The Forgotten Portal

Because of moving around to different churches, I never really understood the idea of “hometown” very well. You’re supposed to know everyone, the best time of day for fresh bread from So&So Bakery, etc. The closest thing I had to a hometown was Watertown. My mother’s parents and sister lived here.  I went to boarding school here. It was the one constant place in my young life.

These pictures are from an island park a few blocks from my grandparents’ place and another few blocks from the school. My grandfather took my brother and me down the hill in that old blue Buick to feed the ducks along the gravel shore for years. Sometimes, if he had the energy, we’d cross the bridge and walk around the island.

I always saw the old railroad bridge as a sort of portal: if I crossed it at the right time on the right day, I’d cross over into Elsewhere. I was always a little disappointed when that didn’t happen.

The island is very small; 5 minutes and you’re on the other side, near the mill. I have no clue if the mill is used at all–doesn’t look like it. Grandpa would warn me every time to stay off that wall, but I’d hop on anyway, certain I just needed to go a little further to complete the crossing.

I was rather keen to escape life from little on, I guess.

Perhaps you have such a place in your childhood, someplace where the world gives way to another. Seek it out. Capture it, if you can.

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As My Sons Turn 3

What is it with schools and fluorescent lights? They do nothing to ease my pounding head as I pace in front of an empty classroom.

“They must be in the gym now,” says another mom, bland to this whole First Day of School affair. She’s been through it all, by the looks of her wrinkles and hips, at least once before, likely twice. Whichever one is in 3K is not the Troublemaker of her brood.

She does not know my sons.

~*~

Biff and Bash were evicted after 37 weeks with the help of any and every drug doctors allowed. They slid out, two minutes apart: Biff pale, Bash ruddy. They were given stocking caps straight out of M.A.S.H. with smudged permanent marker: “A” and “B.” It took longer to remove the placenta than to give birth.

Two little souls, so different before they even left my womb: “A” so quiet, so tucked away, while I couldn’t sleep because “B” kicked and somersaulted. Two sets of sleepy eyes, clasping hands. Bo and I held, traded. We had our sons. We had both wanted a boy. God blessed us with two. At last, our family, overwhelming, perfect.

~*~

“Do you want to use the potty today?”

“N-n-n-n-n-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o,” says Bash.

NOOOO!” says Biff. This fingernail scrape of a scream is new, and drives me fucking nuts.

“Fine. Fine. Then get over here. New diapers and clothes. You have school today!” After several more No’s and kicks to my chest and arms, the boys are changed and dressed. Biff wears a white polo patterned with motorcycles and classic cars; Bash wears a blue plaid button-down shirt. He looks…old. Like, “I’m off to first-grade, Mumsy” old. Could they really be ready to exit this house and co-exist around other human beings of various sizes?

~*~

November. The boys are eight weeks old.

Blondie naps soundly. Thank God she’s a heavy sleeper like her father.

The boys have nursed. They are changed, swaddled, laid in their cribs. I close the door. Exhale.

The afternoon is cloudy, plain. Nothing new in the house or outside to dwell on, work on. Nothing to consider but an hour of peace, of me conscious, by myself, in the quiet. I look at the half-wall in the middle of the living area; it surrounds the stairs to the basement. Yes, I’ll go below, get some Mystery Science Theater 3000, and—

Screams. Again.

I bolt into the room and remove Biff before he can wake Bash. He is crying. He’s fucking crying, like they always do, because they can’t just fucking sleep at the same fucking time.

They. These two. Why the FUCK do I have two, I can’t handle two. Why did God give me two

The half-wall is lit in sunlight.

There is no sunlight today.

It’s perfect.

Perfect for what?

It’s an accident.

Oh God no

It’s a fall, it could happen.

No it can’t please GOD no it I can’t

A trip.

A drop.

Shut up shut up SHUT UP

An answer.

Biff howls in my arms as I cower in my bedroom, afraid of my own house. Of my own mind.

~*~

Bash’s smiles are made of pure cheek. He half closes his eyes and peers about, and you know his wheels are turning. He revels in running away from command, laughing with maniacal glee. He sees a game to be made in everything, from hiding cars in every drawer of the house, to provoking Biff with a whack on the back.

If reality doesn’t amuse him, he creates his own. He gathers little trains, or takes a picture of the latest Thomas and Friends line, and begins. “Once upon a time, there were three engines…. ‘Hello, Thomas, I’m Toby!’ Toby peeped. …. ‘But Diesel, you can’t go to the sea,’ Gordon chuffed.” And so on. You can hear him change character, stretching his voice for each train, adding dialogue tags for of course, one must have dialogue tags. His imagination bores Blondie, occasionally amuses Biff. Impresses Bo. Brings me to tears, knowing this could not be happening had I left him on the roadside one winter night years ago. (I describe this night in “The Machete and the Cradle.”)

