Everybody Sees the Ants


By A.S. King

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Lucky Linderman didn’t ask for his life. He didn’t ask his grandfather not to come home from the Vietnam War. He didn’t ask for a father who never got over it. He didn’t ask for a mother who keeps pretending their dysfunctional family is fine. And he didn’t ask to be the target of Nader McMillan’s relentless bullying, which has finally gone too far.

But Lucky has a secret–one that helps him wade through the mundane torture of his life. In his dreams, Lucky escapes to the war-ridden jungles of Laos–the prison his grandfather couldn’t escape–where Lucky can be a real man, an adventurer, and a hero. It’s dangerous and wild, and it’s a place where his life just might be worth living. But how long can Lucky keep hiding in his dreams before reality forces its way inside?

Michael L. Printz Honor recipient A.S. King’s smart, funny and boldly original writing shines in this powerful novel about learning to cope with the shrapnel life throws at you–and taking a stand against it.


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Table of Contents

A Sneak Peek of Ask the Passengers

A Sneak Peek of Glory O'Brien's History of the Future

Copyright Page

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Who can stop the tears?

—Robert Nesta Marley



All I did was ask a stupid question.

Six months ago I was assigned the standard second-semester freshman social studies project at Freddy High: Create a survey, evaluate data, graph data, express conclusion in a two-hundred-word paper. This was an easy A. I thought up my question and printed out 120 copies.

The question was: If you were going to commit suicide, what method would you choose?

This was a common conversation topic between Nader (shotgun in the mouth), Danny (jump in front of a speeding truck) and me (inhaling car fumes), and we'd been joking about it for months during seventh-period study hall. I never saw anything bad in it. That kind of stuff made Nader laugh. And Nader laughing at my jokes meant maybe I could get through high school with less shrapnel.

When I told the principal that day that it was a joke between Danny, Nader and me, he rolled his eyes and told me that Danny and Nader were not having "social problems" at Freddy High.

"But you, Mr. Linderman, are."

Apparently, Evelyn Schwartz went blabbing to the guidance counselor about my questionnaire. She said it was "morbid" and "creepy." (Evelyn Schwartz has a T-shirt that says HE DIED FOR ME with a picture of a dead guy nailed to a cross on it. Oh, the irony.) I really don't think it's that morbid of a thing to ask. I'm pretty sure everybody has thought about it at one time or another. My whole plan was to make a few cool pie charts or bar graphs, you know—to show off my Microsoft Excel skills with labels such as SLIT WRISTS, OVERDOSE and FIREARMS. Anyway, just because a person talks about suicide does not make it a "cry for help." Even if the kid's a little bit short or unpopular compared to his so-called friends.

Three hours after my meeting with the principal, I was sitting in the guidance office. Six days later, I was in the conference room with my parents, surrounded by the school district's "experts" who watched my every move and scribbled notes about my behavior. In the end they recommended family therapy, suggested medications and further professional testing for disorders like depression, ADHD and Asperger's syndrome. Professional testing! For asking a dumb question about how you'd off yourself if you were going to off yourself.

It's as if they'd never known one single teenager in their whole lives.

My parents were worse. They just sat there acting as if the "experts" knew me better than they did. The more I watched Mom jiggle her leg and Dad check his watch, the more I realized maybe that was true. Maybe complete strangers did know me better than they did.

And seriously—if one more person explained to me how "precious" my life was, I was going to puke. This was Evelyn's word, straight from her mega-hard-core church group: Precious. Precious life.

I said, "Why didn't anyone think my life was precious when I told them Nader McMillan was pushing me around? That was… what? Second grade? Fifth grade? Seventh grade? Every freaking year of my life?" I didn't mention the day before in the locker room, but I was thinking about it.

"There's no need to get hostile, Lucky," one of them said. "We're just trying to make sure you're okay."

"Do I look okay to you?"

"There's no need for sarcasm either," Jerk-off #2 said. "Sometimes it's hard to grasp just how precious life is at your age."

I laughed. I didn't know what else to do.

Jerk-off #1 asked me, "Do you think this is funny? Joking about killing yourself?"

