WIP: My life as a would-be writer

WIP (Work In Progress)

Though I’ve been writing off and on for most of my life, it’s only in the past six years that I’ve really been writing in earnest and with a goal in mind. What is that goal? First, to write a novel for children, and second, to have that book read. Sounds simple enough on the page, but the reality of it has been a little more complicated.

The first part of my goal I’ve figured out, or at least insofar as I’ve completed four novels for children, and I’m currently working on the fifth.  I remember the elated sense of accomplishment when I finished the first book. It was an idea I’d been bouncing around in my head for years, but never did anything about, until one day I took the first big step: I sat down and started to write. And kept writing. Before I knew it (several months later, actually) I had actually written a whole novel! Looking back on it now, I can see the book’s flaws better than I could at the time. Still, if nothing else, I’d proved to myself that I could  see it through to the end. But what I also learned is that once the rough draft is completed, I was only getting started.

The second goal, to be read,  has been more elusive, though I have been working towards it by joining the Society of Children’s’ Book Writers and illustrators, attending conferences, having my work critiqued, and sending queries out for submission. It has been in equal parts rewarding and frustrating, but so far, the rewards have been enough to keep me going.

Currently I’m querying my fourth book, Hush-a-bye, an upper middle grade tale of the supernatural. I thought it might be interesting to share at least the first chapter of that book, if for no other reason than to prove that I am actually doing what I say I’m doing. Enjoy!

Update:  I decided to add three more chapters to offer up a fuller picture of the book.

 

Hush-a-bye

by Jody Lee Mott

Chapter 1

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It was deep in the afternoon of the last Tuesday of summer when I kicked away a willow branch lying on the riverbank and found the head.

My eyes had been closed. I’d been imagining, for no particular reason, how the September sun would look to the mud-devils trolling the Susquehanna riverbed. Like margarine on burnt toast, I supposed. Then my foot knocked into the branch, my eyes opened, and another eye stared back at me.

Its yellow hair was tangled with twigs and mud and broken glass like some crazy bird’s nest. It had a scratched cheek, a pushed-in nose, and a grimy ball of mud in the hole where the left eye should have been.  I picked up the head and held it by its ragged neck. The body, I supposed, had long since floated away.

“Poor dolly,” I said. “Where’d the rest of you go?”

I glanced behind me. My sister Antonia was somewhere along the slope above the bank, searching for flat rocks to skip across the water. She was always somewhere close by. Still, when I shut my eyes, I could pretend I was alone. Sometimes I even believed it. At least until the sound of Antonia’s scuffling sneakers or her howler monkey squeal brought me back. Or, like that day, finding a doll’s head face up at the edge of the river.

I bent down to drop the head back in the hollow space where it must have been hiding for weeks–maybe years, for all I knew. Then I glanced across the river.

Bars of light shivered across the water.  There hadn’t been a single cloud in the sky since the middle of August. Nothing above us but a wide sheet of blue.

I’d come down to the river almost every summer day since we moved to Oneega Valley, a long, narrow ribbon of town just a few miles north of Pennsylvania. Antonia had found the dirt footpath hidden under a row of winterberry bushes running behind our trailer.  You had to squeeze through them, shuffle sideways down the path to avoid the pricker bushes and stinging nettles that grew between the birch and willows, then slide down a low slope to get to the river bank.

There was a small island plunked right in the middle of the river. The curve of its shore matched the curve of the river bank like a puzzle piece, and it was covered in tall ash trees that jostled against each other. I dreamed about visiting it one day, but the river was too muddy for swimming, and we didn’t have a boat.

Looking across ripples of sunlight on the river’s brown face, I wondered what would happen if I tossed the doll’s head right in the middle of the water. I wanted to make the sunlight smash into a million pieces. Somehow, that seemed like the best possible thing I could manage to do that day.

I drew my arm back. It was going to have to be a good throw. I screwed up my face, dug my feet in the bank, and let my arm fly forward. For a moment, I almost felt like I was the one flying. I held my breath.

Nothing splashed in the water. Only the sounds of birds and the rush of cars passing on the distant highway filled the air.

