Optimists Die First
Award-winning author Susin Nielsen has written a laugh-out-loud and heartrending novel for fans of Robyn Schneider’s Extraordinary Means and Cammie McGovern’s Say What You Will.
Beware: Life ahead.
Sixteen-year-old Petula de Wilde is anything but wild. A former crafting fiend with a happy life, Petula shut herself off from the world after a family tragedy. She sees danger in all the ordinary things, like crossing the street, a bug bite, or a germy handshake. She knows: life is out to get you.
The worst part of her week is her comically lame mandatory art therapy class with a small group of fellow misfits. Then a new boy, Jacob, appears at school and in her therapy group. He seems so normal and confident, though he has a prosthetic arm; and soon he teams up with Petula on a hilarious project, gradually inspiring her to let go of some of her fears. But as the two grow closer, a hidden truth behind why he’s in the group threatens to derail them, unless Petula takes a huge risk. . .
Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year
“Nielsen writes with sensitivity, empathy, and humor.” —Kirkus Reviews, Starred
“Nielsen excels at depicting troubled, clever teenagers in familiar environments.” —School Library Journal, Starred
“[An] empathic and deeply moving story, balanced by sharply funny narration and dialogue.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred
“A poignant exploration into the nuances of healing.” —Quill and Quire, Starred
An Excerpt fromOptimists Die First
The first time I saw the Bionic Man I was covered in sparkles.
It was a typical Friday afternoon at Youth Art Therapy, YART for short. I was trying to help Ivan the Terrible with our latest, lamest project. As per usual, Ivan refused to focus. Instead he tipped a tube of rainbow glitter onto my head, all over my cat hat and all over me. Alonzo tutted sympathetically. Koula snorted with laughter. Another sunny day in paradise.
We were sitting in the common area of the counseling suite. It was always either Antarctica cold or Saudi Arabia hot. Even though it was early January, I’d stripped down to my tie-dyed tank top. Ivan started punching my bare arm with the very fingers that had, moments ago, been wedged up his nose. I reached into my tote bag for my bottle of hand sanitizer, just as one of the counselor’s doors opened.
Ivan glanced up. “Petula, look,” he said. “A giant.”
The Bionic Man was not a giant. But he was well over six feet. Everything about him was supersized. A bright orange parka was slung over one arm, which was major overkill for a Vancouver winter. He looked about my age, with a mass of curly brown hair, and big brown eyes that were red from crying.
The Bionic Man had stepped out of Carol Polachuk’s office. I’d sat in that soulless space many times myself, forced to talk to she of the up with life! T‑shirts, bulgy eyes, and condescending attitude. Carol was very good at one thing, and that was making you feel worse. So I wasn’t surprised that the Bionic Man looked disoriented. And angry. And deeply, terribly sad.
I recognized those looks. The Bionic Man hadn’t been in there for a chat about career options. You didn’t see Carol Polachuk for the small stuff.
He was one of us.
For a brief moment, our eyes locked.
Then he made a beeline for the doors.
And he immediately left my brainpan as I started slathering myself in hand sanitizer.
Except . . . it wasn’t.
On Monday afternoon I saw him again.
I stood at the front of history class in my presentation outfit: plain white shirt with purple crocheted vest, my favorite peasant skirt, and purple rubber boots that hid my lucky striped socks. I was midway through my talk. The assignment: discuss a historical event that has ripple effects to this day.
I’d chosen September 11, 2001. Nine-eleven, the day two airplanes, hijacked by terrorists, flew into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. I meant to talk about the political aftermath, and the many ways it changed how we view personal safety.
But I never made it that far.
A lot of people on the floors below the point of impact were able to escape down stairwells before the towers fell. But the people above the impact must have understood that they were doomed, that no one was coming to rescue them because, well, how could they? Those towers practically rose into the stratosphere.
I thought about those people a lot. How their days started out so normal. How they were average, regular humans; just like me, just like Mom and Dad, just like anyone. I pictured a guy wondering if it was too early to dig into his lunch, because even though it was only just past nine, he was already hungry. I imagined a woman who couldn’t stop worrying about her son because he’d cried that morning when she dropped him off at day care.
They were expecting a day like any other.
That part of my presentation was supposed to be brief, just laying out the facts so I could get to the ripple effects.
But I could not shake the thought of all the innocent victims. Or the people they left behind, the children, spouses, parents, and friends whose loved ones were not coming home from work that day, or any day. Their lives from that moment forward would never be the same.
