Jonah is an extremely neurotic little boy.

Whenever Jonah was freaking out like this, his mind always brought him back to this slice of intel he’d overheard at the parent-teacher conference he wasn’t even supposed to be at last year. Well, that was a good story. Not for now, but a good story. Everybody wonders how he got into Bush Academy for Middle Grade Young Leaders after hours, when Mr. Phil the janitor had gone home and the bathrooms were dark and locked up and only Mrs. Rachel and his mom were there, but he can’t tell you. Okay, fine, it was by laying in the trunk of the minivan, but that’s all you get to know about Jonahgate.

All the details would come out soon anyway, in the papers. Jonah thought he had, eh, maybe three months left to live. And that was only because he drank milk a lot, and did lunges a lot, so his health, besides this thing he’d found, was truly spectacular. 45th percentile for height, 29th for weight, according to Dr. Lucas. Jonah used to love Dr. Lucas when he was in 4th grade because Dr. Lucas wore all white, even white shoes, and Jonah’s mom never let him do that. Oh, well. Jonah looked good in orange too, if he didn’t say so himself. Jonah barely went to Dr. Lucas anymore, because of the spectacular health and all, but he figured now he would have to go a lot more, what with the cancer.

Yeah, you heard him, Jonah had cancer. He’d found it in the shower, where Jonah estimated he spent 22.7 percent of his time. He’d once asked his mother, how do you breathe in there, because he wasn’t sure if everyone did it the same way he did, sticking his head out the door to gulp big wet breaths of bathroom-air before diving back into the warzone of shooting water, sharp razors, and bombs of shampoo.

The cancer was in that nameless place on his back right above where his butt started to curve out. This made it hard to see unless he was naked and doing this twisting thing he could do because Jonah was very flexible—that was his gym teacher, Mrs. Laura, he knows his imitation is one hunnid—but then once he twisted, oh boy, how could he miss it. The freckle was shaped like West Virginia, and had a few mountains too, which he wasn’t really sure if West Virginia had, considering he’d never been there (Who wants to go to West Virginia when you live in a state where the Liberty Bell is?). Also, Jonah could see a little black hair emerging from his situation, which he was pretty certain West Virginia did not have either.

What Jonah needed was to tell his mom about the cancer. And it wasn’t like he hadn’t tried. The first time he spotted the state establishing itself on his back, Mom had been working out on the treadmill upstairs. Mom never watched anything while she worked out, which Jonah thought was weird, because he would’ve definitely watched the history channel, where he planned to have his own show when he grew up. Even though it was state-test level silent in there, she still didn’t like to be interrupted. Okay, so he could have told her when she was done. But no, then she was showering and then she was packing his lunch for tomorrow because she would be too tired in the morning to make it (“How much energy would it take to make it in the morning,” he wanted to ask, but he knew she would respond with “Make it yourself,” which Jonah certainly did not have any interest in doing, because Jonah did not want to have to revisit the jar of liquidy, unstirred peanut butter after what happened last time). So by the time she came to say goodnight it was late and Jonah wanted to be quiet and think for a while before he spent 8.7 hours forcing his body not to think, thank you very much.

The next day, he checked to make sure the region was still there, and voila, there it was, probably was establishing a government at this point, sending two senators to the r-e-p- representative government, thank you, Mrs. Tiffany, so Jonah resolved to try again with his mother. He usually walked home from school because his route made a perfect hypotenuse across his square town, but he asked Mom if she would drive him home today for undisclosed reasons. She asked him why, and he asked her if she knew what undisclosed meant.

She did. Mom had work, at a gym, teaching fitness classes to people who Jonah thought looked 50th percentile or below already, but she told Jonah she would try to get off early. She didn’t think he should be walking home anyway. Philadelphia wasn’t safe like it was when she was growing up, that was what she said to him. Wasn’t even as safe as when Ava went to Clinton, Bush’s sister Leadership Academy for Middle Grade Girl Young Leaders. Ava, Jonah’s sister, was fifteen years older than Jonah, which meant she was alive when Bill Clinton was president, which made her ancient. She lived at home with Jonah and Mom. Jonah wasn’t sure what she did besides go with Mom to the gym a lot. Their father was Absent.

In last period math, Jonah was already feeling anxious. He didn’t like unpredictability, and he did not know for sure how his mom would respond to his news. While he reduced fractions, he considered the 2/10 chance she screamed. “My baby boy!” She could say. This response would not fit Jonah’s mom, who had a mouth that he wasn’t even sure opened wide enough to scream, but sometimes Jonah’s mom did surprising things. Often, her reactions seemed like they didn’t come from inside her, but like maybe she was copying something she’d seen on TV. 2/10 equals 1/5. So 1/5 she screams. But there were other options, like maybe he tells her while she’s driving, and she does that twisted hand thing on the steering wheel so the minivan goes across all four lanes of Broad Street and they turn left at the next light, full throttle toward Dr. Lucas, who it wouldn’t matter if he had other appointments or was giving different kids lollipops because Jonah’s mom would carry him with his legs over his arms like he was a baby or a football, take your pick, except then he was definitely a football she loved like a baby because she used her arms to give him momentum and thrust him—gently—onto the blue plastic investigating table. “Something’s wrong with my son!” 4/32 she did this. 1/8.Then there was of course the 3/9 possibility she reacted to the lateness with which he was coming to her with all of this, asking, Jonah, why didn’t you tell me when this was just Rhode Island-sized, when the first borders were expanding and being invaded and Rhode Island was morphing into Connecticut and Massachusetts, which Jonah wouldn’t need his mom to tell him are the states that border Rhode Island. In this scenario, Jonah’s mom would be furious, livid, enraged, wrathful—thank you Mrs. Sharon, he’d been studying his thesaurus—but Jonah wouldn’t cry, because he would know she was only mad because he loved him. 1/3 chance.

