An award-winning book from the author of Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life and The Candymakers for fans for of Wonder and Counting by Sevens Mia Winchell has synesthesia, the mingling of perceptions whereby a person can see sounds, smell colors, or taste shapes. Forced to reveal her condition, she must look to herself to develop an understanding and appreciation of her gift in this coming-of-age novel.
Release date: October 19, 2005
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Print pages: 240
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A Mango-Shaped Space
I’ll never forget the first time I heard the word, that day at the blackboard. It was five years ago, when I was eight. (For those who are mathematically challenged, like me, that means I’m thirteen now.) So there I was, dressed in my shepherd-girl costume for the Christmas play after school, struggling to complete the math problem on the board while my fellow third-graders watched. The one-size-fits-all costume didn’t fit me, the shortest shepherd in the class, so I had to keep pushing up the sleeves. The chalk dust tickled my nose. My feet were freezing in the sandals that in my humble opinion no one should have to wear in northern Illinois in the middle of December. My mission was to multiply twenty-four times nine. I remember thinking that if I wrote slowly enough, the bell might ring before I could finish. Just five more minutes. Then no one would know that I couldn’t solve the problem.
I rolled the smooth piece of chalk around my fingers and tried not to think about the whole class staring at my back. Glancing around in what I hoped looked like intense concentration, I noticed a few fragments of colored chalk on the ledge of the board. To use up some time, I put down the white piece and began rewriting each number on the board in its correct color.
My teacher, Mrs. Lowe, startled me. As I turned, the chalk screeched on the board and a deep-red zigzag shape sped across my field of vision. My classmates groaned at the noise. “This isn’t art class,” she said, wagging her long, skinny finger at me as if I didn’t know that. “Just use the white chalk.”
“But isn’t it better to use the right colors?” I asked, confident that the other kids would agree.
The class giggled and I grinned, thinking they were laughing at her, not me.
“What do you mean, the right colors?” she asked, sounding genuinely confused and more than a little annoyed. Now I became confused. Wasn’t it obvious what I meant? I looked at my classmates for help, but now their expressions had changed. They gawked at me as if I had suddenly sprouted another head. My hands started to shake a little, and I rushed out my explanation.
“The colors. The colors of the numbers, you know, like the two is pink, well of course it’s not really this shade of pink, more like cotton-candy pink, and the four is this baby-blanket blue color, and I … I just figured it would be easier to do the math problem with the numbers in the correct colors. Right?” I pleaded with my classmates — my friends — to back me up.
This time when the class laughed it didn’t sound so friendly. I felt my cheeks burning. Then I heard it. In a loud whisper from the back row. Freak. Except it sounded like FREEEEK.
“What are you talking about, Mia?” demanded my now clearly irate teacher. “Numbers don’t have colors, they simply have a shape and a numerical value, that’s all.”
“But they have all those things,” I whispered, my voice sounding far away.
Mrs. Lowe put her hands on her hips. “I’ve had enough of this. For the last time, numbers do not have colors. Now, are you going to complete the assignment?”
I stared at her and shook my head. I suddenly felt very small, as if my skin was tightening and I was actually shrinking. A whirring sound filled my head. How was this possible? Was everyone playing a trick on me? Of course numbers had colors. Were they also going to tell me that letters and sounds didn’t have colors? That the letter a wasn’t yellow like a faded sunflower and screeching chalk didn’t make red jagged lines in the air? I replaced the chalk on the ledge, aware for the first time that my hands shake when I’m nervous. I stood with my arms at my sides, sleeves hanging halfway to my knees. Was I the only one who lived in a world full of color? I waited to see if they were going to tell me the earth was flat.
A badly constructed paper airplane wobbled past my nose.
Mrs. Lowe sent me to Principal Dubner’s office, where I repeated my explanation for using the colored chalk. By the time my parents arrived an hour later, I’d run out of steam. I sat there and listened to them talk about my “uncharacteristic behavior.” I wanted to tell the principal that his name was the color of freshly piled hay. I quickly thought better of it. Even at eight years old, I was smart enough to realize that something was very wrong and that until I figured out what it was, I’d better not get myself in deeper trouble.
So I pretended I made everything up. I sat there and said things like “It was stupid,” “I was only playing around.” And, at least twenty times, “I’m sorry.”
The principal left me in the hands of my parents, who brought me home. I promptly kicked off the stupid sandals, threw on my sneakers, and took off running through the fields behind my house. The cold didn’t bother me. I was too busy brooding over the unfairness of it all.
