Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia


By Jenny Torres Sanchez

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It is the summer after Frenchie Garcia’s senior year, and she can’t come to grips with the death of Andy Cooper. Her friends don’t know that she had a secret crush on her classmate, and they especially don’t know that she was with Andy right before he committed suicide. The only person who does know is Frenchie’s imaginary pal Em (a.k.a. Emily Dickinson), who she hangs out with at the cemetery down the street.

When Frenchie’s guilt and confusion come to a head, she decides there is only one way to truly figure out why Andy chose to be with her during his last hours. While exploring the emotional depth of loss and transition to adulthood, Sanchez’s sharp humor and clever observations bring forth a richly developed voice.


There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House,

As lately as Today—

I know it, by the numb look

Such Houses have—alway—

The Neighbors rustle in and out—

The Doctor—drives away—

A Window opens like a Pod—


Somebody flings a Mattress out—

The Children hurry by—

They wonder if it died—on that—

I used to—when a Boy—

The Minister—goes stiffly in—

As if the House were His—

And He owned all the Mourners—now—

And little Boys—besides—

And then the Milliner—and the Man

Of the Appalling Trade—

To take the measure of the House—

There’ll be that Dark Parade—

Of Tassels—and of Coaches—soon—

It’s easy as a Sign—

The Intuition of the News—

In just a Country Town—




  Chapter 1

The old man across the street is dead. I don’t know who figured it out or how, but I think he’d been dead for days when they found him. School has been out for three weeks. I estimate that would have been the last time I saw him. Alive.

First the police came, and then the county coroner. We watched, Mom and I and our neighbors who never really talked to the old man, as they wheeled his body away in a black body bag atop a gurney. The world stood still as they drove him away. And then, as if someone hit play, it resumed.

People on our block trickled back into their houses, and Mom went back into ours. But I sat on our stoop, thinking about the old man. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about him since he was taken away four days ago.

I guess death is funny. Not “haha” funny, but more like screw-with-your-head funny. It makes you think strange things. Like how a person can sort of exist but not at the same time.

I imagine the old man arriving in front of a blinding light, staring at it with his milky eyes and scowling. And still another part of me imagines him safe inside his house, at his kitchen table, drinking coffee maybe. But the logical part of my brain tells me the truth, that he’s either at the funeral home, or being loaded into a hearse, or already in the hearse on his way to the cemetery at the end of our block.

Living here I should be used to death. But every time a procession goes by, I wonder about the person inside the hearse. Did they live happily but die horribly? Or maybe they lived horribly but died happily? Or worse, maybe they lived horribly and died horribly.

I look at the old man’s house and try to decide if it looks numb.

Moments later, his procession passes by slowly. I’m struck with indecision about what to do. If I wore hats, I’d take mine off and bow my head. But I don’t wear hats. Or maybe if I stood up and gave a military salute. But both seem wrong. So I just stare. I stare at the hearse and each and every person in the string of cars that trail behind it. This is my great show of respect. But I can’t help it. I can’t help but wonder how they’re all connected. If any of them feel guilty. If any, even, are to blame.

When the last car passes, I consider following it and joining the throng of mourners dressed in black. But crashing a funeral can never be good. I look down at my black Converse, thinking about the old man who went by Kinsky/Keniski/Kenesky or something like that. I wonder why even though I didn’t know him, he makes me want to cry.


I blink back tears and look over to see my best friend, Joel. His dreads are pulled back so they aren’t hanging in his face the way they usually do. He comes over and puts one heavy black boot on the step I’m sitting on.

“Hey,” I say. “You’re back.” Joel lives with his dad but visits his mom and stepdad in Chicago the first couple of weeks of every summer. He usually calls me while he’s there. Usually we’ve already made plans for what we’re going to do the day he gets back. Usually. But he hadn’t called me the whole time he’d been gone or in the three days he’d been back. So I pretend like I couldn’t care less that he’s here.

“I’m back,” he says and sits down next to me. “Did you miss me?”

“Yeah, I barely got out of bed.” I hope the remark sounds sarcastic enough to cover up the truth of it. I pretty much did nothing but sit around, watch TV, and eat Cap’n Crunch for breakfast, lunch, and dinner the entire time he was gone. I don’t exactly live a glamorous life.

“How was Chicago?” I offer.