And I said yes. Of course, none of us knew then that the suicide questionnaires were going to come back completed. And when they did, I wouldn't be telling any of these people, that's for sure. I mean, there they were, asking me if I was okay when they're letting people like Nader run around and calling him normal. Just because he seems okay and because he can pin a guy's shoulders to the mat in under a minute doesn't mean he's not cornering kids in the locker room and doing things to them you don't want to think about. Because he did. I saw him do it and I saw him laughing.

They asked me to wait in the guidance lobby, and I sat in the tweed chair closest to the door, where I could hear them talking to my leg-jiggling, watch-checking parents. Apparently, smiling and joking was an additional sign that I needed "real help."

And so I initiated Operation Don't Smile Ever. It's been a very successful operation. We have perplexed many an enemy.



My mother is addicted to swimming. I don't mean this in a cute, doing-handstands-in-the-shallow-end sort of way. I mean she's addicted—more than two hundred laps a day, no matter what. So I'm spending this summer vacation, like pretty much every summer vacation I can remember, at the Frederickstown Community Swimming Pool. Operation Don't Smile Ever is still in full effect. I haven't smiled in six months.

Mom told me once she thinks she's a reincarnated squid. Maybe she thinks being a squid means she won't be swallowed by the hole in our family. Maybe being submerged in 250,000 gallons of water all the time makes the hole more comfortable. I heard her yelling at Dad again last night.

"You call this trying?"

"See? Nothing's ever good enough," Dad said.

"I dare you to come home and actually see us every damn day in one damn week."

"I can do that."

"Starting when?"

After a brief silence he said, "You know, maybe if you weren't such a nag, I'd want to be around more often."

The door slammed soon after that, and I was happy he'd left. I don't like hearing him call her a nag when anyone can see she does what he tells her to do all the time. Don't talk to him about that Nader kid, Lori. It'll just make him embarrassed. And whatever you do, don't call the principal. That'll get him beat up worse.

The Freddy pool isn't so bad—at least when Nader McMillan isn't around. Even when he is around, working his one or two lifeguarding shifts a week, he's usually too distracted by his hot lifeguard girlfriend to pay attention to me. So, for the most part, it's a quiet, friendly neighborhood pool experience.

Mom and I leave home at ten, eat a packed lunch in the shade at one and get back home at six, where there is a 92 percent chance we will eat without Dad and an 8 percent chance he'll take a break from working at the fancy-schmancy restaurant and come home to eat with us and say things like, "Do you think that berry compote works with the chicken?" Mom says she's glad Dad's a chef, because it makes him happy. She only says this to make me feel better about never seeing him. She makes herself feel better by swimming laps.

While Mom worships her pool god, I shoot hoops or play box hockey. I read a book in the shade or play cards with Lara Jones. I eat. The snack bar's mozzarella sticks are really good as long as Danny Hoffman isn't working, because Danny is an idiot and he turns the fryer temperature up so the food cooks faster, but the middles of the sticks are still frozen.

Danny can be cool outside of the snack bar, and he sometimes plays a game of H-O-R-S-E or Around the World with me on the basketball court. He still hangs out with Nader McMillan, but only because Nader would kill him if he didn't stay on his good side.

I used to hang out with Nader sometimes, too, because of Danny, even after all the crappy shit Nader did to me, but that was before my famous freshman year social studies suicide-questionnaire screwup, when he decided to make my life a living hell again.

Today I didn't bring a book, and I don't feel like playing basketball or box hockey. Mom is out there by herself, swimming in lane three, occasionally eyeing the menacing clouds that are approaching from the west. I'm left lying here on our beach blanket in the shade, daydreaming. Sometimes I daydream myself to sleep and into my dreams. Sometimes I just close my eyes and pretend I'm a sniper, like my granddad Harry was in Vietnam. I imagine Nader in my sights, crosshairs on his forehead. Every day I kill him.

My mother could swim right through a thunderstorm, but they won't let her.

"Let's go stand under the pavilion until it clears," she says.

I sit down at the picnic table across from Lara Jones, a fellow fifteen-year-old soon-to-be-sophomore from my school who has a mild case of summer acne. A lightning bolt strikes over by the basketball court, and we brace ourselves for the clap. It rattles the tin roof of the pavilion, and Lara shivers.

