Excerpt from Before I Die by Jenny Downham, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Before I Die

by Jenny Downham

Before I Die
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2007, 336 pages
    May 2009, 336 pages

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‘Are you in pain?’


She gives me a suspicious look, then stands up and takes off her coat. She’s wearing a very short red dress. It matches the handbag she’s dumped on my floor.

‘Are you going out?’ I ask her. ‘Have you got a date?’

She shrugs, goes over to the window and looks down at the garden. She circles a finger on the glass, then she says, ‘Maybe you should try and believe in God.’

‘Should I?’

‘Yeah, maybe we all should. The whole human race.’

‘I don’t think so. I think he might be dead.’

She turns round to look at me. Her face is pale, like winter. Behind her shoulder, an aeroplane winks its way across the sky.

She says, ‘What’s that you’ve written on the wall?’

I don’t know why I let her read it. I guess I want something to happen. It’s in black ink. With Zoey looking, all the words writhe like spiders. She reads it over and over. I hate it how sorry she can be for me.

She speaks very softly. ‘It’s not exactly Disneyland, is it?’

‘Did I say it was?’

‘I thought that was the idea.’

‘Not mine.’

‘I think your dad’s expecting you to ask for a pony, not a boyfriend.’

It’s amazing, the sound of us laughing. Even though it hurts, I love it. Laughing with Zoey is absolutely one of my favourite things, because I know we’ve both got the same stupid pictures in our heads. She only has to say, ‘Maybe a stud farm might be the answer,’ and we’re both in hysterics.

Zoey says, ‘Are you crying?’

I’m not sure. I think I am. I sound like those women on the telly when their entire family gets wiped out. I sound like an animal gnawing its own foot off. Everything just floods in all at once – like how my fingers are just bones and my skin is practically see-through. Inside my left lung I can feel cells multiplying, stacking up, like ash slowly filling a vase. Soon I won’t be able to breathe.

‘It’s OK if you’re afraid,’ Zoey says.

‘It’s not.’

‘Of course it is. Whatever you feel is fine.’

‘Imagine it, Zoey – being terrified all the time.’

‘I can.’

But she can’t. How can she possibly, when she has her whole life left? I hide under my hat again, just for a bit, because I’m going to miss breathing. And talking. And windows. I’m going to miss cake. And fish. I like fish. I like their little mouths going, open, shut, open.

And where I’m going, you can’t take anything with you.

Zoey watches me wipe my eyes with the corner of the duvet.

‘Do it with me,’ I say.

She looks startled. ‘Do what?’

‘It’s on bits of paper everywhere. I’ll write it out properly and you can make me do it.’

‘Make you do what? The thing you wrote on the wall?’

‘Other stuff too, but the boy thing first. You’ve had sex loads of times, Zoey, and I’ve never even been kissed.’

I watch my words fall into her. They land somewhere very deep.

‘Not loads of times,’ she says eventually.

‘Please, Zoey. Even if I beg you not to, even if I’m horrible to you, you must make me do it. I’ve got a whole long list of things I want to do.’

When she says, ‘OK,’ she makes it sound easy, as if I only asked her to visit me more often.

‘You mean it?’

‘I said so, didn’t I?’

I wonder if she knows what she’s letting herself in for.

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Excerpted from Before I Die by Jenny Downham Copyright © 2007 by Jenny Downham. Excerpted by permission of David Fickling Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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