Posts Tagged ‘thirteen’

Shakespeare may have had a point about names and the sweet smell of roses, but I have to admit that I don’t feel that way about book titles. The process of choosing a title for a book is complicated, especially once an agent, an editor, and a marketing team get involved. You can find your beloved title tossed on the scrap heap, or conversely, you can find your totally mediocre title emblazoned on thousands of covers. For example, in my mind Lie Lay Lain was just a working title, until suddenly it wasn’t.

Although the novel I just sold is currently called What Belongs to You, it has also carried some other names. For much of its querying career it was The Sun In Cassiopeia, a title I never liked, and for a briefer while, it was Orion in Winter, a title I liked even less. I often joked about what its title might be, when it finally sold. Perhaps The Art of Making Meth, when we were in the Art of Something phase.

Whatever a book ends up called when it finally reaches readers, I find that working titles have to be something I can face every day that I hope to write. The working title becomes the bit I put in my mouth while I pull the plow. Almost from the first words I wrote of this latest book the story’s working title was Thirteen, the age at which Wavy’s life is shattered.

Up until yesterday, my efforts toward my unofficial NaNo project have been thwarted by the lack of a working title. Triplets was the name of the folder on my computer, but that implied that the triplets were the most important characters of the book. There was another notes file for the story called Mermaid, but that implied that the mermaid was the main character. I toyed briefly with retitling these files things like Short Stop, Apollo, Cut-Off, but they all fell short, because Apollo isn’t himself the most important thing in the story. I tried Sideshow and Athletic Show, both circus references, but neither one really fit.

As silly as it seems, when I went to open the files to work on the story, I spent most of my writing time obsessing about my failure to have a working title I could live with. Then two things happened.

1. I went to my local Habitat for Humanity ReStore and found this:

We have a winnah!

We have a winnah!

2. I remembered the great exchange between Charles Wallace and Calvin O’Keefe in Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. “I’m a sport,” Calvin says. “I don’t mean like in baseball.” Charles Wallace provides the definition: “A change in generesulting in the appearance in the offspring of a character which is not present in the parents but which is potentially transmissible to its offspring.”

That is, after all, what Apollo is: a sport. Not just in the genetic sense, but in the baseball sense, too. It was just a simple matter of renaming my files Sport. Now that I have a working title, I am putting down words. I am building characters and crafting dialog. It’s the best part of writing. Remind me of that later, when I’m crying over revisions.

What about you? How important are titles to you as a writer? As a reader? Does the title change your attitude toward what you’re reading or writing?

ETA: Sometimes you find that you’ve rushed yourself, forced a working title on something. Later, you sneak back and change to the thing that really calls to you, which is why this project is now known as A Marvel of Nature, or Marvel for short.

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I’m in the midst of working on a revision of Thirteen for an agent, which has left me with a few blanks that need filling in. This is a scene I wrote over the weekend to try to fill one of those gaps.


I closed the door in Renee’s face, but she opened it back up. We glared at each until she said, “You’re a coward, Wavy Quinn.”

In sixth grade I was too old to fall for that trick. I was still too old. I flipped her off and reached for the door knob, but Renee held her ground.

“You say you’re done with Kellen, but then you’re not even brave enough to go on a date with anyone else. And you can pretend that you’re not ready or whatever, but the truth is, you’re not brave enough.” She said it all in a low voice, so I knew Joshua was still in the front room, waiting for me to go on a date I was sure I’d never agreed to.

“Pot calling kettle,” I said.

“That is such bullshit. Show me one time I was a coward about love.”

She thought she was bulletproof. She thought recklessness was the same thing as bravery. I stepped past her into the hall and walked toward the kitchen. Renee came after me.

In the front room, we passed Joshua, who looked confused. Not a Kellen kind of confused, where he was always worried he’d misunderstood or done or said something wrong. A pretty college boy kind of confused, where he thought someone else had made a mistake.

I stopped in front of the fridge and Renee was under such a head of steam that she bumped into my back when I did.

“You can’t just walk away from this. You can’t spend your whole life pining for someone who doesn’t even want you.”

I ignored that. It wasn’t anything I could bear to think about.