"Wanna play cards?" she asks me.



"Yeah. Ten card. No knocks," I say, because I hate all those stupid extra rules.

"I'll still beat you," she says.

"Winning isn't everything," I say.

She grins at me. "Sure it isn't."

The rain comes down hard while Lara and I play gin. She beats me two out of three before the rain stops and I head over to the snack bar.

"What do you want?" Danny asks. So I ask him for a fifteen-cent bag of Swedish Fish.

"Multicolored or red?"

"Red, please."

He mocks me, "Red, please. God, Linderman, you're such a mama's boy."

I said hello to him at the mall last week, and he said the same thing: Stop being such a mama's boy, Linderman. I liked the old Danny more—the Danny who used to play Transformers with me in our adjoining backyards. The Danny who wasn't trying to prove anything.

He hands me a twist-tied plastic bag of Swedish Fish. "So are you gonna ask her out?"

I feign an expression of repulsion. "Lara Jones?"

"If you aren't, I will."

"Why?" I ask. I know Danny isn't into Lara Jones.

"My brother says ugly girls give out faster."

Fact is, I'd ask Lara out if I knew how to do it. But I don't know how to do it.

Dad is actually home when we get back from the pool. He says to Mom, "See? I'm here." After a near-silent dinner (grilled pork loin with raspberries and garlic potatoes), Dad asks me if I want to watch TV with him, and he turns on the Food Channel, which is the only channel he watches.

Tonight's special is about Cajun food, followed by two episodes of FMC, which is The Five-Minute Challenge. Five chefs have to pick five ingredients (out of ten) and invent a meal in five minutes. The meal must be ready to serve twenty minutes after the clock starts. Dad doesn't let me talk during the show. I'm allowed to talk during commercials, but I don't.

Dad sits in his green corduroy chair and balances the remote on its arm. I'm spread out on the couch with my arms behind my head. My eyelids get heavy, and I can't keep my eyes open past the first FMC episode. I have half dreams about gumbo-flavored ice cream and Lara Jones playing gin, until I hear the door close behind Dad, who left for the restaurant the minute he thought I was sleeping.



The thunderstorms yesterday did not clear the humidity, as predicted. Petra Simmons, Nader McMillan's girlfriend-for-the-summer, is in the diving-well guard chair, wearing a navy blue sporty bikini. She's the color of peanut butter, holding a red float across her perfect legs. I usually can't look at her without getting an instant boner, but today it's even too humid to get a boner.

I do a cannonball and try to splash her.

When I surface, she says, "Feels great! Do it again!"

I aim my next splash at the guard chair, and when I look, I see Petra is rubbing the droplets of water into her arms and legs. This is probably the hottest thing that's ever happened to me in relation to a girl. So I hop up the steps and onto the board again.

I look out over the Freddy pool. My mother is over in lane three and her stroke looks choppy and annoyed by the increasing amount of people in her way. Two of them are so involved in making out that Mom has to stop mid-stroke and wait until they drift into lane two. The make-out couple is skimpy-bikini-clad Charlotte Dent, a senior next year, and her new, twenty-year-old townie boyfriend, Ronald, who has a mustache and a red-tailed hawk tattooed across his chest, muscular shoulder to muscular shoulder. He works at the battery factory six days a week. Today must be his day off, which means he'll leave for lunch soon and come back with a six-pack of beer and proceed to drink it in the parking lot with Charlotte. Today she's wearing the leopard-skin string bikini, and I have to look away when she gets out of the pool, to avoid thinking too intensely about her nipples.

After two more cannonballs I come up for air, and Nader McMillan is sitting on the edge of the pool, next to the ladder.

He leans down to my water-filled ear. "So you wanna stick your little wiener in my girlfriend, do ya?"


"Why don't you go back to your mom and stick it in her?"

I look over. She's doing a lap of breaststroke with one eye on me. While my head is turned, Nader pushes the back of my skull playfully, but enough to make my head lurch forward and bounce off the ladder handle. I swim to the other ladder, ten feet away, and climb out of the water and walk over to our blanket.

