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Authors: Sarah Strohmeyer

This Is My Brain on Boys

BOOK: This Is My Brain on Boys
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DEDICATION

For Sasha Kennedy, one of the smartest girls I know.

For reading between motorcycle trips

EPIGRAPH

Love is the absence of judgment. —Dalai Lama

ONE

I
t is an accepted scientific fact that the brain of the average adolescent male thinks about girls every seven heartbeats. Which, when placed in perspective, leaves very little time for the brain of the average adolescent male to seriously think about anything else—including, quite possibly, imminent death.

Addie figured this was the only explanation for why the boy wedged in the seat next to her wasn't freaking out like everyone else on Flight 1160 from New York to Boston.

A violent summer storm tossed the plane like a Frisbee; it climbed, then fell, banking to the left, then to the right, only to do it all again. The electricity flickered.
Drinks spilled. Luggage actually broke through a couple of the overhead compartments. People alternately gasped, groaned, and clutched their stomachs.

Intellectually, Addie understood that their fear was illogical. With at least thirty thousand feet of space between the ground and the plane, which was specifically designed to withstand the external stress of high winds and the occasional lightning strike, the chances of a free-falling crash were ridiculously minuscule.

But try telling that to her amygdala. That troublesome almond-shaped segment of her brain too often overruled the cortex's calm reasoning when it came to fear, anxiety, and, much to her embarrassment, love. So despite mentally recalling the statistical improbability of midflight crashes (eleven million to one) and trying to distract herself with the latest edition of
Neuroscience Today
, she was inwardly roiling in heart-pounding, palm-sweating, pulse-racing panic.

Unlike 11B, as Addie had mentally nicknamed him. He was blissed out to the music from his earphones, totally oblivious under his black curls, a silly half smile on his face, seat back, eyes closed.

Suddenly, the lights went off and the plane dropped, belly down, like a rock, which was so unexpected that the cabin went completely silent.

“I think we might have lost an engine,” said a man in
row eleven, loud enough to be heard all the way to first class. He pointed out the right window. “It's on fire!”

“We're going to die!” screamed the woman in the window seat next to him, gripping the armrest. “Die!”

This was the third such outburst from 11A and Addie was growing mildly annoyed. For one thing, screaming was a primal reflex meant to alert
others to flee approaching danger and was, therefore, completely useless on a plane. (Which was ironic when you thought about it—while they were in flight, they couldn't
engage
in flight.)

Moreover, due to her frequent outbursts, 11A was increasing the cabin's CO
2
to dangerous levels.

“Excuse me,” Addie said, leaning across the long legs of 11B to get the woman's attention. “Is that really necessary?”

She regarded Addie through thick lenses.
“What?”

“Your pointless emissions.”

“I beg your pardon,” the woman exclaimed, reddening.

“I don't mean to criticize . . .”

(This was Addie's go-to opening line, suggested by her best friend, Tess, who had once gently noted that even though Addie might possess the noblest of intentions, occasionally, in an effort to be informative, she came across as, well, bossy. “But only because you're
so
smart and right ninety percent of the time,” Tess had added quickly so Addie's feelings wouldn't be hurt.)

“. . . but considering the diminishing levels of oxygen in the cabin, it would be ever so helpful if you could keep your carbon dioxide production to a minimum.”

“Who cares about carbon dioxide?” the woman snapped. “Can't you see? We're about to die!”

A little boy sitting on his mother's lap across the aisle began bawling.

Addie estimated his age to be approximately six to eight—old enough, surely, to not be treated like a baby. Her twin stepsisters were that age and already they were acquainted with the mysterious art of cosmetics and the climate-change themes in
Frozen
.

“Hey, what's the problem, buddy?” Addie inquired.

The mother smoothed his hair. “Tommy gets upset when other people are upset. He's very sensitive.”

Immature cerebellum, Addie deduced. Common among boys of that age group and, well, older ones, too.

“Perhaps this will allay your fears: flying has a 99.999 percent survival rate, and no American plane in modern history has fallen to the ground due to turbulence. Not once.”

He sniffed and rubbed snot from his nose. “Really?”

Addie nodded. “Really. You're one-hundred-percent safe. Planes fly with one engine all the time.”

“See, Tommy?” his mother said. “No reason to cry.”

“I didn't know that.” He sniffed again.

“It's the first three minutes after takeoff and the last eight minutes until landing where you run into trouble,” she continued, hoping to nurture his nascent interest in aviation. “That's why landing is nothing more than a controlled crash.” To illustrate, Addie plunged her hand through the air between them. “One gust of wind shear and we're toast!”

And Tommy started crying all over again.

11B pulled out an earbud and murmured, “Nice going.”

“You can do better?” she asked.

“Probably anyone could.” He tapped Tommy on the shoulder. “Hey, little dude, you want to see something neat?” He pulled out a set of keys attached to an unusual object—a large brown scorpion encased in acrylic.

Repulsive, Addie thought. Taking a creature of nature and turning it into a tchotchke.

“What is that?” Tommy asked.

11B said, “You tell me.”

“A spider?”

“Nope. Close, though.”

“A tarantula?”

“A tarantula is a spider,” Addie said.
“Obvi.”

11B flashed her a quizzical half grin. “Thank you, Bill Nye the Science Guy. However, next time let's remember to raise our hands.” Turning back to the boy, he said,
“Here's a hint. It lives in the desert and there's a stinger at the end of its tail.”

Addie raised her hand. 11B paid no attention, even when she flapped it and said, “I know, I know.”

