Winner of the 2012 SCBWI Work-in-Progress
Letter of Merit
"CONTACT is a page turner that will keep you guessing... And it will make you reconsider the next time you wish you knew someone else’s secrets!" - Margaret Peterson Haddix, author of the Missing and The Shadow Children series
"The mystery, suspense, and deep character development kept me turning pages several times instead of tending to dinner or going to bed." - Sharon the Librarian
"I found it exciting, entertaining and gripping. Never a dull moment in CONTACT!" - Paperback Cowgirl Reviews
"Once I started reading I didn't want to put it down and reading it was the first thing i'd what to do when I woke up in the morning." - Book Talk Reviews
"It has a little bit of everything in there for you and keep you going to the last page. " - Functioning Insanity
Mira wants to die. She’s attempted suicide twice already and failed. Every time she comes in contact with another person, skin to skin, that person’s psyche uploads into hers. While her psychologist considers this a gift, for Mira it’s a curse from which she cannot escape.
To make matters worse, Mira’s father is being investigated for the deaths of several volunteer test subjects of the miracle drug Gaudium. Shortly after Mira’s mother starts asking questions, she ends up in a coma. Although her father claims it was an accident, thanks to her “condition” Mira knows the truth, but proving it just might get her killed.
For ages 14 & up
READ AN EXERPT OF CONTACT:
Yes. Still alive…
A tube runs from an IV bag into my arm, the plastic needle burrowing under my skin like a tick. Thank God I was unconscious when they put that in. I cringe at the thought of being deluged with so many psyches at once—paramedics, nurses, doctors, all of them touching me.
Where are my clothes? They must have taken them off when I was out. This flimsy gown can’t protect me. I want to tear off the tape securing the IV tube to my skin, rip it off like a Band-Aid. I want out of here, but then I see Mama sleeping beside me, her body sloped in a plastic chair. I shouldn’t have done this to her again. But I had to try.
A plastic clamp pinches my finger, connecting me to a heart monitor. Three inches further up, my wrist is wrapped in gauze. Two months ago I would never have had the courage to do this—or any reason to. But now, feeling the staples beneath the bandage, I wonder how deep someone has to cut in order to die?
The curtain jerks back, the metal rings dragging across the ceiling rail. Mama snaps to attention. I half expect her to stand and salute.
“Miranda Ortiz?” says a woman in a beige linen suit and crisp white blouse. She is thin, stiff, and colorless. She reeks of gardenias.
“I’m Dr. Walsh from Mental Health,” she continues. The plastic laminated nametag hanging from her neck confirms this.
Dr. Walsh extends her hand, but instead of taking it, I grasp the edge of my sheet and pull it up to my chin. Other than this stupid hospital gown, it’s the only barrier I’ve got right now.
Mama stands up and reaches over the bed to shake the doctor’s hand. “I’m Mira’s mother, Ana,” she says wearily. She starts to sit back down, but Dr. Walsh interrupts.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you in person, Mrs. Ortiz. However, I’d like to speak to your daughter alone, if that’s all right.”
Dr. Walsh is insistent, in a polite sort of way. Mama leans toward me, and for a split second I think she’s going to kiss me goodbye. Though deep down I almost wish she would, instead she offers me her gentle smile and tucks the sheet under my shoulder.
“Please don’t go,” I whisper.
“It’ll only be a few minutes,” she says. “I’ll be just outside, all right?”
Mama brushes a strand of hair from my eyes with her manicured fingernails, careful to avoid contact with my skin. She smiles at me, but her eyes are wistful. As she walks out, my insides tighten up, and I suddenly realize how much I’ve missed her touch. My instinct is to cling to her like when I was small, but instead I press my arms stiffly to my sides like a corpse.
A security guard opens the door and accompanies Mama out into the hall. Dr. Walsh takes Mama’s empty chair, crosses one leg over the other, and lays a clipboard on her knee. “So,” she begins, “you cut yourself last night. Is that right?”
Her voice is casual and smooth, as if she’s just asked me what I ate for dinner. She waits for me to respond. When I don’t, she glances down at her clipboard. “I understand it’s not your first attempt. You were here a couple of weeks ago, I see. Overdose, but no permanent damage done.”
She glances up at me, pausing in case I have something to say.
