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

If you missed last week’s episode, catch up in the “Stories” tab in the main menu.

Never miss a story by joining my mailing list at the bottom of the page and get free stories, book updates and more sent directly to your inbox

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.

Returns for an extra episode on Thursday

If you missed last week’s episode, catch up in the “Stories” tab in the main menu.

Never miss a story by joining my mailing list at the bottom of the page and get free stories, book updates and more sent directly to your inbox

Letters to Elliot Hawthorne Ep. 2

[2]

Elliot Hawthorne was a man of many faces. Multifaceted, complex—sure. Schizophrenic, crazy—no. He went through life smoothly in some matter of speaking because Elliot was a simple kind of man in some matter of speaking. During his school years his presence in class was rarely noticed, though he held a perfect attendance record. He was never outspoken, flashy or rude. No team held his company. He excelled in philosophy, mathematics and chemistry. Yet upon graduating, Elliot, in fact all his life, was rumoured to have been in rebellion. “Attitudes issues,” one of his teachers claimed. They said his post-modern ideas and cynicism were the root causes to his so-called depression. Anger and bitterness toward a person he never met, but soon desired to, was more or less like it.

He came from relatively normal people and they were out there somewhere, alive and kicking. “Such an awful and lonesome idea,” Elliot used to tell people, “to be the one and only offspring of two unfortunate people who had wanted nothing to do with you since your first day outside the womb.”

Angela was Elliot’s mother and she was a pretty girl with heart and soul and a way with words and singing and laughing and dancing that made everyone fall in love with her. So was the case with Richard Hawthorne. He came into her life as fast as he was taken out. They lived, loved and their passion resulted in a child whom, of course, was named Elliot.

Richard Hawthorne was a pitiable creature; a man who you could have some compassion toward. He was born with a capacity for great joy, but so harboured the tendency to wallow in giant grief. He was raised by a single mother who tried her hardest but had no luck with money, men or society. Her efforts to provide for and love her only son were something to admire and esteem, and Richard could have taken after his mother if it weren’t for his itching desire to run, kicking free and wild like a newborn calf out of the stall. If he were smart, he’d blame his nature on the absence of a father, for that was the reason for his inability to nurture things, human or not. He had only known abandonment and so abandonment was all he chose to offer.

Everyone expected Richard to propose to Angela, but he didn’t. Angela was nineteen and wouldn’t have let him go through with it because she didn’t love him, though she loved her unborn child. Richard left the St. David region, the county where everyone knew everything about everyone, and wasn’t seen again for many years.

Angela lived with her parents until her son was born and loved and cared for him for the first two years of his life. She was twenty-one and wanted an education, but there was no way of getting one where she was from; no college near St. David would be the school for her. She needed a new life in some far-away town where no one knew her. So, her father allowed her to go East to study and get a job; he’d taken care of a child before and he could do it again.

Julia and Samuel Weal loved Elliot like grandparents, not as parents for they believed that to be a very sacred love, an irreplaceable love; one they were sure Elliot would be able to sense counterfeit of. Angela wrote letters and sent pictures and assured phone calls home about her success and failures alike, but when the communication dwindled, when the mail was dispersed, long months spent with nothing but anxious days waiting and hoping, her mother and father were moved to disapproval. They wanted to protect Elliot from the false promise, the wavering devotion shown by his mother, to ensure his heart would never grow sick. Because, of course, you and I both know that hope deferred makes the heart grow sick, and deceit and separation lack all good things. And the hope felt by a child to know their parents was deep-rooted whether that child knew his or her parents were out there in the world or not.

Living with his grandparents and his grandparents alone was all Elliot had ever known and it did him just fine. Although, Grandma Julia died too young, too soon and without any warning. Her death hit Samuel in his heart, in his very soul, but young Elliot’s face forced him out of depression and into forward motion, saving him from a life drenched in misery.

Grandpa Samuel, one of Elliot’s only living relatives, roomed his grandson in his one-man cabin built, lonely, in the center of a wheat field on a never-ending paved parkway in the county where everyone knew everything about everyone. And he taught Elliot everything he needed to know about how to be a human. He sang to him, he cradled him, hugged him and fed him. He let him pet giant horses and drive his truck when he was still much too small. He told him he could drink beer and smoke cigarettes when he was old enough and Elliot tried it; his common sense told him he hated it even if a part of his flesh told him he loved it. Grandpa Samuel taught him about God and how to appreciate the water and the sun and the springtime and the sound of a round neck wood-bodied resonator guitar. He gave him a job at the Cheese Factory where he had worked since he was a teenager and paid him to mop the floors at the downtown office. But most of all he loved Elliot and Elliot loved him back and that is what it feels like to be a human he used to say.

They spent summers making blackberry preserves. They grew the berries themselves, picked them, boiled them, added sugar, crushed and sold them at local fairs. They began bright July afternoons practicing their skills with Grandpa Samuel’s new hunting rifle and at night took trips to the Town’s bowling alley. And lest we forget the daily trips to the Lake to catch the night’s dinner. There at the Lake they had many deep discussions, tossing many cosmic questions into the air.

Someone once said that Elliot Hawthorne walked around looking like he knew something the rest of us didn’t. The way he quoted poets; the way he looked at sunsets as if they meant something. He could have for all they knew; Elliot Hawthorne could have been a prophet. But he wasn’t. You and I both know that, but prophet or not Elliot puzzled people. “Oh, Elliot?” some would declare, “He holds his guitar like Johnny Cash.” Others would claim: “He’s a whiz kid, real smart, you know the type?” Of course, the girls secretly loved him, saying: “Who Elliot? He’s a cutie, a total sweetheart.” And, of course, the jocks scoffed: “Hawthorne? If I ever see him in a dark alley at night…” He wore black P.F Flyers, had a habit of wearing wrinkled button-front shirts, and skinny black ties when the occasion called for it, and he had one old blazer made of herringbone which belonged to Grandpa Samuel and oh, how it smelled of him.

One thing was true and it was this. Elliot’s mind was forever winding, constantly turning, switching like a radio scanner with too many stations. And the thoughts channelling through his mind always spoke of a cold war. On that radio inside his head, in between the twang of a guitar and a pull of a violin, voices rang out to him, telling him of this war; a war that would soon come to a head or an end, whichever came first.

The world around them would say it was a life of grief and sorrow that killed Samuel Weal and some even said it was Elliot himself who did it. It happened in the summer, and in that summer when he was alone for the very first time, Elliot decided that he would start a new kind of life, something along the lines of what his mother had done once.

Now, Grandpa Samuel believed solely in the school of life. There’s nothing you can learn in some fancy classroom in some fancy school that you can’t learn out in a field, he always said. And I’ll tell you, Elliot always esteemed his grandfather’s ideas, though he had a disrespectful impulse to refute them every once and a while. This once and a while being this moment exactly, for Elliot had been accepted into St. David’s College on the Lake and was preparing to travel toward it in hopes of securing some intimate relationship with the land and the school and maybe the people around it. And even though it pained him to do it, Elliot liked to think Grandpa Samuel was laughing about it anyway.

His story begins in September when summer isn’t ready to die and autumn isn’t ready to be born. It was about the same time three students were singing in a choir at St. David’s College; they were like this: Bridget Welles, Gemma Lumley and Tom Doyle; and I only mention them because they are of some grave importance to the story.

Returns next Tuesday

If you missed last week’s episode, catch up in the “Stories” tab in the main menu.

Never miss a story by joining my mailing list at the bottom of the page and get free stories & book updates sent directly to your inbox

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.)

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.