Two minutes after I spread out on the blanket and open the paperback I'm reading, the yelling starts. I see Nader and his friends still over by the diving board. Petra's in the chair. Nader is shouting and pointing. There's movement in the water, but I can't see who or what it is, so I get up and start to walk slowly toward the edge of the pool.

"Don't help her!" Nader says.

Petra is standing on the chair's step now, whistle in mouth, pointing at Nader.

"Let her get it herself!" he yells.

Petra toots her whistle at Nader and gives him the what are you doing? look with her hands out and her head tilted. He totally blows her off.

She blows her whistle again. Meekly. "Come on. Just stop."

Nader ignores her again and starts laughing at whoever is splashing in the pool. I move close enough to see it's Charlotte—and she's missing her leopard-skin bikini top.

"Come out," Nader taunts. "You little slut."

I squint at the twelve-foot-deep diving well and see a vague shadow at the bottom.

"If one of you doesn't get it, I will," Petra says, now motioning for another guard to help out. I look around for hawk-tattooed Ronald. His car isn't in the parking lot.

"Lighten up, Pet. We're just having some fun. She's a slut, right? She probably wants us to see her boobs," Nader says.

That's the last thing I hear before I swim across the pool toward the diving well. Petra isn't helping because Nader is her boyfriend. None of the other guards are helping because they're all afraid of him, like everyone else in this town. Charlotte is hanging on to the concrete gutter of the pool with one hand while the other is clamped across her chest.

"Hey!" Nader shouts, right before I dive to the bottom.

It's dark this deep, and something about it makes me feel calm. Something about the pressure on my eardrums and that feeling in the back of my throat. Something about the brilliant cerulean blue of the water down here makes me feel welcome. It's like I'm more comfortable twelve feet deep than I am on land, especially after the last stupid, horrible six months of my life.

I come up with the bikini top and swim over to Charlotte. She slips it over her head and dives under the ropes to the shallower lanes, where I help her tie it around her back.

"Thanks," she says. "I hope this doesn't get you in trouble with those assholes." I look up and see Nader standing there, glaring at me. "Ronald's been looking for a reason to beat Nader's ass for months."

"I'd like to see that," I say.

She shakes her head no. "Whenever Ronald fights, there's blood. I hate blood."

Nader is still staring at me while I talk to Charlotte. Petra is trying to get the two other guards on duty to stop writing up Nader's violation on the report clipboard.

"Promise not to tell him?" Charlotte asks.

I've never talked to Ronald in my life. The guy is totally intimidating, not to mention twenty. "Yeah, okay."

Kim the pool manager arrives back from her lunch break, and after reading the clipboard report and talking to a few members, she kicks Nader out of the pool for the rest of the day, loudly. Jovially, even. They're friends because Nader works here and dates Petra, so Kim's really only doing it for show. She even towel-whips him on his way out the gate. Then he turns to me before he hops onto his bike, and says, "You're mine, Linderman!"

I hate that word: Linderman. No matter what I do, I can never get away from it. It's like we're cursed.



My granny Janice Linderman died when I was seven. She had colon cancer. I remember the day clearly—I had a loose tooth that I was afraid to pull and two new Transformers in tow. I was playing in the corner of her living room, where she'd lived for the last month in a rented hospital bed alongside whatever hospice nurse was on duty, while Mom and Dad took turns talking softly to Granny Janice about how it was okay to die.

"Don't worry about us," Dad said in the softest voice I ever heard him use. I think he was crying.

"We'll take care of everything," Mom said, motioning me over to the bedside to say good-bye.

Granny Janice's final breaths smelled like week-old oysters. She was pretty high on morphine and talking to herself. I didn't know what to say, so I held her hand tightly and said, "Good-bye, Granny. I love you."

Her fluttering eyelids lurched open, and she grabbed my forearm so hard that it left a red mark that outlived her. She said, "Lucky, you have to rescue my Harry! He's still in the jungle being tortured by those damn gooks!"

"Gooks?" I asked.

"It's the medicine, Lucky," Mom whispered to me.

"You have to find him and bring him back! You need a father!" Granny blurted.

Then she died.

