Sky spends most of his days sitting in a plastic desk that clearly wasn’t built for someone six feet tall. Sometimes he gets a break from that when the vice principal calls him out of class to tell him not to skip class. Or he’ll be suspended for skipping, which gives him a whole day off. His parents and teachers keep telling him he could easily do well in school, but he’s now a junior with no chance of graduating any time soon.
At least he has a creative writing class he likes, and although he’s taking it for a make-up credit, it draws honor students as well as ones who have flunked. He watches Julie from the other side of the room and wishes he could be good enough for her. But he’s always picked his friends from the losers who are more like himself, and now his best friend is pulling him even further down.
As his life spins out of control, he finds refuge in “Escape from the Death Squad,” a novel he’s writing about hovercrafts, mutant possums, a desperate flight to the Forbidden Hills—and his fear that something must be wrong with him.
Living in Suspension is a return to my YA roots. It's not as funny as my adult novels, and I love humor, but it means a lot to me.
“Morris paints this beautiful mosaic of something hazy that you can’t quite put your finger on that keeps Sky from succeeding in the conventional school system…because he is more complicated than a simple label of ‘ADD’ or ‘lack of motivation’ or ‘delinquent.’”
"Quite a profound book, for all its speed and brevity"
"The author does an excellent job of connecting the audience to the pain and struggling that Sky endures. My heart bled for this boy."
Sometimes I think there really are multiple universes where the same things are happening but slightly out of synch, and as they go spinning by each other, there can be a glitch. Some oddball bit gets snagged and yanked out of place. Which would explain why an assignment can be due when I’ve never even heard of that assignment. Or a teacher will give a test about something I’ve never seen before. Next time Tuttle calls me into his office to talk about what a screw-up I am, I’ll tell him about this possibility.
Or my mom, next time she’s trying to figure out what’s wrong with me—as if she’d be able to fix me if only she could spot which wire is loose—I should tell her about this too.
So maybe it only seems like I spend Monday through Friday, 8:00 to 3:00, at Westlake High, and Tuttle, the vice principal, will tell you I’m not in fact in class all that time. But I’m still going to school more or less, a junior if you count up the years—even though I’m nowhere close to graduating next year—while my friends have been dropping like flies. Garett left for California last spring. By then James and Reffet had already quit coming to school. Then Dex quit this fall.
Now it’s first period, World History—at least in this universe. I’m in this plastic desk that clearly wasn’t built for someone six feet tall watching a video with a droning voice that’s probably going to put me to sleep. Pericles did stuff in Athens. Sparta didn’t take shit from anyone. Gina’s hair is too big, and the TV is too small, but I get the point—everything was war and conquering of territory, then keeping those territories in line when the people who live there hate you. So what’s new?
The lights come back on. Mr. Whitley says, “Now you have some time to work on your reports.” Kids circle around him asking for passes to the library. I get up and ask for a pass. He says, “Come on, Sky. Give me a break.” Which is probably a reference to the last time he gave me a pass and I never exactly made it to the library.
I fold myself back into that plastic desk.
And now with the new block schedule, which is supposed to make our classes “more in-depth,” each class meets only every other day, and the periods are longer, stretched out—like water torture. There’s still forty-five minutes to go.
English next. A practice test. “We need to prepare for the SATs. Be sure to thoroughly blacken the dots on your answer sheet.”
I can’t believe teachers give tests for practice—like let’s practice smashing ourselves in the face with a bat. And I have zero interest in the SATs. Still, there are some interesting words—allusion, illusion, ennui, inured—and I’ve always liked words. For instance “toe,” which doesn’t happen to be on this test. You can tow your car, you can toe the line, or you can be tow-headed, which I used to believe meant someone had a toe growing out of his skull.
I start blackening dots on the answer sheet. I fill in D for question 24, C for 28. Sometimes I read the lists of words—analogy, urology—but that’s not necessarily how I pick my dots. I try connecting my dots until I’ve got something that looks sort of like Mrs. Carmichael’s nose.
She walks by. “What are you doing, Sky?” Maybe she recognizes her nose. “Here, have another. We have lots of answer sheets.”
Then finally, it’s lunch. I take a burrito out to this hollow beyond the football field where I always like to go for lunch. But since so many of my friends have abandoned me here, I’m now ankle deep in food wrappers and cigarette butts with a bunch of kids who are all at least a year younger than me. A lot of them are freshmen. It’s only the third week of school. These freshmen can barely find their lockers, but they’ve found their way to the pit to join this small, exclusive club: the losers of Westlake High.
It’s small because Westlake isn’t famous for its losers. It’s famous for its SAT scores, and the number of its graduates who go on to college, like my sister Carrie, who’s wowing them at Stanford now.
