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By Fiona Wood
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In this tender, funny story of first love, good friendship, and going a little bit wild, Fiona Wood introduces two unforgettable girls who discover that before you can be true to yourself, you have to figure out exactly who you are.
Table of Contents
A Sneak Peek of Cloudwish
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In the holidays before the dreaded term at my school's outdoor education campus two things out of the ordinary happened.
A picture of me was plastered all over a massive billboard at St. Kilda junction.
And I kissed Ben Capaldi.
At least twice a year, my godmother, who is some big-deal advertising producer, comes back to Melbourne from New York to see her family and people like us, her old friends.
Her name is Bebe, which is pronounced like two bees, but we call her Beeb.
She doesn't have kids, so I get all her kid attention, which to be completely honest is not a huge amount. But it's "quality time." And quality presents. Especially when I was little. When I was five, she arranged for me to adopt a baby doll from FAO Schwarz. She took photos of me in the "nursery"—they actually had shop assistants dressed up as nurses—and I showed them at school.
That was when I started being friends with Holly. As she looked at my doll, Meggy MacGregor—who had a bottle, nappies, designer clothes, a birth certificate, and a car seat—I could see her struggling. It was jealousy/hatred versus admiration/envy, and lucky for me admiration/envy won the day. Holly's a good friend but a mean enemy.
We were at the beach house, lounging around in a delicious haze of lemon poppy-seed cake and pots of tea, talking about digging out the wet suits for a freezing cold spring swim, and whether sharks have a preferred feeding time. I was lying on the floor, with my feet up in an armchair. Toenails painted Titanium—dark, purplish—drying nicely.
I'd just put down Othello for a bout of Angry Birds. My sister, Charlotte, thirteen going on obnoxious, was laughing too loudly at a text message, no doubt hoping one of us would ask her what was so funny. Dad was doing a cryptic crossword. Mum was answering e-mails on her laptop even though she was supposedly on holiday. "Sexually transmitted diseases never sleep," she said when I reminded her of the holiday concept. Gross.
She used to be a regular doctor, but she kept getting more and more obscure qualifications and went into community health and health policy, and now she basically runs the Free World from the Sexually Transmitted Infections Clinic in Fitzroy.
If you can think of a more embarrassing place than STIC to visit your mum at work, think again, because there isn't one.
Holly loves it. We went there after school on the last day of term for emergency gelato money so we'd have the necessary energy required to trawl Savers, and this old woman gave us the foulest look when we hit the street. Holly deadpanned her: "At least we're getting it treated."
Beeb was sitting on the comfy sofa, with the beautiful Designers Guild paisley fabric that she bossed Mum into choosing about ten years ago, all the bright colors now softly worn and faded, flipping through some modeling agency "books" online and saying, "Insipid, insipid, dreary, tarty, bland, blah, starved, insipid…" She groaned and stretched out her black-jeans-clad legs. "Where are the interesting gals?"
"They broke the mold after you two," my dad said. Meaning Beeb and Mum. It never works when my dad tries to give a compliment; he's simply not that charming.
"Thanks," I said, thinking interesting is after all a modest claim.
I must have sounded way more offended than I felt, because when I glanced up from my screen all eyes were upon me. Upside down, disconcertingly, because of me lying on the floor. When I untangled my legs and sat up, it was as though I'd surrounded myself with flashing lights and arrows. Everyone kept looking at me. Really looking. And I was wishing I'd just shut up, because my mother was probably about to remember that I still hadn't unloaded the dishwasher and if I had time to lie there playing Angry Birds—which is quite a distant rung on her almighty hierarchy of tasks from Reading a Required Text for Next Term—then I certainly had time to unload the dishwasher, and I had to remember the family was a community, and in order for a community to function…
Beeb got up. "Come here, kid," she said, leading me to the window. She was looking at me with a strange frown-and-squint gaze. "What did you do with all those pimples?"
