A Tragic Kind of Wonderful


By Eric Lindstrom

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In the vein of It’s Kind of a Funny Story and All the Bright Places, comes a captivating, immersive exploration of life with mental illness.

For sixteen-year-old Mel Hannigan, bipolar disorder makes life unpredictable. Her latest struggle is balancing her growing feelings in a new relationship with her instinct to keep everyone at arm’s length. And when a former friend confronts Mel with the truth about the way their relationship ended, deeply buried secrets threaten to come out and upend her shaky equilibrium.

As the walls of Mel’s compartmentalized world crumble, she fears the worst–that her friends will abandon her if they learn the truth about what she’s been hiding. Can Mel bring herself to risk everything to find out?

In A Tragic Kind of Wonderful, Eric Lindstrom, author of the critically acclaimed Not If I See You First, examines the fear that keeps us from exposing our true selves, and the courage it takes to be loved for who we really are.



My big brother, Nolan, used to say everyone has a superpower. Not a skill you learned, but something you were born with. And it's not always cool. Some people get perfect pitch or good intuition, while others get something useless like being able to go a long time without blinking. But if you don't judge, everyone has at least one thing they're really good at.

Nolan's superpower was, quote, "I can make myself be happy."

He proved it by having loud fun with lots of friends most of the time. But it also could be unsettling. Like when he was "happy" at times I knew he shouldn't be. He wasn't faking it exactly. It was real in a way, just not… authentic.

Happiness, he said, was like the lights in your house, running on electricity generated by the good things in life. Unhappy people have dark houses without electricity, and they sometimes put candles in their windows to hide their sadness from others, but not Nolan. He said he had a bicycle in his head, attached to an electric generator, and he could imagine pedaling it whenever he wanted to power his real happiness lights.

If you looked closely, though, you could sometimes see his lights dim, or burn too bright, or flicker in ways they weren't supposed to. And once you saw this, you couldn't unsee it. Then you saw it a lot. I didn't understand; I was just a kid at the time. Thinking back on it now, it breaks my heart.

A lot of the time Nolan was naturally happy without having to pedal his imaginary bike. Infectious, too. My happiest memory is from when I was thirteen and he was sixteen, on the first of November.

All of us in Ms. Malik's eighth-grade English class were slumped over our desks like empty puppets, crashed and crumpled after Halloween on a school night. It was silent reading time and we were silent but not reading. If it had been kindergarten naptime, nobody would have complained.

A knuckle cracked. I saw my brother peeking into the room from out in the hall. He waved for me to come over and then ducked away. Maybe something was wrong.

I asked to go to the bathroom, got the nod, grabbed the Magic Wand, and walked into the hall. Nolan was already outside the glass doors at the far end, on his silver eight-speed touring bike. I wondered how he'd managed to slip away from his prison-like high school without being seen.

When I opened the door, Nolan pointed at the Magic Wand. "What the hell is that?"

It was really a dowel with a plywood star glued to one end, painted with glitter. It was childish, sexist, and I hated it. The boys used a black dowel with white tips. I hated that, too, though not as much.

I waved it impatiently. "Hall pass. What's wrong?"

"Get on. I'm gonna show you something amazing."

"Now? I can't leave school! Why aren't YOU in school?"

"We won't be gone long. You can say I made you do it. Get on."

"I don't have my helmet."

"Use mine." He held it out.

"Then YOU won't have a helmet."

He rapped his knuckles on his head. "Don't need one."

Classic Nolan. But I knew the risk wasn't getting hurt, it was getting caught, and I wouldn't get in trouble if he didn't wear his helmet. Didn't work the other way. He often got in trouble for stuff I did because Dad said he was "in charge."

I bent over to set the Magic Wand down by the wall—

"No, bring it. We might need it."

I didn't know how that could be possible, but sometimes it was better just to go along when Nolan said random stuff like this.