I looked up like I expected the head had sprouted wings and soared up to the clouds. It hadn’t. I stared down at my outstretched arm. The doll’s head still dangled there, its yellow hair twisted in my fingers. Its one good eye stared right back at me.

“Can’t let go, huh?” I said. “Well, you should. If you knew anything about me you’d get away fast. Don’t you know who I am?”

 “Lucy?”

It took me a few seconds to realize the voice I’d heard came from behind. I turned. Antonia stood there with her hands clasped together, full of rocks too fat for anything but sinking with a loud plop. She was smiling, and her eyes were wide open even though she was facing into the sun. I could never understand how she was able to do that without squinting. The sparkly cat barrette she’d worn on the side of her head since second grade glittered in the sunlight.

“Gross,” Antonia said, but still smiling. “What’s that?”

“Nothing,” I said. “Just an old doll’s head. Come look.”

Antonia dropped the rocks, letting them thump in the undergrowth, and shuffled toward me. I lightly pressed my finger against the doll’s cheek.

“See?” I said. “Only an old broken doll’s head.” Antonia wrapped her hand around the head and tried to pull it towards her. I jerked it away.

“Stop that,” I said, a little more harshly than I intended. “There’s glass in its hair. You’ll cut yourself.  I’m going to throw it back where I found it. Nothing but trash anyway.”

Antonia pouted. I tried to ignore her, but the pout always rankled me. Even though there was only a year’s difference between us, Antonia acted like such a child sometimes.

Developmentally delayed was what they called her, or at least that’s what I read in a letter from the school Mom accidently left on the kitchen counter one day. So I knew it wasn’t completely her fault. But it still bugged me.

I shook my head to break up the feeling. There were still a few more hours of this day to enjoy my freedom. No sense in ruining that with fussing over things I couldn’t change. And no sense in keeping some dirty, broken, good-for-nothing doll’s head.

Holding the head at eye level, I fixed it with what I hoped was a terrifying glare. “You won’t see me anymore anyway,” I said. “You won’t see anything.”

I stepped back towards the river and drew my arm back once again. A gust of wind shook the ash branches across the far bank. As they swayed back and forth, I thought I heard something–a faint voice whispering between the sounds of rattling dry leaves.

Take me home.

I swung my head about and glared at my sister. “What did you say?”

Antonia cocked her head to one side. “I didn’t say nothing. Must have been the doll.”

I looked at my sister for a long time, then shook my head. “Don’t be silly.”

I turned back to the doll. It swayed back and forth. For the first time I noticed its one eye was a bright emerald green. Almost like my daddy’s eyes–green and full of mischief. At least, that’s how I tried to remember them.

I bit my lip and swallowed the sour ball of pain rising up my throat. The green eye still regarded me, but it didn’t seem so bright anymore. It was dull and scratched and looked like nothing more than a cheap glass eye stuck in a poor broken doll’s head.

“It’s sad, don’t you think?” I drew the head closer and picked shards of glass out of the doll’s hair. “Left all alone here. Her little body probably washed all the way to China.”

“I heard a book about a glass bunny that got lost,” Antonia said. “He got drowned in the ocean until some fisherman pulled him out and saved him, and even then it took years and years to find his way home. That was sad too.”

I nodded. “Probably shouldn’t throw her back in the river. That would be littering.”

Antonia leaned in and squinted at the doll’s head. “She’s not garbage,” she said. “She’s lonely.” She rested her cheek on my arm. “Can’t we take her back to the trailer? We can fix her up and maybe we can find another body for her.”

I nudged Antonia away. “Mom wouldn’t like it. She’s already threatened to take a shovel to all the junk under your bed.”

“It’s not junk,” Antonia said.  “They’re my precious treasures.”

Her precious treasures were a deflated soccer ball, a trunkless stuffed elephant called Mr. Lumps, a large bag full of knotted rubber bands, a paper-mache Earth with only five continents, and about a hundred other bits and pieces of things she’d picked up here and there and shoved under her bed ‘for later’.

“She’d be the most precious treasure of all,” Antonia said. She rubbed her cheek against my arm and fluttered her eyelashes. “Please, can we keep her? Pretty please?”

I breathed out heavily through my nose, and then I smiled at my sister. “I suppose so . . . if we don’t tell Mom.”

