Letters to Elliot Hawthorne Ep. 5

[5]

Gemma Arnold, the original Gemma Arnold of the Worthing, who married Thomas Lumley of Lumley Farms, had two sisters and they were like this: Rosy and Elaine. Elaine Arnold was the oldest Arnold. She went about her life as if she was the best because she was the oldest, that she deserved the best because she was the oldest and this didn’t surface until it was time for her to select a spouse. And it was selecting to Elaine Arnold, who was pretty and delicate and high-strung, because she believed her ability to select something very superior. When this day came, a certain young man travelling through Bower stayed at the Worthing and doted on the Arnold’s oldest daughter. This wasn’t the factor which caused Elaine to make up her mind and give herself a ring on his behalf, no, it was the information from the front desk that his name was Joseph Finkle and that name was the only name she needed to hear.

The Finkles were wealthy landowners and very old. Their oldest son, Joe, was in the position to inherit. He fell for Elaine’s manners and looks and they dated and were wed and just in time too. Joe’s mother had died and left her house in Devonsfield to the newlywed couple. But it wasn’t the house Elaine was after; it was the contents. For inside she found numerous treasures including a Herrington Man portrait of Dowager Countess Amelia Throthing, a signed Thomas Hart Benson lithograph, and a hundred-year-old Cartier brooch made of rubies and diamonds. She needn’t keep these finds, plus others of more or less value, but auction them off at a high price, so high in fact to make the new Finkles the richest couple in the county.

Elaine began to have children and her second oldest daughter, Lillie, was something very different. She wasn’t impressed by her mother’s expensive taste or lust for style, she wanted to get out; to be adventurous, but when men were shipped off to exotic countries during the war, her heart wasn’t it in anymore. She tamed her wildness to become a nurse and serve her country. After the war, at the nice age of twenty-three, she came home to celebrate with her friends at the New Town Public House in St. David’s. She chatted and laughed and sang and danced and when the night had almost burned out, she met the love of her life. Lillie Finkle sat down on the same stool Ethan Doyle had intended to claim and she nearly landed in his lap. They both laughed, excusing themselves, never minding the fluttering of nerves and heartbeats.

Ethan Doyle was a pilot. He flew for the army and then came home. His rank gave him a steady job at the School of Aviation teaching other young flyers how to pursue the sky. That winter night in St. David’s lakefront restaurant, a young woman fell into his life just as she had fallen into his lap. He never let her out of his sight and before the night was over, he had kissed her and vowed to be her man for all of her days. They travelled, getting the longing for voyaging out of their minds before having a son, and his name was Tom.

Tom Doyle was a red-headed boy and no one knew why. It must have been the Scotch in his family’s heritage, Mr. Doyle always said. He was hyper and the doctor told Lillie there was nothing to be done about it. She didn’t mind because she and her husband were happy sorts of people, sometimes pokey and sometimes quibblers, but her son was a happy toddler with very little to vex or annoy him. They raised him in a city away from the countryside of St. David’s and the town of Bower while Lillie worked as a nurse and Ethan rose in the position at the School of Aviation and Flight Training. Tom didn’t seem to mind being a city child but it was because he had never known the freedom of living in wide open space.

His parents moved many times from house to house, causing him to attend five separate schools before they thankfully moved back to Bower. Mr. Doyle bought a large piece of property with good incentive from his father-in-law, a Finkle, and started his own school of aviation; repairing old War Bird planes to use instead of text books.

Tom went to St. David’s Public instead of Bower Public; their green-sided farm house was just ten feet past the school board’s dividing line where one half of the county went to Bower and the other half to St. David’s. He developed a stutter, nothing too severe, but Lillie, being the perfectionist that she was, taking after her mother, forced Tom to outgrow it faster than necessary; taking him to speech therapy and ordering him to spend long hours reading out loud. The Doyles, being dependant on God, suggested the Bible, and Tom became well-acquainted with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as well as the Apostles, the Psalms and the Proverbs. Tom never minded because he thought the Bible to be something very true and very poetic. It was then at the young age of seven or eight that he became accustomed to loving songs and, in turn, music.

It didn’t happen overnight, it came surely and smoothly, a mounting inkling to hear music, to sing and to write lyrics every day. It wasn’t until he sat down at his Grandmother Elaine’s house on the Thanksgiving he turned twelve that he realized there was much more to life than he figured.

His index finger fell onto the Middle C and then D, E, F and so forth until he became aware of how the notes could sound together and back and forth and over and under and simultaneously, and the music resounded in the empty living room, alone in the quietness of himself yet in the boisterous noise of the keys. After that it was hard for him to apply his energy to anything else. School became a burden except for music class and spare period when he would jam with his buddies (Matt Sleeth, Joe Finn and Jasper Lauzon, who I will tell you about when the time is right) who also loved music the way only Tom Doyle loved music. He thought he was pretty set in life because all the girls at his school thought he was cute and because he played with a band called Tom Doyle and the Parade at the Campus Pub every Tuesday and Thursday.

And that’s how Tom became Tom Doyle as you might know him, attending St. David’s College playing trumpet in the school’s orchestra presently behind Bridget Welles who was playing the violin near Gemma Lumley who sang like birds in the springtime in the choir in Conservatory Hall. The Tom Doyle who wore a lot of plaid; his dad’s old capped Oxfords and played the piano like Billy Joel; the Tom Doyle who lived in the apartment above his parent’s garage only because it was within walking distance to the college campus. The Tom Doyle who had no idea he would befriend someone like Elliot Hawthorne.

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Letters to Elliot Hawthorne Ep. 4

[4]

In the spring of Gemma’s fourth year, Mrs. Lumley took it upon herself to attract a friend for her shy and timid daughter. The Welles family lived down the road from Reverend Lumley’s church house. Their youngest was a moody child whose attitudes regarding fire, hammers and destruction frightened Mrs. Lumley, so she was not the obvious choice. But the next year, Bridget was admitted into Gemma’s kindergarten class, and church picnic after school field trip after bus rides home with one another, the pair became inseparable.

Bridget’s father, Dale, blamed her daughter’s temperamental disposition on Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday because their soulful music was always playing in young Bridget’s room. He blames that on his wife’s sister giving Bridget a record player and a stack of vinyl for her sixth birthday. Bridget’s mother, Judy, blames Mr. Welles for letting her read On the Road at too young an age because ever since Bridget had been running around asking people if they’re one of the mad ones, ranting on about burning all the while. Gemma’s mother, Mrs. Lumley, thought that all too corrupting, and so Bridget was also a contributing factor for Gemma to be sentenced to an all-girl preparatory school some forty-five kilometres outside of St. David’s.

Gemma begged Mrs. Welles to enlist Bridget to Potter’s and she was delighted to give it a try. She said that it would be nice if Bridget had a class of well-mannered young women to look up to. But their plan did not succeed because when applying to Potter’s every girl must pass a psychology examination and as you may have guessed, Bridget did not pass.

RESULT OF EVALUATION:

Bridget Elizabeth Welles is a problem child. She is still very impulsive and under-socialized; and not able to harness the constant energy discharge observed in younger children. At the moment, she faces significant psychological problems because of her inability to see and accept boundaries. Her repressed and disrespectful attitudes toward all school learning will make academic progress very difficult. She needs to be seen in psychotherapy to address these developmental delays.

Mr. and Mrs. Welles were not happy about this. They said that Bridget should have tried harder. They said that if she were just herself, she would have liked Dr. Alma and Dr. Alma would have liked her. Bridget said in response: “I was being myself” and “I did like Dr. Alma; before she brought up, well, everything.”

Mr. Welles was put off by words like PSYCHOTHERAPY and DEVELOPMENTAL DELAYS and was moved to concern for his only daughter, suggesting to his wife they might better look into getting help for her after all. Yet reading further on down the report, his opinions of Dr. Alma shifted.

PURPOSE FOR EVALUATION:

This thirteen-year-old student BRIDGET E. WELLES from BOWER, ST. DAVID REGION of English descent was referred by her biological parents (DALE and JUDY WELLES) and MRS. GUTHRIE, DEAN OF STUDENTS POTTER’S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS, for assessment of her academic ability and mental status.

RESULTS OF THE MENTAL STATUS EXAMINATION:

The results of MSE revealed an alert, attentive individual who showed no evidence of excessive distractibility and tracked conversation well. The patient was casually dressed and groomed. Orientation was intact for person, time, and place. Eye contact was appropriate. There was no abnormality of gait or posture. Speech function was appropriate for rate, volume and fluency with no evidence of paraphrastic errors. Vocabulary and grammar skills were suggestive of intellectual functioning within the average range. However, when mentioning FAMILY LIFE, the patient’s disposition, demeanour, and overall attentive nature disappeared. She appeared aggravated, insulted, and unsure. She complained of her parents (DALE and JUDY WELLES) arguing when she was a child, which lead to their “unavoidable” divorce. They are surely to blame for Bridget’s unstable ideas which could lead to irrational actions, and in turn hurt herself or others.

