"Aaron Starmer skillfully welds sharp humor, deep loss, and roaring escapades. Truly the smartest and funniest book about spontaneous combustion you will ever read." —John Green, #1 bestselling author of The Fault In Our Stars
A TIME magazine Top 10 YA & Children's Book of 2016!
An ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults selection
With all the perfectly lovely young adult novels out there, you decided to check this one out? It’s got spontaneously combusting teenagers in it, dude. Not the slow burning type either. We’re talking the randomly exploding variety. Seniors in high school just walking along, heading to class, whistling Beyoncé, when—WA-BAM!— they’re suddenly dripping off the lockers.
Is that really something you’re into?
Confession: I’m actually kinda into that too. So, now that we’ve established we’re both thoroughly weird and, I assume, thoroughly open-minded, we can give it shot, right? Let’s at least read the opening chapters of this bad-boy and see if it features some of the more intriguing elements such as...
- Exploding teenagers (obviously).
- Hallucinogenic mushrooms.
- Pyromaniacal boyfriends.
- Triplet toddlers in powder blue suits.
- Amur leopards and doomsday preppers.
- A foul-mouthed female POTUS.
- Ashtanga yoga.
- Youtube sensations.
- Self-driving Priuses.
- Rogue FBI agents.
- Mad scientists.
- Spring break.
- And … Jennifer Lawrence.
Notice how I put Jennifer Lawrence last. She’s in the book, so it’s not cheating. And hey, if it takes America’s most beloved movie star to sell this thing, then that’s what it takes.
So, in closing: Jennifer Lawrence.
"Wildly inventive." — Entertainment Weekly "Must List"
"This comically surreal novel that will blow your mind.”— People Magazine
★ "A blood-soaked, laugh-filled, tear-drenched, endlessly compelling read." — Kirkus, starred review
★ "A wholly original YA tale of identity, friendship, love, lust, and gory, grisly death." — SLJ, starred review
"Bursting with heartache and gore, Mara’s narration appeals directly to readers’
senses of horror and humor." — Horn Book
Excerpt from Spontaneous
To the ones who feel like it could all come apart at any moment . . .and to the ones who comfort us and keep us together
“Call the death by any name Your Highness will,
attribute it to whom you will,
or say it might have been prevented how you will.
It is the same death eternally—inborn, inbred,
engendered in the corrupted humours of the vicious body itself,
and that only—Spontaneous Combustion,
and none other of all the deaths that can be died.”
Charles Dickens, Bleak House
HOW IT STARTED
When Katelyn Ogden blew up in third period pre-calc, the janitor probably figured he’d only have to scrub guts off one whiteboard this year. Makes sense. In the past, kids didn’t randomly explode. Not in pre-calc, not at prom, not even in chem lab, where explosions aren’t exactly unheard of. Not one kid. Not one explosion. Ah, the good old days.
Katelyn Ogden was a lot of things, but she wasn’t particularly explosive, in any sense of the word. She was wispy, with a pixie cut and a breathy voice. She was a sundress of a person—cute, airy, in-offensive. I didn’t know her well, but I knew her well enough to curse her adorable existence on more than one occasion. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true. Doesn’t mean I wanted her to go out the way she did, or that I wanted her to go out at all, for that matter. Our thoughts aren’t always our feelings; and when they are, they rarely last.
On the morning that Katelyn, well, went out, I was sitting two seats behind her. It was September, the first full week of school, an absolute stunner of a day. The windows were open and the faraway drone of a John Deere mixed with the nearby drone of Mr. Mellick philosophizing on factorials. Worried I had coffee breath, I was bent over in my seat, digging through my purse for mints. My POV was therefore limited, and the only parts of Katelyn I saw explode were her legs. Actually, it’s hard to say what I saw. Her legs were there and then they weren’t.
The classroom quaked and my face was suddenly warm and wet. It’s a disgusting way to say it, but it’s the simplest way to say it: Katelyn was a balloon full of fleshy bits. And she popped.