The napkin with Darrin’s phone number was right where Renee had put it. At the party, she took it from him with a smile and said, “Yeah, I’d love to go out.” Two weeks later it was still stuck to the fridge. She hadn’t called him. He wasn’t her type. He was a custodian and he wasn’t pretty. Not like Joshua. The other reason he wasn’t her type: he was too nice. Not enough drama. Not enough heartbreak.

I jerked the napkin off the fridge, sending the magnet flying. When I pinned the napkin to Renee’s chest with my forefinger, she made a surprised little O with her mouth.

“Coward,” I said.

She smirked.

“Fine. You go out with Joshua and I’ll call Darrin. Deal?”


“And you have to try, Wavy. You can’t just sit there like stone until he gives up. You have to try like it’s a real date or it doesn’t count.” Renee knew me.

I passed Joshua on the way back to my room to get my purse.

“Is there a problem?” he said.

I didn’t bother to answer. He was the problem. I’d be done with him soon enough. I came back with my purse and stood in front of him. He was going to have take me as I was, in the clothes I wore to work and with my hair a little greasy.

“Ready,” I said.

We walked out past Renee, who gave me a suspicious look. She could suspect whatever she wanted, as long as she kept her half of the deal.



While Joshua drove, I looked at him out of the corner of my eye. Renee said he was “gorgeous.” She talked about him like he was a statue. David standing naked in a museum in Italy. I thought he was boring. Like a mannequin in a store. Better to look at a blank wall than to look at him. I also didn’t understand why he didn’t shave. Everything else about him was neat — hair, hands, clothes–and then the whiskers.

He took me to a nice restaurant, I guess because that’s what people do on dates. I’d taken Kellen to a restaurant before, but it was how I knew we were here on the strength of Joshua’s ego. I never would have agreed to go out to eat with someone who was basically a stranger. Never.

But there I was, sitting across from him, with a menu open, watching him talk. That was how it felt, too. A silent movie, his mouth opening and closing, his teeth neat and white, but no sound coming out. I could only focus on some of the things he said. The rest of me was too busy cataloging the ways in which he wasn’t Kellen.

“So, what are you thinking of having?” Joshua said.

“I’m not that hungry.”

He laughed. “Girls always say that.”

I could imagine Renee saying that. On dates, she ordered salads and then came home starving and ate a whole pizza by herself.

At least I liked the restaurant. Aunt Brenda had taken me there before. They had good teriyaki chicken with ginger and pineapple, and they put your leftovers in nice to-go containers. Not crappy Styrofoam boxes. They made it pretty when you took it away.

After I closed my menu the waiter came. I gave him my big smile, to make him pay attention, so that he would look at my menu when I tapped it. You really don’t have to talk much in everyday life. If you’re careful, if you learn the tricks to make people watch. That way you can save your words for important things. Sometimes just “yes” or “no.” Or “ranch” when the waiter wants to know what dressing I want on my salad. Which I didn’t want. I shook my head.

“No dressing?” the waiter said.

Then Joshua ordered and the waiter left us alone.

“So, Wavy,” Joshua said. His teeth really were perfect. He probably had braces when he was younger. “I think your name is so cool. Kind of hippy, but not like Moon Unit or something like that.”

It was a good thing I didn’t talk much, because what was I supposed to say to that? I’m glad you like my name. The man I love gave it to me. That probably wasn’t good date conversation. That was just me being impossible. Aunt Brenda said that about me. So did Renee some days. You’re impossible! I agreed. Most days I was impossible. Like a unicorn.


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I’m a vagabond these days. I bought a project house that I’ve been working on since August, but with the bathroom gutted, I can’t live there. As a result, I’ve been wandering from spare room to spare room among friends and acquaintances. This means I don’t have most of my usual writing tools at hand. My writing desk is in a storage container, as is most everything I own. My writing cats are living in Arkansas.

Typically, I write my first drafts longhand while sitting at my writing desk. I prefer a Clairefontaine notebook for their creamy paper, and a Pelikan fountain pen filled with slippery silicone-enhanced ink. Yes, despite being a fucking philistine in the rest of my life, I’m kind of a writing snob. My writing desk is an antique Abernathy library table.

