(published 24th December 2018)
Penn was very special to his parents, very dear, as they used to say. By the time he entered his late childhood, he had been subject to more supervision, worry and love than most kids ever were. In the view of these other kids and some adult observers (like me), his had given him the demeanour of a little prince. During his first check-up after he turned ten, I noticed that he was perfect, and perhaps this was a problem.
“There’s nothing wrong with you at all,” I said.
“That’s good, right?” Penn asked. He was young enough not to know what I meant but old enough to know that I meant something.
“No scraped knees, no scars, no broken nose. That kind of wrong.”
I let this sink in, willing to accept that it wouldn’t and that we would merely move on. Still, I gave the boy enough time to pursue the topic if he pleased.
“Sure,” he said, “I’ve never done anything where that might happen. I haven’t been allowed by my Mom and Dad.”
“And that’s a good thing. Right?”
Penn wanted me to attach a value to his perfection, if you will. His parents – my old friends, Albertine and Rudolph – answered everything for him, disallowed his making his own interpretations and possibly making a mistake or suffering an upset. This was what he expected all adults to do. Since I’d known the boy since birth, you could have called me his slightly disreputable uncle, though his fun uncle would have been my preference. In any case, my relationship to him went beyond family doctor, and so I wanted to do something different. Yet I didn’t push my privilege and proceeded cautiously.
“I don’t know,” I said. “What do you think?”
When Penn grew silent, I saw aspects of both his parents in him: Albertine’s emotional engagement with life and Rudolph’s need for control. He seemed more plagued than intrigued by the problem I’d created, and I’d wanted to inspire not disturb him. Even though I knew this was exactly what his parents always did, I gave in.
“It’s not a bad thing,” I said. His visibly brightening at my categorising his condition, my letting him off the hook, revealed to me my lack of guts. I wanted to maintain some self-respect and at least help him a little bit. “But sometimes you learn things by being…”
“Hurt?” This scared him.
“No.” I hoped he would want not fear what I wanted for him. “Free.”
The word clearly struck a nerve, just as I had lightly struck his knee with a little hammer. After a second, Penn nodded. I left him alone in the exam room and retired to my den-like office, where I awaited his appearance, giving him time to process what I’d said.
When at last he appeared, Penn did in fact look different. Older? Or was it my self-aggrandising imagination that I could have had that kind of impact?
“So what do I do?” he asked.
I played dumb. “Just keep doing what you’re doing. You’re in good health.”
“No.” This would have been hard for an actual adult to ask, let alone a boy. “What do I do…to be free?”
“Oh.” I shrugged, partly because I didn’t know and partly because I didn’t want to be responsible in case something terrible happened.
“That’s up to you,” I said.
Penn nodded again, disappointed: adults had always been prescriptive and unequivocal about right and wrong. Yet I saw – or at least imagined – excitement start to colour his face as the first evidence of acne was doing.
“Okay,” he said, and accepted the challenge.
I was about to say, “Good,” but decided that even that word was too opinionated. I simply wrote him a prescription for pimple cream, as if it were my blessing.
Penn left my office and went outside. Through my window, I saw that he looked around, as if expecting someone. Soon, in the near-distance, a self-driving car approached. I assumed it had been pre-arranged by his parents, for Penn’s phone could only receive and not make calls.
The boy saw the vehicle and began to raise his hand as a signal. Then he suddenly darted the other way and disappeared behind a bush to the right of my window. He stayed there, stock still, panting, just beyond my eye line. We were side by side, unseen by the other, watching, as the car stopped and huffed as if impatient. At last, with what seemed reluctance, it drove away without him.
Penn stepped out from his hiding place. Through the glass, I saw him proudly brush brambles from his shoulders, as if they were epaulettes marking his promotion.
I knew he was thinking: Where to now?
Penn’s phone could not be turned off, either: it was controlled by his parents at the other end. Still, he did the best he could to disable it, placing it on the bottom of his backpack, where the sound would be muffled by his books (the volume, too, was not his to raise or lower). Then he took off on foot in the opposite direction from his home.
After a mile or two, Penn stopped, out of breath, on the scuff-resistant asphalt of our suburb’s streets. Before him was the entrance to Mossy Trails, the huge, man-made park that had replaced one of our abandoned malls.
