A short-short with no name!

I found this story scribbled on two sheets of paper while I was going through old notebooks, etc… I think it pretty clearly shows my state of mind during my graduate school creative writing classes! Not sure what to call it — any suggestions welcome!

All day, I couldn’t get the image of someone chopping down a tree out of my head. I was sitting at Servio’s Pizza with Mack, scribbling in my notebook while he lectured me on the proper way to write a cover letter. He thought I was taking notes; I was drawing a picture of Professor Wheeler wielding an axe, his sleeves rolled up past his elbows.

“Are you listening?” Mack cocked his ear toward the door “That’s the sound of your career options floating out the window.”

“Oh, whatever.” I closed my notebook. “I’m going to be late for class. Better go face the music.”

Mack’s lips were pinched together. He patted my arm. “Good luck.”

“Thanks.”

Professor Wheeler sat in the square desk at the front of the room, while the rest of us faced him in a horseshoe formation. Faces were blank. My story was up.

“Harhum! Who wants to start?” Wheeler let his straight eye roam over each of us in turn, his wobbly eye rolling up toward the ceiling, as though trying to escape out of the socket. When he got to me, I looked down at my desk.

Lucretia raised her hand. She was a freshman with two jet-black braids that she purposely wore at each side of her head. At the end of each braid was a purple bow. She liked to wear black shiny shoes with little straps across the ankles.

Wheeler waited a few moments, letting his eye shift around the room before finally settling on Lucretia.

“Yes?” He never said her name unless he had to.

“I liked Janice’s story, her use of the strong male protagonist. I thought he was very believable in his weakness, his fears about writing. He was just like one of us.” She swept her arm around the room. “He wasn’t snobby or pretentious when it really came down to it. It was all an act.”

She stopped and looked at the manuscript on her desk. Wheeler waited. I clenched my hands in my lap.

“I disagree.” It was Benny; he always sat on the left side of the room, always wrote with a red pencil, sometimes combed his thick hair while others spoke.

“I didn’t like the narrator. I thought he was arrogant and overbearing.”

I bit my lip. Slowly, I raised my eyes to Wheeler. His cheeks were pink under the spokes of hair on his chin, and he was staring at Benny. Benny shrugged and began combing his hair.

Wheeler put both his hands flat on the desk, big pink fingers like rolls of unbaked dough. He looked at me suddenly, and I lowered my eyes quickly, studying the cartoon I’d scribbled at lunch.

Wheeler was smiling as he chopped down the tree, a big willow with graceful drooping branches that dripped around his shoulders and head. I’d drawn beads of sweat popping out of his forehead, surrounding his face like little flies.

“Well, come on. What does everyone else have to say about the story?”

Beatrice, an Ecuador woman with a kind smile, stared out of the window. Mike, a sports fanatic who wore his soccer cleats to class, sat looking straight ahead, a fake smile etched in place. I held my breath and prayed that I would suddenly wake up and find myself in bed in my small apartment. What had I been thinking, writing a story like that?

“I suppose I could add something to the conversation,” Wheeler said, cracking his knuckles. He rested his chin on his hand and tilted his head at me.

“A very unusual approach, Janice. I don’t think I’ve ever had a student do this before.”

I sucked in my breath, looking straight at him. In my drawing, my arms and limbs stretched into the sky, reaching out to the air as he crashed through me, toppling me over into the rough, dry grass.

“I applaud your honesty, your attention to detail.”

I blinked.

“Finally, you’re writing about what you know.” He tapped his forehead. “You’ve stopped writing clichés, plastic, polystyrene. Now you’re playing with fire. Now you have the power to inspire.” He stood up. “And to hurt.”

I covered my mouth with my hands as he walked out of the room.

The Raincatcher, Snippet 5

Hello, Everyone! I really appreciate all who have been reading the little snippets from my novel, and although it may take me a while to get back to you, I will do my best to reply to all comments!

Here is another “snippet”… Feel free to comment, and I hope you enjoy it!