It went on and Bridget soon had to defend herself to her outraged parents, saying: “I didn’t say that!” and “I didn’t do that!” Mr. Welles swiftly concluded that no child of his would ever set foot in an establishment that excused “ill-mannered head-shrinkers who know nothing of real people’s problems.” Later, adding, “She’s a crook! They just want our money! I’m not paying tuition to a school like that! I never in my life…”

Bridget was torn. To stay in Bower and attend the public high school across the road, which really only produced farmers and football players, was a fate she had always planned on, so it was of no deep disappointment, aside from losing her best friend that is.

The girls had to settle for conversation through post. They sent letters when the days without one another became too long to suffer. They mailed postcards on special holidays; making doily-covered cards on Valentine’s Day and green-glittered shamrocks at St. Patrick’s Day. Gemma sent magazine advertisements of glamourous models, scribbling over the beauty’s flawless face: “THIS IS WHAT I LOOK LIKE NOW”. Bridget created mix-tapes of favourite songs on her stereo, speaking into the microphone before every new track, things like: “This one goes out to a very special friend all the way in Windsor,” and then “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers would play.

At the beginning of every new semester, Gemma sent a school photo of the entire class to Bridget. She would label each girl, not always according to their birth names. “CHARLENE CHEAPSTAKE” and “JESSICA CHUBSTER” some would say. Others would have a marker moustache or devil horns, especially the librarian Mrs. Wisner. In return, Bridget sent a month’s supply of chewing gum because Gemma was not allowed to chew gum at Potter’s, as well as a sample of the newest shade of lipstick her mother had thrown out.

They were reunited in the summer months and they spent the hot, breathless days wading the water at the Worthing Shore Boat Ramp and sleeping weekends at Bridget’s grandmother’s cottage on the far side of the Lake. But when September came with turning leaves, yellow school buses and a chill in the air, the innocent bonding of the two young women was put on hold. While Potter’s School for Girls was like something of her grandmother’s finishing school, Bridget was stuck in a white-walled, speckled-tiled, red-lockered ordinary secondary school; forced to attend spotlighted pep rallies in a stuffy gymnasium, eat cafeteria chilli fries, shun pastel-streamered dances, and listen to a very tired principal over a very scratchy PA system every morning before Mr. Horner played the national anthem on the trumpet.

It took her the entire four years, eight semesters and twenty-four compulsory credits, to ease into adulthood without the resentment she held toward her small-town narrow-minded classmates. She learned to let go of the snickering remarks made by the student council rep about her choice in sweaters or the drama department’s crude attitude about the way her hair looked in the summer time. (Bridget had such curly hair in the summertime when the air is humid; straightening with a flatiron was no use anymore, until she bought a new iron from the beauty store. Her hair has been straight ever since, but it did not come without strenuous hours before school after it had dried; clamping her long chestnut-coloured locks between the burning flat panels over and over to ensure security from waves all day through.) She even gave her teachers a break, but it wasn’t before getting detention for calling her music teacher the devil because she insistently refused not to know who Emmylou Harris was. It went like this:

Mrs. Horner: “Musical influences, anyone? Anyone?”

Bridget: “Emmylou Harris.”

Mrs. Horner: “I’m sorry?”

Bridget: “Emmylou Harris. She’s a singer.”

Mrs. Horner: “I’ve never heard of her before.”

Bridget: “You’ve never heard of Emmylou Harris? You’re a music teacher.”

Mrs. Horner: “I’ve never heard of her.”

Bridget: “You’re the devil.”

Bridget hated that music class until she noticed Philip Cespi began playing the drums. She devoted her time to loving him from afar, staring at him as he stared at the ceiling, bored mostly. Her crush on him only truly began after he mentioned liking her sweater one day when she was standing by her locker. The same sweater Evil Student Council Rep told her (well, it was to her back) that it was “the ugliest piece of fabric” she had ever seen.

Bridget figured Philip Cespi was the only person in the world who understood her or who respected that she wore what she wore; and she wore what she wore because those oversized men’s sweaters were knitted with love by her grandmother for her brother Jack when he and Mr. Welles went hunting in November. She didn’t stop loving him until suddenly Philip Cespi appeared to Bridget like a boy rather than a young man because he let his girlfriends (he had many) treat him badly and Bridget thought he should say something about it or stop making her fall in love with him.

During their final year, Bridget and Gemma made a pact to strive their hardest to receive a position at St. David’s College so they could be united together for the next four years, at least making up for high school spent apart. And when the mail was delivered that spring week in March, one large envelope sent to Potter’s School for Girls Dormitory and one large envelope sent to The Welles Residence on Coach Street, the girls’ celebration could be heard simultaneously from Bower to Windsor. They were off to spend their next educational experience together, dressed in St. David’s navy blue and emerald green. Now, the only reason Mr. and Mrs. Lumley let Gemma attend St. David’s (assuming Bridget would follow) was because Gemma’s second cousin, Tom Doyle, was accepted into St. David’s on account of his musical genius.

Returns next Tuesday

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Letters to Elliot Hawthorne Ep. 3

[3]

Gemma Lumley, unlike Elliot Hawthorne, knew the year; she knew which day of the week it was and if you were to ask her at any given point during that day she’d tell you the exact time too. She, unlike Elliot Hawthorne, came from extraordinarily conventional people. You and I both know that for this is the same Gemma Lumley named after her grandmother who grew up in the Worthing and called her great-grandfather “Captain” and the trees in the yard “The Fort”, raised by Reverend Charles Lumley and his stylish wife, Katie Müller.

When Gemma Lumley heard the story of her grandparents’ first meeting, she expected, upon growing up, that her love story would have the same degree of whimsy. However, she did not take into account the times in which she now lived, a time seemingly plagued with everything opposed to simplicity. But she worked at the Worthing hoping she, too, would fall in love with the farmhand from down the road. Much to her luck, or lack of, every new farmhand since the resignation of Gareth Walsh, had been taken, aged or ugly; indicating no initial attraction and eliminating the likelihood of a long, romantic account to tell her grandchildren. And because this haunted her at a young age, her heart set on marriage as the end-all and be-all of growing up and becoming a woman, she set her sights on boys. She liked them. In preschool she teased them, hugged them, and tried to kiss them until one day she really did. She was eight and it was right on the lips; a boy whose mother was determined to leave the church after that. This hurt her in certain ways. So much so it called Reverend Lumley and his stylish wife Katie Müller to take action. Katie enrolled junior-sized Gemma into Potter’s School for Girls.

The revival Georgian house on campus was as historic as the college itself; an icon to the school and the name it carried. The Doll House, as it was so lovingly doted by the class of ’54, was new and vintage simultaneously. Its regal allure had attracted girls from every corner of the county ever since. The city girls found it charming and the country girls thought it sensationally dapper. But Potter’s charisma began and ended with its architecture. Gemma’s first years were plagued with hazing and bullying because Girls from Windsor considered Girls from Bower (who “should really go to public school”) the unofficial students of Potter’s. But even after four years with them, Gemma was still the “outcast of outcasts”. She would wear her snow boots inside the classrooms, chew on the end of her pen during Mr. Sherman’s geography lessons and wear her hair in two braids even at the age of seventeen. So, she outgrew her talkative nature (because she took after her name sake) and tapped into her mother’s gentle demeanour when growing into her looks; subscribing to Vogue and cutting out photographs of Dior and Chanel, hoping to blend in at last.

Through her adolescence she had a habit of making her own clothes and thought a life in the fashion industry might make her happy. But it was always replaced by the want to get dirty and to wear khaki and dig up bones in Egypt; which was replaced by the want to be studious and attend seminary like her father, hoping to become like C.S. Lewis; which was replaced by the attractiveness of the three-month course be become a stewardess (she thought she would look nice in the uniforms, but her father, as you can imagine, forbade it). It came down to art and music; Kathe Kollwitz her obsession and Michelangelo her genius, but without a role model, maybe only her mother, Gemma took to singing because it was the simplest. (To quote Colin Clark on Marilyn Monroe; “She is really happiest when she sings. Perhaps it is because it is a nice uncomplicated thing to do, something she often does when she is alone or frightened.”)