Penn walked through the entrance, a raised wreath-like configuration made of recycled plastic and filtered human waste. He knew that cameras captured his image at each step as they did everyone’s in town, courtesy of his father, who had made and installed them. Yet he didn’t care or was willing to take the risk since I had put the bug of rebellion in his ear (along with my otoscope, of course).
Penn raced past a massive and immaculate lawn, its turf composed of ground-up coconut
fertilised by cornmeal and seaweed, the wafting aromas of fish, salad and dessert the smell of freedom. On his left was a small lake, the water of which was rippled glass, surrounded by animatronic children whose little sail boats moved by remote control. Before him were the woods, where trees were concoctions of treated silk, their imperfections and poisons removed.
This was where Penn ran.
None of it had been rational. He had acted like an animal escaping out a back door, a pet tied up for years against its will, more disobedient than Ginger, the loyal and now dead dog of his infancy whom he didn’t recall. And Penn was more animal than the creatures surrounding him, the puppet deer, chipmunks, birds, beetles and worms that had been modelled on cartoons.
Soon he sensed a human being behind him.
Penn didn’t know what made him aware of it. He’d heard and seen nothing: No expelled sigh, no leaves or twigs cracking (not that the grain-made ground would make a noise). He had simply picked up on an aura. Penn turned, slowly, afraid.
In the near-distance was a figure. It was decked out in androgynous drag: plaid shirt, cargo pants, and a cap pulled low enough to obscure the face, as if in parody of a rich landowner surveying an estate: The only thing missing was a trusty hound retrieving what its owner shot. The interloper tipped his or her head back, to get a better look. Actual sunlight fought its way through fake foliage to light the face.
It was his mother.
Shocked, Penn was about to say “Mom?” Before he could, Albertine turned and took off. At the same time, Penn’s phone got a text. He scrambled in his backpack to retrieve it, losing his focus on the parent moving away. He saw who the text was from and what it said.
Where are U? Car company said you weren’t there. Let us know. Worried. Mom.
Penn returned home with trepidation. He’d removed what traces of actual or imitation nature had attached themselves to his clothes and skin. He wouldn’t bother to lie; why should he when Albertine already knew where he’d been? Yet how could she know? The text from his mother had come too close to her appearance in the woods. And it couldn’t have been a timed message because she didn’t know he would run away after my exam – because he didn’t know! (And I’d told no one).
Penn turned the corner in the house and bumped into her.
Albertine wasn’t dressed as she’d been in the park. She wore a dress, not a plaid shirt and cargo pants. Penn had never seen her in such a get up, anyway. She was always, helplessly stylish, even just hanging around. Maybe it had been a disguise, a way not to be caught?
“There he is,” Albertine said, relieved.
Penn nodded, feeling sorry for disobeying (which was an instinct with her, like sneezing when dust went up your nose). Today the feeling didn’t last, for he’d had a taste of escape and then had it weirdly, explicably curtailed. So he felt resentful, too, and bewildered and a little bit afraid.
“Where did you go?” Albertine asked.
Penn knew she was no actress: She truly didn’t know the answer. None of it made sense.
“I just took a walk,” he said, again responding by rote and immediately taking pity on her, as he always did when his mother showed concern. Yet his puzzlement, fear, and – even if it barely existed, I’ll take credit for it – anger persisted.
“A walk?” Albertine wasn’t angry. She never was: As always, she was hurt and incredulous that she’d been hurt by him. “Why didn’t you tell me? You know we would have been all right with that – if we’d known. But not to know… those minutes of anxiety have shorted my life, Penn. Doctors say they do.”
Penn just nodded once more. He thought what she said exasperating. His own life had been filled with the anxiety Albertine claimed he had initiated in her – anxiety she and Rudolph had been instilling in him for all of the ten years he’d been around. And now Albertine had appeared at the exact same time she texted him, at the very second he had mildly and briefly evaded her and his father’s attentions, something which was impossible.
Or had neither of his parents had anything to do with it? Had ten years of living with them simply conditioned him to create such a scenario in his head the second he stepped out of line? Had he merely imagined his mother, augmented her words of worry pulsing in his pocket, in order to punish and stop himself?
Penn was about to interrogate his mother, to ask where she had been that afternoon. But he both feared coming off as crazy and conceding that she and his father had made him crazy – he had his pride (or he’d developed some, after his appointment with me). Besides, at that moment, Rudolph walked through the front door. Had his father been secretly watching from somewhere and planned this opportune entrance? Now Penn distrusted everything.