He shrugs. “Not bad.” Joel actually hates going to Chicago because he despises his stepdad. That’s why he lives with his dad here, even though his dad is kind of weird and maybe even a little scary.

“Did you scope out some apartments?” I ask him. We had been planning to move to Chicago since our freshman year in high school, and even though I hadn’t been accepted to the art school there, we were still planning to hit Chi-Town until I could reapply.

Joel looks toward the cemetery. “Some. But slim pickings.”

“Oh,” I say, disappointed. I had kind of wished Joel would come back and tell me he found a place so we could get the hell out of here next week. “Well, we better figure it out soon. That’s why I kept calling you. . . .”

He nods. “Yeah, sorry. My mom had all these things she wanted to do, and you know how it is,” he says.

“Right,” I say.

He looks toward the cemetery and says, “So, anybody die while I was gone?”

I point to the house across the street. “The old guy.”

“Oh, damn,” Joel says this the way people do when death hits close but not close enough to hurt. “That sucks,” he says. He takes off his sunglasses, hangs them on the collar of his torn up vintage Ramones T-shirt I gave him last year for his birthday, and stares at the old man’s house. After a while he says, “Let’s go to Harold’s.”

We head down the street in the opposite direction of the cemetery. As we turn onto the main street, I shake my head at the sign I pass every day on the corner leading to the cemetery. Dead End. That’s the kind of humor death can have.

As we walk, Joel takes out two cigarettes and hands me one. He lights it for me and I inhale as he tells me about his trip to Chicago. I try to pay attention, but the heat and stickiness of another Florida summer is making me irritable and the bright sun gives me a headache. I wipe away the sweat beads forming above my lip and on my forehead.

This heat is pretty bad when you’re sitting still, but absolutely unbearable once you do something as crazy as move. I’m convinced the Southern drawl came about because even talking was too strenuous in pre-air-conditioning days. God help them. As the sun beats down on my head I seriously consider shaving off all my jet black hair or maybe even bleaching it so it doesn’t absorb so much of the punishing heat.

I look over at Joel. “I don’t know how you can walk around with that hair. It’s like permanently wearing a dirty wool hat.” I give Joel lots of grief about his dreads, but actually, I love them. And he knows it.

He grins. “Please. They rock and you know it. And what about you? Your hair in your face like that all the time,” he says and gestures to the messy look I usually go for.

“I know, it’s just so freaking hot,” I whine. My legs feel heavier with each step I take and I feel like I’m slowly melting. In the distance, I see actual heat waves, making the street look warped and distorted.

“We should’ve driven there. Why didn’t we drive?” I say.

“It’s only like four or five streets away,” Joel says, taking another drag from his cigarette. “Don’t you care about our environment? Like your carbon footprint or some shit like that.” He flicks his cigarette butt on the ground.

I fan myself with my hand, which blows weak little puffs of hot air on to my face before realizing that moving my hand like this makes me sweat more.

“One or two streets in this humid inferno is more than enough reason to hop into your ride and join the millions who contribute to global warming every day,” I tell Joel.

He shrugs and keeps walking. The heat makes my thoughts drift back to the old man. I wonder if he’s in the ground yet. What happens to a dead body in this kind of heat? I try to count the cracks on the sidewalk and take the last drag of my cigarette. I try to remember what makes heat waves. But my mind is already thinking about a corpse, under all that dirt, in this raging sun.

“God,” I say.

“What’s wrong?” Joel asks.

“Nothing, it’s just so damn hot.”

We get to Harold’s House of Coffee and Tea, which is a little hole-in-the-wall café hidden in a residential neighborhood in downtown Orlando. Most people don’t even know it’s there unless they live around here because it’s a two-story house that was converted into a coffee shop. The café is on the lower level and Harold and his wife live on the upper level—very old school and very cool. Joel opens the door, and a gust of cold, heavenly air swoops out and greets us. It immediately revives me. I love AC.

“If I ever have a kid, I’m going to name it AC,” I tell Joel.

“Right,” he says.

“What? I’m totally serious. AC, or maybe Freon.”

He shakes his head. “French, no offense, but I can’t exactly see you with a kid someday.”

I think about that for a minute. “Okay, you’re right. Maybe I’ll name my dog Freon.”

“You hate dogs.”

“My fish?”

“Sure, your fish,” he says, “who you’ll kill right after you get him.”