The one thing Gemma did accomplish during her years at Potter’s, much to her parents’ approval, was lose her infatuation with boys in some nature. Surrounded by hoards of pesky young girls for hours on end, she was able to put her mind someplace else, devote whatever spare time she had between classes into whatever her hobby was at the time. So, Potter’s did, in fact, do some good; she was educated, well-mannered and prepared to work, live and contribute to society; and with that in mind, Potter’s School for Girls was a happy memory for Gemma Lumley and to this day she is still known to put on her navy sweater, the white school crest stamped over her heart, just as ill-fitting and unflattering. The only true trouble, the only colossal problem in Gemma’s eyes about going to Potter’s was dealing with the sudden absence of her friend, Bridget Welles.

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Meet Me Back Here (for this sale), Alright?

Meet Me BAck Here,Alright_From August 23nd to the 27th, Meet Me Back Here, Alright is 40% off in the Kobo Store. You can click on the cover to check it out in the store, and keep on reading below. Here are the next ten pages. (If you missed the first batch, click here.) Use the promo code: 40AUG

***

I decide to go to Cece’s and tell her about the Miller-driving-me-to-the-hospital incident when Bristol comes over on account of Daddy being out of the house and Mom not working at Foodland. Bristol talks to Mom about married life and her new apartment in town and how Rob is going to try to get a job soon and that she’s not pregnant yet. Mom tells Bristol that Sophy has joined the choir at school and gets to wear a cute little uniform. It’s free so Daddy is in favour of it. Now Sophy sings all the time in her squeaky voice and makes us all laugh, but sometimes she doesn’t stop and it makes us all really irritated instead.

When I’m getting ready to leave for Cece’s, Bristol says to me, “So how are you holding down the fort without me?”

I want to ask her what I should do about Beckie sneaking out at night. Beckie tells Mom she’s on cheer squad and the girls always have sleepovers and important things to discuss that cannot be discussed over the phone. But she’s lying. Beckie used to be a cheerleader before her attendance dropped and her grades became non-existent. I tried to get her to knock it off once by hiding the ladder she uses to get back into our room, but she went out anyway and instead of finding the ladder in the barn, she tried to climb the tree outside our window. All I could think about was Pollyanna and her twisted legs and her broken doll, so I put the ladder back myself. But I look at Bristol drinking tea out of a Marineland mug at our kitchen counter, and say, “Alright, I guess,” instead.

***

I walk to Cece’s house, because it’s just down the road before the Wilsons, and we sit around her room and listen to sentimental Connie Francis songs on her grandpa’s record player. We do this every time she breaks up with a boy. We eat ice cream sandwiches and she puts her hair into a 1960s up-do and lip-syncs to “Frankie”, and then we watch Gilmore Girls on Netflix.

Cece claims not to remember any boy named Miller Stott from the newspaper. She just keeps asking me what he looks like and if he has any brothers worth pining for. I know about the diner, his uncle and the Olympics and the swimming pool, and that he’s got a brother who either joined the army or works on a farm. But I don’t tell that to Cece. She’s too busy ranting about how she’s going to get fat like her mom and die as an old maid.
Going to Cece’s house always makes me depressed because if she’s going to get fat like her mom and die an old maid, what does that mean for me? Cece’s never been single for more than a month in her whole life. I’ll probably die young. Probably fatter than Cece’s mom too.

***

Ever since Miller drove me to see Grandma he’s been following me around school, smiling at me and trying to get me to talk to him. He walks around with an entire head above most students and he caves in his swimmer shoulders so he doesn’t bump into anyone unintentionally, while holding onto the straps of his backpack. Today he chases me all the way down the science hall and two sets of stairs, past the staff room and my locker. He finally catches me on the way to the library.

“Hey,” he says, all out of breath because of the hunt.

I say hi and keep walking. He follows me and asks me what I’m doing, so I say, “I’m going to the library.”

He immediately asks me why. My answer makes me sound like a nerd, but I say it anyway, “Homework.”

“But it’s lunch,” he says.

I want to say No, it’s an extra meaningless hour I’m stuck at school, but I say, “Yeah, so?”

“Aren’t you going to eat?”

I stop in the middle of the hallway and stare at him. “Not really.”

“Maybe we could eat together.”

“Because you drove me to the hospital?”

“Because you don’t have any friends and because I don’t have any friends.” He laughs like he thinks he’s telling a joke, but of course I’m offended.

“What makes you think I don’t have friends? And I don’t believe you don’t have friends. Don’t guys like you always have brainy little sidekicks?”

Now he’s offended. “What do you mean guys like me?”

I want to say You know, that tall guy who is a prime candidate to be an athlete in high school and could be really popular if he wanted to be, but he’s not that kind of athlete, so he hangs around his dorky childhood best friend or even his cousin, and they, too, in turn could be popular simply by association. But I stop at the library door and say, “I don’t eat in the cafeteria.”

Miller tells me that he doesn’t eat there either, and I give him a look which says I don’t believe you.

“Fine,” he says, twirling his car keys around his finger. “I was gonna offer you a free burger and fries, but hey, suit yourself, bookworm.”

“I’m not a bookworm,” I say, thinking about free burgers and fries.

Miller walks backwards, holding out his hands while he shrugs. “Time’s a-wastin’.”

I really don’t want to go to the diner because Ben Wilson and guys from the football team go there at lunchtime, and I don’t want them to see me. I’m not embarrassed to be seen with Miller Stott, I’m just embarrassed to be me. But I agree to go. I say it’s the awaiting free home-style burger and fries, and not Miller’s smile that makes me do it. But he smiles alright. I have to run to catch him at the end of the hall, and I’m self-conscious because his smile makes me smile, so I look at my feet while we walk outside.

We pass a group of kids smoking beside the NO SMOKING sign on the stairs to the parking lot, and I spot Miller’s small, blue car amidst the half-ton trucks instantly. When I get inside his car the Beatles are playing again and we only get halfway through “Come Together” before we’re facing the back of Stott’s Diner. The drive from school to the diner is literally less than a few minutes, depending on the crosswalk and the traffic light.

Through the side windows of the building I can see Ben and some jocks occupying the corner in the restaurant. I know if I go in there Ben will crack some kind of joke that’s either racist or sexist, and I’m not really in the mood to hear the obnoxious laughter of our school’s football team.

“Are you sure you can eat here?” I ask Miller as he parks and shuts off the car.

“Yeah, that’s my name on the sign in the front,” he says.

“No, I mean, aren’t you, like, super-athletic?”

He looks at me like I’m speaking a different language.

“I read the newspaper,” I say. “Don’t you have a regime or a diet or something?”

“Oh, yeah, but it’s my cheat day. I get one day a week to eat whatever I want.”

I want to say That totally sucks, but I take a deep breath and get out of the car. I go for the diner’s glass door, dreading the moment when I pass through it and Ben and his buddies stop eating and look up.

“Hey,” Miller says loudly on account of being by the other end of the building. “This way.”

I take a glance at Ben through the window and gladly leave him behind. Miller opens what looks like a heavy fire door, so I see straight into the restaurant’s kitchen.

“Did you not hear me before?” Miller asks, gesturing for me to enter first. “My name’s on the sign; we get the red carpet treatment.”

Inside, I immediately hear the snap of grease and sizzle of meat on a grill.

“Hey Molly?” Miller says into the room.

“Miller, thank God,” a woman says, still out of sight. “Could you stack those boxes somewhere out of the way? I’ve been tripping over them and pushing them and kicking them.”

I look around, but I can’t find any face to accompany the woman’s voice. The kitchen is a small area; a stove, some deep-fryers, a walk-in refrigerator. Fresh produce covers a wooden island in the middle. There is an open door to the dining room, and I can hear Ben and the football team now.

Miller spots cardboard boxes blocking a walkway and begins moving them. “Is my dad here?” he asks, shouting in the direction the voice came.

“Not at the moment. He ran out to get some of that…” A woman walks into the kitchen and stands at the island, stopping mid-sentence to stare at me.

Miller stops moving boxes, looks up, and says, “This is Alex.”

The woman wipes her hands on her vegetable-stained apron and grins. “Alex,” she repeats. “Why haven’t I seen you before?”

I stutter, but before any real words come out, Miller says, “She’s from school. And it’s lunch. We’re hungry.”

“I’m Molly,” the chef says, offering me her hand. I shake it and Hi, how are you her. She stands over the grill, squishing some beef patties with a long spatula. “Is your uncle gonna rip my head off if I feed you again?” she asks Miller.

“I can’t promise anything,” Miller says, leaning against the counter when he finishes stacking the boxes. “But it’s not illegal. It’s my cheat day.”

Molly fixes two hamburgers and prepares two plates. She slides on some steaming hot fries, hands the plates to Miller and says, “You said that on Monday.”

