About the Author
Suzanne Young is the New York Times bestselling author of the Program series. Originally from Utica, New York, Suzanne moved to Arizona to pursue her dream of not freezing to death. She is a novelist and an English teacher, but not always in that order. Suzanne is the author of The Program, The Treatment, The Remedy, The Epidemic, The Adjustment, The Complication, A Need So Beautiful, and Hotel Ruby. You can visit her online at Suzanne-Young.Blogspot.com.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
“THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT”
by Marieke Nijkamp
I WONDER IF FLAMES are fractals, too. The fire is hardly symmetrical, of course, but I could stare at the individual flames forever. They burn bright yellow and orange and red before succumbing to thick black smoke. They dance across the smoldering hood of the car. Given time, I could find patterns in them.
Or perhaps I would just find chaos. But chaos is enough.
I wrap my arms around my chest when sirens tear through the night. A few feet away, Adam holds Mom’s hand. Even though he stands her height these days, he looks young in his Transformers pajamas, frail in the fire’s glow. On the other side of the street, Dad is talking to Grandpa. Trying to calm him down, most likely, but it doesn’t seem to be working. He waves his hands and shouts something inaudible.
It’s weird. I always envisioned car fires to be violent and explosive, but perhaps that’s just Netflix and the movies. Grandpa’s car burns hot enough to warm the neighborhood and bright enough to light up the dark. It’s a steady roar.
It’s almost calming to listen to.
* * *
I can hear you think: What is the matter with you, Jenna? Are you a pyromaniac? Let me put the record straight: Pyromania is an impulse control disorder, and I can control my impulses quite well, thank you very much. I’m not doing this for attention or to relieve tension or because the fire gives me gratification. It gives me satisfaction, sure, but that’s not quite the same thing. Car bad. Fire pretty.
No, it’s chaos. Fractals.
And I am fractured, too.
* * *
Broken. I first noticed it in precalc, of all places. My favorite class, bar none. What can I tell you? I’m a card-carrying nerd. And with a name like mine, there is no escaping the pull of math. After all, as my esteemed not-ancestor Georg Cantor once said, “The essence of mathematics lies entirely in its freedom.”
I wish I could tell him how much I long for that freedom, that entire essence.
Because it didn’t start in precalc. Of course it didn’t. It started long ago. But I always felt like I would mend the wounds and set the breaks and pretend like nothing was going on.
That day, today, for the first time, I can’t anymore. I can’t pretend class is normal and I’m normal. I’ve reached a breaking point. Perhaps I’ve already passed too many breaking points without noticing.
From the moment I settle into my spot in the back corner of the room, I try to focus on Mrs. Rodriguez’s lesson, but nothing that she says reaches me. Something about solving more complex equations than we’ve done so far, but she may as well have been speaking German. I’m not used to this. I coast through other classes, sure. I have everything I need: solid test scores, college plans, a middle-class suburban white family with money.
But with precalc, I want to care.
I doodle around the edges of my notebook; endless—familiar—geometrical shapes. The repetition is some kind of comfortable at least.
I blink and look next to me. Zoe is frowning at me, worry in her brown eyes. “Are you okay? I’ve whisper-called you five times at least.”
I don’t know what to say because just like with Mrs. Rodriguez’s explanations, Zoe’s words don’t quite reach me. And after a moment, her frown grows deeper. “Jenna, are you okay? Do you want to go see the nurse?”
In front of us, Kamal turns and glances at me too.
I force myself to grimace. “Sorry; tired. Must’ve had bad dreams or something.”
Though if I’m honest, I don’t remember the last time I slept long enough to have dreams at all. Sleeping means letting my guard down, and I’m exhausted down to my bones.
“Sucks.” Zoe reaches out to place a hand on my arm, and I flinch. I don’t want to. It’s Zoe. But I do.
“Just distract me, please? Maybe that’ll help.” Maybe Z. and I can still be normal even when everything else is shattering and slowly drifting out of reach.
