What the Wind Can Tell You
What the Wind Can Tell You
by Sarah Marie A. Jette
Must-Read List, Middle Grade/Young Adult Literature, 19th Massachusetts Book Awards
Lupine Honor Award, Juvenile/YA, 2018 Maine Library Association
Silver Medal, Best First Book (Chapter Book), 2018 Moonbeam Children's Book Award
2018 Windows and Mirrors List (annual list of diverse titles that demonstrate strong representation of marginalized identities as well as great literary merit), New England Children's Booksellers Advisory Committee.
Isabelle is fascinated by wind. And this year, she’s determined to win the middle school science fair with her wind machine. She’s just as determined to have her brother, Julian, who has a severe form of epilepsy and uses a wheelchair, serve as her assistant. But after Julian has a grand seizure, everything changes. Isabelle is suddenly granted entry into Las Brisas, a magical world where Julian’s physical limitations disappear, and one, she discovers, that he visits every night. The more Isabelle explores Las Brisas, the more possibilities she sees––for Julian, and for herself––and the more she finds herself at odds with her parents. Debut author Sarah Marie A. Jette has told, with remarkable insight and humor, a powerful story of a family struggling to love without fear.
This one was different. I knew it. Mama knew it.
It takes a certain kind of seizure to ruin a sunny Saturday morning—one that rolls in like thunder and flashes like lightning. This seizure made my lungs ache for my next breath, a breath I didn’t realize I was holding. This seizure absorbed all the movement in the room, stole my strength and channeled it into its jerky, confused convulsions. This was the kind of seizure that stretches time as thin as a sliver, where the sirens echoing from blocks away tease and taunt because sound travels faster than an ambulance ever could.
Julian’s arms flexed and pulled like a fly caught in a spiderweb, desperate and futile and useless. His legs sprang and kicked the underside of the table, rattling the silverware and cereal bowls. Cups and plates danced erratically on the place mats. His foot slammed against the table leg. A glass of orange juice tumbled over the edge and onto the tile floor, creating crystal constellations. The pinwheel he was holding tumbled out of his hand and fell to the floor.
Julian gulped and gasped for air as Mama guarded his head. His eyes rolled back and his eyelids closed, as though he didn’t want to see what was happening to his body.
I didn’t want to see it either, but my eyes wouldn’t turn away.
His body bucked against his seat, fighting to escape. His clothing pulled; the chair groaned.
Julian kept seizing.
Mama sang—like she hoped the rhythm of “Duérmete Mi Niño,” her favorite lullaby, would offset the chaos erupting inside Julian.
She sang louder and louder.
“Duérmete pedazo de mi corazón . . . ”
She then broke into “This Little Light of Mine.” Tears glistened on her cheeks.
Mama kept singing.
Julian kept seizing.
I watched her hands tremble as they stroked Julian’s hair. They smoothed his curls; they fluttered and fussed as his head slammed and pulled against his wheelchair’s headrest.
I counted the thumps of my heartbeat, hoping to lose myself in the numbers. I didn’t, because Julian kept seizing.
His body continued to quake even as his arms and legs seemed to tire. They moved because they were forced to, weak and exhausted.
Mama’s eyes flashed around the room—first settling on the clock, then locking on to mine. She opened her mouth to speak, but the words froze in her throat. All that came out was a squeak.
The stream of orange juice soaked into my socks, cold, wet, and sticky. I wiggled my toes, releasing my feet from the floor, no longer cemented by fear.
I pushed off my chair and pulled my mom’s cell phone out Sarah Marie A. Jette 3 from her purse. My fingers searched for the buttons. I pressed the receiver to my ear. It started ringing.
“Nine-one-one. State your emergency.”
“It’s my brother. He’s having a seizure. A big one.”
Julian has seizures all the time. They come and then they stop. This one was different.
The dispatcher called for an ambulance, and I settled down beside Julian.
“Cálmate, cálmate,” I leaned in and whispered.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen again,” Mama said, and then she started to hum another song.
Julian’s seizure stopped just before the ambulance arrived. By then his head was drooping like a sunflower in September. His arms and legs hung limp, like overcooked noodles.
One EMT pressed Julian’s wrist to check his pulse. The other attached a foam brace around his neck. They slid a mask over Julian’s mouth. Mama stepped between the EMTs to tuck a curl underneath the mask’s rubber band. I kissed Julian on the forehead just before they carried him out of our house.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Mama whispered. Her hug was tighter than usual. It seemed like her arms would never let go, but they did.
I saw Mama reach for her cell phone as she settled into the back of the ambulance. The doors closed and the ambulance sped away, lights flashing red and sirens screeching.
