Charisma, p.1Jeanne Ryan
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Copyright © 2015 by Jeanne Ryan
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Charisma / by Jeanne Ryan.
Summary: Tacoma, Washington, high school junior Aislyn’s extreme shyness has crippled her socially and cost her a college scholarship, so she jumps at the chance to try an illegal gene therapy, but although she is finally able to date her long-term crush, Jack, the therapy becomes a contagious disease that can be fatal.
[1. Bashfulness—Fiction. 2. Gene therapy—Fiction. 3. Virus diseases—Fiction. 4. Dating (Social customs)—Fiction. 5. Single-parent families—Fiction. 6. Cystic fibrosis—Fiction. 7. Science fiction.] I. Title.
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For Ryan and Lilia, who shine so bright
I swim varsity but know firsthand what being trapped below the surface feels like. This. Chest-crushing, head-pounding panic as you fight for just one breath. Fingernails clawing into my palms, I struggle for air on this dry-as-dust stage, in front of science fair judges, strangers from across Washington State, my family, and Jack, who also qualified for this competition.
Dr. Lin, the head judge, and physics teacher at my school, taps his clipboard as he waits for me to convince him of my project’s relevance to society.
Even though I fear a tide of hopelessness will rush in to flood my lungs, I force my mouth open a fraction. “Scientists have identified, uh, many genes associated with specific disorders, so . . .” My heart’s a machine gun in my chest, my voice a lost cause.
Dr. Lin cocks his head. “Miss Hollings?” He glances at my knocking knees. “Aislyn? Are you feeling well?”
I nod, and summon the strength to finish answering his question. But my vision goes fuzzy and I struggle for another breath, which only increases my light-headedness. The books all say to “accept” a panic attack, as if there’s a choice, letting it flow through and out of your psyche. Here’s what they don’t tell you—panic doesn’t flow, it jolts your body like an earthquake, leaving you unmoored and flailing from a deep chasm intent upon sucking you in.
Dr. Lin raises his eyebrows, waits an unbearably long moment, and angles the microphone back to himself. “If you could fix genetic mutations, where would you draw the line? What about the person who claims their baldness or height must be fixed?” He’s reading from the playbook of those crazies who protest in front of the Nova Genetics labs, shouting that gene therapy is “playing God,” who’d halt all life-saving cures if they could.
But knowing how wrong the anti-everything folks are doesn’t spark any brilliance in my next words, which limp out like refugees. “Frivolous gene alterations aren’t being approved for development.” I blink at the audience. In the front row, Mom leans forward, her chin nudging the air, as if that could spur me forward. Her anxiety about how to finance my college tuition has grown into an ever-present entity that I’d hoped to chase away with tonight’s hefty prize.
Dr. Lin sighs at this pathetic student who can barely describe her project, much less win a competition, no matter how many leading questions he feeds her.
There’s so much more I need to say, but my knees threaten to give out at any moment. I lean against the table holding my tri-fold display. Big mistake. The table tilts and the cardboard charts teeter. I jump to stop the table’s shift, but not in time to prevent the display from toppling and my handouts from flying across the stage into the person standing at the next table, who happens to be Jack. Lanky, blond, sweet-smiled Jack.
He picks up the papers and hands them to me, whispering, “You’re doing fine.”
No. Fine performances aren’t met by gasps and snickers from the audience. And they don’t lead to asphyxiation on stage.
A traitorous blush sears my face. Hundreds of eyes watch, watch, and, oh hell, did a camera just flash? I fumble with the papers, my neck burning. Every molecule in my body screams, “Run.” But I will not. I convinced myself long ago that if I ever let myself flee from my anxieties, I’d never stop running. So I’ll stand here and endure.
Dr. Lin scribbles onto his pad. “Anything you’d like to add?” His persistence is either due to the fact that I go to the school where he teaches or sadism. Not that it makes any difference.
I gulp a breath and glance at Mom, whose lips press white. She must wonder why I spent countless hours on this project instead of on something useful like helping her out with my brother, Sammy.
I swallow. “I hope you have a chance to read my report.”
He blinks as if he hasn’t heard me correctly. “We’d like you to tell us in your own voice.”
Yeah, so would I. But all I can do is nod dumbly.
He says, “Okay, then. If that’s your decision.”
I cringe at how ominous this sounds, but can’t summon the words to convince him of how important this topic is, how gene therapy’s given sight to the blind and life to the dying. Someday it’ll fix the genetic mutations behind cystic fibrosis, which causes Sammy to feel like he’s suffocating every single day. Every single damn day.
That’s what I should say. But it would be easier to fuse atoms than force another coherent sentence from my mouth.
