Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life

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By Wendy Mass

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In one month Jeremy Fink will turn thirteen. But does he have what it takes to be a teenager? He collects mutant candy, he won’t venture more than four blocks from his apartment if he can help it, and he definitely doesn’t like surprises. On the other hand, his best friend, Lizzy, isn’t afraid of anything, even if that might get her into trouble now and then.

Jeremy’s summer takes an unexpected turn when a mysterious wooden box arrives in the mail. According to the writing on the box, it holds the meaning of life! Jeremy is supposed to open it on his thirteenth birthday. The problem is, the keys are missing, and the box is made so that only the keys will open it without destroying what’s inside. Jeremy and Lizzy set off to find the keys, but when one of their efforts goes very wrong, Jeremy starts to lose hope that he’ll ever be able to open the box. But he soon discovers that when you’re meeting people named Oswald Oswald and using a private limo to deliver unusual objects to strangers all over the city, there might be other ways of finding out the meaning of life.

Lively characters, surprising twists, and thought-provoking ideas make Wendy Mass’s latest novel an unforgettable read.

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Preface

July 22

My sweat smells like peanut butter.

Since I'm such a picky eater, my mother feeds me peanut butter sandwiches at every meal, including breakfast and midnight snacks. I have a lot of midnight snacks because I like to be awake when the rest of the world is asleep (except for the people in other time zones who might still be awake, but you couldn't prove it by me). So now when I sweat, it smells like peanut butter instead of B.O., which I don't think is such a bad thing. I'd rather smell like a school cafeteria than a school gym.

Right now my best friend, Lizzy, is sitting next to me, holding her nose. Not because of the peanut butter, which doesn't bother her anymore. The offending odor belongs to that special combination of soggy marshland and rotting fish that Mosley Lake in northwest New Jersey is famous for.

It is the middle of a long, hot summer, and I, Jeremy Fink, a city kid born and bred, am sitting on a big rock in the middle of the lake, which, while certainly smelly, is also very serene. The sky is a clear blue, a light breeze blows from the west, and pale green water sloshes against the side of the rickety old rowboat that brought us here.

On my lap I am balancing a smooth box made of light-colored wood, the size of a toaster. The box has the words THE MEANING OF LIFE carefully engraved across the top. Underneath, in smaller letters, it says, FOR JEREMY FINK TO OPEN ON HIS 13TH BIRTHDAY.

Today is my thirteenth birthday. I never would have guessed, when I was given the box a month ago, that those instructions would be so impossible to follow.

Lizzy keeps poking me on the arm, urging me to hurry up and do what we've come here to do. Yes, my best friend is a girl, and no, I don't secretly have a crush on her. Lizzy and her dad moved to the apartment next door when she and I were one year old. Her mother had left the family and moved to one of the Dakotas with some guy who worked on a cattle ranch (which explains why Lizzy became a vegetarian as soon as she was old enough to realize what a cattle ranch was). So Lizzy stayed with us during the day while her father went to work at the post office. My mom used to change our diapers next to each other. You can't get romantic with someone after that.

Also, Lizzy is a notorious troublemaker. She has a lot of opinions, usually negative. For example, she thinks my collection of mutant candy is gross. I think she's jealous because she didn't think of it first. Some of the best are a square Good & Plenty, a candy corn with an extra layer of white, and my pride and joy—a peanut M&M the size of my pinky finger. I bet I could get a fortune for that one on eBay.

Our journey to this rock started a long time ago—before I was even born. If my father had been allowed to spend his thirteenth birthday playing Little League with his friends instead of being dragged by his parents to Atlantic City, I wouldn't be sitting here, and the box wouldn't exist. Who ever would have imagined those two events would be linked?

All those years ago, while my grandmother was in a shop buying saltwater taffy, my father wandered down the boardwalk and wound up in front of an old palm reader. She picked up his clammy hand and held it up to her face. Then she let his arm fall onto the velvet-covered table and said, "You vil die ven you are forty years old." My grandmother arrived in time to hear the fortune-teller's declaration, and she yanked my dad away, refusing to pay. Whenever my father told the story, he laughed, so we laughed, too.

It turned out that the fortune-teller's prediction was wrong. My dad didn't die when he was forty. He was only thirty-nine. I had just turned eight. Dad must have taken the prophecy more seriously than he let on, because he prepared for his death, and this box proves it.

"What are you waiting for?" Lizzy yells into my ear.