"Roaccutane," I said. "I had dry skin, dry eyeballs, and no spit."
"Till they corrected the dose," said Dr. Mother.
"What about all the hardware in your mouth?" asked Beeb.
"Off last week." I ran my tongue over my teeth. They still felt weirdly slippy.
"Take off your glasses."
"You are gorgeous. How did I not notice this?" It was a eureka moment, she said later.
"Maybe because you see my visage in my mind," I said, mangling a bit of Othello.
"That is true, my sweetie," said Beeb.
"She has a pointy nose exactly like a witch," said Charlotte.
"Her nose is fine," said my father, who never seems to realize fine is as good as an insult.
"If you like huge noses, which no one actually does," said Charlotte.
"She's got character," said Beeb. "And that's what I'm looking for."
"You're talking about her? My sister? Sibylla Quinn?" said Charlotte, her voice squeaking with growing incredulity. "She's totally fugs. Totally."
"Don't use that word," said my mother, who only recently found out what fugs meant, and then only because she used it, so I felt that I had to tell her, and she said, Oh, that's disappointing. I thought it was like a cuddly version of ugly. No surprise this is the same woman who thought lol meant "lots of love." It was her all-purpose sign-off for texts till I set her straight a few years ago.
"I don't want pretty little generics; I want different; I want individual!" said Beeb.
"Perfume launch. A billboard and magazine campaign. Jeune Femme Sauvage." She was rummaging in her latest designer version of the magic bag that contains her whole office. She pulled out a camera, took some photos of me, and studied the screen. "Perfect. God, you look like your mum."
"Old and tired? Poor girl," said my mother.
We looked at her. She has a high forehead and a bony nose and a big mouth. (In both senses.) She doesn't dye her hair. It's cut straight and parted on one side. It's the same color as mine. Mouse. Only she calls it rat because she's so funny. She does have a great smile. And she smiled.
"Take a picture. It'll last longer," she said.
Beeb took a picture of me and Mum together. We're both smiling. And I can see that even though I'm not old and tired, we do look pretty similar.
Mum hugged me and whispered in my ear: "Dishwasher."
friday 28 september
saturday 29 september
After Fred died…
sunday 30 september
After Fred died I divided my time between blind disbelief, blank chaos, and therapy.
The psychiatrist, Esther, said, Write a journal, Lou, how about writing a journal, would you consider writing a journal, Lou, give it some thought…
We are in the slowly unwinding transition out of therapy in the lead-up to me going away to school. Who knew: you can't just walk out of therapy. At least it is not recommended that you just walk out of therapy. No matter how many times you might keenly wish to just walk out of therapy.
There will be a formal handover to the school counselor, whose name I don't know yet. I'll be the new girl, starting in term four. Boarding for a whole term, a whole nine weeks, in the wilderness.
I've been angry through the whole therapy thing, which might be a displacement of my guilt/sorrow/depression at the whole Fred thing. We don't use depression in the usual sense, because truly, if I don't have a reason to feel depressed, I don't know who…
It is possible that Esther, who is after all a psychiatrist-with-a-special-interest-in-grieving-and-its-effects-on-mental-health-in-young-people, is right about writing a journal.
So I have decided, well, why not write something down?
If you don't want to write about your Feelings, you can simply write about the Physical World, what you see, what you hear… facts, things, stuff. Jeez, so it's not compulsory to eviscerate myself? To slash myself to a slow death with a million small paper cuts? Thank you kindly.
There are whole nights I do nothing but wait. For what?
You could say I have been spending too much time alone for too long. Perhaps it is indeed time to start talking to an exercise book. The internal, external… infernal, diurnal, eternal journal. It is essentially just more talking to myself, but that is okay because my heart is its own fierce country where nobody else is welcome.
Cut him out in little stars. Hard to believe a man even wrote that; it's so fragile.