“Mira, what happened that made you want to die?”
Her perfume hangs heavy around her. I rub the sheet against my nose, trying to block out the overpowering smell and the awkward silence between us. It’s obvious she’s going to sit there for as long as it takes. I want her gone, so I might as well talk.
“My boyfriend wants to dump me,” I tell her, and it’s true. Sort of.
“I see,” she says. Her eyebrows lift a little. “Things aren’t going well between the two of you?”
“Something like that.”
Her eyes narrow as she looks at her clipboard again. She thinks she’s got me all figured out. She’s met a hundred kids like me, maybe more. To her, I’m just like all the rest.
Only I’m not.
“Mira, do you mind if I ask you some questions?” She looks up at me, a trace of a smile on her lips. “Your answers will help me understand what’s happening with you, all right?”
She begins with the same questions Dr. Jansen asked me the last time I was here: Do you have trouble sleeping? How’s your appetite? Do you feel anxious or sad more often than usual?
She’s so pale with her white skin and bleached hair. Craig’s skin is light like hers. I used to relish his touch and let his lips linger on mine as long as he wanted. My skin tingles just thinking about him, but I shove the memories back, burying them down deep inside me where they belong.
Dr. Walsh shifts in her chair, drawing my mind back to the present. “Mira,” she continues, “do you believe you have special powers?”
Beneath the sheet my arm jerks, and the clip on my finger pops off. The monitor lets out a loud, piercing beep. I pat around the mattress, but I can’t find the clip. Then I see it dangling over the side of the bed. I reach for it, but Dr. Walsh gets to it before I do.
“Here,” she says, smiling. “Let me help you.”
“No, don’t!” I say, grabbing for the clip.
Oh God. Please God, not again.
I squeeze my eyelids shut, bracing for impact as she grasps my wrist in one hand and replaces the clip with the other. It takes only half a second, like those commercials where a crash test dummy rockets forward at high speed and slams into a wall. In that instant every thought in Emma Lynn Walsh’s head collides with mine—every thought, memory, hope, disappointment, and dream. They come at me like a hailstorm, assaulting me at random. I see her as a child falling off her bike and scraping her knee, and her father scolding her for forgetting to brake. I see the wedding ring slide onto her finger—her yanking it off and flushing it down the toilet. I feel despair at her mother’s funeral and relief at her father’s. She masks so much pain with poise and self-assurance, but beneath it all she’s a mess.
I open my eyes to see Dr. Walsh peering at me, a puzzled expression on her face.
“Let—go—of—me,” I order though clenched teeth.
Dr. Walsh releases my wrist. I turn on my side, rolling up in the sheet, attempting to disappear into my cocoon. I hear the chair legs scrape against the floor as Dr. Walsh slides it closer to my bed.
I stare at the bottom of my IV bag, watching clear drops form, preparing to fall into the tube. One by one they hang there for a moment suspended in time, and then plop!
I glance over my shoulder and look at Dr. Walsh. Her smile is gone. Both feet are on the floor, and she’s holding the clipboard up now, like a shield. There’s a yellow Sponge Bob sticker on the back, staring at me with a goofy, wide-mouthed grin.
“Okay, Mira. Why don’t we get back to your boyfriend? You said he wants to break up with you. Why?” Dr. Walsh’s tone has changed. It’s softer now, more sympathetic, but what can I tell her that won’t sound crazy?
“I won’t let him touch me anymore.”
“So he told you he wants to break up with you?”
“No. He hasn’t said anything—yet.”
“Hasn’t said anything.” Her voice holds a note of confusion. “Then, how do you know?”
She dangles the question in front of me like the proverbial carrot, hoping to draw me out. I don’t want to talk anymore, but something inside me needs to. Maybe part of me believes there is a chance, no matter how slight, that this woman might be able to help. That’s how desperate I’ve become.
I open my mouth to say something, but I can’t. Instead, I just lay there wrapped up like a mummy, someone who’s dead inside. Only I’m not dead. I’m alive. Too much alive.
Just then a nurse comes into the room to check my IV. “Are you comfortable, Ms. Ortiz?” she asks. “Your father called a bit ago. I assured him that if you needed anything, anything at all, I’d see to it myself.”