Lizzy has her own way of talking. Usually she shouts. This is partly because her father is deaf in one ear from going to too many rock concerts when he was younger, and partly because she is on the shortish side and overcompensates.

I don't answer, and she sighs. Even her sighs are loud. The edges of the box are digging into my bare legs, so I move it to the towel that Lizzy has spread out on the rock between us. This box has come to symbolize all my hopes, all my failures. Before I do anything else, I need to go back over everything that has happened this summer: the Big Mistake, the old man, the book, the lamp, the telescope, and this box, which started it all.




Chapter 1: The Box

June 22

"Did you ever notice how the colors seem brighter the first day of summer vacation?" I ask Lizzy. "The birds sing louder? The air is alive with possibility?"

"Huh?" Lizzy mutters, fingering through the comic books on the wall of my Uncle Arthur's store, Fink's Comics and Magic. "Yeah, sure. Brighter, louder, alive."

It would bother some people if their best friend only half-listened to them, but I figure talking to Lizzy is one step better than talking to myself. At least this way people on the street don't stare at me.

Over the next two months I plan on learning a new magic trick or two, borrowing the eighth grade textbooks from the library to get a jump on my assignments (but not telling Lizzy, who would make fun of me), and sleeping as late as I want. This is going to be a summer of leisure, and smack in the middle, the state fair and my long-awaited thirteenth birthday. Usually I love going to the fair, but this year I actually have to enter one of the competitions, and I'm dreading it. At least my birthday comes the same week. I am so tired of being considered a "kid" and am eager to officially become a teenager. I will finally learn the secret code of Teendom.

I hope there's a handshake. I've always wanted to belong to a club with a secret handshake.

"Run!" Lizzy whispers sharply in my ear. Lizzy saying run in my ear can mean only one thing—she has stolen something. She is lucky my uncle and cousin Mitch are in the back room and didn't see her. They do not look kindly upon shoplifters.

By the time I manage to thrust my comic back on the shelf, she is halfway out the door. In her rush, she's knocked over my backpack, which I had propped up carefully on the floor between us. All the stuff flies out the unzipped top for the other shoppers to see. I grab the bag and quickly toss back in my dog-eared copy of Time Travel for Dummies, a half-eaten peanut butter sandwich, a pack of Starburst, two bite-sized Peppermint Patties, assorted magic tricks that I've collected over the years, the bottle of water that I always have on me because one can never be too hydrated, the astronaut pen that allows me to write in all conditions (including underwater and while lying on my back), and finally my wallet, which always has at least eight dollars in it because my dad once told me that if a man has eight dollars on him, he can always get home. Then I take back out one of the Peppermint Patties, quickly unwrap it, and stick in my mouth. I blame my dad for my sweet tooth. His motto was Life is short; eat dessert first. How can I argue with that?

Slinging the backpack over my shoulder, I slip out the door and look up and down the street for Lizzy. Her red hair makes her easy to spot. She's leaning against the window of Larry's Locks and Clocks, admiring her newest treasure—an orange flyer advertising the debut of a Betty and Veronica double issue. Only moments ago it had been taped up to the wall in the store.

"Can't you use your talents for good instead of evil?" I ask, swallowing the last of my Peppermint Pattie.

She doesn't answer, just folds the paper haphazardly and tucks it in her back pocket.

"Why, Lizzy?" I ask as we start walking down the block toward home. "Why?"

"Why what?" she asks, popping a piece of grape Bazooka in her mouth. She offers me one, but I shake my head. Grape and peppermint just don't mix.

"Why steal something that has no monetary value?"

"Would you rather I'd stolen something that does have monetary value?"

"Of course not."

"Well stop complaining then," she says. "You know I can't explain the reasons for the things I take. I don't choose them, they choose me."

"What about all the customers who won't learn about the new Betty and Veronica because of you?"

She shrugs. "Nobody reads Archie comics anymore."

It's true that the Archie comics are always the last ones left at the end of the month. Archie was my dad's favorite when he was a boy, so he always made sure to stock them. Uncle Arthur doesn't know enough about comics to tell the difference between Mutant X-Men from Outer Space and Richie Rich, so he keeps ordering all of them.

"That's not really the point," I tell her.

"It's not like you'll cry over your uncle losing a sale or two. You can't stand him, remember?"

"It's not that I can't stand him," I insist, crossing my arms. "You try having an uncle who ignores you and who is the identical twin of your dead father and see how you like it."

