Wordy Wednesday: Beast and the Beauty

Hellooo from the other side*! (Aka I am writing this on February 24 but scheduling it to go up on March 2.) (Because by the time this goes up I will be on a cruise ship.) (Because senior year spring break.)

As I promised last week (or about five minutes ago, for me), I’ve got a special Wordy Wednesday for you today! We recently had to write a five-page adaptation of a classic fairy tale for my writing children’s literature class. Mine got a little (very) rushed at the end, because five pages is, like, nothing. But my professor liked it a lot and I haven’t shared any fiction on here in a while. So, I give you: “Beast and the Beauty.”

(Warning that this story contains some mild language and stuff!)

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Once upon a time there was a beautiful girl named Rose. She was a high school senior—all golden hair, skin from the “after” segment of a Proactiv infomercial, and sparkling blue eyes. And, most importantly (at least for this tale), she was a fierce competitor in the Provincial County Annual Beauty Pageant (err, “Scholarship Competition”).

“Mirror, mirror, on the wall. Who’s the fairest of them all?” she could frequently be heard saying to any reflective surface within her sightline.

“For the last time,” Mindy Sue (who wore very reflective glasses) could likewise frequently be heard saying, “I am not a mirror, I am a human being, and—” But Rose was also known for having a very short attention span for anything that was not herself, and she’d generally moved on by that point.

Mindy Sue would just push her glasses further up her nose, sigh, and pronounce, “She’s such a royal pain in my ass.”

“Yes, well, that’s generally what happens when you’ve won Princess of Provincial County the last three years in a row,” her twin brother, Henry, would say from where he had his nose buried in a Sudoku book. You see, Henry was a math nerd and he didn’t like his skillz to get dull during the twenty-three hours or so between each AP Calculus BC class, so he liked to practice other math-related activities in his free time.

Both Mindy Sue and Henry weren’t exactly what one might call “traditionally attractive.” They weren’t even really “nerd chic.” In fact, on the day on which our story begins, Mindy Sue was wearing an oversized orange t-shirt (which truly is not an attractive color on anyone), flared jeans that didn’t quite reach her ankles, and beat up white tennis shoes that, if polled, nine out of ten grandmothers would likely agree they would be embarrassed to be seen wearing. Henry, on the other hand, wore a faded t-shirt featuring that one X-Men character no one cares about, jeans that, while they fit him fairly well, were not even properly faded or distressed (nor were from a name brand), and scuffed black off-brand high-tops that showed off his truly beastly-sized feet. (Okay, so maybe Henry didn’t look that bad. But he certainly didn’t deserve to breathe the same air as someone as beautiful as Rose.)

Just then, the bell rang, and the twins parted ways with another annoyed sigh from Mindy Sue (she sighed quite a lot) and a distracted, halfhearted wave from Henry, whose nose was still buried in the Sudoku book.

At the end of the school day, after play practice (for Mindy Sue) and mathletes (for, well, you can guess who), the twins trundled home. Their family was solidly middle class, with a nice split level in a nice subdivision, all of which was wholly nice and ordinary and often made Henry dream of something more. (“I want to be where the people are,” he could often be heard murmuring to the MIT pendant tacked above his desk.) However, on this particular evening, at dinner the twins’ father fidgeted in his seat and couldn’t bear to touch his second slice of meat-lovers’ pizza, which was so wholly unordinary (and not nice) that Henry even looked up from his copy of Mathematician Monthly to ask, voice quavering with a rush of concern, “Dad, why aren’t you touching your second slice of meat-lovers’ pizza?”

“It’s nothing,” said Mindy Sue and Henry’s father.

Mindy Sue rolled her eyes dramatically. “Well clearly it’s not nothing. Goodness, Dad!”

“Don’t harass him,” said Henry, the ever understanding and supportive child.

“Please,” said Mindy Sue, “I’m older. I understand these things.”

“For the last time,” Henry groaned, “you were born five minutes before me! That does not make you wiser in any statistically probable—”

“I LOST MY JOB,” their father burst out, more to get the twins to stop squabbling than to actually share his upsetting news.

The teenagers stared at him. The pizza—normally their favorite meal—threatened to make a return trip out of their mouths. “What?” Mindy Sue said, an outraged glint in her eye.

“I got caught stealing from the breakroom and I lost my job,” their father repeated—and, quite comfortable sharing news now that the first part was over, he added, “Also, I need what money we have left to finish paying off the mortgage on the house, or everything we own will be repossessed, so you guys are on your own for figuring out college now. Sorry. Henry, would you mind passing me another slice of meat-lovers’ pizza?”

Mindy Sue stared at him, gaping like a fish. Henry, on the other hand, was ever the dutiful son so he passed their father another slice of meat-lovers’ pizza and immediately began thinking about how to make enrolling at MIT next year still a statistically probable possibility.

“What do you mean,” Mindy Sue finally spluttered out, after their father had ingested another two and a half slices of meat-lovers’ pizza, “that we are on our own for figuring out college now?”

“I’m sorry,” their father said, “but what’s happened has happened. I can’t afford to send you two to college anymore. If you want to go, you’re going to have to find a way to pay for yourself.” And he ate another slice of pizza.

“I’m doomed,” Mindy Sue wailed. “DOOMED, I TELL YOU.” She flew from the room.

“Eh.” Henry shrugged. “I’ll figure something out.”

“I always knew there was a reason you were my favorite,” said their father. “You know, besides the obvious ‘younger sibling’ thing.”

The next day, Henry dutifully hung flyers around the school, offering to tutor students in math. He waited beside his phone all evening for calls begging him to teach the lowly miscreants of Provincial County High how to solve for x, but his phone rang no more than usual (which is to say it did not ring at all). After a second night of this, he was ready to give up in despair—but then, on the third night, a truly shocking thing happened: his phone rang.

It took him a solid three rings to figure out how to answer the call, it happened so infrequently.

“Hello,” the person on the other end of the line said, “it’s me.”

“Me who?” he asked. “Is ‘me’ like a nickname for Mea from English class?”

“No, you dolt,” said the voice. “It’s ‘me,’ as in Rose, the three time champion of the Provincial County Beauty Pageant—I mean ‘Scholarship Competition.’”

“Oh no,” Henry said. “No, no, no. I’m not tutoring you.”

“Rumor has it that if you don’t, you won’t get to go to college,” Rose said.

“How do you know that?” Henry said. “Wait, right—your family owns the company that fired my dad for stealing from the breakroom. Ugh.” Henry fondled his MIT pendant. He was so close to getting out of Provincial County. “Fine. Whatever. Sure. I’ll tutor you.”

They met the next afternoon in Henry’s favorite spot: the calculus classroom.

In place of greeting, he asked, “So what do you get out of this anyway?”

“The Provincial County Beau—Scholarship Competition says I can’t compete this year if I don’t get my grades up,” Rose confessed.

“Well, how bad are they?” Henry asked.

“All Fs,” said Rose. “But that’s F for phenomenal, right?”

“Please tell me you’ve hired an English tutor as well,” was his response.

“The point is,” the young beauty wailed, “if I don’t get my grade up in algebra, I’ll never get to regain my title and be a princess again!”

“You do realize winning the beauty pageant does not make you a real—”

“Shut up, Harry.”

Henry shrugged and began tutoring her.

He taught Rose all about imaginary numbers and integers and other things that begin with the letter I. He also slowly taught her about the important things in life, like how glasses and mirrors are two different things, the names of all the X-Men, and how to do Sudoku. By the end of their tutoring, Rose had a C in algebra and a much better grasp on #lyfe. She also had quite a crush on Henry (whose name she had finally bothered to learn around their second month focused solely on how to draw x, y graphs), which was good because he’d also learned to look past appearances and had fallen for her as well. After all, the beauty was much more bearable now that she knew who Professor X was. One might say she was even transformed.

Henry got into MIT with a hefty scholarship (which is good, because it turns out tutoring one person doesn’t pay all that well), Rose won the Provincial County Scholarship Competition for the fourth year in a row (thus reinstating her as Princess), and, with Rose enrolled in beautician school just down the street from Henry’s dorm, they lived happily ever after. (Oh, and Mindy Sue got a scholarship to Julliard. It turned out all of her dramatic sighing paid off, too.)

