THIS WEEK’S OTHER FEATURED BOOK, “GIVING PAWS,” BY MARTHA L. THOMPSON, CAN BE FOUND BY SCROLLING DOWN BELOW THIS POST, ALONG WITH THE “FIRST TUESDAY REPLAY.” OR, YOU CAN CLICK ON MARTHA’S NAME ON OUR AUTHOR PAGE.
PUBLISHED IN: 2017.
THE AUTHOR: Kate Kort
THE PUBLISHER: Brick Mantel Books.
SUMMARY: Laika desperately wishes for a new life. At fourteen, she’s hardened and independent, living on the streets of southern California. She’s finally free of her volatile home but yearns for true stability.
As Graham, a waiter at a local Russian restaurant, watches Laika steal and struggle to survive, he sees there is something else going on. Something dangerous. An insidious disease that gnaws at her mind and drags her deeper into a world of chaos and delusion.Laika brings to light the often-shrouded world of paranoid schizophrenia. It also examines the socially stigmatized issues of homelessness, addiction, and PTSD, in the hopes of fostering greater awareness and compassion.
THE BACK STORY: “Laika was a story that flowed easily out of my head (unlike my first book, Glass, which was a more difficult process). I had a general idea of what I wanted to write about: teen homelessness. However, once I started writing, I knew this had to also be a story about mental health and compassion. It took about four months to get everything down on paper, with only a few light revisions to follow.
“Since I chose to write about schizophrenia, a subject I have no personal experience with, I knew research would be crucial. I wanted to treat the subject with the weight it deserved, without falling back on cliches or stereotypes. I started by reading personal accounts, memoirs, and medical guides. I then spent hours on online message boards where people living with schizophrenia, as well as their loved ones, could post questions and discussions. This was the most helpful resource for me; I was able to look in on a world which is completely unfamiliar to most, sometimes asking questions, mostly just listening.”
WHY THIS TITLE?: I love characters (especially protagonists) with unusual names. I chose to name the book after her because it’s (clearly) her story, and while her narration may become unreliable and disjointed and detached, she is still there, always.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? Laika is not a story you have heard before. It brings an unexpected character into an experimental narrative, and I feel readers are looking for something like this to challenge them. It’s quirky yet heavy, and that balance makes the read enjoyable as well as revealing.
REVIEW COMMENTS:“In Laika, Kate Kort explores the title character’s world with heartbreaking clarity. The novel’s electric prose and beautifully rendered characters thrum with delicate fear and sadness as readers bear witness to Laika’s growing mental illness. Along the way, Kort doesn’t pull any punches, and that’s precisely why the novel is so powerful. By faithfully representing Laika’s illness—by making it real on the page—Kort has crafted an important and sagely empathetic examination of mental illness’ all too real human cost. At turns gritty and tender, Laika is a powerful and necessary novel.”—James Brubaker, author of Liner Notes and Pilot Season“Kate Kort’s Laika grabs the reader as few YA novels do. In fact, it transcends the genre by creating two characters—Laika and Graham—who represent the dark side of an American life few like to acknowledge. A street kid haunted by psychological demons, Laika survives by her wits in a world that doesn’t particularly care for damaged kids. That is, until an equally damaged adult takes her under his wing. Told in second-person—a point of view that can feel annoying in less skilled hands—Laika offers a relevance that seems particularly important now as our health-care system comes into question. We can only wonder how many more Laika’s we will see.”—Michael C. White, author of Resting Places and Soul Catcher
“Kate Kort’s second novel, Laika, is a chilling yet moving exploration of an embattled girl’s plummet into paranoid schizophrenia while living homeless on mean city streets. The novel keeps the reader close via an unexpected point of view, brilliantly rendered. Laika could be one more tragic runaway if not for Graham, a middle-aged man with his own psychic battle and a huge heart, who illustrates the novel’s (and life’s) greatest lesson: to be decent human beings, we must care for those who suffer, no matter how damaged we are ourselves.”—Susan Swartwout, author of Odd Beauty, Strange Fruit
AUTHOR PROFILE: I was born in St. Louis, MO but now live outside of Portland, OR with my husband and three kids. I have always loved writing and majored in English at Truman State University. My first novel, Glass, was published by Brick Mantel Books in 2015.http://www.brickmantelbooks.com/books/glass.php
AUTHOR COMMENTS: Mental health is a topic that I feel can’t be talked about, read about, thought about enough. I wanted to give a voice to a minority population that is often grossly misunderstood. I think readers will come away with renewed compassion for those living with mental illness, and a greater sense of what that looks like.