Lizzy is quiet now and entirely focused on picking the scab on her elbow. I shouldn't have said that, about my dad. When he died, Lizzy was almost as upset as I was. He was like her second parent. As upset as she was, though, she still slept on the floor of my room in her sleeping bag for three straight weeks until I could sleep through the night again.

We manage to reach our apartment building in Murray Hill without either of us further depressing the other and without Lizzy stealing anything else. One of our neighbors, Mr. Zoder, is slowly heading up the steps. It's Friday, so he's wearing yellow. My parents always said that New York City is full of characters, and that's why they wouldn't want to live anywhere else. We're about to follow him inside when our mailman, Nick, shows up wheeling his huge blue cart.

"Howdy, Nick," Lizzy says, saluting him.

"Well if it isn't Lizzy Muldoun and Jeremy Fink," he replies, tipping his hat. All the mailmen in the neighborhood know us because Lizzy's dad works at the post office.

"Let's see what I've got for you guys today." Nick reaches into his cart and lifts out a big cardboard box. To my surprise, it's addressed to Elaine Fink, with our address on it! I can't imagine what it could be, since Mom never buys anything through the mail. In fact, except for food and my clothes (which I insist have to be new, after a kid in my class told me I was wearing a sweater his mom had thrown out the week before), we don't own much of anything that wasn't from a flea market or found on the street on bulk trash day. It's not that we can't afford new things. Mom has a good job at the library. But she believes retail is for suckers and that recycling other people's belongings saves the environment somehow.

SO WHAT IS IN THAT BOX?

Nick is about to hand it to me when he hesitates and then sets it back in the cart. Instead, he hands me our regular assortment of bills and junk mail.

"Wait," I say after he hands Lizzy her mail. "What about that box? Isn't that for my mom?"

"Sure is," Nick replies. "But it's registered mail. That means it's gotta be signed for by an adult."

"But my mom's at work all day. I'm sure she won't mind if I sign for it."

"Jeremy is as tall as some adults," Lizzy states. "That should count for something."

Nick shakes his head. "Your mom can pick it up at the post office on her way to work tomorrow."

Not one to give up, Lizzy says, "That box looks heavy. You don't want to have to lug it around on the rest of your route, do you?"

Nick laughs. "It's not that heavy. I think I can manage." He starts to wheel his cart to the next building, and we keep pace with him.

"But Nick," I plead, "tomorrow's Saturday and our branch of the post office is closed. My mom wouldn't be able to get the box until Monday. If it's special delivery, maybe that means it's really important—"

"Like medicine or something!" Lizzy adds.

"Right," I say eagerly. "Something that can't wait a whole weekend."

"I thought I heard Mrs. Fink coughing this morning," Lizzy says. "She could have that bird flu thing, or German measles, or—"

Nick holds up his hand. "Enough, enough. Soon you'll have her quarantined for the plague." He reaches over for the box, and Lizzy and I flash each other a quick grin.

I sign my name as neatly as possible on the slip and hand it back to him.

"Just make sure you leave it for her to open," he instructs, laying the box in my waiting arms.

"Yeah, yeah," Lizzy says. "Opening other people's mail is a federal offense, we know the drill."

"Bye, Nick," I say, eager to get the package upstairs. It isn't heavy, but it's awkward to carry.

"Stay outta trouble," he says in parting.

"Who, us?" Lizzy calls after him. We climb up the short flight of stairs to the first floor where we both live. Mom told me last week that a new family would soon be moving into the empty apartment at the end of the hall. I'm very curious to see who they will turn out to be. Circus performers? A minor league baseball player? Most kids would probably hope for more kids his age, but I don't care about that. Why would anyone need more than one good friend?

Since my arms are full, Lizzy uses her copy of my apartment key and opens the door. I head straight into the kitchen and rest the box on the three-legged kitchen table, which is a big improvement over the two-legged one that my parents had to glue to the wall to keep it from tipping over.

"So?" Lizzy asks, that familiar let's-do-something-bad gleam in her eye. "Are we gonna open it?" At the same time we both lean closer to read the return address label. It's scuffed up and hard to make out. "Folgard and Levine, Esquires," she reads. "What does 'esquires' mean?"

" 'Esquires' means lawyers," I explain. I pride myself on knowing many obscure facts. It's all those midnight hours of reading.

