The Empty Room

•April 11, 2019 • 1 Comment

When we built our new house, I had a list of demands. One was that I would have an office of my own. A writer needs a writing space. I was sure I would write daily if I had a room to myself where I could hide from distractions. Fast forward two years, and that room held my writing computer, my photography computer, my painting supplies, and a million things we had no other place for. And I wrote very little. It seemed we had built a pointless room. Then began the stirrings in our hearts.

Little did we know that while we were hovering over floor plans, God was working his own plan. That room had another purpose. It sits empty now, waiting to fulfill that purpose.

We began our fostering journey on March ninth of this year, 2019. And today I’m sitting at my writing desk, which has been moved to my bedroom, mourning the emptiness that saying farewell to our first placement has left in my home and my heart.

Our journey is special and probably unique. In less than a month, my husband and I, along with our dear friends, the Coreys, tore through the licensing process and became foster parents side-by-side. My husband and I were licensed first, but it was the Coreys’ dream placement that was available. So we took the babies while the Coreys waited for their license. Twin five-month-old babies, one boy and one girl. And we all four fell in love with them immediately. If we thought we spent a lot of time with the Coreys before, it was only because we didn’t have their babies yet!

For six days, the twins lived with us, and we learned a few things. 1. We were a lot younger fifteen years ago when we last had an infant. 2. You can love foster children as your own in seconds, even when you know you’re not going to keep them. 3. When you have babies, you can think of a million things you need to get done, but once they’re gone, none of those things feel like they matter anymore.

The babies moved in with the Coreys yesterday, which is what I wanted. It’s what I prayed for. I slept through the night for the first time in days, which I desperately needed. My heart is filled with joy. But the baby beds are gone, there are no bottles drying by my sink, no diapers need changing, and no radiant baby smiles light my heart up every time I walk through the room. I knew they weren’t mine. I thought it would feel like babysitting. It doesn’t.

We joined a support group for foster parents before we began this journey. I thought I probably didn’t need it. Was I ever wrong! It’s amazing how hopelessly tangled up you can become when you care for a foster child. We’ll be changed forever. The room upstairs is still sitting empty, and I don’t know what God has planned for us. I do know it will bring us joy and pain. And I can’t wait.

The Answers to your Questions (Part two of The Uninvited Guest, below)

•January 22, 2014 • 2 Comments

Dear Rachel,

I hate to hear that you’ve eaten all my chocolate, not only because I was so looking forward to enjoying it, but because it is likely to break you out. If you happen to frequent the store again, please go ahead and pick some more up. It’s more difficult for me to do it myself, you see. Most men don’t recognize me, but women tend to glare.

To answer your question, no, I never switched out your pants. I am not, however, one to sugar coat anything. If your pants won’t button, perhaps you should take my advice and stop taking my chocolate.

It does my heart good to hear that you are sentimental about seeing me. I remember the first time I visited you, and I thought then that you would never welcome me. I do apologize for coming to your middle school and surprising you the way I did and for not warning you I was coming. I’ve never felt less welcome anywhere in my life. The way you hid my presence from all your friends made it perfectly clear how you felt.

It also hurt my feelings when you didn’t invite me to your wedding. I’m told that you actually planned it around my visit. Can you think of anything more hurtful than that? But don’t worry; I haven’t been put off seeing you.

I can’t think of any reason for you to cry over bacon or chipmunks. Perhaps the chubby cheeks on the chipmunks remind you of how chubby you are? Bacon, of course, only adds to that. Also, bacon comes from pigs. I’m sure you see the connection. I wouldn’t put too much thought into it. Your husband says you cry at odd things (including insurance commercials?) every time I come. As for you crying during “Saved by the Bell” … Was it perhaps the episode where Jessie takes the sleeping pills? When she sings “I’m so excited, I’m so excited, I’m so … scared”. Well, it chokes me up, too.

If your back is giving you pains, you should take your medicine. I know you resist it, but you’re not getting any younger. Why, Mena was just in here inquiring about this letter. When she saw the reference to “Saved by the Bell” her eyes lit up. She immediately put you on her list. I’ve informed her that I decide when my time is finished, but she just cackled and cranked up that bloody machine of hers. I must warn you, she does like to pop in and let people know she’ll be coming soon.

Mena disrupts my visits when she can. She’s jealous, you see, because no one is ever happy to see her. I, however, have earned many screams of joy. Imagine my glee upon hearing someone shout, “Oh, thank God!” at my arrival. This seems to happen most often among college women. They must be so lonely after leaving home. On these visits, we drink wine, and my host calls all her friends to tell them that I’ve arrived. I can hear the happiness that comes through the phone. I don’t point it out to be rude, but I don’t recall you ever doing that.

I must go now and pack for my visit. Don’t worry if you feel crabby. You can always blame it on me.

Love,
Aunt Flo

The Uninvited Guest

•January 21, 2014 • 4 Comments

Dear Aunt Flo,

It has come to my attention that the time for your next visit is near. I’ve made preparations, as usual — there’s chocolate in every room — but I still don’t feel ready. Are you coming more often of late? Please don’t think I’m hinting that you shouldn’t. It’s only natural you should come. I do have some questions, however, and I hope you can clear up these small matters.

