For Ages
9 to 12

A poignant story of a boy picking up the pieces of his life after the unexpected death of his father, and the loyalty, concern, and friendship he finds in his small-town community.

Justin doesn't know anything these days. Like how to walk down the halls without getting stared at. Or what to say to Jenni. Or how Phuc is already a physics genius in seventh grade. Or why Benny H. wanders around Wicapi talking to old ghosts. He doesn't know why his mom suddenly loves church or if his older brother, Murphy, will ever play baseball again. Or if the North Stars have a shot at the playoffs. Justin doesn't know how people can act like everything's fine when it's so obviously not. And most of all, he doesn't know what really happened the night his dad died on the train tracks. And that sucks.

But life goes on. And as it does, Justin discovers that some things are just unknowable. He learns that time and space and memory are grander and weirder than he ever thought, and that small moments can hold big things, if you're paying attention. Just like his math teacher said, even when you think you have all the information, there will be more. There is always more.

Set during the Gulf War era, Like Nothing Amazing Ever Happened is a story about learning to go on after loss, told with a warmth that could thaw the coldest Minnesota lake.

An Excerpt fromLike Nothing Amazing Ever Happened

Wicapi, Minnesota


Chapter One

“When you live in a place where nothing ever happens, you have to make something happen.” That was my brother talking, after the police busted him and his friends for TPing the Hornet hockey captain’s house when we beat Edina last fall. He was smiling when he said it because Murphy’s always smiling. And he has the smile of a million lightbulbs. “Dazzling” is the word, if you’re into words. His smile works wonders on everyone. His teachers. Pastor Steve. The cops that let him and most of the starters off with a warning and probably a laugh and a thump on the back. And on Mom, but not on that day. “Do you know the last time we beat Edina in the opening game?” Murphy asked. “In 1978! Justin wasn’t even born!”


“Yes, I was,” I said. “I was born in May, dummy.” The memory gets a little darker then, like a cloud passed over it and shadowed our little kitchen table surrounded by wallpaper with both flowers and stripes. It always bugged me. “Just decide,” I told the paper once, while chewing my Frosted Flakes. “Flowers or stripes.” Murphy was downing an egg sandwich in three bites and grinning and filling the kitchen with sunbeams and said, “So serious, Little Monk!” Then he drank whatever orange juice was left in the carton, grabbed his backpack, and ran out the door before Mom could make him drive me to school.


Even with the cloud and shadow, I do remember Mom threatening to take the car away and Murphy running both hands through his hair, but I don’t remember if she actually took the car away. I remember the cat jumping onto the table and Murphy picking her up and doing her voice to Mom. “Meow, Judith. Where’s your team spirit? Meow. Do you need to join the booster club? Rah, rah, rah!” He pumped Axl Rose’s little paw in the air. And I remember Mom turning to Dad and saying, “Larry. A little help?”


And Dad said, “Cake eaters.” Then Mom must have thrown both hands up, and Murphy must have flashed his sunshine smile, but all I remember is Dad. The words he said aren’t important. Everyone knows we call Edina “cake eaters.” It’s something about them being richer than us, even though Minnetonka’s got plenty of rich kids. What’s important, if you’re trying to figure out my dad, is that those two words were all he said. That entire night. Sometimes he’d go a whole day only saying ten words and sometimes he got by with zero. Zero words!


If Murphy remembers saying “When you live in a place where nothing ever happens, you have to make something happen,” he would take those words back in a millisecond. We all would. We would all give anything to go back to living in a place where nothing ever happens.


“They should cancel school on days like this,” Mom says. “It’s not safe.”


I pull my scarf down. “Good idea. Want to write me a note?”


She smiles, but her eyes are so sad they cancel it out. Like an x on both sides of the equation. “You’ve missed too much already,” she says. I nod and pull my scarf back up. I have missed a lot of school.


In the apartment hall, I used to land hard on the bottom step to see how loud I could make it squeak, but for some reason now that squeak makes my stomach roll over itself like the mealworms in Mr. Bauer’s room when you poke them with a pencil. I jump over the step completely and push through the door and into the gray wind.


“This is the worst it gets,” Mom likes to tell herself in February. Because would you believe she grew up in Florida? She actually lived in the place where we all want to be all the time. Where the cake eaters go for spring break and come back with tans and bleached hair and coral necklaces and neon shirts with names of islands on them. And the rest of us are still pasty little fish swimming in the same drab pond, now with a bunch of tropical fish mixed in to make us feel bad.