"Why would a bunch of lawyers send something to your mom?"

"I don't know."

"Maybe she robbed a bank," Lizzy suggests. "And the evidence against her is in this box!"

"Come on," I say. "As you can tell by our apartment, Mom isn't interested in having fancy things."

I watch Lizzy's eyes take in the curtains made from strings of beads, the tie-dyed sheet on the wall that hides a long crack, the collection of old black-and-white postcards all showing some breed of dog dressed in a tutu, the three-legged table. "Okay," she says, "so she didn't rob a bank. But hey, maybe she won something! Does she still enter all those crazy contests?"

"I'm not sure," I answer hesitantly. Mom and I don't see each other that much anymore. She has her job at the library during the day, and then she takes art classes three nights a week at the school where my Aunt Judi—Mom's twin sister—teaches. My mother is also an identical twin, but unlike my dad and Uncle Arthur, she and Aunt Judi actually like each other.

Lizzy asks, "Remember when your mom had to come up with a ten-word description for apple pie and she won a different pie every month for a year?"

Ah yes. I recall the Year of the Pies fondly. Pies are not as good as candy, but they are still better than anything else Mom has tried over the years to get me to eat. We made that final pie—rutabaga, as I recall—last for weeks, taking only a bite at a time.

This box doesn't look like it holds pies, though. Or vacuum bags, or Florida oranges, or packets of Jell-O, or any of the other things Mom has won over the years by writing jingles or collecting box tops or labels from cans. I examine the box itself. Thick cardboard, with a single layer of clear packing tape running down the center.

"You know what this means?" Lizzy asks, pointing to the tape.

"That we can lift off the tape without ruining the box, and then we can press the tape back down and my mother won't know the difference?"

"Yup!"

"Not gonna happen," I say, plopping down onto the one kitchen chair that Mom hasn't managed to turn into an art project yet. The others are either covered in a scratchy fake leopard fur, or have bottle caps (the actual caps of bottles, not the candy) running up and down the legs and across the back.

"If you're afraid of that federal offense thing," Lizzy says, "that's only if it's a stranger's mail. I think."

"We will wait till my mom gets home," I say firmly. I expect her to continue the argument, but instead she just stands by the box, looking a bit too innocent.

Gravely, I ask, "Lizzy, did you do something?"

In a rush she blurts, "It's not my fault! The end of the tape just lifted right up!"

I jump from the chair to see that she has peeled away a few inches of the tape from the side of the box facing her. I have to admit, it really had come up very smoothly, not ripping or taking any of the cardboard with it. "Okay," I say quickly. "Let's do it before I change my mind."

Lizzy claps her hands and we set to work gently lifting the tape up from both ends. We eventually meet in the middle and lift the whole piece straight off. Lizzy drapes it over the top of a kitchen chair. I open the four flaps, and we look in.

At first all we can see is a bunch of crumpled pieces of newspaper. For a brief moment I think there's nothing else inside. I'm afraid to touch anything, but Lizzy apparently has no such qualms because she digs right in and pulls out balls of newspaper with both hands. She tosses them onto the table and is about to reach back in for the next layer when I stop her.

"Wait," I say, gathering the balls into a neat pile. "We'll have to pack this back up later exactly how we found it." I'm about to lay a wad of newspaper onto the pile when a headline catches my eye. I smooth the crumpled page out on the table. My heart quickening, I hold the page out to Lizzy and say, "Look at this article."

She shakes her head. "You know I don't believe in reading the newspaper. Too depressing. Why would I start reading it now?"

"Just read it," I persist. "It's from the science section."

She rolls her eyes and grabs the paper from me. " 'Scientists Believe Black Holes Might Be Key to Time Travel.' So what?" she asks. "Just add this to your time travel file. Your mom won't notice one piece of newspaper missing."

"I don't need to add it to my file," I tell her, taking the paper back and rolling it back up into a ball. "I already have it."

"Huh?"

"This newspaper is five years old!"

She grabs more pieces out of the box until she finds one with a date on it. With a sharp intake of breath she says, "You're right! This page is from the week after… after…" Lizzy's words trail off and she busies herself pulling more paper out of the box. I know what she was going to say. The paper is from the week after my father died.

Silently we pull out the rest of the newspaper until only two things are left in the box—a typed letter on business letterhead and a rectangular object the size of a shoe box, wrapped in tissue paper. We stare at each other, wide-eyed. Lizzy starts to reach for the letter and then pulls back. "Maybe you should do it."