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Thanks for reading! (Here’s hoping I make it back to Michigan without a sunburn and/or Zika Virus?)

~Julia

*You’re welcome for the multiple cliche Adele references in this post.

 

Wordy Wednesday: The Sun and More

I’m in Michigan! I moved back to my apartment at school a couple days ago (but as of an hour ago I’m home-home again for a couple days, to get caught up on doctor appointments and family time and all that).

At this point, I have less than a week left before senior year begins, which is CRAZINESS. I’m honestly terrified for how I’m going to handle everything I signed on to do this year, but almost all of it’s fun stuff, so fingers crossed everything works out.

In the meantime, I’ve been trying to get ahead on reading for my literature class (it’s on film adaptations, so we’re reading The Great Gatsby and Emma and a ton of other fantastic works) and getting back into a regular routine of eating decently and working out. (Although also, I ate nothing but takeout and barely exercised AT ALL while in NYC and I lost seven pounds, sooo.) (I mean, I’m pretty sure it was seven pounds of muscle.) (But still.)

It was while I was on the treadmill today that I got an email from Writer’s Digest letting me know that my short story “The Sun and More” received an honorable mention in the Children’s/Young Adult category of the 84th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition! (Wow, that was a mouthful.) I’d honestly forgotten I’d even entered anything, so it was a surprise (and such a good one).

People have been asking where they can read the story, so I figured I’d post “The Sun and More” as a special Wordy Wednesday. (I’ll write the writing process post that won last week’s poll next week.)

Without further ado:

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[Pulling this down for a lit mag submission. Sorry, but thanks for your interest in “The Sun and More”!]

 

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Thanks for reading!

~Julia

Wordy Wednesday: The Fault in Our Popcorn

It’s the second to last week of the semester and I’m exhausted.

It’s a good kind of exhausted, though. I was up until two last night because I had a screening for a film class that ran kind of late, followed by pitching a huge project I’m really excited for to a student org on campus (and they’ve agreed to move forward on it, so I will probably be gushing about that come next school year) (!!!), followed by writing a guest post for the 2015 Ch1Con Blog Tour, followed by just trying to figure out what exactly my blogging schedule is for the foreseeable future (over twenty posts on seven different websites over the course of six weeks; I’ll share a schedule once stuff starts going up), followed by editing a blog post for another TCWT author, followed by lying in bed unable to sleep. Endlessly.

I’m not (too) worried about getting everything done on time though, and it’s been really gorgeous out lately, so that’s helping keep all of us here sane during this last stretch of the semester. (Plus Hannah and I spur-of-the-moment went swimming Monday night and next week a group of us are going kayaking, so thank God for people who like to do random physical activity with me.)

One last thing before we get to this week’s Wordy Wednesday: my friend Hannah (not Roommate Hannah, one of the other many amazing Hannahs in my life) is signed up to do a two-week liberal arts study abroad program in London this August and it sounds amaaazing. Like I would be all over this opportunity, if Ch1Con weren’t during it. But they don’t have quite enough students right now, and if they don’t get six more kids registered by May 1st, the program’s off. IF YOU’RE A COLLEGE STUDENT AND LOOKING FOR SOMETHING TO DO THIS AUGUST, YOU SHOULD GO ON THIS PROGRAM. And make me jealous. Because liberal arts and London. You can find more information on it here and here.

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is another of my creative writing class’s short story rejects. (Sorry I only ever post the worst ones, these days; the less terrible stories go in submissions to contests and lit mags. Still, I think these guys are fun and deserve a little love.)

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Shovel the popcorn. Squirt the butter. Shove it at the customer.

Shovel the popcorn. Squirt the butter. Shove it at the customer.

Shovel the popcorn. Squirt the butter. Shove it at the—

“You don’t have to be so robotic about it.” Tommy leans against the back counter, broad shoulders propped between the hotdog warmer and grumbling slushy maker. He crosses his arms and curly, golden brown hair falls across his eyes in that way that gets him at least three girls’ numbers a shift. Occasionally a guy’s.

I wrinkle my nose. “It’s not like they care, as long as they get their food before the previews are over.”

“You’d be surprised how many more Thank Yous you’d get if you tried smiling once in a while.”

“Tommy.” I laugh. “You’re not getting Thank Yous because you smiled. You’re getting Thank Yous because you look more like a movie star than half the guys they’re going to ogle on screen for the next two hours.”

I’ve learned a lot from working at the local AMC the past year and a half. For one: You can totally eat all the popcorn on the job you want and the manager never notices. Also: Nobody cares if you make an effort to be nice while preparing their food. I’ve actually gotten scowls in return for my smiles, and one particularly pleasant woman told me, “Yeah, right,” when I said to enjoy the Pixar flick her six year old triplets were dragging her to.

When people are nice to Tommy, it’s not because he’s being nice to them. It’s because he’s made everyone from my best friend to my grandmother swoon. While squirting three-day-old artificial cheese on their nachos.

Still, he dramatically brushes the ringlet of hair from his eyes and turns his dark gaze to the ceiling. “Well, if you insist it’s because I’m just that attractive.”

I roll my eyes, but can’t help a grin. “Did you just start this whole thing for the pure sake of getting me to compliment you?”

“No.” He smiles with half his mouth, which is his way of saying yes. “Never.”

“Well, let’s test your theory, then.” I nod towards a group of pre-teen girls, exhausted mother in tow, who are currently prancing squealing across the lobby. I’d wager a week’s earnings that they’re on their way to see the latest John Green movie. “I smile, you just be yourself, and we see who gets the business.”

Tommy’s smile extends to the other half of his mouth. “You’re on, Sammy.”

“Ugh. For the last time. It’s Samantha. Only my friends can call me Sammy.” I twirl a lock of straight black hair around a finger in a perfect impression of our coworker Debby (sorry, “Deborah”) and he bursts out laughing, flashing teeth that are even as white and straight as a movie star’s. It would be easy to hate Tommy if he weren’t such a goof.

He pushes off the counter and joins me at the cash registers.

“Hey there!” I call with all the cheer of Barbie in the second Toy Story movie. “Interested in some refreshments for the film? Let me guess: you’re about to go cry your eyes out at a John Green adaptation.”

The girls barely even glance at me and my toothy grin before making a beeline for Tommy’s register.

I throw my hands up in the universal gesture for Raise the Roof. “Boom. I win.” He doesn’t seem to hear me over the squeals of the tweens attempting to flirt while ordering soft pretzels and blue raspberry slushies, though.

While Tommy is distracted—and distracting ever customer in a twenty foot radius—I slip into the back room and let myself fall back into one of the old theater chairs that have been stored back here, “waiting for repairs,” since I interviewed for this position. And likely before.

I yank my laptop from the crush of text books and notebooks in my backpack and pull open the document I’ve been working on every spare moment since I started here.

I told my doctor mom and lawyer dad senior year of high school that I wanted to go to film school and write screenplays for a living. They told me I could—if I paid for college myself.

So that night I borrowed my best friend’s car and drove the two hours to what would become my university, picked up applications from every movie theater close enough to walk to from campus, and now here I am: a sophomore, paying my way through college with the smell of hotdog grease permanently clinging to my hair and customers spoiling every decent movie before I have a chance to see it, but I’m doing it. I’m majoring in film.

And I’m writing my first screenplay.

I don’t care about what the customers think of me. I don’t care if I smile at them and they scowl in return, or they fall all over themselves trying to get Tommy to fall for them (by the way: he’s in a committed relationship—he and his boyfriend have been going strong for a year now), or I only get time to write in stolen moments between classes and popcorn rushes.

The point is I’m doing it. I’m actually doing it.

I get almost a whole page written before Tommy shouts from the counter, “The people coming in for the eight o’clock showings are going to start arriving any minute now. Want to put some more hotdogs in the warmer?”

“Only if you admit I was right and you were wrong.”

Tommy pokes his head into the back room, rolling his eyes. “Fine. You may have won the smiling-at-customers battle,” he raises an eyebrow, “but I, dear friend, will win the war.”

I shove my laptop back in my backpack and hop up from the creaky old chair. I pat his cheek as I pass, heading back to the counter. “Just keep telling yourself that.”