Without my preferred tools, I had rather expected that this hiatus from homebound security would also produce a hiatus from writing, but I was wrong. In September I wrote a first draft of a book, and not in my usual manner. I hammered it out on a dinky little third-hand laptop with pixelated lines on the screen. No handwritten drafts. No handwritten notes even. It’s the first project I’ve ever tackled entirely on computer.


Write Tools

Well, almost entirely. When I came time to do the heavy lifting of revisions and edits, I fell back to form. I printed the whole thing out and started editing with pencil. Only a few pages in, I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t working. What was the problem? The pencil. I was using the nearest thing: a mechanical pencil. That was the problem. I always do edits with a real wood pencil. I don’t know why, but it feels easier. It’s warm and satisfying and mess and erasable, which is good, because I’ve been known to do some serious erasing while I’m editing. Plus, there’s something about rolling off wood shavings every few chapters that really appeals to the crafty side of me.

At least once I recognized the problem, it was easy to solve. I dug up some old wood pencils (shout out to my alma mater!), bought a really nice manual sharpener and a good Japanese eraser (Oops!Pig). I’m in business. Two hundred pages of edits done and two hundred more to go.

How about you? Are there writing habits you can kick? Are there ones you can’t? What’s the bare minimum you require to get a book on paper?

And now that I look at the picture I snapped, I realize that the last sentence shown is: “A blowjob on one page and some girl taking it from behind on the other.” Hmmm. So, what the hell, it might as well be a teaser. Here’s the text of that page shown, pre-edits:


“What the hell are you doing?” Kellen said. Two sleepless nights and too much adrenaline caught up with him, made his hands shake as he popped the clip and ejected the round in the chamber. He slammed open the kitchen drawer and shoved the gun to the back. “I said, what the hell are you doing? And goddamnit, you better answer me for a change.”

Wavy looked at him, as though to say, isn’t it obvious? A magazine lay on the table in front of her. Reading.

“Come on, pack your shit up. I’ll give you a ride home.” The back of his shirt was filthy from lying in the dirt working on Vic’s car and her dress was white. That was too bad.

He stomped to the front door to get his boots on, but she didn’t come. When he went back to the kitchen, she was still sitting there.

“Now. Goddamn right now. I’m not in the mood for this.”

“Walk.” She got up from the chair slowly.

“No, you’re not walking home.”

“Walked here.”

“Yeah, well it wasn’t pitch black out when you walked here, either.”

She shrugged.

“And how’d you get in here?”

Out of her dress pocket she took a key and laid it on the table. The spare from under the mat on the back porch.

Looking down at the key, he realized she was reading a skin mag. Not a skin mag. One of his magazines, from out of his night stand. She had it open to a page he didn’t even like to think she’d looked at. A blowjob on one page and some girl taking it from behind on the other.

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Here is what’s likely to be my last teaser for THIRTEEN and it’s one of those sections that’s all about breaking with the received wisdom of writing.  Show, don’t tell is the mantra, but the truth is: sometimes telling works better.  Or at least it has its advantages.  The narrator of this scene is the county sheriff, who provides a slightly different perspective on Kellen, and whose interpretation of events are just as important as the events.  The sheriff represents the perspective of “the community” which is pretty darn hard to show to any effect.  You’ll let me know if I’m wrong, though, won’t you?


I’ve known Junior Barfoot his whole life.  I never expected him to grow up to be much, because both his parents were as worthless as they could be, but he wasn’t much more trouble than most boys his age. He did some joyriding and some motorcycle racing, but nothing too bad.

I thought he might turn things around when he went into high school. His freshman year he joined the football team and it turned out he had some skill at that. Even at that age, he was the size of a house, but he could hustle when he needed to, bust through the line of scrimmage and flatten the quarterback before the ball could get into play. The third game into the season he carried the ball for a touchdown. He plowed the opposing team’s receiver under and just by chance managed to intercept the ball at the same time. I don’t think he expected that to happen. As big as he was he probably could’ve walked the ball down without getting tackled, but Junior ran it. Forty yards at a dead sprint. The teams we played that year, those boys got shaky in the knees when he walked on the field.