I completely get that giddy arrogance, the infatuation. The laugh-and-spin embrace of the absent beloved. If you were writing an essay, you'd probably yarp on about the way in which it can be read as prefiguring Romeo's death. A portent.
I love the staccato it-t-t-teration and the soft fading sibilance of stars. Imagine the words breathed out, written down fast and hard onto thick, smeared paper, the tarry smell, black sputtery ink. Such potent meaning inside so delicate an image feels risky, implosive, cataclysmic.
But if there's no danger, no risk, it's not love, is it?
I've told Esther exactly nothing of any of this.
Fred and I talked about it like we talked about everything, and decided we were too young to have sex. Then we basically went for it.
Because, sure, head was saying, Maybe not such a good idea, but soul was saying, I know you, and body was saying, Come to me. And that's two against one.
Hey, at least we were older than Romeo and Juliet.
Fred did the research. Ever the scientist. The failure rate for condoms mostly relates to misuse, or accidents. We decided we'd go straight to a morning-after pill in the case of an accident. We also decided we wouldn't have accidents, and we didn't. We took it in turns to buy the condoms. Nowhere too near home.
Going on the pill would have meant horrible discussions. My mothers being very responsible and ultimately understanding and tolerant with about three million warnings and provisos. And the family doctor. Gag. I did not fancy the whole gang metaphorically standing at the bedside. A strange doctor would have been possible, but weird, too. I didn't need the lecture.
Condoms sometimes break because someone is being rough, or the girl isn't ready, which sounds so sad. Sounds more like rape than sex to me. That wasn't us. We were all liquid aching and longing. It was fun being beginners together. You only get that once. It took a little while. We were learning a new language, after all.
If we'd ever asked for a weekend away together, all the parents, including Fred's stepmother, would have been frowning and conferencing and counseling.
But all we asked was to do our homework together a couple of times a week, and hang out a bit on the weekend. So it was easy. And we did homework, our nerdiness as compatible as our lust. We were pretty lucky. You'd have to say.
Next week I am heading off to a jolly outdoorsy camp called Mount Fairweather, where you learn to be jolly and jolly well fend for yourselves and run up a jolly mountain and learn which way's north and how to make a fire and incinerate some jolly marshmallows, no doubt.
Esther says it will be good for me. She says it will do me the world of good. But where is the world of good? I'm pretty sure it's not stuck up a mountain with a bunch of private-school clones.
Dan and Estelle and Janie are all on exchange in Paris. They left last week. More tears. More scattering.
Dan's shrink said it would be good for him. Maybe he said the world of good. Perhaps Paris is the world of good.
I do try to live in the moment, but it doesn't work particularly well.
In the wall is the window. On the window is the curtain. Through the window is the moon. You can even write gibberish in the journal if you like; it still connects you to the page, to the idea, at least, of communicating. Apparently.
Sometimes I'll write to you, Fred; sometimes I'll write to me. Sometimes I will just write what I see, because when I see a fingernail moon in fading sky… I see it for you, too.
It took a whole lot of persuading—mostly of Mum—to get me from the living room floor up onto that billboard. Beeb knew her so well. The four things that clinched the okay were:
• I'll be there the whole time supervising.
• No one will recognize her.
• The vibe is "fairy tale," not "sexy."
• She can put the money in her travel account.
The first three were for Mum and Dad, the fourth was really for me. My parents are notoriously unmotivated by money. Not me. I can't get enough of it. And the fee was huge—it's a global campaign. (I'd have to babysit the current clients into old age to earn that much at twelve dollars an hour.)
My travel account has been going forever. Years ago I negotiated that in the summer break between school and university, instead of going to Byron Bay for senior week, I get to house-sit Beeb's apartment in New York (Upper West Side, two blocks from Zabar's, so I won't starve) while she is here in Melbourne. But so far with babysitting and working during school breaks and having taken out certain essential amounts, I've only ever got about three hundred dollars, which is a fraction of the airfare.
