Fiction Friday: First Day of School

Author’s note: This is the second chapter of my 2013 National Novel Writing Month novel, The Toast. For the first chapter, please read When Kate Met Sarah.

I remember being very excited to start school. My brother had been going to school for a couple of years by now, and I was always so jealous that he got to go somewhere every day and see people who weren’t family. I jumped at the chance to go with Mom to pick him up, and I was ecstatic to know I would soon be picked up from school, just like Nate was. The day before the first day of school, Sarah and I spent the afternoon playing with the Barbie dolls she’d just gotten for her birthday. I mentioned something about going to school and how great it would be. Sarah just shrank back.

“I’m scared,” she whimpered. “I don’t want to go.”

I still have that image of her in my head: cowering, trembling, and already missing her mother.

“Why would you be scared?”

“My sisters said the other kids will tease me and call me names. They might even beat me up.”

I didn’t know what outrage was when I was five years old, but that’s what I felt. “That’s not gonna happen. “

Sarah looked at me for reassurance.

“If anyone even looks like they’re gonna beat you up, I’ll beat them up first.”

She laughed, but still looked skeptical.

“I’m serious.” I jumped up from my spot on the floor, and stood in a wide stance, my hands in fists on my hips, a gesture of my newfound bravado. “If anyone tries to hit you, I’ll do this.” I went into a mock rage, my legs and arms a flurry of swift punches and ninja kicks. Sarah thought this was utterly hysterical, so when she shrieked with laughter, I punched harder, kicked higher, and grunted as loudly as I could with each one. I had never seen Sarah laugh like this, and I’m not sure I’ve seen her laugh like this since. After a few minutes of this, her mother came upstairs to find out what was going on. After this and the incident on the first day of school, it was a while before I was invited back over to Sarah’s house.

The first day of school was not as easy as either of us hoped it would be. Sarah and I got into the same class, and when I heard this, I thought things had worked out well. I’d felt fiercely protective of her since she expressed her fears of school, and I was glad I could be there for her if she felt lonely or missed her mother or if someone picked on her. Unfortunately, I didn’t know we were going to be seated by in alphabetical order by last name. Sarah and I were soon separated. I was seated at a round blue table on one side of the room, and she was assigned to a yellow triangular table on the other side. She looked at me from the other side of the room; it felt like we were a world apart. I could see the pain in her face, the tears that had yet to fall. I started to go to her, but Mrs. Austin, our teacher, made me sit down. When Sarah finally started to cry, it broke my heart. Mrs. Austin tried to calm her down, but Sarah was inconsolable. After begging Mrs. Austin to let her sit by me, she gave in, and I took a seat at the triangle table next to Sarah. Not a peep was heard from Sarah after that.

This display of behavior, as well as the frilly blue frock Sarah’s mother dressed her in, Sarah was an easy target for bullies. While we were at recess, Sarah and I played differently. The other children in our class played on the jungle gym or swings, but Sarah and I walked laps around the small kindergarten playground, talking to ourselves and enjoying the outdoors. Sarah bent down to pick a stray yellow flower growing in the field. She smiled and admired it. Seeing her smile made me smile.

“You know that’s a weed.”

The voice came from behind us. We both turned around to see a willowy blond boy. His shaggy hair clumped in tufts around his temples. He was taller than us; long arms crossed over his chest, long legs sprouted from dirty socks and sneakers. His scowl intimidated us. I couldn’t see Sarah, but I knew she was probably scared.

“I don’t care,” Sarah said. The flower quivered in her little hand. “It’s pretty.”

“Weeds aren’t pretty,” replied the boy. “They’re weeds.”

“I don’t care.” Sarah’s timid defiance impressed me. “I like it anyway.”

Her defiance must have surprised the boy as well. His sneer intensified. “Go ahead then, crybaby.”

Whoa, crybaby? I was happy to let Sarah fight her own battle over the flower, but now that he was insulting Sarah, as her sworn protector, I had to get involved. “Who are you calling a crybaby?”