Recap: Katie arrived in Scotland from the United States the day before and is staying with her estranged mother, Liz, who seems quite scattered and disorganized for someone who hasn’t seen her daughter in 10 years. Last night, Katy was surprised to hear Liz coming back from somewhere at 2 in the morning and has no idea where she went…

Snippet Five

A whistle woke me. Then the sound of feet thumping across floorboards, a woman sneezing, and finally I was able to pry my eyelids open. Sleep hung over me like a soggy blanket. Where was I?

I pushed myself up and felt around for my glasses. They were under my pillow. So was a brown bottle of oily liquid, labeled “Sinus Surprise Therapeutic Oil.” Then I remembered.

“Mom?” I called

The whistling stopped. “Yes?” Mom poked her head out of the kitchen.

“I thought you’d left me,” I said, before realizing how babyish I sounded. Mom came over and sat down on the couch, her hip against mine, warm and reassuring. She must have been boiling water for tea. I imagined the steam from cups of tea, warming her tiny kitchen, scrambled eggs and buttered toast on the coffee table for breakfast, and smiled.

“Come on, sleepyhead.” Mom yanked my blankets down, and I gasped at the cold air on my bare arms. She handed me a pair of felt slippers shaped like bananas.

“What time is it?”

“Four o’clock.” Dark circles hung under her eyes.

“Why are you up so early?” I asked, shoving my feet into the bananas for warmth.

“It’s a long drive to Ullapool, and we want to get there before dark.”

“Where? What?” Was I still dreaming?

Mom clapped her hands together. “A surprise treat for you, Katy! We’re going on a tour of the Highlands, all the way up to Ullapool on the west coast. Won’t that be nice? You’ll get to take lots of pictures to send to your dad, and we’ll ride in a ferry and maybe even see the Loch Ness monster!”

“Loch Ness?” That woke me up. Ever since I saw the movie, “Water Horse,” about a boy who finds a special egg that hatches into a sea dragon, I’ve wanted to try to spot the Loch Ness monster.

Mom hopped off the bed, scooping up a pair of tights from the floor and stuffing them into a tote bag made out of what looked like shoelaces.

She handed me a granola bar. “Here’s breakfast.”

I forgot my camera in the rush to get our bags packed – Mom said to only take a few things from my suitcase and put them in my backpack because we couldn’t use the trunk. Aunt Claire had run over a cat the night before. She’d put the dead cat in the “boot” of the car to bury later.

“Why did she do that?” And where had she been driving to last night? I suddenly remembered my mom creeping into the flat at two in the morning and wondered if I should ask her about it.

“Och, you know your aunt; always an animal lover! She wanted to give the cat a proper burial, somewhere nice and scenic up in the Highlands.”

“Really?” I tried to imagine Aunt Claire wiping her eyes over a little mound of dirt and placing pink flowers under a cross made out of popsicle sticks. All I could think of was her shrieking at getting mud on her fancy leather boots.

“Um, Mom? Did you go out for tea bags or something last night?”

She looked at me strangely. “No. Why?”

“I thought I heard the front door opening, that’s all.” I blushed.

“Och, it’s probably just jet lag. You’re exhausted, and your mind’s’ playing tricks on you!”

“Hmm. It didn’t seem like my imagination. Did you go outside to check the mail or something?”

“For goodness’ sake, Katy. I didn’t go anywhere!”

“Okay, okay.” Obviously I’d had some kind of out-of-body experience where I’d hallucinated the door closing and floorboards creaking. It had happened before when I was five and we’d just driven 11 hours from visiting Aunt Marsha in New York City. Dad put me to bed, and two hours later, I’d sleep-walked downstairs and began crying when I couldn’t get my arm into my coat sleeve. Dad found me in the coat closet, wrestling with a giant scarf and jabbering about going to the jungle to get more bananas.

We ran down the street, Mom’s shoelace-bag bouncing up and down behind her like a flag. I dragged myself along, wincing as the cold air pierced my nostrils. The sky was already tinged with pale blue, hinting at the promise of a sunny day. The stars had started to fade and only a few remained, blinking lazily.

Aunt Claire stood smoking beside her car, which was parked in the middle of the street. She wore a huge pair of sunglasses, and I wondered how she was going to see when it wasn’t even daylight yet. She jerked her head at us to get in and then threw her cigarette butt onto the ground and mashed it with the toe of her boot.