Even when Mum had said okay, she wasn't exactly in love with the whole billboard plan.
When I came home with my hair dyed—and it looked great, by the way—she nearly had a conniption.
Beeb joked her out of it by talking in headlines:
"New Study Reveals Hair Dye Does Not Chemically Neutralize Political Awareness."
"Feminist Survives Professional Eyebrow Wax."
"Makeup—It Washes Off!"
"These things were serious crimes back in the day," Beeb said to me by way of explanation. As though I haven't heard every feminist rant under the sun and am not a proud feminist ranter myself, when warranted, and when I can be bothered.
"And PS, Mother, I am the only person in my grade who doesn't have dyed hair," I said.
"Not anymore, you're not," she said, eyebrows up.
There was a big preproduction meeting at the photographer's studio where Beeb "consulted" the art director, who "consulted" the makeup artist, who had a colorist on "standby." To hear them, you would think my hair was of global significance. But whatever they did, it sure did not look like any other hair I'd ever seen.
They talked about "layering" the color, and "textural" color, and "variegated" color. And the amazing thing was that even though it had about ten different colors in it—all individually painted and put in foils—it still looked like my hair, but as though it was walking along with its own set of glamour spotlights.
Getting it done was outlandishly boring. It took a whole day to do hair and the makeup "tests." But I would have put up with it ten times over to see Charlotte turning green when I got home.
"You don't even look like yourself," was the best she could come up with as she huffed off to sulk in her room.
After pretending like it was no big deal, I went upstairs and locked myself in the bathroom. I actually could not stop staring at myself in the mirror. I looked awesome. It was mesmerizing. And Charlotte was right for once in her scurvy little life: I looked nothing at all like myself. It was me with a work of art stuck right onto my face.
I kept blinking at my reflection. One minute I could see myself, the next, just the beautiful mask. Which looked five years older than me. If I were in a scary movie, this would be the perfect moment to first experience psychosis. Maybe the mask would talk to me. As my now-crazy older self. From the future. I shuddered. I was freaking myself out. I stuffed my hair into a ponytail and turned on the taps.
The shoot was right before the end of third term, and the billboard was up on the last day of the holidays before we left the city for our fourth term, boarding at Mount Fairweather, which is Crowthorne Grammar's outdoor education campus.
"Deadline tighter than a fish's arsehole," as Beeb said.
She swears like a mad thing. She says it comes from spending too much time with crews.
As soon as the billboard went up, it was all over Facebook. Holly was posting it before the paste was dry. In one keystroke I went from being a year-ten "nobody" to a year-ten "unknown quantity."
Once it hit Facebook, Holly applied some pressure, and I got the event invite to Laura Jenkins's party, which was on that very night. Holly had told me about the party a couple of weeks ago. She understands that I prefer to know when I'm being socially outcast. I pressed Attend (what the hell—I didn't have anything else on) and shut my laptop as Mum walked in to check that I was packed, which I more or less was.
"Sibbie, what is this?" She was looking at my supersize, multi-gadget, bloodred Swiss Army knife. "You're taking a weapon?" She frowned, no doubt running a mental checklist of some of the miscreants in my grade.
"It's optional. But, yeah, I'm going totally gangsta."
"I feel like I'm sending you back to the Stone Age."
"You might as well be." I gave my cell phone a hammy kiss. "Farewell, my heart, my life."
"No texting for nine weeks! Your thumbs might drop off."
"They'll get axing exercise."
"Known as 'chopping' in some circles, I believe."
"Promise you'll write lots of letters?"
"It's compulsory. But I would anyway. And everyone says the Letter Home is all that stops you going crazy on the solo overnight hike."
She cast a doubtful eye over my bags and the surrounding mess. "You don't want some help?"
"I'm supposed to be self-sufficient for the whole term or your money back, so I think I'll be okay."
"Have you packed undies?"
She laughed as she went out the door. "Just saying."
