Still Life with Tornado

For Julia

The farther you enter the truth, the deeper it is.
—Bankei Yotaku

Everything you can imagine is real.
—Pablo Picasso

Dutton Books

An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street

New York, NY 10014

Copyright © 2016 by A.S. King

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: King, A. S. (Amy Sarig), 1970-, author.

Title: Still life with tornado / by A.S. King.

Description: New York, NY : Dutton Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, [2016]

Identifiers: LCCN 2015049462 | ISBN 9781101994887 (hardback)

Subjects: | CYAC: Family secrets—Fiction. | Family violence—Fiction. | BISAC: JUVENILE FICTION / Family / Marriage & Divorce. | JUVENILE FICTION / Art & Architecture. | JUVENILE FICTION / Social Issues / Physical & Emotional Abuse (see also Social Issues / Sexual Abuse). Classification: LCC PZ7.K5693 St 2016 | DDC [Fic]—dc23 LC record available at

Ebook ISBN: 9781101994894

Jacket design by Samira Iravani

Paper texture and labels courtesy of

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


The Tornado

Nothing ever really happens.

Or, more accurately, nothing new ever really happens.

•   •   •

My art teacher, Miss Smith, once said that there is no such thing as an original idea. We all think we're having original ideas, but we aren't. “You're stuck on repeat. I'm stuck on repeat. We're all stuck on repeat.” That's what she said. Then she flipped her hair back over her shoulder like what she said didn't mean anything and told us to spend the rest of class sorting through all the old broken shit she gets people to donate so we can make art. She held up half of a vinyl record. “Every single thing we think is original is like this. Just pieces of something else.”

•   •   •

Two weeks ago Carmen said she had an original idea, and then she drew a tornado, but tornadoes aren't original. Tornadoes are so old that the sky made them before we were even here. Carmen said that the sketch was not of a tornado, but everything it contained. All I saw was flying, churning dust. She said there was a car in there. She said a family pet was in there. A wagon wheel. Broken pieces of a house. A quart of milk. Photo albums. A box of stale corn flakes.

All I could see was the funnel and that's all anyone else could see and Carmen said that we weren't looking hard enough. She said art wasn't supposed to be literal. But that doesn't erase the fact that the drawing was of a tornado and that's it.

Our next assignment was to sketch a still life. Miss Smith put out three bowls of fruit and told us we could arrange the fruit in any way we wanted. I picked one pear and I stared at it and stared at my drawing pad and I didn't sketch anything.

I acted calm, like I was just daydreaming, but I was paralyzed. Carmen looked at me and I shrugged like I didn't care. I couldn't move my hand. I felt numb. I felt like crying. I felt both of those things. Not always in art class, either.

When I handed in a blank paper at the end of class, I said, “I've lost the will to participate.”

Miss Smith thought I meant art class. But I meant that I'd lost the will to participate in anything. I wanted to be the paper. I wanted to be whiter than white. Blanker than blank.

The next day Miss Smith said that I should do blind drawings of my hand. Blind drawings are when you draw something without looking at the paper. I drew twelve of them. But then I wondered how many people have done blind drawings of their hands and I figured it must be the most unoriginal thing in the world.

She said, “But it's
hand. No one else can draw that.”

I told her that nothing ever really happens.

“Nothing ever really happens,” I said.

She said, “That's probably true.” She didn't even look up from the papers she was shuffling. Her bared shoulders were already tan and it wasn't even halfway through April. I stood there staring at her shoulders, thinking about how nothing ever really happens. Lots of stuff has happened to Miss Smith. I knew that.

My hands shook because I couldn't draw the pear. She looked up and I know she saw me shaking. She could have said anything to me then. Something nice. Something encouraging. Instead, she repeated herself.

She said, “That's probably true.”

So I stopped going to school.

•   •   •

It's true about the letters they'll send when you stop going to school. After a week or so they come after you and make you meet with the principal. But that's happened before, just like tornadoes, so it didn't impress me. My parents escorted me into the school building and they apologized a hundred times for my behavior but I didn't apologize even once.

I couldn't think of one reaction to the meeting with the principal that was original. Apologizing, crying, yelling, spitting, punching, silence—none of those things are original. I tried to levitate. I tried to spontaneously combust like a defective firework.

would be original.

Bus Stop

I'm at the bus shelter two blocks from school and it's raining and I'm pressed back as far as I can be into the shelter and I'm not doing or thinking anything original. I am on my way to City Hall to change my name. Still not original, but at least I won't be Sarah anymore.

Dad was perky this morning. He said, “I wish you'd do something constructive with these days. You could paint or sculpt or something. At least you'd be productive.” He didn't hear the spaces between those words. He didn't hear the rests between the notes. “But I know you're going to school today because we have a deal, right?”

That's what life with Dad is—a series of deals. He thought I was going to school on the bus and I did go on the bus, but I didn't get to school. I got off one stop early to catch another bus, like I've done for the last eight school days. I could be shooting heroin or dabbing or smoking meth. I could be flirting with boys after school like normal girls do. I could be pregnant. Of course, none of those things are original, but they would be
, which is what Dad seems to want
Right now, I'm going to City Hall.

I still don't know what name I'll choose. I have twenty minutes until I have to decide. I catch my distorted reflection in the windows of the passing cars, and I think about how people elope to City Hall and get married without telling anyone. I'm doing that, but I'm doing it by myself. I will elope with the new me. I will come out with a new name but I'll still have the same face and everyone will call me Sarah but I'll really be whoever I decide to be. I will confuse the Social Security Administration. My number will now match the wrong name. I will not tell my parents what my new name is. I won't even tell myself.

A woman walks up and sits down next to me in the bus shelter. She says hello and I say hello and that's not original at all. When I look at her, I see that she is me. I am sitting next to myself. Except she looks older than me, and she has this look on her face like she just got a puppy—part in-love and part tired-from-paper-training. More in-love, though. She says, “You were right about the blind hand drawings. Who hasn't done that, right?”

I don't usually have hallucinations.

I say, “Are you a hallucination?”

She says no.

I say, “Are you—me?”

“Yes. I'm you,” she says. “In seven years.”

“I'm twenty-three?” I ask.

twenty-three. You're just sixteen.”

“Why do you look so happy?”

“I stopped caring about things being original.”

When the bus comes she gets on it with me, and to prove she's really real she stops and slots a token into the machine. There are two Sarahs on this bus. We are going to City Hall.

“We're eloping,” she says.

I'm conflicted. Is this what eloping with the new me looks like? Riding to City Hall on a bus with myself? How will I ever fool the Social Security Administration if there's a witness? Even if the witness is me? I try to concentrate on names I like. Wild names. Names that surprise people. I can't come up with any names. I just keep looking at twenty-three-year-old Sarah and my brain is stuck on one name.
Sarah. Sarah. Sarah.
I can't get away from myself.

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