My mother sent me out of the room, which was fine by me, but she couldn't erase those words from my memory. If Granny Janice needed me to do something, then I'd do it, even if I didn't quite understand her orders.

Up until the cancer, Granny was my parent, I guess. When I was little, she'd watch me at her house while my parents worked. She'd sit at the kitchen table making phone calls and doing paperwork all day while I played with all of the cool old toys in her toy box. One time she told me that she wished I could live with her. I remember thinking that would be nice. Before she got cancer, the school bus would drop me at her door, and she would help me with my homework and feed me dinner until my mom would pick me up at six. It was just the way things were, and I liked it that way.

Dad's eyes were red, and he put his face in his hands. I picked up my Transformers and moved to the sunroom, and while Mom and Dad made the calls they had to make, I went straight to work.

I renamed Optimus Prime "Gook" and shifted an overgrown houseplant into the corner to make a jungle. I went to Granny Janice's toy box and dug out a small doll that had come with a farm set—a farmer in a hat, missing one leg after I'd bent it too far backward the previous Christmas—and I buried him to his waist in the houseplant soil and called him "Harry." While the coroner came and removed the body and helped my parents fill out paperwork, I rescued Harry from Gook about twenty times (by helicopter, riverboat, waterfall, ambush) before it was finally time to leave.

On our way home we stopped at a small neighborhood bar and grill and ate hamburgers in silence. Dad was just eating what he could, which wasn't much, and the only thing Mom could do was point out the train set that was suspended above the middle of the dining room, as if I were five. I swear, she nearly called it a choo-choo. I decided to go to the bathroom to escape.

I didn't really have to pee, but I went through the motions at the urinal anyway. About a minute after I got there, Nader McMillan came in and stood at the neighboring urinal. He was seven like me, but a lot taller (though that wouldn't be difficult). He peed like he'd been holding it in for a week. It splashed off the urinal and the little lemon-shaped disk at the bottom. I felt some splash-back hit my arm, but I didn't say anything because I knew Nader from first-grade recess and knew he was mean. I just stood there, little penis in hand, aiming but not peeing, praying he wouldn't notice me.

"What are you looking at?" he asked, even though my eyes hadn't moved. He turned toward me and peed on my sandals. On my feet. On my shins.

I didn't say anything and neither did he. He shook and zipped back up and didn't wash his hands before he left. I stood motionless, nervously wiggling my floppy tooth with my tongue until he was gone. Then I zipped myself and squished over to the sink. My feet felt disgusting, and I was debating whether to take off my sandals and wash them, when my dad and the manager came in. They looked at the pee puddle on the terracotta-tiled floor.

"Christ, Lucky," Dad said.

The manager said, "Doesn't look like an accident to me, man." He opened a small closet door to the right of the urinals and retrieved a mop, a bucket and a stand-up yellow plastic sign that read WET FLOOR.

"It wasn't me," I said. "It was that Nader kid."

Dad looked at the manager and said, "Really—he's a good kid."

"I'm sure he is. But Mr. McMillan is a regular patron here, and his kid said he saw your son doing it."

I shook my head and started to cry.

Five minutes later we were driving home, silent, with Styrofoam carriers on our laps. As we drove through Frederickstown toward our little suburban development, I watched the big houses on Main Street pass by and I twisted my loose tooth right out of my jaw. Looking back, I guess that was the day that changed everything.


I was walking alone on a path. I was in my Spider-Man pajamas and red Totes slippers. The jungle was loud with birdcalls and the zeep-zeep-zeep-zeep of insects. I looked down a lot, like a kid does in a big place. I focused on the bugs and the fallen leaves rather than looking up at the enormous canopy and the vines and the endlessness of it all.

When I came to a stream, I looked for rocks so I could cross it. I saw my red fleece slipper reach out for the first flat rock, and I saw it slide, and felt myself go off balance, until I was wet, bottom first, in the stream.

"Here, son," someone said in a hushed and husky voice. I looked up, and there was a skinny man with a bushy gray beard holding his hand out to me. "Come on. No sense crying. You'll be dry in no time."