The nurse, a plump middle-aged woman wearing purple scrubs, glances at Dr. Walsh and reacts as if the good doctor had just magically appeared there.
“Oh my, I’m sorry, Dr. Walsh. I didn’t mean to intrude.”
“Not a problem. We’re finished here,” says Dr. Walsh, offering a nod.
I hear the snap of the clipboard’s metal clasp as she tucks her pen into it. Walking around the side of my bed, she gives me a conciliatory smile. “All right, Mira,” she says. “I’m going to have a word with your mother about getting you admitted. I need you to be somewhere safe, where we can keep an eye on you for a few days.”
As Dr. Walsh turns to leave, I find my voice again. “If you hate them so much, why smell like them?”
“Pardon?” She turns, pausing at the door.
“Gardenias. You hate gardenias.”
Her lips turn pale as she presses them together. I don’t want to do this, but I need her to believe me. My voice chokes when I say it. “It’s your mother’s perfume.”
Dr. Walsh’s eyes glisten, and hurt and confusion fills her face. Without a word, she turns and walks through the door, taking the invisible gardenia cloud with her.
The first time I tried to kill myself I sucked down half a bottle of Advil. Turns out you can’t OD on Ibuprofen, but it can sure as heck make you feel like you’re dying. I puked every ten minutes for six hours straight. Even when there wasn’t anything left to puke, my stomach convulsed and heaved until I expected to see my toenails drop into the bowl.
Dr. Jansen must have felt sorry for me then because he sent me home with a prescription of oral Gaudium and instructions to take the rest of the week off from school. I guess the obligatory injection I got on my sixteenth birthday wasn’t enough.
“The first few days you’ll feel a little dizzy, so I’ll start you on a low dosage,” he’d explained. “We’ll increase it over the next few days, and in two weeks or so we can start weaning you off. By then your production of dopamine and serotonin will have reached optimum levels. Your depression will be permanently cured.”
Of course, I already knew all about the miracles of Gaudium, named after the Latin word for joy. As the CEO of Rawley Pharmaceutical, Papa never failed to take credit for the creation. But not anymore. Not since he was blamed for those women dying.
Dr. Walsh doesn’t let me off as easily as Jansen did. For the next three days I lay curled up on a bed in the adolescent psyche ward serving time on a seventy-two hour hold. How anyone can not want to kill themselves while being in here is beyond me. Frankly, though, I haven’t minded it. It’s the most isolated I’ve been in months.
I ask the staff to leave me alone and they do, not to mention, the ward is practically empty except for a handful of thirteen or fourteen-year-olds who mostly steer clear of me. Apparently nobody anywhere near my age has been admitted in months thanks to Gaudium, and the statewide policy of inoculating teens with it when they turn sixteen.
On the third day of my imprisonment, Dr. Walsh stops by after breakfast. “How are you holding up?” she asks, sitting across the table from me. The smell of gardenia is noticeably absent. “I’m releasing you today, you know. Your mother’s waiting in the lobby.”
Behind us, a couple of kids are draped on the couch watching a recorded episode of “Psyche.”
“What if I don’t want to be released?” I challenge her, stealing a glance at the TV screen.
At the end of the table is a box with an assortment of puzzles and board games. I fish out a pair of dice and toss them onto the table. Two and six.
“I had considered extending your stay here,” she replies. “But when I suggested it to your father he said he wanted you to come home.”
“Papa was here?” I glance up from the dice.
“No,” she answers. “We spoke over the phone.”
Of course. Mama has visited every day, but not Papa. I throw the dice again. Three and two.
“I looked at your medical report. Your wrist is healing nicely.” Dr. Walsh reaches for my hand as if to touch me, but I withdraw and slide both hands under the table. When she retreats, I pull them out again and rub the dice between my palms.
“Mira.” Her voice is quiet and calm. “Do you still have thoughts about killing yourself?”
“I always feel like killing myself.”
Dr. Walsh drums her fingernails on the table. “I wish you’d talk to me,” she adds. “Three days and you haven’t said much at all. It’s against my better judgment to let you go home. But your father—” Her voice cuts off. I can hear her frustration. “I need to know you’re not going to try anything.”
I clasp the dice tightly in my fist. “Then let me stay here.”
