rules.”
“What do you mean?” she says, genuinely concerned.
“I had to . . . fake it . . . a little,” I say, forcing out the words. “I lied,” I add miserably, “and I’m terrified they’re going to find out.”
She drops down onto the bed, the dragonfly dress spreading out across her knees,. “You lied?” she says, looking mortified. Lauren, who usually has an answer for everything, is stumped. After a long pause she says, “Please tell me you haven’t taken the money yet.”
I haven’t. But they’ve already sent me the airline ticket.
“Don’t freak!” I say. “I’m going to fix it . . . I’m figuring it out.”
Lauren looks around the room as though searching for an escape. “How do you ‘fix’ plagiarizing a scientific essay that wins an international prize? Kira, I think you’re brilliant. But there are some things that even you can’t figure out.”
Now it’s my turn to be shocked. “You think I plagiarized the paper?”
“Or made up the findings, right? I mean, maybe not for the entire paper, but—”
“No! Why would I do that?”
“I don’t know, people do!”
“Then what’s the lie? Tell me before I dig out the shoes for this freaking dress that I don’t even know if you’ll get to wear now!”
I reach under my bed and draw out a group of stapled papers. It’s a photocopy of the Science for Our Future application, an application I’ve read dozens—no, hundreds—of times now. I hand it to Lauren, saying, “Read the part about qualifications of entry. It says you have to have received your doctorate. You know, a PhD.”
Lauren’s eyes grow wide. “Your PhD?”
“It says you can’t have received a PhD more than a year ago,” I say, quoting from the rules. “But I entered anyway because . . . well . . . the big money in science contests always goes to graduate students and postdocs. I couldn’t resist.”
She begins reading through the application, her brow furrowed, her finger tracing the words in their tiny script across the printed page. “Did you actually tell them you have a PhD?” she asks.
“No, but I didn’t tell them I’m in high school either. I just left that part blank. It must have slipped past them.”
A smile creeps across her face. “Then what are you worried about? They may not even notice!”
I shake my head. “But what if they do? I’ve broken the rules—”
“Don’t say anything and it will be fine! You want this prize, don’t you?”
I’m desperate for the prize. We need the money so badly. And of course I’d love to visit a foreign city, to participate in the conference, to feel good about something I’ve done.
Lauren is saying, “If you get cornered, say you wrote the essay without the benefit of a PhD and that you’d like your prize, thank you very much. . . .”
“I can’t—” I begin.
“But Kira, you left the PhD part blank. You’ve done nothing wrong!”
“Really.” She stands, pushes the dragonfly dress toward me, and says, “I want to see if this thing is long enough.”
“It still feels like cheating,” I say.
“Not cheating. Put on the damned dress. Wait, let me get the zip.”
I slip out of my jeans and hoodie, then into the dragonfly dress. It’s a bit loose in the bust and the sleeves are an inch too short, but it is a dazzling dress in a sheer fabric, like something a movie star might wear. I love how the material moves, the beaded dragonflies, the floating hem.
“I feel like Cinderella,” I say. For a moment, I imagine being in the Grand Hôtel in Stockholm, standing among a group of people in an airy lobby in this dress.
Lauren flashes a smile. “Good! And remember, Cinderella got a prince! By which I mean, not just a handsome royal, but substantial real estate in the form of a castle, footmen, gowns, plus a fabulous scepter.”
“I just don’t know if I can pull this off,” I say.
“But you’ve already pulled it off. Nobody is going to ask about the PhD. We’ll figure out a plan if they do, but for right now I want you to see this!”
She reaches above the chest of drawers and unfastens the mirror that hangs on the wall there, angling it in front of me.
“Look at you,” she says, and whistles softly.
I glimpse the mirror and see, indeed, that the dress is stunning. The romantic neckline softens my angular shoulders, and the bodice is cut so I look more shapely. The color is good with my dark hair; its shades of blue tone down the patches of acne that sometimes flare around my chin.
“I look . . . not bad,” I say.
“Not bad?” Lauren sighs. “You look amazing.”
I’ve never flown on a plane, visited a foreign country, or even stayed in a hotel. When I finally arrive in Stockholm—groggy, wrinkled, ecstatic—I feel like a visitor to my own life. I’m fascinated by the sounds of foreign voices, the signs I can’t read, the brand names I don’t recognize. Stockholm is an archipelago, a city of islands; lamplight glows on the famous bridges. Christmas lights outline storefronts and windows, the branches of trees, and the sides of red market stalls, above which hang garlands of pine.