“This crybaby right here.” He poked Sarah hard in the chest. “Everybody saw her this morning. Just like this!” He started to imitate her then, but not accurately; Sarah’s sobs had been quiet but distressing, and this bully was loud and theatrical and I wasn’t going to stand for it. While he was giving this performance, I set my jaw and, without warning, kicked him as hard as I could in the shin. His fake whining turned into real whining. He fell to the ground, looking up at me. He towered over me before, but now I was taller, bigger, superior.

“You’re mean!” he shrieked. “I’m going to tell Mrs. Austin!”

“You were mean first!” I shouted back. “You big dumb boy!”

That did it. “I’m a girl!” he cried. He ran toward where our teacher was sitting on the very edge of the playground.

Sarah looked at me, and hid behind me a little. I watched as the boy/girl pointed us out to Mrs. Austin, gestured toward his/her leg, then back at us. I was scared, but I stood my ground. Mrs. Austin cupped her hands around her mouth and called out to us. I told Sarah not to worry, and we walked together to our teacher.

All three of us were made to sit out for the rest of recess. I felt bad that I was in trouble, but mostly I felt bad for Sarah. She cried the whole time we were being punished, which led me to believe she’d never been in trouble before. She’d gotten in trouble for the first time, and it was because of me, because I was doing what I thought was right. After recess, the three of us were taken aside and asked to explain the situation. Nicky, who turned out to be a girl after all, left out the part where she bullied Sarah and only explained the part where I kicked her. Sarah just cried. I didn’t deny kicking Nicky, but I explained that I had a good reason for doing it. Apparently, according to kindergarten teachers, there’s never a good reason to kick someone in the shin. Parents were called, apologies were made, and punishments were doled out. Sarah was let go when I explained she wasn’t involved in the fight, but she was still really upset. Nicky and I lost recess privileges for the rest of the week.

When I got home, my mother asked me if I felt bad about what I did. I said no, because I did it to protect Sarah. I explained that I felt bad about losing my recess privileges, but I did the right thing.

“Katie, you can’t just take matters into your own hands and kick people.”

“I thought he – I mean she – I thought she was going to hurt Sarah.”

“Tell your teacher next time, all right? That’s who should handle things like this.”

“What about Sarah?”

“You can’t fight Sarah’s battles for her. I know you and she are close, but she has to learn how to take care of herself.”

I nodded, and I was left in my room alone that night. I was in trouble, so there was no TV, no toys, nothing but homework until I went to bed.

Fiction Friday: The Children

Marty and Rosemary loved their children more than life itself. They became parents early in life, and as such, life during parenthood had been a struggle. Rosemary gave birth to Camille at the age of 16, when she was a high school junior and Marty was entering college. Ultimately, they both dropped out of school to care for their daughter. Audrey was born soon after, and Cody was born shortly after her.

Marty and Rosemary were now in their mid-20s, with three children to feed and no way to feed them. The children were not yet at an age where they could not yet help provide for themselves; they were now at an age where they required a great deal of money to maintain. Camille was now ten years old, and had developed an early tendency to bow to peer pressure. Whatever her friends had, that’s what she had to have. Audrey was eight, and while she wasn’t yet as desperate as her sister to fit in, she was a somewhat frail child and required medicines and regular visits to the doctor to keep her asthma, allergies, and frequent illnesses under control. Cody was five, and just entering kindergarten, he was at that age where he was outgrowing clothes faster than his parents could obtain them. Being a boy, he mostly wore his sisters’ old clothes, and was teased mercilessly for it.

One cold night, after a disheartening budgeting session, Marty and Rosemary leaned back in their chairs. They’d looked at everything: bank statements, pay stubs, welfare. They’d gone over their expenses and cut everything they had left to cut. They still didn’t have enough money to live. Marty scrubbed a heavy, dirty hand over his face. Rosemary cried tears of frustration. “I don’t know else to do,” she said, wiping her eyes.

“There’s nothing else we can do.” Marty sighed. “I think we’ve finally come to the point where we can’t afford these kids anymore.”

They both knew it would come someday. After all those years of struggling, of being unable to find work, of borrowing from parents and relatives until they refused, of doing dangerous or illegal things for money, they had finally hit the breaking point. They were going to have to sell their children.

