For three straight nights Zoe dreamed about the black dog. It followed her through the empty streets of a strange city, trailing after her but never getting quite close enough to be threatening. It just watched. The funny thing was that these dreams weren’t like regular ones. She was almost never alone when she dreamed, because Valentine was always there. But there was something different about the black dog dreams, something that made her not want to talk about them. Zoe had plenty of secrets in the real world, but she’d never kept one in her dreams before. It was depressing because it meant that, in the end, she wasn’t safe anywhere.
The elevator wasn’t working again. Zoe sighed and started the long walk up four floors. The stairway smelled of mildew and other people’s cooking. When she made it to the top, a little out of breath, she fumbled in her pockets for the keys and let herself into the new apartment. It was her least favorite moment of the day.
Zoe didn’t hate the new apartment. It just made her miserable. There were scrapes on the walls and floors from the previous tenant’s furniture. A splotchy, stained rug in the hall and black mold around the bathroom window. Her room was smaller than the one she’d had back at the old house. Her old window had faced a green backyard with almond trees and low hills. The window in her new room faced the back of a run-down hardware store.
“It’s not forever, dear,” Zoe’s mother reminded her. “Six months. A year at the most. Until we get the insurance straightened out.”
Zoe nodded, not looking at her. Six months, she thought. Wasn’t it a year already? No. Half that. Only a few weeks for the world to collapse and leave them stranded in the middle of nowhere. So, another hundred and eighty days to go. Or double that. How much more lost can we get?
She piled a couple of pillows on the bed, which was squeezed into the corner of the room. From her overnight bag she removed a stuffed Badtz-Maru and leaned him against the pillows. The worn doll had been a gift from her father on her tenth birthday. Six years later, it still had an honored spot at the head of her bed. For a long minute Zoe pretended that she didn’t know her mother was standing in the doorway trying to think of something to say.
It was another one of those days. All afternoon she’d felt angry or sad or both at once and guilty for feeling any of it. She shouldn’t be so attached to the old house, her school, and her friends. She should be bigger than that and hated that she wasn’t.
“We’ll get past this,” said her mother.
Knowing she shouldn’t even ask, Zoe said, “Can I use the phone?”
“I won’t call anyone. I just want to check my e-mail.”
Her mother looked at the floor.
“It’s the end of the month. I’m already over our data limit and the few talk minutes left I need to keep for finding work. Can’t you use a computer at the library?”
“What library? There aren’t any around here. I checked,” Zoe said. It was a lie. She hadn’t checked because she didn’t want to know. Before they’d even moved to the city, she’d taken BART to the library at the San Francisco Civic Center a few times, but gave up going a month earlier. A homeless guy followed her to a reading table, where he thumbed through a newspaper. It wasn’t a big deal. A smelly guy always followed her when she went in. It wasn’t until the man’s breathing changed and she realized he was masturbating under the table that she left and never went back. She suspected any library in their run-down neighborhood, the Tenderloin, would be like that, or maybe worse. Throw in a few crackheads with the homeless.
“What about school? Don’t they have one you can use?”
Zoe shook her head.
“The server’s dead and the school doesn’t have the money to get it fixed.”
Zoe’s mother leaned against the doorframe, her arms crossed in front of her.
Please don’t ask about the other phone, Zoe thought. It was too humiliating to admit that the cheap prepaid phone her mother had given her had been stolen from her bag on the bus. Zoe had almost taken one from a RadioShack on Market Street. The phones were right by the door. She could grab one and run. But she didn’t have the guts.
“I’m sorry. Next week. I promise,” said her mother.
“It’s okay,” Zoe said. She smiled and the effort made her stomach knot. “It’s no big deal.”
“Sorry,” said her mother softly.
Zoe started folding clothes she’d piled on the end of the bed. A couple of minutes later she heard her mother unpacking things in the kitchen.
She sat on the edge of her bed, wanting to cry but not letting herself. The tears she held back weren’t about sadness. She’d been through that already in the days leading up to her father’s funeral six months ago. The tears that threatened to come now were made up of anger and fear and something else. Something deeper and darker and more forever feeling, but Zoe couldn’t find a name for it. All she knew was that not talking made not crying easier and not crying was all that held the world together. That was enough for now.
She snapped the rubber band around her wrist, the one they’d given her at the hospital. She breathed deeply in and out. The relaxation exercise was one of the few useful things that the doctors had given her for the times when it all got to be too much and she thought, even for a second, about hurting herself.