You walk quickly through the crowd going up Forty-Fourth Street. Once you’re gone, you never look back. Never. You cross over Jackson Parkway, then cut through the alley west to your place on Matthias.
You’re pretty sure he’s on to you.
The back alley’s deserted as you throw your backpack through the window and climb in after it. Everything’s quiet except for your ragged breathing. You’re thinking, Should have taken Delaney this time, or at least doubled back through Brighton Hills. You tack the scraps of black fabric back up on the window and collapse onto the milk crate that keeps you a couple of feet off the damp cement floor.
It’s August and it’s hot, but the basement air cools your sweat and slows your mind a bit. That one waiter was looking at you. You’re sure of it now. He’s there all the time, must work about fifty hours a week.
You think you’ve gotten good at sleight of hand, blending in, disappearing, but this time…
You jump off the crate and dump the contents of your backpack onto the dingy carpet remnant you’ve been sleeping on. A few slices of hard bread, half a baked potato, two pieces of cold boiled pork and a golden apple, all wrapped in red cloth napkins. Not bad for three in the afternoon. But you can’t really enjoy it now. You eat a slice of bread and carefully place everything else in the sectioned-off wine box in the corner of the room.
You stand up on the milk crate and slowly push back the makeshift curtains, scanning the gritty road. Nobody in sight. You’d know if someone had followed you.
Should have just gone the extra half-mile to Delaney. You pick up the city map off the carpet and study it. You’ve spent weeks learning the streets, alleys, restaurants, markets, everything. It’s hard to see the intersections anymore because you’ve scribbled over them so much, planning routes and detours and diversions in an endless effort to quell your fear. You wish your hair wasn’t red—so noticeable against your pale skin. You might try to steal some dye. You could at least find some scissors and cut it. Maybe you’ll do that.
Now you think maybe you should stop going to Yevgeny Alekseev’s—that it’s too dangerous. There are plenty of new places for you to try, but new places generally strip you of good sense and lock your heart in panic. You like low-risk, calculated, practiced.
But after this long, after starting to face the possibility that you screwed up and landed in the wrong city, you still can’t stop looking for her.
You pull the crumpled photograph from your back pocket. Lena Nikolskaya Mishnev. You’ve seen it a thousand times, but still, you study it. A grainy snapshot of two little girls, both looking sullen and sitting on the front steps of their apartment in Novgorod, staring off past the camera. Their father, Kolya, took the picture and your mother, Anya, left it for you. Your dad said it was the only photograph she had of herself with her older sister from when they were young.
They eventually left and both settled in America, along the same coast, but you’ve only seen Lena once since your mother died. Your father gave you the photograph after a couple of years and you asked if you could visit her, but he acted offended and said he wasn’t about to drive down five hours to see a near stranger who barely spoke English. But when you were eight your father finally told her she could come visit. She sat on your moldy couch with a glass of iced tea made from tea bags she’d brought herself and told you she’d be there if you needed her. Somehow it sounded harsh the way she said it, with her thick accent and terse speech, but she took your hand and looked you in the eye. She said your dad wasn’t himself, that even after four years he needed more time to grieve and you just had to stay out of his way. You took the advice to heart, but eventually ran out of ways to be invisible.
So here you are, in the biggest city that’s roughly five hours south of your home, the place with a promising Russian population, the block with the freshest Siberian tomatoes and Georgian cheese. The market that must be the best in the city.
You frown, bringing yourself back. The waiter noticed you. He was pretending to clear tables at the other side of the restaurant but he was watching. Once you met his gaze you got out of there, but it was probably too late. He’ll remember you. He’ll remember your long hair and your torn jeans. He’ll remember your faded pink shirt and the scar over your eyebrow. He’s probably put it together you’re the girl who sometimes hides under the white baseball cap and broken sunglasses.
Or maybe he won’t. Maybe he doesn’t even care. Maybe he steals, too. Maybe he’s got a lot of other things on his mind and what does he care if some kid takes a little food now and then? You decide not to worry about it because you’ve gotten pretty good at this and you’re not going to make any more mistakes.
You lie down on the carpet and fall asleep because the black fabric that covers your only window blocks out all the light, and hardly anyone ever passes through the alley off Matthias.
Hey, did you see Ches in language arts this morning? He kept looking at you. Did you see when Mrs. Klein told him to focus and he got all red? Too bad he’s such a dick. But if you like him I’ll ask him out for you. I know you like Tommy, but sorry that shit’s not happening. (I love you so I give it to you straight) See you in Health (fuuuuck, I didn’t do the reading…again.)