The bell rang in a way that made his ears itch, and as the other kids ran out, Jonah remembered why he hated being picked up so much. First of all, everyone got out of the class so fast. The bell would ring, and Jonah would begin the labor of unzipping his Jansport, putting his worksheet in his folder—or sometimes the teacher needed it—putting the folder in the Jansport, rezipping it, then putting it on his back and leaving, unless he left a pencil or something worse on his desk, in which case he would have to start the whole process over. He didn’t know where the other kids learned to do this so fast, but they somehow knew, and that meant they could get out to the carpool lane first, which meant his mother would get stuck in the second, outer lane, the slow lane, condemning them to circle Bush Middle Grade Academy for Young Leaders for at least thirty minutes before they could escape. This is why Jonah always preferred walking home, but today he knew he had bigger concerns.

He followed his classmates outside. In front of the school, boys pushed past him to enter their sedans, sometimes light gray, sometimes dark gray. Jonah tried to adopt the urgency of the crowd, acting like he had somewhere to be quickly too, but truth was, he didn’t seem his mom’s faded wheelbarrow-red minivan anywhere. She was probably late. It was only 2:57.

2:58 through 3:07 passed and the lot started to clear out. Jonah sat on the curb. He didn’t want to start walking home yet, because he didn’t want his mom to show up and not find him, because that especially would not make the news of his cancer go over any better. He counted spots where gum had hardened to black ovals on the pavement. He tied his shoelaces together, but then immediately untied them in case there was an earthquake and he needed to run toshelter. He stuck his index finger up the back of his shirt to feel for new developments. 3:22. Mom wasn’t coming.

On the walk home, Jonah thought about what it would be like to die. He wasn’t sure if cancer hurt. He wondered if there would be some kind of signal to him that this was it, his last moment. He wondered if the signal would come from the inside—a physiological reaction, Ms. Julia would say—or from the outside—spiritual awakening, like Mr. David taught him. Jonah wasn’t sure if hospitals gave people last meals or if that was only for prisoners. He was pretty sure Mom would know him well enough to know he would want tuna, unless of course no one knew it was his last moment, in which case his last meal might end up being mashed potatoes or one of those crumbly yellow cakes that tasted like nothing but was cake so people ate it anyway.

Jonah arrived home by 4:02, once he’d finally gotten the key to open the door and then relocked the door again and taken off his backpack and his Vans. He could hear the oven humming beneath the clinking of cabinets shutting in the kitchen. His mom and Ava ate meals according to their exercise schedules, not according to human mealtime schedules. Jonah wondered how long they’d been home.

He walked into the kitchen and watched his mom and sister for a long time before alerting them to his presence. Mom was making something on the stove, probably tofu, unless it was something she liked now called seitan, which Jonah had learned a very different definition of in religion class. She was still dressed in her clothes from class, and Jonah remembered when he was very little and would sit on the kitchen floor, attempting to peel the fabric off her legs like glue. Ava was in the kitchen too, a twin of Mom in a lot of ways, except her eyes didn’t wrinkle at the corners, and her hair was still the color of bricks. Ava leaned against the counter, a folded over magazine in her hands, a pen parting her lips. They stayed like this, making only small movements to indicate they were alive, and not just figures in a painting by a pretty boring artist.

“I’m home.”

Despite the fact that Jonah thought it had been ten minutes that he had been standing there quietly, neither his mom nor his sister moved like they hadn’t already known there was a third presence in the room. He thought about Trevor and Hunter and Lazer’s moms, who probably all knew their sons’ math grades already—Jonah had gotten an 88, had messed up 12 times 9, which was a hard one, anyway—and who would already know by now if their sons had cancer.

“Jonah, I’m making vegan gumbo. Do you want some?”

Jonah shook his head, mostly so Mom would have to glance at him to know his response. She must’ve seen him just in the corner of her eye because she never fully looked up from the synthetic food she was tending with her wooden spoon. Ava picked the pen out of her mouth with her right hand and wrote something on her magazine. A crossword puzzle, Jonah decided. He didn’t move. He felt West Virginia pulsing on his back, sending cancerous blood into his ears and his neck and his wrists. He wondered how quickly he could become more poison than human.

“You didn’t come to Bush to pick me up.”