There have been certain trips on which I've forgotten certain essential items. But no big deal, right? You can always supplement when you get there. Anyway, this time there was a list.
Leonie came over to me—he always gets anxious when there's luggage out—it usually means the nice man from the doggy kennel is about to pick him up. I gave him a reassuring back scratch, feeling a bit guilty to be offering last-minute affection. I take him for granted these days, i.e., ignore him heaps.
He wagged his stumpy tail agreeably. Dogs are lovely—they don't even know the meaning of grudge. Twelve years ago, Leonie was the most beautiful name I could imagine. A mixture of my friend Leah and pony. Mum asked if I knew it was usually a girl's name and our puppy was a boy. I pretended I knew, to maintain my four-year-old dignity. I was pretty sure Leonie wouldn't care either way. In the spirit of male solidarity, my dad has always called him Leo.
Before burying my phone in a pair of thick socks to pack it—conveniently not thinking about the contract signed in good faith pledging not to bring phones to camp—I texted Michael: Skype?
Michael, my oldest friend, my strangest friend. He prefers Skype to phone because he says the role of voice in conversation accounts for fifty percent or less of communicating. He also counts Skype as a social outing, which means he's off the hook for organizing an actual social outing. He was there by the time I got to my desk.
"Are you jet-lagged?" I asked.
"How was Rome?"
"What did you watch on the plane?" I give Michael pop-culture viewing suggestions for long flights.
"Friday Night Lights. You were right."
"So, the billboard went up."
"I saw it."
"Large, isn't it?"
"Extra extra large. Livin' large."
"Livin' large. At least it'll be down by the time we get back."
"They've captured an authentic Sibylla look, though."
"It's the unfocused gaze, because I'm wishing to be somewhere else."
"Which obviously translates nicely into…" He was casting about for the desired message of the ad.
"I smell good, I guess."
"You nailed it. Will you do any more of this 'work'?"
"I was only allowed to do this because it was Beeb. You can imagine the lecture—my mother is still fifty percent horrified. And speaking of horror—I've said I'll go to Laura's party tonight."
"Celebrity life begins. Don't you want to go?"
"Because it will be good/bad?"
"What are you reading?"
He smiled apologetically and held up Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Of course he's reading Thoreau as we head into the wilderness: he's Michael.
"Michael, you rock."
His eyes shine. "Sibylla, you—tall tree."
"I can't ask you what I should wear, so I guess I'm just here sharing some nervousness."
"I hope it turns out to be more good/bad than bad/good. Here, have some Thoreau." He found a page in the book and read to me, "'I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.'"
"Hmmm, so if I substitute party for woods… I'm already feeling less ambivalent about it."
He smiled, said good-bye, and left, so it was just me on the screen holding up my good-bye hand and contemplating the most immediate essential fact of life: what to wear.
I finished packing and had time to try on five or six variations of "very casual" for the party. A last-minute invitee can't look like she's tried too hard.
That party is how I came to kiss Ben Capaldi, the most popular boy in our grade, someone I never thought even had me on his map. What am I talking about? I know I was never on his map. I was never in the same room as his map.
Maps were on my brain because I'd been worrying about getting lost, aware that I have no sense of direction and was about to be in the zero-landmark, everything-looks-the-same-to-a-city-girl, no-buildings, no-signposts, map-dependent… wilderness.
sunday 7 october
All packed. Every item ticked.
Ask sadness, How about staying here, sadness?
I know. Dumb question.
Compose reassuring demeanor for last dinner at home before camp.
Parties are uncomfortable events for me. I do want to get invited. If I'm not invited, I feel sad, and it is horrible hearing befores and afters you've had nothing to do with. Smiling and pretending dog-eared experience is enough. But when I am invited to a party, I straightaway start dreading it.