“We’ll go to the Coffee House after school. Get you a mocha with extra whip and an extra shot of espresso and one of those lava muffins. There’s nothing extraordinary amounts of caffeine and sugar can’t fix.”
I roll my eyes, but my shoulders unclench a bit. Coffee with chocolate is Zoe’s answer to everything. She doesn’t need the caffeine; she has enough energy for the two of us—and most likely for half a dozen people more—even with swimming and volleyball. Her schedule is superhuman, and I don’t know how she manages it all when I can barely keep my studies going.
But coffee with chocolate is comfort. And I give her a small nod.
Z. flicks a strand of light brown hair out of her face. “And in the interest of distraction . . .” She slides her notes over to my table. “Help me, please, oh math genius?”
I accept the piece of paper, but my stomach drops.
Math has always come naturally to me. I once told Dad it’s my second language—the universal language. He would much rather I learn German, but I’m fluent in formulas, and I think in theorems. I sleep, dream, breathe math.
I stare at the equation. I recognize Z.’s handwriting—entirely consistent, all small round letters and numbers—but I have no idea what she just put in front of me.
Next to me, Z. does that puppy-eyes thing she’s so good at. “I know you think cheating in math is a mortal sin, but I really don’t know. And Coach told me to do something about my grades, or she won’t include me in the starting lineup.”
She graces me with a smile, and her smile always makes my lips twitch up in return. Today I feel this shatter too. It hurts. Her happiness makes my blood boil. It’s not fair. I don’t want to lose this too. I don’t know what she’s asking of me, I don’t know how to give it to her, I don’t know how I let it get this far, I don’t know how to go on like nothing is wrong. This is the break.
I push the piece of paper back at her with too much force. It slides across her table and flutters to the floor.
“You should do your own work,” I snap, loud enough for the entire class to hear.
Everyone—and everything—around me falls silent. At the front of the class, Mrs. Rodriguez pauses midlecture and turns around.
And Zoe’s smile has melted off her face. She’s grown deadly pale. “Jenna . . .”
I drop my books into my bag and get to my feet, knocking over my chair. I don’t bother to pick it up. I don’t bother to mend this. I can’t.
* * *
Mom always said my temper was flammable, easily combustible. I get that from her. As a kid it was triggered by the simplest things—not getting what I wanted, a broken toy, my brother. But I thought I had it under control. It’s one more thing that’s unraveling.
I avoid Zoe for the rest of the day. I leave school before homeroom and take a detour on my walk home.
Back when I was little, I used to take my anger out on a punching bag in the basement, but that’s not an option. I don’t want to go home. Out of all the places where I want to be and all the places where I want to go, I don’t want to go home.
I walk north instead, to an old office building that’s been empty for years. Zoe and I sneaked in dozens of times. It’s safe enough, as long as you keep to yourself. It’s an excellent place for sharing food or sharing secrets or for simply being alone. And alone is what I need right now.
I edge around the large fences that are set up haphazardly around the building. I don’t think the owners or the city care anymore that people are coming here. There’s no construction hazard, and at least the building is being put to some use. There are too many empty office buildings around here to begin with.
Slipping in through one of the broken windows, I make my way to the staircase on the ground floor and walk until I’ve reached the fourteenth floor. Being insensible is a blessing, sometimes. I don’t care about the burning in my legs or the ache in my lungs—I’m not athletic like Zoe is. I don’t care about Zoe—I only care about moving.
The door to the roof used to be locked, but someone broke the lock months ago, and the roof has turned into a popular nightspot. Now, midway through the afternoon, there’s no one here but the wind and me. The wind howls and whips my long blond hair around my face. It’s not particularly cold, but the chill gets into my bones regardless.
I sit down near the edge of the building and prop my elbows on my knees. I stare into the distance, focus on nothing in particular. The building isn’t tall, but it’s high enough to see the outline of the Twin Cities in the distance. It’s high enough to turn the people down below into small figurines. And it’s high enough to feel removed from the world.
I could stay up here forever and not come down. I could stay here, at least, until my parents listened to me. But they won’t, and I won’t. I’m a good girl who gets home on time for dinner because otherwise, what would the neighbors think.
