Because You'll Never Meet Me

For my sister
and all the things that make us

Contents

Chapter One: The Laser Beam

Chapter Two: The Pacemaker

Chapter Three: The Computer

Chapter Four: The Fountain

Chapter Five: The Power Line

Chapter Six: The Words

Chapter Seven: The Cabin

Chapter Eight: The Goggles

Chapter Nine: The Woods

Chapter Ten: The Piercings

Chapter Eleven: The Puddles

Chapter Twelve: The Books

Chapter Thirteen: The Book Light

Chapter Fourteen: The Cigarette

Chapter Fifteen: The Living Room

Chapter Sixteen: The Outfit

Chapter Seventeen: The Fence

Chapter Eighteen: The Dead Mouse

Chapter Nineteen: The Phone

Chapter Twenty: The Cat

Chapter Twenty-One: The Fishbowl

Chapter Twenty-Two: The Deer Blind

Chapter Twenty-Three: The Cane

Chapter Twenty-Four: The Music

Chapter Twenty-Five: The Rose-Colored Spectacles

Chapter Twenty-Six: The Coat

Chapter Twenty-Seven: The Chamber

Chapter Twenty-Eight: The Needles

Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Womble

Chapter Thirty: The Blackberries

Chapter Thirty-One: The Hands

Chapter Thirty-Two: The Confetti

Chapter Thirty-Three: The Microphone

Chapter Thirty-Four: The Doorway

Acknowledgments

Chapter One
The Laser Beam

Dear Fellow Hermit,

My name is Oliver, but most people who meet me end up calling me Ollie. I guess you don't really have to, though, because odds are you'll never meet me.

I can never travel to wherever you are, because a big part of what makes me a hermit is the fact that I'm deathly allergic to electricity. This is kind of massively incapacitating, but hey—everyone has problems, right?

I think never being able to meet me is sort of a shame, because I'm not
too
boring. I can juggle forks like nobody's business, for starters. I'm also pretty great at kanji calligraphy, and I can whittle a piece of pine into anything—well, anything made of pine. Dr. Auburn-Stache (I swear that's his real name) is impressed by how quickly I can list every bone in the human body, from the distal phalanx of my ugliest toe all the way up to the frontal bone above my
eyes. I've read more books than I've got hairs on my head, and I am just months away from mastering the glockenspiel. (In case you didn't know, the glockenspiel is like the metallic, cooler older brother of the xylophone.) I know what you're thinking, but you'd be surprised how living alone in the woods can warm a person to the delights of glockenspieling.

But beyond all that stuff, the most interesting thing about me is that I'm lovesick.

I don't mean all that poetical nonsense about feeling the urge to carve a girl's name into notebooks and desks and trees. I'm not talking moonlit serenades, either, because even my wheezing
cat
is a better singer than I am.

I mean that if I wanted to be around this girl—Liz, her name is Liz—under normal circumstances, I could die. If I ever wanted to take her out to—I dunno—an
arcade
(isn't that what you call those mystical places that are just wall-to-wall electric games?), the moment I walked into a bleeping basement full of neon lights and racing simulators, I'd collapse and start seizing like there's no tomorrow. Which there might not be, if I hit my head the wrong way.

I don't think that's what most people mean by lovesickness, Fellow Hermit.

If I took this girl out to a movie (and I would love to—what are movies like?), the buzzing of the projector behind us would make my eyelids twitch. The shrill screeching of phones in other people's pockets would drive emerald ice picks into my temples, and the dim lights overhead would burn white and gold in my retinas. Maybe I'd even swallow my tongue.

But I read somewhere that people who have epileptic fits can't actually swallow their tongues. They do
bite
their tongues, though;
one time after a big seizure I chomped right through mine, and it took Auburn-Stache, like, seven stitches on the top and five on the bottom to make it heal up afterward. For more than two weeks, I wandered around our cabin saying things like “Waf gongan?” and “Yef, pleef” while Mom just shook her head at me, all exasperated.

Mom's always exasperated. Her face is pretty creased up most of the time, especially around her eyes, even when she's smiling. That's mostly my fault, I think. I would never say anything to her about it, because I think it would upset her that I noticed, and then she might lock herself in the garage again for a day or two, or even longer this time.

Mom's amazing, but she and I have had some pretty bad days lately, days where neither of us really enjoys the winter sunshine. She's watching while I'm writing this by candlelight, and she's probably wondering if you'll even be able to read it. Mom says I've got the handwriting of a drunk doctor. One time I asked Dr. Auburn-Stache if he would consider drinking some moonshine (isn't that what people are supposed to drink out in the woods?) and then write me a sonnet so I could compare our penmanship, but he just snickered behind his goatee and patted me on the shoulder.

But—what was I talking about?

Was I talking about Liz? Probably I was, because that's what it's like when you're lovesick. The first side effect is uncontrollable word-vomit:

When Liz is around, it seems like nothing else is! She smirks and teases me just like she did on the day I met her in the woods, and then I think that maybe I'm going to be okay, maybe I'm
not
losing it after all. Because Liz told me that no one should ever say
his illness before his name. And I told you my name first, Fellow Hermit!