You don’t know why you keep the letters. You’ve got probably twenty of them
in the bottom of your backpack, all folded into excruciatingly small triangles, and all from Britt. You feel bad, not saying goodbye to her. You hope she’s not looking for you—that she’s not hounding the police, telling them all your secrets and hoping they’ll do something about it. You should have let her in on your plan, but it just seemed too risky.
You think about your friends, how they’ll be starting high school soon. They must have forgotten you by now. Everyone except Britt. You think about the last time you talked to her—the day after that terrible night with the light bulb—when she wanted to know why you weren’t at school. You composed yourself and told her you were sick and it was pretty gross so you probably couldn’t go at all that week, but she saw through your bullshit and said you didn’t sound sick. She said you sounded like something had happened. She said she could come over and “fuck shit up” if you wanted her to, but you laughed and said, “no, thanks”. She always could make you laugh.
You read a few more letters, but they start to make you feel queasy so you fold them back up and put them away. You think about practicing your Russian but your mind’s racing too much to focus. It’s late and you find you don’t have much left to give at the end of the day. You don’t talk to people or follow a schedule or rush to meet deadlines, but it’s still exhausting. You have to be invisible. You have to eat. You have to convince yourself you made the right decision. You have to force away enough darkness from your mind to allow you to get up each morning. But sometimes you can’t. Sometimes you sleep all day and wish you’d never wake up.
Morning always catches you by surprise. Your watch says 10:37 a.m. and you think it’s probably within an hour or so of being accurate, so you get up and eat one of the pieces of pork. Saturday. You sigh. You know it’s easier to blend in, but you still hate how crowded the city is on the weekend.
Behind the decrepit furnace you find your hard plastic water bottle and pour some water into the lid. You splash it over your face and don’t even bother to wipe it off. You pull out the mirror you took from District Pharmacy eleven blocks away and glance at it uncertainly. Not as bad as you thought—you just look tired. Your eyes are hollow and watery, with no real color to them. Vaguely blue maybe, but more gray. Prison-gray. Dickens-gray. Suicide-gray.
You want to go to Yevgeny’s but it wouldn’t be smart. Maybe Northside Diner instead. No market, but plenty of outdoor seating and unobservant staff. And you could still pass Yevgeny’s on the way.
You decide against the hat and just pull your hair back in a disheveled ponytail, then throw on your thin khakis and gray tank top, calculating it had been over a week since you appeared at the restaurant in that combination.
But it doesn’t matter because he’s not even there.
It seems your eagle-eyed waiter friend finally took a day off. That’s fine. You just keep walking, glancing as you always do for Lena’s face, more confident than ever in your decision to trek up to Northside. Should never get stuck in a routine anyway.
You hang out on the public bench across the street from the diner, pretending to read yesterday’s paper. You wait for the large party to clear out. All older women. Probably some bible study group or Mahjong club. They’re taking up about half the patio, so when they leave you’ve got to be quick before the waitress comes out to clear. It’s not like it’s stealing, though. They’ll just throw it away.
You jump the small, decorative fence and mechanically go to work wrapping biscuits, fruit, sandwich remnants, anything, in napkins and sliding them into your backpack. None of the employees see, but a few customers are watching you. You don’t worry about it, though; they always watch. They watch you and get this really sad look and start whispering to each other, but that’s all they ever do. They never get you in trouble. They never help you.
You take the long way back, walking the side streets and cutting through the park, which you normally hate to do because you have to pass all the families, but not today. The weather’s nice and you’ve got a few days’ worth of food so you feel all right. You scan the ground as you walk, looking for loose change or anything discarded that could potentially be of use. You never know.
You hadn’t believed it when you saw that busted cardboard box on the side of Forty-Ninth Street, completely full of old books. The Fixer, Brave New World, Things Fall Apart. They were too hard but you read them anyway, and you’ll read the rest. You thought they were probably some kid’s lit class rejects and you carried the box back with you, equal parts grateful to and infuriated by whoever dumped them there.
But you pass the familiar blocks leading to Matthias Avenue and understand not every day can be as lucky. A few cigarette butts, grimy trash, and newspapers are all you see. End of the line. You cut through the alley to the back of your warehouse, glance around, then slip in through the window.