Dr. Lin moves on to Jack’s presentation. I try not to lock my knees. Don’t run, don’t hide, don’t crumple. My threshold for success has dipped to this shamefully low mantra.
Avoiding Mom’s and Sammy’s gazes, I focus on Jack’s presentation, delivered in his calm, confident, Jack-like manner. Usually I have to catch him in glimpses, often aborted when I discover him watching me first. On afternoons when we edit stories for The Drizzle, he always tries to strike up a conversation, which leaves me as wobbly as I feel now. It’s only a matter of time befor
Finally, the judges excuse us for now. Head down, I make my way to Mom, and Sammy, who’s coughing into a tissue as quietly as possible. My brother is eleven, but like most kids with CF, looks years younger due to a body that has difficulty absorbing the nutrition it needs.
In the too-loud voice Mom uses to show houses, she says, “No one else’s research is as sophisticated as yours. How many teens learn how to sequence DNA?”
I hang my head. How many DNA-sequencing teens can’t get a decent word out when they most need to?
We stand there, arms crossed, feet shuffling. I check the time every twenty seconds. Waiting is always a challenge; tonight it’s enough to make my head throb. Endless minutes later, they call the finalists back onstage. I stay with Mom and Sammy, who’s coughing again. Dr. Lin announces that Jack’s project on restoring salmon streams wins first place, and a chance to compete for an even larger prize in the national competition this summer. Somehow, I get an honorable mention, but no scholarship money.
Mom puts her hand to her mouth, but only for a moment, quickly recovering and giving me a brave shrug. Sammy’s coughing increases to a red-faced gasping, something Mom and I are used to but not the people around us, who point and stare.
Mom claps Sammy’s back. I dig frantically through her purse for more tissues. We shuffle as a threesome past pitying eyes. One woman offers to call for help, but we assure her that isn’t necessary. This time.
Outside, when Sammy finally catches his breath, he says, “Sorry for the spectacle.”
I tap his sneaker with the toe of my boot. “Don’t apologize for that. Besides, my spectacle was bigger than yours, buddy. I had props and a stage.”
He doesn’t argue the point.
On the way home, I text my best friend, Evie, with highlights of the fiasco, even though she won’t see her phone until her debate competition is over. My next text is to my mentor at Nova Genetics, Dr. Sternfield. At least the work I’ve done with her will count toward early college credit.
When we’re inside, Mom smiles half-heartedly, which must take superhuman effort. “I know you tried your best.”
If only my best were better. I rub my arms. “I’ll help Sammy with his treatment tonight.” It’s the least I can do.
We head upstairs, where I clap his back and chest to loosen up the stuff that’s doing its damnedest to destroy his lungs. Normally, he tries to sneak in jokes between the pounding, but tonight he hunkers down in silence with his sketchpad. I don’t force a conversation; it would be callous to complain about college tuition to someone dealing with an average life expectancy of thirty-something years.
After I’m done, Sammy fills his nebulizer with several drugs that he’ll inhale for the next thirty minutes. He doesn’t need help anymore with this nightly task, but he likes the company. With his mask on and the aerosol flowing, he sits on his bed with a sketchpad while I sink onto the armchair next to him.
All around us, his bedroom walls are filled from floor to as tall as Sammy can reach with vibrant paintings of dragons and other creatures that only he knows the names of. On his pad, he adds shading to a pencil drawing of the Space Needle under attack by robots.
“That’s really good,” I say.
He sucks air from the mask. “Lots of time to practice.”
Yeah, too much time. And, yet, maybe not enough.
Forty minutes later, I get ready for bed, nestling under the covers with my laptop on my knees, wishing I could avoid school tomorrow. But it’s the last day of junior year, even though technically it’s a half day and there’ll be zero learning.
My phone beeps. I accept a video chat, and Evie’s neon smile fills the screen. Her thick black hair is pulled up into a topknot to show off gold filigree earrings her mom bought on their annual trip to Indonesia.
She’s all dimples and sparkle. “I won!”
We fist-bump our screens.
Her face settles into a more serious expression. “I totally owe you for prepping me. Wish I could’ve done the same for you with the science competition. Heath Roberts is an ass for posting that picture.”
My gut spasms. “What picture?” Before she answers, I shift her image to check out Heath’s page. Underneath a picture of me knocking over my exhibit at the science finals, he’s written: “Hot? Yeah! Hopeless? Hell, yeah!”
What was he even doing there? Then I remember his little brother qualified for the middle school division. The queasy hopelessness from earlier rises again in my stomach. “Everyone’s seen this?”