It could have been one of those inspirational sports stories, if it hadn’t fallen apart after homecoming. We got our usual call out to the Barfoots. Domestic disturbance. I figured it would be what it always was, Barfoot beating on his wife and the two kids left at home, Junior and his sister, who was a couple years older but retarded. We did it often enough, we had it down to a routine. Break it up, arrest Barfoot, throw him in a cell until he sobered up and promised he’d never do it again. Which usually lasted a few weeks, maybe a few months if we were lucky.



That night, when we got to the house, I could see that was how it had started. Mrs. Barfoot was in the kitchen crying, with her housedress half torn off and her nose bloody. The daughter was standing with her, looking scared. In the living room, I expected to find Barfoot going at Junior, but it was the other way around. Junior was pounding on him and screaming, “I’m gonna fucking kill you!” He did his best. It took me, two deputies and a volunteer fireman to pry Junior off his father, cuff him and haul him out to the squad car.

I thought that might finally make Mrs. Barfoot leave that vicious SOB, but when he got out of the hospital, she took him back. They sent Junior to stay with her family in Oklahoma. That’s when he started going by Kellen.

He came back two years later and almost immediately got into trouble, and kept getting into trouble for a number of years. I never saw someone who could tear up a bar the way he could. When you got called out, you could tell if he’d been involved in the fight. Furniture would be broken and people would be bleeding and crying, looking like they’d been hit by a train.

I knew Junior did some work for Ewan Quinn, but it seemed to me he’d settled down. He’d finished sowing his wild oats, and he hadn’t killed anybody, raped anybody, or burned anything down, which put him a few steps ahead of some other people in town. A few steps ahead of the rest of his family. He had the one brother in prison in Iowa, doing twenty to life for an armed robbery that went south. The other brother dead in a drunk driving accident. The sister, well, she turned up pregnant when she was sixteen, nobody knew who the father was. I don’t know for a fact that it was her father or one of her brothers, but you have to wonder. I don’t believe it was Junior, though. He never struck me as that kind. A blessing that baby was stillborn, but when Mrs. Barfoot died, they had to put the daughter in a state home.

When Junior went in partners with Dan Cutcheon, I was relieved. If Cutcheon would take him on, I figured I could stop worrying about him. Maybe he’d be a law-abiding citizen after all.

So that day, when Delbert brought Junior into the station in cuffs, I thought, “What in Hell now?”

That’s what I said, too: “Damn it, Junior, I haven’t had you down here in four years. What in Hell happened?”

“It’s the Quinn girl,” Delbert said. Junior didn’t say a word.

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I finally finished a solid first draft of the new project, so here’s another excerpt from it. This is a bit further into the story. Wavy is twelve here, and in case it’s not obvious, Ewan is her father and Sandy is Ewan’s girlfriend.


“You can pick out the make-up you like and I’ll help you put it on.” Sandy came toward the make-up table. “You need something pale. Pink, because you’re so fair. This is a good color, this lipstick. It’s called Angel’s Kiss.”

She said it so sing-songy, so tempting. Wavy put her finger on the box full of brilliant blue and green squares. Like a box of paints only more beautiful.

“That’s eye shadow. Now see, a lot of people would say because you’re so fair you need a lot of eye make-up, but you’re a natural beauty. When you’re older you’ll have to stay out of the sun or you’ll wrinkle.”

Angel's Kiss

Angel’s Kiss

Sandy showed Wavy how to use the little wand to smudge eye shadow on–a pretty dark purple that Sandy said was probably too dark for Wavy’s coloring, but that Wavy liked. The soft, tickly brush to put blush on. The waxy lipstick she dabbed on with her finger to not touch the tube to her mouth.

Sandy smiled in the mirror as Wavy did it. Wavy watched herself, her middle finger smoothing the pink stuff on her lips. She looked different. Her eyes looked strange with the make-up on.

“Don’t you look pretty? Oh and look at your ring. Where did that come from? Are you–are you supposed to be wearing that?” Sandy frowned at the ring.

“Kellen.” It was the one word that was always safe to say.

“Kellen? Did he give you that?”

“We’re getting married.”

Sandy giggled and clapped her hand over her mouth.

“Are you teasing me? Because you know, that’s the only thing you’ve ever said to me besides ‘no’ so I don’t know if you’re serious or if you’re just messing with me.”

Wavy shook her head and did what Kellen did: kissed the ring.