I sat on our front lawn and waited. My fingers tapped against my knees and I shivered. Big seizures filled me with jumpiness, jitters, and tears. Fortunately, Julian hadn’t had a seizure this big in over a year. Seventeen months, two weeks, and four days, according to my mom.
Mama tracked all the seizures and ambulance visits thanks to her special gift. Ask her, and she’d tell you what number we were on. I could remember the length of some seizures, but Mama remembered the length of each one, even the smallest; she recalled the license plate number of every ambulance, and the names and eye color of all the EMTs, doctors, and nurses who had ever helped Julian. For Mama, remembering seemed to hold clues which might someday unlock the mystery behind Julian’s seizures, once and for all.
A breeze swept the front yard. Sand on the driveway swirled against the curb. Fresh green leaves swayed hesitantly. I looked up at the sky, through the branches of our lilac, the blossoms now shriveled and brown. Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath to soothe my shaking arms, willing away the memories of Julian’s seemingly never-ending seizure.
My ears caught the sound of flip-flops snapping their way across the street and sidewalk, followed by softer steps across our front lawn.
My eyes popped open.
Jamie, the high school girl from down the street, stood before me, enveloped in the overpowering scent of powdered cheese. Her right hand presented me with a very full bag of cheese curls, while her left hand pressed her phone against her ear. I reached in and grabbed a handful.
“Hold on,” Jamie said, pulling the phone away from her cheek. A high-pitched voice chirped on the other end. Jamie stooped down and placed a cheesy hand on my shoulder. “You okay?”
“The doctors will make things better,” Jamie said. “They always do.”
“It’s been so long since the last time,” I whispered, wiping my eyes on my sleeve. “I didn’t think there would be any more big ones.”
Jamie shoved the foil bag into her tote, gave me a quick hug, and followed me into my house. Jamie had been my babysitter for years and even though I was twelve now and could stay home on my own, Mama always called and Jamie always brought snacks.
Jamie found her old spot on our living-room couch, nestled among the pillows. I watched her prop a chemistry textbook against her legs, wedge highlighters in the spaces between her toes, and press her phone up to her ear with her shoulder.
I swept the broken glass off the kitchen floor, sponged up the spilled juice, and wiped the table with a fistful of paper towels. With no more chores to do, I sat and stared out our kitchen window.
On warm afternoons, Julian sat on the back deck watching his wind socks snap at each other while his kites looped through the clouds. This morning, in between bites of cereal, we had been crafting pencil-top pinwheels. I drafted the plans, and with a thumbs-up, Julian had marked his approval.
And then the seizure had struck.
Far under the table, I spied Julian’s pinwheel. The blades were soft and wet with juice. I blotted it with a napkin and pressed the pushpin deeper into the eraser. Once it was dry enough, I wrapped the pencil with colorful strips of tape. I placed the finished pinwheel on Julian’s tray so it could dry completely.
I checked the time. It was only ten o’clock.
Inspired by Jamie’s studying, I pulled out my science fair project and dumped the contents of my school bag onto the tabletop. For weeks, I had been extensively researching all things related to wind. In one book, I had found that New Hampshire’s Mount Washington holds the record as the windiest place in the United States, with gusts reaching up to 231 miles per hour. My notebook was also filled with facts on weathervanes, including the Italian Gallo di Ramperto, the world’s oldest rooster weathervane, which was more than 1,400 years old.
“Gallo di Ramperto,” I whispered, letting the words roll off my tongue.
My favorite research find was a description of the octagonal Tower of the Winds in Greece. Sculptures of Greek wind gods encircled the top. Some looked like angels draped in cloth; the others looked like bearded men carrying jugs. I made Mama promise that we’d visit one day.
“Ancient buildings are rarely accessible,” she reminded me.
“We can find a way,” I said.
Sitting at the kitchen table with my notes spread before me, I pulled out my tri-fold presentation board.
“Hold on, let me call you back,” Jamie’s voice rang out. She left her phone on the arm of the couch and hobbled to the fridge, her highlighters still in place.
“You want anything?” Jamie asked as she poked around.
Jamie poured me a glass and took the last bottle of Papa’s Jarritos
soda. She delicately placed a handful of cheese curls next to
me, licked her fingertips, and wiped them dry on her sweatshirt.
“Want anything else?”
“I’m fine,” I said.
Jamie looked over my shoulder and read a few of my notes.
“Is this for the McKinley Middle School science fair?”
“Yes,” I said, watching her glance over my work. “My report is finished, but I feel like I need something else . . .”
I pulled Julian’s pinwheel off his tray and gave it a flick. The blades stubbornly refused to spin.
“That’s what I’ve got to figure out. I’ve been making wind instruments for years, but now I feel like I want to try something
“Complex is good.” Jamie nodded with approval. “So long as you have the research to support your project.”