I try to lift my gaze again to look at her so she’ll know how badly I mean my words, but I know it won’t do any good. Papa practically owns this hospital. He’s got more clout than just about anyone. If Dr. Walsh refused to sign the release papers, he would just go over her head and get someone higher up to get the job done.
The doctor sighs heavily. “You’re coming to see me at my office tomorrow. In the meantime, if you feel like you want to hurt yourself again, you need to tell someone—your mother or your father.”
I snicker at the thought.
“You can always call me, but is there someone else at home you can talk to?”
Is there someone? I think. There’s our cook, Helen. There’s Papa’s chauffeur. And there’s Jordan. Not what I’d call the ideal lineup, but I nod my head anyway.
Dr.Walsh gives a half-satisfied smile. “All right then,” she proclaims, getting to her feet. “I’ll tell the nurse to let your mom in while I sign the forms.”
A buzzer sounds, and the wide double doors barricading me from the rest of the world swing open. Mama comes in, her face pinched with worry. With her is Jordan Cummings, Papa’s closest friend and my self-appointed bodyguard. Unlike Papa who retired from Rawley to run for office, Jordan divides his time between the pharmaceutical company and managing Papa’s campaign. At a lean six-feet with a hint of gray at his temples, he’s a perfect fit for political life.
“Hey there, Sunshine,” he says, offering his familiar smile. “Ready to go home? The car’s waiting, but so is every news station this side of the Rocky Mountains.”
“The media’s out there?” I ask, suddenly petrified. “Who told them?”
Mama sets something down on the table in front of me. An Abba-Zaba. She knows it’s my favorite candy. “A nurse, a custodian, a parent of some other patient—what does it matter who told them?” she replies with an exasperated shrug. “The sooner we get you home, the better.”
I can see it now: Daughter of Medical Mogul Has Mental Breakdown—Story Tonight at Ten! Glancing down at the purple, flannel pajama bottoms and t-shirt I’m wearing, I think about the press parasites waiting outside, the way they always push and shove to get a mic in my face—I feel so exposed.
Jordan seems to know just what I’m thinking, as he holds up a plastic grocery bag and reaches his arm into it like it’s a magic hat. “Voila!” he says, pulling out my favorite hoodie, the black one he bought me in Venice Beach last summer. He then retrieves some jeans and my pair of Converse and drops them into my lap. “Better hurry. Your carriage awaits, my lady.” He winks.
Dr. Walsh returns with paperwork in hand. “Don’t forget about our follow-up appointment tomorrow, all right?” Drawing a business card from her pocket, she holds it out to Mama along with her copy of the release form. “In the meantime, call if you need anything.” Mama’s busy with me, so Jordan takes the information and shoves it into a pocket, and Dr. Walsh walks away.
I head for the restroom where I tug on my jeans. Then I slip into my hoodie, pulling the hood onto my head and the sleeves down past my fingertips. When I step out of the bathroom I ask a passing nurse for some surgical gloves, but her caustic expression is enough to make me regret asking. “Never mind,” I say. Then I join Mama and Jordan at the door where we all share apprehensive glances, like Gladiators preparing for battle.
Mama whispers in my ear, “Remember the drill. Face down, hands up, silencio.”
Slipping the Abba-Zaba in my pocket for later, I follow her and Jordan through the double doors and into the elevator. It’s only the next floor down, but the ride seems to take forever. When the doors slide open, my stomach lurches. The front of the hospital is all glass, and from here I can see hordes of reporters and photographers congregating outside where several police officers are attempting to hold them at bay. Parked at the curb is Papa’s black Benz. For a split second I wonder if he’s come for me himself. But of course Papa wouldn’t be here. More bad press is not what he needs now.
As the hospital doors open to the nightmare, I’m hit with a blast of heat that can only be delivered by a So Cal afternoon in July.
The barrage of questions begin:
“Did your father’s investigation have anything to do with your suicide attempt?”
“How do you think this will affect your father’s campaign?”
In an instant, Jordan is beside me, fielding questions while Mama bundles me into the backseat of the Benz.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the press,” Jordan calls out to the frenzied pack in a smooth voice, “Mr. Ortiz has no official comment to make at this time but requests that you respect his family’s privacy. He will be available tomorrow to discuss his campaign and the investigation.”