Antonia’s eyes grew wide. “Lie?”

“Not a lie,” I trailed my pinky across the doll’s stubbed nose. “A secret. Our secret.”

Antonia squealed and clapped her hands.

“Get my bag from behind that stump over there,” I said. “We’ll clean her up after dinner and hide her in the closet under all those wildlife magazines you never read.”

“I read them,” Antonia said, kicking a pebble. “Sometimes.” She ran to the stump while I picked out the rest of the glass. When Antonia brought over my back pack, I wriggled the broken zipper open and shook out a plastic grocery bag I’d brought in case I found any interesting leaves I wanted to draw later. I started to lower the doll’s head in the bag when Antonia put her hand on my arm.

“Wait,” she said.

“What for?”

“It’s dark in there.” Antonia clasped her hands together and pressed them against her face. “She might want to go to sleep.”

“So?”

“Can I sing her a lullaby? The one Mom sings when it rains and the thunder hurts my ears?”

I shook my head at first, but when my sister started fluttering her eyelashes a mile a minute and puckering her lips like a fish, I had to laugh. She always knew how to make me laugh with that face.

“Okay,” I said. “But make it quick.”

Antonia cleared her throat and began to sing.

Hush-a-bye and good night

     Till the bright morning light

     Takes the sleep from your eyes

     Hush-a-bye, baby bright

We stood in silence in front of the doll’s head.  Her green eye glowed in the afternoon light, and the sound of the river filled our ears.  A single cloud, thin as a whisper, floated just above the tree tops.

“That’s a good name for her,” I said at last as I gently pushed the head deep into the bag. “Hush-a-bye.”

 

Chapter 2

After Antonia and I squeezed through the winterberry bushes, we spotted Mom’s baby blue junker parked between the trailer and the tall gingko tree. We weren’t expecting to see her so soon. Then again, we were never too sure day or night when we’d see Mom.

“Don’t say anything about the head,” I reminded Antonia as we approached the trailer. Her eyes grew wide like I’d said the most unbelievable thing she’d ever heard. Like she wasn’t the biggest blabbermouth in the world.

“I wasn’t going to.”

“Well, just remember it,” I said and shooed her in ahead. Antonia slumped ahead, pouting.

“I said I wasn’t going to,” she mumbled.

Mom lay on our old, beat-up couch with the faded bird of paradise slip cover. A damp washcloth covered her eyes, and her smudged sneakers were still tied tightly on her feet.  That meant a bad day at work.

“Hey there, firecrackers,” she said in a gravelly voice, not taking off the washcloth. Antonia kneeled on the floor near mom’s head, removing her cat barrette and leaning back so Mom could stroke her fine, straight hair. I carefully tucked my bag at the other end of the couch out of sight. Mom raised her feet to let me sit down. I pulled off her sneakers and socks and rubbed her feet.

“Mmm, that feels good, Peppernose,” she said. Mom called me Peppernose because of the dark freckles all over my fish-belly white face. I thought they made me look ugly, but I still liked the name. She only ever used it at home, so it was like our own secret code.

I trailed my finger across the calla lily tattoo that curled along her calf. “Did it hurt much getting that?” I asked.

Mom snorted. “Only a lot.”

I cinched up my pant leg and frowned at my own white, bony ankle. “When can I get one?”

“About two days past never.”

“Can I get one?” Antonia started scratching a star on her shin. Mom groaned and pulled her foot away from me.

“Come on, girls,” she said. “No ganging up on me right now.” Antonia and I exchanged a worried look.

Work go okay?” I asked.

Mom shrugged. “It went.”

I hated how tired she sounded after work, and how her clothes always smelled like onions and cheap coffee.

She worked weird hours as a waitress at Theodora’s Hometown Diner. Mornings, evenings, weekends, holidays–there wasn’t a time or a day she wouldn’t be expected to show up. She never talked about her job except to say it was like trying to juggle ten balls while tap dancing, and every once in while someone would throw you a watermelon and a bag of cats.

“We were down by the river,” Antonia blurted out. Whenever she gets worried about Mom, she rattles her mouth about random things no one asked her. I shot her a look before she blabbed everything about Hush-a-bye. “Oh yeah,” she went on, winking at me, “but we didn’t find anything there.” Like Mom wouldn’t see right through her.