“Oh.” His tone darkens. “I most definitely will.”

“Keep pretending to be a super villain and I might add you to my screenplay.”

“It would be an honor to be written by you.”

“You say that now. Wait ’til I kill you off.”

“Not what it sounds like,” Tommy tells the horrified-looking older couple lumbering up to the counter. “Sammy here is writing a movie. Just wait. It’s going to be a huge blockbuster and someday we’ll sell out of popcorn from all the people coming to see it.”

“Shut up.” I bat his arm, but this time I can’t help but smile. The couple chooses to have me scoop their popcorn.
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Thanks for reading!

~Julia

Wordy Wednesday: This Is a Love Story

Okay, so I’m writing this Tuesday night because over the course of the next two days I have a short story, film review, and midterm paper all due and I haven’t begun any of them yet. And, you know, who doesn’t love to procrastinate.

The reason I haven’t begun anything yet is because I spent my entire weekend sleeping and reading and watching movies/the Oscars, because I am SO FREAKING TIRED and it needs to be spring break. But here we go: Survive these next two days, and I get a whole week off from school.

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a short story I wrote for class, fall semester 2013. It was one of the weaker stories of the semester, but I still think it’s cute, so figured it was worth the share.

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We were stumped. The entire 100-level Classic Literature class just stared at Professor Robinson while the question hung in the dry classroom air: Had she really just asked us to rewrite Romeo and Juliet minus the dying part? Or Pride and Prejudice without Mr. Darcy being a total d-bag for ninety percent of the book? Or The Notebook sans shirtless Ryan Gosling?
“Come on, people,” Professor Robinson said. “It’s not that hard. Which part of the love story is the most important? How do you know which is which? How can you tell what part is the most significant until long after the entire thing is over, the lovers dead and gone and no longer important to anyone at all? Which parts aren’t necessary to weave a good tale? A writer can’t talk about literally every moment in a relationship, so how do they decide which ones to catalogue and describe? How do you tell a love story?”
I leaned forward with my chin propped on my fist and watched the girl in front of me take duck-face pictures on her webcam. The boy beside me had fallen asleep about five minutes before, and was snoring to the tune of what I assume was Star Wars. The girl on the other side of him was in an intense staring contest with the clock above the white board.
“Renee?” Professor Robinson’s tone was hopeful.
I jumped and shook my head. “Sorry, Professor. This time I’ve got nothing.”
She sighed. “Fine. Anyone else?” She glanced at the clock. We still had another twenty minutes, but the loudest noise in the room was the Star Wars theme a la Nose Whistle, so she closed her eyes and took a deep breath and said the two words every college student lives to hear: “Class dismissed.”

That was three days ago. Since then it has rained twice, and the sun has set and risen three times, and I have sat just as quietly as I did in that classroom, only in the front passenger seat of my mom’s minivan as we battled traffic all the way back to the little town of Miller, Wisconsin, because I promised Trish before I left for Northwestern that I would come home for the Homecoming game no matter what, even though coming home for Homecoming means coming home to all the problems I left behind.
And all this time I’ve thought about Professor Robinson’s question of what makes a good love story, but I haven’t been able to come up with a single idea. Until this very instant. The instant that I’m thinking all of this.
Because in this instant, someone is tapping me on the shoulder while I wait in the concession line at the Miller High School Homecoming game, and I’m turning around with my heart already in my throat, and Max Barton is standing behind me with one arm outstretched, the other tucked in the pocket of his faded Miller High Matterhorns hoodie, and a smile stretched across his lips. His brown eyes light up like I don’t have dog hair on my skirt or mascara smudged above my left cheek. He is exactly as tall as I remember—five foot eleven, the perfect height for me to tilt my head up to meet his gaze.
Professor Robinson, I promise I will write this down when I get home, because I can answer your question: A love story is a touch.
“Renee.”
A love story is a name.
“Hey.” I can’t get enough of the crisp September air in my lungs, and my sweater is both too heavy and not warm enough, and I haven’t seen Max Barton in months, but suddenly he is standing right behind me. “Long time no see.”
His smile broadens and he runs a hand back through his straight chocolate brown hair. “How are you? How’s Northwestern?” He has the voice of an old-time movie star, deep and lilting. The stadium lights make the freckles spread across his nose and cheeks stand out from the rest of his skin like one of the constellations just popping into existence above us as the sun sets over the parking lot.
“I’m good. It’s good.” I force a shrug. “How are you, Max? How’s the University of Wisconsin?”
He copies my movement. “It’s nice. It’s also nice to be home for the weekend, though. I missed everybody.” He takes in my rumpled sweater and frizzy chestnut ponytail; the scuffs across the toe of my right combat boot.
When I’m nervous, I dig my right foot into the ground. I’m doing it right now.
“You look beautiful, Renee.”
The temperature in my cheeks rises by a hundred degrees. I cross my arms and stare down at the trampled yellow grass, then swing my toe into the mangled strands again and watch as some of them break free. I close my eyes.
The truth about love stories is that you aren’t telling the reader about the relationship in general. You’re telling them about a specific moment that defines not just the relationship, but the characters themselves. Like a children’s book, a love story teaches a lesson. And maybe that lesson is Kissing Is Great rather than Stealing Is Wrong, but it’s still a lesson well-learned.
So I could tell you about the day I met Max Barton, when we were in the ninth grade and I was new to Miller and he said I could eat lunch at his table even though I’d just met him five minutes before at the end of fourth period geometry; I could tell you about a hundred dates, and all the times his fingers curled around mine on the walk home from track practice, and how I was never cold as long as his arm was around my shoulders. I could tell you about our first kiss, and our last, and all the jokes and fights and stories in between.
But instead I will tell you about right now. This moment. When my cheeks are burning up while my sweater is too cold, and Max tells me I look beautiful even though I don’t, and he smiles down at me with his freckles and hair and eyes all exactly as I remember. And I simply step away, say, “Thank you,” and turn to the concession stand to place my order.
Because if all love stories have one thing in common, it’s this: They end. And the love story of Max Barton and Renee Smith is already long gone.
I slide a five dollar bill across the counter to the booster parent scooping my popcorn, and accept the overstuffed bag she hands me with a grin. I slip the wallet back into my purse and tell her to keep the change.
“Have a nice evening, sweetie.”
I nod. “Thanks. You too.”
I wave at Max as I walk back to my seat beside Trish in the stands, but I don’t let my eyes linger on the way his hands are shoved haphazardly into his hoodie pocket or the breeze makes his hair dance across his forehead like a modern day Clark Kent’s. I don’t pay attention to the sound of his deep, lilting goodbye or the half a second his stare catches on my figure or the way his eyes slide so easily away from my retreating form as he approaches the concession stand himself.
I don’t pay attention to the fact that this moment is not a love story, but just an echo of one already told, no longer important to anything but my memories.
I squeeze onto the bench beside Trish and offer her my popcorn.
She raises her eyebrows, but takes a handful anyway. “Was that Max?”
“Yeah, but it’s okay.” I shrug and turn to watch the game. “We’re okay.”
“Good.” She nudges me with her shoulder, and I nudge her back. Out the corner of my eye, I see her grin. She grabs another handful of popcorn. “I’m glad to hear it.”
“Me too.”
A love story is a lesson, and the lesson of my story is this: Not all love stories are between two people. Sometimes they’re between your past and your future, trying to figure out the present. Sometimes a love story is about yourself.
It’s deciding whether or not to move on—whether or not it’s okay to be happy again after something crappy has happened; after someone has broken your heart.
A love story is told through the moments that matter. And in mine, this is the one that does: Seeing Max Barton again, and wanting nothing more than to ride off into the sunset without him. Seeing Max Barton again, and loving myself enough not to love him.

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Thanks for reading!

~Julia

Wordy Wednesday: On Subjectivity

I was really nervous about getting my latest short story back from my creative writing instructor.

Not because I adored it and hoped he’d like it too, which is usually why I’m nervous. But because this short story dealt with a serious topic I didn’t think I’d handled well, it felt like it was somehow both bloated and too short, and I honestly would have rewritten the entire thing from scratch if I’d had the time. If I’d kept working on it at all. To be honest, I’d spent so many hours on the thing, getting it to work felt like a losing proposition.