~*~

“Come on, little dudes, let’s get some breakfast.”

“No I’m NOT it’s time for breakfast.” Bash never misses the chance to contradict.

Biff never misses a chance to rattle Blondie’s cage. He goes to the seat next to her. “Hi, Mr. Blondie.”

“I’m not a Mr. I’m a MISS!” Blondie tries to scream, but morning phlegm makes yelling hard. Shuckie-darn.

Fork battles, tossed milk cups, crumbled muffins everywhere.

Bo comes in, unfazed, and sits by Blondie for breakfast. Muffin shrapnel lands in his milk. He sips it anyway, and looks at me. “Just wait until they’re with other kids.”

I imagine bruised legs, scabbed faces, and pissed off moms pointing at my hellions. THEY did this, Can’t you DO anything about them

~*~

Biff teeters between fixation and boredom. He took to books in infancy, sitting alone or laying on his stomach, blanket at hand, slowly turning the pages. Vehicles fascinate him. Numbers and letters fascinate him. If it’s in a book, he’ll stare at it for ages.

But if he’s bored, trouble brews. You know he’s bored when he rests his head in his hands, eyes wide and off and up, mouth slightly drooping. Everything falls under his disinterested gaze. He’ll half-close his eyes, just like his brother, as he sits there, checking out the dining room, the living room. Bash has cars, cars are boring today…and you can see his head nonchalantly turn towards his sister’s room, and the look of boredom fades.

~*~

The drive to 3K lasts roughly twenty minutes. Ten minutes in I realize the birthday treat they were due to bring because the first day of 3K also fell on their birthday is still in the fridge. No time to turn back. No time to stop on the way. Where to stop, how to stop… Of COURSE I forgot the one thing that would impact others because I was too worried about clothing and shoes and diapers and change of clothes and backpacks and car seats and coats and DAMMIT.

All the while the same song repeats, because if I let the next track start, the boys scream. The boys call it “The Song.” Blondie calls it the “Dinosaurs Die” song. Adults may know it as “Demons” by Imagine Dragons. Not a bad song, especially when a five-year-old explains which part of the song is for the T Rex’s eating everyone, which part is when the dinosaurs die, and which part is when they come back to life.

I rush Biff in. The principal, a Wonder Bread version of Jason Bateman with crusts removed, holds out his hand, “Hi, welcome to—“

“Hi.” Up the stairs, dump the boy. I don’t look back.

“Have a good d—“

“Not done.” Out to the car, grab Bash. Rush him in.

“Hi.” Mr. Wonder Bread Bateman holds out his hand and then realizes it’s me again. “Oh, yes. The twins.”

Yes. THE twins. Dumped and I’m gone, because all I can think of is where the hell to buy a birthday cookie to drop off before snack time.

I didn’t hug them. Didn’t say goodbye. First day of school, and I’m stuck on a God damn cookie.

~*~

Both boys adore Blondie’s room. It’s filled with the “good stuff”: little boxes, sparkly toys, cars she tries to keep for herself. Plush ponies and a bed without another bed directly on top of it, which makes it perfect for bouncing.

Yet today, when I find them there, they are not playing with her toys, nor are they bouncing. They are both focused on something hanging from a clip of her picture string. It’s a printout of two pictures my dad took in 2012.

Me, in the hospital, holding them, newly born. Blondie a wisp of a toddler with even wispier curls around her ears, clings to Bo. One other picture: my parents, each holding a grandson.

“Mommy, Mommy, who’s that?” Biff says, fat finger on the middle of the paper—near no one, of course.

“Who is that?” I repeat him to avoid the Shrill Anger of Misunderstanding.

“Daddy.”

“Mommy, Mommy—there’s Grandma!”

“Yes, Bash.”

“Mommy, Mommy!” Biff stiffens his back as he sniffs his blanket. “Who’s that?”

“I don’t know.” I really don’t—he wasn’t even looking at the pictures.

Biff turns around and thrusts his face into the image of my parents. “It’s Grandma and Uncle Matt!”

“No.” I choke. “That’s Grandma and Grandpa.”

I have to correct them every time. And every time, it hurts. My father died some months after their first birthday, which means they will never, ever have a memory of him.

Had my postpartum won out, there would be no boys to remember anything at all.