I hate to ask this. I don’t want to accuse, but have you made a habit of switching out my pants for smaller ones? I only ask because each time your visit draws near I become increasingly convinced that I’m gaining weight. What’s odd is that my clothes seem to agree. I have to wear special jeans, because the ones I normally wear refuse to let me button them. Do you know what it does to a girl to be rejected by her pants? If you haven’t played this cruel prank, then please forget I mentioned it.

On a brighter note, I seem to be terribly sentimental about seeing you. I keep crying for no reason that I can see. Maybe certain things bring back memories from my past; things I can’t recall? Perhaps your memory is better than mine. Is there any reason you can think of that I should cry when someone says “chipmunk” or “bacon”? I also cried while watching an episode of “Saved by the Bell” today, and it took great strength just now for me to admit it. (Please don’t tell anyone.)

I’ve noticed that these worries have made me crabby. I snap at everyone in the house for things that normally don’t bother me. I have to wonder if you’ve figured out how to make me snappy before you come so that by the time you get here, I’ll be too tired to complain. It happens every time! But again, I’m not accusing.

I have to cut this letter short now, because you’ve requested that I gather a great amount of water, as you always do. It wasn’t much of a bother when I was younger, but in recent years, I have to admit, carrying it around has started making my back ache. What in the world do you need it for?

P.S.
I’ve been told by my elders that when you stop paying me visits, your older sister, Mena, whom I’ve never met, will replace you. I’m also told she is less predictable and more troublesome (sorry, their words, not mine). Does she really hate cold so much that she carries around a special machine that connects directly to Hell? They say she isn’t good at aiming it at herself and often blasts her host with it. If so, please inform her that I’m not fond of heat, nor of Hell, for that matter, and she can kindly leave me off her list.

P.S. again
Please bring your own chocolate. Talking about Hell made me cry, and now I’ve eaten what I bought for you.

Much love,
Rachel

NaNo!

•November 3, 2013 • 2 Comments

It’s NaNo time, which I’m sure you’ve heard. Maybe more than you want to! But I’ll be brief. (I admit that it’s mostly because this is my first year to participate, so I know next to nothing about it.) I’ll start by saying that the idea of writing 50k words in a month doesn’t bother me at all. If anything, I write too fast. I’ll have that 50k in no time if I can keep my mind on the book I’ve started for NaNo. What I find daunting is the idea of writing straight through and not polishing as I go. I need to learn this. I know I do. And I swear I’m going to!

This post, by Chandler Baker, made a little bell ring in my head. Her description of writing as if someone is reading over her shoulder fit me perfectly. It’s what I do. It makes me take fewer chances and examine single words in ways that only slow me down. I know I just said I write fast, but when I think about really letting the words fly, I realize that I’m still slowing myself down. I’ve read countless bits of advice saying that editing as you write is a bad practice, but I still do it. And I know why. It’s because someone will read my rough draft. For this reason, I’m afraid to allow it to be what it’s supposed to be. Rough.

I hope to gain two things this month as I work through Nano. First, I plan to become more disciplined about writing daily. This is good timing, since I now have a publisher. Second, I plan to write a rough draft. If 50k happens or doesn’t happen, I’ll be happy as long as I meet these two goals.

Happy NaNo!

Another Blank Page

•August 27, 2013 • 2 Comments

When I finish a first draft, there are a few things that always happen. The first is a happy-dance, though my version looks less like a dance and more like the moment after Kevin realizes he made his family disappear—running, arm waving, and since I tend to finish drafts in the middle of the night, silent screaming. When I was in theatre, I always said there was no feeling like the curtain going up. This is the closest I’ve ever come to it. I’m done! I celebrate until I need my inhaler.

The second thing that happens is not so fun. The silent scream of excitement becomes a silent sob, and I plop down wherever I stopped running and stare at the wall. It’s like the moment when I’ve read the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and I realize it’s over. I still have questions. I’m not finished being in that world. How can it be over? But it is. I’ve spent so much time living in my made-up world that the real world is too dim for me. I open a blank page in Word and stare at it. It isn’t the same as opening a work in progress. It’s frightening. I start a few lines and then pummel the backspace button. It’s too soon. I close it, scoffing when my computer asks if I want to save the blank page.

The next step is a drive down memory lane. I open every manuscript I’ve ever started and read all of the short ones and then follow by reading the opening chapters of the long ones. I remember that I’ve been caught up in other stories, other characters’ struggles, and other worlds. I may get sucked in enough to revise one of them, but mostly I just look through it all and try not to think about the book I’ve just finished. The urge to open it and start reading is overwhelming. But I swear this time I’ll take King’s advice and let that manuscript sit. This step goes on for days. I clean the house. I paint something. And then I give up.

I’ve seen so many posts about why writers write that I feel there could hardly be more to say on the matter. But the simplest way I can put it is that I write because I love doing it. I write for the same reason a mountain climber climbs and a couch potato watches TV all day. I love it, I love it, I love it. I’m addicted to the whole process. I can’t wait to stare at the blank page again, and I can’t wait for the storm of words. I can’t wait to look it over and find too many adverbs and too many uses of the word “seemed” and strangle them out of my manuscript. I can’t wait for feedback from beta readers, and I can’t wait to run around crazy and then cry like a baby.

The last step is a brief return to blogging, where I tell the world that I’ve finished my draft, and now I need something new to do. It’s the moment when I admit to myself that no amount of vacuuming or painting will keep me from opening up a blank page and doing what I love.