“Do you think it’ll start?” I asked from the back seat as Aunt Claire got in. “Do you need to rock it?”

“Hmph! Smart arse.” Aunt Claire turned the key, and the car made a whining noise as though it didn’t want to get up this early either, but then the engine caught and we all let out a sigh of relief.

The streets were empty, so Aunt Claire took every corner at blazing speed, bumping over the cobbled streets of the older parts of the city and making the whole car rattle. I hoped we’d make it to the Highlands without the car falling apart.

Tall buildings stood dark in their own shadows, as the sun hovered low in the horizon, not yet ready to make the climb. Mom pulled something out of her pocket. I leaned forward – it was a silver chain with a crystal pyramid pointing to the floor.

“Not the pendulum again!” Aunt Claire stared at the roof as though begging God to please give her a break.

Mom sat up straight and frowned at her sister. “It will guide us in our journey.”

“I thought the map was supposed to guide us,” I said.

“Shh! I have to concentrate.” Mom closed her eyes and breathed in and out loudly. “Should we take the A82? Or should we take the A9?”

“The A82 will take forever,” Aunt Claire blurted out.

“We’re not in a hurry, are we?” I wanted to see Loch Ness and castles and sheep!

“Ssshh!” Mom stared at the crystal. “Ah ha!” She nodded encouragingly as it began to move in circles. To me, it looked like Aunt Claire’s jerky steering was causing the crystal to move, but what did I know?

“We will take the A-82,” Mom declared.

“Fine!” Aunt Claire squealed the brakes and made a huge U-turn in the middle of the street, just about causing the car to flip over.

“Take it easy!” Mom gripped the dashboard.

“Thank God for seatbelts,” I mumbled.

“What was that?” Aunt Claire glared at me in the rear-view mirror through her gigantic sunglasses.

“Nothing.”

As we drove out of the city, the sun climbed higher, turning all the stone buildings and trees a beautiful golden-red color, and we all sighed at the sight. But then, almost immediately, clouds piled into the sky, as though late for work, and swallowed the sun up.

“Typical,” said Aunt Claire.

We passed the same hilly suburbs and fields as the day before, but under the gray sky, the purple-green hills and yellow flowers seemed “drab” (one of Mom’s words) and lifeless. And then the rain came, spattering onto the windshield and blurring Aunt Claire’s view. She slowed a little, but her driving still felt jerkier than the day before.

Cold began to seep up my legs, and I rubbed my knees to keep warm. Mom yawned and dozed in the passenger seat, while Aunt Claire turned the heater on high, which only fogged up the windshield and made the car smell like burnt rubber and dead cat.

I studied the back of Mom’s head, her long brown hair spilling over her shoulder as she slumped to the right. Her hair fluttered in the wind from her open window, and I had the urge to touch it and see if it felt like mine, which was shorter and darker. Also, mine was bone-straight, like Dad’s blond hair, while Mom’s had a loose wave in it. Was it soft like mine, or coarse? I leaned forward, but something held me back – a voice: “Don’t do it; you’ll just get hurt.” And I believed that voice because I’d been hurt in the past.

The editing power of blogging!

For some reason, it is easier for me to edit on my novel on my blog than anywhere else! Is this because I know I have an audience and so toss out boring, redundant words out of consideration for the readers? I hope so! Does anyone else find that they write differently on their blog? Anyway, I’m posting another snippet from The Rain Catcher… feel free to comment if you want to!

Recap: Katy’s staying in Scotland with her estranged mother for the summer, but she’s starting to notice some flaws in the woman she only knows through letters…

Snippet Four

After dinner (or “tea” as they call it in Scotland), Mom and I walked to her apartment, about a block from Aunt Claire’s. Mom also stayed in a tall stone building, pressed right up to the busy street, but she lived on the ground floor.

“I have my own garden!”

“Wow!” I tried to sound impressed at the square of land the size of our dining room table, surrounded by black iron railings. Mom looked so proud of the gravel and lone rosebush, withered and crooked from the sharp wind. But all I could think was, “This is it?”