Evie waves dismissively. “Yesterday it was Shoshanna’s butt crack. And she landed a few dates from the attention. You get major exposure therapy points for even entering the science competition. That was brave; you hear me?”
Thanks to psych class, Evie’s been pushing exposure therapy to treat my shyness. To be fair to myself, it’s not like I haven’t tried to get beyond this problem. So far, I’ve endured anti-anxiety meds (caused heart palpitations and didn’t work anyway), hypnosis (put me to sleep), visualization exercises (couldn’t focus), a sugar-free diet (made me grumpy), and, now, exposure therapy, which according to all the texts is the most effective way to treat social phobias. However, there’s always that percentage of people, like me, who try, and try, and fail. Evie insists it’s only a matter of time. But I know every bell curve needs its outliers.
She bats her eyelashes exaggeratedly. “By the way, a certain soccer player who may be the weak link on the debate team, but is mighty pretty to look at, asked me three times about Drew’s party tomorrow.”
My stomach drops. “You should go with Abby and Zoe.”
She wags her finger. “You haven’t been to a party in a month, and summer vacation is almost here. Best friends do not let best friends commit social suicide.”
“Best friends do not push each other beyond their comfort zone after they tank at the one area they’re supposed to be good at.”
“You’re better at way more than science and helping me maintain my glorious GPA. Do not be a shy-girl cliché. Starting Saturday, you’ll be the blond lifeguard babe. Remember that.”
I exhale a raggedy breath. My summer job, which I applied for in a fit of exposure therapy and the backing of my swim team coach, is something I’ve avoided thinking about, even though it starts the day after tomorrow. “I’ve had enough exposure therapy.”
“For today. I’ll see if I can get Heath to delete that picture.” She pops offline.
Ugh. Maybe I’ll break my leg before school tomorrow. Or maybe I should expose myself to a quick bout of the flu. Now there’s exposure therapy that could do some good.
Dreaming of ways to avoid the reality of being, well, me, I put my laptop on the end table and fall asleep with my arms crossed tightly across my chest like a mummy. But I awake every couple of hours. As usual. Each time I do, Sammy’s coughing and gasping. As usual.
It strikes me that life-as-usual for both of us is an endless struggle to simply breathe.
Group Protests In-Depth Genetic Testing
by Norman Kim, Seattle Health Blog
Marchers stormed out in force to protest the joint announcement by Seattle Reproductive Specialists and Nova Genetics, a gene therapy developer, to evaluate embryos for thousands of potential defects. Dr. Madeline Olevsky, Director of SRS, claims, “Anything we can do to fulfill our clients’ dreams of having a healthy baby is progress we celebrate.”
Others, however, believe that genetic testing traverses a dangerous path. Nita Farthing, President of Humans for Equality, argues, “Any thinking person should be terrified by the potential of unnatural selection. In a socie
At school the next day, I meet Evie at our side-by-side lockers. No one’s gotten between “Handojo” and “Hollings” since middle school.
A pale gold batik-print dress sizzles against her olive skin, and her waist-length hair, something we have in common despite hers being as dark as mine is light, hangs loose, save for a tiny clip on top filled with luminous green stones. Her eyes travel up and down the pink T-shirt and gray pants I’ve paired with ballet flats. “Cute, but I’d have gone a wee bit flashier for the last day of school. Make some memories, you know?”
“I have to meet my science mentor this afternoon.”
She blinks rapidly. “Oh, no, no, no, we’re all going to the mall for lunch.”
“Sorry. I have to do the wrap-up with Dr. Sternfield if I want college credit.”
“Ask her at the family event Sunday.”
“That’s for so-called fun. This is business, so she insisted on separate days.” My family’s attendance at the event will be on account of Sammy, who participated as a research subject in a trial at Nova Genetics. Even though Sammy wasn’t helped by the drug, he, Mom, and I became part of the Nova Genetics “family,” which means a ridiculous number of “bonding” events and support sessions. It’s how I met Dr. Sternfield.
Evie blows upward. “Fine, then I’ll pick you up tomorrow at eight for Drew’s party.”
My purse strap slips from my shoulder. “I might have to hang with Sammy if my mom’s meeting clients.”
“On Saturday night?” She pokes a freshly adorned fingernail on my collarbone. “Do not use your brother as an excuse. Last party of junior year is a big deal. Your mom’ll understand. She was a sorority girl.”
A sorority girl who was widowed before her second kid started kindergarten, and has had no social life since. I hike my handbag back up. “My first shift at the pool is tomorrow. I’ll be wiped out afterward.”
Charisma by Jeanne Ryan / Young Adult / Thrillers & Crime / Science Fiction have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes