As part of the Severed Heads, Broken Hearts blog tour, I have an extract from the book which should give you a feel of how wonderful it really is!
Sometimes I think that everyone has a tragedy waiting for them, that the people buying milk in their pajamas or picking their noses at stoplights could be only moments away from disaster. That everyone’s life, no matter how unremarkable, has a moment when it will become extraordinary—a single encounter after which everything that really matters will happen.
My friend Toby came down with a bad case of tragedy the week before we started seventh grade at Westlake Middle School. We were fanatical about Ping-Pong that summer, playing it barefoot in his backyard with aspirations toward some sort of world championship. I was the better player, because my parents had forced me into private tennis lessons ever since I’d been given my own fork at the dinner table. But sometimes, out of a sense of friendship, I let Toby win. It was a game for me, figuring out how to lose just convincingly enough that he wouldn’t figure I was doing it on purpose. And so, while he practiced for the mythical Ping-Pong world championship, I practiced a quiet, well-meaning type of anarchy toward my father’s conviction that winning was what mattered in life.
Even though Toby and I were the kind of best friends who rarely sought the company of other boys our age, his mother insisted on a birthday party, perhaps to insure his popularity in middle school—a popularity we had not enjoyed in elementary school.
She sent out Pirates of the Caribbean-themed invitations to a half dozen kids in our year with whom Toby and I shared a collective disinterest in socializing, and she took us all to Disneyland in the world’s filthiest burgundy minivan the last Tuesday of the summer.
We lived only twenty minutes’ drive south of Disneyland, and the magic of the place was well worn off by the end of sixth grade. We knew exactly which rides were good, and which
were a waste of time. When Mrs. Ellicott suggested a visit to the Enchanted Tiki Room, the idea was met with such collective derision that you would have thought she’d told us to get lunch from the Pizza Port salad bar. In the end, the first—and only—ride we went on was the Thunder Mountain Railroad.
Toby and I chose the back row of the roller coaster, which everyone knows is the fastest. The rest of the birthday party was fighting for the front row, because, even though the back is the fastest, the front is inexplicably more popular. And so Toby and I wound up divided from the rest of the party by a sea of eager Disneyland guests.
I suppose I remember that day with such enormous clarity because of what happened. Do you know those signs they have in the lines at theme parks, with those thick black lines where you have to be at least that tall to ride? Those signs also have a lot of stupid warnings, about how pregnant ladies or people with heart conditions shouldn’t go on roller coasters, and you have to stow your backpacks, and everyone must stay seated at all times.
Well, it turns out those signs aren’t so useless after all. There was this family directly in front of us, Japanese tourists with Mickey Mouse hats that had their names embroidered on the backs. As Toby and I sat there with the wind in our faces and the roller coaster rumbling so loudly over the rickety tracks that you could barely hear yourself scream, one of the boys in front of us stood up defiantly in his seat. He was laughing, and holding the Mickey Mouse hat onto his head, when the coaster raced into a low-ceilinged tunnel.
The news reports said that a fourteen-year-old boy from Japan was decapitated on the Thunder Mountain Railroad when he disregarded the posted safety warnings. What the news reports didn’t say was how the kid’s head sailed backward in its mouse-ear hat like some sort of grotesque helicopter, and how Toby Ellicott, on his twelfth birthday, caught the severed head and held onto it in shock for the duration of the ride.
There’s no graceful way to recover from something like that, no magic response to the “getting head” jokes that everyone threw in Toby’s direction in the hallways of Westlake Middle School. Toby’s tragedy was the seat he chose on a roller-coaster ride on his twelfth birthday, and ever since, he has lived in the shadow of what happened.
It could have easily been me. If our seats had been reversed, or the kids in front of us had swapped places in line at the last minute, that head could have been my undoing rather than Toby’s. I thought about it sometimes, as we drifted apart over the years, as Toby faded into obscurity and I became an inexplicable social success. Throughout middle and high school, my succession of girlfriends would laugh and wrinkle their noses. “Didn’t you used to be friends with that kid?” they’d ask. “You know, the one who caught the severed head on the Disneyland ride?”
“We’re still friends,” I’d say, but that wasn’t really true. We were still friendly enough and occasionally chatted online, but our friendship had somehow been decapitated that summer. Like the kid who’d sat in front of us on that fateful roller coaster, there was no weight on my shoulders.
Sorry. That was horrible of me. But honestly, it’s been long enough since the seventh grade that the whole thing feels like a horrifying story I once heard. Because that tragedy belongs to Toby, and he has lived stoically in its aftermath while I escaped relatively unscathed.