I took his hand and he helped me cross to the other side. When I got there, he looked me up and down. "Those are very cool pajamas. I wish Frankie could get me a pair with Spider-Man on the front." He wore a pair of thinning black pajamas that stopped mid-shin, and was barefoot. His feet were a mess of sores and scars.

"Who are you?" I asked. "And who's Frankie?"

The man cocked his head to the side and studied me some more, stroked his beard with his right hand and smiled. "Don't you worry about that," he said. "Follow me and we'll dry those pajamas." He walked to a sparkling clearing of sun rays, and I followed, the water squishing through my toes in my Totes.

Halfway there, a mean-looking Asian man in a worn uniform jumped out of a thatched bamboo hut. He pointed a rifle at me and yelled, "Lindo-man, who the kid?"

I woke up instantly, still wet, and screaming. Mom was standing over me, shaking me awake. "It's just a bad dream," she said. "It's just a bad dream."

It was two in the morning. Mom was tiptoeing around because she didn't want to wake Dad, who had to get up in only a few hours to go to work at his new chef job. She said, handing me a pair of dry pajamas, "Just put these on. Don't worry. Accidents happen." I was still half inside the dream, hearing those final words that woke me. Lindo-man, who the kid?



It was Granddad. The man I was supposed to rescue. I'd found him.


This time, as I walked toward the stream, I saw other things on the path. I saw little traps—holes dug with leaf cover to sprain an ankle in. Before I came to the clearing where the stream was, I found a group of spikes and poked them with a stick. I continued to push them until the square bit of wood lay on its side, revealing the six-inch-long nails that were hammered through it. I couldn't be sure, but there was something smeared all over the nails, and I think it was poop.

I crossed the stream without falling in and came to the bamboo huts outside the fenced-in area. The sounds of the jungle were deafening this time. Like when the cicadas come in Pennsylvania, except it wasn't familiar. It was all wild and scary.


I looked around but couldn't see who was making the noise.

"Kid! Look up!"

I looked up and there he was, the skinny man with the beard, sitting on a long branch of a tree. He was cross-legged, though it seemed physically impossible that he could sit that way on a tree branch, and he beckoned to me.

I eyed the trunk of the tree. There was no way I could get up. "How'd you get up there?" I asked.


  • * "Blending magic and realism, this is a subtly written, profoundly honest novel about a kid falling through the cracks and pulling himself back up."—Booklist, starred review
  • * "King remarkably channels fifteen-year-old Lucky, creating one of the most believable teen male characters in young adult fiction.... This unique coming-of-age story will hold tremendous appeal for reluctant male readers."—VOYA, starred review
  • * "A smart, funny, and passionate novel that embodies that idea that 'It Gets Better'--when you take action."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
  • * "King's heartfelt tale easily blends realism and fantasy.... A haunting but at times funny tale about what it means to want to take one's life, but rising above it so that living becomes the better option."—School Library Journal, starred review
  • * "The unusual and occasionally comic juxtaposition of the POW experience with Lucky's victimization... [offers] compelling food for thought about the things we can control and the things we can't, and how that distinction ultimately determines the need for action."—The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, starred review
  • * "King's themes of torture, physical and emotional imprisonment, and bullying connect in satisfying ways in this improbably witty and heartwarming story."—The Horn Book, starred review
  • "A resonant, uplifting story about not just getting through, but powering through, the tough times."Kirkus Reviews

On Sale
Sep 18, 2012
Page Count
320 pages

A.S. King

About the Author

A.S. King has been called “One of the best Y.A. writers working today” by the New York Times Book Review and is a recipient of the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults. King is the author of novels including the 2020 Michael L. Printz Award-winning Dig.,Glory O'Brien's History of the Future, the 2013 Los Angeles Times Book Prize winner Ask the Passengers, and 2011 Printz Honor Book Please Ignore Vera Dietz, among others. Her most recent release, Switch, has been called "a work of literary genius" by Booklist. She is a faculty member at Vermont College of Fine Arts and spends many months of the year traveling the country speaking to high school students about trauma, emotions, and red velvet cake. After many years living self-sufficiently and teaching literacy to adults in Ireland, she now lives in Pennsylvania. Find more at http://www.as-king.com.

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