Miller smiles and accepts the meals. “This way,” he says to me, nodding toward the back of the kitchen. We walk through a skinny doorway into the break room/ pantry. There’s a small bistro set in the middle, surrounded by shelves of bread and fat cans of tomato paste and Costco-sized condiments.

Miller puts the plates on the table and sits down. I stand there, watching him, thinking this looks a lot like a date. Eventually I slide stiffly onto the other chair and stare at the sesame seeds on the burger bun.

“What’s up?” Miller asks because my apprehension is obvious.

“Are you sure this is alright?” I ask. “I mean, I don’t have any money.”

Miller has already downed two enormous bites. “Yeah, I’m sure.”

“Really? Because these meals are, like, 7.95.”

He laughs. “And it costs, like, a dollar to make it.”

I suck on my bottom lip as the crispy fortress of fries looks up at me.

“Drinks,” Miller says, half-standing. “Milkshake?”

“Um…”

He points his finger at me. “Chocolate?”

“Uh…”

“Coming up.”

He dashes out of the room and I’m stuck in there, eating beautiful greasy food, wondering how in the world I got into this situation. Then I hear him talking to someone and it’s not Molly the Chef. I think it must be his father.

Two milkshakes, Miller?” I hear from behind me. “Does Kevin know?”

Miller comes through the skinny doorway and puts two Styrofoam cups on the table, bringing his father with him. Over my shoulder, I smile at him like I smiled at Molly, and he, too, looks dumbfounded by me.

“Miller,” he says finally. “Are you hiding girls in the pantry again?”

Miller sits down and drinks some of his shake. “Dad, this is Alex.”

“Nice to meet you,” I say, waving. “You make really good food here.”

“Thank you very much. So, Alex. Where do you live?”

“Dad,” Miller snaps, picking up the small remains of his burger. “Don’t be weird.”

“I live about six houses down from the fire station on Rhettlynch,” I say.

“Oh, okay. Good stuff.”

I look back at Miller and catch him silently protesting for his dad to get lost.

“I’ll leave you alone,” Miller’s dad says, obeying hesitantly but still smiling.

I keep at the fries when we’re alone, watching Miller devour the last of his burger. “I take it you don’t bring girls here a lot,” I say.

He winces playfully. “Harsh judgement.”

“No, not like that. I didn’t mean that you couldn’t get girls to come here…I meant that you don’t.”

“It’s okay. You’re right. I don’t.”

I cough on purpose. “So you’re a swimmer? Or diver? I can’t remember.”

He sits back like it’s going to be a long explanation, so I lean back too, thankful that he’s going to be the one filling the awkward silence. “Both actually, but I stopped diving when I was fourteen. I had a growth spurt so I changed directions. Focused on swimming. I tried to go back to diving a couple of years ago, but since I stopped gymnastics I wasn’t up to par. I do short-distance swim now.”

“Like the butterfly and the backstroke?”

He nods, picking slowly at the fries on his mostly empty plate. “Uh huh.”

“You’re on the school team, right? I saw you at the pep rally.”

“Yeah. I’m surprised anyone notices us. There are only, like, six of us so we’re easy to miss.”

Miller Stott is not easy to miss. I stare at his shoulders, rolled forward like he’s trying to appear smaller, and I’m reminded of his height even when he’s sitting down because he easily shrinks the bistro set.

“How tall are you?” I ask.

“I tell people I’m six-three so they don’t freak out when I tell them I’m six-five.”

“Are you really?”

“See?”

I smile when he smiles, but I get the feeling he’s embarrassed so I change the subject again. “You’re in the newspaper a lot.”

“Yeah, our town gets bored when it’s not football season. Don’t go into the dining room, the articles are framed everywhere. What do you do? Any teams?”

I inhale slowly and look at my half-eaten burger. “No teams.” I try to think of something else to say, but nothing can rival being in the newspaper or owning a diner. Then again: “I work at the harbour across the bay,” I say proudly. “I wait on club members and check out rental kayaks.”

“Yeah, I know,” Miller says, emptying a ketchup packet onto his plate. “The rowing club practices on the lake. I see you at the docks sometimes.”

“The rowing club?”

“Would you like to see the newspaper clipping?”

We both laugh.

“I joined when I took a break from swimming last year,” he explains. “Dad said if I’m going to throw away my scholarships, I need to keep up extracurricular. He tells me St. David’s has a crew team and I should keep that in mind. I didn’t argue. I love anything with water. I’ve been a Kayak and Canoe member since I was five. But I really wanted to drop out of school, become a sailor, join the Navy—I’m kidding—but really. I wanted to sail around the world so someone could make a documentary about me.”

I like boats and swimming and water too, but I didn’t make a sport out of it. No teams. No scholarships. No newspaper clippings. I know he was kidding about the documentary, but it doesn’t seem too farfetched. I look at my food and suddenly don’t feel like finishing it, but it was free so I feel like I have to. Then there’s some commotion in the kitchen. Miller’s dad is there and someone who sounds just like him.

Miller suddenly panics. “Oh, no,” he says, scrambling.

“What?”

He picks up his plate and slides the rest of his fries onto mine.

“What are you doing?” I ask.

“Just don’t say anything,” he whispers, putting his plate underneath my plate. He sits back and crosses his arms, nonchalant.

A man comes into the room and says, “Hey buddy, your dad said you’d be back here…” He stops when seeing me: same look of astonishment.

“I’m Alex,” I say.

“Alex?” The man looks at Miller for clarification. Then to me: “Very nice to meet you.”

“This is my uncle Kevin—my coach.” Miller makes his eyes go wide.

“Oh. Hello. I’m here, eating. He’s not.”

Coach Kevin looks at Miller through narrowed eyes. “Don’t get your girlfriend to lie for you.”

Miller and I exchange confounded glances and then we both begin to explain that I am not—by any means—his GIRLFRIEND. But Coach Kevin stops us. “No, I don’t want to hear it.” He leans over the tabletop and points at my plate. “Do you know what this is?”

“Protein?” Miller says.

“It’s fat and grease. And this!” He picks up a French fry.

“A vegetable?”

“Carbs—it’s a mountain of carbs!”

Miller looks down in defeat. “It’s my cheat day.”

Miller’s dad comes in and Coach Kevin glares at him. “It’s his cheat day,” he says in defense, and father and son laugh.

“I can’t watch it.” Coach Kevin leaves and Miller’s dad snatches a bag of burger buns off a shelf and follows his brother back into the kitchen.

Miller mutters sorry, and I say that it doesn’t matter. He takes out his cell phone to check the time and asks, “What do you have after lunch?”

“History. You?”

“Nothing. I have a spare. I usually just hang out here until last class.”

“Oh, well, I’ll walk back.” I stand and take my milkshake with me.

“I can drive you,” he insists, standing too.

“No, it’s okay. Thanks for lunch. It was really good. And it was fun, too.” I’m awkward and insincere, even though I’m trying hard not to be.

“I’ll see you around.”

I wave and back out the door, sucking on my milkshake straw. I run away from the building, my head leading the way and I almost tumble over myself. When I pass the front window, Ben looks up so I look down and speed walk back to school.

***

I go to the library for my spare, last period of the day, and I stare at my English binder open to today’s notes and read them so many times over my handwriting doesn’t look like handwriting anymore and there is no way I can tell Mr. Gordon what T.S. Eliot was actually trying to say when he wrote Prufrock. I’m too busy thinking about newspaper clippings and cheat days, about burgers and fries and Miller’s smile. I decide to go to my locker and get my history textbook to finish that homework instead and on the way Mr. Tollers stops me outside Student Services.

A twitch of unease runs through me when he asks me to come into his office. For a moment I think it’s about Colton Glasby shoving Grant Danson into a locker. I even recite a short speech in my head about how there was nothing I could have done and I did eventually tell Mr. Tollers about what I had seen.

Mr. Tollers folds his hands together and leans over his desk when I sit down in the chair in front of him. He asks me how I’m doing and I tell him I’m fine. I even ask how he’s doing, but he doesn’t answer. He gets right down to business.

“How’s your sister?”

I want to sigh and roll my eyes, stomp my foot, run out of his office—anything to show him just how annoyed I am by How’s your sister.

“Beckie?” I ask.

“Yes, Beckie,” the teacher says. “Is she here today?”

I inhale and let it out slowly, apparently letting my silence speak for itself.

“Has she been at home lately?”

More silence.

“How are things at home?”

“Fine.” I answer this time because I don’t want student services calling social services. And it has been fine. Mom and Daddy haven’t been fighting which means Daddy has been getting his prescriptions refilled on time and Mom hasn’t said anything about Bristol’s husband not getting a job, and they still don’t know that Beckie is gallivanting around town with a drop-out named Johnny.