Garett and I found our way to the pit just as fast our freshman year, and I don’t even smoke.
So I’m like the older generation here. “Hey, Sky,” some of these kids say. I guess they’d like to be my friends. But they’re looking awfully young—as they flirt and swear and bum cigarettes from each other. Hassle each other about who’s a deadbeat for never bringing any smokes. Even the sophomores look young, and they act as if they own the pit now.
There’s a girl with spiky black hair and an eyebrow ring—definitely not a Westlake look—who does this twirly thing on one toe when she laughs. It might be fun to say something to her, if I could think of what.
These kids look at me as if I must know what I’m doing by now. I just wish I did.
Then Chainsaw comes out for a cigarette, and he gets even more respect because tattooed flames lick up his neck. At least he’s my age, so we talk, more or less.
I do have two classes this year I kind of like. My science teacher has terrific tits, and I had to take a make-up for English since I flunked it last year. My choices were Creative Writing, Shakespeare, or Women’s Lit, so I’m in this writing class that’s turned out okay too.
When Chainsaw says, “Let’s get out of here,” I check in with the part of my brain that’s at least semi-aware of what’s going on at school. Nope, I don’t have either of those classes this afternoon. That part of my brain reminds me I’ve made a deal with Tuttle concerning my iffy attendance, but it doesn’t get too pushy about that.
Chainsaw and I go to Dex’s house. Because Dex has amazing parents. They don’t seem to care that he doesn’t do anything anymore but listen to music, smoke weed, and plunk around on his guitar. Mine are nothing like that. But the weed and music help me forget how Tuttle is going to notice I skipped out of class again. He’s going to call my parents. They’re going to be pissed again.
“D’ya hear that?” says Dex. “What they did with that eerie steel? The way they bent it way off key?”
I have no idea what he’s talking about. “You’ve got bionic ears,” I say.
But even to my ordinary ears, Dex’s music collection is great. So is the basement room his parents have let him carpet all the way up the walls. I sink into the sagging couch, and it’s almost like I can slip through to one of those other universes. My mind goes spinning far away from school.
But I did make a deal with Tuttle. Soon the deal goes down. When I get home, I find the message on the answering machine. Since I skipped out for the afternoon, he’s suspended me. Again.
At least Dad is off in Germany, or Tennessee, or Austin. Mom has to glue up a bunch of colored paper for her second grade class. Ranting at me distracts her so much she sticks her gluey fingers in her hair, which looks like one of those orange scrubbers for dishes. She’s frequently angry at her hair. Having to wash glue out of it sidetracks some of her anger from me and hurries her along to her standard conclusion. Leaning over the kitchen sink, scooping water with one hand, the other one tangled in her hair, she says, “I just don’t know what’s wrong with you, Sky.”
Then I can go downstairs.
But I don’t get into a computer game, which is what I’d normally do. Or I’ve been reading a terrific book about this planet that has no light but it still has these leftover words from when people could see—so some people get to chanting those words, but others think the words are taboo, and some get arrested for writing them on walls...
I lie down on my bed with that book, but my mind still seems to be somewhere else—due to the weed, or the music, or maybe the Creative Writing class I didn’t expect to be any different from any other English class, but it is. The words on the page never come into focus. I’m seeing other people than the ones in the book doing other things.
After a while, I get up and go into the computer room. I used to write stories. I haven’t, not for years.
I start writing this:
Escape from the Death Squad by Skylar Allen
The Compound was quiet, but Raven was up and pulling on his skins. He hit the remote to override the alarm, and his window slid silently open. Garth crawled in.
“There’s a patrol over on Multnomah,” said Garth.
And Raven could hear the hovercrafts. “Then we’ll have to go south,” he said.
He strapped on both his stun gun and his annihilator. He clicked the ratchets as tight as they went. He needed them snug against his legs so he’d be ready to run.
But all that snapping and clicking must’ve been louder than he thought. His bedroom door opened, his heart leaped, and Garth pulled his stunner before they saw it was only Raven’s sister Cass.
“Garth, what are you doing here?” she said sleepily. Then her eyes widened at the stunner. Garth quickly slid it back into his holster, but her eyes stayed wide, taking this in, Garth here in the middle of the night, he and Raven both dressed and armed.
“Raven,” she said. “You don’t have to do this. Mom and Dad will stick with you.”
“You know there’s nothing they can do,” Raven said. “Just tell them.”
“Don’t you dare tell them anything,” said Garth.
“No,” said Raven. “Cass, tell them,” and he turned away from her. He dropped some extra battery packs into the cargo pockets of his skins. “Tell them it’s not their fault I’m like this.”
Then he and Garth slipped out the window into the night.
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