“But, Mr. Cummings,” shouts one female reporter wearing black rectangular glasses. “Under the circumstances, will Mr. Ortiz consider withdrawing his bid for governor?”
“We have no further comment at this time.”
A moment later, Jordan slips into the backseat of the car beside me and Mama. As he shuts the door, I catch a glimpse of the 1911 Colt pistol he carries beneath his jacket. Not that I know much about handguns, but this one’s his pride and joy, something he shows off whenever he has the chance. I don’t mind. Despite everything I’ve done to myself, I feel safer when he’s around.
Jordan tells the chauffeur to head out. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” he asks me, brushing off the lapels of his suit coat.
“Not bad?” I reply, tucking my hands under my knees. “In a few minutes my face is going to be all over the news.”
“Now, Mira,” says Mama, “don’t worry about it. It will all be forgotten tomorrow.”
Mama. Always the optimist. I guess that’s what I love about her. She’s managed to weather the first stretch of a gubernatorial campaign, a federal investigation of her husband, and a lunatic daughter who shrivels at the slightest touch … still, she smiles.
“Your dad’s sorry he couldn’t meet us at the hospital,” Jordan says. “But with everything going on, he thought it best to wait for you at home.”
Mama squeezes my knee through my jeans. “I’m sure he would have come if he could,” she adds. I cringe at her touch, even though the denim keeps her skin off mine. And yet I long to feel her warmth again. It seems like forever since I’ve let her touch me.
As we pull out of the hospital parking lot, I glance back at the media mob packing up their gear and retreating to their respective vehicles. Behind them, the hospital’s new ten-story Rawley addition juts skyward. Like the older complex in Bakersfield, the outer walls are polished, red granite with wide, reflective windows. The bottom floor will house a cafeteria and patient lounge, while the upper floors will be home to medical offices and the laboratory. The first four floors have been complete for a while, but the top floors are not much more than steel girders and scaffolding. It looks more like a giant erector set than a hospital. It should have been finished by now, but construction stopped when the investigation began. It reminds me of myself—empty, broken, abandoned.
The chauffeur takes us through our gate and up the gravel lane, stopping at the front entrance to the house. Papa had it built a few years ago. It looks like that southern plantation in Gone with the Wind: tall, scalloped columns out front, a massive circular drive, and a sprawling lawn. Inside, the floors are white marble, and all the wood trim and banisters are maple. It cost a bundle, but as Rawley’s former CEO, Papa’s got plenty.
As promised, Papa meets us at the door.
“So, how’d it go?” His question is directed at Jordan, not me.
“Not a hitch.” Jordan gives Papa a brief report on the media frenzy at the hospital, then excuses himself, saying something about needing to call Papa’s attorneys. Once Jordan’s gone, Papa turns to Mama and kisses her on the cheek. He starts toward me, but I take a step back.
“That’s right,” he says. “Sorry.”
He’s dressed in a dark suit and tie, which he loosens before sliding it out from his collar. Papa’s not a tall man, barely five-and-half-feet, but he’s strong and good looking. His black hair is combed back from his face, a face adorned with dark eyes and a sculpted jaw line that has captured the hearts of Californians. A Latino JFK.
“How was the inquiry?” Mama asks, taking Papa’s tie and draping it over her arm. She heads for the sitting room and mixes him a drink.
“Those damn piranhas just want to take any bite out of me they can,” Papa replies. His back is turned to me like I’m not even here. But in this house, not here is the best place to be.
“I keep telling the commission that being a CEO was all about the money, marketing, and international distribution. Rawley Pharmaceutical eradicated Autism, for God’s sake. We’re on the brink of curing Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia, yet they want to gut me like a fish because some basement level researcher tested a couple of volunteers without Federal authorization. Volunteers, mind you! It’s not like the corporation raided villages and slapped them in chains.”
“Of course not, Beto.” Mama remains calm, handing him his glass. She glances at me over his shoulder. “Mira, why don’t you go upstairs and get some rest?”
Papa turns to look at me as if noticing me for the first time. “I’m sorry, Pumpkin,” he says, wiping the condensation from his glass with the thumb of his right hand. His fingers are thick and strong, but soft. No calluses because he’s spent most of his life behind a desk or in front of TV cameras and microphones.