We rode the trail by the golf course, up and down the gentle slopes. We stopped for smoothies at the Healthee Hut—the sweet strawberry kind with nothing "Healthee" added—and laughed at people drinking bright green blenderized grass. I made him stop at Sandy Park to go on the swings since I knew when he was like this he wouldn't say I was too old and he'd push me super high. I'd shout, "Push me all the way around!" and it always seemed like he really tried to. Next he powered us through the tall weeds in the empty lot to go behind the police station, "So the cops won't see we're cutting school." We stopped at a new store that sold greeting cards and scrapbook supplies and dorky little statues, and it started to get boring till he found a silly joke book that cracked us up. He bought it and off we rode again.

Finally he stopped in front of the bank.

"Ready to see something awesome?"

I'd forgotten that was the point of this trip. Also how I'd been "in the bathroom" at school for over an hour and never showed up to Social Studies.

"What is it?"

"Bring your Magic Wand," Nolan said. He opened the big glass door. "You're gonna love this."

That's where my happiest memory ends.

My own superpower is the ability to not think about anything I don't want to think about. It allows me to relive and enjoy one of the best memories of my life even though it's moments away from my absolute worst.


Hamster is ACTIVE

Hummingbird is HOVERING

Hammerhead is CRUISING

Hanniganimal is UP!

I'm in a better mood than the situation merits. It's only Thursday, I have tons of homework due tomorrow, we're buried in a long stretch of overcast days, but there's an unexplainable bounce in my step. Well, it's explainable, but I've learned to just enjoy it.

Holly swoops in beside me as everyone streams down the hall toward the exit. I get my usual impulse to touch her storm cloud of kinky black hair. I know she'd be fine with it—other white girls have asked. First she gives them a stern look and says, "How much cash you got?" Then she laughs at their stricken expressions and says, "Sure, whatever, but not for long or it gets weird." I fight the urge anyway. I don't want to be one of those girls.

"Hey, Mel," Holly says. "Want a ride home?"

"Really?" I ask, lighting up. Then I droop. "Oh, darn… I rode my bike today… and I'm not going home now… same as every day of the entire year you've known me."

"Year and four months, if you're counting. I rescued you December of sophomore year."

It's no exaggeration to call it a rescue, how she befriended me when I got really sick last year and missed so much school—months, actually—and lost what few friends I had at the time.

She says, "One day you just might find your tires slashed. Then you'll change your tune."

"As if I've been turning down your rides for longer than… what, three days? You got your license Monday?"

"Those tires are so old, I bet I could pop them with a nail file."

"It would make me sad," I say.

"Can't imagine why. That old bike's a P.O.S."

"But it's my piece of shit. And a family heirloom. But I meant it'd make me sad if the cops catch you. They'll put you in jail and I'll miss you terribly. You're not supposed to give any rides for another… three hundred and sixty-two days."

"Speak for yourself," Declan says, joining us. "Illegal isn't the same as impossible. I'm tired of walking every day. That's two hours a day wasted. Ten hours a week. Forty—"

I shoot him a look. "It takes you two hours to walk four miles?"

He grins. "I might have added wrong."

"Doubt it. Probably didn't subtract the time you duck behind the library. Though you're right, that is part of those two hours a day you're wasting… getting wasted.…"

"Baked," he says.

"Tell you what, I'll look up those words in Urban Dictionary if you actually go inside the library today and look up the word hairsplitting."

Declan snorts. "I'm grateful my girlfriend has a license, and a car, and a backseat—"

Holly stops his gratitude with an elbow to his ribs. She says to me, "Think of the time you're wasting on that bike. I can get you home in no time. Or work, wherever."

"I'm not in a hurry. It's exercise. You should try it. When the apocalypse comes, I'll be ready and you'll be zombie kibble. Come to think of it, you two keep driving everywhere. I don't want to be the slowest in our band of survivors."

When we leave the building, Declan takes a crumpled bag from his pocket.

"Check it out," he says when he sees me looking at it. "I forgot to leave it in the car for the ride home.…"

He opens the wrinkled brown sack and shows me a baggie holding what looks like a chunk of sod cut out of someone's lawn.

"Gross." I push it away. "That was in your locker all day? Where'd you even get it?"

His grin gets sheepish. Holly frowns.

"Is that…" I say. "I mean, did your mom make it?"