I take a wrong turn and end up in the old town, Gamla Stan. All around are people dressed in parkas and scarves, carrying umbrellas in case the snow grows heavier. But the snow is as soft as confetti, gathering gently along the edges of the cobbled streets. The smell of hot food sifts through the air, the scent of caramelized sugar floats from pastry shops in clouds I feel I could stick out my tongue and lick. Entering a patch of green that makes up a city park, I wander unnoticed in a wooden corral among statues of Santa’s reindeer, lit with thousands of tiny bulbs.
I may be the happiest I’ve ever been.
And, of course, the minute I have that thought I wish my mother could be here with me, that I hadn’t had to leave her behind. Lauren is going to check in on her so she won’t be entirely alone. Even so, I want tell her everything I see. But it’s dawn in California and she won’t be awake. However, I know someone who will be.
In the early hours, you can often find Lauren at Don Edwards Wildlife Refuge. I’ve been with her many times, huddling in the brush, waiting to see something interesting, the endangered Ridgway’s Rail, for example, a bird that has proven more difficult to photograph than it ought to, given it’s the size of a chicken and can’t really fly.
I get out my phone, pull off my glove, then type:
Myth: people who live in warm climates have thinner blood.
A minute later I see two blue tick marks that mean the text has been delivered. A message back from Lauren reads:
Fact: everyone wishes they lived in California.
I’m not so sure. Crossing a bridge that my map tells me connects the old town to Blasieholmen, my destination, I peer out over inky water reflecting the sky and a small sea of ships strung in lights like hundreds of floating Christmas trees. I can’t imagine anywhere more beautiful.
A few seconds later my phone rings. I hear Lauren’s voice a continent away.
“Is it amazing?” she says.
“Incredible. But also negative four degrees. Sorry, I mean 24.8 Fahrenheit.”
“Did you just convert that in your head? Never mind. How fabulous do you look in my mother’s Moncler parka?”
“Pretty good if I keep the hood up.”
I hear Lauren’s groan. “I bet you look great. Have you been to the banquet yet?”
“I’m still looking for my hotel.”
“You haven’t even found the hotel? But you left here yesterday afternoon!”
“The flight takes fifteen hours, and anyway, it was delayed. It gets dark here at, like, two o’clock. Seriously, I can see the moon.”
“Well, buy some chocolate. They make the best chocolate.”
“You’re thinking of the Swiss again.”
“Well, what do the Swedes make?”
“Clogs, I think?”
“Aren’t clogs Dutch?”
“Oh. Then maybe nothing.”
I turn a corner, still chatting. Then I stop. There, facing the water over which I’ve just come, is the Grand Hôtel. It’s huge, with a majesty difficult to achieve outside the nineteenth century, when it was built—the same century in which the Houses of Parliament, the Eiffel Tower, and the Paris Opera were imagined. Suddenly, I don’t want to take another step. I want to turn around, seek out a small room above one of the cozy restaurants in the old town, or go back to the little park of reindeer. The hotel is too imposing, too splendid; I can’t imagine visiting it, let alone staying here for days, eating and drinking and talking with scientists from all over the world.
“Lauren, I found my hotel,” I say in a whisper.
“And it’s . . . I better go.”
I hang up and stand there in the cold, feeling the skin of my skull contracting even through my fleece cap. Somehow, I have to enter this hotel’s world and convince everyone inside that I’m someone I’m not. What felt possible back in California feels foolish and naive now that I’m here.
But I have no choice.
I walk with trepidation toward the giant, lit facade, feeling all the while like a beggar approaching the palace gates. Through the glass windows I can see people in evening gowns and uniforms, a lady in a plumed hat, a man sneezing into a pocket handkerchief. Two children race around their father’s legs as he swats at them like flies. It is like peeking into an old, forgotten world. I’m an intruder who should never gain entry. I’m Cinderella, arriving at the ball with the damning voices of her stepsisters in her ear. At any moment the powers that be will identify me as an imposter and turn me away. I’m sure of it. I’m waiting for that moment of humiliation, and yet nothing happens. Or nothing bad anyway. The doormen, wearing overcoats and top hats, hold open the enormous doors. One of them, in his practiced English, offers to carry my bag.
If you fancy reading more of ‘Dragonfly Girl’ you can buy it from Amazon and is available to buy from good bookshops.