You set out the food. Not bad, but most of it’s perishable so you eat more than you usually would—fruit salad, half a BLT, some fried fish—and put the rest away. You almost feel full and it’s unnerving. Like you’ve done something wrong.
You rifle through your box of books, but don’t feel like starting anything new. Sometimes you wish there were a few easy Boxcar Children or Tom Quest books in there for you to read when you just want to relax. But you’re in no position to make demands.
The old, tattered notebook catches your eye as you scan the warehouse. You don’t want to write, you haven’t for months, but you pick it up anyway.
There was a time when you drew a lot. The beginning of the journal has several sketches and pictures done in colored pencil or oil pastel that took you hours. They aren’t great and they aren’t creative—the earliest ones are mostly drawings of animals, then actors and musicians you liked—but you remember getting lost in them. You needed them.
You’re now aware of a faint whine in your ears. Now that you’re focused on it, you feel like it’s been there since you got home. It’s annoying and you look around for the source. You get up and walk by the furnace, the water heater, the steam pipes, but nothing’s been working in the warehouse for a long time you guess, except the lights. The lights. You pull the cords and turn them off one by one until you’re in darkness. You stand a minute, two minutes, breathing heavily. You think maybe it takes a while for the electricity to completely shut off, but after ten minutes you still hear the noise. Quickly, you pull the cords and bathe the room in light again. You don’t want to think about it anymore.
You think about stealing money for a bus ticket. You’ve never done it before, actually robbed someone. The idea makes you sick, but you think about it anyway. Maybe you could take the money from restaurant tip jars or street musicians’ cups. Maybe you could sell something—those books you found. Maybe you could beg. But whatever it is you do, the pull you feel, the drive to do it comes from that gnawing fear that’s been eating at you for weeks: you’re in the wrong place. There’s no one here to help you. Your aunt is probably hundreds of miles away, if she even stayed in California, and just because your dad mentioned five hours and vaguely indicated south doesn’t mean he had any idea what he was talking about. Maybe she’s back in Novgorod. Maybe Kolya gave her the money to come back, if he’s still alive. If any of them are still alive. You swallow against the knot in your throat and focus on your plan for tomorrow.
You walk by Yevgeny’s the next day and casually pull an apple from the brimming basket in the outdoor market. You keep moving and don’t look at anyone. You’re not sticking around today. You head south on Lowry to Seventy-First and turn left. There’s a farmer’s market on Ames Avenue every other Wednesday and you think the heat will keep the crowd away this afternoon.
There’s not much to look at on Seventy-First; it’s a pretty desolate street with only a few open businesses and apartment complexes, but it’s oddly crowded. You frown, periodically glancing up at the people walking by, trying to pick out details from their appearances to let you know why they’re here. But every time you look up at them, they meet your eyes.
It startles you each time. What do they want? You’ve never had people on the street pay attention to you. Why would they?
But there it is again. You briefly dart your eyes toward a man in a business suit and he looks at you directly. Meaningfully. You shake your head. It’s just your imagination. But you can’t even lift your head without someone staring. Your face starts to flush but you feel cold and clammy. You stop in front of a reflective window to study your appearance but nothing seems off. This is wrong.
You turn to go back home. You thought you’d try a different place, out of your routine, in hopes of finding Lena, but there’s something fucked up about Seventy-First and now all you want is to be back on your own shitty block.
“I’m leaving, all right?” you mutter to yourself, hoping to break the spell and send the onlookers back to wherever they belong.
You walk hurriedly now and don’t look up at anyone, but they’re not through with you yet. You start to hear them. They took that continual, soft hum in your head and turned it into low whispers. You frown and shake your head, but you’re walking so fast it almost causes you to lose your balance. You take a breath and force yourself to slow down. You count to ten. More breaths. You look around. There are fewer people now, and no one’s looking at you.
I just need more sleep. Some coffee. I need to get home.
You pass Douglass High School, their marquee advertising a back-to-school barbecue next week. You’ve bailed on your adventure for today, so maybe you’ll try that. You just need some rest, that’s all.
Things quiet down as you move back west. You turn on Jackson for a while, so you can get away from Seventy-First, then keep going down Forty-Ninth until you get to Matthias. You feel the apple in your backpack. At least you’ve got a good store of food and didn’t need to go out today anyway. As usual though, a pang of guilt accompanies the satisfaction.