I shrug. “Fair enough.”

Joel and I order some iced coffees and then sit down in our usual spot—a big green couch in the corner.

“So,” he says, looking at me the way people do when there’s obviously something that needs to be discussed but nobody wants to say it. I look at him expectantly.

“So,” I say.

“So . . . I’m really sorry I blew you off the last few days. Lily had some stuff planned when I got back. I’ll make it up to you, though.”

“Whatever,” I say, even though it was more than a few days. See, Joel is in serious like with this girl Lily. He met her about four months ago at a local punk show. Now the world basically revolves around her and Joel has little time for anything, or anyone else.

But like I said, whatever.

“No, really,” Joel says. “I know it was kind of crappy of me.”

It was more than kind of crappy. But had I really expected any different?

“Where is Lily anyway?” I ask, because if he’s here, then she must be busy.

“Band practice,” he says. “Which reminds me, Sugar is playing at Zylos tonight. You in?”

Sugar is the name of Lily’s band. Of course, because that’s exactly the kind of name someone like Lily would name it. I take a big gulp of my iced coffee.

“Hold on, let me get this straight. You totally ignore me for the past two weeks and now you want to hang out with me at your girlfriend’s show?”

“Come on,” he begs, “I said I’ll make it up to you. How about a movie? We can go see the one about the orphaned zombie girl. You’ve been dying to see it, right?”

I’m surprised he remembers.

“My treat . . . ,” he says.

“Fine, I’m in,” I tell him, even though I don’t want to be in. And the idea of getting ready and going to a show just to pretend I like somebody is too much effort. But I am kind of glad he’s back. And maybe the thrill of Lily has died down a little and things can go back to how they used to be.

“Cool,” he says and smiles. The way he smiles reminds me that Joel and I have been close since middle school. There’s not much we wouldn’t do for each other, and so I almost ask him. I almost ask him to ditch Lily tonight so we can hang out. So we can go to the movies tonight instead of some other night and talk about the cool parts afterward as we eat really bad food at some crappy all-night diner. And maybe that will help me stop thinking about dead people.

But you always think about dead people, Joel says in the imaginary conversation we’re having in my head.

I know, but now I can’t stop.

And a zombie flick is going to help this? he asks.

Maybe not, I agree, but maybe it would at least make me feel like things were normal again.

Okay, he says.

Great, I say.

And I watch us leave.

But that’s not the conversation we have. I tune back to our real convo, which not surprisingly, is much more one-sided than the imagined one in my head.

“I Skyped with Lily so that made it not so bad,” he says.

I sigh. “That’s cool.”

“And I bought her a Wrigley Field keychain because she’s never been to a baseball game in her whole life. Can you believe that? How can someone go their whole life without going to at least one baseball game?” Joel says.

“It happens,” I say.

I’m tired of hearing about Lily and try to think of something new to talk about. “So, I saw them wheel out the old man,” I say.

“Really?” He pauses for a minute, then says, “That sucks.”

I nod. It did in fact suck. But worse, what I just said brings forth the image of another body, on another block, being wheeled out of his house in another bag. And now I can’t say anything more. And the conversation turns back to Lily.

I mutter the obligatory “that’s cool” at appropriate times before tuning him out again. I picture myself at home, on the couch, with a bowl of cereal while I watch crappy daytime TV.

After awhile, the buzz of Joel’s meaningless chatter finally stops and I guess he takes the hint that my apparent disinterest stems from genuine disinterest. So he suggests we go and we head out.

“Call Robyn and tell her to come tonight,” he says, referring to our unofficial third best friend. I feel like telling him to call her himself, but instead I say I will, since it requires less energy.

I turn in the direction to my house, but not before I watch him head in the opposite direction toward his house.

As I watch him leave, I can’t help but feel deflated. And alone.

  Chapter 2

“I feel like shit,” I tell Emily Dickinson.

She’s the best person to talk to when I feel this way and she’s a good listener. But maybe dead poets usually are.

It isn’t the Emily Dickinson. That one is buried at a family cemetery in Amherst, Massachusetts. But I discovered this grave here during my freshman year and always thought it was pretty incredible. And even though she’s not the famous poet, I pretend that she is. I imagine her right there, six feet under, in a white lace dress, eyes closed, and listening to me; the hermit dressed in white who didn’t come out of her house for years, whom the children were afraid of. I feel oddly connected to her. I think we would have been great pals if, you know, she weren’t dead and I had been born a couple of hundred years ago.