“Oh my god, really? Can I–can I look at it?” When Wavy offered her hand, Sandy leaned over it and stared, blinking. “Wow. That’s gorgeous. Kellen really bought that for you? That’s your engagement ring? He must really love you if he bought you that. So you–you love him, too?”

Wavy nodded and Sandy looked funny. Like she was going to cry, but she rubbed her nose and laughed.

“That’s nice. That’s really nice. You’re lucky. He must love you a lot.”

And then they both heard it: Ewan, calling down the hallway, “Sandy?”

Wavy shook her head, but Sandy answered: “Yeah, baby?”

There was no way to escape and he was almost outside the door, saying, “Where have you been? I gotta get on the road. Kellen’s waiting on me.”

The only choice was the closet. Wavy stepped into it, but it was so full she could only wriggle deeper into the clothes with no time to close the door. Crouching down, holding her breath, she watched as the bedroom door opened and Ewan’s legs came in.

“Where are you going?” Sandy said.

“I told you: business.”

“Yeah, but what kind of business?”

“Are you getting smart with me? What’s that mean?”

“Ow,” Sandy said when Ewan shoved her down on the edge of the bed. “I just want to know: is it business or business?”

“I don’t need Kellen to help me take care of business.”


Ewan grabbed her hair and pulled it. The way he did to Mama.

“Come on, baby. Don’t be that way before I get on the road. Why don’t you just do a little something for me before I go? Something to keep my mind on you.”

“I don’t want to.”

He let go of her hair and put his hands on his belt.

“You don’t want to or you won’t? ‘Cause maybe Dee’s not too busy for me.”

Sandy didn’t answer. She looked down at her hands on her lap and then she slid off the bed onto her knees.

“That’s right, Sandy, baby. Why don’t you suck it the way I like?”

Wavy had seen it before. In Kellen’s magazines. At a party. Once she saw Mama do it with a man she didn’t know. But Ewan wasn’t nice. He held Sandy’s hair too tight. He made her gag and say, “Ow, don’t, Ewan. I’m doing it the way you like.” Still it was the same and it made Wavy’s stomach nervous. The mouth was a dirty place. A dangerous place. A way for people to get into you, which was what Ewan was doing to Sandy. That was why she let him make her cry, because he was in her. The same way he was in Mama.

The only good thing was that he didn’t see Wavy. After he made Sandy cry, he pulled up his pants and left. When Wavy stepped out of the closet, Sandy was sitting on the bed, wiping her eyes. She looked up and said, “Oh, Jesus, honey. I forgot you were here. Did you–did you see that?”

Wavy shrugged.

Sandy laughed and sniffled. “I guess you’re getting your education tonight. It’s not always like that. He’s good to me. He just gets in these moods.”

Wavy nodded. She knew all about Ewan’s moods.

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Mrs. Naughton said, “I want each of you to stand up and say your name and one thing you did this summer.” Wavy felt it building all around her. The curiosity, the watching, like butter bubbling on the skillet before she poured Kellen’s eggs in.

Down the rows they went, following the alphabet. That was how Mrs. Naughton arranged the desks, so that Wavy was near the end. Maybe something would happen before they got to her. Maybe the fire alarm would go off. Or maybe there would be a tornado like there was in the spring. They had all gone into the dark hallway behind the gymnasium and lots of kids had cried. Wavy liked it. The darkness and the strange huddling, waiting for a tornado to come and tear the school away.

Nothing like that happened. It never did when you wanted it to. Just like Mama was only Good Mama when she wanted to be. Not when you wanted her to be.

Then it was time for the girl next to Wavy to stand up. Her name was Caroline Peters and over the summer she visited her grandmother in Connecticut. And her grandmother had a Persian cat with very long white fur. And and and …

“That’s enough, Caroline,” Mrs. Naughton said. “One thing.”

Wavy saw what kind of trick it was. She had something to say. She had several things to say. She had gone to visit her cousins in Tulsa. She had learned to adjust the idle on a Harley-Davidson Softail. She had gone into the meadow and watched stars with Kellen. Her little brother had learned to walk and how to say her name. She had cooked dinner for Kellen when he was tired and he had let her take care of him. While he was asleep she had kissed him.