Mom’s flat was even smaller than Aunt Claire’s. Her bedroom contained one twin bed and a rickety bookshelf filled with pottery jugs and vases full of dried flowers. The bathroom had a shower but no bath. On top of every surface in the living room sat tiny brown bottles and glass jars of what looked like sea salt. Bunches of herbs hung drying upside down on the walls. The place smelled like an explosion of Yankee Candle.

“What is all this stuff?”

“My aromatherapy business.” Mom threw her yoga bag onto the couch. “I make bath salts and lotions, that sort of thing, and sell them at car boot sales and at the chemist’s on the corner.”

“What’s a car boot sale?” And what was a “chemist”?

But Mom was already on her way out the room. “I could murder a cup of tea,” she called over her shoulder. I dashed after her.

“Murder?”

Mom’s kitchen was the size of my closet. She’d stacked boxes of cereal and pasta on top of the short refrigerator. A loaf of bread and jars of jam and peanut butter balanced on the windowsill above the sink, and pots hung from a contraption on the ceiling light. Mom ducked her head to avoid a frying pan as she filled an electric kettle with water. How did she live like this?

“Didn’t you get enough tea at Aunt Claire’s place?”

“If there’s one thing you should know about the Scots, Katy, it’s that there is no such thing as too much tea.”

Back in the living room with our tea, Mom laid her head against the couch and closed her eyes. I looked around for a TV but couldn’t see one. Come to think of it, where was my 7th-grade school photo? I’d been proud of that one – caught off guard by a joke the photographer had cracked, I’d smiled with my mouth open, instead of clamped shut, and had actually looked pretty.

“Um… So, what will we do this summer?”

“Hmm?”

“What’s on the agenda, as Dad would say.”

“Och, we’ll decide that another day, Katy.”

“Dad said you wanted to show me around Edinburgh. Can we visit the castle? And where you guys used to live? And can we have fish ‘n’ chips in newspaper and eat them on the street?” Dad had told me about waiting for buses in the rain with Mom, their hands warm and tummies happy from the greasy fish and chips. I’d always wanted to try it.

“Yes, yes. We’ll do all that, Katy.” Mom sounded impatient.

My stomach began to ache. It didn’t feel right; Mom had invited me to stay with her for the summer. Didn’t she have an idea of what we were going to do for the next four weeks?

“Dad didn’t give you an itinerary?” I fake-laughed.

Mom sighed. “I suppose we could visit Chamber Street Museum. That’s got a nice tea room. And the Botanics are always nice…”

I had no idea what she was talking about but nodded keenly. “I’m happy with anything,” I said. “It’s fun just to be with you.”

Mom blushed and took a gulp of her tea.

“Did you get those photos I sent you?”

“Em… Oh, right! Yes, they’re lovely! I’ve put them up at work.”

“Good!”

We sat for a few moments, and I tried to think of what to say. On the plane, I’d had tons of questions to ask Mom, but now we were together, my mind was blank. All I could think of was that she hadn’t been at the airport. It wasn’t that big of a deal, I told myself. Work was work, that’s what Dad always said. But when I tried to imagine Dad not meeting me at the airport, I couldn’t.

At 2:15 a.m. I woke up dying of thirst. I got up from the couch and tiptoed into the kitchen to get a cup of water. As I was gulping it down, I heard the front door close. I froze. Floorboards creaked in the hallway.

Suddenly, I imagined Ewan creeping toward the kitchen, an empty beer bottle raised above his head like a caveman’s club. I swallowed and tried to breathe, looking around for a possible weapon. I could block the door with the burlap sack of flour or crash the plant pot by the sink over his head…

But then a door creaked; it had to be Mom’s bedroom because I could see the bathroom from where I stood. I waited a few seconds and, not hearing any other noises, crept toward Mom’s room. Her door stood halfway open. From the dim light of the clock radio, I saw Mom huddled under her blankets.

I hurried back to the couch, my feet freezing cold. Why had Mom gone out at this time of night? Had she stepped outside to get a breath of fresh air? Or had she gone somewhere and left me all alone in the apartment? My stomach churned.

The Rain Catcher, snippet 3

Well, here’s another nugget from my on-going Young Adult novel in progress, The Rain Catcher. I’m taking it slowly, as you can tell — whenever I rush things, I realize I’m getting away from the characters and the story. So, for now, I’m backtracking and am concentrating on making sure each chapter stays in the same style and voice, instead of rushing off to nowhere fast!