"But what if it's something my mom wouldn't want us to see?"

"We've come this far," she says, then quickly adds, "but it's up to you."

I wipe my sweating hands on my shorts. As much as I don't want to admit it, I'm drawn in by the mysterious package, and I can't help myself. I square my shoulders and carefully lift out the letter, trying not to wrinkle it. The address on the top is the same as the one on the return label. The letter, at least, is not five years old because it has yesterday's date on it. I read it out loud, trying to keep my voice steady:

Dear Laney,

I hope this finds you well. I know I wasn't supposed to send it until later this summer, but we have shut down the Manhattan branch, and I didn't want to take the chance of misplacing it in the move to our Long Island office. Another reason to send it early—and you won't like this, I'm afraid—is that I seem to have misplaced the keys. I am fairly certain that you sent them along with the box to my office, and I have a vague recollection of hiding them somewhere quite clever. Alas, too clever, I'm sorry to say.

The locksmith I visited explained that the locking mechanism on the box is an intricate system of levers and pulleys. Each of the four keyholes needs a different type of key, and an internal latch will prevent the box from being pried open. Figures Daniel wouldn't settle for a normal box with one keyhole like everyone else. I am certain you and Jeremy will figure it out before the time comes.

I have nothing but fond memories of David from our college days, and I was honored to do him the favor of holding onto this all these years. All my best wishes to you.

Yours truly,

Harold

Lizzy takes the letter from my hand and reads it over to herself. "What does this mean?" she says quietly. Lizzy rarely says anything quietly, so I know she's as surprised as I am. I don't trust myself to speak, so I just shake my head. I can't recall my father mentioning a college buddy named Harold, although admittedly I tuned out whenever my parents started reminiscing about the old college days. But this Harold person must have known them pretty well since he called Mom Laney, which only her close friends do. So my mother sent this package to him and told him to send it back five years later? Why would she do that? And what does he mean about doing a favor for my dad?

Before I can stop myself, I reach in and lift the wrapped object out of the box. The tissue paper slides off and falls to the floor. I am left holding a smooth wooden box with keyholes on four sides. A clear varnish makes the wood seem almost alive. The first thought that strikes me is how pretty it is. I had never thought that a wooden box could be pretty. Heck, I don't think I've ever even used the word "pretty" before, and if Lizzy ever asked, I'd deny using it now.

Lizzy bends down to pick up the piece of tissue paper at my feet. She stands up slowly and says, "Um, Jeremy?"

"Hmmm?" I'm unable to take my eyes from the box in my hands. I shake it gently and hear some muffled objects shift and knock against each other. It can't weigh more than two pounds.

"Um, you might want to turn that over," Lizzy says. I just keep shaking the box back and forth, mesmerized. She finally grabs it from my hands, flips it over, and hands it back. Staring up at me are the engraved words THE MEANING OF LIFE: FOR JEREMY FINK TO OPEN ON HIS 13TH BIRTHDAY.

I'd recognize my dad's handiwork anywhere.




Chapter 2: The Explanation

"Looks like the package wasn't for your mom after all," Lizzy says after a few minutes.

I don't answer. My hands are shaking, and I set the wooden box down on the kitchen table. We back away about two feet and stare at it.

"So this is a birthday gift from your dad?" Lizzy asks.

I nod. My heart is beating so fast that I actually hear it pulsing in my ears.

We stare some more and the words float in front of me. The Meaning of Life. For Jeremy Fink. 13th Birthday. Mom has obviously known about this for at least five years. Why did she keep it from me? I don't have any secrets from anyone. Well, I guess I haven't told anyone about kissing Rachel Schwartz at her bat mitzvah last April, but that's mostly because it wasn't so much a kiss as it was our lips accidentally occupying the same space as we reached for the last Shirley Temple on the waiter's tray.

"So what do you think is inside?" Lizzy asks.

I finally speak. "No idea."

"Can the meaning of life be in a box?"

"Wouldn't have thought so," I say.

"And you never saw this box before?"

I shake my head.

Genre:

On Sale
Feb 1, 2008
Page Count
304 pages
ISBN-13
9780316058490

Wendy Mass

About the Author

Wendy Mass is the New York Times bestselling author of The Candymakers, Pi in the Sky, Every Soul a Star, Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, and A Mango-Shaped Space.

Learn more about this author