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Chapter 1

In which Manny Folberg Takes One Test and Fails Another Before Falling on His Head

Manny Folberg woke up on a Monday morning with a zit on his forehead and a knot in his stomach, knowing that the day would call for all the fortitude he possessed. First, there was a geometry test in Mr. Filetti’s class, for which he was not prepared. Manny and geometry had never been on very good terms, but as long as he applied himself he managed to squeak by. But this test, he felt sure, would stand out as an ugly anomaly among his usual B’s and A’s. ‘I wonder what Filetti’s going to think,’ thought Manny, picking at his zit and imagining the pale, skinny math teacher scratching the bald back of his head in confusion. ‘Maybe he’ll think he’s had too much Italian coffee and that he’s delirious. That the test is a delusion—a figment of his over-caffeinated imagination. Or maybe he’ll just flunk me.’

Manny did not dwell long on his imminent academic failure, however, because there were more important matters on his mind. Today was the day he had resolved to ask Lilly Hidelman to Homecoming, and it was in fact his ceaseless plotting how best to accomplish this feat that had hampered him in his geometry studies. Over the weekend, he had spent hours composing the most flawless of invitations, which would with infinite grace convey to Lilly his desire to accompany her to the dance, while at the same time exculpating him of the presumption of asking her. He did not dare to be too optimistic about his prospects, but did have some faith in the ingratiating power of his speech. In fact, secretly from the harsher, more realistic part of his mind, he already saw himself waiting at the foot of a winding staircase, suited up in a James Bond tux, watching Lilly descending from above, all in red, still doubtful but already half in love...

This vision lasted right up to the moment when he padded into the bathroom and got a good look at his zit in the mirror. The thing seemed to him to be of astronomical proportions. And though its size probably gained something from it having sprung there on this most important of days, that it was a rather juicy pimple was hardly a matter of conjecture.

“Oh, great!” said Manny to the mirror. “Just great. Thanks a lot, God.” And so deep was his hurt, that God—or one of the various omnipotent beings, at any rate—up on high, in his divine bubble of unknowability, had his attention momentarily drawn to the seemingly mundane problem of a teenager’s oily skin.

A few minutes later, trudging in severe depression into the kitchen to have his bagel, Manny found his father seated at the table, drinking coffee and reading the paper. An amiable, if somewhat pessimistic man, Manny’s father read the paper through every morning, which never failed to bolster his conviction that the majority of the human race was guilty of duplicity or stupidity or—as he believed was the case most often—both. At nearly every headline or piece of reporting he came across he would shake his head and scoff to himself in dark amusement. When Manny arrived, he had just finished a prolonged sigh-and-eye-roll routine over a headline that stated, Equipment at Home Gym Manufacturing Plant Mysteriously Rusts Overnight.

“Maybe we’ll finally get a break from those delightful infomercials,” Mr. Folberg said to himself without great optimism.

Seeing Manny, he lowered the paper for a moment.

“Well, hello there, kiddo,” he said kindly.

“Hi,” said Manny, gloomily spreading cream cheese on his bagel.

Mr. Folberg noted the boy’s low spirits. ‘Why, the boy is suffering,’ he thought to himself. ‘And needlessly. Even with that volcanic pimple ornamenting his face. Wish I could show him just how good he’s got it. That he should be loving every minute of being so young. Impossible, of course. Only time can do that. Distracting newspaper nonsense is the best I can do for now...’

“Hey, listen to this,” he said to Manny with a disgusted sort of hilarity in his voice, loudly rifling through the paper to locate the page he wanted. Finding it, he folded and bent the paper till it was in a perfectly readable shape, and read out the following:

Scientists now agree that in the future things are going to be very different from the way they are today. For example, in the future people will no longer eat food, but will get all the nutrients they need simply by sniffing aromatic vapors. This will virtually eliminate the problem of tooth decay, making orthodontists, floss, and dentures obsolete, and have the unintended consequence of driving up the cost of putting in gold caps in the interest of bling-bling. This won’t really matter, however, since, in the future, avarice will be a thing of the past and money will no longer be used. Instead, everything will be owned communally, and gratitude will be the only payment expected for a service. Such is the consensus of the scientists, and since they are generally thought to be the smartest and most judicious people around, and since, given their usually discordant views, it is practically unheard-of for them to agree on anything, we at the paper are inclined to believe their claims.