There would be no boys before me, staring at their newborn selves. I would not have memories of train stories, dutiful board book study, or maniacal giggles. I’d have none of the pain, which, yes, was pain, from scars on my psyche to the bruises on my body. These boys brought so much pain into my life. They still do.

But that is not all there is to them. They are mischievous, imaginative. Fearless. They’ve shown me I can face the worst darkness in myself, and fucking beat it.

~*~

Screams from the stairs below.

“Oh, someone’s unhappy,” Bland Mom says with that stupid sing-song tone that makes me want to slap her.

“Yeah. Mine.”

Pause. “Oh.”

Which one of mine I don’t know, and I don’t feel like explaining.

The door opens to Bash, sobbing, gently prodded along by the Teacher. He isn’t throwing himself to the ground, skinning his knees to blazes. He isn’t slapping her. He’s letting her guide him back to the room.

My. GOD.

Some more sniffly ones, and there’s Biff, white polo covered in paint, birthday crown still atop that big head of his, wandering away from the line. Teacher’s Aide calls to him, “This way!” He immediately turns and follows the other children inside.

“Someone had a birthday,” Bland Mom keeps it monotone this time. Good.

I exhale for the first time all morning. “Yeah, mine.”

More cries in the classroom. I approach the doorway and see Biff and Bash refusing their backpacks. They look up, and rush towards me.

“Time to go?” whimpers Biff.

“This way!” Bash points to the stairwell out.

Teacher hands over the backpacks. Not a mark on her. Hell, her hair ain’t even frazzled. “It took a while for them to calm down, but they had fun. They really did.” She emphasizes that last bit. I know she’s seasoned enough to tell a mother her kid’s not ready for school. She’s not telling me that. Just the opposite.

I half-carry, half-escort the boys down the stairs. Mr. Wonder Bread Bateman stands at the door. “Hey, you kids have fun today?”

“N-n-n-n-n-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o.”

NOOOO!”

He stares, toasted.

So I say “See you next week!” and head out the door.

In the car, buckled up and unable to escape, I risk asking for myself. “Did you two have fun at school today?”

They pause.

“Yeah.”

“Yeah.”

I pause.

“Had fun at school today!”

“No, I didn’t have fun at school today!” Oh, Bash, you can’t stand not contradicting.

“The Song” repeats the whole way home as the two debate over whether or not they truly did have fun at school today.

I wonder how next week will go. How 4K will go, Kindergarten. The time would come when these boys won’t fight me over using the potty or who gets what car….well we’ll probably fight over who gets what car, just not, you know, the teeny ones. God willing we’re not in tiffs over who uses what toilet.

Unique souls from the get-go.

Unpredictable in thought, word, and deed.

Unequivocally my sons.

Writer’s Music: Gabriel Yared II

cover-560x555Simple moments matter. We don’t appreciate tension, action, horror, or whatever else without the quiet times to balance the story out.

But a danger lingers with quiet moments: pacing. Too short, and the quiet moment will come off as rushed, needless, or both. Too long, and readers will be bored. Plot doesn’t move steadily through quiet moments, so a metronome must be in place. One of the many reasons I require background music while I write is to be a metronome, timer, call it what you will. If a scene reads longer than the song that’s playing, it’s gone too long.

Certain composers fulfill the need of a metronome very well for quiet moments. Some I’ve written about already, such as Danna or Karaindrou. I would like to note Gabriel Yared again, as his compositions for piano in Cold Mountain are worth notice.

“Ada Plays” does not have the, I’ll call it “epic,” tone held by other selections of the Cold Mountain score. Only piano plays for the first minute and a half, in a waltz-like rhythm, with one constant note underlying the chords that sway up and down the keys. Piano fades to a harp and orchestra, which keep the rhythm and harmonies, only now through the different instruments the simple chords are broken into melodies that flow into each other as streams join to form a river. The music is layered, intricate, and always moving forward. The swells are muted, and the music ebbs away, leaving the harp to mark the end.

Perhaps you just need a quiet moment for your characters. They deserve one, at least. And readers cannot relate, TRULY relate, to characters who are always fighting, cowering, deducing. Give your characters a chance to simply “be.”

Click here for more on COLD MOUNTAIN.

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Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: Define Your Own “Normal” Sibling Ties

-les-mondes-de-chrestomanci,-tome-1---ma-soeur-est-une-sorciere-2928412The concept of slight-of-hand—whom you think you can or can’t trust is all upside down and sideways—is not unique to Jones by any means. What IS worth noting here is how that method plays out when the protagonist is a child. Because of his limited world experience, what he defines as “normal,” or as “loving,” can be VASTLY different from humanity’s norm. Because of this, the actions of, say, a sibling, can always be spun to fit the child’s understanding of love.