So there I went, stomach twisting and palms sweating, to see my instructor today.

And he loved it.

He spent the entire critique raving about how much he loved it: how it was the best thing I’d written in a year, how while reading he kept thinking, “Now this is Julia writing”–and sure enough, at the end of the last page was the holy grail of grades, an “Excellent.” Something I’ve only ever seen twice before in my four semesters of creative writing courses.

So, how is it that this short story that I hated, that I thought was a lost cause, turned out to be the best one I’ve written in a year? The only explanation I can come up with is subjectivity. Or, more precisely: the fact that as writers, it’s basically impossible to see our writing for what it is.

This is one of the reasons it’s so incredibly important to have other people read our stuff. Whether we’re preparing a short story collection for competition or prepping a novel to send to agents (both things I’m doing right now, whoo), we need others’ help in order to see our work clearly.

Sometimes it’ll be that we have a phrase or paragraph we’re in love with, but that ultimately weakens the story because it slows it down or hits the reader over the head with information or, like, honestly just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. (It happens.) (Okay, it happens to me.) (A lot.) (Shhh.)

Sometimes a plot twist is too obvious or too out of nowhere. Sometimes a character’s motivation isn’t laid out well enough for the reader.

And, sometimes, what we’ve written is–objectively–actually kind of not terrible.

A story we love might, in its current state, suck. A story we’ve grown to hate might be wonderful.

This is why we need our critique partners and betas (and, if you’re lucky, a great creative writing instructor like mine). They let us know both when something isn’t working and when it is.

It’s difficult to take a step back from your writing, but it’s easier when you’ve got someone there to grab your hand and pull you away and say, “Look at this thing you have done. You might not realize it yourself, but it is excellent.”

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

PS. Big Ch1Con news coming soon. Biiig news. I AM SO EXCITED.

Wordy Wednesday: Distractions for Waiting

I’m exhausted right now because I was up until 2:00 AM writing, but can I just say: So worth it.

I don’t know if the short story I wrote last night is any good. For all I know, my creative writing instructor will hate it and it’ll never make it past revisions with him. That happens sometimes.

But last night, something finally clicked with a story I’ve been trying to write for months now. I wrote for hours and lost track of time. And feeling that way about writing? It hasn’t happened in a really long time.

So, of course, I’d love my instructor to love it. I want this to be a story worth reading.

But when the writing feels that good, it doesn’t matter what happens after. I’m just happy I got to write it and feel that way while I did–

Kidding. Sooo kidding. I turned in that sucker to my instructor a few hours ago and I’m not going to hear what he thinks of it for another week, so I am now, of course, freaking out.

This week’s Wordy Wednesdsay is a writing process post. DISTRACTION METHODS EDITION.

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Listen to music. So much music.

I’ve gone through the soundtrack from The Fault in Our Stars and my work out play list so far, and I think I’ve got a massive dose of Taylor Swift in my future.

Go shopping.

Friend is throwing a British-themed costume party for her birthday in a couple days? Why yes, I think I do need a thousand little things scattered across several stores and sketchy shopping sites for my Bond, Jules Bond costume.

(Okay, let’s not let this get out of hand. I spent like five seconds surfing the sketchy shopping sites, then went running to Amazon.)

Do homework.

Hahahahahahahaha jk. (The rubric for my first project for my film criticism class is staring at me. I refuse to give in.)

Go for a walk.

Unless it’s like ten degrees out, like here. In which case walking outside is a last resort reserved for those times you forgot something you needed in your apartment a mile away. Which totally didn’t happen today, not at all, never.

Work on something else.

Okay, this one is serious. The best way I’ve found to distract myself from something I’m waiting to hear back on has always been to keep moving forward.

Write another story. Revise an old one. Submit something to a literary magazine.

The biggest thing is to keep moving.

**********

Are you waiting to hear back on something right now? How are you keeping yourself from going crazy?

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

Wordy Wednesday: Captain America and the Brain-Eating Amoeba

Merry Christmas Eve!!!

Since I got home for break, it’s been a whirlwind of family bonding stuff, catching up with friends, and catching up on life. (I think I go to more doctor appointments over winter break than the rest of the year combined.)

It’s weird being home. I haven’t spent more than a few days at a time here since May, and now this is where I’m at for two weeks, and it’s just. It’s weird. (Not bad weird, of course. I love finally being able to see everyone again. But definitely weird.)

In other news: In a moment of weakness (read: boredom) at one in the morning, I joined Instagram. So far I’ve posted two pictures and they have both involved my dog. You can check me out at: instagram.com/julia_the_writer_girl

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is the short story promised after my tangent last week. I wrote this for my creative writing class this semester, but could never get it to work quite right, but it’s really weird and I had fun writing it. So here we go.

**********
“You shouldn’t do that.”

The boy stands a few feet from the edge of the lake, arms crossed and barely visible blond eyebrow cocked. He’s wearing a red Arsenal FC soccer jersey, khaki Bermudas, and a pair of navy blue Converse high tops that barely peek over the untamed grass.

How British.

I roll my eyes and return to floating on my back. “Why? Amoeba going to eat my brain?” I squint against the sun and pull my t-shirt flatter against my stomach. Thank God I was too lazy to bother taking my clothes off before diving into the lake, or this could be really awkward right now.

As is, the boy stands beside my discarded socks and ugh, yes, Converse high tops. He glances at the baby blue shoes and a muscle ticks at his jaw. “No.” The disgust in his voice is as thick as the leek and potato soup the inn served my family last night. And the night before. “Ever thought it might be bad for something other than you to spread your germs through that lake?”

I’m really not in the mood to deal with angsty British dudes today. Not when Rachel and Becca are halfway to Disney World on a chaperone-free road trip right now because their parents actually believe the law that states being eighteen means you’re a responsible adult.

And instead I’m stuck here, alone for yet another afternoon, a casualty of my parents’ research trip. In Wales.

“Ha.” I kick water in the boy’s direction. Maybe slightly more forceful than necessary. “Who cares. It’s hot and the water’s cool and no one’s around to reprimand me.” I roll my eyes again. “Except you, of course. What are you anyway? A park ranger?”

“A concerned human being.”

“No such thing.” I laugh, the sound a bark, and kick more water in his direction. “You have to at least be a crazy tree hugger or something.”

He lets out a breath. Crinkled lines stripe his forehead like his entire face wants to get in on the act of frowning. “You’re American?”

Somebody give that kid a prize.

I lift my hand towards the sky and my clenched muscles loosen as I watch the water droplets fall towards me, sparkling like crystal.

Birds sing somewhere in the hills. A sheep baas. The breeze plays with the long grass and rainbow of wildflowers that stretch in every direction.

My voice goes quieter. “Only by definition.”

“What’s that mean?”

I shift so I’m treading water rather than floating. “Yes. I’m American.” I look at the crumbling mountains surrounding the lake; the bluffs and boulders and stepping stone paths. This place is so clearly not the United States.

I want to go to Disney World with my friends.

I add, “Painfully.”

“I’m sorry.” He frowns. His eyebrows lower to a furrowed position. “You’re still going to need to explain that one.”

How does one go about explaining her own suckiness?

“I don’t know.” I shrug. The clear-as-air water shifts away in little rings of ripples. “I watch reality TV and listen to bad rap. I spent all of twenty-twelve in Toms shoes, not because I care about Africa, but because my friends thought it would be cool to look like we did. For my summer vacation, my parents dragged me to Wales, not because they want to spend time with me, but because they don’t trust me enough to leave me in Philly while they’re out here studying water pollution for a month. Or to go to Disney World with my friends, even though I’m just as responsible as Rachel and Becca, and their parents let them go, I’m just saying. But no. I’m in Wales instead of hanging with Mickey.

“And, to top it all off—and you’re really going to love this one,” I drag dripping bangs off my sunburnt forehead, “despite the fact the water pollution my parents are studying is manmade, here I am swimming in a crystal clear lake that isn’t coated in Keep Out signs only because the Welsh trust people to be smart and respectful enough not to assume this lake is here to be their swimming pool. I know all these things, yet here I am.” I shout to the sky, “Here I freaking am!” I look back to the boy, who appears to have taken a couple steps back, his frown erased by an uneasy, possibly frightened smile. “And despite all this, my first thought when you told me I shouldn’t be swimming was that it must be bad for me, not the beautiful lake I’m polluting with my germs.”