In the morning, on her way to school, Zoe stopped to adjust one of the straps on the backpack where she carried her books. At the end of the block sat a dog, looking in her direction. It was dark enough she couldn’t see its eyes. Zoe walked the last few blocks to school and at each corner looked back. The dog was always there, a half block behind. As she neared the school, it trotted in her direction. She crossed the street, and as she climbed the stairs outside school she turned. The dog sat quietly at the corner. Anyone watching, she thought, would think the dog was hers, waiting patiently to walk her home. Zoe went inside, and when she looked back through a window the dog was gone.
The new school was no better than the apartment. Zoe had just started the second quarter of her junior year at her old school when she’d been told to report to the principal’s office and her mother took her home. And that was that. No more school until last week.
On her first day at the new school Zoe learned its real name: Show World High, the other students called it, for the strip club a few blocks away on O’Farrell Street. The place didn’t look much like a school or a club, she thought. More like a supervillain bunker, without the death rays or computers. An abandoned supervillain bunker, all bare concrete, wire over the windows, and heavy front doors like someplace they used to store nukes.
In the lunchroom the student tribes were as plentiful and, thank God or Iggy Pop or whoever, as obvious as the ones at her old school. The jocks, the skate rats, the computer geeks, the Goths, and the stoners in their baggy Kurt Cobain thrift-store rags all had pretty rigid dress codes, so they were easy to spot. The computer geeks sat together at one table. Like the stoners, they mostly kept to themselves, so she didn’t have to worry about one of them actually trying to talk to her.
Then there were the generally smart kids who got good grades without trying too hard and were still able to have fun, hang out, and just goof off. Zoe knew if she put her mind to it, she could fit in with them, but she couldn’t work up the interest or energy, the necessary level of up-tempo bullshit it would take to break the ice with new people. She thought of Julie and Laura, the real friends she’d left behind at her old school in Danville. They’d probably texted her on her now-dead phone, and when she didn’t answer they’d e-mailed her. Did they think she’d forgotten about them already? Found new friends and invented a shiny new personality for herself? Two more things to worry about. Maybe two more things lost.
None of her new teachers at Show World High were particularly bad, but they seemed either tense, exhausted, or flat-out bored. Zoe sat in her English, history, and geometry classes, and after each one couldn’t remember a word anyone had said.
Then there was Mr. Danvers. He taught biology. The moment she walked into his classroom, the dull fog she’d drifted into since she’d started at Show World lifted. Mr. Danvers’s classroom had enormous posters displaying the anatomy of humans, horses, and cats. Some were antiques that he found at flea markets and estate sales. Behind him were floor-to-ceiling shelves crowded with animal skulls, fossils, piles of bones, owl pellets, and jars of animal teeth.
While people were still getting to their seats, Mr. Danvers looked up from his papers and asked, as if the question was off the top of his head, “How tall was the tallest human being on record? And don’t say Goliath because we don’t really know how tall he was and, anyway, it was two thousand years and everyone else could have been Munchkins back then.”
The talking in the room faded. Zoe found an empty desk near the back.
“No one? For your information,” said Mr. Danvers, “the tallest human on record was Robert Wadlow from Alton, Illinois. He was born in 1918, and when he died, he was just under nine feet tall.” Mr. Danvers climbed on top of the long black lab table and strode across it to the nearest wall. “That would put him about here,” he said, leveling his hand with a mark a foot below the ceiling. “To give you an idea how big he was, the tallest player in the NBA right now is only seven foot seven,” said Mr. Danvers, pointing to a lower mark, “making him almost a foot and a half shorter than Wadlow.” Mr. Danvers stepped from the lab table onto his chair and back to the floor. He reached below the table, grasped an enormous pumpkin, and put it on top. “This pumpkin is just about the size of Mr. Wadlow’s head. Imagine how big his skull was and how much it weighed. What it must have felt like carrying the thing around all day.”
There was impressed murmuring in the room, a few giggles. Zoe sat forward in her chair, staring at the pumpkin. It was kind of cool having a mad scientist for a teacher.
Crossing his arms, Danvers leaned on the pumpkin. “Any of you jocks envy Mr. Wadlow? Don’t. Humans aren’t supposed to be nine feet tall. The weight of Wadlow’s own body nearly crippled him. He had acromegaly, a hormone condition where his body produced too much growth hormone. André the Giant, the wrestler, also had acromegaly. He died in his forties. Mr. Wadlow died at twenty-two.”
Another burst of murmurs.
“Like all humans, Wadlow was a mammal. In terms of humans he was huge. In terms of mammals he was a speck. The biggest mammal