A quick recap: Katy has arrived in Edinburgh from North Carolina to stay with her mother for the summer. Her parents split up when she was three. But her mother didn’t show up at the airport; now, she’s at her Aunt Claire’s apartment (“flat”) and is about to be introduced to her aunt’s creepy boyfriend, Ewan.

Snippet Three

The man sat with his legs propped on the coffee table, eyes glued to the TV. He licked his lips like a lizard. I waited for Aunt Claire to yell at him to get his dirty boots off her table, but she just stared at him.

Finally, she said, “Erm… Katy, this is Ewan. Ewan, this is Katy.”

Ewan slithered his eyes to mine; they were the color of empty Coke bottles.

“American, eh?” He sneered as though being American was something only idiots did.

“Yeah, from Mebane, North Carolina.” Why had I said that? He didn’t know where Mebane was and didn’t care. When on earth was Mom going to get there?

“Do ye watch American football?”

“No.”

“Basketball?”

“Not really.” Dad and I were more into star gazing with the telescope Granddad had gotten him for his 40th birthday. We’d set it up on the back porch and look for meteors.

“Hmmph.” Ewan went back to watching cricket on T.V.

I followed Aunt Claire into a kitchen the size of Dad’s walk-in closet. She switched on an electric kettle (like the one Dad and I take camping if the campsite has electricity) and opened a tin box with a picture of Prince William and Princess Kate on it. I smiled.

Do you like the Royal Family?”

Aunt Claire snorted. “It was a present from Auntie Fiona. She loves them!”

She took out two tea bags and stuck them into mugs on the counter. We stood awkwardly, waiting for the kettle to boil. I studied her kitchen. On the refrigerator (which was shorter than me!) were postcards of beaches. One said, “Florida’s Calling!”

“Have you ever been to Florida?”

“No, but your mum went last Christmas…” her voice faded as she saw my face. “She wanted to fly up to North Carolina to see you, but it was a super cheap flight. Half price London to Miami.”

The kettle started to whistle and switched itself off. My aunt quickly poured hot water into our mugs, not looking at me. My face burned. Mom had been in the States and hadn’t even phoned to let us know? Dad could’ve gotten us cheap tickets to fly down to Miami, or we could have driven. Even if it took all night, it would have been worth it to see Mom again.

“Milk? Sugar?”

“Umm…” I’d never had hot tea, only iced and soaked in sugar, but right then I didn’t feel like drinking. I just wanted to talk to Dad.

“I bet you like it milky and sweet, like me,” my aunt said, stirring three teaspoons of sugar into each mug. “They don’t drink tea in America, do they? Heathens!” She smiled, trying to cheer me up.

“Can I use your phone. I need to call Dad to let him know I’m here. I have a phone card,” I added, figuring Aunt Claire probably didn’t have a long-distance phone plan.

“Oh, right. Follow me.” She darted through the living room, as though hoping Ewan wouldn’t notice us, and led me to a bedroom with a full-sized bed and orange knitted curtains.

“Don’t ask,” Aunt Claire said, waving at the curtains. “Your mum’s idea.”

She reached under the bed and pulled out a cordless phone. I didn’t have the energy to ask why she kept the telephone hidden under the bed.

“When you’re finished, come and have a cup of tea and a biscuit. You must be famished.”

“Um…yeah.” What on earth did “famished” mean?

I dialed the number on my phone card. After one ring, Dad picked up.

“Hey!” Dad was at work; the coffee maker gurgled comfortingly in the background, reminding me of mornings at home, and his co-workers laughed at something funny. “I was starting to get worried. Everything okay? You’re at your mom’s place?”

“I’m at Aunt Claire’s apartment.” I swallowed and tried to keep the tears out of my voice. “Mom’s not here. She’s teaching a yoga class.” Keep it together, Katy.

“Oh.” Dad didn’t speak for a couple of seconds. “I’m sorry, Katie. Your mom has a habit of getting her times mixed up. She’s got a brain like a bag of tennis balls, you know?”

That was his favorite expression, “a brain like a bag of tennis balls”; I had no idea where he got it from.