“What’s going on?” Rudolph asked, as if picking up on the tension in the air with sensors he had also installed.
“Nothing,” Penn said, chickening out and chastising himself for doing it. “Nothing at all.”
In the morning, Penn left for school early, grabbing the recycled container of organically grown vegan lunch from Albertine’s hand without a kiss or a thank you. He saw a driverless car waiting outside, paid for by the most privileged parents in the neighbourhood to transport their kids. He approached it, oblivious to which of his own parents watched from the window.
“I’m walking today,” he said, through the open car door to the kids on the shared seat, who gazed at him, expectantly. Penn reached in and pressed the “Close Door” button, overriding the automatic response to his buttocks hitting leather. He walked, then jogged, then ran away again.
Penn had no destination in mind. As he had the day before, he was just compelled to disobey, addicted to it now; it was his ten-year-old’s drug of choice. He knew there was nowhere to go, not in our town of Mossy Bend – flying was the physical action he wished hopelessly to achieve, for he felt trapped upon the Earth.
Soon Penn found himself on the edge of town. Here he passed perplexed construction workers and entered a huge work site of new developments.
“Hey, kid!” he heard behind him. Penn realised it was a robot worker and didn’t respond. He walked on rock and gravel into a dangerous place on the verge of existing, an idea which he could not yet connect to himself. Feeling another presence at his back, he turned.
It was a woman again.
This time, she wore a fashionable outfit, a diaphanous dress with stick figure pelicans on it. Her head was dipped and her face obscured. Suddenly, another flash of light seemed to cue her to lift it.
Penn saw that it was Albertine.
Penn had only been gone a few minutes, and no car was anywhere to be found.
Incensed – but more shaken – by her presence, he strode forward, his kicking sneakers sending plumes of soil into the air.
“Hey, how did you…”
His mother tried to flee, but Penn’s surprisingly strong grip prevented her. He realised that the light illuminating Albertine was not natural but man-made, not shining but projected.
The person he believed to be his mother was a man with a hologram of his mother flickering on him, a living screen for Albertine.
His name was Harry Taub. It wasn’t hard for Penn to find out, because Harry immediately told him. He shrugged and sagged where he stood, seemed to shrink inside his neutrally coloured suit (the best, he said later, on which to project an image). As Penn’s hold loosened, the visual of his mother slid off Harry, shifting to the side like an old unspooling film, then shivering in the sooty air like a ghost before disappearing. The projector – hidden in one of the buildings being constructed or in a drone overheard – had been shut down, leaving Harry nude, as it were.
After saying, “Harry Taub,” he extended a hand covered in blue dots, which also aided him hosting the hologram. Penn didn’t know what else to do but shake it. Harry’s grip was weak, unlike his grasp on reality.
“I’m just an actor,” he said. “It’s just a gig. Sorry, kid.”
Despite his casual attitude, Penn felt that Harry was upset about being discovered: After he stopped shaking Penn’s hand, both his hands still shook.
“I’d offer to buy you breakfast,” Harry said, “but a grown man eating with a little boy sets off the old alarm bells. You know?”
Penn didn’t know, being ten and still an innocent (Albertine and Rudolph had made sure of it). Harry must have seen this as an advantage, for his face turned quizzical.
“Hey…” he said, “how come you’re not in school?”
Was the question a way for Harry to deflect attention from himself? Penn was innocent but not stupid.
“I could have breakfast,” the boy said, starting a negotiation, trading one secret for another. “How about here, outside?”
Harry nodded, impressed by Penn. He pushed his lower lip into his upper, which made him look older, even ancient. Yet Penn thought it gave him gravitas, too.
They shared a genetically altered scone on a Mossy Bend sidewalk, near enough to the cordoned-off site that Penn felt his parents wouldn’t drive by. Harry had taken the treat from his pocket, an act to the boy both magical and pathetic. Then Harry “chased” his own bites of the bread with sips from a flask he returned to his other pocket. Penn recognised the smell on Harry’s breath from when his parents would kiss him goodnight after a party.
“Look,” Harry said. “Work is scarce for a guy like me. So I’m doing holograms.”
“Did my parents hire you?” an emboldened Penn asked, licking his fingers, for the scone was so good.