Sure enough, Mom lifted a corner of the washcloth and squinted at Antonia. “What did you find and where did you put it?” Antonia once brought home a pail full of tadpoles. She’d put them under her bed and promptly forgot about them until a week passed and their death stink got Mom’s attention.

“Just some skipping stones,” I said quickly before Antonia could mess things up even more. “She wanted to bring some home, but I made her leave them there.”

That seemed to satisfy Mom. She lowered the washcloth and handed her foot back to me.

“Looking forward to school tomorrow?” she asked. Looking forward? Icy fingers dug into my gut.

“Sure,” I lied.

“Keep an eye on your sister as much as you can. Oh, and I called the school today and asked if Antonia could have lunch with you on her first day.”

I squeezed my Mom’s foot. She yelped. “Ow, watch it there,” she said.

“Lunch?” The icy fingers curled into a fist. “With me? Seventh grade lunch?”

“Can I sit with you and your friends?” Antonia squealed.

“No!” I shouted, a lot louder than I meant to. Mom lifted the washcloth and stared at me. Antonia pouted. I looked down like I’d suddenly found something interesting under my fingernails. “I mean, why doesn’t she go with the other sixth graders?”

“Lucille Bloom,” Mom said. I winced. Once she trotted out my full name, I knew I was sunk. “It’s just for one day. You know how flustered Antonia gets with new situations. I don’t think it too much to ask to let her sit with you for a half hour out of the first day of school.”

“It’s forty-two minutes,” I mumbled.

“Fine. Forty-two minutes then.”

“And she’ll be with me on the bus.”

Mom swung her legs out and took hold of my chin. Not painfully, but firmly. “Are we going to have a problem here?”

Whenever Mom did this, I knew she meant business. Not that she’d ever hurt me, like you saw with some mothers in the trailer park. Besides, I never pushed too hard. I just couldn’t do it. I shook my head.

Mom smiled and moved me into a hug. Antonia squeezed against her on the other side.

“I’m not trying to make things hard for you, Peppernose,” she said. “I just want to make sure my girls get through middle school without too much trouble. Okay?”

“No trouble on the double,” Antonia said and giggled.

“Double trouble is right,” Mom said. “Why don’t you two go to your room and see what I got for you to wear for your first day back.”

Antonia gasped. “New clothes?”

Mom sighed. “Well, they were on clearance.” Antonia didn’t care. She bolted off to our room with her howler monkey yell on full volume.

Mom nudged me with her shoulder. “You too, big sister. Check out what I got for you. I think you’ll like it.”

“No stripes?” I asked.

Mom shook her head and lay back down, covering her eyes with the washcloth. “No stripes. You think I just met you yesterday?”

I started to walk away, then stopped and turned back. The icy fist pounded my gut. Just tell her, I thought. If she knows, maybe she’ll let you stay home. Just for one day. Maybe a week. Or a year.

“Mom?”

“Yeah, Peppernose?”

I opened my mouth to say one thing, then shut it tight and opened it again. “Thanks for the clothes.”

Mom waved a limp hand. “Anything for my firecrackers. Now git.”

*****

“Lucy, look! I think I see one falling. Do you see? Do you see?” Antonia danced about in an early morning quilt of sunlight and shadow as she strained to look through the branches of the gingko tree.

“It’s only the beginning of September.” I shifted my backpack to get a better look. The fan-shaped leaves were still summer green. “Too soon.”

Every fall, usually close to the end of October, we waited for the leaves to fall off the gingko tree. Most trees shed leaves bit by bit over the autumn days and weeks until they’re skeleton bare. But gingko leaves all dropped at exactly the same time.

For the past five years since we moved to the trailer, Antonia and I had been trying to catch the Great Fall Gingko Drop. For four of those years, we failed. Sometimes the Drop happened in the midnight dark, or early in the morning while the sparrows whistled and chirped, or even at one o’clock in the afternoon when nothing in particular was going on. But whenever it was, we always managed to be somewhere else.

I tugged at the strap of Antonia’s bulging backpack, the pink kitten one she’d had since third grade.