“I’ve got the research.”
“I can tell!” Jamie smiled and took a swig of Papa’s soda. “The winners go on to Regionals—even the seventh graders. And there’s prize money, too, if you win Regionals.”
“Really? I never thought about winning.”
“Think about it, Isabelle. You’re off to a good start.”
“Thanks.” I smiled.
She paused and took another sip of soda. “Did you know the Romans thought that reading the wind could predict the future?”
“I didn’t know that,” I said, looking up.
“Yeah, I read it somewhere.” Jamie’s phone began ringing.
She returned to the couch, carefully adjusted her highlighters, and slipped her phone back against her ear.
The light in the kitchen windows changed from blue to orange to purple as the sun set and the sky grew dark. My stomach rumbled
as Jamie finally finished her phone call. She microwaved some chicken nuggets, divvied up the last of the cheese curls, and poured
us each a glass of juice.
Finally, the headlights from Mama’s car flashed through the foyer.
I met her at the door with a hug.
Jamie patted me on my shoulder and walked home, the scent of cheese trailing behind her.
“It’s a good thing your father’s not here,” Mama said as she sniffed the air. “You know how he is when he smells powdered
Dark circles rimmed her eyes, but I let out a sigh of relief. If Mama could joke about Papa, then Julian was okay.
We settled into our “Julian’s at the hospital” routine. Papa swapped his late shifts at his store for the late shifts at the hospital so he could be Julian’s night watchman.
It was one long week, seven days of dodged questions and too-brief hospital visits, before Julian could return home. As I was slipping into bed that Saturday night, I heard the rumble of Papa’s car on the driveway. I barreled down the stairs to meet it. From the front door, I watched Papa scoop Julian out from his seat, carefully cradling Julian’s head against his chest.
Papa carried Julian into the house like a firefighter, except for his bouquet of balloons trailing behind. Julian wasn’t asleep but he didn’t quite seem awake, his eyelids half closed, his arms pulled close to his chest. He was humming a song, and the cool spring breeze was making him shiver. His humming sounded like radio static.
I followed Papa as he brought Julian to his room, pulled off his jacket, and laid him on his bed.
“He’s wearing those thin pajamas,” Mama said. “I’ll put Abuelita’s quilt on the bed.”
“Did you tell her?” Papa asked, his mustache twitching as his eyes caught mine. Mama smoothed the quilt and shook her head.
Papa’s shoulders sagged.
“I will,” Mama said. “Tonight.”
I wondered what it was they were keeping from me. Mama tucked Julian in and Papa grumbled about closing
up the store.
“Hernando, I ordered a pizza for you,” Mama called out, never once taking her eyes off of Julian. “It’s in the fridge.”
Papa stopped to kiss me on the forehead and whispered in my ear: “Mmm, pizzawich.”
From Julian’s doorway, I watched Papa pull the pizza from the fridge and stack all eight slices. Looking back at me, he winked before he took an enormous bite. With his pizzawich in hand, Papa slipped out the back door and left for work. I stepped into Julian’s room and walked to his bedside, his pinwheel in my hand.
“Julian, look what I finished for you. I didn’t know what colors you wanted, so I put every color on this one.” I curled his fingers around the pencil base, but his grip wouldn’t hold. I wrapped my hand around his and blew on the blades. They refused to move. “I’m still trying to get it to spin,” I apologized. Mama placed her hand on my arm.
“He’s very tired, Isabelle. Maybe tomorrow,” she said.
I stood and tucked the pinwheel into the pencil cup on top of his dresser.
“Mama?” I asked.
I turned back to my mother, who sat in her chair beside Julian’s bed, stroking his face. She held his hands, gently flexing his knuckles. She pressed her cheek against his and whispered something softly into his ear.
“What if Julian has another big seizure?” I asked.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
“That’s not for you to worry about.” She stood up, and began unpacking Julian’s hospital bag. “I’ll stay here for a little while, and when I go to bed, I’ll be listening to the monitor. Time for bed, Isabelle.”
“Good night, Julian,” I said, and kissed him on his cheek. “I’m so happy you’re home.”
Reluctantly, I left his room. Each step felt monstrous, each one taking me farther away from Julian. In the kitchen, I hesitated. The soft smell of citrus filled the air. I peeked into Julian’s room. The balloons were strangely still, but nestled in between stubby yellow pencils, his pinwheel spun in a blur of colors.
“Isabelle!” Mama called out, not bothering to turn around.
Bat-like hearing was her other special gift. “Bed!”
