Twenty-five years ago, they were called nerds.
Today, they’re called billionaires.
Even among outcasts, Genoa Greeves suffered more than most. Saddled with a weird name—her parents’ love for Italy produced two other children, Pisa and Roma—and a gawky frame, Genoa spent her adolescence in retreat. She talked if spoken to, but that was the extent of her social interaction. Her teenage years were spent in a self-imposed exile. Even the oddest of girls would have nothing to do with her, and the boys acted as if she’d been stricken by the plague. She remained an island to herself: utterly alone.
Her parents had been concerned about her isolation. They had taken her through an endless parade of shrinks who offered multiple diagnoses: depression, anxiety disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, autism, schizoid personality disorder, all of the above in comorbidity. Medication was prescribed: psychotherapy was five days a week. The shrinks said the right things, but they couldn’t change the school situation. No amount of ego bolstering or self-esteem-enhancing exercises could possibly counteract the cruelty of being so profoundly different. When she was sixteen, she fell into a deep depression. Medication began to fail. It was Genoa’s firm opinion that she would have been institutionalized had it not been for two entirely unrelated incidents.
As a woman, Genoa had definitely been born without feminine wiles, or any attributes that made girls desirable sexual beings. But if she wasn’t born with the right female qualities, at least Genoa did have the extremely good fortune to be born at the right time. That is, the computer age.
High tech and the personal computer proved to be Genoa’s manna from heaven: chips and motherboards were her only friends. When she spoke to a computer—mainframes at first and then the omnipresent desktops that followed—she found at last that she and an inanimate object were communicating in a language that only the blessed few could readily understand. Technology beckoned, and she answered the summons like a siren’s call. Her mind, the primary organ of her initial betrayal, became her most welcome asset.
As for her body, well, in Silicon Valley, who cared about that? The world that Genoa eventually inhabited was one of ingenuity and ideas, of bytes and megabytes and brilliance. Bodies were merely skeletons to support that great thinking machine above the neck.
But even growing up at the cutting edge of the computer age wasn’t a guaranteed passport to success. Achievement was surely destined to elude Genoa had it not been for one individual—other than her parents—who believed in her.
Dr. Ben—Bennett Alston Little—was the coolest teacher in high school. His specialty was history with a strong emphasis on political science, but he had been so much more than just an educator, a guidance counselor and the boys’ vice principal. Handsome, tall, and athletic, he had made the girls swoon and had garnered the boys’ respect by being tough but fair. He knew everything about everything and had been universally loved by the twenty-five hundred high school students he had served. All that was good and fine, but virtually meaningless to Genoa until that fateful day when she passed him in the hallway.
He had smiled at her and said, "Hi, Genoa, how’s it going?"
She had been so stunned she hadn’t answered, running away, her face burning as she thought, Why would Dr. Ben know my name?
The second time she passed him, she still didn’t answer back when he asked "how’s it going?" but at least she didn’t exactly run away. It was more like a fast step that converted into a trot once he was safely down the hall.
The third time, she looked down and mumbled something.
By the sixth time, she managed to mumble a "hi" back, although she still couldn’t make eye contact without her cheeks turning bright red.
Their first, last, and only actual face-to-face conversation happened when she was a junior. Genoa had been called into his office. She had been so nervous that she felt her bladder leaking into her cotton underwear. She wore thick baggy jeans and a sweatshirt, and her frizzy hair had been pulled back into a thick, unwieldy ponytail.
"Sit down, Genoa," he told her. "How are you doing today?"
She couldn’t answer. He looked serious, and she was too anxiety ridden to ask what she did wrong.
"I just wanted to tell you that we got your scores back from the PSAT."
She managed a nod, and he said, "I’m sure by now that you know that you’re a phenomenal student. I’m thrilled to report that you got the highest score in the school. You got the highest score, period. A perfect 1600."
She was still too frightened to talk. Her heart was pumping out of her chest, and her face felt as if it had been burned by a thousand heat lamps. Sweat was pouring off her forehead, dripping down her nose. She quickly wiped away the drops and hoped he didn’t notice. But of course, he probably did. "Do you know how unusual that is?" Little went on.
Genoa knew it was unusual. She was painfully aware of how unusual she was. "I just called you in today because I wanted to say congratulations in person. I expect big things from you, young lady."
Genoa had a vague recollection of muttering a thank-you.
Dr. Ben had smiled at her. It had been a big smile with big white teeth. He raked back his sandy blond hair and tried to make eye contact with her, his eyes so perfectly blue that she couldn’t look at them without being breathless. He said, "People are all different, Genoa. Some are short, some are tall, some are musical, some are artistic, and the rarefied few like you are endowed with incredible brainpower.
Excerpted from THE MERCEDES COFFIN: A Decker and Lazarus Novel © Copyright 2011 by Faye Kellerman. Reprinted with permission by William Morrow. All rights reserved.