“Good,” Mr. Tollers says. He picks up a pen and clicks the end several times before dropping it, intertwining his fingers and leaning over the desk again. “Beckie’s attendance hasn’t been very…pristine lately. It’s not a very good start to the school year.”

“Yeah,” I say slowly.

“Do you have any idea why she hasn’t been in class?”

I want to say Because she’s a teenager and she hates school like the rest of the kids here, but go with, “No.”

“Do you think your parents would have any idea why?”

“Please don’t bother them about Beckie.”

Mr. Tollers relaxes, satisfied, and I look at the ceiling, convinced I’ve just betrayed my sister. Then: “I know things have been…tough at home lately…”

How does he know that things have been tough?

“I thought you could help me before we need to take any…drastic measures.”

Drastic measures.

“Do you think you can get Beckie in class tomorrow?”

I shrug and mutter some sort of an excuse.

“Because if you can’t, I’m going to have to contact your parents and tell them what’s been going on.”

I look up and meet his eyes. “Okay. Yes. I will. I’ll do it.”

“Thank you. Do you have a class?”

“No.” I rush out of his office and dart down the hall, making a beeline for the library. I barricade myself in one of the cubicles in the corner. I sit and stare out the window that overlooks the parking lot. The sight of Miller’s car by the fence makes my heart race. But I force my thoughts back to the task at hand. Beckie. And with the image of her face blinding me from everything but Mr. Tollers’s threat, I see Johnny the Drop-Out smoking a cigarette by the parking lot stairs.

I don’t take much time to think, I burst out of the library and down the stairs, tearing my way to the parking lot. I tap the guy on the shoulder. He turns and blows out a puff of smoke in the opposite direction.

“Oh, hi, you’re…” He winces when forgetting my name.

“Beckie’s sister.”

“Right, right.” He drops the cigarette and stomps it out with his worn-out Converse sneaker. “I’m Johnny.”

I shake his hand when he offers his and I roll my eyes, wondering why a sixteen-year-old boy is bothering to shake my hand. “Yeah, I know who you are. Is my sister around?”

“I haven’t seen her today,” Johnny says.

I squint, trying not to cough in the smoke. “Are you lying?”

“No,” he says, laughing. “Why would I lie? Is she in trouble?”

“Yes, she’s in trouble. She hasn’t been in class.”

The guy looks at the ground, serious. “She never said.”

“You mean she’s not with you all this time?”

He shakes his head and shrugs. “No. We hang out at lunch and after school, but not during classes. I told her she should go because she sure doesn’t want to end up like me.” He manages to laugh.

I stand beside my sister’s boyfriend, feeling the September wind and a jab of remorse rush over me. “If you see her before I do, tell her that Alex needs to talk to her. Tell her it’s important. Please?”

Johnny nods, apparently concerned. “Absolutely.”

I thank him and walk back into school. The bell rings and I breathe a sigh of relief because the day is over. I go to my locker, gather my things and head for the buses in the elementary school parking lot across the street. As I blend into swarms of students, I know I won’t see Miller again today. But I tell myself that I don’t care, not now with more important things to worry about.

I climb the short steps onto the bus and say hi to my bus driver. I slump down into a seat near the middle of the bus and a few kids walk on after me. I lean against the window, watching other kids get on other buses and I think about how I have to check the mouse traps in the basement and empty the dehumidifiers or they’ll overflow because they don’t work right.

Then the air beside me moves and someone plops down on the seat next to me. Ben Wilson is there, looking me up and down.

“What do you want?” I ask.

“Was it you I saw walking away from Stott’s today?” Ben asks, like it was unimaginable.

“I guess so.”

“What were you doing there?”

“Eating.”

He laughs like I’m telling a joke, and relaxes in the seat.

“You’re not sitting with me the whole way, are you?” I ask.

Ben gets excited and moves so his whole body faces me. “Did you walk down?”

“What?”

“To the diner.”

“No, I had a ride.”

“With who?”

“That’s none of your business.”

He looks like he wants more of an answer and I know he won’t leave me alone until he gets one. Do I dare tell him?

“Miller,” I say.

“Who Miller?”

I look at Ben like he’s the stupidest kid on the face of the planet. “Stott.”

“Oh!” he says, pieces falling into place. “The, uh, uh—water polo? Is he the guy on the water polo team? I’m just kidding.” He elbows me in the ribs, trying to get me to laugh as he smiles that wide handsome smile. I look away after glaring at him.

“So, listen, I’ve been seeing Beckie around…”

Her name makes me look up. I listen closely for any information I might not have already.

“She’s been hanging around that Adams kid, what’s his name?”

“Johnny,” I say.

“Yeah, that’s it. Are they serious?”

I look at Ben and glower. He. Is. Not. Dating. My. Sister. “Very serious.”

“Oh, that’s so cute—trying to keep me for yourself?”

“Ew. No. Get out of my seat.”

Ben grins and winks at me as he inches off the seat and into the aisle. “You used to be pretty, Podolski,” he says, gently whacking me on the side of my head. I pull away from his touch instantly. “What happened?” He winks again.

I ignore him as he leaves for the back of the bus and a small group of his friends welcomes him loudly.

Ben is beautiful, confident and different, and popular because of it. He inherited his mother’s skin and his father’s height, and he’s nice and smart when he wants to be. I try not to take his comments to heart, but I unexpectedly want to cry in embarrassment, hoping no one on the bus was listening to what he said. I wonder if he means it, if he thinks that I’m not pretty because I don’t wear my hair down anymore or because I don’t wear short skirts or tight shirts—that I gave up trying to get attention a long time ago. I curl up against the bus window, shove my hands into my jacket pockets and try to forget that today ever happened.

Keep reading here

Meet Me BAck Here,Alright_

P.S. The paperback is coming. Shh. (I’m quietly clapping my hands, if you couldn’t tell.)

Happy (Book) Birthday

In the wake of releasing Reeds & Wicks, I almost forgot that it’s actually been one whole year since I launched Meet Me Back Here, Alright? To celebrate this milestone, here’s the first 20 pages. Happy reading.

Before

PART ONE

The doctors have told me that my grandmother isn’t dead yet. They have also assured me that she’s not floating around in heaven or walking the hospital halls like a zombie. They have to say that because they’re doctors and because of science. Sophy has asked them about ghosts and spirits and emotions and stuff, but they don’t answer her. They just tell us that Grandma is unconscious and she probably will be for a very long time. Still, sometimes I imagine she’s sitting right next to me or wandering around the psych ward, flirting with some of the cute doctors or something funny like that. Opposed to what she really is—sinking in ICU bed number five, comatose.

I heard that people in comas can understand things going on around them, so I wonder if Grandma knows that Aunt Bernice gives me her money every time I come to see her. Because after I go to the hospital, I go to Aunt Bernice’s house for dinner and she gives me more of Grandma’s money to put in the bank. I go because Daddy would take the money for his pain-killers and Mom would refuse the charity. Visits aren’t so much about support as they are survival. So I hope Grandma isn’t mad at them for not coming to see her or Aunt Bernice.

After I leave Grandma’s hospital room and after I eat dinner with Aunt Bernice, Sophy and I ride the bus home. Every time we get back to the village Sophy asks me if we can get milkshakes at Stott’s Diner and I always say no. I don’t like going to the diner because I know a kid who works there. His parents own the place so I know he will be there, waiting to recognize me.

Stott’s (not to be confused with Scott’s, the hardware store across the street) is directly beside the bus stop. I can jump off the bus and see right through the restaurant’s windows. And Sophy always asks for a milkshake and I always say no. But today I say yes. I feel bad for telling her to shut up on the ride home. Her voice is small, just like she is, and you can only take so much of it.

We go inside Stott’s Diner and a bell announces our presence. There’s really no one inside so I creep through the door like I’m planning to rob the place. I can’t stop Sophy from charging the counter, but she needs help getting on top of a stool.

A woman appears in front of us and I try not to stare at the kid I know standing behind her. I’m thankful his back is toward us so it’s easier to avoid eye contact, but he’s just so tall that I can’t help from staring at the back of his head. I ask for two chocolate milkshakes, and the woman smiles and rings us through the cash.

I think I’ve escaped an awkward Hi, how’s it going but the Stott kid turns, looks at me and then looks again. He stares at me for a while so I look at the top of Sophy’s head and say hi. He says hi back and “How’s it going?” spills out of his mouth. His voice is deep and it throws me off because I guess I thought he was going to sound differently.

The woman slides two Styrofoam cups with lids and straws toward Sophy. I say thanks and the guy from school says, “See you later.” I have to make sure I smile at him before pushing Sophy out the door.

