The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle. Like, I will probably never be struck by lightning, or win a Nobel Prize, or become the dictator of a small nation in the Pacific Islands, or contract terminal ear cancer, or spontaneously combust. But if you consider all the unlikely things together, at least one of them will probably happen to each of us. I could have seen it rain frogs. I could have stepped foot on Mars. I could have been eaten by a whale. I could have married the queen of England or survived months at sea. But my miracle was different. My miracle was this: out of all the houses in all the subdivisions in all of Florida, I ended up living next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman.
Our subdivision, Jefferson Park, used to be a navy base. But then the navy didn’t need it anymore, so it returned the land to the citizens of Orlando, Florida, who decided to build a massive subdivision, because that’s what Florida does with land. My parents and Margo’s parents ended up moving next door to one another just after the first houses were built. Margo and I were two.
Before Jefferson Park was a Pleasantville, and before it was a navy base, it belonged to an actual Jefferson, this guy Dr. Jefferson Jefferson. Dr. Jefferson Jefferson has a school named after him in Orlando and also a large charitable foundation, but the fascinating and unbelievable-but-true thing about Dr. Jefferson Jefferson is that he was not a doctor of any kind. He was just an orange juice salesman named Jefferson Jefferson. When he became rich and powerful, he went to court, made “Jefferson” his middle name, and then changed his first name to “Dr.” Capital D. Lowercase r. Period.
So Margo and I were nine. Our parents were friends, so we would sometimes play together, biking past the cul-de-sacced streets to Jefferson Park itself, the hub of our subdivision’s wheel.
I always got very nervous whenever I heard that Margo was about to show up, on account of how she was the most fantastically gorgeous creature that God had ever created. On the morning in question, she wore white shorts and a pink T-shirt that featured a green dragon breathing a fire of orange glitter. It is difficult to explain how awesome I found this T-shirt at the time.
Margo, as always, biked standing up, her arms locked as she leaned above the handlebars, her purple sneakers a circuitous blur. It was a steam-hot day in March. The sky was clear, but the air tasted acidic, like it might storm later.
At the time, I fancied myself an inventor, and after we locked up our bikes and began the short walk across the park to the playground, I told Margo about an idea I had for an invention called the Ringolator. The Ringolator was a gigantic cannon that would shoot big, colored rocks into a very low orbit, giving Earth the same sort of rings that Saturn has. (I still think this would be a fine idea, but it turns out that building a cannon that can shoot boulders into a low orbit is fairly complicated.)
I’d been in this park so many times before that it was mapped in my mind, so we were only a few steps inside when I began to sense that the world was out of order, even though I couldn’t immediately figure out what was different.
“Quentin,” Margo said quietly, calmly.
She was pointing. And then I realized what was different.
There was a live oak a few feet ahead of us. Thick and gnarled and ancient-looking. That was not new. The playground on our right. Not new, either. But now, a guy wearing a gray suit, slumped against the trunk of the oak tree. Not moving. This was new. He was encircled by blood; a half-dried fountain of it poured out of his mouth. The mouth open in a way that mouths generally shouldn’t be. Flies at rest on his pale forehead.
“He’s dead,” Margo said, as if I couldn’t tell.
I took two small steps backward. I remember thinking that if I made any sudden movements, he might wake up and attack me. Maybe he was a zombie. I knew zombies weren’t real, but he sure looked like a potential zombie.
As I took those two steps back, Margo took two equally small and quiet steps forward. “His eyes are open,” she said.
“Wegottagohome,” I said.
“I thought you closed your eyes when you died,” she said.
She took another step. She was close enough now to reach out and touch his foot. “What do you think happened to him?” she asked. “Maybe it was drugs or something.”
I didn’t want to leave Margo alone with the dead guy who might be an attack zombie, but I also didn’t care to stand around and chat about the circumstances of his demise. I gathered my courage and stepped forward to take her hand. “Margowegotta-gorightnow!”
“Okay, yeah,” she said. We ran to our bikes, my stomach churning with something that felt exactly like excitement, but wasn’t. We got on our bikes and I let her go in front of me because I was crying and didn’t want her to see. I could see blood on the soles of her purple sneakers. His blood. The dead guy blood.
And then we were back home in our separate houses. My parents called 911, and I heard the sirens in the distance and asked to see the fire trucks, but my mom said no. Then I took a nap.
Both my parents are therapists, which means that I am really goddamned well adjusted. So when I woke up, I had a long conversation with my mom about the cycle of life, and how death is part of life, but not a part of life I needed to be particularly concerned about at the age of nine, and I felt better. Honestly, I never worried about it much. Which is saying something, because I can do some worrying.
Here’s the thing: I found a dead guy. Little, adorable nine-year-old me and my even littler and more adorable playdate found a guy with blood pouring out of his mouth, and that blood was on her little, adorable sneakers as we biked home. It’s all very dramatic and everything, but so what? I didn’t know the guy. People I don’t know die all the damned time. If I had a nervous breakdown every time something awful happened in the world, I’d be crazier than a shithouse rat.
That night, I went into my room at nine o’clock to go to bed, because nine o’clock was my bedtime. My mom tucked me in, told me she loved me, and I said, “See you tomorrow,” and she said, “See you tomorrow,” and then she turned out the lights and closed the door almost-all-the-way.
As I turned on my side, I saw Margo Roth Spiegelman standing outside my window, her face almost pressed against the screen. I got up and opened the window, but the screen stayed between us, pixelating her.
“I did an investigation,” she said quite seriously. Even up close the screen broke her face apart, but I could tell that she was holding a little notebook and a pencil with teeth marks around the eraser. She glanced down at her notes. “Mrs. Feldman from over on Jefferson Court said his name was Robert Joyner. She told me he lived on Jefferson Road in one of those condos on top of the grocery store, so I went over there and there were a bunch of policemen, and one of them asked if I worked at the school paper, and I said our school didn’t have a paper, and he said as long as I wasn’t a journalist he would answer my questions. He said Robert Joyner was thirty-six years old. A lawyer. They wouldn’t let me in the apartment, but a lady named Juanita Alvarez lives next door to him, and I got into her apartment by asking if I could borrow a cup of sugar, and then she said that Robert Joyner had killed himself with a gun. And then I asked why, and then she told me that he was getting a divorce and was sad about it.”