He cocks his head. The sun makes his unruly hair shine gold. “You’ve got quite a tongue in your head.”
I give a dry smile. “That’s not how my teachers put it.”

“If you know it’s wrong, why are you doing it, um—?”

“Macey.”

He nods. “—Macey?”

“Because it’s the clearest lake I’ve ever seen.” The pebbly bottom is visible far beneath me. Shining fish, a thousand shades of gray, meander past like the black and white film equivalent of Rainbow Fish. My toenails are flashes of red against their kaleidoscope scales. I look back at the boy. “It’s as clear as the sky. I thought it might feel like flying. Or, you know, not flying, but the way little kids imagine flying in their dreams.” And when you can’t fly with Dumbo at Disney World, you’ve got to take your opportunities to act like a five-year-old where you find them.

After all, college begins at the end of August. Which means it’s almost time to stop believing in Neverland and wizards and talking lions. If I don’t fly now, I never will.

“Little kids?” the boy asks.

“Fine.” I force a melodramatic sigh and flip a lock of stringy wet hair over my shoulder. “Me.”
For the first time, he cracks a smile.

While this did not begin as my mission prerogative, my stomach flips at the sight. No way, angsty British dude actually knows how to bare his teeth in a non-threatening way!

“Whoa, look at you!” I point. “You’ve got quite a pair of lips in your head.”

My cheeks go hotter than the E.coli-laced sand I made the mistake of walking through during our first day in Wales, when Mom and Dad were taking samples and berating me for not bringing more intellectual books to read. (In my defense, I packed stuff like The Outsiders, not Twilight.) I resist the urge to dunk my head.

His cheeks are red too, although that could be from the sun.

I ask, “What’s your name anyway, Mister Wilderness Protector Guy?”

His grin widens. “David.”

“Ooh. Fancy.”

“Fancy?”

“All the Davids I know go by Dave.” My graduating class, alone, had three.

“Well, that is also an option.” He takes a step closer to the lake.

All three Daves are, as British Boy would likely put it, “arseholes.”

“No. I like David.” They made fun of Rachel and Becca’s post-graduation Disney World trip. “So,” I need something to say, “you’re Welsh, then?”

“Not the best at accents, are you?”

“Hey now.” My tone is very serious. “You got the easy end of the stick. I have about the most American accent you can find. You guys all sound the same to me.” And I’ve yet to be anywhere in the United Kingdom outside this part of Wales, anyway.

I wanted to see the other UK countries while we were over here—or at least hit the Doctor Who Experience tour in Cardiff—but Mom and Dad refused to spend money on anything they couldn’t directly correlate to water pollution. They did not accept my offer to dump a bucket of bleach down a toilet in Edinburgh.

He laughs. The sound is scratchy but warm. “I’m English. From Bath.”

Example A of a place which visiting would make this trip two hundred percent less terrible. Not Go to Disney World Instead less terrible. But less terrible, nonetheless.

“Ooh, fancy curvy buildings and Roman baths you can’t use to bathe.” I practically shoot upward at this. “No wonder you don’t want me in the water! You’re used to everything but your kitchen sink being off limits.”

He points an accusatory finger. “You forget the washroom sink and bathtub.”

“Thank God you didn’t say toilet.”

“No, no.” He shakes his head. “That was only once, when I was five.”

Well, there could be worse ways to spend an afternoon than listening to the sure to be embarrassing account of a stranger’s folly.

I grin and paddle closer. “Sounds like it’s Story Time.”

The boy rolls his eyes, but sits on a boulder at the edge of the water and leans towards me, so obviously he was hoping I’d ask. Quiet, like he’s afraid the park’s roaming wild sheep will hear, he says, “My mum had just given me a new action figure for Christmas. Captain America. And—”

“Of course a British kid had a Captain America action figure.” I snort. I want to go home. He glares. “Sorry. Continue.”

Anyway, I took the bleeding thing everywhere with me. To the market, to bed—”

“—to poop?”

“Do you want to hear the story or not, Miss Macey?” His eyes narrow even further. They’re as blue as the lake.

No. Snap out of it. They’re just regular, ordinary blue.

“Only because you called me ‘Miss.’” My chin dips. “Which actually seems extremely off, based on the fact I just said ‘poop.’ I hate to break it to you, but you’ve got terrible judgment, bud. First you’re basically in a domestic partnership with a Captain America action figure, now you think an American girl who talks about human feces in such crass terms is a ‘Miss.’ Goodness. What will the Brits think up next.”

Louder and more firmly, he says, “So I was playing with Captain America one day—”

I giggle. “You’re lucky no random hikers just came over one of the hills, or that could have sounded really wrong out of context.” His scowl could beat my father’s after my last time begging for freedom this summer, as we took our post-graduation family photos and my classmates laughed with their relatives all around us. My cheeks warm again. “Continue.”

“Anyway,” he digs the toe of his high top against the smaller boulder in front of his, “short story made long by the numerous interruptions: One day I indeed took the action figure to the loo and he indeed took a swim. So of course, Five Year Old David had to stick his whole bloody arm in the water to rescue Captain Steve Rogers and—”

I can’t help myself. I burst, “Number one or number two?”

David grimaces. “Number three.”

“What?”

“Both.” He laughs a sad little laugh and rolls his eyes. “What a pants idea, Five Year Old David, yeah? Of course, it was during that period when you don’t understand why it’s important to wash your hands, so I had the stuff smeared all up my pasty little arm for the next hour before my dad found me playing with Captain America in my room.”

Crap. Literally. I can’t help it: I laugh long. Hard. The birdsong picks up like they’re laughing with me.

“This story just took a turn for the I Can’t Believe You’re Critiquing Me Swimming in Snowdonia National Park When You Walked Around with Poop on Your Arm for an Hour.”

He lifts his barely there eyebrows. “In my defense, I’d had five years of practice at life. You’ve had how many. Fifteen, sixteen?”

I cough. “Eighteen.” That magic number that means I’m somehow supposed to be both an adult and still a child. Too old to read The Outsiders, but too young to stay home alone.

“Actually?” His eyebrows jump so they nearly meet his hairline. His Adam’s apple bobs.

Jerk. “Don’t look so surprised, Sherlock.” I splash water at him and actually get some on his sneaker. He jolts away. I stick out my tongue.

“I forgot how young Americans look.” He examines his shoe like I splashed some of my parents’ E.coli on it rather than clean water. “And act.”

“It’s something in our water.” I splash more at the English boy. “Young country, young, beautiful citizens.”

“You’re a comedian.”

“And you are?” I raise an eyebrow. “You know, age-wise?”

This time, the burning complexion spreads all the way to his ears. It makes freckles stand out on his nose like islands in a sea of lava. “Seventeen.”

“Ha! I’m older than you!” I’ve actually got something over the kid who grew up in Bath. Who cares if it’s just a few months’ worth of waking up to alarm clocks and shoveling Lucky Charms down my throat.

“Oh, shut it, Turncoat. I’ll be eighteen in August.”

I wiggle my eyebrows. My smirk is smug. “But it’s June.”

“You’re a git.” He shakes his head, laughing. “No wonder your parents don’t want you around.”

The birds are quiet. The sheep are quiet. The breeze stops whistling through the grass and over the mountains.

I press my lips together. I hate the burning pressure behind my eyes.

I didn’t do anything to make my parents think they needed to drag me to Wales, when they clearly don’t even have any time to spend with me here. I graduated on the honor roll; I got into a decent school. I spent my weekends reading instead of going to parties and the one time they had to yell at me this year, it was because Rachel, Becca, and I were singing along to loudly to Frozen.

But he’s right. My parents both don’t want me gone and no longer want to spend real time with me.

And it’s stupid, but the pressure grows until it forces the first hot, fat, tear from my eye.

David’s smile drops. “Hey, sorry, I didn’t mean it like that. I’m sorry.” He grabs a pebble from the shore and lobs it at the water. It skips once, twice. “I’m an idiot. Just some random bloke you just randomly met. I don’t understand the situation.”