The day I fell

•January 2, 2013 • 2 Comments

I considered making a list of resolutions and sharing them here. I even thought of funny ways to say them that I’m sure you would have enjoyed. But I’m going to assume that you’re either so impressed with all the resolutions you’ve already read, or so sick of them, that my version would fall into one list or the other and be forgotten. So instead, I’m going to share a story.

About a year ago I was taking a shower. I shave in the shower, though I admit it’s a bit risky. I wouldn’t have admitted that before, but I can no longer argue otherwise. I perched my razor in the little corner where we keep our shampoo. I even tucked it in nicely behind the shampoo so it wouldn’t fall. It was a system I’d used for years without incident. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me that it would be bad to pick up the shampoo.

I heard two clacks. I knew what they were, because I also felt the tiny vibration of a razor hitting the floor and breaking apart. I even felt it bounce off my heel. I thought to myself that I shouldn’t move my feet until I could get the shampoo off my face and look to see where the blade had landed. That was the last sane thought I had. I found the blade somewhere in the middle of the red whirlpool at my feet.

I don’t like blood. I just stared at it for a moment, confused and unconvinced that it even was blood I was seeing. Nothing hurt. But then I remembered that little bounce, and I glanced at my heel. Now before I tell you how I reacted, I need to explain the actual injury. It will make a difference, I promise. In my defense, this was no little scratch. I had somehow taken a chunk of skin from the inside of my heel where I didn’t even know a chunk existed. But! I would say the entire injury was about the size of a dry pinto bean. So don’t feel bad for me. Feel free to laugh. I put my thumb into the hole in my heel and sat down.

I was sitting in blood, thumb in my heel, with hot water raining down. I saw stars. I’m not sure why they call them stars, though. If you’ve ever seen them, then you know that they move. If you were able to appreciate it when you were in the condition to see them, you might even say they were pretty. Like fireflies. I did not think they were pretty. The spot that had previously felt like an innocent bounce against my skin turned to a searing pain as soon as I saw it, as if the panic of seeing blood wasn’t enough. My body was telling me that I was dying, and for a moment I was foolish enough to believe it.

I explained to myself, not kindly, that I was being stupid. I had, after all, been through two C-Sections. No one had ever died of a heel injury, except perhaps Achilles. All I had to do was turn off the water and get out of the shower. I tried to do that but found that I was too small to reach up and turn off the water without taking my other hand off my heel—not an option. I didn’t figure out how to partially stand and do it until the water started turning cold. I hate cold almost as much as I hate blood. By then, I had begun to berate myself out loud.

I was fully aware of how ridiculous the situation was, and I was helpless to improve it. I crawled, yes, crawled like I was dying, out of the shower and curled up on the rug, still holding my injury and still seeing stars. I considered calling my son to help me, but I had enough pride left to prevent that. Thankfully, I could reach my towel, which I draped over myself to stop the shivering. Noah did find me, and what he saw must have looked much worse than it was, because he went white. I told him not to panic. Then I laughed like a maniac at the irony. That didn’t help either of us. He asked if he should call 911, and that’s when I realized I had to be the most pathetic thing in the world at that moment.

I don’t know if I was laughing or crying as I crawled out of the bathroom. I know I left a trail of blood that still didn’t make sense to me. Gabe had somehow managed to hear that I was dying, so he came in to see. Noah tried to herd him out, with whispered promises that he would try to keep me alive. I know for certain I laughed then. I considered calling 911 just to cap it off. But no. I got up, sort of. I never took my thumb from that hole. But I managed to get dressed enough to face my sons. I even figured out how to hop around while holding the injury. I wasn’t ready to let it go. I even considered just living that way until it healed.

I hopped out of my room and onto our tile floor. I have great balance, so don’t worry. I never fall down. Except when I land on Gabe’s lasso, which I did at that moment. It slid forward, taking my foot with it, and I landed flat on my tailbone. That brought the list of injuries up to five. Heel, tailbone, wrist, back, cheek. (I bit my cheek when I landed.) And I still hadn’t taken my thumb out. Not even to stop my fall. It’s a testament both to how special my boys are, and to how bad I must have looked, that neither of them laughed. Noah said, “Mom, please let me call 911 now,” and Gabe said, “Get Dad!” Dad was at work, but I appreciated the thought.

I survived, against the odds. I no longer perch my razor in the shampoo spot, but I do still shave in the shower. There’s a little pink scar on my heel to remind me that it takes very little to turn me into an idiot. My sons still don’t laugh at that story, and that is a reminder of how blessed I am. If I were to make a resolution, it would be to be more like them. To be able to see someone in very little trouble but making big trouble from it, and not laugh. To be willing to help those whose problems may seem smaller than my own.

Happy New Year!

Thirty-Five

•December 28, 2012 • 2 Comments

I’m not afraid of getting old. I don’t mind the idea of flabby skin and wrinkles, of extra softness. I remember how I used to play with my granny’s hands, pressing the skin at the tips of her fingers in an attempt to fill in what was empty. Her skin didn’t fit her anymore, but I didn’t see it that way. She looked the way a granny was supposed to look. Old and soft. Sweet. That, I look forward to. It’s the in-between stuff I fear.

At my age, thirty-five, I’m supposed to still shine. I don’t have any wrinkles yet, but as I said, I don’t mind them. What I hate is this mediocre version of myself I’ve become. In the beginning, we’re only hints of what we’ll become, and at the end we’re a shadow of what we were. But what am I right now? Is there ever a time when I’m exactly what I’m supposed to be?

