Take a look at this excerpt from Gordon Dahlquist’s The Different Girl, out from Penguin Young Readers Group on February 21:
Veronika. Caroline. Isobel. Eleanor. One blond, one brunette, one redhead, one with hair black as tar. Four otherwise identical girls who spend their days in sync, tasked to learn. But when May, a very different kind of girl—the lone survivor of a recent shipwreck—suddenly and mysteriously arrives on the island, an unsettling mirror is about to be held up to the life the girls have never before questioned.
Sly and unsettling, Gordon Dahlquist’s timeless and evocative storytelling blurs the lines between contemporary and sci-fi with a story that is sure to linger in readers’ minds long after the final page has been turned.
My name is Veronika.We had been there for years, but I only remember things from part of that time. Living on the island was like that, because it seemed to be always bright, and always hot, and every day passed like the day before. I’m telling this from afterward, from now, but I’m telling as much as I can remember. I hope what I’m telling is what really happened, because if it isn’t—if I’ve forgotten things or lost them—then I’ve lost part of myself. I’m not sure how old I am, mainly because there are so many different ways to tell time—one way with clocks and watches and sunsets, or other ways with how many times a person laughs, or what they forget, or how they change their minds about what they care about, or why, or whom. And there are times when something happens that you don’t understand—but somehow you still know that it’s important—like walking through a door you only notice when you hear it lock behind.
I was one of four. The others were Isobel, Caroline, and Eleanor, and it was always easy to tell us apart because we each had different colored hair. Isobel’s was yellow, like lemons. Caroline’s was brown, like coconuts. Eleanor’s was black as wet tar. My hair is the color of red rust. Aside from that we were all the same size and weight and age and always seemed to be doing, and wanting to do, almost always the exact thing as one another. We were all orphans, without family or even the memories of family, because we were too young when our parents died, which had all happened in the same terrible accident. Irene explained that we were on our island because the plane had crashed on one of the bigger islands, and everyone thought it would be better for the children to be placed nearby rather than sent away on another plane. Since all we knew about planes was that they crashed and killed people, and none of us had any real memories of our parents, and we all loved the island and Irene and even Robbert, we didn’t want it any other way.
The island was small, but large enough to us. We lived in two buildings on stilts, so lizards and rats couldn’t get in, even though they did anyway. We would chase the rats, and sometimes the lizards, but Irene explained that lizards ate bugs, so we really oughtn’t chase them, but sometimes we chased them anyway, trying to make them throw their tails off. We collected tails.
We had a bedroom with cots and lockers. On the same floor was the kitchen and a room for storage. Upstairs was Irene’s room, which had a foamy bed that bounced. Where we lived on the island, it was only from her roof that you could actually see the water.
The beach went around half of the island, and where it didn’t there were steep and sharp black rocks, which were full of crabs. Also there were the woods, which is what we called a great meadow of palms and scrub and grass that grew almost as tall as us four. The woods covered most of the island except for the beach, the cleared courtyard where we lived, and the dock where the supply boat came. Neither Irene nor Robbert could swim, so none of us were taught to swim, either. We were allowed to walk on the beach, but never to go in.
Robbert’s building had our classroom. The back room was where he lived, but it was mainly full of his different machines. If we asked to go back there, he would pretend that he hadn’t heard us, especially if there was more than one of us asking. If I asked him by myself, he’d get an entirely different face on, for just a moment. Then he’d ask, “Do you know what kind of fish you find in the darkest blue water?”
When he said this—in a whisper—I would just shut up. Then he would smile. I never knew if he wanted to confuse me, or if he was waiting for me to ask again, but because I didn’t know I never did.
Irene took care of mostly everything. She was thicker and taller than we were, and she was strong. Her skin was sunburned, with a different texture, like another kind of smooth. She held her black hair back with clips. Once I pulled a white hair from her hairbrush and held it to the light. I didn’t know you could have two different colors of hair. Irene and Robbert both wore white coats over whatever else, usually shorts and a shirt with buttons. Irene wore sandals. Robbert wore sneakers without socks. His hair was black, too, but he never went into the sun, so his skin was almost like a fish, except with blue veins. We all looked the same. We wore smocks with ties up the back, which we tied for one another, or Irene tied them for us, depending on what we were learning that day. None of us wore shoes.