“Mom can’t wait to see you.”

“Sure.” My voice trembled and I sucked in a breath, trying to stop my hands from shaking. “Did you know Mom was in Miami last Christmas?”

“Miami? What was she doing there?”

“Vacation, I guess.” I breathed slowly and wiped my eyes with my sleeve.

“Huh,” he said again. “Well, don’t worry about it, Kiddo. Just have a good time and get me some of that great Scottish shortbread!”

Really? Mom had been in the U.S. and hadn’t even called us? And Dad was okay with it? Maybe Mom had been embarrassed because she couldn’t afford to visit us. Maybe she’d worried that Dad would offer her money, and she was too proud to take it.

“And call me if you need anything.”

“Okay.”

“Anything at all.”

“I WILL!” Jeez!

When I got back to the living room, Aunt Claire was sitting on the couch with a photo album open on her lap. She beckoned me to sit beside her. Ewan sat at the other end of the couch drinking a beer.

“Do you remember Auntie Fiona’s flat, where you and your mum and dad used to live?”

I shook my head, hoping she didn’t notice my puffy eyes. I’d been three when my parents split up, and Dad had taken me to live with him in North Carolina. He said he wanted me to grow up with grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. Mom and Aunt Claire’s parents were dead, and they didn’t keep in touch with any other family members, except Auntie Fiona, who’d taken care of them when they were kids.

“Oh, for goodness’ sake! Look at my hair!” Aunt Claire pointed to a photo of herself with blue hair. “Liz dyed it for me. Can you tell?”

I smiled and pointed to another photo, one of Mom with half straight and half frizzy hair. “What happened in that one?”

“I tried to perm your mum’s hair but ran out of the chemicals halfway!”

Just then the living room door opened, and in walked a big woman in a brown coat. I just about jumped out of my skin, thinking she was going to rob the place!

“Mavis! Since when do you have a key?” Aunt Claire shot up off the couch.

Mavis ignored her and stomped past us. “Ewan, I brought ye some lamb for dinner,” she yelled from the kitchen.

Ewan dragged himself off the couch. “Aye, Mum.”

So, Mavis was his mother!

Aunt Claire stormed over to the kitchen. I followed behind, peeking over her shoulder. Mavis stood by the refrigerator, clutching a packet of frozen peas to her chest.

“Put down those peas!” Aunt Claire shrieked. “Those are my bloody peas. I bought them at Morrisons!”

“Aye, it’s all you bought!” Mavis snarled. “You’ve been starving my only child!”

Aunt Claire picked up a phone book waved it in the air. “If you don’t leave right now, I’ll drag you out by your hair!” I grinned. The fiery Aunt Claire was back!

The doorbell rang, and my stomach did a flip. Aunt Claire didn’t take her eyes off Mavis. The doorbell rang again. Nobody moved. Come on! I squeezed my hands together. What if it was Mom?

Someone called out behind us, “Hellooo! Anybody ho-oome?”

“Mom!” I dashed into the living room.

“Katy!” Mom wrapped me up in a hug. She smelled like dried flowers and wore her hair in a ponytail tied with purple ribbon. She looked like a birthday present. Her hair tickled my nose as she rocked me. I held on tight, afraid to let go in case she disappeared.

Mavis barged past us. “Cow!” she hissed before slamming the living room door. Ewan dashed after her. “Mum! Come back!”

“Och, what a woman!” Mom bustled over to the couch and sank onto the cushions.

“She’s not a woman; she’s a monster!” Aunt Claire came into the living room carrying a tray of cookies and a pot of hot tea. As we sat, “blethering,” I watched the way Mom moved her lips around words and tucked the hair behind her ears. She had my long forehead and thin lips. I touched her denim jacket to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.

“I don’t know how you put up with that man,” Mom said, finally.

“You should change the locks, now that he’s gone, Aunt Claire. Is there a hardware store around here?”

They both looked at me for a second and then burst out laughing.

“You’re not as meek and shy as you make out!” Mom said. My cheeks burned.

“Katy, that’s the best idea I’ve heard all year,” Aunt Claire said, and I felt a lot better.