“The bus‘ll be coming,” I said. “I don’t want to be late.”

Antonia moaned, then tromped on towards the stop. I could see her straps were getting frayed. I wondered if they’d hold. It looked like she’d jammed in several of her precious treasures along with her school supplies.

Despite my warnings, the sparkly cat barrette still clung stubbornly to her head,. She may as well have worn a Kick Me sign. I know it sounds mean, but sometimes I wished her brain was wired better.

The night before, I’d come into the bedroom to check out my school clothes. I wasn’t two steps in when Antonia snatched away my backpack and nearly tore off my arms.

“Watch it!” I complained, but she was already focused on pulling out Hush-a-bye. Our closet door was open, and I noticed Antonia had been busy setting up a place of honor for the doll’s head.

She’d shoved a cardboard box against one wall and on top of it she’d stuck the clay model Giza pyramid she’d made in second grade. Antonia wiggled the head onto the pyramid point.

“Perfect,” she said and kissed Hush-a-bye on the nose. Then from a corner of our room she dragged a little wooden chair Mom had picked up from a yard sale years ago and set it facing the doll.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said. “Mom’s going to find Hush-a-bye and throw her in the trash. Hide her in the dresser.”

Antonia shook her head. “Can’t.”

“Why not?”

Antonia rolled her eyes. “How can I have conversations with her through the dresser? That’s so rude.” Then she squeezed her behind in the tiny chair built for a much tinier behind than she’d had for some time and shut the closet door. And that, apparently, was the end of that.

Our bus stop was only the second one on the route. So, like I always did, I grabbed the safe seat right behind the bus driver. Antonia jammed herself next to me, but I didn’t mind. She didn’t know it, but she was helping me. With her there, I could sit by the window and not worry who might plop next to me.

The icy fingers in my belly unclenched a little. Antonia slipped her backpack to the floor and craned her neck over the seat to spy down the back of the bus.

“This doesn’t look any different than my old bus,” she said, sounding a little disappointed.

“All buses are the same,” I said in a quiet voice.

“What?” Antonia shouted and whipped her head about. On the opposite seat, a sliver-thin blond-haired boy with a finger halfway up his nose squinched his eyes at her. I rapped Antonia’s thigh with the back of my hand.

“Stop yelling,” I whispered.

Antonia shot me a puzzled look, then folded her arms and slumped in her seat. “I thought it was going to be bigger.”

The next two minutes passed quietly. The only sounds were the rumble of the bus, the wheezy breathing of the little blond boy, and Antonia picking her teeth with her thumb.

Two whole minutes.

I tried to lose myself in those minutes, like it was last piece of time left in the world. If I ever got to heaven, and it turned out to be nothing more than a rattling bus ride with a skinny nose-picker and my sister sucking at her teeth over and over and over again for eternity, I’d be okay with that.

But there wasn’t any heaven waiting for me that day. I was heading to middle school.

Once the bus cleared the trailer park, the houses grew bigger, the evenly mowed lawns gleamed greener, and the number of rust-bucket cars looking like they wouldn’t make it through tomorrow dwindled considerably.

Soon the bus squealed to halt, the door whooshed open, and a gaggle of my middle school peers piled on. I’d known each and every one of them for years.

They all walked past Antonia and me. Most ignored us. A few made faces. None of them said hello. Neither did I.

Antonia didn’t seem to notice or care. She was too busy petting the red panda on her shirt. But then Gus Albero, a big lump of a boy who was always tearing up the streets on his dirt bike, galumphed up the bus steps. His weasel-faced friend Zoogie slinked and snickered close behind. Gus winked at Zoogie, then he pretended to trip and knocked himself into Antonia.

The icy fingers lashed out and squeezed my heart so hard every vein in my body froze solid. I stopped breathing and waited. Please, please, please, please stop, my brain screamed. My body did nothing at all. Like usual.

But not Antonia. She shoved back at him with both hands. “Watch out, jerk!” she said.

Gus stared at her for a second like he couldn’t figure out what planet she’d just beamed down from. Then he snorted and laughed and said “smell you later”. But he still backed off.