On the sidewalk Sophy sucks her straw so fast she forgets to breathe, and I think of how the Stott kid’s first name is Miller. Two last names but no real first name. He’s in the newspaper all the time because he’s some wannabe Olympian. His uncle was the first swimmer to qualify from Woolf Island in, like, forever, so they built a pool at the school for him back in the day, and now I’m pretty sure Miller Stott is the only person who still uses it.

***

Beckie climbed out of our bedroom window at nine o’clock last night and didn’t climb back in until after midnight, so I have a hard time waking her up this morning. It’s almost eight o’clock and she’s still belly down on her bed, scared of the light. I’m about to throw my brush at her again when Sophy barges into the room, kneels near my bed and bows her head.

“I’m ready,” she says.

“Not today, Soph.”

Her red ringlets are still damp from bath water and she’s chosen to wear green socks with pink tights and a sweater that used to be mine then Beckie’s now hers. Sophy looks at me with her pudgy cheeks and turned-up nose and knows she’s cute, so I kneel beside her; my body an exact replica of hers, only bigger.

“Put your hands together like this,” I say. “Now you can go ahead—say it out loud.”

“ ‘Our Father which art in heaven…’ ”

I recite the next line in my head, waiting for Sophy’s kindergarten voice to fill the room.

When she pauses, I open one eye. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m praying to a wall,” she says.

“You’re supposed to close your eyes. Close your eyes and see the face of God.”

“What does he look like?”

While I take time to think about it, Sophy gets up and puts her finger under Beckie’s nose to make sure she is still breathing. I look at the alarm clock on Beckie’s bedside table and the red, digital colon blinks. Tick, tick, tick.

“Get back into position,” I say, pulling Sophy’s chubby torso over so we’re kneeling respectfully again. “You know the nativity scene Mrs. Wilson puts on her lawn at Christmastime?”

Sophy nods, her eyes shut tight and her short fingers intertwined at her chest.

“The little baby is Jesus,” I say. “Think of that.”

“A baby?”

“Just do it. And start over.”

I copy her, eyes shut and hands together, and we both try our hardest to see the face of God.

“Our Father in heaven, hollowed be your name…”

“It’s not hollowed it’s hallowed.”

“What does that mean?”

“Ugh. Sophy, come on.”

“It means kept special,” Beckie says, rolling over in her bed and stretching. “Important, holy.”

I glare at Beckie, half-annoyed, half-grateful. “There, Sophy, okay? Now finish.”

Sophy nods again, more determined. “Our Father in heaven, haloed be your name…”

“So-pheee!”

Beckie and Sophy giggle, and in their fit of laughter I almost don’t hear Mom calling for us from downstairs.

When I go down Mom is in the kitchen, wearing her red Foodland apron, and making Sophy’s lunch for school. She puts the brightly coloured lunch pail into the brightly coloured backpack and then puts the backpack over Sophy’s brightly coloured outfit. I stand beside her with my non-existent lunch occupying my black backpack hanging over my very dull outfit. I say goodbye to Mom, and she kisses us and shoos us out the door.

Daddy is sitting in the lawn chair on the porch again, staring at the driveway and the barns and the road in the distance. His cane leans against the orange armrest.

“See you later, Daddy,” I say, walking down the porch steps which squeak like they might snap under any more weight. He doesn’t look at me for long and I wonder if it’s because I remind him of Bristol. Out of the four Podolski sisters, Bristol and I look the most alike.
Sophy stretches onto her tiptoes to kiss Daddy on the cheek and he leans down to accept her. They both laugh when Sophy squirms because of his prickly gray and brown beard.

“Be good,” he says, coughing immediately after.

Sophy holds my hand and I wave to Daddy and try not to think about how much pain he must be in.

We don’t make it very far down the driveway before Mom runs after us. She holds out a tinfoil-covered pie plate and catches her breath. “Take this, will you, down to Gloria with me?” she asks.

I stare at her name tag clipped onto her apron, and the sparkly Little Mermaid stickers

Sophy used to decorate it. “Mom, we’re gonna be late,” I say.

Mom’s expression, not more words, tells me that she’s begging. Because she doesn’t actually speak after that on account of not wanting to upset Daddy. But from the look on his face he’s not even in the same world as us, let alone listening.

***

The Wilsons buy our hay and rent our fields ever since the accident, so Mom likes to keep herself in their good graces whenever she can. When we get there Mrs. Wilson, a beautiful Korean woman with ageless skin and perfect hair, sweeps Mom away into the kitchen and leaves me inside the living room with her son and only tiny Sophy to defend me.

“I thought you would have brought one of your pretty sisters,” Ben Wilson says to Sophy when seeing me.

Sophy’s blond eyebrows make a knot between her eyes and she says, “Alex is pretty.”

Ben laughs.

The fabric of my windbreaker makes a swooshing kind of noise when I tuck a loose strand of hair behind my ear, self-conscious in the silence. I say nothing and hold onto Sophy’s hand until Ben’s ogling stare causes me to take action.

“We’re leaving,” I say and then drag Sophy out the door. She whines about how we’re leaving without Mom, but I assure her Mom can find her way back home without us.

I stop at the end of the driveway when I notice Ben at the window. His T-shirt is so tight it might as well be painted on, making it easy to imagine what he’d look like without it. But I don’t have to imagine. When he cuts our grass in the summertime, he’s always shirtless, wearing his hat backwards, shielding his neck instead of his face, and turning himself brownish pink by June. Beckie stares from the kitchen window every time, ready to reward him with a sweating glass of lemonade.

When we’re on the road Sophy pokes my arm for attention and asks if we can walk up the hillside on our way to her bus stop. I tell her no and she asks if we can at least sing the song. “Only if you start,” I say. But we never really sing the song.

***

Today at school there’s a pep rally and we have to sit on the gym floor because our school isn’t one of those fancy catholic schools with auditoriums and cushy chairs like the school Cece goes to. Kids from the fancy catholic schools call us hicks because we don’t have lines on our main roads and because we only produce farmers and football players. We only get to sit on chairs when it’s something important like Remembrance Day or because someone has died. So during the assembly today we have to sit cross-legged on the dusty gym floor, cramped inside the dark with only random spotlights shining on the student council rep and the cheerleaders as they bounce around in front of the stage.

The football team grunts and shouts whenever anybody says our school name, so the principal has to start his speech over multiple times. The track and field team is the only team bigger than the football team, but they’re a lot quieter and skinnier. All the sports teams are called up to the stage one by one, even the chess and badminton teams, as music blares from every corner of the gym.

They put the cross-country team and the swim team on the stage at the same time and I don’t really know why. But I stare at Miller Stott standing in the back row. He makes all the little runners look even smaller than they really are. For a second I think he’s staring back at me, but it’s too dark to tell. So I look away and I sit there while my brain starts to melt and my feet fall asleep, wishing that this stint of my life was already over.

My schedule for this semester is still being sorted out because it’s only the fifth day back and everyone, including teachers, is still living in summer time. I signed up to see the guidance counsellor the first day back to drop Advanced English and just take Regular English, and I want to switch Philosophy for Social Science. But I have yet to have my name called over the PA system. So I walk around the school halls during the empty slots like the potheads do when they’re not in class.

I thought I’d get special privileges because of my impending graduation, that the teachers would want to get rid of us in the kindest, quickest way possible. But, less than a week in, I get the feeling this is going to be the longest year yet.

When I come home from school I find Daddy in the exact same spot I left him in, sitting in that lawn chair, drinking a can of pop and staring at the road. He says hi and I say hi. He asks me how my day went and I say fine. Mom is hanging laundry on the clothesline in the side yard, and after a few moments of staring at my parents on opposite sides of the property, I go inside to change.

Every other afternoon I bike to the ferry and cross a skinny part of the St. Lawrence River to get to the harbour on the mainland in time for the dinner shift at the boat club. I work in the members-only clubhouse, serving preppy old people from the city in my navy polo, khaki shorts and white Keds. Sometimes I roam the boardwalk to make sure everyone who is checking out the sailboats is supposed to be checking out the sailboats or tell people about the night’s specials and invite them into the dining room. Rich people’s children come and jump off the docks into the water at sunset and the crew team from St. David’s comes to practice. The Kayak and Canoe Club teaches kids how to wear life-jackets properly and it’s all an extremely lively place until October comes and everyone goes away and I don’t have a job anymore.

I come home just after the sun has set and I hear my parents before I’m even inside the house. My head feels ready to explode whenever they fight. It’s like I’m caught in the air, floating aimlessly, wanting to intervene and run away at the same time. I thought Bristol getting married and moving out of the house would help. Because it was always Bristol against Mom, and Mom against Daddy, and Daddy against the world.