“I didn’t mean to be insensitive,” he tells me. “You know, you really gave us a scare this time.”
This time? So the first time was child’s play?
Beneath the fleece sleeves of my hoodie and the white gauze taped around my wrist, my wound still throbs. The staples are out now, replaced by a bunch of tiny butterfly strips. It’ll heal eventually, leaving only a scar behind as evidence. But will the reason I did it ever go away?
Mama grasps my shoulders and steers me toward the staircase. “I’ll be up in a minute to tuck you in.”
“Mama, I’m sixteen.”
“So? Go on. I’ll be right up.”
I obey—mostly. The staircase starts wide at the base and narrows as it curves around a huge Greek pillar toward the landing on the second floor. About halfway up I pause, concealed by the pillar, and listen.
Papa sets his glass down on the foyer table with a little more force than usual. “I am sorry, Ana,” he begins. “I’m just so aggravated about this unwarranted investigation. What evidence do they have anyway? Hell, the guy who supposedly conducted those drug trials has been dead for years. What was his name again?”
“Stark.” Mama sighs. “Gregory Stark. We were introduced at an office party once, don’t you remember?”
“So this Stark guy is dead, and now they need someone to hang in his place. And I’m the perfect target, of course. The first Hispanic candidate for governor in this state with a helluva good shot at winning. They’ll stop at nothing to tear me down. Nothing!”
Everything goes quiet. Mama’s probably removing Papa’s jacket, rubbing his shoulders the way she does when he gets worked up. They continue talking, but with softer voices.
“What about Mira?” Papa asks. His tone is calmer now, more concerned. “Did the doctors say anything more?”
I try to picture their faces. I know Mama’s looking hopeful, nodding her head, smiling as if everything’s going to be okay. “Dr. Walsh wants to evaluate her again tomorrow,” she says.
“Evaluate her? What for? She’s depressed. Give her Gaudium.”
“She received her immunization on her birthday two months ago, just like the policy requires.”
“And that policy is in place for a reason, Ana. Gaudium is still relatively new. Supplies are limited at this point, which is why we’ve only distributed it to children with Autism and teenagers. But once this investigation is over, Rawley can go into full production, making it available to everyone. Mira’s fortunate to have received it when she did.”
“I agree, Beto, and Dr. Jansen even prescribed a booster. But it has had no effect on her.”
“But what if Mira doesn’t have depression or any sort of imbalance? Gaudium couldn’t help her then. Beto, what if she’s telling the truth?”
A silent pause. When Papa speaks again, his voice is strained. “She won’t let anyone near her. Jesus, Ana … she thinks she can read people’s minds.”
Mama’s probably looking into Papa’s eyes, searching for the right words to say. “I know it seems improbable—”
“Improbable? Ana, it’s crazy!”
“I just think that after what’s happened, we should take what she says more seriously. Maybe she should have stayed at the hospital a while longer like Dr. Walsh suggested.”
“No.” My father’s answer is firm, final. “Thanks to some anonymous tip, the press has already spread this thing all over the place. They can attack me all they want, but they’d better leave my daughter out of it.”
At this point their voices drift off, presumably into the dining room. I can’t hear them anymore, but Papa’s words resonate in my mind. It’s crazy. Or, more accurately, she’s crazy.
I don’t want to hear any more. So I head for my bedroom at the top of the stairs. It doesn’t matter that it’s never really felt like mine. The decorators Papa hired insisted on painting the walls a swirly pink and green, Hannah Montana theme. It was fine when I was twelve, but that was four years ago—and I hate the color pink. I’ve hidden most of it beneath a collage of posters from my favorite Broadway shows, like Wicked, Once, and Memphis. There are more posters on the ceiling over my bed stuck up with thumbtacks, and a floor to ceiling bookshelf filled with my favorite novels. Papa bought me the latest iPad for Christmas, but I still prefer real books.
I slip into my room and close the door behind me. Then, pressing my back against it, I sink to the floor and pull my knees up to my chest. If only I could stay here in my own little sanctuary, maybe I’d have a shot at survival. I wrap my arms around my legs and lay my cheek against my knees. I try to coax back the tears, but despite all my efforts a few drop onto my jeans leaving three dark, damp spots behind.