Editor’s Note: Tal Tsfany’s 2017 young adult novel Sophie is the third installment of our Writers Series. Sophie is the story of Syrian refugee Sophie Anwar’s experiences living with her mother in an American town. Now that she has the freedoms that America protects, Sophie reads, works a part-time job, studies, and plans for her future. When she meets Leo Weckl, her work ethic and self-esteem jumpstart him out of his bored adolescent aimlessness. Not everyone in town is happy with Sophie’s self-determination, however, and when local government officials get involved, Sophie’s life and liberty are threatened.
In the excerpt below, Leo accompanies Sophie to the local library, where they get to know each other better. Although young, Sophie and Leo connect on a deep level. They trust each other enough to begin to talk matter-of-factly and affectionately about their best selves and their loftiest ambitions. Sophie reveals her intellectual goals, and Leo reveals a secret talent.
Sophie asked a lot of questions and wanted to know everything about me. It felt good to have someone so interested in me, my thoughts, and my feelings. Sophie and I got a little closer every day.
From time to time, my bike buddies rode past us, making not-so-funny comments about my being with Sophie all the time, but I didn’t care. Being with Sophie was much more interesting than riding around with them, looking for trouble.
“Picking up another physics book?” I asked her one afternoon as we walked into our town’s public library.
“No. I’m reading about philosophy now,” she replied, putting the book she’d finished back in the return box.
“Isn’t philosophy about old Greek guys in white robes? Sounds boring to me.” I smirked.
Mrs. Milgram, the librarian, waved to Sophie with a smile. Sophie was probably her most loyal customer.
“You’re wrong about philosophy, Leo. It’s not boring at all.” Sophie was looking around. “I need to find that book. It’s funny, but it is about an old Greek guy--his name was Aristotle. He’s the father of logic and science.” She turned to walk toward the philosophy section in the back of the library.
I went to the comic book section. It had been a while since I’d looked through the magazines there.
And there it was: a new comic book by David Brankow, my favorite artist. I grabbed it, sat down on the floor, and started reading.
I thought Orthea was the most beautiful comic book character ever made. She had green, cat-like eyes and wore a black outfit that covered her whole body and face. This was the second volume about Orthea’s struggle to free her kingdom, and I dove into the story, turning page after page until Sophie’s voice snapped me back to reality.
“She is so beautiful.” I looked up to see Sophie standing over me and quickly closed the book.
“What happened? Why did you stop reading?” Sophie asked curiously.
“Nothing. You startled me--that’s all.”
Sophie’s smile widened as she reached for the book. “Can I see it?”
“Nope.” I moved it away from her, hiding it behind my back.
“Why? It looks beautiful. What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know. It’s just that . . . that I always read it by myself.” I didn’t have any reasonable explanation.
Sophie squatted with her back against the wall next to me. “I like you, Leo.” She smiled. “Even though you’re a little too shy about how much you love this kind of art.”
Sophie was close to me, and I looked at her lips as she smiled softly. I turned back to the book.
“I like you too, Soph,” I said quietly, not looking at her, “even though you’re asking too many questions.”
She giggled, and it made me feel better. I moved closer to her and reopened the comic book. We were sitting close, our shoulders touching, as I explained the whole Legacy of Celestia story to her. By the time we got to Orthea, I was really excited.
“Orthea is the princess of the Celestia Kingdom. She’s a princess by day and a spy by night. She tries to save the empire by gathering intelligence and feeding it to the Celestia army general--anonymously, of course.” I made sure not to miss a single detail.
I explained to Sophie why I thought Orthea was a fantastic character and why her black-leather costume was a work of art.
“Look how he drew the leather around her body. See this line that goes all the way from her shoulders through the waistline, down to her feet? See how it connects to those elastic, black-leather shoes so seamlessly?”
I turned to see Sophie beaming.
“What?” I stopped.
“Nothing. Please continue; this is fascinating.” Sophie seemed pleased about something.
“What is it?” I insisted. Sophie started laughing, holding her hand to her mouth and trying her best not to make too much noise.
“Wait . . . what?” I started giggling myself at Sophie’s attempts to keep it down. Then, because Sophie was covering her mouth, she let out a snort that sent both of us to the floor, rolling with laughter.