I trudged up the steps and into my room. Without Julian, the house had been so empty. Upstairs, alone in my room, Julian was still too far away. I sat on my bed, batting a basketball between my fingers, faster and faster. As my fingers raced, I listened for my mother. Close to an hour later, with my eyelids drooping and my cheek resting on top of my ball, she appeared in my doorway.
“Isabelle, it’s time for you to sleep.” Her smile was warm and her eyes were tired. Mama pulled the ball from my lap and placed it in my closet.
“I’m glad Julian’s home,” I said.
“Me, too.” She sat beside me and kissed my forehead.
“He’s better, right?” I asked.
“Yes and no.” I searched her eyes for a clue as to what she meant, but Mama wasn’t looking at me. “Julian can no longer
be on the medications he was on before, so the doctors changed them.”
“That’s happened before.” My words eased like a tiptoe, measured, soft, and balanced.
“So, what’s wrong?”
Mama placed her hands around mine. “Your father and I hoped that one day things would get better, that one day the seizures would go away. The big seizure last week showed us they’re not going away easily. So, we’re going to try something different, to try to get rid of the seizures once and for all.”
“Okay . . .”
“Julian’s new medication is strong, which is why we’re starting off with a low dose.”
“All right.” I could tell she hadn’t finished. Her lips were working with a silent thought, but her eyes closed, keeping the words trapped. “What if this new medication doesn’t work?”
Mama patted my leg.
“That’s not for you to worry about,” she said again. Mama tucked her curls behind her ears and smiled. “The big surprise is that your tía is coming for an early visit.”
“But it’s not vacation.”
We sat in silence for a moment.
“Is that what Papa wanted you to tell me?”
“In part. Go to sleep, Isabelle. It’s late.” She kissed my cheek. “Everything will be all right.”
Sliding under my covers, I pressed my head deep into my pillow. Tía Lucy had always visited the last week of June, for as long as I could remember. Something was up. I closed my eyes and tried to push away the worry.
And that’s when the smell of citrus returned.
I pulled my blankets back and sat at the edge of my bed. I waited until the radiators quit clanging and the refrigerator stopped gurgling. I waited until Mama settled in her bed and her bedsprings fell silent. I waited until my heart slowed down enough that I could count its beats.
And then I tucked my pillow under my arm and tiptoed down the stairs to Julian’s room. Julian’s room was off limits. Mama and Papa didn’t care that my room was a mess, so long as Julian’s wasn’t. His room housed all of his equipment: physical therapy toys and occupational therapy tools, pump parts, and suction machines. They didn’t want me moving his noisemakers or mats, tangling his
tubes, or misplacing his socks. I was only allowed in when Mama asked me to get something for Julian, or to check on him when
he was resting.
That night, I stood in the doorway and peered inside. Julian’s nightlight cast a soft blue glow on his bedroom floor. A gibbous moon illuminated his sleeping face. His room was perfectly still and orderly, even the bouquet of balloons tied to the foot of his bed and the pinwheel in his pencil cup. I sniffed the air and shook my head at my own silliness. Julian’s room was the same as always. And he was sleeping. His long eyelashes rested on his cheeks. He took a deep breath, turned his head toward the door, and exhaled. I walked over
to his bed.
Julian slept in a hospital bed, specially delivered two years ago. Before the bed arrived, fluids used to clog his chest at night, and he wasn’t strong enough to cough them out. Mama propped him up using pillows, but the pillows never stayed put. Papa worked the night shift at his store, but Mama worked the night shift at home. She slept in a chair beside Julian, suctioning fluids from his mouth like a dentist, repositioning the pillows when they slipped out of place. After a bad bout of pneumonia, Julian finally qualified for a hospital bed. Seven pillows and a curled-up towel were replaced by a single button. Sleeping in a hospital bed eased Julian’s coughs. And best of all, it let Mama sleep through the night—sort of.
My eyes caught the red bead of light glowing from the monitor. As Mama slept, she listened to every crackle and buzz, every breath and turn that Julian made throughout the night. The slightest cough sent her racing down the staircase—wide awake in half a second.
Lifting Julian’s arm off his chest, I pried his fist open. The thumb was always the hardest. I slipped my hand inside his. His breathing was steady and deep. His arm felt heavy. I kept his hand in mine as I pulled up Mama’s chair and leaned my head against his mattress. My left hand skimmed the top of Julian’s blanket, while my eyelids fell. My shoulders began to sag. His room was so tranquil, so serene. It was like all the silence in the world drifted into this moment.
Suddenly, the sound of stiff bedsheets startled me. I felt the quilt tug the back of my head, pulling my hair with it. Julian’s hand squeezed tight around mine. I smelled oranges. I looked over to Julian’s dresser. The pinwheel was spinning wildly. And then I heard something I’d never heard before.