For the third arc in my series, The Right Age for Young Readers, I present an excerpt from my young adult novel, Labels: Too Much Information. Those interested in learning more about the premise can read a sample chapter here. Following this excerpt, though, I am asking for comments about what might be the “right age” to read about the very real issues of misogyny, rape, and self-harm.
Jessica Johnson has developed the reluctant ability to see a word in the eyes of others: a “label” that describes their most recent wrongdoing. Discovering the her psychiatrist is a misogynist who becomes a murderer, she seeks help from anyone who might believe her, including the mysterious girl who has been watching her from the corridors of the hospital. The stranger is even more reticent, though, so Jessica tries to chase her…
From Labels, Chapter 4
…Glancing up, I saw a ventilation grate move just slightly. Someone was putting it back onto the vent.
From the inside.
I grabbed the grate, letting it cut into my fingers as the girl struggled to clasp it in place. Channeling every chin-up I’d ever been forced to do, I hauled myself closer to her level, ignoring the slicing sensation in my fingers as my weight forced the grate, with the girl, closer to mine. Of course, unlike those ultra-feminine cops on my TV shows, I was unaccustomed to hot pursuit, so I couldn’t anticipate what she would do next: let go of the grate.
That was the moment that Sarah’s orderly raced into view, toward the commotion. I only caught a glimpse of theft in his eyes, and part of me wondered what he had stolen while I tried to get up.
“Hey!” he shouted at the pile of my limbs on the floor, so I did what my newfound instincts demanded; I threw the grate at him like a Discus, and he dropped like a Shot-Put. Grabbing the lip of the vent again, I fought the lubricating blood on my fingers to pull myself up, and, surprisingly, found Old Patchy to be still in view. She had needed to turn herself around in very tight quarters, but this had definitely gained her the advantage, now that she was crawling in the right direction. In fact, she had the same advantage that I had resented for years in Marnie, in my mother, and in half the girls in my grade at school.
She was skinny.
I wasn’t fat, of course; that reassurance rang through my head in the dozen adult voices that had said it to me while I was growing up. I had hips, though; ‘hips and curves’, my mother had called them, while other kids had been less kind. Candace Bellingham herself had favored the name ‘Jumbo Jess’ for me, but the adults had promised me that my hips and curves would give me an advantage as I got older. They had been right more than once.
It turned out, though, that hips are not an advantage when chasing a skinny girl through the ventilation ducts of the local nuthouse. Who knew?
As I wriggled through each joined section, I tried to reason with her. “It’s OK,” I kept calling. “I just want to—” That was usually around the moment that she would cut suddenly, left or right, into a cross-vent.
These narrow escapes lasted until I managed to clamp a hand around her ankle. I saw the brand on the tread of the shoe I was holding still: ‘Yanto,’ a design that was usually the choice of those who have money. My blood stained the lower cuff of her jeans, as I pleaded with her struggling leg. “Just talk to me,” I offered, forgetting how often I had rejected that same offer from others. “Just tell me what’s wrong.”
Her head came into view, then, as she arched her back, and I saw more clearly the patches of hair that were missing. Each pink shape stood out like a continent against the thinning ocean of her hair, but it was no longer the pink or blonde colors that drew my attention. It was the outline of red around each missing patch: some brightly bleeding, and others scabbed over. Like an atmosphere, sympathy suddenly pressed in all around me as I realized that this girl had been tearing out her own beautiful hair. Something in her life was that terrible.
Then, her arched back gave her the flex that she needed to kick the top of my head with her other foot. She kicked me five times before my bleeding fingers finally let her go, and said her first words to me before disappearing.
“Just leave me alone! Somebody’s got to stop him!”
I had more to say to her. I was desperate to say it, but a recurring foot to my skull has a tendency to daze me; I could only focus on crawling forward without speaking. Our fracas—combined, I suppose, with my hips and curves—had weakened the next joint in the ventilation ducting, and I heard a sickening creak that seemed to last and last before I crashed through the suspended ceiling. I landed like a sand-bag in the Shady Acres’ lobby.
I could almost hear the scandalized oooohs of my classmates, inevitable after they found out how much I was in trou-ble. As orderlies raced toward me under the toppled furniture, I gasped the words I had been trying to say to the vanished girl.
“I just want to help…”
– Your opinion please: what is the “right age” for these Words from K. Alan?