I only have one scar on my body. It’s the place where they opened me up to bring my children into the world. I can’t hate that scar, because I know what it represents. But I can hate how it changes the way any amount of fat looks on me. I hate that I still have it in me to be what I was a decade ago, but that I’m not doing it. Or maybe I am. Maybe I’ve reached a point where I realize that I have to choose which parts of me will grow old first. That sounds too much like mediocrity. So I stretch myself too thin.

In my writing, I fear the same things. I don’t fear the end, when my mind is spent, and I’ve said all I can. I laugh at myself when I read the first book I wrote. I read it from between my fingers, but I know it for what it is. A start. But this stuff, in the middle, when I’m experiencing life at break-neck speed and writing every chance I get—this is what I worry about. This is where I don’t want to be a hint or a shadow. I want to be twenty-one, full of inspiration and promise. I want my words to fit the page and leave no room for squashing around.

When I’m old, and I hear my husband telling my grandchildren about me, I want to hear him say that I was beautiful once and that I wrote things that stirred his soul. And I want it to be true.

 

Sam and Millie

•December 22, 2012 • 3 Comments

Every now and then I like to take a moment to go through my work and see what I’ve accomplished. I did that this week and discovered that I have seven completed novels, three of which have been revised enough that I feel I should be submitting them. I have seven novels in the first draft process and seven more concepts in the early stages. My current work in progress is the second book in my science fiction series, Collected.

I’ve been to this point before, when I realize I have so much going on that I’ve lost sight of my goals. It’s time to seek an agent or to consider other options. This part is more difficult to me than writing a book. The agent search, the query, the synopsis…

And now, it seems self-publishing is not what it used to be. Should I consider it? Or should I save it for later, if I don’t find an agent? The internet is filled with opinions on this topic, and I could spend all day looking through them and not find an answer. I have done that, actually. What I’m thinking right now is that I’m open-minded to self-publishing, but not determined to do it. I have one book that’s been ready for a long time. It’s a middle grade novel, though I usually write for young adults.

Sam and Millie is the story of one summer seen through the eyes of a twelve-year-old boy with Autism. The book is not about Autism. It’s about Sam. I haven’t decided if I will self-publish, but I designed a possible cover. I would love advice, especially from those who have made this journey.

 

Image

Chapter One of Toadie and Gwen

•December 20, 2012 • 2 Comments

Today’s post is a sample of my writing. Toadie and Gwen is a work in progress. Feedback is welcome and appreciated.

Chapter one

Toadie rolled up the legs of his pants as high as they’d go and put one foot into the stream. Cold as a puppy’s nose, the water licked his ankle and sent a shiver through him. He added his other foot and let out a whoop. The rocks were slick, painted with yellow moss and some kind of slime he’d never understood. But he stayed up as he inched his way across.

Gwen stood on the bank behind him and watched. His twin, she’d been called for as long as he could remember. But not for any similarities in appearance. Toadie looked like his people, dark haired, bronze skinned and brown eyed. But Gwen looked like no one else he’d ever seen, with her fair skin, blond hair, and lavender eyes. She’d been named for it, for how pale her skin was, like the moon on a cloudless night.

She and Toadie were born at the exact same moment, eighteen years ago, and the village had dubbed them twins, though they were not related. And they couldn’t have been more different. Or more likely to be seen together, despite their differences. Or maybe because of them.

Toadie looked back at Gwen to make sure she was still close. She wore a dress, the silly girl, like she didn’t know she’d end up butt-first in the water before she got across. He held out his hand to her, but she shook her head. That’s why she’d end up butt-first. That, and a tendency to giggle at anything cold.

Toadie was halfway across when he heard it. Giggle. Squeal. Splash. Always the same. He went back and pulled her to her feet. “Don’t know what’s so funny about cold water.”

She crinkled her nose. “It tickles.”

He shook his head and pulled her along behind him. He could just say the word tickle, and she’d knock herself down trying to flee, along with anyone else who got in the way.

Her fingers were icicles in his hand after their dunking, so she twisted them around every which way to steal his warmth. Shameless. Even with the summer sun straight overhead she couldn’t warm her own skin. Toadie saw a fish twitching around in a rock bed and pointed it out to her.

Her eyes widened. “Can you get it for me?”

He squeezed his lips together. She’d cry for sure if he said what he was thinking. But how the heck was he supposed to carry a fish? If Gwen ever got loose alone in the wilderness, she’d be dead in ten minutes. He loosened his lips enough to smile at her. “Maybe on the way back if it’s still there.”

He helped her onto the bank and bent down to unroll his pants. She started to walk away before he was done, so he snatched her sleeve and pulled her back. She liked it when he did that, though she tried to pretend she didn’t. If he let her get too far from him she’d come back on her own, but then she’d pout for the rest of the day.

She sat down in a sunny spot and fanned her dress in the air.

“You can’t sit down now,” Toadie told her. “We’re not even halfway there.”

“But I’m wet.”

“You’ll dry off faster if you’re moving.”

She made a show of trying to get up, so he helped her. She smiled up at him. “What will you ask her today?”

He shrugged.

“I know what I’m asking,” she said.

“So do I. And she’ll tell you what she says every time. I don’t know. I don’t see those things.” He led her up the bank and into the trees. “Why don’t you ask something new this time?”