* * *
I told you I first noticed the fractures that day. I first noticed the fire that day too. It was a discarded lighter, on the edge of the roof next to me. A cheap thing. Yellowed plastic. Covered in dust. A faded symbol of some sort.
I don’t even know what drew me to pick it up, but I did. I do.
I roll the spark wheel carefully. It feels rusty, as if it hasn’t been used for a while. Who knows when someone dropped it there? Judging by what else can be found on the corners of this roof—weed bags, condom wrappers—it’s not like anyone actually comes and cleans here.
Turning the spark wheel doesn’t do anything, not at first, and I’m tempted to just toss the thing. It’s not like I ever used a lighter before. No one at home smokes, and Mom would kill me if I ever started. It may just be empty. But some stubbornness takes over, and I keep rolling the wheel, faster and faster, until it’s almost a snap.
When the spark turns into a flame.
It’s a tiny thing, blue with yellow edges. It doesn’t look like it’s particularly hot. But when I shield it with my hand, against the wind that dances around us, it gently sways along.
I stare at the flame until the palm of my hand turns red. I stare until the spark wheel becomes hot enough to burn my fingers.
And for the first time in a long time, I remember what it’s like to hurt.
It was never meant to be like this. I was never meant to be here, on this rooftop, in this place, in this upside-down world. But the fire reminds me I can still feel, at least.
* * *
When I come home, Adam’s in the kitchen, scarfing down a cup of yogurt. He rocks back and forth on the balls of his feet. “I’m going out to study with T. J. Mom and Dad are at the Williamsons’ tonight for that neighborhood watch thing.”
I grab an apple from the bowl on top of the bar and toss it up into the air before catching it. “ ’S fine. I’ll eat leftovers again.”
I don’t mean for my words to sound bitter, but somehow they do.
Adam half turns to stare at me, his eyebrows arched in a perfect copy of Mom’s. He inherited Dad’s unruly hair and green eyes, but he has Mom’s expressional eyebrows, and he has all her expressions down to a T. I don’t look like either of them—apparently, I got my looks from Dad’s younger sister. If you put my childhood photo next to Aunt Beate’s, we could be twins. She lives halfway across the country, so we don’t see her often, but our likeness always makes Dad smile when I bring it up.
I shrug and take a bite from the apple. “Or I may order a pizza.”
Adam grins. To his twelve-year-old mind, ordering a pizza is the epitome of adulthood. We used to order massive pepperoni pizzas together, when Dad was working late and Mom was off at some PTA thing or other, but when you’re twelve, hanging out with your friends—even when they live next door—is infinitely cooler than spending time at home with your nerdy older sister. I don’t blame him.
He dumps his spoon in the dishwasher and grabs his bag. “Save me a slice, okay? Also”—he raises his voice—“Grandpa is home tonight, so you won’t be alone.”
“I am!” Grandpa’s voice comes from the basement, where he’s working on restoring and repainting his collection of old toy cars.
The chunk of apple sours in my mouth. Adam pulls the door shut, and the kitchen seems to close in on itself around me.
* * *
So I hide. In my own home. In my own room. I hide in daylight.
Zoe’s texted me a few times, but I haven’t opened any of them. I’ve tossed my phone onto my bed. I don’t know what to tell her. Come over. I’m sorry. Help me. Please don’t leave me on my own. But she would ask to understand, and that is a problem. She would ask me to share secrets I cannot, do not, ever think I can share.
After all, I tried to share them once and no one listened. I tried to share them twice and no one listened. I cannot do it a third time. Besides, I can’t silence that small voice in the back of my mind that wonders: Am I not to blame? I didn’t stop it. I let it get this far.
It’s far easier to let myself go numb.
At the end of the day, all I have left is a house that doesn’t feel like a home anymore either. A body that doesn’t feel like my body anymore. A self that doesn’t feel like myself anymore.
* * *
I am fractured.
I’m not a good person. I don’t try hard enough. I get angry easily. I fight with my brother even when I don’t want to and ignore my friends even when I shouldn’t.