You can’t feel much of anything in a moment like that. You certainly can’t analyze the situation. At least not while it’s happening. Later, the image will play over and over in your head, like some demon GIF, like some creeper who slips into your bed every single night, taps you on the shoulder, and says, “Remember me, the worst fucking moment of your life up to this point?” Later, you’ll feel and do a lot of things, but when it’s actually happening, all you can feel is confusion and all you do is react.
I bolted upright and my head hit my desk. Mr. Mellick dove behind his chair like a soldier into the trenches. My red-faced classmates sat there in shock for a few moments. Blood dripped down the windows and walls. Then came the screaming and the obligatory rush for the door.
The next hour was insane. Hunched running, hands up, sirens blaring, kids in the parking lot hugging. News trucks, helicopters, SWAT teams, cars skidding out in the grass because the roads were clogged. No one even realized what had happened. “Bomb! Blood! Run for the fucking hills!” That was the extent of it. There was no literal smoke, but when the figurative stuff cleared, we could be sure of only two things.
Katelyn Ogden blew up. Everyone else was fine.
Except we weren’t. Not by a long shot.
LET’S BE CLEAR
This is not about Katelyn Ogden. She was important—all of them were—but she was also a signpost, a starting point on a path of self-discovery. I realize how corny and conceited that sounds, but the focus of this should be on me and what you ultimately think of me. Do you like me? Do you trust me? Will you still be interested in me after I say what I have to say?
Yes, yes. I know, I know. “It’s not important what people think of you, it’s who you are that counts.” Well, don’t buy into that crap. Perception trumps reality. Always and forever. Simply consider what people thought of Katelyn. Mr. Mellick once told Katelyn that she “would make an excellent anchorwoman,” which was a coded way of saying that she spoke well and, though it wasn’t clear if she was part black or part Asian or part Hispanic, she was pretty in a nonthreatening, vaguely ethnic way.
In reality, Katelyn Ogden was Turkish. Not part anything. Plain old Turkish. Her family’s original name was Özden, but they changed it somewhere along the line. Her dad was born right here in New Jersey, and so was her mom, but they both had full Turkish blood that went back to the early Ottoman Empire, which, as far as empires go, was a pretty badass one. Their armies were among the first to employ guns and cannons, so they knew a thing or two about things that go boom.
Katelyn’s dad was an engineer and her mom was a lawyer and they drove a Tahoe with one of those stick-figure-family stickers on the back window. Two parents, one kid, two dogs. I’m not entirely sure what the etiquette is, but I guess you keep the kid sticker on your window even . . . after. The Ogdens did, in any case.
I learned all the familial details at the memorial service, which was closed casket, for obvious reasons, and which was held in State Street Theater, also for obvious reasons. Everyone in school had to attend. It wasn’t required by law, but absences would be noted. Not by the authorities necessarily, but by the kids who were quick to label their peers misogynistic assholes or heartless bitches. I know because I was one of those label-happy kids. Again, I’m not necessarily proud of that fact, but I certainly can’t deny it.
The memorial service was quite a production, considering that it was put together in only a few days. Katelyn’s friend Skye Sanchez projected a slideshow whose sole purpose was to remind us how ridiculously effervescent Katelyn was. There was a loving eulogy delivered by a choked-up aunt. A choir sang Katelyn’s favorite song, which is a gorgeous song. The lyrics were a bit sexy for the occasion, but who cares, right? It was her favorite and if they can’t play your favorite song at your memorial service then when the hell can they play it? Plus, it was all about saying good-bye at the wrong moment, and at least that was appropriate for the occasion.
There’s a line in it that goes, “your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm . . .” Katelyn’s hair was short and dark, the furthest thing from sleepy and golden, but that didn’t matter to Jed Hayes, who had a crush on her going all the way back to middle school. That hair-upon-the-pillow line made him blubber so loud that everyone in the balcony felt obligated to nod condolences at the poor guy. His empathy seemed off the charts, but if we’re being honest with ourselves—and we really should be—then we have to accept that Jed wasn’t crying because he truly loved Katelyn. It was because her storm of hair never hit his pillow. Sure, it’s a selfish thing to cry about, but we all cry about selfish things at funerals. We all cry about “if only.”