But … Liz is hardly ever around anymore, so …

Sorry if I wasn't supposed to be talking about her!

Liz's parents are social workers, and she thinks I have some kind of attention deficit disorder because sometimes my thoughts careen away from my brain and I blab, blab, blab.

But tell me about you! What's your deal?

Mom won't say where she plans to send this letter. All she says is that Auburn-Stache knows another kid somewhere out there a couple of years older than me with his own set of bizarre medical issues. What with everything that has happened to me this year, she thought I could use someone to talk to. She thinks I need help, but she's overreacting. It's not like I've stopped
eating
; sometimes a guy just doesn't want tuna sandwiches. That doesn't mean I'm sick. Or at least any sicker than usual, because you can't get much sicker than being allergic to electricity.

About that—I'll try explaining it to you, but if you ask
why
I'm allergic to electricity, I'll just throw my hands up and sigh. I've always been this way. It's the ultimate mystery in my neck of the woods.

It might have something to do with a
top secret
laboratory, though! This is just a hypothesis, and it doesn't
just
come from reading
Frankenstein
in blanket forts during thunderstorms as an impressionable ten-year-old. Half the superhero characters I've read about, from Captain America to the Hulk to Wolverine, got interesting abilities after being test subjects in laboratories.

I think being an experiment sounds way better than being sick, you know?

So here's the working theory: maybe Dr. Auburn-Stache met your parents at a secret, hush-hush laboratory? Maybe the same one where my dad got radiation poisoning!

Because, see, I do have evidence to support my hypothesis. I don't know much about my dad. But I do know he was some sort of doctor or
scientist
, because Mom keeps his lab coat hanging in her wardrobe. One time, when I was seven or something, I snuck into her room to steal her keys from her bureau (sometimes she padlocks us in, but I really wanted to go outside because it was prime cricket-catching season), and she was fast asleep with the faded white coat draped over her like a blanket. I saw that and stopped looking for the keys.

She won't tell me whether I'm right about the lab, or about dad, beyond saying that he was sick before he died. (I guess it wasn't
necessarily
radiation poisoning.) But I am an expert needler, Fellow Hermit. Over the years I've tried all sorts of tactics to get the story out of her. These tactics include but are not limited to

a. leaping out from behind her armchair and screeching: “Who'smydaddyyyy!?”

b. waiting in the dark pantry until she dives in seeking flour, at which point I moan in a low whisper, “What about … the laboratory?”

c. moping extensively (it's an act, I swear) with the shiniest damn puppy eyes you've ever
seen
.

Mom is unshakable. Her usual response to all tactics is an eye roll, but every now and then she pats me on the head. When I'm in the pantry, she just shuts the door on me.

So I don't know who my dad was, but I know
she misses him. If she misses him anything like how much I miss Liz, then no wonder she locks the doors.

Maybe you can tell me anything you know about laboratories in your letter, since I went to bug Mom about it again just now, and she told me to sit back down at my desk and try, for the love of pajamas, to stay on topic for once. How? I've never really had to stay on topic before. When it's just you alone in a forest of pine trees for your whole life, there's really no reason not to meander. No one's ever around to tell me to shut up.

I mean, apart from the mailman and a few others, hardly anyone around here has ever even seen me. Liz told me that some people believe my cabin is an urban legend! I wish I could ride to town and show them what's what.

But there's this power line halfway down our long driveway, right, and the orange tendrils of electricity that dangle down from it never let me pass underneath. Those little wisps of tangerine light actually yanked me off my bike once and threw me headfirst into a tree trunk.

What I've got is a bit weirder than an allergy, when you get right down to it. Sometimes it's more like mutual repulsion or something, like when you put two magnets with the same polarization nose-to-nose and they catapult each other across the table. Doesn't that sound almost like something from comics? Compelling, right?

Mom says I'm not explaining myself properly. She frowned at the part I wrote about the lab coat but didn't scratch it out, and then she read about the repulsion stuff and reminded me that my sickness is basically like a tongue: it's hard for most people to swallow.

Epilepsy basically means that the electricity in your brain is
somehow out of whack. A lot of people in the world have this problem, but most people don't have to be hermits because of it.

Having epilepsy means sometimes having seizures—um, shaking fits? I think of it like this: my head gets stuck on something and then the whole rest of me gets stuck, too, and it's like those times when you stutter, but it's not my words—it's all of me. Head to toe, just stuttering. And later I can't remember what I was trying to do or say in the first place. All that's left are throbbing temples, a swollen tongue, lost time, and so much bone-tiredness that I don't want to move ever again.

I've read
tons
of pamphlets on epilepsy. Mom brings them home from the clinic and we go through them together. I've read that some people only develop epilepsy after a nasty head injury, like from a car crash. Others start having seizures as a side effect of a disease or drug abuse.

But some people just have rotten luck. See also: me.

Pamphlets are also how I learned about auras, when I was six or something.

“‘Before having seizures, many people have some sense that a seizure is imminent. This sense is referred to as an aura.' And
imminent
means ‘close.' Head up, Ollie. This is important.”

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