“It’s what I want to know.”

Toadie gave up. She could ask what she wanted, even if she would pout all the way home. His hand found its way to his pouch. He checked that it was still there every so often without realizing it. “Did you bring a gift?”

She stopped dead. “Oh, no!”

“You forgot?” He turned around. “How did you forget?”

“I didn’t. It’s just gone. It must have fallen in the stream.” She turned back.

“It won’t be there now, Gwen. We’ll have to find something on the way.”

Her eyes brightened. He’d brought her back from the brink of tears. “What can we find?” she asked.

“Mushrooms maybe. She likes them.”

“Oh, I love gathering mushrooms!”

“Have you ever done it before?”

“Well, no. But I love it.” She smiled. She shook her dress out and ran her hands over it, and her fingers caught on something — a stick. She pulled it off and held it up. “Is this one of those sticks that can start a fire?”

Toadie gaped at her. “Are you talking about a match?”

She gave him an exasperated look. “No, Silly.  Matches don’t come from trees. If they did, don’t you think every forest in the world would have burned down by now?”

Toadie couldn’t think of a single thing to say to that. Gwen pranced right past him in the wrong direction, and he had to pull her back again.

He knew a good spot for gathering mushrooms, but it was out of the way. He might be able to find some along the path, but if he didn’t, they’d have a long walk back. Either way, getting a gift for Gwen was going to cost them time. He looked up at the sun and judged it was almost noon. Twelve hours left, but only eight in the light.

He turned back to ask Gwen which way she’d prefer to go, but she wasn’t there. “Gwen?” He tried to remember if she’d made any sounds while he was thinking, but he just didn’t know. So he searched the ground for a sign of which way she’d gone.

It didn’t take long for him to pick up her trail. A squashed section of moss here, a broken twig there. She was headed toward the creek again, only on higher ground. Upstream from where they’d crossed, not the direction her gift would have traveled, but she might not know that. Toadie heard the rushing water up ahead, so he ran. And he found her.

His heart jumped right into his throat. He almost yelled her name before he thought better of it.

Best not to frighten her.

So he spoke softly. “Gwen. Don’t move.” She didn’t seem to hear him. She stood on a fallen log high above the water. Above rocks and rapids. Her arms were at her sides, not raised as they should be to help her balance. She lacked even the most basic survival instincts. He couldn’t call to her without risking startling her and making her fall. So that left one choice.

He stepped out onto the log. It was old, and it wanted to crumble under his weight. It didn’t seem to mind Gwen’s lighter frame, but the two of them together might be too much. He examined it closely. Tiny holes, signs of insects having bored inside to enjoy the feast. He had to assume it was at least partly hollow. Yelling at Gwen was starting to sound like a better idea.

But she hadn’t moved since he first found her. And that was not like Gwen at all. He couldn’t see her face, but he could almost imagine her eyes were closed. Sleep was the only time when she did or said nothing, and even then it wasn’t always so. More than once he’d seen her wake herself with a giggle. But of course, she wasn’t sleeping, not standing upright in such an odd place. Was she?

He took a tentative step toward her and heard the sound of softened wood crunching. Gwen was still ten feet away. He looked down and tried to line her up with what was underneath. Could she possibly survive if they fell? No. There were jagged rocks exactly under her, as if she’d chosen the spot that would give him the most grief. Or had she stopped for another reason? He looked past her feet to examine the log just in front of where she stood.

What he saw erased any idea he had of reaching her and pulling her back. The log was not hollow, but he could see inside it. A chunk had been knocked away, and what was left looked like it could be carved by a spoon. How was she not breaking it? He certainly would if he joined her. He inched backward until he reached moist earth again. And he felt helpless, truly helpless, for the first time in his life.

He stood so still and thought so hard that the first sound he heard startled him. Only a bird, but it snapped him out of his thoughts. And it did the same for Gwen, apparently, because her right foot lifted and moved as if to step where the soft center of the log was exposed. Toadie yelled before he could stop himself, and Gwen froze with her foot just above the gap. The bird called again, and she put her foot into it.

Then Toadie understood, though it was a stupid thing to understand. Gwen was following a bird. Maybe to her death. But that gave Toadie an idea. He was good at bird calls. He didn’t recognize the one Gwen was following, but he was sure he could duplicate the sound. He threw back his head and let out the warbly screech, and the bird answered immediately, maybe angrily. Gwen twitched, as if she didn’t know which way to go. Could it work?

He did the call again, and when the bird tried to answer, he repeated the call loudly. He expected Gwen to back up, but she whirled around and scanned the trees with wild eyes. Toadie was right there at eye level with her, but she didn’t even glance at him. He screeched again. And again. And Gwen took slow steps toward him, never looking down, never taking her eyes from the highest branches in search of her bird.

The real bird called out behind her, but Toadie was louder and more insistent, so he kept her moving in his direction. In his mind, something else was happening. A different battle, where on one side of his consciousness he was out-crying a bird, and on the other, he knew just how silly such a notion was. But this was Gwen, and if he’d learned anything in his eighteen years, it was that anything was possible with Gwen. Anything but a normal day. Not one since the day they were born.

As soon as Gwen was in reach, Toadie grabbed her, and not gently. All the fear that had been simmering unacknowledged inside him turned to anger, and he tucked her under his arm and carried her far from the log. Far enough not to hear the water or the bird, and far enough to work some of the heat out before he set her down and freed up his hands.