The Christmas play was short one shepherd girl.
Mrs. Lowe made me clean the erasers for a week and apologize in front of the whole class for taking up their time with my nonsense. Those were her words, not mine.
Pretty soon, everyone forgot about that day. Everyone but me. I learned to guard my secret well. But now I’m thirteen. Everything is about to change.
And there’s nothing I can do to stop it.
“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs,” says my best friend, Jenna Davis, as we climb farther down into the steep, parched ravine. We’ve been inseparable since we were five and her mother brought her to my house to play. We bonded over the various ways we could contort my Barbie and Ken dolls without breaking them. Let’s just say that Ken won’t be having children anytime soon and leave it at that.
“B is for Basil, assaulted by bears,” I reply, continuing the morbid rhyme we memorized off the poster on my bedroom wall. Each letter of the alphabet has a rhyme about a little kid meeting some bizarre end. I like the poster because it is in black and white to everyone else, but inside my head, it’s in color.
“Could it be any hotter out?” Jenna asks, panting with the effort to keep her footing on the slippery slope.
The sweat dripping down my face is enough of an answer. August has rolled around too soon, and we only have a few more weeks before eighth grade starts. If we lived a little farther south, a tumbleweed would tumble by. As we stumble down the familiar path of tall, sun-bleached grass and dry earth, I can feel the air thickening, preparing for a storm.
At thirteen, Jenna and I are much too old for day camp. We already live out in the country, with all the fresh air we could want. We entertain ourselves by pretending there is still some square inch of countryside that we haven’t discovered yet. Every day we explore the hills, the valley in between, the ravine, the woods. Last summer we found an arrowhead half buried under a bush. My father said it might have been from the Blackhawk War, the one that Abe Lincoln fought in when he was young. This year all we’ve found is the same old crabgrass, same old bugs, same old us. But still, exploring passes the time. The absence of wind today means we’re spared the smell of manure from the Roth’s farm across the valley. That’s something to be thankful for.
When we were younger, we used to pretend that the ravine, always dry like this during the summer months, would lead us someplace else — somewhere magical, with adventures and swords and talking animals like in the Narnia books. Sometimes I still catch Jenna peeking behind bushes for hidden doorways. She’s trying to find a way to reach her mother, who died three years ago from some kind of cancer that only women get. Mrs. Davis was so sweet and pretty, with red hair and freckles just like Jenna. Except Jenna is short like me, and Mrs. Davis was really tall. Before she died, Jenna’s mom bought us the rope friendship bracelets that we have never taken off. She said that as long as we kept them on, nothing could come between us. I explain this to my own mother every time she begs me to cut off the bracelet, which is now too tight to slip over my hand. Who cares if it’s gray and fraying and maybe even a little smelly?
The wind starts up slightly, and a big green leaf sticks to the sweat on my leg. I hold still and count to twelve before it flutters and falls to the ground. The color of the leaf is exactly the same color as Jenna’s name — a bright, shimmering shade of green with some yellow highlights. I think part of why I liked Jenna right away is that I like the color of her name. But I’d never tell her that, nor would I tell my older sister, Beth, that her name is the murky brown of swamp water. Beth is sixteen and in the process of wearing down our parents’ patience. She changes her hair color the way normal people change their underwear. We used to be a lot closer, before she went to high school and dropped me like a piping-hot bag of microwave popcorn. Before she left for the summer, she told me the boys would pay more attention to me if I colored my hair blond. I told her I’d stick with my boring brown, thank you very much. The only natural blond in the family is Zack. He just turned eleven, and his name is the light blue of a robin’s egg. Zack has a lot of strange ideas. He can tell you exactly how many McDonald’s hamburgers he’s eaten in his lifetime. He has a detailed chart on his wall. The local paper ran a story about it once.
Jenna stops walking and points at my feet. “Your sneakers are untied,” she says. “For a change.”
I kick my sneakers off, tie the laces together, and drape them over my shoulder. I prefer to be barefoot anyway. Every night, the water in the bottom of my shower turns brown for a minute as the dirt runs from between my toes. Beth refuses to shower after me.
Jenna starts to say something, but her words get drowned out by a helicopter flying overhead. The roaring sound instantly fills my vision with brown streaks and slashes, and I look up to see the familiar markings of my father’s chopper. He sells and repairs small farm equipment and uses the helicopter to get to out-of-the-way places. Jenna and I wave, long hair whipping around our faces, but I don’t think he sees us. When Zack was little, he was scared Dad wouldn’t be able to find his way home. Zack cried and cried every time the helicopter took off. Finally Dad took me and Beth and Zack up in the chopper with him to show us how easy it is to spot the landing site. Beth threw up the entire time and hasn’t gone for a ride since.
