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Sparrow by Sarah Moon

Overview: Sparrow has always had a difficult time making friends. She would always rather have stayed home on the weekends with her mother, an affluent IT Executive at a Manhattan bank, reading, or watching the birds, than playing with other kids. And that's made school a lonely experience for her. It's made LIFE a lonely experience. But when the one teacher who really understood her — Mrs. Wexler, the school librarian, a woman who let her eat her lunch in the library office rather than hide in a bathroom stall, a woman who shared her passion for novels and knew just the ones she'd love — is killed in a freak car accident, Sparrow's world unravels and she's found on the roof of her school in an apparent suicide attempt. With the help of an insightful therapist, Sparrow finally reveals the truth of her inner life. And it's here that she discovers an outlet in Rock & Roll music...


Sparrow by Sarah Moon Book Chapter One


White room. White walls. White ceiling. White sheets. White gown. Clear tube dripping who knows what into my arm. Whatever it is, it’s making me stupid. I feel like I’ve been asleep for a week. Maybe I have been. In the hall, a white doctor in a white coat is talking to Mom in a hushed, cold voice.

“Do you have any idea what might have caused the attempt, Ms. Cooke?”

“It wasn’t an attempt,” I croak. It barely comes out as a whisper. My mouth tastes like cotton and sandpaper. It’s just as well. It’s not like I could explain what I was attempting to do.

“No, Doctor, she’s a very happy girl.” The only sign that my mother is in any distress at all are the sunglasses perched on top of her head. They should be in her purse, in their black carrying case with the special cloth.

“Have you considered therapy for her?”

“No.” Firm.

Ugh. I can see Mom going to the secret part of her brain where she’s filed therapy, in a file she’s supposed to be too evolved to have: White Girl Stuff, right there with eating disorders, country music, and vegetarianism. The Cookes don’t do therapy. The Cookes can handle it on their own.

“Well, I’m afraid that’s the best option for Sparrow. She’s past the obligatory stay for suicide watch, and she hasn’t been responsive to our questions here.”

Thanks for selling me out, Doc. I wasn’t being unresponsive; it’s just that everyone kept asking me why I’d tried to kill myself. Every time I explained that I didn’t try to kill myself, the doctors, nurses, shrinks, they’d all say, “So, what were you doing on the edge of the roof?” And then I’d have nothing to say. They’d start talking about denial in their horrible, even voices like they knew they were right all along. Unresponsive.

“We can look into a longer-term facility for her, until she’s cooperative, or we can recommend a therapist and release her to your care.”

If it’s possible, my mouth goes even drier. The Cookes don’t do this. Don’t need help. Don’t end up in a hospital at fourteen. Please, Mom. Just take me home.

“I’ll be taking her home, thank you.”

“Very well. They’ll set up an appointment for her at the desk with Dr. Katz. She’s very good.”


We take a taxi home, which seems very official. It’s better than an ambulance, but clearly, Mom does not trust me near subway tracks. The ride isn’t more than fifteen minutes, but I wake up in front of our house, my head resting easy on her shoulder, my feet curled up underneath me. It’s the most comfortable I’ve felt in days. I don’t look at her face; if there’s worry on it (of course there’s worry on it), I don’t want to see it right now. I want to be Mom & Me; we’ve ridden in taxis like this since I can remember, my head, her shoulder, her arm around me. Her arm is around me now, but when she feels me stir, she takes it off.

We live in the top two floors of a brownstone, and I check to see if George, our first-floor tenant, is home. His yellow bike is usually chained to the iron gate, but it’s gone—he’s at work. Where my mother should be. The guilt comes in with the waking up, and through the fog inside me, I feel terrible that I’ve made such a mess. When the taxi stops, I get out as Mom pays. It’s a strange feeling coming home from the hospital; I haven’t done it since I was a baby, of course. My mom tells that story all the time. My tininess, how Aunt Joan and Grandma and Grandpa came and stayed with us off and on for weeks. They said it was to help out; Mom says it was because they just couldn’t get enough of my baby smell and my baby hands and my baby self. She says she named me Sparrow because I was so small and brown, almost breakable, but so strong. Tiny but mighty, she said, that’s my Sparrow.

It was just me and Mom; it always has been. Don’t look for some sad tale of the father figure I’m missing or how he left when blah, blah, blah. Mom didn’t want a husband; she wanted a baby. So she had one. You know. Sperm-bank style. She picked someone who was tall, skinny, and smart, like her. So, basically, I’ve got a double dose of my mom. I’m not one of those kids who spend a lot of time wondering about who Pop might be. Obviously, I have other things on my mind.

I look at the brownstone and it’s like I’m seeing it for the first time, even though it was just the other day that I was here, that the sun was shining just like this, that I was bugging Mom for bagel money and trying to get out the door. She handed me five dollars and told me to have a good day, and she watched me walk down the stairs and go out through the gate like she has every single day since I was old enough to walk to school by myself. Now, standing here in the faint February sun, I can hear the same stupid things that we said to each other that morning, that we always say to each other. I’m standing here in a chorus of have a good day you too love you you too do you have money for lunch yeah don’t forget your homework I didn’t I’m working late I know don’t stay up late I won’t love you you too. It feels like years ago. It was Tuesday morning.