You think back to the first time you got in trouble for stealing. First grade. Your teacher kept bins of random toys in the classroom for everyone to play with at certain times of the day. There were marbles, beads, wooden shapes, plastic connectors, and coins. A bin of real coins to practice counting money. So one day you had a thought, kneeling there on the bright orange carpet, pretending to count change while the other kids built towers and strung beads. You knew you didn’t have much money at home; your dad was always upset about the bills that came in the mail, the broken air conditioner, the doctor’s visits and school supplies you needed. You put a nickel in your pocket, just to see what would happen. You went home and put it under your bed.
The next day you went to school and everything was normal. Nobody said a word about it. So you took a few more. It was a big bin and there were lots of coins, so it didn’t seem to matter how many you took; there were always plenty left. After a few weeks you stopped taking the change, and decided to count what you had under your bed. Ten pennies, twenty-three nickels, sixteen dimes, and twelve quarters. You had never actually learned how to count money, so you weren’t sure what their full amount was, but it seemed huge. You felt incredible. You had figured out a way to help and things would start to turn around.
You put the coins into one of your socks and held it for a moment, impressed by its weight. Then you carried it out into the kitchen where your dad sat, reading Belden’s company handbook at the table. He was starting a new job, again.
“Hey,” he said, looking up. “You’re not hungry yet, are you?”
You shook your head, smiling. You set the sock down on the table.
“What’ve you got there?”
“Come see,” you replied, still grinning like an idiot. You were so proud of yourself.
He got up and came around the table. He was already starting to frown but you ignored it. You were still good at ignoring things back then. He dumped the coins onto the table and you kept watching him as he stood there, as he tried to figure it out.
“Where did this come from?” he asked finally.
“Is it a lot? I knew it was a lot.”
“Where did you get it?” His voice was low and controlled.
“From school.” Your happiness was beginning to deflate. This wasn’t at all like you had imagined it.
“They give you money at school?” he demanded.
You didn’t want to tell him. If you had been a little older and a little smarter you might have come up with something fast, but it’s hard for six-year-olds to switch gears when they run into trouble.
“It’s from the toy bins,” you mumbled. “We’re supposed to count them. There are still a ton left,” you added.
“You stole money from your classroom?” he shouted. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
Your eyes were fixed on his handbook so you wouldn’t have to look at him and see how big your mistake was. But he didn’t like that either. He hit you, probably to make you pay attention to him. It startled you and you cried, but he hit you again and you ran into your room.
You came out a couple of hours later because you were hungry. It might have been past dinnertime, you can’t really remember, but when you got to the kitchen you saw the coins had been returned to the sock, which was waiting for you at your place. Your dad was still there, reading his handbook, but he was now accompanied by a bag of pretzels and a bottle of gin. He looked up.
“You’ll put it back tomorrow,” he said evenly. “Don’t let anyone see you.”
You nodded. Maybe he didn’t need help after all. Maybe this job would be the one that stuck and things would start to get better. Maybe he’d start to forget about your mom. Maybe he’d start to like you.
You finally arrive at your warehouse on Matthias. You’re happy to be home, and even though it’s early you don’t plan on going out again. You climb through the window.
You freeze. Holy Jesus.
It’s a box.
There’s a box sitting right in the middle of your floor and you have no idea where the fuck it came from.
You look around frantically. Someone’s watching you. Someone’s been in your place and now they’re watching you.
Everything’s quiet. You stand on the crate and look out the window but no one’s there. You look at the box like it’s a bomb. Maybe it is a bomb.
You start walking around the warehouse, silently. You’re shaking again. You investigate the corners, go up in the crawl space, look behind empty crates and boxes stacked against the wall. There’s nowhere else to hide. You check outside again, desperately searching for the slightest discrepancy in the alley’s appearance. Nothing.
It’s the police or the state or somebody. The more you think about it the more you believe it’s true and your heart sinks. They’re going to send you back.
Your eyes water and you glare at the box but decide if they’re playing some game with you, then it’s already over and you can just open the goddamn thing.
You walk over, sink down to your knees and pull back the cardboard flaps and look inside.
“What?” you murmur aloud to the empty room. You pull out a loaf of saran-wrapped banana bread and study it with distrustful curiosity. It looks homemade.
You slowly remove the contents of the box and set everything down around you on the floor. A Tupperware container filled with potato soup, an assortment of fresh fruits and vegetables, three bottles of water and a jar of peanut butter. You laugh out loud but your heart’s beating fast. The room gets a little darker and you grab for the empty box, clutching the sides. You throw up, coughing and sputtering, tears brimming in your eyes.
WHERE TO BUY IT:
Brick Mantel Books: http://www.brickmantelbooks.com/books/laika.php
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