They’d joked about it when Camille was a couple of months old. Marty had fallen from a scaffold painting a house and was too hurt to work for months. All of the money they had went to paying for his medical treatments, and whatever was left was put toward living expenses. There was very little they could spend on the baby; they’d fashioned cloth diapers out of old clothes and spent weeks without electricity to be able to afford the other things she might need. On one of those dark nights, with the windows open and the noise from the street rushing inside, they’d laughed about selling Camille to the Chinese takeout downstairs. Rosemary had been appalled, but laughed when she imagined her infant daughter splayed on the table like a Peking duck.

“I love my kids,” Rosemary said, slouching over her many financial documents. “I wish there was a better way.”

“I’ve spent years trying to come up with one. The fact is, the kids are the biggest drain on our finances. Even if we gave one away, that’s still hundreds – maybe thousands – of dollars we could save. If we could sell one, we’d save that money and make a little extra. If we sold all three, we could be on our feet again. We wouldn’t have to do this soul-sucking budget stuff every week to make sure we can afford to barely feed everyone. We’d never have to worry about not having enough.”

Rosemary shook her head. “I can’t believe I’m even considering this.”

Marty leaned over and kissed her forehead. “I know, I hate this as much as you do. It’s the only answer, though. It’s the only way. Who knows, maybe they can do better than us. Maybe someone who’s well-off will take them and give them a better life, or at least give them a job. At least they won’t be here living the crummy life they have now.”

They talked no more of it that night. They climbed into bed, but didn’t sleep.

The next night, after the children were in bed, they convened again at the table to discuss the issue..

“I can’t sell off all of my children,” she told him. “I’ll give up two of them, but I can’t let go of all three.”

Marty nodded. “I agree. Let’s decide which one we’ll keep, and we’ll sell the rest.”

Rosemary sighed. “I didn’t sleep at all last night. I was trying to decide which one I’d want to keep the most.”

“What did you come up with?”

“Right now, I think Audrey’s the one we’ll have to keep. With as much medicine and attention as she requires, it’ll be impossible to convince someone to take her.”

“She’s also the one who costs the most to keep.”

“I thought about that, too. What about Camille and Cody?”

“That’s a tough choice, too.  The way I see it, we’ll save money if we keep Camille. If we sell her, we give up the money we’ve already invested in her. Then we’ll have to spend that same money on Cody. What do you think?”

“I would choose to keep Cody over Camille. At least with Cody, we’ll have a chance to save for college. There’s no way we’ll be able to send Camille to college, even if we sell the other two while we continue to struggle.”

Marty sighed. “This isn’t as easy as I thought it would be.”

“Why should it be easy? We’re discussing the sickest thing in the world.”

“Cody’s young. He might not understand what’s happening to him, but he probably won’t remember us much. We may not even have to tell him why he’s leaving, just that he is.”

“He’d be so afraid if we sent him off on his own. He doesn’t even like going to school.”

“I’m sure any of them will be afraid. We’ll be afraid for them. We can’t let that affect our decision.”

“I guess Camille would have a harder time being told she’s a burden.”

Marty nodded.

“She might take it better, though. I’m sure she knows about the trouble we’ve been having. We may be able to convince her it’s the best thing for all of us.”

He yawned. “Maybe we should take another night to think about this.”

“No. I don’t want to spend another night lying awake, trying to decide which of my children I want to keep. I want to settle this tonight, so I can spend the rest of my life lying awake and wondering what happened to them.”

Marty sighed. “I can’t decide, so I’ll flip a coin.”

Rosemary laughed. “I can’t believe I’m going along with this. A coin flip to decide which of my children I sell. All right, flip the damn coin. Heads, we sell Cody. Tails, we sell Camille.”

Marty dug around in his pocket. “Is it ironic that we’re flipping a coin to determine who bails us out of poverty?”

Rosemary snorted out a laugh, then covered her mouth and composed herself. Marty pulled a quarter from his wallet, launched it into the air with his thumb, and closed his fingers over it when it landed in his palm. He placed it on the top of his other hand, drew back his fingers, and peeked.

“Tails,” he said.

Rosemary shut her eyes and nodded. “So it’s settled.”

