Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life Read online





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  For Griffin and Chloe, who we’ve loved from the second they entered the world screaming.

  And for my family and friends who so generously shared their insights on the meaning of life and helped me find my own.

  And a special thank-you to Stu Levine, Hayley Haugen, and Karen Parker for reading the pages as fast as I could write them and for making them better, and to my editor, Amy Hsu, for believing from the start.

  The creature has a purpose, and his eyes are bright with it.

  —John Keats

  Preface

  July 22

  My sweat smells like peanut butter.

  Since I’m such a picky eater, my mother feeds me peanut butter sandwiches at every meal, including breakfast and midnight snacks. I have a lot of midnight snacks because I like to be awake when the rest of the world is asleep (except for the people in other time zones who might still be awake, but you couldn’t prove it by me). So now when I sweat, it smells like peanut butter instead of B.O., which I don’t think is such a bad thing. I’d rather smell like a school cafeteria than a school gym.

  Right now my best friend, Lizzy, is sitting next to me, holding her nose. Not because of the peanut butter, which doesn’t bother her anymore. The offending odor belongs to that special combination of soggy marshland and rotting fish that Mosley Lake in northwest New Jersey is famous for.

  It is the middle of a long, hot summer, and I, Jeremy Fink, a city kid born and bred, am sitting on a big rock in the middle of the lake, which, while certainly smelly, is also very serene. The sky is a clear blue, a light breeze blows from the west, and pale green water sloshes against the side of the rickety old rowboat that brought us here.

  On my lap I am balancing a smooth box made of light-colored wood, the size of a toaster. The box has the words THE MEANING OF LIFE carefully engraved across the top. Underneath, in smaller letters, it says, FOR JEREMY FINK TO OPEN ON HIS 13TH BIRTHDAY.

  Today is my thirteenth birthday. I never would have guessed, when I was given the box a month ago, that those instructions would be so impossible to follow.

  Lizzy keeps poking me on the arm, urging me to hurry up and do what we’ve come here to do. Yes, my best friend is a girl, and no, I don’t secretly have a crush on her. Lizzy and her dad moved to the apartment next door when she and I were one year old. Her mother had left the family and moved to one of the Dakotas with some guy who worked on a cattle ranch (which explains why Lizzy became a vegetarian as soon as she was old enough to realize what a cattle ranch was). So Lizzy stayed with us during the day while her father went to work at the post office. My mom used to change our diapers next to each other. You can’t get romantic with someone after that.

  Also, Lizzy is a notorious troublemaker. She has a lot of opinions, usually negative. For example, she thinks my collection of mutant candy is gross. I think she’s jealous because she didn’t think of it first. Some of the best are a square Good & Plenty, a candy corn with an extra layer of white, and my pride and joy—a peanut M&M the size of my pinky finger. I bet I could get a fortune for that one on eBay.

  Our journey to this rock started a long time ago—before I was even born. If my father had been allowed to spend his thirteenth birthday playing Little League with his friends instead of being dragged by his parents to Atlantic City, I wouldn’t be sitting here, and the box wouldn’t exist. Who ever would have imagined those two events would be linked?

  All those years ago, while my grandmother was in a shop buying saltwater taffy, my father wandered down the boardwalk and wound up in front of an old palm reader. She picked up his clammy hand and held it up to her face. Then she let his arm fall onto the velvet-covered table and said, “You vil die ven you are forty years old.” My grandmother arrived in time to hear the fortune-teller’s declaration, and she yanked my dad away, refusing to pay. Whenever my father told the story, he laughed, so we laughed, too.

  It turned out that the fortune-teller’s prediction was wrong. My dad didn’t die when he was forty. He was only thirty-nine. I had just turned eight. Dad must have taken the prophecy more seriously than he let on, because he prepared for his death, and this box proves it.

  “What are you waiting for?” Lizzy yells into my ear.

  Lizzy has her own way of talking. Usually she shouts. This is partly because her father is deaf in one ear from going to too many rock concerts when he was younger, and partly because she is on the shortish side and overcompensates.

  I don’t answer, and she sighs. Even her sighs are loud. The edges of the box are digging into my bare legs, so I move it to the towel that Lizzy has spread out on the rock between us. This box has come to symbolize all my hopes, all my failures. Before I do anything else, I need to go back over everything that has happened this summer: the Big Mistake, the old man, the book, the lamp, the telescope, and this box, which started it all.

  Chapter 1: The Box

  June 22

  “Did you ever notice how the colors seem brighter the first day of summer vacation?” I ask Lizzy. “The birds sing louder? The air is alive with possibility?”

  “Huh?” Lizzy mutters, fingering through the comic books on the wall of my Uncle Arthur’s store, Fink’s Comics and Magic. “Yeah, sure. Brighter, louder, alive.”

  It would bother some people if their best friend only half-listened to them, but I figure talking to Lizzy is one step better than talking to myself. At least this way people on the street don’t stare at me.

  Over the next two months I plan on learning a new magic trick or two, borrowing the eighth grade textbooks from the library to get a jump on my assignments (but not telling Lizzy, who would make fun of me), and sleeping as late as I want. This is going to be a summer of leisure, and smack in the middle, the state fair and my long-awaited thirteenth birthday. Usually I love going to the fair, but this year I actually have to enter one of the competitions, and I’m dreading it. At least my birthday comes the same week. I am so tired of being considered a “kid” and am eager to officially become a teenager. I will finally learn the secret code of Teendom.

  I hope there’s a handshake. I’ve always wanted to belong to a club with a secret handshake.

  “Run!” Lizzy whispers sharply in my ear. Lizzy saying run in my ear can mean only one thing—she has stolen something. She is lucky my uncle and cousin Mitch are in the back room and didn’t see her. They do not look kindly upon shoplifters.

  By the time I manage to thrust my comic back on the shelf, she is halfway out the door. In her rush, she’s knocked over my backpack, which I had propped up carefully on the floor between us. All the stuff flies out the unzipped top for the other shoppers to see. I grab the bag and quickly toss back in my dog-eared copy of Time Travel for Dummies, a half-eaten peanut butter sandwich, a pack of Starburst, two bite-sized Peppermint Patties, assorted magic tricks that I’ve collected over the years, the bottle of water that I always have on me because one can never be too hydrated, the astronaut pen that allows me to write in all conditions (including underwater and while lying on my back), and finally my wallet, which always has at least eight dollars in it because my dad once told m