• If only Katelyn had made it through to next year, then she would have gone to Brown. She was going to apply early decision and was guaranteed to get in. No question that’s partly why her SAT tutor, Mrs. Carbone, was sobbing. All those hours, all those vocab flash cards, and for what? Mrs. Carbone still couldn’t claim an Ivy Leaguer as a past student.
• If only Katelyn had scammed a bit more cash off her parents, then she would have bought more weed. It was well-known among us seniors that Katelyn usually had a few joints hidden in emptied-out mascara tubes that she stashed in the glove box of her Volvo. It was also well-known that she was quickly becoming the drug-dealing Dalton twins’ best customer. Such a loss was surely why the Daltons were a bit weepy. Capitalism isn’t an emotionless endeavor.
• If only Katelyn had the chance to accept his invitation to the prom, then she would have ended up with her hair upon Jed Hayes’s pillow. It was within the realm of possibility. He wasn’t a bad-looking guy and she was open-minded. You couldn’t begrudge the kid his tears.
That’s merely the beginning of the list. The theater was jam-packed with selfish people wallowing in “if only.” Meanwhile, outside the theater, other selfish people had moved on and were already wallowing in “but why?”
As you might guess, when a girl blows up in pre-calc and that girl is Turkish, “but why?” is fraught with certain preconceived notions. It can’t be “just one of those things.” It has to be a “terrorist thing.” That was what the cable-news folks were harrumphing, and the long-fingernailed women working the checkout at Target were gabbing, and the potbellied picketers standing outside the theater were hollering.
Never mind the fact that no one else was hurt when Katelyn exploded. We were all examined. Blood was taken. Questions were asked. Mr. Mellick’s class was considered healthy, if not in mind, then in body. We were considered innocent.
Never mind the fact that there wasn’t a trace of anything remotely explosive found in the classroom. The police did a full sweep of it, the school, Katelyn’s house, the nearest park, and a halal restaurant two towns over. They didn’t find a thing. FBI was there too, swabbing everything with Q-tips. Collective shrugs all around.
Never mind “if only.” A girl with so much potential doesn’t suicide-bomb it all away. She just doesn’t. Sure, she smoked weed, and if the rumors were true, she was slacking off in pre-calc and fighting with her mom, but that’s not because senior year was her year to blow things up. It was her year to blow things off, perhaps her last chance in life to say fuck it.
It was a lot of people’s last chance to say fuck it, as it turned out.
HOW YOU FEEL
To describe how you feel after a girl explodes in your pre-calc class is a tad tricky. I imagine it’s similar to how you feel when any tragedy comes hurtling into your life. You’re scared. You’re fragile. You flinch. All the time. You may have never even thought about what holds life together. Until, of course, it comes apart.
Same with our bodies. You can imagine cancer and other horrible things wreaking havoc on our doughy shells, but you don’t ever expect our doughy shells to, quite figuratively, disintegrate. So when the unimaginable happens, when the cosmos tears into your very notion of what’s possible, it’s not that you become jaded; it’s that you become unsure. Unsure that you’ll ever be sure about anything ever again.
You get what I’m saying, right? No? Well, you will.
For now, maybe it’s easier to speak about practicalities, to describe what exactly happens after a girl explodes in your pre-calc class. You get the rest of the day off from school, and the rest of the week too. You talk to the cops on three separate occasions, and Sheriff Tibble looks at you weird when you don’t whimper as much as the guy they interviewed before you. You are asked to at¬tend private therapy sessions with a velvet-voiced woman named Linda and, if you want, group therapy sessions with a leather-voiced man named Vince and some of the other kids who witnessed the spontaneous combustion.
That’s what they were calling it in the first few weeks: spontaneous combustion. I had never heard of such a thing, but there was a precedent for it—for people catching fire, or exploding, with little-to-no explanation. Now, unless you’ve been living in the jun¬gles of New Guinea for the last year, you already know all this, but if you want a refresher on the history of spontaneous combustion, head on over to Wikipedia. Skip the section on “The Covington Curse” if you want the rest of this story to be spoiler-free.