Em and I also shoot the shit sometimes. It’s easier than dealing with the kind of drama that comes from talking to live people. I call her Em for short and she calls me Frenchie, short for Francesca. I know you think she probably doesn’t like being called Em since she looks like one of those uptight Puritan types and all, but I don’t really buy into that. Em had some pretty wild thoughts.

I plop down in the shaded spot under the tree next to her grave.

Here’s what people don’t know about cemeteries: They’re a strangely comforting place. Sure it’s sad, but there’s also something else here—a kind of peace and refuge that you can’t find anywhere else. Here, you can hide from the world for a while. Here, nobody approaches you for anything. You can spend hours here and you’ll be left alone because people respect the fact that anyone in a cemetery, whether dead or alive, should be left alone. Not even time exists here, or it at least seems to stand still. It’s generous. It doesn’t urge you on. It lets you be.

“Joel’s back,” I tell Em. “And he’s still Lily-crazed. We just hung out, and I was hoping maybe it would help me feel better. But nothing feels the same anymore.” I sigh, disgusted with myself for actually missing school. At least then my days were filled with something.

Em keeps silent. She doesn’t talk much. But if I sit here long enough, one of her poems usually pops into my head and I figure it’s some kind of message.

I look over to the newer part of the cemetery. I always tell myself I’m not going to, but I do. This time I tell myself I’m just looking for the old man’s gravesite. But like always, my eyes focus on someone else’s.

Heart! We will forget him!

You and I—tonight!

You may forget the warmth he gave—

I will forget the light!

“Stop. I don’t even care,” I tell Em. Both of us know this is a lie. Both of us pretend it’s not.

“Were you afraid of being buried alive?” I ask her, trying to change the subject. I don’t expect an answer, so I go on. “I was . . . am. I even told Joel to hold a mirror under my nose when I die, or stab me in the heart, anything, just to make sure I’m dead.”

Em nods. I suppose to her it doesn’t sound so far-fetched. Joel had laughed at me and said I was crazy. Maybe if I’d never watched that medical show about a woman who was declared dead and was stuck in some cooler with a tag around her toe, and then she suddenly started breathing again, I would have laughed at the idea also. But she’d actually been declared dead. For two hours. All I could think was, what if . . . what if when she woke up, she’d already been put in a coffin and couldn’t talk or open her eyes? Or what if she was already in the ground? What then?

Joel promised, but he was laughing when he did. So I made him promise again. And again. Until he wasn’t laughing. I wanted him to understand I meant it, because even though the embalming fluid they pump into you would probably kill you first, what if it didn’t? What if you end up down there, under all that dirt, clawing at the inside of a coffin and trying to get out?

I know I won’t be buried alive. Some part of me knows that. And I know Andy wasn’t buried alive. But sometimes, I can’t get that picture out of my mind.

“I’ll see you later,” I tell Em and head back home. When I get there, I crawl into bed and try to sleep some hours away.

  Chapter 3

“Where the hell have you been?” Robyn yells at me as she gets in my car. Her long blond hair, usually worn loose and wild, is secured in two elaborate braids on either side of her head. Being so petite, this makes her look slightly like an alien, but in a cool way. “I was getting ready to hitch a ride. You said ten thirty!”

The reason Robyn is Joel’s and my unofficial third best friend is because she’s a bit of a free spirit and usually off doing her own thing. Luckily, tonight she decided to do our thing and I won’t have to hang out by myself all night while Joel is once again preoccupied with Lily and likely to forget me.

“Sorry, I fell asleep,” I tell her. Which is true. But I don’t tell her that I woke up hours ago, that I’ve been in bed trying to figure out a believable way to bail out of this. Or that it took great effort to convince myself to get ready and drive to her house.

She looks me up and down. “Well, I see you at least put in a little effort,” she says as she opens the visor and applies more of her signature berry-berry lipstick.

“Uh, thanks?” I say.

“No, seriously. I love when you do that smoky eye makeup. It looks so good with your dark eyes. And I mean, no offense, but you’ve kind of been looking like a scab lately.”

“And you mean no offense by that, right?”