My heart started to race. My breath came in short bursts. I opened my mouth but no words came out. My classmates looked alarmed.
That’s when I spotted him, sitting at a desk in the back corner.
The last thought I had was Oh God I’m wearing my old granny underpants oh God please don’t let my skirt ride up--
Then all five feet eleven inches of me crumpled to the floor.
An hour later I was sitting across from Mr. Watley in my favorite chair, the one with the nubby multicolored fabric. I’d sat in it so often in the past two years, its grooves had molded perfectly to my bum.
It was my favorite because it was the farthest from his bookshelves, which were not secured to the wall in any way. Believe me, I’d checked. So if there was an earthquake--and in Vancouver they say it’s a matter of when, not if--I could be badly injured by falling hardcovers. (I tried not to think about the building itself, which would collapse like a pile of Jenga blocks in any quake over a five point zero on the Richter scale. If I thought about that, I would have to leave school, and Vancouver, and live alone in a cave somewhere, which would crush my parents. Plus I would be a sitting duck for any psychopathic serial killer who happened past. And/or I would contract a respiratory illness because of the damp and die a slow, painful death. At least death by earthquake was more likely to be instantaneous.)
In spite of the bookshelves, I liked being in the principal’s office. It was a surprisingly warm and cozy space, lit by floor lamps instead of overhead fluorescents. And Mr. Watley still had the mason jar snow globe that I’d made for him in the ninth grade on his desk. I picked it up and gave it a good shake, and snow cascaded down onto a little Lego building, which had princess margaret secondary written on it.
Mr. Watley gazed at me with his big, watery eyes. He looked a lot like a Saint Bernard. “Feeling better, Petula?”
“Much. The school nurse gave me a good once-over. Deemed me fit for release.”
“You’ve been making progress. I was hoping we’d moved past these episodes.”
“Me too.” My last full-blown panic attack had been at least three months earlier, in biology. The topic was infectious diseases. I’d talked about the Ebola virus, which is transmitted through bodily fluids and leads to a truly horrible death. I’d crumpled when I mentioned how easily it could become a worldwide plague.
“At least they’re fewer and farther between.” Mr. Watley said. He smoothed his hair. I wished his wife would tell him that his comb-over fooled no one. Then again, I’d studied the family photo that sat beside my snow globe many times. It showed a grinning Mr. and Mrs. Watley and their pug. The dog was far and away the most attractive thing in the picture. My theory was that they had a reciprocal arrangement: Mrs. Watley ignored Mr. Watley’s comb-over, and he ignored the giant mole on her chin. “Nonetheless, Petula, we’ve talked about trying to stay away from trigger topics.”
“You didn’t need to talk about the victims at all.”
I glanced out his window at the rain coming down in sheets. “It was just a small part. If I’d been able to finish, I had some valid points.”
He tented his fingers under his chin. “Like what?”
“Like that nine-eleven was a game changer. Like we now live in a world where another terrorist attack is a constant threat.”
“I thought we were trying to avoid that kind of negative thinking.”
“Sir, this isn’t negative. It’s practical. My point was, nine-eleven taught us that we all need to be more vigilant. Forewarned is forearmed.”
“I understand that the world doesn’t always feel safe. But we live in Vancouver. In Canada. It’s--”
“Don’t say it, sir. Nowhere is safe.”
“Okay, even if we disagree on that point, we still need to keep living our lives, don’t we? We can’t live in constant fear. We can’t look up at every airplane that passes, wondering if it’s been hijacked. We can’t look at every single person we pass in the street, wondering if they’re carrying a dirty bomb.”
I can, I thought. I can be on high alert for the rest of you ignoramuses. “No, but it doesn’t mean we should bury our heads in the sand. Metaphorically speaking, of course. If you actually buried your head in the sand you would suffocate.”
Mr. Watley thought for a moment. Then he pointed at a mug on his desk. “Look at that and tell me what you see.”
“A half-empty mug of coffee.”
“I see a half-full mug of coffee.” He smiled triumphantly, like he’d just said something profound.
“And that’s why you’ll die before I do.”
He blinked a few times. “Well, I hope so. I’m fifty-two, after all, and you’re only fifteen--”
“Sixteen as of last week. But age aside, studies show that in general, optimists die ten years earlier than pessimists.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“Of course you do, you’re an optimist. You have a misguided belief that things will go your way. You don’t see the dangers till it’s too late. Pessimists are more realistic. They take more precautions.”
“That seems like a sad way to govern your life.”
“It’s a safe way to govern your life.”