They’re in the kitchen this time, drinking coffee and watching the news on the small TV on the counter. I slam the front door shut so they know I’m home, and hang my jacket on the banister in the front hall. For a split second I think they may have stopped talking altogether. But as soon as Mom mentions Bristol’s new husband, Daddy starts at her, loud slamming door or not.

Sophy is on her knees in my room, trying to talk to heaven again. I shut the door behind me as I drop my backpack onto the floor. Mom and Daddy’s voices are distant and if I try hard enough it sounds like they’re having a normal conversation, laughing even.

“How’s it going?” I ask Sophy.

“I get to ‘And forgive us…’ and then I don’t remember.”

I get down beside her to help. “ ‘And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.’ ”

“What’s that?”

“Things we do that aren’t right and people who hurt us.”

She nods and closes her eyes.

“ ‘And do not lead us into temptation’,” I say, obviously jogging her memory because she joins in afterwards.

“ ‘But deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.’ ”

We sit on the floor and I stare at the empty chair by the desk in the corner where Beckie should be doing her homework. Then: “Alex, why do we say that?”

“That’s how we talk to God.”

“Do we always have to talk to God?”

“It never hurts.”

***

Today at school I’m finally called down to Student Services to get my schedule fixed. On my way from the library I notice Miller Stott walking, solo, down the math hall so I have to turn around and take the long way to the front foyer. He’s been everywhere ever since I saw him at the diner and I don’t know if our schedules are suddenly colliding or I’m just noticing him for the first time.

Before I get to Student Services I see Colton Glasby shoving Grant Danson into a locker. I stop, stunned, as a surge of angst jolts me. I’ve never seen someone actually trying to put someone else inside a locker before. The skinny boy is kind of squealing and the bully isn’t saying anything. He just gives one big shove and his friends shut the door, slamming the lock into place. They laugh and high-five each other before walking away and disappearing up the stairs.

I walk into Student Services and wait until Mr. Tollers calls me into his office. I change Advanced English for Regular English, but I don’t get to switch Philosophy for Social Science. My new pink schedule is still warm from the printer. Before I leave I tell Mr. Tollers that I think there’s a kid stuck in a locker in the hallway. And I think about how if I’d taken the math hall I probably wouldn’t have seen Grant get wedged into the wall and he might have been trapped in there all day. Then I go back to the library to kill my spare like none of it ever really happened.

***

I’m late for the bus when I need a ride to the hospital. I argued with Sophy for ten minutes too long about whether or not she was going to come with me. She stayed home from school because of an upset stomach and was apparently not faking it because she still wouldn’t come with me, even when I offered to get milkshakes after.

I run to the bus stop in the village and wait for what feels like five minutes, but in reality is probably only one. I know I’ve missed the bus, but I want to confirm it so I look inside Stott’s Diner (like I’m going to rob the place again) and eventually open the door. The bell rings and I’m half-inside the nearly dead restaurant. I don’t care who the first person I see is, I blurt out, “Hey, did I miss the bus?” in the general direction of the counter.

Miller Stott appears behind the counter, wearing an apron. “What?” he says.

“The bus, did I miss it?”

“Oh. Yeah, it looks like it. That’s the last one too.”

“I know. Thanks.”

I turn to leave, but then: “Do you need a ride?”

Everything in me feels like it has stopped working so all I can do is frown and stare across the restaurant. I want to say Of course I need a ride, that’s why I’m taking the bus.

But Miller says, “I can give you a ride.”

I step all the way inside to weigh out my options.

1. Go home.

2. Drive into town with Miller Stott.

“You’re working, though,” I say.

Miller takes off his apron and tells me that he’s off in five minutes. “Where are you going?” he asks.

I say, “The hospital,” and he looks a little confused, so I say, “I’m going to visit my grandmother.”

He insists after that and is ready to go before his five minutes are up. He puts on a jacket and I hear keys jingle, making this very real.  “Let’s go,” he says, opening the door (ding-ding).

I stare at a man finishing a hamburger at a table in the corner.

“You know who I am, right?” Miller asks, not in a proud way but in an I-hope-this-isn’t-weird-for-you sort of way. “We go to the same school.”

I walk by him and his out-of-place height is more real when being so close, and I get a good look at his face. I kind of like it all of the sudden so I laugh, a silly little giggle. Apparently I’m nervous. “Yeah, I know who you are,” I say. “Do you know who I am?”

The door shuts behind us, and I follow him toward the line of parked cars on the street.

“You’re Alex Podolski,” he says. “Your older sister Bristol married Jasper Lauzon’s brother Rob. You have another sister named Beckie and a little one too, but I don’t know what her name is.”

Miller stops by a little dorky German car and unlocks the passenger door. I say, “Sophy,” and I get inside the car.

Miller shuts the door on me and slams it so hard, using the side of his leg to ensure it shuts properly, that it sounds like the window could shatter, and he says, “Sorry. It sticks sometimes.”

My mouth melts into a smile because I do like his face and then I’m alone for a few seconds, taking it all in until I realize my backpack is still on. I take it off and hold onto it like it’s a flotation device.

Miller gets in the car and has some trouble turning over the engine. The radio comes on and the Beatles start singing. They play all the way to the hospital and all the way back. I’m freaking out inside because this is so random and Miller doesn’t talk to me until we’re on the parkway and he asks, “So is your grandma sick?”

“She’s in a coma.”

“For real?”

“Uh huh.”

“How long has she been in a coma?”

“Three months.”

“No way. That’s crazy. I read about this one guy who was in a coma for, like, thirty years.”

“Yeah…”

That’s pretty much all that goes on until farmland disappears behind us. We pass signs which say WIND FARM and BRIDGE TO USA, and storefronts that say Woolf Island Convenience and Woolf Island Grocer, Woolf Island this and Woolf Island that. I count tall wind turbines staggered in yellow fields, looking like skinny metal dinosaurs because they’re that out of place, until I lose track or get bored.

The city emerges in the form of housing developments and shopping malls. We pass Lowe’s, Home Depot and Canadian Tire all in a row, and then I see City Hall and the Holiday Inn and then we’re facing the hospital.

Miller parks outside the patient pick-up area and I tell him I won’t be long. I run inside and the volunteer sitting at the information desk reminds me to squirt my hands with hand sanitizer, and the rubbing alcohol burns a cut on my thumb.

I take the elevator to the fourth floor and walk into the ICU family lounge. I tell Dennis the Security Guard that I’m here to see May Podolski because I’m her granddaughter, and he flashes an ID badge, making the ward doors open with a buzz.

I find Grandma in the same place I find her every week. Intensive Care Unit, bed five, a different nurse outside her room every twelve hours. Today it’s Stephanie with the long blond ponytail.

I stand beside Grandma as she breathes with a ventilator and has all these IVs sticking out of her neck and arms. Her skin is still wrinkly and her hair is still white, and all I can think about is Miller Stott parked downstairs in his dorky German car. It’s blue. Navy blue.

I wait for a while and sit with Grandma, contemplating what I’m going to tell Aunt Bernice when I phone her and say that I can’t make it to dinner. I can’t go to dinner. I’d have to bring Miller, and Aunt Bernice would think he’s my boyfriend. She’d give him a hard time like he is my boyfriend, and he’d think I’m a nut case and never want to see me again. Not that I want him to want to see me again.

After ten minutes I call Aunt Bernice from the pay phone because I forgot my cell phone and I tell her that Sophy’s sick and we couldn’t make it to see Grandma either. She tells me that it’s okay and that she’ll see me next time. Then I’m off and racing for Miller’s car.

He asks me how it went and I tell him it was fine, so he drives me back to the countryside, “Here Comes the Sun” playing in the background all the while. When we get closer to the village, he volunteers to drive me to my house, and I say, “No, that’s okay. I can walk.”

“From the bus stop?”

“I do it all the time.”

“It’s dark out.”

I don’t disagree on account of it actually being dark out. Then Miller stops the car at the intersection near the center of town and asks, “Where do you live?”

I point to the right and say, “Down there.” I point straight ahead and say, “And you live down there.”

“How do you know where I live?”

“I’m just assuming.”

Miller flicks on his blinker and turns right.

“Hey,” I say.

“It’s not a problem. I can drop you at your driveway, I can drive you to your front door. I can drive you to Toronto if you want, but I’d have to stop for gas…”

Smiling is hard to control. “My driveway is fine.”

So Miller stops at the end of my driveway and I walk inside my house. No one any the wiser.

 

BookCover-Web1

The Music Girl

img_2256I am not a musician, but I have always wanted to be. Simply because musicians can make people feel things instantly.