“The world from two feet off the floor…”

Okay, so the Proclaimers’ song “Lulu Selling Tea” actually says, “The world from FOUR feet off the floor.” But my two year old is only about 2 feet tall, so I’m adapting the line! For a while now, I’ve wanted to post the photos he takes with my phone — they are so wacky, and yet there is often something about them that catches you off guard. It’s as if he sees light and color in a way that I don’t — until I look at his photos.

Then again, every mother thinks her children are geniuses, right? So, just for fun, here are a few of his photos…

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The Rain Catcher, Snippet Two!

Kind words from my writer friends have inspired me to keep on working on my Young Adult/middle grade novel, The Rain Catcher! I feel really lucky to have such great support! Here is the next snippet…. If you didn’t read the first section, please check it out here.

Snippet Two

We stepped outside the airport, and the wind hit me like a blast of refrigerator air. Aunt Claire dove into her purse and pulled out a packet of cigarettes, which surprised me, since no one in our family back home smokes. Well, Granddad sometimes chews tobacco, but that’s just for show, Dad says. Whenever his “Yankee” neighbors jog past the front porch in their yoga pants, Granddad throws a wad of tobacco into his mouth, gnaws on it for a few seconds, and spits out the juice into an old brass spittoon he got at a yard sale. After the neighbors have passed, he rushes in and brushes his teeth, Dad says.

“Where’s my mom?” When I didn’t see her at Arrivals, I’d thought she must be waiting outside, perhaps circling the airport instead of paying for a parking space, like my Aunt Marsha does up in New York City.

“Em… She has to teach a yoga class.” Aunt Claire tugged my sleeve, leading me toward a yellow sedan with dents in the sides, as though someone had rammed a shopping cart into it many times. She wiggled the key in the lock and banged on the trunk until it creaked open. Then she threw my suitcase in; I was glad the only breakable thing in there was my sunglasses, which I probably wouldn’t need, judging from the blanket of gray clouds above our heads.

“She couldn’t take off a few hours?”

“Well… she’s already missed three!”

“Why did she miss them?”

“Hmmph! She’s a bit of a free spirit, your mum.”

“What does that mean?”

But my aunt didn’t answer, just put both hands on the roof, planted her feet, and began rocking the car back and forth. I stood watching her.

“What on earth are you doing?”

“It helps to get the car started; on the way over here, it conked out. Had to coast into the parking space.”

“But why does rocking it work?”

“No idea. I saw Ewan doing it before, and it seemed to do the trick.”

She got back in, and sure enough, the car started.

“Who’s Ewan?”

Aunt Claire ignored my question.

We drove past fields of brilliant yellow flowers and then cottages with brown roofs and little gravel front yards and tiny cars parked on the street; they looked like Lego houses. Behind them, low green hills lay like piles of cabbage in the distance. One cliff stuck out like a book lying on its side.

“That’s Arthur’s Seat,” Aunt Claire said, seeing me staring.

“Who’s Arthur?”

“No idea.”

Storefronts began popping up as we got closer to the city. A man in a black turban stood in front of a fruit stand, perhaps waiting for someone to buy a bag of oranges or apples. (I think there are maybe three Indian people in the whole of Graham.) Girls in navy school uniforms trotted down the sidewalk. Summer vacation hadn’t started here yet, obviously. My school had finished at the beginning of June, and here it was nearly July. Thank God I didn’t live here!

We drove for what was probably only a couple of miles but got stuck behind the red “double decker” buses, and so we didn’t get to Aunt Claire’s place for another 40 minutes. By that time, I had dozed off and didn’t wake up until Aunt Claire jerked up the handbrake, nearly sending me into the windshield.

“Here we are!” She jumped out of the car and began assaulting the trunk again until it finally opened. Then she pulled out my suitcase and began marching up the street.

“Wait!” I called, struggling to unfasten the seatbelt which suddenly did not want to let me go. I pulled on the strap until I had enough to slide under it, then pushed open the door and dashed after my aunt. We passed a Scot Bets and a bar called The Malevolent Crow (weird name for a bar, surely?) and another fruit stand. The green apples looked kind of bruised, and the oranges looked more green than orange.