That was the trick. To make her want to say something, even though it wasn’t safe. Mrs. Naughton was looking at her. Frowning.

“Go ahead, dear. Stand up and say your name and one thing you did this summer. Don’t be shy.”

Shy. Like she was afraid to speak. That was a trick, too. Like the kids on the playground daring each other, saying, “What are you, chicken?” Wavy wasn’t chicken, but she wasn’t stupid enough to fall for that trick.

“Mrs. Naughton,” said Caroline Peters.

“You’ve already had your turn, Caroline.”

“That’s Wavy Quinn. She can’t talk.”

“She most certainly can talk. She chooses not to talk. And if she persists with that behavior in my classroom, it’s going to earn her a mark on the board.”

Wavy's name on the board

Wavy’s name on the board

Mrs. Naughton walked to the chalkboard and wrote “Wavy Quinn” in the upper right corner. Later in the day, she put a little mark next to Wavy’s name. After recess, she also wrote “Michael Ames” and “Jimmy Didier.” Jimmy got a mark next to his name, too, but that was for talking too much.

Every day it was like that. Wavy’s name wasn’t always the first one of the board, but it always went on the board. If it hadn’t been on the board before lunch, it went on the board after lunch, because Mrs. Naughton said she had to eat lunch. Or else a mark on the board.

One day, Wavy came back from lunch and wrote her own name on the board. She liked the way her W looked better, with the pretty arches on either side and the elegant loop in the middle.

“That is not your job. I am the teacher and you are a very disrespectful little girl,” Mrs. Naughton said through clenched teeth as she erased Wavy’s name. She rewrote it with a plain W and put a mark next to it. Not eating lunch. Being disrespectful. That was what Wavy’s grade report said at the quarter. A list of every day Wavy’s name had been on the board and why.

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Another little excerpt from the same project I posted last week.  This is six months after her encounter with the Giant in the road. Which Giant turns out to be named Kellen and very nice.


Why did Mama have to be so mean when she was being Good Mama? The day was so nice until I went home and then Good Mama was there. So many nice things, I got to make a list. I didn’t get to make a list every day. Most days there wasn’t anything to put on the list, but that day there were lots of things.

Miss DeGrassi thinking Kellen was my father. That was the best thing, because it was so silly, I almost laughed. He didn’t look like Ewan at all. Also getting new boots and a helmet was on the list.

No, Kellen was the best thing. Riding on the bike after that. Then the helmet and new boots. Then Miss Degrassi thinking Kellen was my father. And stolen library books in my backpack.

The problem with Good Mama was how you had to act. You were supposed to want what Good Mama wanted.

You were supposed to be happy that Good Mama was out of bed and cleaning house. Cleaning cleaning cleaning, so that there was dust everywhere that made you sneeze, and chemicals that made your eyes water.

You weren’t supposed to wish Kellen had stayed to play with the baby.

You weren’t supposed to wish that Kellen was there to read library books with you. He didn’t read very fast, but it was better to have him read than to have Mama read. Because he only read what was in the book. He didn’t make up lies that I knew weren’t in the book. I wasn’t a stupid baby. I could read and I knew those things weren’t in my books.

Mommy's Little Helper

Mommy’s Little Helper

With Good Mama, you were supposed to run inside and hug her. You weren’t supposed to cross your arms and try to run upstairs with your stolen library books.

You were supposed to say, “Oh, Mama, you made cookies!” You weren’t supposed to look at them until she said, “Why do you do this? Just eat the cookies.”

If Good Mama said, “Wipe your nose,” you were supposed to go into the bathroom and use a tissue. You weren’t supposed to do it on your sleeve. You weren’t supposed to have a runny nose at all, or Good Mama would accuse you of being “germy.”

You weren’t supposed to lie and pretend you didn’t have homework, because you didn’t want Good Mama to sit at the table with you and boss you around while you did it. Good Mama would find out. She would take your homework out and look at it so you knew it wasn’t good enough.

“Wavy? Wavy? Why do all your papers say Wavy?” When good Mama asked that, probably you were supposed to shrug or start writing Vonnie or Wavonna the way you used to.

You weren’t supposed to say, “Kellen calls me Wavy. I like it.”