My parents recently inherited my great-mother’s piano. It was the piano my father grew up playing and it was the piano, aside from the one in my own house, that my siblings and I used to bang on whenever we visited my grandparents. Growing up, the piano in my house was always well-used, thanks to my father. Stories of his stint as a talented teenage pianist, travelling with bands from summer camps to churches to prisons, will still randomly come out at family get-togethers (or if Dad and I are alone and there is too much silence). My grandmother and my aunt are also wonderfully musical. When I began writing as a young girl, I knew it was only a matter of time before music became one of the main threads in one of my stories.

If summer was the first spark of inspiration for Reeds & Wicks, then the second was, of course, music. In fact, there remained a giant hole in the book for a few years until a friend introduced me to a musician I had never heard before, and like magic, the book finished itself, better and stronger than ever. That artist was Strahan. “You’re the Dawn”, “Deliverance” and “Vineyard” from his album, Posters, are my favourites. This is “You’re the Dawn”. I can’t listen to it without getting swept away.

Hudson Taylor’s EP Battles embodies so much of John Luke’s emotions, most of which he doesn’t realize are there until the end of the book. “Walls” by Gideon Grove is a soft, strong song that just sounds like John Luke’s thoughts. Same with “Stars and Satellites” by Dan Griffin. Plus, anything by NEEDTOBREATHE. And I mean anything.

Then there is Johnny Flynn and John Fahey. Johnny Flynn’s album A Larum helped me shape my first serious attempt at serious writing way back when I was a baby (17, actually). He basically changed my life forever (no big deal), but that’s another story. Literally. One I hope to share with you one day. So, if Strahan helped me finish R&W, then Johnny Flynn helped me start it. This is “Leftovers”.

Nate credits his discovery of his love of music in Mr. Rickshaw’s music store after listening to a record by American fingerstyle guitarist John Fahey. Here is “In Christ There is No East or West”.  Keep listening. 1:11 is when I just get so happy.

Mumford & Sons’ album Sigh No More is one of my favourite albums still to this day because of the lyrics. Such poetry. I must include this video of “Roll Away Your Stone”.

“Madelyn and the guys sang “Georgy Girl” by The Seekers, an Australian pop group from the sixties, just to annoy Ross. When he and Dad were in the seventh grade, their school put on a musical, featuring songs by the band. Ross wanted the lead, but it went to Dad instead. To this day, I still hear Dad singing the songs under his breath while completing chores around the house.”

True story. When my dad was in 7th grade, he starred in a school musical, featuring songs by the Australian band, The Seekers. To end this letter dedicated to the music behind Reeds & Wicks, I have to include this awesome video of the band performing in 1967.

In Good Company

img_2250My sister painted this illustration while I was working on some late drafts of Reeds & Wicks. She asked me which instruments she should base her drawings on, so I suggested a few, especially the inclusion of a steel-bodied resonator guitar, which is Nate’s guitar of choice in Reeds & Wicks (you can read the first chapter here). I really do love the cast of characters which star in this book, so I thought it was a good time to share some sketches.

No. 1 Nathaniel Poet, The Brother

“Dad’s name was Christopher Poet. So, my name, too, was Poet and I always felt the pressure to be deep or meaningful. Sophisticated even, like I should compose or write or be artistic. But ever since I could remember, all I’d ever wanted was open space, sky or sea. I thought that was all Nate wanted, too. I thought we were together in everything. But Nate was a poet. He wrote, he composed, he was artistic. His ambitions went beyond open space. I was reminded of our differences every time I found him doing weird things. Like laying in the middle of my bedroom floor, listening to my tape of “Stairway to Heaven” on my Walkman and refusing to come down for dinner, no matter how many times Mom shook his shoulder.”

I’m going to start with Nate. Nathaniel Poet is our protagonist’s older, musical brother. He is at once mature and childish. Wise and foolish. Caring and unfeeling. He feels things deeply and struggles with constantly climbing up from lows and crashing down from highs.

“It wasn’t hard to understand why she was in love with him, if that’s what she was. Nate was good-looking, talented; he always said the right things at the right time, managing to sound poetic and tough simultaneously. He had convinced Madelyn to overlook her self-doubt with one word, one look, and she was absent to the rest of us.”

John Luke has always felt protected by his brother. He has always trusted his brother. But there is always something in his charm, which John Luke knows is deceptive.

No. 2 Madelyn Odine, The Girl

“The first time I saw Madelyn Odine, I thought she was a ghost…Her shoes were the only things which grounded her. The rest of her clothes were made with muddy colours of pink, and her hair was the colour of pinewood.”

Next is Madelyn Odine. I can’t call her a protagonist or an antagonist because I don’t want to ruin any future reading of the book. She is the newest member of Reeds and Wicks, and the only female character with an active role throughout most of the story. She’s beautiful, talented and hurting. And she causes most of the conflicts—or at least, in the end, causes the roots of the problems in John Luke’s mind to be exposed. She is at best, a paradox like Nate.

“Sometimes, Madelyn seemed a thousand years-old to me, knowing all the way around life. Then, at other times, she appeared to me like a child, lost and perhaps suffering. I wanted to protect the little girl, but a part of me was intimidated by the woman. The child made me feel ten feet tall, asking for help, for affection. But the adult left me feeling inferior, waiting to be scolded for a crime I didn’t know I committed.”

But once the band is on the road, away from everything familiar and secure, John Luke can’t help it: he’s in love with her.

No. 3 John Luke Poet, The Narrator

Finally, there is John Luke Poet—our narrator. He’s 16 years-old when the book begins. He lives for sunshine and silver water, for unchartered territory and, as he puts it, “the dust and dirt of our cropless land”. He is contemplative; quick to listen and slow to speak—not always because he’s wise, but because he’s shy. I don’t want to say much about him because the instant you start reading, you meet him. And I think you’ll be friends.

“What are you expecting out there?” I asked Nate about the road.
“Gold, Jay. I’m expecting gold.”
Then he looked at me and grinned and we both started to laugh like only brothers could laugh.”

Normally, I would shout STAY GOLD, PONYBOY after a moment like that, so I guess, I will.

Stay gold, Ponyboy.

P.S. If you have never read The Outsiders, please read The Outsiders.

P.P.S If you love my sister’s artwork as much as I do, you can purchase this print (and heaps more) here.

Visions of Summer

“The sky was perfectly blue and the sun was a golden-white circle directly above me. The air was heavy and made things blurry, melting trees and pavement into watery waves of colour.”

Reeds & Wicks is drenched in summer. The first time I shared it with anyone, I sat on a sun-soaked dock at Jones Falls Park on a hot July afternoon and I read page after page of these brothers and their struggle to grow up. And although, the book stretches into autumn and winter (“The months of heat had left the land scarce and empty, ready to receive a fresh transformation into a cold and white wasteland, distorting it with the beauty of delicate snowflakes and crystal clean banks.”), the story lives in summer.

“I tugged the headphones from my ears to listen to the wide-open spaces. The Beach Boys sang almost silently in a tinny irritating buzz around my neck as I stared in the direction the creek flowed. If I looked hard enough I could imagine where the stream met the St. Lawrence River. I couldn’t see the actual river, but I knew it was there, calling to me.”

If you have read my first novel, Meet Me Back Here, Alright? then you will be familiar with John Luke’s Woolf Island. However, Alex Podolski’s Woolf Island and John Luke’s Woolf Island are different. For one reason: John Luke loves Woolf Island. (Click here for Alex’s impression of this real/ imaginary place.)

“The beach was a mile-long curve in the bay of the Island, a band of soft yellow sand twenty feet wide then small gray stones, washed smoothed by the unending surge of water. We sat in the sand and waves rolled quietly into whitecaps and rushed toward our feet.”

When I saw this ad on TV (while I was watching an episode of Murdoch Mysteries with my mum, as one does) I was like THAT’S WHERE I’M FROM. Proud moment. Come and visit some time.

The Countdown Begins

Grice (10)Daydreamer John Luke Poet has just graduated from high school two years early. Instead of planning his next academic achievement, all he wants is to explore the waterways of the St. Lawrence River on his dad’s new catamaran sailboat. His older brother, Nate and his amateur folk-rock band dream of more.

John Luke has always supported Nate’s wild, musical aspirations. So when Nate announces plans for a gig-filled summer road trip, John Luke has no problem tagging along. Until he meets Madelyn Odine, the band’s beautiful new member–and Nate’s new girlfriend. Love and loyalty are tested as the band heads toward glory and experience, and only one thing is certain: nothing will ever be the same again.

Available Aug. 16, 2018

Click here to Pre-order today exclusively in the Kobo Store

Click here to read Chapter One