He nods. "She can't keep track of it all—"

"You're stealing your grandma's cancer brownies?"

"Shhh! Tell the world!" He jams the bag under his arm. "She never runs out. My mom always makes more when she runs low."

"That's messed up," I say. "Although… hmmm… let me see it again—"

"No way, Mel. If you want any, you'll have to steal from your own—"

"Declan!" Holly says through clenched teeth, glancing my way.

He stands frozen. My grandma Cece died of stomach cancer a year ago. His comment doesn't upset me, though. Not today.

I tousle his wispy blond hair—there's nothing wrong with touching his hair. He hates it but lets me after his blunder. He's not fussy; it just emphasizes how I'm three inches taller than him.

"It's okay, short stuff. I don't need drugs to get high."

Quite the opposite.

I say good-bye to Holly and Declan, pop the crossbeam off my U-lock, and stow the pieces in my backpack.


This is unexpected.

"Hey, Connor."

I'm not sure what else to say. Connor and I aren't friends anymore, though he and I didn't fight like I did with everyone else. We just never spoke again after I was out sick. I focus on strapping my backpack to the rear rack of my bike with a bungee.

"You know what's up with Annie?"

The question is odd enough that I stop what I'm doing to look at him.

It's a normal yet pointless reaction. Connor seldom looks at anyone directly, regardless of whether they're strangers, friends, or ex-friends. Right now he's looking somewhere off to my left. His straight red hair hangs over his forehead.

"She's been sick all week," he says, still not looking at me. "But she won't let us come over. Zumi tried and Annie's mom wouldn't let her in."

Zumi and Annie were the other two friends I lost last year—I only had the three. The fact that he's asking me about them now makes this conversation stranger than anything Annie might be up to.

"And, what, you want my recipe for chicken soup to leave on her porch?"

"She texted us today that she's flying out to see her uncle, I guess the one in Connecticut. That's weird for someone who's been sick a whole week."

"Maybe she's pregnant."

Connor doesn't react to this. "Zumi's really worried about her."

I notice the shield I'm holding up when I feel it start to drop.

He's concerned about Zumi being worried, not about Annie being sick or acting weird. He and I had that in common. Zumi was the best friend I've ever had, and Connor by association. Then Annie and I fought, sides were chosen, and I retreated. I don't blame Zumi or Connor—they had been friends with Annie first, and it was my fault. Though Annie slandering me afterward wasn't.

A car slows to a stop beside us. It's Holly and Declan on their way from the parking lot out to the street.

"Everything okay?" Holly asks.

"Yep," I say.

She peers at me, so I smile and wave. "See you tomorrow."

"Call me later." She drives slowly away.

Holly's protective intervention reminds me that while I still miss Zumi and Connor as much as ever, him talking to me now doesn't mean we're suddenly friends again.

"Did Zumi put you up to this?" I say. "Or did you already ask the second-to-last person on earth?"

He glances at me for the briefest possible moment. His wet green eyes look sadder than I remember, but I don't have much to draw from; he's not an eye-contact kind of guy. Some people say it's me, though, that I'm way too much of an eye-contact person.

I say, "You can't really think I've been talking to Annie."

He shrugs. "There's no one else to ask."

I watch Connor walk away toward the parking lot. Someone pushes off from the retaining wall ahead and joins him. It's Zumi: long black hair, pale jeans, and the same black hoodie she was wearing the day I met her.


The first day of freshman year is hard enough. It's harder starting in a new town, like joining a game of musical chairs after the music's already stopped when you don't even want to play. For me, it's even worse than that. I'm still deep in my hole, hardly speaking, a month after moving here, four months after the divorce, and less than a year after losing Nolan.

Despite begging Mom to let me bring my lunch, so I could eat whatever I want and not wait in the cafeteria line, I'm the disappointed owner of a lunch card. For more variety of healthier food, according to Mom. I think she's just afraid I'd sit alone outside if I brought my lunch, and I totally would.

On the first day, I get to the cafeteria ahead of most everyone; my previous class and locker are right around the corner. I'm already halfway through my grilled cheese with apple slices—the messy spaghetti was out of the question—before the room starts filling up. Then a group of four girls lines up in front of me.