“Are you ever scared to fly with him?” Jenna asks when we can hear each other again. “That thing looks like it’s ready to fall apart.”
“It’s fun,” I tell her, tucking my hair back in its ponytail. “It feels like you’re a bird up there. Everything looks different. You’re always welcome to come with us, you know.”
A look of horror flits across Jenna’s face. “No thanks.”
In all these years, Jenna has never accepted my offer.
“So have you gone up to the cemetery yet?” she asks as we continue walking along the bottom of the ravine.
“No, not yet. I still have to finish the painting.” It was Jenna’s idea that I bring my grandfather a present on the one-year anniversary of his death. She brings her mother something each year, and her mother gives her gifts from the grave. Well, sort of. When Mrs. Davis knew she wasn’t going to live much longer, she stocked up on presents and wrote long letters about her life. She gave them to my mother to keep, and each year on Jenna’s birthday, my mother sends her one of the packages in the mail. One of these years, the gifts are going to run out and that will be a very sad birthday indeed.
“Can I see the painting?” Jenna asks, even though she knows better.
“You know it’s bad luck to show it before it’s done.”
“Why are you so superstitious?” she asks, wiping her sweaty brow and leaving a streak of dirt. “I thought your brother’s superstitions drove you crazy.”
“They do,” I insist. “I’m not half as bad as him. If a black cat crosses his path, he locks himself in his room for the rest of the day. And forget walking under ladders. If he sees our father do it, he makes him walk around the house backward. Twice. Zack says that if Dad really wanted to make sure he undid the bad luck, he would cross his fingers until he saw a dog.”
“But you don’t have a dog.”
“And what’s with the ladder thing anyway?”
I shrug. “I have no idea. But you definitely don’t want to walk under one.”
“There’s a lot of weirdness in your family,” Jenna says, picking at a scab on her elbow.
She doesn’t even know about my own personal brand of weirdness. Like everybody else, she seems to have forgotten about my third-grade incident. Which is just fine with me.
“You know,” Jenna says, stepping carefully over a gnarled branch, “my father told me it could take a soul a whole year to reach heaven. Maybe that’s why it took you a year to finish the painting of your grandfather.”
I have my own theory on my grandfather’s soul, but I haven’t told anyone. After all, I am good at keeping secrets. “That could be it,” I respond. “C’mon, let’s get back so it doesn’t take me any longer. I want to bring the painting to the cemetery before dinner.”
“Do we have time for a quick PIC mission?” Jenna asks as we climb back up the slope.
I hated to skip out on the best part of the day, our PIC mission. Partners in Crime. The term was another gift from Jenna’s mom. She made it up after she caught me standing guard while Jenna stole quarters from the cow-shaped cookie jar in their kitchen. After that we learned to be more careful. In fifth grade, we hid in Beth’s closet when she had a slumber party. We heard lots of juicy gossip, as well as some stuff about how babies are made that cleared up a few lingering questions. To this day, Jenna and I count that as our most successful mission.
“I really can’t today,” I tell her.
“Oh, it’s okay. I can’t think of anything good anyway. This town is just too boring.” She kicks up a pile of dirt with the toe of her sneaker and sighs loudly.
It takes longer than it should to get home because we have to walk all the way around the Davises’ fields. Jenna’s father actually farms his land; he grows soybeans and the sweetest corn for miles around. My father plowed under our fields to make the landing space for his helicopter. Jenna’s father thinks my father is lazy since he only flies three times a week and is back by dinnertime. My father thinks Jenna’s father should mind his own business.
“Is your dad ever going to stop working on your house?” Jenna asks as we come into view of it. Everyone in town, including the rest of my family, wants to know the answer to that question. The helicopter is now parked out back, and my father is already halfway up the ladder on his way to the roof.
“I don’t think so,” I reply honestly.
My sprawling house is famous in these parts and never fails to get a reaction. First, people stare. They look up; they look down. Sometimes they even do that twice. The house is almost like a living creature that keeps expanding and contracting and remaking itself. Every inch of it was built by my father and grandfather from all different kinds of wood — whatever they could borrow, barter, or beg for. They could never agree on how the house should be laid out, so they each did their own thing and eventually met up in the middle.
This technique resulted in a number of doors that lead nowhere and stairs t. . .
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