“You must’ve really loved Dad to move to Minnesota,” I told Mom once, and she smiled. “I did,” she said. “I do.” She did/does too. Even though he woke up screaming sometimes, or Mom woke up drenched because Dad sweat buckets in the sheets. There was something about Dad that made her love him through all that and lots more. There was something good about Dad that was indestructible. It came before Murphy and me. The Dad we never knew. Never would. Never will. What’s the right verb now? I should ask Mrs. Peterson. Ha ha.


My head’s down against the wind, but I can see the comic shop corner out of the tops of my eyes, and I swear if Phuc isn’t standing outside I’m leaving without him. It’s too cold to slow down. I already can’t feel my toes, and I’m only two blocks from the apartment. I watch my boots scrape across the ice and salt until I get to the corner. My eyes are watering and the water is freezing in my eyelashes. “Hey,” Phuc says, muffled by his scarf. I nod at him and we walk without talking because our mouths are full of spit and wool.


At the next corner we wait for the bus, silent on the outside, but sometimes the cold is so strong, it feels like a sound. Like a siren going off in your head, high-pitched. Kind of like the one Wicapi runs at noon on the third Wednesday of every month, just to make sure everything’s okay. Dad died on a Tuesday night, and that siren ran the next day and I thought, You have got to be kidding me. Everything is not okay.


The heart-o-gram girls set up a table front and center inside the main doors. As usual, they’re all wearing red or pink sweaters and red or pink nail polish. As usual, they have a massive glittery box that will be stuffed with heart-o-grams for all the popular kids by Valentine’s Day. But this year they convinced a bunch of hockey players to pass out flyers too, so you have no chance of avoiding them. “Hey,” a huge blond kid says to me, and shoves a flyer in my hand. “Buy a heart-o-gram. Only a dollar.”


Phuc and I turn the corner, out of sight of the hockey players and heart-o-gram girls, and Mitchell passes by and jabs me in the ribs with one finger. “Loser,” he says, but without any emotion, like it’s just a fact. The way oxygen is the eighth element on the periodic table. “It seems like oxygen should be first,” someone told Mr. Bauer, but he frowned at us and said that not all of science is about humans.


Phuc doesn’t notice Mitchell. He’s reading his flyer. “I can think of twenty-five hundred things I’d rather spend a dollar on,” he says, and crumples the paper into a ball.


“Like what?”


“Um. A hot dog. Twenty gumballs. Two Butterfingers. A pack of Star Trek cards.”


“Great. Only 2,496 more to go,” I tell him. We get to our lockers and spin the dials and shove all our winter stuff into the bottom, where it will thaw and make a puddle by the end of first period.


“What? Like you’re gonna send a heart-o-gram?” Phuc asks. “Or are you? Are you finally gonna tell Jenni-with-an-i about your undying love for her?” He’s moving his head around in front of a tiny mirror stuck to the inside of his locker, making sure his hat didn’t mess up his hair gel. I told him gelling his hair straight up is not the best strategy for staying under the radar, and he said, “I’m the only Vietnamese kid at this whole school. People still say my name like the F word even though I’ve been here since second grade. I’ll never be under the radar.” And I couldn’t really argue with that. (His name is pronounced Fo, by the way. Ridiculously easy.)


“I’m not in love with Jenni-with-an-i,” I say.


Phuc nods once at himself in the mirror and slams his locker. “Whatever you say. See you in third.” He walks away, and then calls back, “I’ll spot you a dollar if you need it!” Some girls passing by give me sticker smiles like maybe I do need a dollar. Or a shrink. Or a bag over my head. (Sticker smiles are the kind that look like they’re slapped onto someone’s face because the person doesn’t really want to smile but doesn’t know what else to do. I’ve been getting lots of these since December.) People don’t know what to do with me, even though I’m pretty much the same as I always was. Too skinny, pretty smart, too serious according to Murphy, and good with words according to Dad.


Here was my after-school routine: Run up the twelve steps to the apartment while counting them. Unlock the door, walk inside, and soak in the sunlight. If the sun’s out, the light at 3:35 p.m. is perfect, no matter what season (pink in winter, white in spring, yellow in fall). Plus, you can see the sunlight easier when it’s quiet, and at 3:35 p.m., there was no one home except Axl Rose, Dad, and me. The three quietest beings that lived at 305 Water Street, Apartment B.