Harry shrugged. “Probably. The offer came through my agency. But they gave me the backstory. ‘Play parent and keep your eye on the kid.’ You won’t be my first kid and you won’t be my last. But you’re the only kid who’s ever been clever enough to ask.” He toasted Penn with the flask before tippling again.
Penn was both impressed and disturbed by Harry’s drink breaks, by his physical condition in general. His nose was a map of busted blood vessels which led to badly chapped lips above white rice-like stubble. It was clear that he had not been altered in vitro to eliminate a hereditary propensity for alcoholism. (Penn may not have been able to put this into words, but I just did.) This meant that Harry was at an income level lower than Penn’s family, which interested and upset the boy. Penn’s anger at his family’s persistent spying was morphing into another feeling, one both easier to handle and expanding his emotional palette. He felt empathy for this man paid to snoop.
“In my world,” Harry said, with a blearier shrug, “I take what comes along.”
The older man’s lack of security was in such contrast to his parents’ obsession with the subject that Penn stared at Harry and hung on his every word, no matter how slurred they became.
“Of course, younger actors usually play the older parts,” Harry said, expansively gesturing with the uneaten end of his scone. “They need more makeup but they have more energy and are less of an insurance risk.”
Harry’s next shrug dismissed the entire unfair world. When Harry found his flask empty, a little light went out of his eyes – natural light, not the man-made kind. And Penn saw that no matter how he had gotten there or what had made him this way, the old actor, unlike himself (as I had pointed out), was free.
“Nothing’s left,” Harry said, sadly, holding the flask upside down. “See?”
Penn nodded. He took out his small boy’s wallet, the first he’d ever had. “Get some more.”
He pulled out his all-purpose payment card, which was linked to his parents’ bank accounts.
“Nah.” With an effort, Harry raised his white, curling, untamed eyebrows. “I won’t get paid until the job is done. So I couldn’t pay you back.”
“It’s all right.” Penn had learned the power of bargaining and introduced a new trade.
“You can teach me.”
“Teach you what?”
“What you know.”
Harry stared at Penn with a bloodshot look that said, you care enough to ask me that? You respect me enough? And again the boy’s understanding of life increased.
They stayed near the curb at the entrance to the construction site, for Harry was being monitored and his agency would know if he left. He checked the ground to make sure it was safe to stand, stoop, and jump upon. As the noise of bulldozers, dump trucks and drones continued in the near-distance, Harry showed Penn the basics of dramatic movement. The boy followed as best he could, making sure the old drunk didn’t fall, hit his head, and kill himself.
At the end of the morning, Penn had energy to burn, but Harry was exhausted. Sitting back on the curb, he snoozed. Then a truck backed up with a particularly loud beep, and he snorted awake. Harry was confused as to where he was. Seeing Penn, he remembered.
“Okay,” Penn said, holding up the payment card. “A deal’s a deal.”
“Keep it, kid,” Harry lightly pushed aside the small hand. “Wait until we finish our lessons. We’re just getting started.”
Harry wouldn’t hear any more about it. Unsteadily, he stood and checked his watch. “I got another gig. You’re not the only disobedient boy in Mossy Bend, you know.”
By now, Penn was astute enough to know that Harry had insulted him so he wouldn’t grow too attached. After all, Harry might be asked to “play” his parent again.
“And you’re not the only ham,” Penn said.
Harry did a double-take – a real one – reacting to the boy’s quick-wittedness. An expression of parental pride crossed his face, then was shrugged away. Harry stumbled off down the road, waving only once, without turning around.
“Go to school!” he called. Then the words- like Harry himself – disappeared into the dust.
When Penn got home, he didn’t mention seeing his “mother” that morning, and Albertine didn’t confront him about cutting school. Each simply acted as if neither thing had happened. This created a distance between them, the kind which had been more common in families of earlier generations, when parents and children had been less close. As opposed to feeling guilty or sorry, Penn simply could not wait until the next time he could skip school and see Harry Taub.
The next time he did, though, he was disappointed. Penn had slipped into an entertainment arcade and watched many five-minute super-hero mini-epics (mepics, as the kids called them), enhanced by a virtual reality helmet. During the fourth hour, he’d become aware that someone had sat down several hundred rows behind him in the huge and – as usual – empty theatre. He rose from his motorised spinning lounger/sofa to approach the person, hoping against hope that it was Harry.