I could sink to the ground right here on the sidewalk. It seems easier to do that than it does to climb up these stairs that I have climbed every single day since I was a baby. I’ve run up these stairs crying, I’ve hopped up them because I was so excited to be home, I’ve jumped from the fourth to the first when my mom wasn’t looking, I’ve sat out here and read for hours, spread out on the bottom two, my mom on the top two, only getting up for more tea.

Mom appears by my side. “Come on, honey,” she says quietly. She links her arm through mine. I lean my whole weight on her to get up the stairs, like some part of me is broken, which I guess it is. When we get inside, she heads straight for the kitchen. Our kitchen is the best room in the house. The windows go all the way from the ceiling to the floor, we hung a bird feeder on the back porch, and in the mornings when I get up, I fill the feeder, make a cup of tea, and wait for them. They always come. The kitchen is white and blue, kind of like the sky. There’s no table, just a big wooden island in the middle with two stools: one for me and one for her. There’s a dining room with a big table for when Aunt Joan and my cousin, Curtis, come over, but the kitchen is for us. Just two stools at our island. Mom heads straight there and starts making a cup of tea. I sit on my stool, wrapping my legs around the steel ones. I remember when I couldn’t get up on it by myself. She goes to the cabinet and gets my favorite mug, the green one with the black owl staring at you from the natural history museum. I got it during a field trip in second grade. I think I’ve used it every day since then. Other kids have ragged security blankets or a beat-up favorite teddy bear. I have my chipped owl mug from the history museum.

The red kettle starts to boil, and she pours me a cup of chamomile, pours herself a cup of English Breakfast. That’s when I realize that it’s morning. I look at the empty bird feeder. I want to get up and fill it, but my legs won’t let me. Maybe later. Definitely later. I don’t want them to think I forgot about them.

These few moments with Mom sitting next to me, her big red mug—the tea lover’s equivalent of a Big Gulp—and my owl mug, steam, sun through the windows, it feels really close to normal. If it weren’t for the weird blanket of fog and fatigue that’s settled itself on me since the hospital—it’s the drugs they gave me, I think—and the fact that I can’t quite get myself to meet my mother’s gaze, this would seem like a typical Sunday morning at the Cooke house. Except that I’m not in my pajamas and I’ve got a bracelet on my wrist from the hospital. Except that WNYC isn’t playing on the radio. Except that my mom’s not reading the paper; she’s staring at me.

“What happened?”

I have no idea how to answer this question.

“Sparrow, honey, I just want to help. Tell me what’s going on.”

“Nothing’s going on.” This is true.

“I just picked you up from the hospital, Sparrow. How can you say that?”

“They thought I was trying to kill myself. I wasn’t.”

“Then what were you doing up on that roof?”

Her voice is rising, not like she’s yelling, like she’s scared. Like she’s trying to reach me through my fog. I look at her. “Mom,” I start. That’s as far as I can get. Mom, let’s go read on the porch. Mom, carry me upstairs and put me in bed. Mom, let’s watch a Law & Order marathon until I fall asleep. But none of that is the answer to the question she has.

“Sparrow, you can tell me—it’s me. I love you. I love you like I did the day I brought you home from the hospital. I love you like I did Tuesday morning. I love you. Talk to me.”

I want to. I know that most girls my age have had it with their mothers. The truth is, I don’t have much of anyone else. She’s the person I tell things to. But there is no way to start this conversation. I look at her with wide eyes, see her eyes staring back at me full of love, full of come on you know you can talk to me, full of please tell me you’re okay.

“I’m okay.”

“Honey, I just picked you up from the psych ward. I love you. I trust you. But you’re not okay.”

“I wasn’t trying to kill myself, Mom.”

“Then what were you trying to do?”

This could go on for days. I break away from her gaze and stare straight through the window. I’m crying, but the tears won’t come. I just have the lump in my throat, shoulders heaving. My face is completely dry. I walk through the back door onto the porch.

“Sparrow, come back, we have to talk about this.”

I close the door behind me. I fill the feeder to the brim and the seeds spill out on the ground. My hands are shaking. I steady myself against the railing, looking out over the damage that February has caused the backyard. The bushes are covered in snow, dirty from George’s dog, Roger. The grill is covered in snow and seems to have nothing to do with the hot dogs and hamburgers we made last summer. The ground is so dark and wet that it seems very unlikely there are actual flowers under there ready to burst through in just a few more weeks.

I wait. They come. A little stint, a couple of pigeons. They’re all friendly enough, but it’s the yellow-billed cuckoo that gets my attention. I stare right at him, and he stares back. Of course it’s a cuckoo, here to rescue a crazy person. I close my eyes and think takemewithyoutakemewithyoutakemewithyou. Then I’m gone.

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