Then I’d drink Kool-Aid and eat Doritos and watch Scooby-Doo until four p.m. Then I’d sit at the kitchen table and do my homework. I’d hear the shower come on and know Dad was awake. He’d come out in his blue uniform with his hair slicked and combed, even though he didn’t leave for work for six more hours.


I asked Murphy about this, when we were at the funeral home the first time. Picking out hymns and Bible verses and all that. Which was really Mom’s call because Dad didn’t believe in God. That I know of. “Why’d he get dressed for the graveyard shift so early?” I asked, and Murphy shook his head.


“I don’t know. I think he was proud he could keep a job, and he wanted us to see him that way. Considering some guys he knew.” He shrugged. “They couldn’t do crap.”


So Dad would sit down across from me in his uniform and pour a Jack Daniel’s and sip on it while he read the newspaper. I don’t know if it was a lot of liquor. The police asked me that. How much he drank. The glass was never very full and he sipped it very slowly. Like how an IV works in the hospital, I think. I told the police that too. He sipped it very slowly but he did need it. Once he forgot the bottle on a drive up north and we were deep in the woods and he started shaking like we were driving on gravel even though the road was just paved. Finally we found a gas station and he was okay. I didn’t tell the police that part.


When I finished my homework, Dad would set up the Scrabble board and we’d play until Mom came home and made dinner. Sometimes he won and sometimes I did. I loved that. How evenly matched we were. How fair it was. He never let me win. And he never played BS words like “aa” that are technically words but are stupid to play on a Scrabble board. (The word “aa” according to the Oxford dictionary: basaltic lava forming very rough, jagged masses with a light frothy texture. The word “aa” according to me and Dad: bogus.)


Mom would talk and talk while she cooked, like someone had just let a parakeet into the apartment. Sometimes she would say, “Are you two even listening to me?” and I wasn’t, but Dad always was. He would repeat a word back to her, and she’d nod, satisfied, and go on about Tiffany’s deadbeat boyfriend or Tom’s show-off attitude. Sometimes she would say, “What’s the word I’m looking for?” and Dad would have it. Every time. “ ‘Pretentious,’ ” he’d say. Or “buoyant” or “unjust.” Whatever he said, Mom would say, “Exactly.” I loved that about him. How he would use most of his words on Mom. Mostly to make her feel heard.


I start to cry--inside the apartment that’s sunny as ever, like it’s making fun of me. What’s the word? Mocking. Here’s my routine now: Do my homework right away, on my bed, with the door closed. Drink Sprite. Watch anything but Scooby-Doo. Listen to 101.3 as loud as possible if I need to drown out my thoughts. Do nothing that reminds me of Dad.


Here’s something weird: fried chicken smells amazing at any time of day. You don’t even have to be hungry. You could have just been sleeping, like me right now. Murphy’s sitting on the couch in his red KFC shirt with a bucket next to him, watching the North Stars. I can see the dent on his sweaty head where his visor was. He still has his nametag on. And his black shoes. He picks up his drink from the floor and sucks it through the straw and sets it back down without taking his eyes off the screen. Here’s another weird thing: how much you love someone can sneak up on you in greasy moments that smell like fried chicken.


“Hey,” I say, and plop down on the couch, next to the bucket.


“Hey, Monk. Want a drumstick? I got two for you.”


“Yeah. Thanks.” I find one and bite into it. Mom’s not happy about Murphy working so many hours during high school, but I am. First of all, we need the money, and second of all, I get to eat KFC and watch hockey with my brother on a regular basis. If Murphy wasn’t so beat from work, he’d be out with his friends like before. Which I guess is where he should be.


“Come on!” Murphy tells the North Stars.


“Who’re they playing?” I should just watch and figure it out, but Murphy doesn’t care that I know nothing about sports even though he knows everything.




“Are we gonna win?”


“Well. We’ve won seventeen games and lost thirty-one so far. You’re the brains of the family. What’s our chances?”


“Not great.”


Murphy laughs. “I’m gonna write that on my next math test and see what happens.” I make Murphy’s laugh repeat in my head so it lasts longer. I took it for granted before. It was always there, so I thought it always would be. Like Mom’s parakeet dinner-making chatter. The two of them have gotten so quiet. Now Axl Rose meows all the time, and I blab on about nothing. Just to fill the space.