From Linda, I learned that it was normal to feel completely lost when a girl spontaneously combusts in your pre-calc class. Because in those first few weeks I’d find myself crying all of sudden, and then making really inappropriate jokes the next moment, and then going about the rest of the day like it was all no big deal.
“When something traumatic happens, you fire your entire emotional arsenal,” Linda told me. “A war is going on inside of you, and I’m here to help you reload and make more targeted attacks. I’m here to help the good guys win.”
At the group sessions, Vince didn’t peddle battlefront metaphors. He hardly spoke at all. He simply repeated his mantra: “Talk it out, kids. Talk it out.”
So that’s what we did. Half of us “kids” from third period pre-calc met in the media room every Tuesday and Thursday at four, and we shared our stories of insomnia and chasing away bloody visions with food and booze and all sorts of stuff that therapists can’t say shit about to your parents because they have a legal obligation to keep secrets.
Nutty as she was, Linda helped. So did Vince. So did the rest of my blood-obsessed peers, even the ones who occasionally called me insensitive on account of my sense of humor.
“Sorry, but my cell is blowing . . . spontaneously combusting,” I announced during a Thursday session when my phone kept vibrating with texts. It had been only six weeks since we’d all worn Katelyn on our lapels. In other words, too soon.
“I realize that jokes are a form of coping,” Claire Hanlon hissed at me. “But tweet them or something. We don’t need to hear them here.”
“Sorry, but I don’t tweet,” I told her.
That said, I did fancy myself a writer. Long form, though. I had even started a novel that summer. I titled it All the Feels. I think it was young adult fiction, what some might call paranormal ro-mance. I didn’t care, as long as I could sell the movie rights. Which didn’t seem like an impossibility. The story was definitely relatable. It was about a teenage boy who was afraid of his own emotions. In my experience, that summed up not only teenage boys, but teenagers in general. Case in point:
“This is a healing space and that makes it a joke-free zone,” Claire went on. “I don’t want to relive that moment and you’re liable to give me a flashback.”
“I like Mara’s jokes,” Brian Chen responded. “They help me remember it’s okay to smile. I don’t know if I’d still be coming to these things if it wasn’t for Mara.”
“Thank you, Bri,” I said, and at that point I began to realize that we were a bit of a cliché. Stories about troubled teenagers often feature support groups where smart-ass comments fly and feel¬ings get hurt, where friends and enemies are forged over one-liners and tears. But here’s the thing. Even if we were a bit of a cliché, we were only a cliché for a bit. Because almost immediately after announcing his dedication to my humor, Brian Chen blew up.
I did that on purpose. I didn’t give you much of a chance to know Brian and then I was all, like, “Oh yeah, side note, that dude exploded too.” I understand your frustrations. Because he seemed like a nice guy, right? He was. Undoubtedly. One of the nicest guys around. He didn’t deserve his fate.
That’s the thing. When awful fates snatch people away, sometimes it happens to someone you know a little and sometimes it happens to someone you know a lot, and in order to shield yourself from the emotional shrapnel, it’s better to know those someones a little. So I was trying to do you a solid, by getting the gory details out of the way from the get-go. Unfortunately, you won’t always have that luxury. Because to understand my story, you’re going to have to get to know at least a few people, including a few who blow up.
A bit about Brian, because he deserves a bit. He was half Korean and half Chinese. I’m not sure which half was which, which is racist I guess. I don’t doubt that Brian knew that Carlyle is an English name while McNulty is an Irish name, but all these months later and I still can’t be bothered to find out if Chen is Korean or Chinese in origin. I know. I’m a total dick. As I said, I’m not necessarily proud of it.
Thing is, I liked Brian. I even kissed him once. On the eighth grade trip to Washington, DC, we were in the back of the bus and he rested his head on my shoulder. We weren’t good friends or anything, but it was one of those moments. Hot bus. Long drive. All of us tired and woozy.
When no one was looking, I kissed him on the lips. No tongue, but I held it for a couple of seconds. It was more than a peck. I did it because I thought it would feel nice. His lips seemed so soft. And it did feel nice. And soft. But Brian pretended to be asleep, even though it was obvious he was awake. My elbow was touching his chest and I felt his heart speed up. So I also pretended to be asleep, because that’s what you do when you kiss a guy and he pretends to be asleep. You follow suit, or you end up embarrassing yourself even more.