“You ever hear a bigger bunch of baloney?” scoffed Manny’s father. But when he looked up, Manny was no longer in the kitchen, having plodded off to the car, his bezitted head hung low.

Manny’s father finished off his coffee and grabbed the electronic badge of his employer, IHP Corp, from the table. “Once more into the breach,” he muttered grimly, and heaved himself up from the chair.

At school, Manny was so tormented by anxiety over his plans to talk to Lilly that he could hardly bear to listen to his friends, and for a moment actually wished to be an outcast, shunned and ostracized, just so that he would be left alone. The test in Mr. Filetti’s class he plowed through in a daze, while in his mind corollary turned into collarbone and then into Lilly’s beautiful tanned neck, pulsing slightly, in time with her heartbeat.

Manny’s scheme had him running into Lilly as if by accident when she got out of soccer practice. After school, he paced about the parking lot for two hours, working up his courage and squeezing madly at the zit in the apparent hope of pushing it all they way into his skull. But when the girls came streaming into the lot, their cleats caked in mud, Manny’s courage left him—it seeped right out through his zit, like air through the valve of a blow-up doll. From his covert observation spot behind some rich kid’s Hummer, he watched helplessly as Lilly jumped into her car with two friends, laughing and evidently giving no thought to the all-important question of who might like to take her to Homecoming.

When he got home, Manny was feeling so low that he barely registered the oddly pungent aroma—it was like the acrid smell of fried electrical equipment—that pervaded the house, and went up to his room to give himself over fully to his sorrow. It did little good for the tinny voice of reason to point out that his fixation on Lilly was quite arbitrary, that there was no special reason why she should be the sole object of his affection. That, furthermore, this affection was quite illusory, since he had barely spoken a total of five sentences to the girl, and what he felt for her was more a product of his imagination than anything else. All such arguments were futile. All were brushed aside by the memory of Lilly’s face.

Swept up by a sudden surge of love, Manny grabbed the phone, determined now or never to make his declaration. But, at that very moment, strange sounds, coming as it seemed from the long-unused attic, made him start and perk up his ears. Hearing the noises again, Manny went scrambling with pattering heart in search of his pellet gun. The gun was virtually defunct, its pellet shooting abilities having been badly undermined by much target practice with soda cans and squirrels in the back yard. Nonetheless, Manny believed himself to look quite formidable with the weapon in his grasp. The pellet gun was nowhere to be found, however, and so he had to satisfy himself with a plastic wiffle bat someone had once left in their garage.

The shape was very female. And it was—gods above!—IT WAS WEARING

Illustration by Aleks Zelenina

When, after a short struggle, Manny pushed up the intractable (due to age and disuse) hatch to the attic and stuck his head and the wiffle bat into the opening, he at first assumed he’d merely been hearing squirrels scuttling on the roof. Then he let out a choked yelp (it sounded like this: “Ayck!”), dropped the wiffle bat, and tried to duck back out. But in his eagerness to escape he smacked the back of his head on the edge of the hatch, lost his balance, and, after a few seconds of frantic hand-waving, came crashing down onto the floor. Yet he had time, during the short moments of his flight down and before the world went temporarily black, to dwell on what he had seen.

In the dim light, a human shape had stood upright beneath the attic’s low, sloped ceiling. The shape was very female. And it was—gods above!—IT WAS WEARING EXACTLY NOTHING.

As the floor was about to break his fall, Manny thought that it was illogical and a little sad to have to die when he’d just gotten so close to heaven.