She blinked at him, confused and startled by his frown. “Toadie?”

He shook his head. The words that wanted to come out were the kind that brought tears, and he had no skill at stopping them once they’d started. Best to just keep his mouth shut and his hands to himself until his heart took up residence in his chest again. And until the idea of taking a switch from the nearest tree and chasing her all the way home with it stopped seeming so appropriate. It didn’t take long. Gwen had figured out years ago that the best thing to do when Toadie was angry was to stand and blink at him.

Being mad at Gwen was like being mad at a kitten. It could only last as long as the mischief lasted, because the cuteness was overwhelming. And the innocence. And Gwen had that wide-eyed innocent stare down after so many years of practice. It worked on Toadie, even if it didn’t work on her father. He felt himself cooling off, so he relaxed his arms and even managed a small smile.

“What did I do this time?” Gwen asked, aware of his softened stance. It was what she always asked, but this time Toadie was surprised by it. Surely she wasn’t that clueless.

“Do I really have to say?”

She looked genuinely perplexed. “Is it what I said about matches?”

“Matches? Why on Earth would it be about matches?” The heat was rising again. The least she could do is acknowledge what she’d done!

She sensed his anger, but there was not so much as a flicker of recognition in her round eyes. She didn’t know what she’d done. Or didn’t remember.

“Do you remember the log?” he asked.

“What log?”

“You’re not playing a trick on me?”

Her brow drew down. “No, Toadie.” She made that sound like a plea, and Toadie couldn’t refuse it. He never could.

“It’s okay,” he said. “Whatever it was, it wasn’t your fault.”

He held out his hand, and Gwen rushed to him. Her arms clamped around his waist, and he patted her back. But his eyes were on the forest now, searching for the trickster, for anyone cold enough to put Gwen in danger. He wished he’d brought his bow, but since he hadn’t intended to hunt today, it was sitting unstrung in his kitchen. He pulled out the only thing he had that would pass for a weapon. His knife, which would be useless against a bird but might be perfect for a person controlling one.

When Gwen stepped back and faced him again, her eyes were back to their regular size, which was still a bit wider than anyone else’s. She wouldn’t ask about the log or question why Toadie had been angry with her. It was always enough that he was happy again. So he gave her his best smile and a tweak to her chin for good measure and led her back to the path they had been on earlier. But he kept his eyes on her, and when she lagged behind a bit, he told her to hold his belt loop, a thing she loved to do.

Toadie was so intent on getting Gwen safely to the cave he almost forgot she still needed a gift. He checked the sun again. They’d lost almost an hour to the mystery bird, and they were on the wrong part of the path for mushrooms. He’d gone the sunniest way possible in his attempt to watch the woods. But there was no use going without a gift. So he turned right around and headed into the thickest trees he could find.

It was a part of the woods he’d never explored, but there were ferns and thick mossy patches, and that led him deeper. Wetter ground, shadier corners, a stand of Pines. He was on the right track. His eyes fell on a fallen tree, and he pulled Gwen toward it. He could already see the mushrooms as he neared the tree, but he would let Gwen find them. It meant more that way.

“Search for something spongy,” he said, pulling her finger from his belt loop. “She likes them ugly.”

Gwen dove right in and looked so wrong doing it, it almost made Toadie chuckle. In that boggy place with so little light and color, she was like a lantern on a foggy night. The only thing he could see. But she ran her fingers through the decomposing leaves and bark, upsetting lizards and even a snake once, without any hint of fear. She moved all around the mushrooms without seeing them, and Toadie’s sense of dread mounted. Something would bite her eventually, the wrong thing no doubt, and he’d have to suck the venom from her fingers.

It wouldn’t be the first time, but she’d treat it as if it were. Because even after being bitten, Gwen would be tickled by his lips around her skin. Sometimes he wondered if she sought out an attack for the pleasure of it. But even Gwen couldn’t be that silly. Could she?

Her squeal jarred him out of his thoughts. He was already searching her fingers for the bite before he realized he had moved. But there was no bite. She had a fistful of mushrooms and a glorious smile on her face that only a personal success could bring.

“Are they the right ones?” she asked.

“Yes. You did good.”

She dumped them into his palm. “You carry them so I won’t lose them.”

He couldn’t put them in the pouch with his gift, so he put them in his pocket. “Back on my belt loop,” he told Gwen, and her finger darted through the hole and formed a hook. Toadie looked to the sky again. “Almost two,” he said. “We need to pick up the pace.”

He worked his way back to the path, tossing the knife in quick circles, catching the tip and then the handle and back again. Not because it was fun, or even to show off for Gwen, but because he couldn’t decide which way to hold it. One to stab, the other to throw. And he didn’t know who or what might jump out at them.

He could think of only one person who could control a bird or put Gwen in a trance, and that thought nearly turned him around for home. But the opportunity only came once a year, and even if he was marching right toward the trickster herself, he couldn’t pass it up. Not for himself, and especially not for Gwen. Gwen, who was now singing a song about elves who liked to steal mushrooms and toads from unsuspecting forest wanderers. His hand drifted to his pouch.

“Are you making that up?” he asked, glancing at Gwen over his shoulder. Her giggle was answer enough. “How do you make it rhyme?”

“It’s easy,” she trilled. “How do you twirl the knife without looking?”