We went on with our lives after that. Went to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, the Washington Monument, the Pentagon. Then we went home. We didn’t talk about what I did. Which was fine by me. Brian didn’t spread rumors or try to take advantage of the situation. Like I said, one of the nicest guys around. He still smiled at me in the hall, used my name when he saw me.
“Good to see you, Mara.”
“How’d that bio test turn out, Mara?”
“Can I offer you a baby carrot, Mara?”
Brian liked baby carrots. Loved them, actually. Ate them all the time. Raw. Unadorned. No dip or peanut butter or anything to make them taste less carroty. He kept a bag of them in his backpack and munched his way through life. I don’t know if it was an addiction or a discipline, but either way you kind of had to respect it.
What you didn’t have to respect was that he wore the same pair of filthy neon-blue sneakers everywhere, even to dances and Katelyn’s memorial service. He called them his “laser loafers,” a term that didn’t catch on, as he’d obviously hoped it would. He’d gone viral once and figured he could harness that magic again. It doesn’t work that way, though.
Viral, you ask? The boy went viral? In a manner of speaking, yes. Because Brian Chen was the proud creator of Covington High’s favorite catchphrase: “Wrap it up, short stuff!”
It was dumb luck, really. He had first said it during a group presentation in English class when the five-foot-two-inch Will Duncan kept blabbing on and on about how sad it was that Sylvia Plath “offed herself by sticking her head in the oven because she was actually pretty hot, in addition to being crazy talented.”
“Wrap it up, short stuff!” Brian blurted out to shut his pal up and everybody lost their shit. By the end of the week, “Wrap it up, short stuff!” was something we said to long-winded people. Then we started hollering it at my parents’ deli to the guys who figuratively wrapped up the sandwiches. Then we started using it as shorthand for “please use a condom or else you’re gonna end up with a baby or a disease, basically something that will ruin your life.”
I know. Wrap it up, short stuff.
So, yeah, Brian Chen was a nice guy. A carroty guy with soft lips, filthy sneakers, and a catchphrase. Now you know him, and I hope you understand that when I make jokes about him and the other people who were here and gone in an instant, it’s because of a billion things that are wrong with me. But it’s not because they deserve it.
WHAT WAS WRONG WITH US
Here’s what happens when a guy blows up during your group therapy session that’s supposed to make you feel better about people blowing up. The group therapy session is officially canceled. You do not feel better.
What also happens is all nine remaining members of the group therapy session are escorted to the police station in an armored vehicle. With Katelyn, they let us shower before the cops got involved, but no such luck with Brian. It was too much of a coincidence. Same group of people, same wa-bam.
This wasn’t terrorism. Or, to be more accurate, Brian wasn’t a suicide bomber. Around here, nobody thinks an East Asian person would be a terrorist. Which is silly, really, because East Asia has plenty of terrorists. Back in the nineties, there were a bunch of Japanese terrorists who filled a subway station with poison gas and killed a shit-ton of people. No Turk has pulled off something that audacious, as far as I know. It’s definitely racist to think that Katelyn was a terrorist and Brian wasn’t.
But that’s what people thought. Or they thought someone else in our class was behind both incidents. So the cops shuffled us pre-calc, group-therapy saps into a conference room where we sat, bloody and stunned, under awful fluorescent bulbs that flickered every few seconds.
“Gahhh!” Becky Groves screamed as soon as the cops left us alone. They had gathered in the hall to talk to some FBI agents. To strategize, I guess.
“Let ’em cool their heels a bit,” they were probably saying as they blew on their coffee. “Get their stories straight and then, blammo, we’ll work the old McKenzie Doubleback on these perps.”
Yes, yes, I know, I know. There’s no such thing as the “McKenzie Doubleback,” but I’m sure they have names for their interrogation techniques.
Anyway, once Becky Groves was done screaming—which was a few seconds later because she’s Becky Groves and she has the lungs of a water buffalo—Claire Hanlon said, “So who did it?”