Tommy took the key chain, being mindful to pinch the one corner absent a leg. “Is it a . . . scorpion?”

11B shot him a finger. “Bingo. This one's a Manchurian scorpion I brought back from China. They eat them there, you know. On a stick!”

Mesobuthus martensii,
Addie thought, fighting the temptation to inform them of the venom's fascinating use by Eastern physicians to treat neurological disorders such as paralysis and chronic pain and its untapped potential to cure forms of cancer.

The boy gazed at the dead bug with fresh awe. “I've never seen one up close before.”

“You can keep it,” 11B said kindly, smiling at the boy's stunned expression.

“No way!”

“Sure. It's good luck, you know.”

“It is?”

Even though Addie was impressed, even touched, by 11B's easy generosity, she had to scoff at the silly notion of a lucky charm. Like “luck” was even a thing. She was about to put paid to this silly superstition when she felt a distinct pressure on her toe and looked down to see 11B's
black sneakered foot pressing on hers—hard.

“What do you say?” the mother prompted.

“Thank you!” the boy gushed.

“Yes, thank you,” the mother repeated with relief, handing the keys to 11B. “That was extremely thoughtful. He's totally forgotten . . . everything.” She pointedly looked at Addie, as if somehow her mentioning the chances of dying at the beginning and end of flights had been inappropriate, when she'd only been stating facts.

“No problem,” 11B said, handing back the freed scorpion. “To be honest, I'm not big on carrying around dead animals, even if they are scorpions, but I bet it'll keep Tommy busy.” The two of them stared adoringly at Tommy, who was busy flipping the key chain over and over, inspecting every detail.

Addie sighed. It was extremely awkward to be stuck in the middle of a conversation when you were trying to comprehend
Neuroscience Today
's exclusive on the untold secrets of dopamine.

“Do you want to switch seats?” she asked 11B.

He shook his head. “Nah. My work here is done.” He sat back and untangled his earbuds, which wasn't easy as, in attempting to begin its early descent, the plane had begun listing from side to side.

She resumed reading and managed to get through one whole paragraph before she heard shallow panting,
a telltale sign of hyperventilation. Her diagnosis was further confirmed by a cursory visual examination of 11B's hand.

“That twitch,”
she asked, gingerly touching the muscle at the base of his thumb, scientifically referred to as the opponens pollicis, “did that just start?”

“Huh?” He pulled out the right earbud.

She brushed her finger along the fleshy mound. It pulsed. “See?”

He rotated his wrist, examining the situation. “Not sure.”

The plane plummeted yet again, eliciting another round of gasps from the passengers. 11A grabbed the white barf bag from the middle seat and heaved.

Kinetosis.
When the inner ear and optic nerve send mixed signals to the brain, prompting the brain to assume, weirdly enough, that the body is being poisoned . . . whereupon it orders the stomach to empty its contents.
Fascinating.

11B flinched at the muscle spasm. “Should I be worried?”

He sounded concerned. Addie assessed his other symptoms. Faint perspiration on his upper lip and above his heavy dark brows. Dilated pupils in his large brown eyes. A bluish tinge at the base of his nails. Well, that ruled out her two prior assumptions about him being
unfazed by the turbulence.

“Are you dizzy?” she asked, circling his wrist to take his pulse.

“I don't know.” He massaged his temple. “I think I might be getting a headache.”

“You've been panting out too much carbon dioxide. You need to reabsorb some by breathing into a paper bag.”

Which was in the process of being filled by 11A.

“That's the last one around so . . . not an option,” he murmured.

The plane pivoted a sharp ninety degrees as smoke began to fill the cabin. 11B blanched, and even Addie, minutes after explaining to Tommy that the odds were solidly in their favor, found herself wondering if this was the end.

A crackling from the speakers overhead signaled an incoming announcement from the cockpit. “Well, folks, I'm going to do my best to get us into Logan without too many bumps,” the captain drawled, “but it might be a rough landing. Therefore, I need you to put up your tray tables, seatbacks up, and, just to be extra cautious, to place your heads between your knees.”

“And kiss your butts good-bye,” 11B said under his breath.

The last eight minutes are the most dangerous.
Addie braced herself for the worst.

11A shoved the soiled barf bag into the seat pocket and bent forward. 11B keeled slightly. If Addie didn't act fast, he was going to lose consciousness, possibly hit his head or . . .

She grabbed his chin and gave him a shake. “Wake up!”

He blinked slowly. “I don't feel good. There's this strange tingling . . .”

“Around the edges of your mouth. I know.” He was farther along than she'd thought. This was bad. “Listen, do you trust me?”

“To do what?”

“To follow my advice, no questions.”

“What kind of advice?”

“Put your lips on mine.”

His eyes widened as if she'd asked him to kiss a toilet seat. “What for?”

Typical boy, she thought. “Oh, please. I'm not interested in you that way!
This is purely a medical intervention
.
Without a bag handy, the only way to avoid stage five hyperventilation is for you to put your lips to mine and breathe. Otherwise, there is a very good chance that you will pass out. Or, in the extreme case, lose enough oxygen that you actually suffer a stroke, possible brain damage, and/or death.”

“You're joking.”

“See me laughing?”

“Do you ever? Somehow, you don't strike me as the giggling type.”

She narrowed her eyes. “It's your choice. Live or die.”

He hesitated and then, just when the plane took another free fall, leaned in. Addie pursed her lips, ready to perform her public service, but as he moved closer, there was something about him that made her do a double take.

Those eyes.

And then it clicked.

BOOK: This Is My Brain on Boys
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