He caught the knife by the tip and turned back around. He didn’t toss it anymore. Gwen’s song had changed to a story about a man who juggled knives to win the hearts of pretty girls, and Toadie hoped the man in the story wasn’t supposed to be him. Who would suppose juggling knives would attract a girl anyway? Let alone the gaggle of them in Gwen’s story. Really, the girl had a wild imagination.

She sang them back to the trail and over the first rise and even through the thickest grove of Ash and didn’t fall silent until they came to her least favorite part of the journey.

“It’s okay,” Toadie told her. “I’ll let you ride on my back. And remember there’s a spring just on the other side.”

“Isn’t there a way around it?”

She asked that every year, and every year the answer was the same. “Cliffs on both sides, Gwen. It’s gotta be done.”

It wasn’t dangerous, really. Not for Toadie with his good balance. But it smelled terrible. The green mud bubbled and spewed fumes into the air, and it made anything he’d eaten that day try to come back up his throat. He could try breathing through his mouth for a while, but eventually it coated his tongue if he did it. Tasting it was worse than smelling it.

Toadie pulled out two hankies and wrapped one around Gwen’s mouth and nose. Then he applied his own and helped her onto his back. She rested her chin on his shoulder, which jabbed a bit. But he didn’t complain. He had to concentrate to stay on the stone walkway through the muck. Gwen was a good rider. She hooked her feet together around his waist and never clamped his arms down, knowing he’d need them if he wavered.

The bog was long and wide, by far the longest stretch any one feature of the journey would take up on its own, and it sapped even the most pleasant thoughts. It didn’t belong there, halfway up the mountain where the air should be crisp and clean. Toadie suspected it wasn’t natural at all, but part of the magic that protected the cave from curious eyes. A thick green cloud billowed up just in front of him, and he had to stop and hold his breath. Gwen’s stomach stopped moving against his back.

They both gasped when the cloud dissipated, which took longer than either of them could have hoped. Gwen wouldn’t speak while they were there, not without an emergency, but she’d developed a language all her own. She rubbed his cheek, and that meant keep moving. So he stepped to the next stone, which required him to put his foot into the sticky film that coated the stone after the latest eruption. It was hot and about as nasty as anything could be. But he was onto the next stone before he had time to fret over it.

Gwen sighed, a soft sound made even softer by the cloth over her mouth, and Toadie knew it was a sigh of gratitude. She’d stepped in the grime a few times, and it did worse things to her sensitive skin than it would to his. One year she had come wearing shoes, but that had ended worse than any other year. She wasn’t used to wearing them, and it had resulted in a tumble into the stuff. Shoes had never again been part of the journey.

Toadie caught sight of his shadow slanting across the stones and realized he’d lost more time than he could afford to. If he was going to get Gwen back home before dark, he would need to get a move on. So he did a thing he’d never done before. He charged across the rest of the bog, heedless of where he put his feet, and only stopping when the bursts were large enough to reach Gwen’s feet, which hung somewhere around his knees.

The result of his speed was a happy Gwen and a thick coating of slime on his legs from his feet up to the middle of his calves. He put Gwen down and headed for the spring as fast as he could go, collecting grass, leaves, and bugs on his sticky flesh. Gwen found a boulder, the one she always sat on, and dangled her clean toes in the unnaturally warm water while Toadie pulled out his pack of salt and started to work cleaning himself off. Already the mud was hardening into glue that tried to claim bits of his skin as he scrubbed. But the green skin was soon replaced by pink, raw but cleaner than it had been in weeks.

“You have very nice calves,” Gwen said, and Toadie yanked his pant legs down to hide them. What a thing to say! He never said anything about her calves, and he’d had a mind to more than once. But it wasn’t proper. She should know that. But she was Gwen. And Gwen knew only what she saw, and even that was wrong more often than not. He wondered if she was wrong about his legs, but only long enough for his cheeks to burn.

“Come on down from there,” he said, reaching up to catch her. “We have to hurry.”

She leapt from her perch with no concern for where her feet would land, because of course, they would land in the air, which they did. And Toadie set her on the ground and offered her his hip so she’d hook the loop that would put her beside him, not behind him. The next part of the journey would be simple and difficult at the same time — a climb up steps chiseled into the side of the mountain. Steps you’d never find unless you knew where to look.

It was a trip straight up, which was one of the reasons it was traveled only by the young and fit. Toadie let Gwen go up first. He stayed very close behind her for two reasons. First, so that he could catch her if she fell. And second, to avoid seeing up her dress, which she seemed not to know was a possibility. She was in good shape, but even for her, it was taxing. She stopped to rest more often than Toadie would have liked, but he didn’t complain. He just waited, shifting his weight from one leg to the other.

Once they climbed higher than the tallest trees, the sun hit them full force. Gwen’s dress, which had long since dried from its dunking in the stream, began to show signs of the moisture being drawn out of her. Her breathing became labored, and her legs shook. Toadie prepared himself to catch her, but she didn’t fall.

“Why don’t you stop for a second?” he said, and she made a sound of disgust. One of the many things that confused him about her was this peculiar twist. She didn’t mind being weak when it was a choice. She even played it up a bit for attention, he was sure. But when real weakness reared its ugly head, she fought it. She wouldn’t stop if she thought Toadie was insinuating she needed to. So he put a different spin on it.

“I’m tired, Gwen. Please stop.”