Take Eric “Cat” Chant in Charmed Life. A strange boating accident leaves him orphaned with his elder sister Gwendolen, whom everyone adores, including the protagonist: “Cat Chant admired his elder sister Gwendolen. She was a witch. He admired her and he clung to her” (p. 1). Here is a boy who, with this perspective, will always think well of his sister no matter what she does because, as far as he knows, she is the only family he has. They are cared for, and SHE is adored by all the witches in their community (it’s a bustling magical world, this place).

But no adoration comes from Gwendolen to her brother. None at all. She gives him cramps, she turns his violin into a cat, she constantly calls him “idiot” and “stupid.” Yet Cat accepts this all as normal because with Gwendolen, this attitude IS the norm. It didn’t help that a clairvoyant predicted Gwendolen shall rule the world.

Enter murmurings of The Dark Stranger, the one to help Gwendolen conquer the planet. He also happens to be one whose very name makes witches and warlocks shudder: Chrestomanci. Because their foster mother is terrified of the man, so is Cat. Of course, Gwendolen decides that HE must be the one to teach her magic, and forces him into their lives.

It takes little for an adult to terrify a child, especially when they are so sharply dressed and curtly spoken. Chrestomanci meets Cat first, and chides him for scrumping apples. He then meets Gwendolen and agrees to heading their instruction in magic (regardless of the fact Cat has not shown any talent whatsoever).

The children are taken to Chrestomanci Castle, which is all gorgeous and foreboding and whatnot. Chrestomanci does not teach them, and the tutor with their charge won’t bother with witchcraft lessons until they prove knowledgeable in other subjects. Gwendolen does not like this, surprise surprise, so she proceeds to initiate pranks all over the castle—fields of mole hills, shifting the forests, calling up apparitions, transforming dresses into snakes, and so on.

Chrestomanci’s power is felt and, to Cat, seen. Chrestomanci grew often when he used his power, or even with instilling commands into others: “He looked so tall like that that Cat was surprised that his head was still under the ceiling. ‘There’s one absolute rule in this Castle,’ he said, ‘which it will pay you all to remember. No witchcraft of any kind is to be practiced by children…’” (p.42).

Because of Gwendolen’s prank campaign against Chrestomanci, Cat is naturally inclined to see Chrestomanci as the villain and Gwendolen as the…well, as the sort of good. He does not care for her pranks, either, especially the apparitions, yet she is his sister. She is the ally. She is the one who cares for him and wants him to be okay. Right?

It takes a lot for a child to fully understand how good—or bad—a family member is, especially when that family member is all you care about.

By the book’s end, Gwendolen IS queen of a parallel world, and she intends to keep it that way through Cat.

“Now, where was I?” Gwendolen said, turning back to the Nostrum brothers. “Oh, yes. I thought I’d better come back because I wanted to see the fun, and I remembered I’d forgotten to tell you Cat has nine lives. You’ll have to kill him several times, I’m afraid.… I’ve been using his magic ever since he was a baby.” (p.197)

The hints have been there, throughout the story, but now, Gwendolen is perfectly blunt: Cat was only good for his magic. She had already killed him four times before—his previous lives were the apparitions she summoned to scare Chrestomanci. No. Love. At all.

Nothing matters for a moment. Cat doesn’t care if the evil warlocks and witches under Gwendolen want to kill him and use his life to take over other worlds. What did it matter? He had no family, no one who cared about him.

But he does have family. Chrestomanci is himself a Chant, and he refuses to let Cat give up. When the others go searching for an enchanted cat containing one of Cat’s nine lives so they can kill it, Chrestomanci does something no one else has done before: he shows he believes in Cat.

“Cat,” said Chrestomanci. He sounded almost as desperate as Fiddle. “Cat, I know how you’re feeling. We hoped you wouldn’t find out about Gwendolen for years yet. But you are an enchanter. I suspect you’re a stronger enchanter than I am when you set your mind to it.”

“What do you want me to do?” he said. “I don’t know how to do anything.”

“You’ve more ability in the little finger of that hand than most people—including Gwendolen—have in their entire lives.” (p.201)

The battle over, and Gwendolen sealed in another world, Cat comes to terms with his reclaimed magic and prospects of a new life with Chrestomanci. It is not the normal he knows. Thanks to the love found in Chrestomanci’s family, it will be far, far better.

Sibling relationships, or the lack thereof, have a profound impact on characters and readers alike. Don’t be afraid to use this connection to make—or break—your protagonist.

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