Marty put the coin back in his pocket. “Yeah. It’s settled.”

Rosemary spent the night lying awake, thinking about what the sale of her daughters would bring them. They would save a fortune not having to buy Audrey’s medicine. They wouldn’t have to buy tampons and makeup and whatever girly things they want. Cody was a boy, so he would certainly be less maintenance than the girls. She sighed. She hoped the girls would understand.

Fiction Friday: When Kate Met Sarah

Author’s Note: This is the first chapter of the novel I wrote for National Novel Writing Month 2013. Originally, it was a story about old friends; Sarah is about to get married, and asks Kate, her lifelong friend, to give a toast at her wedding. Kate then recalls all the major events of their friendship, which makes up the story. For right now, I’m just picking the bits I liked best. 

One of my earliest memories is of Sarah; specifically, of her family moving into the house next door to mine. I went with my brother and my parents to greet them. This was the early nineties, maybe even the late eighties. Sarah’s parents hit it off right away, and shooed all the children outside to play so they could carouse without us around to destroy anything.

Sarah has four sisters.  Michelle was twelve, Cassie was ten, Lisa was nine, and Stephanie was eight. By comparison, I was five or six, and Nate, my brother, was eight or nine. The older girls were talkative and lively, telling us about their old school on the other side of town, about their old house that they liked better than the new one, about all the things the west side of town had that the east side didn’t. Nate could converse about these subjects, but I didn’t care at all. Instead, I was more interested in the quiet girl on the porch, completely enthralled in her coloring book.

I still remember what she looked like then. Her dark brown hair was swept back into a messy, loose ponytail. Blunt fringe met large, round glasses, through which her hazel eyes seemed enormous. Those glasses on her thin face and porcelain skin made her seem small, frail, doll-like. She wore a faded tank top and denim cutoff shorts that hung limply on her body, clothes that were probably worn by all her sisters before her. When I think of Sarah, this is how I think of her.

As I approached her, she continued to color. Either she ignored me or was concentrating very hard on coloring. I saw that she had the good Crayola crayons, and not the crappy cheap ones I had that were waxy and just smeared color around. Crayon quality was a status item to pre-kindergarten children. Everyone wanted to be friends with the kid who had the 96 pack. If you had any other crayon, you were judged accordingly. Even having the Crayola 16 or 24 packs would earn you a friend or two. If you had store-brand crayons, you were a pariah until you upgraded. If you had colored pencils or markers, you were a god.

“What are you coloring?”

She looked up at me with those huge eyes, those huge glasses, and stiffened a little. “Miss Piggy”, she said eventually. Her voice was sweet and shy.

I sat down on the porch, leaving maybe a foot of space between us. I could tell she was nervous with all these new people around. I was just barely able to get a look at her work. “It looks good.”

She waited until she was finished coloring the entirety of Piggy’s hair to reply. “Thanks.”

A few silent minutes went by. I watched the older girls and Nate talking, casual and effortless. I looked at Sarah. She was enjoying herself, but I felt awkward. I didn’t know what to say to this girl. All I could think about was how badly I coveted her crayons. After a while, she picked up on it, or had warmed up enough to me to let me in. She scooted over and put the coloring book and crayons between us, turning to a fresh page. “You can color if you want,” she said. She looked at me and gave me this innocent, sincere smile. I returned it, and I fought the urge to hug her. Instead, I channeled my enthusiasm into coloring Gonzo just the right shade of blue-purple. We only spoke when asking for certain colors. Our pre-kindergarten educations had prepared us for this very moment. We were silent, efficient, tireless coloring machines.

It was nearly dark when my parents called for us to go home. I was reluctant to leave. Sarah and I had barely said a word to each other the entire time, and I still knew very little about her, but I felt a certain kinship with her. We shared much more than crayons, we forged a bond. I didn’t feel close enough to her to call her my friend just yet, but I could feel the potential there. Before I left, Sarah put her arms around me for a brief moment, and I heard her mother gasp and say something about how out of character it was for Sarah to be affectionate.