Because if you did, Good Mama would say, “I’m sure Kellen is a very nice person, but he’s also as dumb as a box of hammers.”

Good Mama was so mean. I hated her.

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I’m doing something a little strange for me: posting a teaser from something that is very much a work in progress. Something I wrote last night, in fact. The narrator here is an 8-year-old girl. She’s spent the night hiding in the meadow, and as the sun is coming up, she’s hiking back to her house. When she reaches the road, a guy on a motorcycle goes by. Startled by her unexpected presence in a hay field at dawn, he does a double-take, skids on gravel, and spills his bike. What does it all mean? I don’t know yet.


The Giant sat up. He winced and rubbed at his elbow and then his shoulder. Then his big hand touched the back of his head. It came away bloody. He stared at it for a moment then reached for me. I thought about fighting. Running. But his hand was shaking where he held my shoulder.

“Goddamn. I thought you were a ghost or something. Where did you come from?”

I pointed toward Mama’s house.

“You’re not an angel?”

I shook my head.

“You sure? ’cause I think I just about bought the farm. Wonder how fucked up my bike is.” He got up on his knees, awkward with his left arm held close to his body. He touched me again, his hand skittering over my hair. “You got grass and leaves in your hair.”

He smoothed it. Gentle and still shaky. For me or for him, I didn’t know, but he petted my hair for a minute, and looked at me. I looked back. Not everyone is safe to look at. There are ways to get into you through your eyes. But I was sure he wouldn’t creep inside my eyes and steal me away, the way Mama said people could.

When he started to stand, I put my arm around him to help. Silly, thinking I could help, but he leaned into me like I could. For a second, I breathed him in. His oily black hair was delicious mint and dirt. Then he got on his feet, and I filled my nose with the smell of the rest of him: sweat and fuel and sharp chemicals. We lurched and shuffled toward the bike. His ankle must have hurt, too.

Bike Spill

Bike Spill

“Turn the key off. To your left,” the Giant said.

The motorcycle’s engine dropped away to silence when I did it. I tugged the key out, let it dangle on my finger, a little silver skull balancing on the other end of the chain. To take it from me, he let go of his left elbow. His hand was bloody, dripping into the dirt, and he smudged it down his jeans when he put the key into his pocket.

“You gonna help me up to the house or you got more business down here in the meadow?”

“I can help,” I said. Because he was safe that way, too. It was safe for me to say something.

“Hey, you can talk.” I let him put his hand on my shoulder and together we walked up the road to the house. He talked the whole way and I knew why. To make me easy, the same reason Grandma had talked so much. She talked too much sometimes, afraid of quiet.

He told me about the bike. The custom paint job. Probably fucked all to shit. The way the dew had glinted off my hair and the meadow hay. The tattoo on his arm. I already knew it was a dirty word, but he didn’t say “motherfucker” that way. It was just a word. He asked if there were rabbits in the meadow, but he seemed to know there were. Like he asked to leave a space in his talking. A place for me to say something if I wanted.

We didn’t make it all the way to the house. Just to the stone steps that went up from the road to the barn. He sat down there, holding his arm tight and breathing hard. I waited, worried I needed to fill that space, but then he looked at me.

“Can you go up to the house and call somebody for me?”

The phone was on the kitchen wall, but I hadn’t used one before. Ever. There were people you couldn’t smell on the other end of phones. And your ear. Your ears were openings, too, Mama said. The blood from his head ran down his neck. His black t-shirt drank it up. I nodded.

He told me the numbers. Then he wrote them out with his finger on my arm. Streaks of blood. “Do you know your numbers?” he said. I knew it was because I was so small. He thought I couldn’t read. So I read the numbers back to him, from his blood on my arm.

I brought my hand up to my ear, making a pretend phone, the way Aunt Brenda did when she said, “I’ll call you.” To show him I understood. Then I thought of something else. A complication. I reached out. Brave for me. Knowing how secrets like that work. The mouth is a dangerous place, Mama said. A dirty place. But I wanted to. I touched his lips. Warm and dry.

“Your name?” I said.

“Kellen. Jesse Joe Kellen.”

I thought of how he left spaces for me when he talked, but it was okay that they were empty. He didn’t mind that they were empty.

If I saw him again, I decided I might put things in those spaces.

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