Mr. Watley exhaled. He rubbed his watery eyes.
“That’s a surefire way to get pinkeye.”
He lowered his hand and gazed at me, his expression full of sympathy, which I half hated and half appreciated. “How’s YART going?”
“You know how I feel about that.”
“Yes, and I keep hoping you’ll change your mind.” He glanced at the clock. “Okay. Go back to class.”
With only ten minutes left till dismissal I had no intention of going back to class. “Sure thing.” I stood up and gave a little bow in lieu of a germ-sharing handshake.
I walked out of Mr. Watley’s office, turned left--
And plowed right into the Bionic Man.
Textbooks and papers, mine and his, went flying. We both bent down to collect our scattered things and our foreheads connected with a crack.
I straightened, rubbing my temple. “Ow! Jerk!”
“Um, you do know you ran into me, right?”
I looked up.
Emphasis on up.
See, when you are a young woman of almost Amazonian proportions, looking up at someone is a rare occurrence. But the Bionic Man had at least four inches on me.
I stared for a little too long at his face. His features were just a bit off. Like, if you moved his nose and his eyes a millimeter here and a millimeter there, he’d be almost handsome. Instead he looked like a Picasso, before Pablo went one hundred percent abstract.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
I didn’t know whether he was referring to our accidental head-butt or to my fainting spell in history class, and I didn’t care. I slipped past him and headed to my locker. Post-Maxine, idle chitchat was difficult for me. Also, I had only five minutes left to clear out before the hall filled with students. Last year, when I was worse, I’d seriously considered wearing one of those masks to school, like the ones people wear in China when the pollution gets bad. Now I just did the common-sense basics, like not touching people or surfaces and washing my hands for the length of two rounds of “Happy Birthday.” And I didn’t linger in this hothouse of germs.
The Bionic Man followed me and stood there as I twirled my lock right, then left. “You shouldn’t follow people,” I said. “Especially girls. It’s creepy.” His off-white fisherman’s sweater reeked of mothballs.
“Seriously. Are you okay? You dropped like a sack of potatoes.”
Like I needed to be reminded. When I’d come to, Ms. Cassan’s cardigan was under my head and the Girl Formerly Known as My Best Friend was gazing down at me with concern. “Did anyone see my underwear?” I blurted.
He looked confused. “No. Why? Did you want them to?”
“No.” I yanked my locker door open and grabbed my peacoat; I was so close to freedom I could almost taste it. But when I tried to step around the Bionic Man, he held out his right hand. “I should introduce myself. I’m Jacob Cohen.”
I couldn’t help it. I gaped.
Because his hand wasn’t real. It was sleek, black, and definitely man-made.
He saw me staring at it. “Pretty cool, huh? Like something out of I, Robot.”
“Or The Iron Giant.”
“Ha! Yes. Great movie.”
“Better book.” It was one of my childhood favorites.
“It was a book?”
I let that pass. His robot hand still hovered in front of me. “Go on, shake it,” he said. “It has twelve different grip patterns.”
I was caught. If I told him the truth--that I never shook hands--he would think his robot limb freaked me out. Which it did. But while my social skills these days were “subpar,” as I’d overheard some girls say in gym class, I wasn’t cruel.
So I stuck out my hand. I heard a mechanical whirring sound, and the fingers of his gleaming black fake hand closed over mine. After what felt like an eternity, I heard more whirring and my hand was released.
The bell rang. Anxiety started to rise up in my throat. “I’ve really got to go.” I shoved my schoolwork into my tote bag.
“I feel like I’ve seen you somewhere else. Like, before today. But I only moved here a week ago.”
I clicked my lock into place and slipped past him, down the hall. I wasn’t about to tell him where he’d seen me, for his sake and for mine. What happens in counseling services stays in counseling services.
I pushed open the front doors with my elbows and stepped outside. I breathed in, enjoying a moment of temporary relief. I’d survived another school day.
Now I had to survive the journey home.
The walk took fifteen minutes. That was a full eight minutes longer than usual because a building between the school and our apartment had been torn down in December, and now a construction site filled almost an entire city block. I had to take a detour to avoid it.
Up ahead, I watched as the Girl Formerly Known as My Best Friend and her posse walked right past the site. I almost shouted out a warning. But I knew she would give me an exasperated, pitying look, so I said nothing. I turned left instead of going straight and ran through my mental checklist.
Cross only at designated crosswalks and intersections, check.
Step into the road only after all vehicular traffic has come to a full stop, check.