Robyn puts away her lipstick, then turns back and studies me thoughtfully. “You know what I think you need, Frenchie? You need a guy.”

“What?” I ask.

“A guy. You seriously need one.”

“God, Robyn.” I shake my head. “I cannot even believe you said that! Don’t tell me you think that a guy is like, the solution to a girl’s problems. That’s so . . . I don’t even know . . . man, Robyn.” If I didn’t know her better, if I’d just met her tonight and she said something like that, I would seriously push her out of my car.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake. Relax, French. Of course I don’t think that! Give me some credit. It’s just that in your particular case, I think maybe some . . . how do I put this?” she says while focusing in on me. “I think you need someone to thaw out that cold little heart that’s barely beating inside your chest. You need someone who warms you up, French, that gets you hot.”

“You’re disgusting, you know that? Seriously, please stop,” I say and start wondering if I could reach over and open the passenger door.

“I know you’ve always been a bit rough around the edges. And I suppose you could say that’s part of your charm. But lately you’re even more . . . ,” she says and makes a face. “I don’t know. . . .”

“What?” I say. She shakes her head like she’s not going there. “Come on, go ahead. Just say it,” I tell her.

She taps her lips and searches for the right word. “You seem even more . . . dreary, warped, tragic. . . .”


“Cold . . . prudish . . . uninviting . . .”

For someone who couldn’t find the right words, Robyn is suddenly spouting them out quite easily.

“Bitchy . . . snarky . . . evil . . .”

“Okay, enough!” I yell.

Robyn laughs. “Oh fine. Lighten up. But you see what I mean? You need to have fun. And guys? Guys can be lots of fun, French.” She grins, because if anybody knows how to have fun with guys, it’s Robyn.

“I am not tragic. Or evil,” I tell her.

“Come on, French, when was the last time you actually fell for someone?”

When Robyn says this, I realize how people can forget. Because if Robyn really thought about it, she would remember that the last time I absolutely fell for someone was in ninth grade. That I fell and kind of stayed fallen all through ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade for the same guy. That at the start of every year, I would search each one of my classes for a glimpse of what would make that class worth going to.

Not that Robyn is some kind of horrible, insensitive person. Despite her seemingly brash personality, she actually has a good heart. And in all honesty, I had only mentioned Andy Cooper a handful of times to her, and that was probably three and a half years ago. And it was more of a “Oh yeah, he’s a cool guy” than a “this guy makes me forget to breathe” kind of mention. I didn’t tell Robyn because I didn’t want to admit I had unwillingly become the girl who was so hung up on a guy that she would never have the chance of getting. Or that the kind of day I had usually depended on whether or not I fulfilled my quota of Andy sightings. Because, you know, that would be kind of . . . tragic.

“You’re not giving me any credit,” I say to Robyn. “What about Trey Sumpter? At the end of ninth grade, remember?” Not that Trey and I exactly dated. It was more like we exchanged notes for two weeks before summer. And then when we came back to school, I saw him kissing Trisha Clove.


  • "Sanchez's expertly crafted narrative . . . [pulls] readers into Frenchie's anger and pain without straying into clichés of teen angst. . . . An exceptionally well-written journey to make sense of the senseless."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

    “Sanchez (The Downside of Being Charlie) gets her heroine's tough exterior and vulnerable insides in just the right balance. . . . [She] provides a healing salve for teens who may know someone who has committed suicide, and also a strong testament against it.”—Shelf Awareness (starred review)

    “This is a fast, well-written read with a satisfactory though not necessarily happy ending and a protagonist to remember-a survivor and person of action. A solid choice that is accessible even for reluctant readers.”
    —School Library Journal

    "With well-paced revelations, Sanchez gradually strengthens Frenchie's resolve to heal and move forward . . . and the author wittingly ensures that the reader wants nothing less for her."—Booklist

    “Sanchez deftly maneuvers between real time and Frenchie's flashbacks, constructing a dreamy narrative that accurately captures the lingering repercussions of suicide."—The Horn Book Magazine

On Sale
May 28, 2013
Page Count
272 pages
Running Press Kids

Jenny Torres Sanchez

About the Author

Jenny Torres Sanchez lives in Florida with her husband and children where she currently writes full time. Before her debut novel The Downside of Being Charlie she taught high school for several years, where she credits her eclectic students for inspiring her to write young adult novels.

Learn more about this author