Irene would wake us in the morning, one at a time. I don’t remember dreams, so I would open my eyes like I had just shut them, except now it was day. The island’s morning sounds were different from the evening sounds. In the morning there were gulls and little brown birds that lived in the palms. At night there were parrots, which are very loud, and crickets, which are even louder.
Caroline sometimes did remember dreams, or that’s what Irene called them. Caroline said they were reflections or echoes, like thinking a scrap of something in the middle of forgetting it. We didn’t like forgetting, even though forgetting was always part of learning, so no one was jealous of Caroline’s dreams, or even asked about them. Caroline would sit up on her cot and blink, and then tilt her head like a bird when it listens or looks at you. Irene would see her and ask. Sometimes Irene would tell Robbert.
And all of the time there was the wind and there was the ocean. Usually you only notice their noise when everything else is still. That’s what Irene explained, though I think I heard them all the time. I paid special attention to the ocean—because of what Robbert said about fish, and because I couldn’t swim, and because it was everywhere. I wasn’t scared, though. I was never scared.
After we got dressed, we would go to the kitchen to help Irene make breakfast and boil water for her tea. She made a pot of Chinese tea first thing and then drank it over the whole day out of a white cup without a handle. She’d finish the very last of the pot before she went to bed, and, then, the next day do the same thing all over again. Since we always did the same things all the time, it was nice to see her do it, too. But for breakfast we made all kinds of things, whatever she felt like. We would mainly help with opening cans. Another thing she did in the morning was whistle. None of us could whistle, but we could sing. Irene taught us songs that we sang together, or in rounds—she liked us to sing in rounds—and often we would all sit on the porch, once breakfast had been cooked, singing just for her.
O wouldn’t it be lovely
To dream a dream with you.
O wouldn’t it be lovely
To dream a dream for two.
O won’t you make me happy.
We’d never need to part.
O you could make me happy.
I’d give you all my heart.
Just we two in the sunset,
Drifting off across the sea.
After breakfast we would cross the courtyard to the classroom, but on the way we would take what Irene called a “ten-minute walk.” Robbert’s building was actually right next door, but we always started our trip to school the same way. This meant we could go anywhere we wanted, pick up anything, think of anything, only we had to be at the classroom in ten minutes, and then we had to talk about what we’d done or where we’d been. Sometimes Irene walked with us, which made it strange when we were back in the classroom, because we’d have to describe what we’d done, even though she’d been with us the entire time. But we learned she was listening to howwe said things, not what, and to what we didn’t talk about as much as what we did. Which was how we realized that a difference between could and did was a thing all by itself, separate from either one alone, and that we were being taught about things that were invisible.
When we did a ten-minute walk, we would go to the same place all together—all to the woods, or all peering under the kitchen steps, or all to an anthill.
One day we finished our ten-minute walk and, like always, each took a seat on our own bench. Irene and Robbert told us to pay attention to little things as much as big—at how little things madebig things—so that morning we stood in the grass, which came to our faces, and paid attention to the insects buzzing around the feathered tops of the stalks, and to the warmth of the sun, and how cool the grass still was around our feet, and that there were different insects down there, hopping. That was what Isobel said, because she went first. The rest of us said the same thing, except Eleanor, who saw a little brown bird fly past, looking for bugs.
Irene said that was very good, and next it was time to take a nap, so we all stretched out on our benches. We could take naps at any time, no matter when or where, and when Irene woke us Robbert was with her, wiping his hands with a towel. She said we were going on another walk, only this would be for thirty minutes. What was more, we would be walking by ourselves. Each one of us had to go to a different place.
We were always excited to do something new, but it turned out to be harder than we thought, because we kept having the same ideas. Irene clapped her hands, and we all went down the stairs into the red dirt yard. I took a step toward the woods and saw that everyone else had, too. We stopped and, then after a moment, Caroline kept going to the woods. The other three of us were still stopped, but then we all stepped toward the cliffs. We stopped again, and Isobel went on to the cliffs. Eleanor and I both stepped to the beach. We stopped and then Eleanor walked to the beach, and I went the other way alone, the last way—toward the dock. I took three steps, then turned around. The other three had all stopped, too. We stood looking at each other. Irene called out that we were going to run out of time. So I got going to the dock.