“No, no. It’s fine.” I close my eyes and force my lips to tilt up. It’s funny how a simple smile can soften the pressure. “It’s just—my parents were supposed to come with me to Snowdonia today. But they found some interesting new strain of E.coli in the water, out there in Colwyn Bay—they’re obsessed with E.coli—so they gave me a pocketful of pounds and the car keys and, now, here I am. As usual. Alone.” I don’t need to be. But they made me be.

I shrug. My shoulders barely lift above the water. My legs are numb from treading.

“You’re not alone.” David’s voice dips up like he’s surprised I’d think that.

“Oh, right.” I laugh. “This annoying English guy is here.”

“Actually, I was referring to wild sheep and cows and that amoeba that’s going to eat your brain, but—”

“Stop.” I splash him and this time he doesn’t shift away. He does look at his navy blue shoes and take a deep breath though, shaking his head. His expression is solemn. Guilty. “Wait.” My eyes widen. My voice rises to a squeal. “Have there actually been amoeba in this water this entire time and you’ve just been holding back that information on the off chance you’ll get to watch brain goo drip out of my nose or something?”

I can’t even imagine what my parents would do to me if I got in real trouble, after they dragged me to Wales over being a generally good person. Like, is there a college in Antarctica they could transfer my brain-dead corpse to before freshman year begins?

And oh my gosh, I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die, I don’t want to—

He’s laughing so hard, he doubles over and almost slips off the boulder. This time, the chorus of birds laugh with him.

“That isn’t funny!” I send a wave so large at him, it coats not only his Converse, but his Bermudas in dark freckles.

“Miss Macey,” he gasps between laughs, “you are insane.”

I glare. “What, no ‘daft’ or ‘batty’ or ‘mad?’”

“You watched too much Harry Potter growing up.”

Doctor Who, actually.” I swim closer to his boulder, where the water is shallow enough I can dig my toes between the little smooth gray stones. Fish dart around my ankles. I cross my arms.

“Let me guess.” David leans towards me. The face of the guy who told me not to swim in the lake is maybe a foot from mine. He’s grinning, all crooked white teeth and thick blond eyelashes and his soccer jersey shifting in the wind like a cape or a sail. I am still in the lake. I no longer quite would rather be at Disney World. “A Matt Smith girl?”

“Ew. David Tennant all the way.” I take on a valley girl persona, twirling my hair. “You know that episode when he’s Barty Crouch Junior?”

Now I’ll call you daft.” He pulls himself to his feet. He towers over me. “Let’s take a walk.”

“Only if you answer two questions.” I let myself drift onto my back. “One.” I raise a finger towards the sky. “Are you a serial killer?”

“No.” He shrugs with one shoulder. “You’ll be my first victim.”

“Great. And two.” I spread my arms wide, like a little kid’s dream of flight. “A walk to where?”

If I were at Disney World, I could go to Splash Mountain or It’s A Small World or the Mad Hatter’s teacups. All magical in a preset, follow-the-path sort of way.

But maybe the difference between being a kid and an adult is not that I need to stop believing in magic, but that magic is allowed to have fewer rules now. Because David’s reply is, “Anywhere.” And he takes in the mountains and hills and wildflowers. A sheep baas somewhere in the distance. And we’re the only two people to ever exist. “You’re in the most beautiful place in the world. Let’s go for an adventure, Macey.”

I swim to the edge of the lake and drag myself out. I wring out my hair and slip on my high tops.

Disney World will still be around next year. I can go then. Or maybe I’ll go somewhere new.

In the meantime, this place is its own form of magic. With its whispering breeze and swooping hills and laughing birds, maybe it’s time I found new ways to fly.

“All right, David.”

**********

Thanks for reading and HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!*

~Julia

*I’ve clearly had a few too many cookies already.

Wordy Wednesday: Muffins Don’t Fly (Guest Post)

I’m currently on vacation in Europe with la familia, so this week’s Wordy Wednesday is coming at’cha from super awesome guest writer Allison Rose!

Allison Rose has been writing seriously since the age of ten.  Since then, she has penned a handful of short stories; some longer, still unpublished works; and a variety of fanfictions. When she’s not writing stories, she’s reading them.

Aside from the time she cared for her grandmother’s cat, who loved cream cheese, dusty shelves, and scratching innocent people, Allison has owned no pets.  But she does have a blog, (as blogs are much easier to maintain,) which she invites you to check out at: http://www.allisonthewriter.wordpress.com.

And now, I have the honor of sharing Allison’s hilarious short story “Muffins Don’t Fly.” I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

*********

Muffins don’t fly, right? I mean, they’re food. You eat them. A muffin levitating itself through the air is just about as conceivable as, say, a secret society of hamsters plotting to take over the world! Well, considering that has actually happened, I guess it’s definitely conceivable for a muffin to fly, too.
Weird things always happen to me when my parents aren’t home. This time, it was the first week of summer vacation, and my mom, who works in the children’s room at our local library, was there at a meeting to decide on this year’s summer reading list. My dad was out, too. I think he was playing golf or something. I was, as you would expect, home alone with nothing remotely interesting to do.
In the kitchen, I rummaged through the pantry in search of something to snack on. All I found was a lunchbox-sized container of FruitLoops, and all the artificial flavors and colors didn’t look too appetizing.
Dejectedly, I was about to turn around and head back to the living room when I saw the answer to all my troubles. There, on the kitchen counter, as if it had been put there just for me, was a box of blueberry muffin mix!
According to the box, all I needed to do was add milk, three eggs and oil to the prepackaged muffin mix with freeze-dried blueberries, stir, and bake in a muffin tin. Now, that may sound easy, but like most things, it’s easier said than done. Nowhere in the instructions did it say that you should have more than three eggs on hand because, chances are, one of those three allotted eggs might break somewhere along the way from the egg carton to the mixing bowl. It also never said that the term of art, “cups,” refers to the liquid measurement, not your average drinking glass.
Approximately half an hour and five broken eggs later, I had the blueberry muffins sitting in the oven and was waiting for them to bake. But that would be too easy. While I’d set the timer for fifteen minutes, I hadn’t actually turned on the heat.
Eventually, the muffins actually finished baking, and when I took them out of the oven, the kitchen was filled with the scent of heavenly muffiny goodness.
I poured myself a big glass of cold milk and was about to reach for one of my delicious culinary creations, when—
“Hey, you!” a little voice said from somewhere below me.
Immediately, I looked down on the floor. Better not be one of those stupid hamsters trying to play tricks on me, I thought.
“Not there! Look up!”
Obediently, I looked up. Had the Hamster Liberation Society enlisted the services of talking pigeons?
“No, stupid! On the counter!”
Incredulously, I looked down and saw only my baking tin of blueberry muffins. And sure enough, all half dozen of them were looking up at me with big blueberry eyes.
“Egad!” I exclaimed. “You can talk?!”
“Yes,” they answered in unison. “Thank you for freeing us from our powdered state. Now, we can take over the world!” With that, the muffin in the lower right of the tin nodded ever so slightly (it’s pretty hard to nod if you’re a muffin,) at the muffin next to it, and slowly, ever so slowly…
…The muffn tin began to levitate.
“Faster, muffins, faster!” The lead muffin cackled. “We shall fly to the White House and overthrow the president! Then, the world shall be ours!”
Oh, no! I thought, nervously looking around the kitchen to see what I could do to stop these muffins from threatening my country, and the world. No, a fly swatter probably wouldn’t do the trick. If these muffins could fly, who knew what else they could do?
At that point, my survival instincts must’ve kicked in.  In utter desperation, I picked up the entire pan of hot, steaming muffins and hurled them out the kitchen window into the backyard. Mom would just have to be understanding when I told her why her prized muffin tin was sticking out of her equally prized bed of petunias.
While I’d done away with one problem, namely evil flying muffins bent on taking over the world, I was still hungry. So I went to the refrigerator for one last look.
“Hey!” I heard a little voice say from the depths of the refrigerator. “You could’ve just had one of me, a V8!”
I slammed the refrigerator door shut. That was it. I was ordering a pizza, and that’d better not fly, too.
(C) 2014 Allison Rose
********
Thanks so much, Allison, for sharing your short story! Again, you can check out her blog at http://www.allisonthewriter.wordpress.com (which I highly recommend).
Thanks for reading!
~Julia

Wordy Wednesday: What to Do About the Crab Apple Tree

Before anything else, listen to this song:

My favorite part is Ansel Elgort (Gus)’s creeper smile at 1:12.