As soon as I'm confronted with shrieking, giggling, drinking, loud music, random hookups, uninhibited dancing—I feel glum. I don't have fun. I'm not "fun." I'm serious. I'm responsible. I worry about my friends getting drunk, getting their drinks spiked, getting hurt, getting messy, getting used, getting pregnant, getting sexually transmitted diseases, and drowning in their own vomit.
On top of that I never know what to wear.
And I don't like drinking, but I have to pretend to drink, so I at least appear to be "fun," and to be having "fun."
I used to like dancing until a boy—Billy Gardiner—told me I looked like a spastic tarantula. So now I can only dance if it's crowded enough and dark enough that nobody can see me.
So a typical party for me usually involves trying unsuccessfully to talk to people who are drunk, hanging around the food, speaking to the parents, visiting the bathroom, hoping that by the time I come out more people I know have arrived, not dancing, finding a kitchen or garden through-road position to prop so I get passing traffic conversation, and later on patrolling to check that my friends are okay to get home. Holly says I'm more like a party monitor than a guest.
But post-billboard, the script for this party ran differently. For starters, some people looked at me rather than around me when I arrived.
After Holly's "hiiiiiiieee mwah mwah," she pulled me into a huddle with Gab and Ava, and started making a big deal out of the billboard thing. Usually it would make me uncomfortable being the center of attention, but because I'd told Holly everything and she'd had three cranberry vodkas, it was more like she was the center of attention, which suited us both just fine.
Hours later when Ben Capaldi, apparently off his face, staggered into focal range and said (to me!), "Your pulchritude defies belief," I was—speechless. I may have lifted one sober eyebrow. I've perfected the one-eyebrow lift in the mirror, never in a million years thinking I'd get to use it in a social situation. I smiled and turned away. I could not think of one thing to say. But as my heart flipped like a hooked fish, I was wondering if a girl like me had ever turned away from a boy like Ben.
Was it wrong to feel a little thrill when I caught his look of surprise? This handsome boy? This boy the whole world loves? It might have looked like muscle-flexing on my part, turning away like that, but it was unadorned panic. A when-in-doubt-stick-your-head-in-the-sand move. Nice work.
And he thought I didn't know what pulchritude
Praise for Wildlife: A YALSA 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults SelectionA Booklist Magazine's 2014 Editors' ChoiceA VOYA Perfect Tens 2014 Selection—New York Times Book Review"Enchanting...[Wood's] unsentimental rendering of the glorious, messy rush of first love elevate Wildlife far beyond standard kids-at-camp fare. The wilderness is exquisitely described, and when it comes to what's on everyone's mind, Wood is frank but never crude, and often hilarious...Wood tackles big themes head-on: identity, friendship, justice, love, death. Her characters are all compelling and believable."
- * "In alternating points of view-Lou's lyrical journal entries and Sib's first-person narrative-Wood builds a believable story of misguided friendship, betrayal, and empowering growth...With exceptional candor, honesty, and nuance, Wood tells a heartening and compelling story of the importance of agency, self-confidence, and true friendship."—Booklist (starred review)
- * "Wood eloquently traces the emotional growth of two girls during their high school's required nine-week term of outdoor education...[Sib and Lou's] voices reverberate with honesty, vulnerability, and deep emotions and will leave a lasting impress on readers."—PW (starred review)
- "The mounting interpersonal tension will keep readers deeply engrossed, as will the narrators' honesty and humor...This exceptional novel is Australian author Wood's American debut, but readers will want to get their hands on her first book, Six Impossible Things."—The Horn Book
- "A writer to continue to watch."—Kirkus Reviews
- "A beautifully crafted novel with achingly real characters that I couldn't get out of my head."—Melina Marchetta, author of the Printz Award-winning Jellicoe Road
- "Sharp, true, and achingly honest, Wildlife totally gave me the feels. I got lost in this smart and beautiful book."—Siobhan Vivian, author of The List
- On Sale
- May 10, 2016
- Page Count
- 416 pages