The path to the dock is the only real path—made of crushed red gravel—on the island, instead of the other paths made by wearing down grass or going through bushes. Robbert and Irene needed it to wheel supplies from the dock with their cart, because some of the boxes could be heavy. The supply boat came once a month, but we never saw it. We never knew when it was scheduled, and it always seemed to come when we were napping. We slept a lot, but that was because we worked a lot. We worked very hard. Irene told us that all the time.
We didn’t visit the dock very often. For one, we had to be very careful about the water, and for two there just wasn’t any reason. The path cut through tall grass and then shorter grass and scrub, and then finally wound down to the shore. The dock stuck out on pilings from a big spur of black rock—there wasn’t any beach—because that was where the water was deep enough for the supply boat. The dock planks had been soaked in creosote and tar but were now bleached by the sun. Walking onto the dock was a little like walking alone into the middle of the ocean, especially when I looked back and saw the island behind me.
The dock had metal cleats for the boat to tie up but no railing, so I was careful to walk in the exact center and stop before reaching the far end, which was the rule to keep everyone safe if they happened to fall down. It took twelve minutes to walk from the buildings to the dock, so I knew that with the return time I had six minutes to stand and look, at the big things and at the little. First, I crouched and studied the wooden planks. I peeled away a splinter and the wood underneath was a different color. I found two boards that had warped enough to open a crack between them, and through it I saw the water. Or I could see shadows, but I knew the shadows werethe water—which made me think of the difference between water in the sunlight and water in the dark, and whether, since sunlight went throughthe water, they were even the same thing at all, and which had come first. Was dark water somehow more natural? Or was the dark ocean incomplete and the sunny ocean the finished version, like a sandwich with the final layer of mustard? Irene liked mustard on her sandwiches except for peanut butter, but she only ate peanut butter when there wasn’t anything else, which is one way we knew the supply boat would be coming: sandwiches without mustard.
Before I left I looked up and saw two seagulls, so close that I could imagine how soft their feathers would be to touch. I watched until they disappeared around the other side of the island. I knew it would actually take me longer to go uphill than to go down, but still I stayed on the dock, surrounded by the idea of being alone. Another invisible.
When I did get back, the others were waiting on the porch. I waved as soon as I saw them, and they waved back. Irene sent us all inside, but before I reached the door Robbert touched my shoulder. The other three turned, watching through the doorway. Robbert asked if I knew that it had been thirty-five minutes, not thirty. I said I was sorry—I was looking at the water and there had been two birds. He told me to stop talking. Then he asked again, if I knew it had been thirty-five minutes instead of thirty. I told him that yes, I did know, but that I was in the middle of looking at things and thought that the looking was more important than the getting back. Robbert stopped me again. Then he asked me why I thought that—why did I possibly think that was true?
I didn’t know. I’d just done it. I said I was sorry again. He sent me in the classroom with the others. Then he saw the others were watching and got sharp and told us to all sit down right now. We did, and stayed there while Irene and Robbert whispered on the porch. Then they came in and Irene asked what we’d seen on our walks.
I went first and told everything: the gravel, the dock, the splinter, the gap in the boards, the water, the sunlight, the sky, the birds—it took a while. When I finished, Irene said I’d done very well. The others just looked at me. Robbert reminded everyone about how dangerous the water was, and that going to the dock, just like going to the beach, shouldn’t be a habit foranyone. Then he looked at me again, like he had on the porch, not quite with a smile—because it wasn’t a smile—but with something.
Then Isobel told about her trip to the cliffs, and everything began to change, like the air in a room getting colder when a door is opened, because I realized that I was looking at Isobel like the others had looked at me. This is part of what she said:
“—one of the black crabs, but it was red on the bottom, bright red like sunburn or like hot sauce, and it was on its back and torn open, with four legs missing and the insides mostly gone, probably from birds except it was also wet, in a way that the cliff rocks weren’t wet, like it had been wet since the tide had gone down. So I asked myself how a dead crab got wet on a rock that was dry, and I wondered if one of the birds had dropped it or if the crab had been wet and crawled out and then been attacked by a bird, or maybe if—”
And this is part of what Caroline said:
“—so I kicked it—because it was on the ground, like a ball, and it was old and dried out, so I knew it wouldn’t be too heavy, so I could kick it—and it bounced off the trunk of the palm tree and rolled into the grass. I kicked it again, only this time farther into the grass, and it made a hole in the grass like a path, so I followed, and then kicked it again, in another direction, and it made another path, and I kept on kicking and walking, just where the coconut had rolled, so it wasn’t me making the path but the coconut, and when I looked back the whole patch of grass looked like the tunnels in an anthill—”
And this is part of what Eleanor said:
“—counting waves, because the waves keep coming, even though each one is different—where it breaks, how high, how fast, how much it’s shaped like the waves before, or the waves after, or how far it comes in or comes out—today the tide was going out—and I looked at how the sand on the beach dried as the tide went away and thought about how long it would take to dry until I could walk on it—”
But I was outside of everything they said, like I listened to their stories through a window. I could imagine everything they said—I understood the words, but the understanding happened in me by myself, not in me with them. We’d done things separately before—Caroline had dreams, or one of us would visit Robbert while the others napped—yet this was different, because we all seemed to enjoy our time alone, but then felt strange when the others talked about their times alone, which didn’t make sense.