My own tragedy held out. It waited to strike until I was so used to my good-enough life in an unexceptional suburb that I’d stopped waiting for anything interesting to happen. Which is why, when my personal tragedy finally found me, it was nearly too late. I had just turned seventeen, was embarrassingly popular, earned good grades, and was threatening to become eternally unextraordinary.
Jonas Beidecker was a guy I knew peripherally, the same way you know if there’s someone sitting in the desk next to you, or a huge van in the left lane. He was on my radar, but barely. It was his party, a house on North Lake with a backyard gazebo full of six packs and hard lemonade. There were tangles of Christmas lights strung across the yard, even though it was prom weekend, and they shimmered in reflection on the murky lake water. The street was haphazard with cars, and I had to park all the way on Windhawk, two blocks over, because I was paranoid about getting a ding.
My girlfriend Charlotte and I had been fighting that afternoon, on the courts after off-season tennis. She’d accused me—let me see if I can get the phrasing exact—of “shirking class presidential responsibilities in regard to the Junior-Senior Luau.” She said it in this particularly snotty way, as though I should have been ashamed. As though her predicted failure of the annual Junior-Senior Luau would galvanize me into calling an emergency SGA meeting that very second.
I was dripping sweat and chugging Gatorade when she’d sauntered onto the court in a strapless dress she’d been hiding beneath a cardigan all day. Mostly, as she talked, I thought about how sexy her bare shoulders looked. I suppose I deserved it when she told me that I sucked sometimes and that she was going to Jonas’s party with her friend Jill, because she just couldn’t deal with me when I was being impossible.
“Isn’t that the definition of impossible?” I’d asked, wiping Gatorade off my chin.
Wrong answer. She’d given one of those little screams that was sort of a growl and flounced away. Which is why I showed up to the party late, and still wearing my mesh tennis shorts because I knew it would antagonize her.
I pocketed my key lanyard and nodded hey to a bunch of people. Because I was the junior class president, and also the captain of our tennis team, it felt like I was constantly nodding hello to people wherever I went, as though life was a stage and I was but a poor tennis player.
Sorry—puns. Sort of my thing, because it puts people at ease, being able to collectively roll their eyes at the guy in charge.
I grabbed a Solo cup I didn’t plan on drinking from and joined the guys from tennis in the backyard. It was the usual crew, and they were all well on their way to being wasted. They greeted me far too enthusiastically, and I endured the back slapping with a good-natured grimace before sitting down on a proffered pool chair.
“Faulkner, you’ve gotta see this!” Evan called, wobbling drunkenly as he stood on top of a planter. He was clutching an electric green pool noodle, trying to give it some heft, while Jimmy knelt on the ground, holding the other end to his face. They were attempting to make a beer funnel out of a foam pool noodle, which should give you an idea of how magnificently drunk they were.
“Pour it already,” Jimmy complained, and the rest of the guys pounded on the patio furniture, drum rolling. I got up and officiated the event, because that was what I did—officiate things. So I stood there with my Solo cup, making some sarcastic speech about how this was one for The Guinness Book of World Records, but only because we were drinking Guinness. It was like a hundred other parties, a hundred other stupid stunts that never worked but at least kept everyone entertained.
The pool noodle funnel predictably failed, with Jimmy and Evan blaming each other, making up ridiculous excuses that had nothing to do with the glaringly poor physics of their whole setup. The conversation turned to the prom after-party—a bunch of us were going in on a suite at the Four Seasons—but I was only half listening. This was one of the last weekends before we’d be the seniors, and I was thinking about what that meant. About how these rituals of prom, the luau, and graduation that we’d watched for years were suddenly personal.
It was slightly cold out, and the girls shivered in their dresses. A couple of tennis-team girlfriends came over and sat down on their boyfriends’ laps. They had their phones out, the way girls do at parties, creating little halos of light around their cupped hands.
“Where’s Charlotte?” one of the girls asked, and it took me a while to realize this question was directed toward me. “Hello? Ezra?”
“Sorry,” I said, running a hand through my hair. “Isn’t she with Jill?”
“No she isn’t,” the girl said. “Jill is completely grounded. She had like this portfolio? On a modelling website? And her parents found it and went crazy because they mistakenly thought it was porn.”
A couple of the guys perked up at the mention of porn, and Jimmy made an obscene gesture with the pool noodle.
“How can you mistakenly think something is porn?” I asked, halfway interested at this turn in the conversation.
“It’s porn if you use a self-timer,” she explained, as though it was obvious.
“Right,” I said, wishing that she’d been smarter, and that her answer had impressed me.