“Shush!” Mrs. Milgram called from her desk.
It took us a minute to calm down. We sat next to each other with our backs leaning against the wall.
“Why did you laugh? I still don’t get it,” I said as I picked up the comic book from the floor.
“It’s just great to see how much you enjoy this.” She smiled and rested her chin on the tip of my shoulder. I could feel her breath on my neck, and my heart started racing.
“It’s just a comic book.” I thought of something quick to say.
“Yes, just a comic book.” She lifted her head.
“Oh, shut up,” I said, shoving her shoulder gently with mine. I was disappointed I couldn’t find something smarter to say while Sophie was resting her chin on my shoulder. I stood up, returned the comic book to its shelf, and we exited the library.
On the way back home, Sophie told me about the philosophy book she’d started reading. She was carrying it under her arm. “It’s fascinating. It talks about what makes us human. Do you know what makes us human, Leo?” She turned to me, looking like she knew the answer to an important question.
“We can think, and we can talk,” I answered.
“Precisely,” Sophie said, pointing her finger at me.
“You’re reading too much. Where are you getting those words from?” I smirked.
“Listen, did you ever think what words are?” Sophie often asked these peculiar questions about seemingly obvious things.
“What do you mean? We use them to talk to each other.” I turned to look at her, smirking.
“Yes, but there is something else about them. Words allow us to think, and they are so powerful because each one is a concept. You can say ‘bicycle,’ and I immediately know what you mean. And the word ‘bicycle’ means any type of bicycle ever made, in any color or any size. Words shrink the whole universe right into our heads. It blows my mind,” she said, waving her hand in the air.
I’d never met anyone who could get so excited about those kinds of things.
“As I said, you got the too-many-books syndrome.” I shook my head.
“Well, you love stories. I happen to love ideas. That’s it. And speaking of stories--Orthea symbolizes something for you, doesn’t she?” Sophie was looking downward. It looked like she was thinking about something but didn’t want to say it.
She was right. Orthea did mean something special to me.
“She does.” I nodded. “She is such a perfect character. I even dreamed about her once.”
Sophie didn’t say anything. We just walked for a minute, silently, as we got closer to our neighborhood.
“I think you’ll be an animator or some kind of an artist when you grow up.” Sophie raised her head and looked at me.
It was the first time the option of art as a profession had crossed my mind. It was so profound that I felt the idea seeping deep into my mind, making me feel like life was suddenly full of possibilities.
“So you’ve learned all that from this philosophy book?” I asked as we descended toward the road that lead to our neighborhood.
“Yes, and much more. You know how when you buy something new, it comes with instructions?”
I nodded. “Like a user manual.”
“Right. Well, I think of philosophy as a manual for life,” she said, tapping the book she was holding. “I think everyone should read philosophy.”
I turned around and started walking backward down the hill, facing Sophie. “How about you read it and give me the highlights?”
“I’ll try.” Sophie chuckled.
We turned left and entered our neighborhood. Sophie’s brown house still looked like no one was living in it. Some of the shutters were missing and some were broken. It seemed old, and and I felt sorry for Sophie.
We stopped by its gate.
“I’m sorry I can’t I invite you in. My mother isn’t feeling well, and she is too weak to have any visitors,” Sophie said.
“It’s fine, Soph. Don’t worry about it.” I shrugged.
“I’ll see you tomorrow.” She smiled and turned to walk up the stairs to the brown house’s wooden front deck.
Just as I was about to walk away, I heard a door opening and a loud cough. I turned and saw a woman wearing a long black gown and a scarf. She was standing and then bent over, coughing loudly.
She straightened, looking at Sophie and then at me. Her face was white, and the black scarf covered part of her mouth. It seemed like all I could see was a pair of big green, cat-like eyes that stared straight at me for a long moment without blinking. For a brief second, I was lost in the depth of those eyes, but then I took a step back, swiftly got on my bike, and pedaled away.
Holy moly! Sophie’s mom is a living version of Orthea, I thought, pedaling fast. I couldn’t decide if I felt guilty for turning away from Sophie and her mother so abruptly or confused over why the heck I’d done that.