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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

A Thousand Minutes to Sunlight

Jen White

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)


Chapter 1

Saturday: 14 Seconds to Bring in a Dead Guy

When I was born, I didn’t breathe for eight minutes. Eight whole minutes. That’s four hundred and eighty seconds. Go ahead and try to hold your breath that long. I have and I can’t do it.

Dad always says, “That was the longest eight minutes of my life. You scared us to death.”

And Mom always says, “Isn’t that just like you, Cora? Taking your own sweet time about everything.” She says it with a smile.

Dad continues, “The doctor prodded and pushed; he even turned you upside down. He pounded on your little blue back, trying to get you to breathe, but you wouldn’t. The clock in the hospital seemed slow—I was convinced it was stuck.” He laughs, like he does when he knows he’s telling a good story.

“Stuck,” Mom says, right on cue. I’ve heard this story countless times.

“But then you did it,” says Dad. “The tiniest cry ever. Not even a cry, just a whimper.”

Mom nods like she remembers, but I think, maybe she doesn’t. She had an emergency C-section, and the doctors gave her a lot of drugs. Dad says she was out of it. Aunt Janet says Mom took it like a champ—that any normal woman would be out of it because giving birth is bad business. They’re twins, Aunt Janet and my mom. They always have each other’s backs.

“I was worried, but the doctors said you were normal. No brain damage or anything,” Mom always reassures me.

“Not even a little,” says Dad. Then he knocks on my head as if he’s proving that I’m a healthy kid.

Brain says: I hate this story.

But I’m convinced that somewhere in my cranium, something must have gone wrong.

Brain says: There you go, blaming me again.

Maybe not breathing for eight minutes is what turned my brain from a normal brain to a loud, obnoxious, talking Brain.

I’ve looked it up on the internet. Birth Asphyxia: a condition resulting from deprivation of oxygen to a newborn child that lasts long enough to cause harm, usually to the brain.

Brain says: I’m perfectly fine.

Eight minutes without oxygen is a long time and most babies don’t survive.

It’s enough time for Mom to get bright red and sweaty in her morning workout. Aunt Janet says it’s enough time to organize the boutique cash register (which I have done in six minutes) or to wrap a gift. I know it’s long enough to make Eggo Waffles for my little sister, Sunshine.

It took less time for Minny, my only friend in the whole sixth grade—my only friend in my whole, brand-new middle school—to tell me she was moving to Florida. She did it in two minutes and nine seconds, only a week ago. Eight minutes can change your life, just like that.

* * *

A silent house, in the middle of the night, might be one of the loneliest places on the planet.

Did you hear that?

Brain says: Absolutely an ax murderer.

Crouched in the hallway, I’m poised for anything. It’s 11:31 P.M. to be exact, and a wonder that I can even hear Brain, with my heart hammering in my eardrums.

Inside my head, I count.

1 2 3 4 5

Counting helps. Sometimes counting the minutes is the only thing that soothes the worry that wedges itself on top of my diaphragm. Right now, I’m tucked into a shadow in our long hallway, the one that leads from our bedrooms to our front entry. I adjust my Las Olas Middle School T-shirt that’s tucked weirdly into my leggings and pretend I’m brave.

Moments ago, I was perfectly happy, asleep in my room, curled up with Chevy, our bulldog, but I must have heard something.

Brain says: We did.

Chevy now stands at my feet and the hair on the back of his neck bristles. A slight growl gurgles up from the edge of his throat.

A car turns onto our gravel driveway and then there are voices, muted but urgent.

With Chevy at my heels, I creep down the hall to our front door. Something bumps—a soft thud. Shadows waver through the bubbled glass window above our entry. Without warning, the front door flings open with a bang. The handle punches a quick, tidy hole into the wall behind it.

I jump back, but what’s weird is that Chevy doesn’t bark. Instead, his tail wags.

Dad steps over the threshold, carrying something heavy.

Did he say he was going out? I don’t remember.

Then Mom steps into the light. She holds the end part as she and Dad lug a person through our front door.

I hold my breath.

Dad says, “Watch his head.”

You watch his head,” says Mom. “I’m trying to make sure his filthy shoes don’t touch my floors. The cleaners just came today.”

The man’s face lolls over onto his left shoulder so I can see him more clearly. He’s old, like my dad’s age.

“Paulo!” whispers Mom to Dad as she lifts the man’s legs up even higher. “On the sofa.”

My heart bumps.

Dad lifts him up over the coffee table and heads toward our couch. The man’s arm flops and almost knocks over one of Mom’s conch shells from Hawaii.

“Not that pillow,” she says. “The other one, the purple one.”

“For goodness’ sake,” hisses Dad. “Quit worrying about your precious living room.” He gently lays the man on the sofa, tossing the pillow—the one with the hand embroidery made by Grandma Altman—safely onto the other couch. Dad’s face is strange—like someone has plastic-wrapped it—a frozen expression I don’t recognize.

Mom has grown quiet.

The numbers in my head slowly tick off.

64 65 66 67 68

Suddenly Mom is here, waving me away with her hand. “Cora,” she says sharply. “What are you doing? Go back to bed.”

I have questions, but the silence shushes them.

Mom puts her arm around me and tries to block my view of the strange man. “You’re dreaming, sweetie.”

Brain says: I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely awake.

Her green caftan brushes against her shins. She turns to Dad. “Take her to bed. She doesn’t need to see this.”

It’s only 11:39 P.M., but I’ve decided that eight minutes is more than enough time for your parents to become people you don’t even recognize.

Copyright © 2021 by Jen White