Everyone laughed and began to joke about porn, but now that I thought about it, I had no idea where Charlotte had gone. I’d assumed I was meeting her at the party, that she was doing what she usually did when we had one of our fights: hanging out with Jill, rolling her eyes at me and acting annoyed from across the room until I went over and apologized profusely. But I hadn’t seen her all night. I pulled out my phone and texted her to see what was going on.
Five minutes later, she still hadn’t replied when Heath, an enormous senior from the football team, sauntered over to our table. He’d stacked his Solo cups, and had about six of them. I suppose he meant it to be impressive, but mostly it just hit me as wasteful.
“Faulkner,” he grunted.
“Yeah?” I said.
He told me to get up, and I shrugged and followed him over to the little slope of dirt near the lake.
“You should go upstairs,” he said, with such solemnity that I didn’t question it.
Jonas’s house was large, probably six bedrooms if I had to guess. But luck, if you can call it that, was on my side.
My prize was behind door number one: Charlotte, some guy I didn’t know, and a scene which, if I’d captured it via camera phone, could have been mistaken for porn, although that wouldn’t have been my artistic intention.
I cleared my throat. Charlotte cleared hers, though this required quite a bit of effort on her part. She looked horrified to see me there, in the doorway. Neither of us said anything. And then the guy cursed and zipped his jeans and demanded, “What the hell?”
“Ezra, I—I—,” Charlotte babbled. “I didn’t think you were coming.”
“I think he was about to,” I muttered sourly.
No one laughed.
“Who’s this?” The guy demanded, looking back and forth between Charlotte and me. He didn’t go to our school, and he gave the impression of being older, a college kid slumming it at a high-school party.
“I’m the boyfriend,” I said, but it came out uncertain, like a question.
“This is the guy?” he asked, squinting at me. “I could take him.”
So she’d been talking about me to this douche-canoodler? I supposed, if it came down to it, he probably could take me. I had a helluva backhand, but only with my racquet, not my fist.
“How about you take her instead?” I suggested, and then I turned and walked back down the hallway.
It might have been fine if Charlotte hadn’t come after me insisting that I still had to take her to prom on Saturday. It might have been all right if she hadn’t proceeded to do so in the middle of the crowded living room. And it might have been different if I hadn’t babied my car, parking all the way over on Windhawk to avoid the scourge of drunk drivers.
Maybe, if one of those things hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have inched out onto the curve of Princeton Boulevard the exact moment a black SUV barrelled around the blind turn and blew through the stop sign.
I don’t know why people say “hit by a car,” as though the other vehicle physically lashes out like some sort of champion boxer. What hit me first was my airbag, and then my steering wheel, and I suppose the driver’s side door and whatever that part is called that your knee jams up against.
The impact was deafening, and everything just seemed to slam toward me and crunch. There was the stink of my engine dying under the front hood, like burnt rubber, but salty and metallic. Everyone rushed out onto the Beideckers’ front lawn, which was two houses down, and through the engine smoke, I could see an army of girls in strapless dresses, their phones raised, solemnly snapping pictures of the wreck.
But I just sat there laughing and unscathed because I’m an immortal, hundred-year-old vampire.
All right, I’m screwing with you. Because it would have been awesome if I’d been able to shake it off and drive away, like that ass weasel who never even stopped after laying into my Z4. If the whole party hadn’t cleared out in a panic before the cops could bust them for underage drinking. If Charlotte, or just one of my supposed friends, had stayed behind to ride with me in the ambulance, instead of leaving me there alone, half-delirious from the pain. If my mother hadn’t put on all of her best jewelry and gotten lipstick on her teeth before rushing to the emergency room.
It’s awful, isn’t it, how I remember crap like that? Tiny, insignificant details in the midst of a massive disaster.
I don’t really want to get into the rest of it, and I hope you’ll forgive me, but going through it once was enough. My poor roadster was totalled, just like everything else in my life. The doctors said my wrist would heal, but the damage to my leg was bad. My knee had been irreparably shattered.
But this story isn’t about Toby’s twelfth birthday, or the car wreck at Jonas’s party—not really.
There is a type of problem in organic chemistry called a retrosynthesis. You are presented with a compound that does not occur in nature, and your job is to work backward, step by step, and ascertain how it came to exist—what sort of conditions led to its eventual creation. When you are finished, if done correctly, the equation can be read normally, making it impossible to distinguish the question from the answer.
I still think that everyone’s life, no matter how unremarkable, has a singular tragic encounter after which everything that really matters will happen. That moment is the catalyst—the first step in the equation. But knowing the first step will get you nowhere—it’s what comes after that determines the result.
Severed Heads, Broken Hearts is published by Simon and Schuster in the UK on the 15th August 2013.
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