Fiction Friday: The Fey Girl and Death

Author’s note: I created a writing challenge with words chosen from a vocabulary-building calendar I was given for Christmas. I chose a word from each week and challenged myself to use all the words in a short story. The list of obscure words and their definitions can be found here. The story was taken from this writing prompt posted on r/writingprompts. This was originally posted on on January 17, 2013.

There she was. She was still, peaceful, unconscious. Her flaxen hair, spattered with blood, was fanned out over the crisp and sterile pillow. Even after the accident had etiolated her to this frail state, she was beautiful. In life, she had been a dancer, and had the lean terpsichorean body to prove it, though now it was mangled and beaten. In life, she had been a kind and caring person, loved by everyone and held in high regard by her peers. Now, Death was coming to collect, but he could not. Death didn’t want to take her. Death had fallen in love with her.

He’d come to collect her long ago, and saw her lying so helplessly in her bed. Her family stood vigil in her hospital room. Colporteurs came to offer their books and support. Friends and acquaintances and members of the dance company came to visit and check on her status. Upon seeing her, Death too took up at her bedside, watched TV with her parents, caressed her smooth skin with his bony fingers. He listened to the doctors and nurses discuss her condition. “We don’t understand it”, they’d say. “She should never have lived like this for so long.”

The hospital tried its hardest to be warm and inviting, but still felt carceral, cold and impersonal. Death wandered the corridors, studied the flat faces of the doctors and nurses, went about collecting other debts as they sprang up. Work had always been easy for Death; veridical and inflexible, he always came to collect, and never left without the one he came for. He disregarded any begging, any offers to negotiate, any offers for that game of chess or rock-paper-scissors that would afford them another few years on Earth. No one could wangle their way out of collection. Until now, that is. No one affected Death like she did.

He didn’t like eavesdropping on her relatives and friends, but he wanted to, just to hear them talk about her. Most of them were nudniks and fools, but they were genuine, and Death loved to hear each kind thought and hypocorism they spoke. Had Death a face, he might have smiled. They left get well cards and billets-doux, flowers and stuffed animals, small oriflammes that had less to do with her recovery and more to do with the sender’s hope that, somehow, recovery might be possible. There wasn’t a person on Earth who didn’t hate seeing her life and her talent wasted. Even Death, who didn’t care one way or the other, couldn’t bring himself to end her life.

Death was his own boss; there was no one to whom he was sequacious or compliant. There was no one to whom he would have to malinger. There was no greater authority than Death. There was no one who could scold his sudden cathexis or hound him for ignoring his duties for so long. It’s not that he wanted to ignore them. Whenever there was a new debt to collect, he would leave her side, attend to it, and return. He’d found it so easy to take all the others. People’s reactions were unpredictable, but always fell into one category or another; most were fearful of him. Some would grovel and beg for more time. Some would offer him whatever he wanted, as if Death was a venal politician. Some, upon seeing him, would speak to him, knowing the process could not be stopped, recognizing certain truths and regrets about their ending lives. Others greeted him with unabashed billingsgate or an effrontery that turned out to be a pathetic fanfaronade. Death cared not for last minute antics. He did wonder, though, which one this beautiful fey girl would be.

Death wasn’t sure what it was about her that made him love her. Before now, love had been a foreign concept to him. Death’s understanding of love had been gleaned from the lives he collected and the reactions of those who mourned them. As he saw it, love was a thing that made people selfish and irrational. Now, Death had fallen into the same trap. As he was there to collect her life, after taking the lives of so many others, he just wanted to be by her side. He wanted to preserve her this way, to have her to himself, unconscious and inchoate, for as long as possible before sending her to the fiery vorago that would receive her.

Death had stumbled upon another new concept: daydreaming. Sometimes, while he was watching her, combing his thin bones through her aureate hair, he’d wonder what she was like in life. Through observing her visitors and listening to the things they said, he was able to retrodict the events of her life. She’d been a terrific dancer, an arriviste that angered and upset the older, more experienced dancers. She found humor in irony and malapropism. She lived her life on her own terms, never swaying to the masscult. Oh, how he hoped she lived her life to the fullest. Her life was far too short; every life was. He just never noticed, or cared, until now.