"This is our table."

She says it without emotion, not snotty or falsely sympathetic. I'm not even worth a sneer. They look like freshmen, too, so they can't possibly have a regular table. There's plenty of room for all of us but I know the score. I grab my tray and scuttle off, silently cursing my mother.

The same girls chase me from a different table the next day. Again I scurry away. This is the next level of harassment. I've been elevated from a random nobody to a specific target.

I hang out in a bathroom stall the third day until I think my oppressors must be sitting down, and then I wait another few minutes, just in case. From the lunch line, I see them at a different table than either of the days before.

As soon as I sit, wondering what Mom would think of the corn dog on my tray, the four girls appear again.

"This is our table."

They actually got up and came over this time.

I start to stand but get stopped by a hand on my shoulder. I look up and see a blond with a French braid beside me.

"Scooch," she says, pushing me sideways hard enough that I instinctively move over.

She plops down and clatters her tray on the table. Another girl sits on my right, close enough that I'm squeezed between them, shoulder to shoulder. All I can see of this other girl is a wall of straight black hair draped down to her black hoodie.

"Oh, I'm sorry," the blond says to the four. "Are we interrupting?"

"It's too sunny here," the tallest harasser says to her friend who'd been talking before. They leave without acknowledging us further, like we'd vanished.

"What's your name?" the blond asks me.


"Like Melody, or Melanie?"

"Just Mel."

"Okay… weird. Anyway, I'm Annie, really Ann, but call me Annie because Ann sounds too… you know. This is Zumi, really Izumi, but call her Zumi. I think it's because she used to zoom around a lot when she was little, and… well…" Annie frowns. "Sometimes she still does. And this…" She twists around and waves impatiently for someone to come over. "This is Connor."

A guy walks over and sits across from us. He doesn't look up from his tray but he seems relaxed.

"The tall one's Gloria Fernandez," Annie says. "The one who does most of the talking is Tina Fernandez, but they're not related. The other two are Elena and Sofia. They're just minions. Gloria's the leader and Tina's her muscle. Like you're my muscle, right, Zumi?"

Zumi turns toward me. Her face is tipped down, but unlike Connor, she looks at me intently, like something creepy from those Japanese horror movies Nolan liked.

"If Team Fernandez ever looks at you again," Zumi says, "tell them you're with us: Annie, Zumi, and Connor. They'll leave you alone."

She says their names all together like a law firm, like how Dad is a part of Jensen, Hannigan, and Hsu. Maybe Zumi's mom or dad's a lawyer, too. Looking around at them, I think they could also be called Sunny, Sullen, and Shy.

Zumi's still scowling. There are big white letters on her sweatshirt, all caps: DON'T ASK. I wonder what it means… but… there's no way to find out. Is that the point, like a joke, or…?

She winks. It's so sudden and unexpected, it makes me laugh. Not Sullen after all.

Zumi points at the untouched corn dog on my tray. "You gonna eat that?"

I wasn't keen on it but the breaded fish option looked worse. And I guess she wants it. Will I have to pay for this new friendship? Or at least the protection? I shake my head and slide the tray toward Zumi.

She shoves it away down the length of the table. "I was just making sure you weren't going to eat it." She smiles. "They taste like shit."

The next day, I wait in the bathroom stall again before lunch. Yesterday seems ages ago and a little unreal. I don't know when Annie, Zumi, and Connor will arrive. Even then, what if they've forgotten all about me?

I carry my tray slowly by them.

"Mel!" Zumi says. She slides over to make room. "We're right here! Sit down!"

For the first twenty minutes, Annie does most of the talking. It's a combination of random bits of everything and filling in basics we didn't cover yesterday. Then she gets an idea.

"Let's ride bikes on the beach trail this Saturday."

I don't want to say no to my first invitation, but my bike rusted out and got left behind in the move. Nolan's bike is fine and parked in the garage, but I've never ridden it alone.

"I don't have a bike."

"Borrow one," Annie says, as if this were obvious. "You have sisters or brothers?"

I shake my head.

"God, you're lucky."

Connor glances up briefly at Zumi and smirks.