Her feet quit moving, and she let a sigh escape. Toadie unhooked his canteen from his belt and handed it to her, and she took the first drink without arguing. But she left him enough and handed it back. He drank it down to half full and hung it back on his belt. She couldn’t see him without twisting enough to risk falling, so he didn’t bother to look relieved.

She started moving again after only a couple minutes, but Toadie didn’t stop her. They really did need to hurry. He was sure her legs were going to give out before they reached the top, but she made it, if barely. She collapsed on the ledge and waited for Toadie to join her, so he sat down beside her and breathed a bit more heavily than he needed to. Another drink, another couple minutes of rest, and they were on their way again.

The rest of the journey was an easy walk around the side of the mountain. The path was too narrow for them to walk side by side, so Toadie took the lead. But it frightened him, not seeing Gwen or even hearing her, so he switched places with her and watched her back. She trailed her fingers along the side of the mountain, which Toadie encouraged, because it kept her close to the mountain and far from the cliff. But more than once, she let her fingers slip inside a crevice as she passed, heedless of what might be lurking inside.

“Look where you’re putting your hand,” Toadie said. “Snakes sometimes live in holes like that. And lizards that bite.”

But she didn’t stop doing it, though she tried for a few minutes. It simply wasn’t in her nature to pay attention. Or to learn from her mistakes, apparently, because the first bite she’d ever received had come from something inside one of those very holes. Toadie had never even seen what bit her that time, because it had disappeared into the dark recess. He’d sucked on it just the same. You could never be too cautious.

Toadie started tapping on the mountainside with his knife, warning any critters living inside to step back. It must have worked, too, because nothing bit her. She stopped outside the entrance to the cave and let Toadie go ahead of her.

He peered into the darkness and called out the required words, attempting to keep his annoyance with the formality out of his voice. “Bearing gifts we have come on this, the day of our birth.”

A pair of yellow eyes appeared. “What do you seek?”

“Wisdom,” Toadie said. “As only you can provide.”

The torches lit, and she became visible, a hunched creature with sallow skin and long black hair. The Oracle. She shuffled toward them, and with a wave of her hand, bid them come closer. “Is it July already?” she asked.

“July twenty-fifth,” Toadie told her.

“Yes. I suppose it is,” the Oracle said. “Theodore and Gwendolyn. What have you brought me?” She always called him Theodore, though she was the only one who ever did. It puzzled Toadie, since she was also the one who had given him his nickname. But he never asked why. It wasn’t a good question.

Toadie pulled out the mushrooms and gave them to Gwen. Then he took his pouch from his belt and opened it. He took out his gift and placed it in the Oracle’s outstretched hand.

“A toad,” she said. “And just in time, too.” The toad disappeared into a pocket on her cloak, and she held her hand out to Gwen. Gwen gave her the mushrooms. “Morels,” the Oracle said. She smelled them. “I have need of these often. Your gifts are sufficient. Come inside.”

I know how you feel…

•December 18, 2012 • 6 Comments

I know it can be infuriating to hear people say they know how you feel. I didn’t like it much myself. But I’m writing this because I DO know how you feel. I carried my pain around like a new part of my body. I didn’t heal. I just learned to move differently so I could keep it with me. It has taken me since September 22, 2009 until this very month to finally decide I want to heal. And that’s only the first step. How can I lay my grief down after learning to live with it? I’ll have to relearn how to move.

I know how it feels to grieve longer than people think you should. I know how it feels to watch others celebrate and not be able to say what you want to, because others won’t understand or accept it. You put on a brave face. You say Merry Christmas, and you even mean it, because you don’t hate anyone for having joy. You’re just dying inside. You can wish for good things for other people without bothering to want them for yourself. You can convince yourself you shouldn’t find joy. Not when the one you love is gone. It feels too much like admitting you didn’t need that person. That you can live without them. And you lose sight of the truth, that the person you miss would never have wished this for you.

You tell yourself it’s enough to get up and get through your day. You can live without laughter, you can even love other people. But no one can compete with what you lost. You fail to see that any one of the people around you could have easily been the one you lost. Would you carry that burden around and lose sight of your love for the one you really did lose, had you not lost them? Imagine for a moment that she’s still here. That he’s still here. But something else has crushed your spirit, and you don’t recognize the gift. That’s what the people who love you are. They’re the gift you don’t see. Grief is a blindfold. It’s a destroyer of perspective.

What used to be a hole inside you has filled up with things, but they’re not the right things. They make your burden heavier, and they block the way out. Nothing tastes good, music only brings pain, you don’t even care that people can see how far you’ve fallen into despair. You may still know God loves you, but that doesn’t even help. You’ve stopped listening to anything positive. You see something good, and it pulls at your heart, but you shove it away. No more tears. You’re sick of it.  You want to hit someone, something, yourself. You want it to stop. But you’re holding onto it as if laying it down means giving up the dream that you can make it not real. Sometimes you let yourself pretend you really can make it not real. It doesn’t make sense, after all. How can it be true?

But it is true. You lost something. Someone. And there is no time limit on pain. I can’t take your pain from you any more than I could take it from myself. And no matter what I say or how hard I beg you to listen, I can’t even make you want to heal. But I can love you. And I do. I love you. So do the other people in your life, but they just don’t know what to say. Remember that when you feel yourself slipping.

I know how hopeless it can feel. I know it because I felt it. But I laid my burden down, and I pray you will, too.

 
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