A nurse came in and applied a styptic to an open lesion on her arm, then left. He was alone with her now. The TV was on; there was a film about two men hopelessly chasing a MacGuffin while they learned to tolerate each other. He’d recognized it; just last week he’d collected a man famous for his sarcastic ekphrasis of it. He felt like they were bonding. It was unlikely she knew the TV was even on, but it felt, to him, like they were growing closer, that they were normal. Weeks went by this way. Death took care of his errands and spent his downtimes in her hospital room, watching TV, studying her visitors, or just sitting and admiring her. Even in this half-death, even after the maceration of her skin and the toll her accident had taken on her body, she was still the most beautiful creature on Earth. The alterity of that beauty, the gentleness and kindness she exuded, that’s what he cherished most.

A time came when Death realized that keeping her on Earth was wrong. In so many ways, it was horribly wrong. He watched her friends and family visit; in the beginning, when he first came for her, they would smile sad smiles and hold her twisted hands, telling her that it would be all right, that she would recover, that things would be back to normal soon. Those visits and those messages were frequent in the first few weeks. As time went on, her visitors were less encouraged. They were now speaking to her about the need for closure and the hope that it will come soon for all of them. This tore at Death; had Death a heart, these words would have broken it. He was realizing how unfair it was to her, and to everyone who cared about her, to keep her like this. She lived in this repugnant state because he’d wanted her to; she lived for his own selfish reasons. He could no longer snaffle her away from her family or from her fate. She had to die. He repeated those words to himself. She had to die. Her life was over, and it was his job to take it from her.

Normally, he had a procedure for this, led by an automatic ratiocination. He took some notes, amended his records, wrote a corrigendum or two in case he made a mistake. As prepared as he should have been for this, his execution so far had been extemporaneous and sloppy, as if he was new to the job. Just as he was completing the final steps, she opened her eyes. This had been the first time he’d seen her eyes. They were a blue shimmering oasis, a piercing glimmer of hope that stilled him in this pit of despair. When she saw him, she did not move or cry out. Her lips curled weakly into a smile. He didn’t have to say anything; she knew who he was and what he was there to do. Death held his hand out to her. She struggled to lift her fingers to meet his, but she did. As they touched this final time, her eyes closed. In the wee hours of that January day, she had finally died. Death sat in the visitor’s chair beside her bed, where he’d sat with her so many times before. He listened to the machines shriek, and watched the medical staff shut them down and wheel them out of the room. It was over. She, that beautiful fey girl, fated to die, was finally free.

He’d never loved anyone before; there had never been anyone like her to advert him from his duty. After taking so many lives before hers, he’d never mourned anyone before now, and it didn’t make sense to start. Still, he missed her. He felt an emptiness for her. He spent the longueurs and slow work days with her, and she made him look forward to those times when he used to dread them. Like everyone else, he would need time to get over the loss. Imagine that: Death in mourning.

He delved into his work. He had a renewed interest in his job, a banausic focus, a chthonic neutrality he strove to restore. There was no more time for inane woolgathering or sub rosa eavesdropping on hospital visitors. It was time to collect the dead. After all, Death was the deuteragonist of life. No one was safe from him. There was no conurbation developed enough to hide in, nor was there an ecotone so remote that one would not be found. There was no actor so convincing or a mythomaniac so believable that Death would be fooled and forgiving. From now on, Death came after everyone, and waited for no one. Ailurophiles were taken with their cats still in their laps. Stamp collectors died while conducting their philately. He went after government apparatchiks and drug cartel camarillas, the dirty canaille masses, the clerisy bent over their pretentious books. Death was the ultimate factotum: exterminator, janitor, savior, liberator.

Occasionally, he thought of her. He’d encounter a similar cold hospital room or a pretty blonde girl, and he’d remember the time he spent with her. He’d remember the internal tu quoque arguments he’d had with himself, criticizing humanity for being selfish in love while keeping a young woman from her fate. He wouldn’t let himself think of that lean terpsichorean body, which was certainly now a vermicular tangle in the ground, or a forgotten pile of ashes in a tarnished urn. For Death, his work was the world; a world to which she no longer belonged.