Zumi nods slightly. Then she casually says to Annie, "What about your old bike?"

"No, I gave it to Lulu."

"Your mom just got her a new one," Zumi says. "Let's ask her—"

"No, it's… it's got a flat tire. We can just walk to the beach; it's fine. I guess you're closest, Mel. We'll meet at your place."

If we end up doing this a lot, they'll probably see Nolan's bike at some point.…

"Well, there is a bike in my garage," I say. "It's… my cousin's. But it's too big."

"Oh, that's no problem!" Annie says, brightening. "Zumi's brother taught her all about bikes. You're, what, five-seven, five-eight? Probably just need to lower the seat, right, Zumi?"

"I don't know without seeing it," Zumi says to Annie. "But I know I can fix the flat on your old bike."

Connor's shoulders bounce. He's looking at his lasagna, picking at it. I think he's snickering.

"No," Annie says, annoyed. "It's not—" She stops and looks pointedly at Connor. "What?"

He doesn't answer. Zumi leans toward me and says in a low voice, "Lulu's only eleven and Annie's afraid of her."

"I am not," Annie says, more indignant than defensive.

"Okay," Zumi says. "It's just that Annie can't stop Lulu from following her everywhere, so she has to sneak out of the house. She can't do that if we all go over there."

Annie just stares at Zumi like she's waiting for her to finish.

"I can try and adjust your cousin's bike," Zumi says. "Do you want me to?"

I nod.

"Okay, I'll come over before the weekend, in case it takes a while."


Zumi points a thumb toward Annie and says to me, "But don't you think sneaking around means you're afraid of something?"

I don't think she's really needling Annie; it seems more like affectionate teasing. Annie stares over our heads, looking perturbed.

When I don't answer, Zumi adds, "Maybe just a little?"

Connor laughs.

Annie says, "You be quiet!"

Zumi busts up laughing and I join her.

Team Fernandez walks by, carrying trays back to the kitchen. We instantly stop laughing. Annie coolly eats a bite of lasagna while Connor wrestles with the lid of his juice. Zumi scowls, her head pivoting to keep them in her glare as they walk by, like she's a tracking cannon. The instant they're gone, Zumi giggles, throws her arm around my shoulders, and leans into me hard.

I'm in.


Hamster is ACTIVE

Hummingbird is FLYING

Hammerhead is CRUISING

Hanniganimal is UP!

I'm still in a good mood despite that weird conversation with Connor yesterday. Two days in a row is some kind of record, at least recently. Maybe because it's Friday, and I have almost no homework, and the sun finally came out… but no, I know better. My ups and downs have minds of their own.

I ride after school along the beach trail, pumping the pedals, outpacing the lumbering zombies I imagine chasing me on my way to work. They'll never catch me. Not as long as I have Nolan's bike.

Parked in front of the Silver Sands Suites is a small rental van. Maybe someone's moving in. I head inside. Five minutes later I've locked my stuff in a cabinet by the sink, put on clean scrubs, pinned on my name tag, and washed my face and hands thoroughly.

I check the mirror. Despite vigorous scrubbing, I'm still dotted with freckles. My aunt Joan and I have a long-standing bet that I'll outgrow them. She thinks they're temporary because I have slightly lower density plus brown hair and blue eyes, but I'm less than a month from my seventeenth birthday. As much as I wish she were right, I think I'm going to win this bet… damn it.

In the kitchen I fill a glass of orange juice halfway. I hold it behind my back as I enter the Sun Room. Ms. Arguello is alone here and calls to me, "Excuse me, miss?"

She's in the paisley wingback chair by the south window, knitting a heavy scarf, like every day of the two years I've worked here.

"How's your first day going?" she asks.

"Very well, Ms. Arguello, thank you."

"Oh! You know my name already. How nice, Miss…"

I stoop to bring my name tag closer to her.

"Mel Hannigan?" She laughs. "Was that on your shirt when they gave it to you? Don't worry, I'm sure you'll get your own soon!"

I smile. "No, that's my name."

She looks at me askance, playfully suspicious. "Is it short for Melissa?" I shake my head. "Melinda?"