After he proceeded up the endless carpet, he recognised the other as a phoney version of his mother. But when he got close, he saw that this time Albertine’s hologram holder was a woman. Chagrined, Penn started to make the long march back to his seat.
“Wait,” the woman said.
Penn turned back. Projected from somewhere in the theatre, the image of Albertine stayed exactly upon the woman’s form, so it felt as if his mother addressed him. Yet the voice was older and tougher.
“You’re Penn,” she said.
“Harry couldn’t come. I’m filling in.”
“Is he all right?”
“Couldn’t be better. He got a real gig today. He’s playing an elderly villain in a special six-minute super hero picture. And he beat out younger people playing older to get it.”
“He said to say you inspired him to go for it. He said, ‘Tell that kid I’ve even quit drinking. While I’m working, anyway.’ By the way, I’m Marjorie, his ex-wife. I hate his guts. But I’ll still do him a solid.”
The information was coming fast and furious – and was too adult for Penn to understand. He only got that something good had come from Harry “teaching him the ropes,” and that Harry and his ex-wife were close enough to look out for each other. These were more mind-broadening ideas: there had been so many in the last week.
“Where is he?” Penn blurted out. “Can I see him? Where does Harry live?”
The image of his mother – the facial features quivering and breaking up – paused. Did Marjorie not want to divulge private information? Or, being an actress, was she hurt that Penn seemed not to care about her? (My guess.) Then she told him, and Penn closed his eyes to memorise the address. When he opened them, the lights had fallen, everything was dark, and even the facsimile of his mother was gone.
The next day Penn cut school again and went to Harry’s home. He covered his face with a hoodie, hoping that his image on his father’s public cameras would be indistinct. He didn’t notice figures following him, playing his parents or not. By lunch, he had reached the tiny apartment near the old abandoned light rail tracks.
Harry’s home was just one room, across the lobby of an apartment house, near where mops and buckets were kept; even Penn knew it had been a supply closet. The doorman didn’t bother stopping Penn when he said whom he wished to visit, didn’t care who came to see Harry.
After knocking, through his door, Penn heard the dim sound of someone singing an obscene song.
The voice shifted into an angry, phlegmy interrogative. “What?”
After Penn identified himself, nothing happened. So he pressed unassertively on the door, which no one had fully closed. He saw Harry sprawled in a chair, wearing a sleeveless T-shirt, polka dot shorts, and support socks with garters. He was guzzling from a flask, staring and singing out the apartment’s one small dirty window into an alley. His turn to perceive his guest was as slow and mechanical as that of a ventriloquist’s dummy.
“Look who’s here,” he said.
“Hi.” Even though he was ten, Penn knew the signs of adult dishevelment and, as an adult might, discreetly ignored them. “How did the job go?”
“How did the job go?” Harry mocked him, squeezing his features together in a parody of kissing. “How did the job go? Oh, it went, boy-o. It went!”
Harry tipped the flask once more, but the container slipped from his sweaty fingers to the floor. Harry dropped and crawled after it, among discarded devices, food containers, and clothes.
Finally, his reaching hand knocked it beneath his fold-out bed.
Harry cursed. On all fours, with makeup he hadn’t removed seeping down his face, he spoke to Penn in a voice at once a whisper and a scream.
“They found out how old I was!” Harry said. “They said it was safer and cheaper to hire someone young to be old. I said I was the real thing, actually old. They said I was too big an insurance risk, too expensive. So they canned me.” He licked reflexively at the black paint dripping into his mouth. “This is your fault, you little rat. If you hadn’t had faith in me, this never would have happened!”
Harry began scuttling towards Penn on his elbows and knees like a soldier evading bombs. Penn backed up, alarmed by the older man’s advance and the crazed and furious look on his face. Right when he was about to reach Penn, his blemished fingers curling around his shoe, Harry passed out, his face upon the floor, his sparse and fly away hair blowing in a breeze he’d made himself.
Penn learned the name of Harry’s talent agency and went there in person. By now he knew that a crying child could get his way in the world. He forced himself to weep, “acting” in a way that would have made Harry proud. He got what he wanted, which was Harry’s ex-wife Marjorie’s contact information.
Marjorie was half-asleep when she answered the phone and half in the bag (I think). Penn turned on the tears again, begging her to help Harry, explaining that he had done what he could but Harry blamed Penn and wouldn’t accept his aid. By the end of his entreaty, Penn was aware that his sobs were for real.