“Wait here.” Aunt Claire disappeared into the shop, leaving me standing beside my suitcase, the wind whipping my hair above my head. I stared at my shoes, hoping nobody would notice the strange teenager standing by herself. I wondered if people could tell I was American; I just had on jeans and a green sweatshirt (my usual outfit), but suddenly my sneakers seemed unusually bright in the grimy street.

“Back again!” My aunt stuffed two unopened packs of cigarettes into her purse, and we were off again. Three more blocks (why had we parked so far away?), and we reached a grungy-looking black door. Brown scuff marks spotted the lower half, making me wonder if someone wearing big work boots had tried to kick it open more than once.

We stepped into a stairway as damp and dark as a dungeon, the only light trickling from a skylight high above.

“I’m on the top floor,” Aunt Claire said, lugging my suitcase behind her. Why wasn’t I surprised?

Once inside Aunt Claire’s “flat,” I followed her down a shadowy hallway, the walls lined with hooks of scarves and coats and umbrellas. A holey rug covered the floorboards, which creaked horribly as we walked over them. I felt a breeze from somewhere and shivered. The T.V. or radio chattered from down the hall, and I wondered who was there, waiting for us.

Suddenly, I had a thought. Maybe it was Mom! Maybe she wanted to surprise me; it had been so long, the only contact we’d had was through letters and a yearly phone call (maybe not even that often). I held my breath, a smile creeping across my face, not wanting to give the game away. I’d act surprised, so as not to spoil their game. My heart sped up, like the wheels on the old-fashioned steam trains Granddad had taken me to see at the Transportation Museum in Spencer. It had been Easter — I was six — and we’d ridden a train with the Easter Bunny. Had I remembered to bring the photograph album to show Mom?

Aunt Claire pushed open the door at the end of the hall, and I poked my head in, unable to wait any longer. My eyes stung with anticipation and then, dread, as on the couch sat not my mother but the creepiest man I’d ever seen.

Is it better to be right, or true?

This morning on the news, a cartoon that many people will find disturbing flashed onto my television screen at least two times. Wednesday’s front page of the Paris newspaper Charlie Hebdo, attacked by terrorists last week, will show the very kind of cartoon that purportedly spurred the attacks.

Many will say the newspaper is irresponsible, adding fuel to the fire and could lead to more attacks. Others will say (as London’s mayor Boris Johnson did) that the only way to demonstrate that open societies will not bow down to terrorism is to print the cartoon. This debate got me thinking about the power of an image.

The controversial cartoon undoubtedly has power. The thought of adding a link to it on this blog fills me with dread, I’m ashamed to admit. But where did that power come from? And can that power be transferred into something that could heal instead of create more hate?

From what I can gather (these are my own views, obviously), the attacks highlight two conflicting beliefs:

  • Religion is the “truth” and must be held sacred above all else. To deny this is to deny existence.
  • Religions are not “truth” but are the creation of different cultures and societies; therefore, they are not sacred but are open to criticism and debate, just like everything else.

The aforementioned cartoon has become the mouthpiece for the second message — there is no one “true” religion. Printing it on the front page of a newspaper and then republishing that image over hundreds of news outlets across the world is basically blasting out that message loud and clear. Should Charlie Hebdo do this? As a newspaper, especially a political and satirical one, it’s obligated to shout out its editorial viewpoint. It has every right to do this.

On a moral level? Personally, I would have preferred to see photographs of the people who lost their lives in the attacks last week. I think making the victims “human,” rather than political mouthpieces would do more to stem violence than continuing the argument about fundamental beliefs. We’re not going to change terrorists’ minds my shouting back, “You’re wrong! And we’re right!” But connecting their actions to real people who have sons and daughters and mothers and fathers, showing how all people are fundamentally the same, THAT might make a few extremists pause for thought.

The power of one cartoon comes from all we attribute to it — freedom of speech, blasphemy, East versus West, right versus wrong, religious society versus sectarian society … Right now, that cartoon is being used to send a message, a message I personally agree with, but not the most important one at the moment. How can the media (and governments!) convey a broader, more crucial ideology — that all lives are valuable? I think that’s what the media should be working on.

George Bush and Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama

George Bush and Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama. Taken on 23 May 2001. Source: http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/05/images/20010523-3.html