"Nope, just Mel. What can I do for you?"

I know what she wants—it's the same every day—but she's much happier when I play out this scene naturally.

"Let me know when the mail comes? I'm expecting a letter from my grandson. I'm knitting this muffler for him."

"I'll keep an eye out. Is there anything else I can get for you?"

"No, thank you. Or, maybe a small glass of orange juice?"

She smiles when I hand it to her. She doesn't ask why I had it ready. The fact that her letter will never come pops into my head. I push it right back out and leave her to her knitting.

Some days I avoid the Beachfront Lounge for as long as I can, but not today. The Hanniganimal is Up! As soon as I walk in, Mr. Terrance Knight sees me and grins. He sets down his book—today it's his Bible—and struggles out of his usual chair by the heater vent. It's a battle he wants to win without help, and it usually takes a full thirty seconds.

I don't remember how old Mr. Terrance Knight is exactly, but he's at least eighty and still a few inches taller than me, maybe a full six feet. I wait till he's standing and balanced, and then I look up into his eyes, his curly hair shockingly white next to his rich black skin.

"You just get here, Mel? You need to settle first?"

His voice is like thick melted butter; I want to swim in that voice. I squint at him and smile with the right side of my mouth. "Mr. Terrance Knight, I'm never gonna settle!"

"That's what I want to hear!" he says.

We head for the piano.

My boss's door opens. A wispy ball of white hair like a dandelion pops out—it's Judith.

"Sorry," she says to Mr. Terrance Knight. "I need her."

When I get close, Judith whispers, "Ms. Li. First day. I think she needs some of your magic."

Ms. Li is tiny, sitting in a chair, wearing a simple red silk blouse, black skirt and hose, and pumps that aren't nearly comfortable enough for a woman her age, or any age if you ask me. Her hands are folded in her lap. Tears stream down her wrinkled face.

Standing beside her is a tired middle-aged man, probably a relative, wearing a brown suit that's rumpled and looks slept in.

"This is Mel," Judith says to Ms. Li in a loud voice. "She'll stay with you while we finish up some details. We'll be right outside."

Ms. Li doesn't seem to hear. Judith leads the man out and closes the door.

I sit in the chair next to her. It's good to let them lead.

After another minute of tears and trembling, she looks at me.

I smile. Not my bright smile—I can't imagine she'd want to see that now. I smile in a way that says, I understand how much the world sucks sometimes… but it doesn't always.

Her eyes crinkle at the corners. I think she heard me.

"Do you want something to drink?" I ask as loud as Judith.


  • Praise for A Tragic Kind of Wonderful:

    "The portrayal of Mel's bipolar disorder is nuanced and reads true to life. Her fear of rejection will be familiar to teenagers, whether they're acquainted with mental illness or not, making it an important gateway to self-acceptance and understanding of others. An intimate and affecting portrait of mental illness helmed by an achingly real protagonist."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "Lindstrom (Not If I See You First) deftly addresses life with bipolar disorder, as well as the internalized shame often felt by individuals with mental illness. Emotions run high as Lindstrom's story confronts mental illness, grief, and shame, but the optimistic resolution provides balance."—Publishers Weekly

  • "Lindstrom's compelling novel is rich in clinical detail, which is nicely integrated into the plot, ensuring the novel is never didactic but always dramatic...Readers will find Mel's story always absorbing and gain insight into her troubling disorder. Those who enjoy this fine novel will also enjoy Jennifer Niven's All the Bright Places(2015)."—Booklist

  • "Mel's struggle to take her condition seriously without letting mental illness define her life is heart-rending."
    The Horn Book

  • "An engaging and fast-moving plot that foregrounds Mel as a person who maintains a strong ethic of kindness even and especially when [she's] down, making her a bipolar poster child fully worthy of reader sympathy."—BCCB

On Sale
Feb 7, 2017
Page Count
288 pages

Eric Lindstrom

About the Author

Eric Lindstrom is a BAFTA- and WGA-nominated veteran of the interactive entertainment industry. He is the author of Tragic Kind of Wonderful and Not If I See You First.

Learn more about this author