So much TFIOS (The Fault In Our Stars) stuff releasing lately! I’m beyond pumped for this movie.

In Boring Julia Life Stuff, I found out yesterday that I finally need to get my bottom wisdom teeth out. (The oral surgeon says I’ve still got another couple years to hang onto the top ones.) Of course, because I’m traveling the majority of this summer, the only time that works to dig the suckers out of my jaw is this Friday morning. So, wish me luck. (Especially because they say you’re supposed to not consume dairy products for at least twenty four hours post-surgery and I’m pretty sure I don’t eat anything that’s NOT dairy.)

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a short story I wrote for my creative writing class fall semester, called “What to Do About the Crab Apple Tree.”

**********
The faded wicker porch swing rests so high, I barely have to crouch to slide onto it beside Gemma. My toes graze the cement while the sloped roof of the porch angles the last rays of sunlight into a beam that hits me straight in the eyes.

Gemma shifts over, makes space, and keeps her gaze concentrated on the scraggly old crab apple tree that is dead center in the front lawn. She squeezes her lips together so hard they turn white. Her fingers have long since tangled themselves in her lap, skin tan against the peachy pink, bunched-up fabric of the shorts my mom picked out for her this morning.

She doesn’t look away from the branches, the ripening apples, as she says, “I don’t want to talk, you know.”

I stare down at my own hands. Pick at a hangnail. “I know.”

A smudge of dirt has lingered under my right thumbnail for the past hour, but I don’t feel the need to scrape it out. The realtor had Uncle Bill and me tear up all the dandelions and Queen Anne’s Lace in the backyard today—said it would increase the cottage’s value.

Gemma is the cleanest thing I’ve seen since breakfast. The backyard is nothing but dirt and grass seed now.

It’s good Grandpa doesn’t have to see it this way.

Gemma glances at me out the corner of her eye—such a small movement I nearly miss it with the sunset in my face. Her dark eyes are ringed with a red so thick and bright it could pass as a ghastly shade of eyeliner, if it weren’t for the dark drips of makeup caught on her cheeks.

“Why are you here, then?” she asks.

I shrug. “I don’t want to talk either. So I figured, if we’re both going to be spending the evening avoiding the rest of the Walberg Clan’s motor mouths, we might as well do it together.”

She nods once, curtly. I press my toes against the warm cement of the porch and shove us backward.
The swing sways halfheartedly. The sunset dips in and out of view.

The sky is a mess of gold, pink, and orange streaks that dance above the Robinsons’ cottage across the road as we move. Their garage door is open, and through it I can just make out the little speedboat they take out on the lake every Sunday, and sometimes Friday or Saturday. The blackberry bushes lining the garage are so heavy with fruit, I can nearly taste Mrs. Robinson’s buttery, sour Fourth of July blackberry pie just by looking at them. The back of my throat aches.

Gemma asks, “What do you think is going to happen to the crab apple tree?”

“I don’t know. My mom talked about cutting it down.” I shrug again.

The air is so entirely still, I can’t see a single leaf or twig rustle, even with the tree just a stone’s throw away. The sunset has turned its leaves a deep, murky green, like unpolished emeralds.

It’s an eyesore if I’ve ever seen one, with branches that bow under onion-shaped fruit and a hacked-up trunk set at the same angle as the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It’s been too droopy to read under since I was ten, and too weak to climb since Gemma turned twelve, but Grandpa loved that dumb tree.

Gemma’s tangled fingers squeeze together. The baby blue polish is chipped on three of the nails of her left hand. She scratches one nail against the other and another flake slips off.

My own nails are unpainted, uneven. I still don’t bother about the dirt.

“I don’t want them to cut it down.” Gemma’s words are quiet—said to the porch at large, rather than me.

“I know.”

“What do you think about the tree?”

I push the swing back again, this time harder. We sway towards the cottage, then forward all the way to the lip of the porch. If I jumped from here, I’d have half a second of flight before my heels made contact with the yellow, waterlogged grass of late June. I wrap my fingers around the armrest.

“I don’t know. My mom’s right. The tree’s useless.” A splinter catches against my palm. “And the realtor already made it clear she doesn’t want anything eccentric left by the time the cottage goes on the market.”

“I can’t believe we sold the old piano.” Gemma closes her eyes and runs two fingers over the streaks of makeup beneath them. The black smudges, widens.

Grandpa used to play Christmas songs on the piano after dinner in the middle of July, when the lake water was just the right depth to go fishing, and we had bass for dinner two or three times a week, the same meal and songs and family members gathered around the long, homemade oak table every July since before Gemma was even born. Grandpa used to sit whoever was the smallest and least squirmy on his lap, and have us slide our fingers overtop his so that we helped him press the keys as he played, and the entire family sang “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Silent Night” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas” during the hottest month of the year.

“The piano needed repairs,” I say. “More than any of us could afford. And who was going to take it? Your family and Aunt Maggie already have pianos, and our apartment can barely fit the five of us, let alone that massive thing.”

“I know why we sold it.” Gemma rubs her eyes, then pushes a hand through her straight black hair. “I just can’t believe we did.”

“It was necessary.” It’s not what I want to say, but I don’t know how to say anything else.

“I know.”

“It still sucks.”

She slides her fingers through her hair; works on untangling it. The sky fades from pink to purple to that dim, empty color that perfectly matches the hue of a deep tissue bruise, the same exact shade of navy blue as blossomed across my left shoulder three years ago, the day we realized the crab apple tree was no longer strong enough to climb.

A new streak of mascara joins the mess on Gemma’s cheeks. The porch light flickers to life.

I lick my lips. They’re cracked and hard and taste like salt mixed with the sharp tang of orange juice. I wonder how red my face is, after this morning’s crying and the afternoon spent pulling weeds in the sun.

Gemma watches the crab apple tree. I glance at her, then at the yard.

A fat, chestnut brown squirrel darts across the lawn and shimmies up the tree. It perches on a branch to sniff at one of the red-purple fruit, and the branch dips all the way to the ground in an impressive display of weak wood and flexibility. A laugh works its way to my throat, but doesn’t pass my lips. Pressure grows behind my eyes.

“Grandpa would be pissed if he knew we were even considering cutting down his tree,” I say.

Gemma nods. “Let’s not forget how he and Grandma grew that tree with,” she affects a warbled, gravelly voice, “‘nothing but a shovel, a shriveled up crab apple found in the cottage’s garage when they first moved in, and a whole lot of love.’”

The laugh escapes before I remember to hold it in. Gemma sniffles and smiles. She folds her hands in her lap, displaying only the fingers with un-chipped nail polish.

Plates and silverware clatter in the cottage behind us as the Walberg Clan sets the long, homemade oak table for dinner. Aunt Jean, Uncle Ron, and my dad laugh over place settings while my mom and Uncle Bill argue about what to put on the salad, the way they always have—according to Grandpa—since they were children.

Grandpa probably ate a couple hours ago, since they try to serve dinner at five o’clock sharp at the Center Town Nursing Home. He’s probably asleep by now, leathery, wrinkled skin slack across his forehead while his nose rattles in that whistling snore that we used to tell the little kids was secretly the hoot of an owl loose in the bedrooms.

When we visit Grandpa in the morning, as we do every morning, he won’t remember if it was strained peas or blackberry pie or bass that the nurses served him, or if he enjoyed it or hated it or didn’t really notice it. He won’t remember if it’s June or July or December, and he won’t remember if I’m Gemma or Addie or Helen, or one of his grandchildren at all.

He will never know if we cut down the crab apple tree; he won’t know if the new owners do it after they sign the paperwork and we hand over the keys. He will never know if anything happens to that straggly old tree that he does not remember even a little, yet we cannot cut down the crab apple tree, because Grandpa once loved it, and we loved him.