“I thought you told me you liked to walk home.” Jonah’s mom was making some kind of sauce now, and the placement of the spice cabinet allowed him to more clearly see her face. He wondered if he looked like her. Neither of them liked to make eye contact, which Jonah appreciated, because it gave him the freedom to study her face without the worry that she might be looking back.

He decided it wasn’t worth it to bring up her promise to him last night. It would be his word against hers, and Ava always sided with her anyway, and Jonah knew how majorities worked from Ms. Heather in government last year. He didn’t think about his dad a lot, but when these democracy situations came up, he did picture a large, faceless man who could maybe just once even the vote.

Jonah knew this was the time to bring up the cancer. Mom in the kitchen was the most immobile Mom; he knew she wouldn’t leave this space while seitan was on the stove and sauce was in the food processor and protein powder was on the counter, waiting to be made into an inedible dessert. But he realized, as much as he had been preparing for this moment, he hadn’t prepared what he would say. Would he lead up to it? Would he say “cancer” or a “tumor” or should he look up a word more technical? His heart did that quickening up thing he’d told Dr. Bookman about because he really really wanted to be able to stop doing it. He tried to take breaths that would inflate his whole lungs. He squeezed the tips of his thumbs between his third and fourth fingers. Jonah is an extremely neurotic little boy. The words echoed in his head even as he tried so hard to make them go away. The phrase seemed to be tied to the explosive beating of his heart, and he hated himself for the way he kept pumping it in and out.

“Jonah is an extremely neurotic little boy!”

He didn’t realize he had said it aloud until Ava and Mom both turned to him. Ava looked at him with the expression he made when he looked into Miss Taylor’s microscopes, confused at both what he was supposed to be seeing and why he should be seeing it at all.

“What the fuck, Jonah?”

“I have cancer.” Saying the words felt like emptying a heavy backpack he’d been carrying around. His lungs were able to fill with air again. In, out, he practiced, making a lower- case o shape with his mouth.

“Jonah, how do you—” His mom had stopped adding substances to her sauce, but he could tell by the way she hovered the cashew milk midair that she was waiting to continue.

“Mom! I’m serious this time.” Ava had once told him about his tendency to add extra syllables to words when he was mad, and Jonah noticed that “Mom” came out more like “Mom- uh.”

“Ok,” she said, and turned to Ava, “Keep stirring the sauce. We should be back in a half hour.”

And then Ava was laughing and Mom was turning off the stove. She was putting on her shoes which were hot pink and clean, like she had never had to walk home when it was raining and it would be just so much quicker to take the muddy grass, and Jonah was watching her the whole time.

“Well? Come on,” is what she said to him, which made his breath go a little faster because he didn’t know where they would be “coming on” to, but he put on his shoes anyway and his mom took him in the car to Dr. Lucas’s office.

In the office, Jonah was reminded that this was so clearly an office for little kids. He knew because there were toys and the movie they showed was Disney. When Mom talked to the secretary he hoped she told her Jonah’s age right away. At least Jonah was able to show how grown up he was by not crying when the doctor made him take off all his clothes and wear a paper robe, when the blood pressure band felt tight enough he could scream but he stopped himself by pressing his teeth together and thinking about the state capitals, when the doctor attacked his knees with a hammer and he knew there would be a bruise. Jonah wanted all of the people in the other rooms to be impressed by his silence.

And then, finally Dr. Lucas asked Jonah to tell him the story of West Virginia. Jonah told him everything because he knew, like his teachers, doctors loved it when you were t-h-o- thorough.

“You did a good job bringing this in to me when you did, J-man,” Even though that was one of his least favorite nicknames in the world, because he could imagine Dr. Lucas saying it to Jordan, Jackson, Jayden, and every other J-man from his school who came for a check-up, he still liked that Dr. Lucas had a nickname for him. “We’re going to keep an eye on this for the next few months, OK? You let me know if anything changes, and if it does, come back right away.”

Jonah promised him he could do this and that he would buy a new notebook to write down everything he saw. He also refused the lollipop Dr. Lucas offered him even though it was cherry, which he loved, because he wanted to seem mature and trustworthy with this responsibility.

In school the following Monday, Mrs. Alex taught Jonah’s class that the United States actually included more than 50 states, that the U.S. had sixteen territories which didn’t get stars on the flag or to vote for the President. He hadn’t heard about these places before, which scared him, because it made him think about all of the places he didn’t even know about. When he went home to do his daily evaluation, he noticed that his skin-canvas was stretched out, like maybe he had gotten taller since the last time he had looked. Even the freckle looked different to him; now what he used to think was West Virginia actually seemed more like Guam.

Sometimes, Mom and Ava would help him evaluate the nation on his back by holding up a mirror or taking pictures on their iPhones. But today, like most days, Jonah conducted his research alone. He felt like Charles Darwin, who he knew wrote down what birds did all day until he discovered evolution, except he was better than Darwin, because Jonah got to do his work naked on his bathmat. As he opened the notebook where he recorded his information for Dr. Lucas, Jonah thought about the things his future self might discover. He promised himself he would write extra detailed entries from now on, because someday, someone might want to know all the things he thought about.