“Really?” I replied.
“Really!” Claire snapped. “The police know this can’t be a coincidence . . . and I know this can’t be a coincidence . . . and I know I didn’t do it . . . and so it has to be one of you.” An aneurysm seemed imminent the way Claire was panting out the words.
“How?” Malik Deely asked.
“However . . . people like you . . . do these sorts of things,” Claire said.
You don’t use the term “people like you” around people like Malik (that is, black people), but he had a cool-enough head to let logic beat out emotion.
“Seriously?” he said. “Seriously? There was no bomb. The guy’s chair was completely intact. Becky was sitting right next to him and she’s fine.”
“Gahhh!” Becky screamed again, this time with her eyes squeezed shut and her hands clawing at her frizzy red hair.
“Physically fine, I mean,” Malik said. “We all are. Something inside these kids just . . . went off.”
Greyson Hobbs, Maria Hermanez, Gabe Carlton, Yuki Dolan, and Chris Welch were all in the room too, but they weren’t saying anything. Their perplexed eyes kept darting back and forth as we spoke. It was like they were foreign tourists who’d stumbled into a courtroom. They weren’t trying to figure out who was innocent or guilty. All they wanted to know was “How the hell did we end up in this place? Which way is the way back to Disney World?”
When the door opened, those perplexed eyes all darted to Special Agent Carla Rosetti of the FBI. I would learn later that she wasn’t necessarily the best and brightest, but at that moment, compared to our schlumpy local boys-in-blue, she looked like the real goddamn deal.
She stood in the doorway decked out in a white shirt, dark blazer, dark pants, and dark pumps. Standard FBI attire, I assumed, though a bit baggier than what the chicks on TV rocked. The clothes were obviously chain-store bought, but from a nice chain store. Ann Taylor or something. Even without the outfit, her name was Carla Rosetti and how could she not be an ass-kicking federal agent with a name like that?
“Your parents are here to collect you,” Special Agent Carla Rosetti said as she stepped into the room. “But first you will be surrendering your clothing. There are showers and sweat suits. You’ll wash down, dress up, and go home. You’ll be hearing from us tomorrow morning.”
“No. You will be hearing from my lawyer. Tonight,” Claire said. “I have rights, you know?”
“I never said you didn’t,” Special Agent Carla Rosetti remarked. “I simply asked you to give me my evidence, evidence I obtained a warrant to collect. The alternative is to walk out the door and face some serious criminal charges, which I’m sure will delight your parents, especially after you’ve covered the interiors of their Audis with bloodstains. Kids have been getting changed for gym class for time immemorial. This is no more a violation of your rights than that. I’ll blow a whistle and force you to play dodgeball if that’ll make you feel more comfortable, though I’m not constitutionally obliged to.”
Special Agent Carla Fucking Rosetti.
IN CASE YOU WERE WONDERING
Showers in police stations can burn the sun off a sunbeam, and sweat suits from police stations have pit stains the size of pancakes, but you don’t complain about those things, considering that you’ve lived through two spontaneous combustions. You simply go home washed and dressed in gray cotton and when your parents ask you what you need, you tell them you need to be alone, and they respect that, for the time being. Then you flop down on your bed with your iPad and you see the story invading every corner of the internet.
ANOTHER EXPLOSION ROCKS SCHOOL
MORE TERROR AT COVINGTON HIGH
WE RANK THE TOP TEN SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTIONS IN HISTORY
So you close your laptop and turn to your phone, which is blowing . . . spontaneously combusting. There are a ton from your friend Tess, but the last text that comes in is from a number you don’t recognize.
You were there for both of them. That must have been invigorating.
Not scary. Not sad. Not difficult.
You should be creeped out, but you’re not. Because it’s the first time that someone gets it right. Both explosions were exactly that. Invigorating. A terrible thing to admit, but it’s in those moments of admitting and accepting your own terribleness that you realize other people can be terrible too. And if they can be terrible too, then maybe they can be vulnerable too, caring too, and all the things that you are and hope to be.
You fall in love, which is the stupidest thing you can ever do.