He might as well be dead, he is so far gone.

“It’s weird,” I say, “being here without him.”

Gemma pushes against the cement, setting us rocking again. “I don’t like it.”

“I don’t think you’re supposed to.”

“I miss him.” She bites her lip. The blood drains from her fingers as she squeezes them together.

“I know.” I stretch my legs out. The evening air breathes over my toes, like a whisper. I close my eyes—make a wish on the crab apple tree. A burst of laughter comes from behind us. “I do too.”

“Everyone keeps acting like this is normal, Grandpa getting old and forgetting everything. But how can it be normal?” Gemma inhales on a hiccup. “He was the most abnormal person I’ve ever known.”

I nod and smile a little, opening my eyes. I turn to her. “I thought you didn’t want to talk.”

“I don’t.” She says it to her shorts.

“I don’t either.”

Gemma scoots across the porch swing, pressing her leg against mine, and rests her forehead on my shoulder. I rest my head on top of hers. We breathe in, breathe out.

The squirrel leaps from the crab apple tree and trundles away across the grass. A light flips on in the Robinsons’ cottage—through the sheer lace curtains, I watch as Mrs. Robinson gets started on dinner.

Life goes on. Even as one life ends, the rest of it goes on.

I slip the nail of my left pointer finger beneath the edge of my right thumbnail and push out the dirt. Inside the cottage, Mom calls Uncle Bill a jerk, and he complains about how she never lets him put pine nuts on the salad, and my little brother Tony says something in his loud, squeaky voice that makes Dad boom with laughter.

“I don’t want to leave,” I say.

Gemma replies, “I think we should keep the crab apple tree.”

She looks at me, and I look back. I’m not sure which of us begins to cry first.
**********

90

 

~Julia

PS. Mi madre turned another year better recently. Happy birthday to the most wonderful mom in the world!

Wordy Wednesday (“The City Will Wake”)

Today’s the last day of Fall Break for me, and as sad as I am to see it go (especially since most of my “break” has been spent working on homework, so I barely even got a chance to relax anyway), I’m also really excited about what’s coming up. Primarily next Tuesday and the Saturday afterward.

That’s right. Allegiant–the last book in Veronica Roth’s Divergent Trilogy–is coming out. And a group of us are driving to Chicago to attend V-Roth’s book signing. Which means I’m basically going to go into cardiac arrest, because HOLY CRAP VERONICA ROTH I LOVE HER.

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Unfortunately, before then, I do still have to go to lots of classes and do lots of homework (still working on those Spanish essay rewrites, for anyone keeping up with my Facebook page and/or Twitter). No idea how I’m supposed to focus on school with so many great books releasing this season (anywhere within hearing distance of me is a Spoiler Free Zone–I still haven’t gotten my hands on Once We Were, or House of Hades, ORRR The Dream Thieves), but I’m working on it.

In the meantime, this week’s Wordy Wednesday is a short story I wrote for creative writing class last semester, called “The City Will Wake.” Since I adore cities so much–especially New York–I wanted to try writing from the perspective of someone who doesn’t like them.

**********

            I wrap my jacket more firmly around myself and take a step into the park.

There is frost on the ground—a layer of prickly grey fur that coats the grass, which is brown and limp. To my right is a pond, its surface glossy and white. Warm yellow Christmas lights wink overhead, hung and forgotten between the maple branches crisscrossing the path. The sun should be rising by now, beyond the sky’s sheet of deadened clouds, but the park is dim and cool.

The heels of my boots click against the sidewalk. Although the city is awake beyond the trees, here the rumbling, screeching call of the taxis is a movie score it is easy to forget.

During the moment I walk to meet my friends, I am alone, like I almost always am in New York, surrounded by strangers.

My hands sweat in my pockets. I know it is better than exposing them to the dry air, but the stickiness makes them itch. My lips are chapped, my ears frozen. I wonder how many people have walked this path—how many people have felt their cheeks grow stiff with the blood and cold.

My eyes water as the wind breathes against them.

If this is spring, I cannot imagine the city coming alive because of it.

In only one week, I will get to go home, and there will be tulips and little green buds on all the trees. That is a true spring. But I cannot imagine making it a whole week longer surrounded by so much concrete. I will drown.

Felix and Caroline wait for me beside the carousel with their faces pink, eyes squinted against the wind. There are smiles tacked firmly to their lips. The grand, colorful carousel horses rattle on brass poles behind them while a woman in a dress that is much too thin for this weather passes, pushing a stroller. Felix extracts a gloved hand from his pocket and waves to me. “Good morning!” His voice is hoarse from the cold, but cheerful nonetheless.

“I think you and I have different definitions of good,” I say.

“Well ‘bad morning’ to you, then,” he says.

Caroline hands me a blue travel mug with steam rising from its lid and we begin our daily trek through the park. At first the skyscrapers are visible beyond the barren tree branches, but as we venture further down the path, the cement and brick slowly disappear behind layers of nature. It is leafless and dead nature, yes, but it is also still more alive than the buildings and the cars.

We pass the petting zoo and another pond that has a surface like frosted glass; we pass a play structure and businessmen in suits, and people who are our age, out walking their fluffy little dogs while talking on cell phones. Gradually the street lights flicker out overhead and the clouds move from silty grey to navy-tinged white. They are a second skin, hugging the sky, keeping the sun out. My toes are numb in my boots. My legs are stiff, nerves tingling, knees refusing to bend.

“I can’t wait until my internship is over.” I lift my coffee to my lips and suck in the bitter-sweet scent before taking a sip. Warmth spreads through my mouth, down my throat, comes to rest in my stomach. Caroline clucks her tongue.

“How in the world do you manage to hate New York City?”

“The same way you manage to love it, I guess,” I say. Felix laughs.

“You’ve been here for two months and you haven’t found a single thing you like?” Caroline asks. “Come on. You leave in a week. There must be something you’re excited to tell everyone back home about.”

“Yes. I’m excited to tell them I’m never going to leave there ever again.”

Caroline rolls her eyes and brushes her white-blond bangs off her forehead, but doesn’t retort. We’re nearing the edge of the park now, our office building coming into view, rising over the shorter buildings that surround it.

I take another sip of my coffee, feel its warmth in my fingers despite the wind biting against them, and turn back once to look at the brown skeletons that are the trees and the slippery yellowed mess that is the grass. Children interrupt my view as they run by, laughing and screaming in plaid skirts and ties. The clouds are heavy overhead. I wonder how different it would be to grow up here, rather than back home.

The rising sun breaks through the clouds overhead, and for a second the skyline visible beyond the leafless treetops turns from dull grey to a thousand shining colors. Beautiful. Like the concrete is not a cage to drown in, but a structure on which to stand.

Maybe in the summer it would look that way more often. Maybe like the trees, the city has not truly been dead all this winter as it has appeared to be—it has only been asleep. And spring will come eventually.

I tilt my face towards the warmth, towards the light, and there is the thought that I might miss this after all. Not the city as a whole, but moments like this. With the sunrise warm on my face and my toes numb in my boots. The air thin and dry and perhaps not full of life itself, but waiting for life to occur.

Felix asks, “Is that a smile I see on the Great Miss Farm Girl’s face?” He stops where he and Caroline have walked ahead until I catch up. His eyes are on the sunrise, too. He blows on his coffee, sending a gush of pearly white steam into the air. It seems to dance as it hovers then rises towards the clouds.

“No, of course not,” I say. “Why would I ever be smiling? That’s crazy.”

“Good, because otherwise we’d have to invite you back sometime.” He nudges me with his shoulder, and I allow myself half a grin. I hear Caroline’s steps as she walks to us, and then she stops on the other side of Felix. Together we watch what little of the sunrise is visible between the skyscrapers and clouds. It is orange and pink and yellow, melting the frost, melting the cold, bringing with it a breath of warm air that smells of soil and leaves and flowers.

Spring. Home. Soon.

“I’ll return someday,” I say.

“Yeah?” Caroline’s tone is not surprised. Felix throws his arms around the both of us and squeezes. Caroline laughs. It is easier to smile as the sunlight warms my cheeks.

“Yeah,” I say. “Maybe.”

**********

61

 

~Julia