Penn returned to school. He told his parents nothing, not even that he knew how they had tailed and tried to control him and that he didn’t love them anymore. He felt sure they knew some of this, but how far could they actually get inside his head? He vowed: Not far and not any longer. From now on, he could at least hide from them in there.
At the end of the week, Penn rode home in the communal car. He casually looked over the shoulder of a classmate, watching the latest mepic on her phone. He saw a super-hero trying to save a beloved, dying old president, before killing in graphic detail the terrorists who had poisoned him after breaking into the oval office.
“May I?” he asked the girl. Engrossed, she refused to let him borrow her device until the story was done. Then Penn watched it from the start. When it was over, he pressed the emergency brake button and got out blocks before his home.
This time, Penn endured an interrogation from Harry’s doorman. When insisting he was Harry’s “friend” wasn’t enough, he broke away and flew to the door.
Today it was shut. His incessant knocking and cries of “Harry!” eventually brought footsteps and the unsnapping of locks.
Marjorie stood in the threshold.
“Oh, good!” she said, “I thought it was the landlord again.”
Penn peered past her. He saw a nearly empty room with packed boxes taking up most of the floor. The fold-out bed and the rest of the furniture were gone.
“First of all, kid,” Marjorie said, pressing a balled-up tissue against her red and runny nose. “Thanks. Harry and I would never have had these wonderful days together without you. So kudos, you know?”
Penn didn’t recognise the ancient word for praise but, perceiving it was positive, he shrugged that it had been nothing.
“I saw Harry’s new mepic,” Penn said. “Did he go somewhere to work on another one? Is that where he is?”
Penn had heard that success could tear adults apart, creating distance due to new obligations or inflated egos. He wondered if this was what had happened and why Marjorie was so upset.
“No,” Marjorie waved him away. “I encouraged the old fool to audition again, even when he didn’t want to. He got cast as the dying president. When the producers found out how old he was, they wanted to fire him, of course. It turned out Harry was actually dying. That’s why he was so good and got the part. By the time they tried to can him, he was dead. For real. It was his last hit.”
Marjorie choked out a sob like a cough, pressing the fraying tissue harder against her nose. Penn had to strain to hear what she said next.
“They want us out of here today. Harry was behind on his rent, not surprisingly. I say ‘us’ because we recently re-married – after many drinks, I admit. But it still counts. Right? Because of you!”
Marjorie swivelled back around. To Penn’s shock, she landed in his arms, and her embrace was filled with grief, gratitude, and fear. He had never known one person could feel so many things at once. He held her as if to absorb yet another new idea. It was Marjorie who disengaged first.
“Anyway, he had a new hologram parent gig today. I better fill in. We – I mean, me, I mean, I – need the bread. I sure hope they can use an actress who cries.”
Though she claimed to be in a hurry, Marjorie didn’t move, seemed in fact paralysed by being so bereft. Penn learned one more thing, this time about himself. He touched the older woman’s arm, to tell her.
Penn figured the assignment wouldn’t be to follow him – that would be too perfect; life didn’t work that way. Besides, he believed that his parents had stopped: He had seen no one behind him for ages. So it would be someone else he would be pursuing.
Penn tried to remember what acting tips Marjorie had given him before he left the apartment. And he pledged to use everything Harry had taught him, too. He watched a disobedient girl, who was around Penn’s own age. Penn stayed still and let the hologram find and flicker on him. The light was like all the new information that had illuminated him; all that knowledge now fluttered onto and fit his frame.
The girl stood at a small distance from him in Mossy Trails. When she turned and saw Penn, she saw her mother. And at that moment, Penn felt he was Harry and would be Harry forever, for he had loved Harry and when you loved someone, you were never free, not really, and that was all right. And this was the most important and the last thing Penn learned before he turned eleven.
Laurence Klavan has had short work published in more than forty literary magazines, and a collection, “‘The Family Unit’ and Other Fantasies,” was published by Chizine. His novels, “The Cutting Room” and “The Shooting Script”, were published by Ballantine. He won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. His graphic novels, “City of Spies” and “Brain Camp”, co-written with Susan Kim, were published by First Second and their YA fiction series, “Wasteland” was published by Harper Collins. He received Drama Desk nominations for the book and lyrics of “Bed and Sofa”, produced by the Vineyard Theater in New York and the Finborough Theatre in London.