But I don’t think I deserve this.
* * *
According to chaos theory, the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future. One small deviation can change the entire future. That’s known as the butterfly effect. The idea that one flap of a butterfly’s wings would be enough to alter the course of the weather forever. Or that traveling back in time and stepping on one butterfly can change the history of the human race.
The idea that one time, a girl was a solid B student who could take pride in her geeky accomplishments, who could laugh and feel her stomach flutter and her heart race, who mattered. Until all that changed and kept changing. Small causes have large effects.
* * *
It was raining outside. That was what I remember most clearly. It was the last week of freshman year, and it was hot and humid and raining. The type of rain that clings to you, all dust and warm water.
Zoe walked me home before she had to go to volleyball practice, and I was soaked through by the time I walked through the front door. I was itching to change into something dry and cool. But when I went to drop my backpack in the living room, I found Dad sitting on the couch.
I froze in the doorway, sure that something had happened. As a general manager at an insurance company, he worked long days, and we rarely saw him between dawn and dusk. He seemed out of place here. He’d left his jacket over the armrest, and he’d loosened his tie. His normally flawless hair was sticking up, as if he’d run his hand through it several times.
I don’t think he saw or heard me, at first. “Jenna?”
I let my soggy backpack slip off my shoulder and onto the hardwood floor. It immediately created a puddle of water around it. On any other day, Dad would not have let that go unmentioned—Mom hates the stains—but right there and then, he didn’t even blink.
My heart leaped into my throat, and I tried desperately to find my voice. “Dad, what’s wrong?”
“Jenna?” It took a long time for him to focus on me, longer to find the right words. But eventually they came. “Grandpa just called. We knew it might happen but . . . After everything he went through with the store, the bank is going to foreclose his home, too. He’s lost everything. He’s— Aunt Beate can’t take him in, so he is going to come live with us for a while.”
* * *
Grandpa arrived a week later, in his beat-up old car, with nothing but a large suitcase full of clothes, a baseball glove and baseball for Adam, a large photo album for Dad, and an old abacus from the store for me.
I liked him. He looked younger than I expected. He had an easy smile and a sharp sense of humor. He made Adam and me laugh throughout dinner.
That first weekend, he sat up with me and let me talk endlessly about math and chaos and fractals, everything that even Dad had grown tired of.
He took Adam to his games and took him out for milk shakes after while he told him stories about his endless road trips, first with Grandma, then alone. He loved his car as much as Mom hated the look of it.
The truth is, I didn’t want him to come because although we live comfortably, our house isn’t big enough to fit five. Some days it’s barely big enough for four. And yet he fit in. Easily and without hesitation. He became a part of us.
* * *
I didn’t have to murder a butterfly.
I didn’t realize anything had changed until it was too late.
* * *
I slip into my bedroom and sag down against the door. I grab an old matchbox from my stack of collectibles, and I turn it around and around and around between my fingers.
I started collecting matchboxes when I was eight because matches are great for re-creating geometrical shapes. When my parents discovered what I was up to, they started bringing home matchboxes from every vintage store and every hotel where they could find them.
I switched to LEGOs, eventually, and virtual building materials. I discovered formulas and coding.
But I always kept the matches, and my parents kept up the tradition. They didn’t know, but they gave me enough matches to burn down the world.
Still, I never lit matches before today, and doing so isn’t as easy as I thought it would be.
The first match snaps and splinters.
The head of the second crumbles.
The third match lights up, and I’m so shocked I immediately drop it. It sears my jeans and extinguishes.
The fourth burns all the way down, scorching my fingertips.
I push the fifth against the tender skin of my forearm.
Then the sixth. And the seventh.
The flames are mesmerizing, and I can feel the pain.
I can feel.
I make my way through the entire matchbox, until the small blotches on my arm itch and ache and my room smells of sulfur. Until the twilight outside gives way to night and the shadows creep in.
I tried to lock the door, but the shadows always creep in.
* * *
The world burns from the inside out. You don’t see it until it’s too late.