I also knew that even though Robbert had specifically told me not to, I was going to go back to the dock the very first chance I could.
I couldn’t even say why. There were birds all over. There was water all over. Was it the dock itself—that there could be a boat? But I hadn’t seen any boat and hadn’t thought about one either. Boats were only a bit less dangerous than planes, and they were the last thing I needed to be playing with—just like I didn’t need to be too near the water.
So I asked.
“Why did we go to different places on our walk?”
Irene and Robbert paused, like they hadn’t expected the question.
“So you’d learn about paying attention,” said Irene.
Then it was time for dinner—the day had gone very quickly because of the long nap—and Irene led us from the classroom back to the kitchen. I was last going down the steps. Robbert was behind me and put his hand on my shoulder again, and I stopped. This time the others didn’t notice and kept going. When they were inside the other building, Robbert let go.
“That was a curious question, Veronika.”
I told him I was sorry, but he stopped me. He knelt to look into my eyes, like he wanted to see something on the other side of them.
“It was a good question. Why did you ask it?”
“Because we’re paying attention to things we can’t see.”
He stood up and patted me on the head, and told me to go help Irene. He walked back into the classroom. I thought about following him, but I didn’t.
Irene had the others helping make rice and opening cans of meat, so no one even noticed when I came in. When she saw me, Irene shoved a plastic bottle of mineral water to me, and I unscrewed the cap and then helped get out the plates and napkins and spoons and chopsticks. Robbert came in just before everything was ready and sat down, rubbing his eyes. He rubbed his eyes whenever he took off his glasses. Everyone helped carry things to the table.
After dinner Robbert went back to the classroom, and we sat with Irene on the porch, listening to the ocean and to the parrots, who were pretty loud. She asked us to sing. Eleanor asked what she would like to hear, and Irene told us to choose—she wanted to hear what we wanted to sing.
No one could decide. Irene touched my arm.
“Veronika, you asked a good question in school today, why don’t you choose what to sing?”
She smiled. I started to sing, and the other three sang with me, happy to have it settled.
The honeybee flies in a line
That zigs from side to side.
To make its honey nectar wine
It journeys far and wide.
No matter where it finds itself
A bee can find its home.
We knew many more verses, all about bees—finding flowers, drinking coconut milk, building hives, tending the queen—but all of them have the same chorus about bees finding their way home, no matter where they’ve gone. We kept singing until Irene said that was enough, and we watched the sunset until it was dark. Irene poured her last cup of tea and told us to get ready for sleep. We helped one another untie our smocks and fold them. We climbed onto our cots and waited for Irene to turn out the lights.
After five minutes she still hadn’t come. Caroline turned to me and whispered. “What did Robbert say?”
“He wanted to know why I asked why we went on different walks.”
“What did you say?”
“I said I was sorry.”
“But you’re not sorry,” Eleanor whispered, from my other side. “Because I’m not sorry, either.”
I nodded. I don’t think I was ever sorry, really.
“What did he say?” whispered Caroline.
“He said it was a good question.”
Everyone thought about that. Isobel whispered, from the other side of Caroline. “It is a good question.” We all nodded and thought the same thing she said next. “That means they don’t know what we’re going to learn, either.”
We heard Irene and stopped whispering. She came in, turned out the light, and bent over each of our cots in turn. First Isobel, then Caroline, then Eleanor, then me, leaning close to my face and whispering, “Go to sleep, Veronika.”
Then she pushed the spot behind my ear, with a click, like always, and I did.
The Different Girl © Gordon Dahlquist 2013