Now it was my turn to stare at Antonia. I couldn’t believe how easily she’d done that. Most of the time I was embarrassed how Antonia “had her filters off”, like Mom would say. She’d just blurt out whatever rolled through her brain at any given moment, usually the worst possible one.

One time at the grocery store parking lot, Antonia gawked at a very large woman with low-riding pants wrestle a fifty-pound bag of dog food into the back of her VW Bug.

“Mom,” she said in a voice you could hear halfway across the lot, “you see that lady showing her big butt? I bet you could stick a couple of quarters in there like a gumball machine.”

I’d never knew my Mom’s face could turn that shade of red.

But this was different. The way Antonia handled that boy was excellent. Maybe the day wouldn’t be so bad after all. Maybe having Antonia act as a buffer at lunch could actually work. She’d say all the things I never dared to say.

The icy fingers wiggled free a little. I may have even smiled.

Then the bus jerked to stop at the corner of Main and Little, and the bus doors whooshed open once again. A pair of hard heels clicked clicked clicked up the steps. A whiff of cherry and cinnamon tickled the air.

My smile, if it ever was there, vanished.

Prakash Kaur appeared, filling the aisle like a rolling thunderhead. And those icy fingers reached up through my throat, clamped on my brain and dragged it down to my stomach.

Prakash–Kash to her friends–was flashy and polished as a new bicycle. Her caramel skin and straight white teeth and glossy nails gleamed, and her straight black hair flowed easy over her shoulders. Everyone looked at her, including me, and she knew it. Her eyes drank up all the adoration.

But when those eyes found mine, the adoration drained away and the poison shoe through. All for me. The poison was always for me.

“Keep moving there, honey,” the bus driver said. Kash gave me a half-second’s worth of eye-venom, then turned to the bus driver and smiled.

“Sorry, Mrs. Hamish,” Kash said in her sugary, finger-wrapping voice. Mrs. Hamish, like every other adult, returned her smile. Kash breezed down the aisle, followed by her giggling twin minions, Ashley and Gretta Oslo.

As the trio passed, I let out the breath I’d been holding. It was over. The worst moment of the morning bus ride, the one I’d been dreading and trying not to think about was over. There’d be other bad moments waiting for me at school, but at least I could check this one off the list.

That’s what I told myself. And like usual, I was wrong.

“Wow, she’s pretty as a lollipop,” Antonia said. Very loudly.

I stiffened, feeling the scorch of Kash’s stare as she took in the loud girl with the sparkly cat barrette and the red panda clearance shirt. The one sitting next to me.

Me.

“Hi, I’m Antonia,” my sister continued, answering a question no one had asked. “I’m Lucy’s sister.”

My throat clenched tight. I wanted to reach out and grab Antonia by the neck and shake her until her brains rattled, screaming shut up! shut up! I couldn’t have done it, though. That would be breaking the rules, and the rules could never be broken, no matter what.

I heard a snort and a breathy laugh, then Kash’s heels clicked away down the aisle. A comment followed them just loud enough for me and the adoring crowd in the back seats.

“Did you see the fish eyes on Freakshow junior?” The backseat crowd let loose with a laugh particular to middle-school, the kind that could strip the paint from concrete.

Antonia shook my elbow. “Why is everybody laughing?” she asked. “Who’s Freakshow junior?”

I didn’t answer her, even when she started pinching my arm. My eyes had closed. It wasn’t perfectly black behind my lids because of the dancing sunspots, but it would do. If I couldn’t see the world, then the world couldn’t see me either.

I knew it was stupid and childish. But for a few moments, I pretended I was all alone. It didn’t matter if in about fifteen minutes I’d have to open my eyes again. It didn’t make any difference I was still going to have the whole rotten year ahead of me.

So while Antonia poked and prodded at me, asking me to explain what was so funny, I shut down and disappeared. That’s what I did best.

 

Chapter 3

“There you are, Lucy,” Mr. Capp said as I entered the art room. Like always, he wore a pale blue painter’s smock, and the ends of his big, black moustache were twisted so they pointed up like a bug’s antennae. He held a large cardboard box in both hands. “Come here and give me a hand, hon. I need you to sort through these colored pencils and pull out all the broken ones.”

He set me and the box at a table near the big windows that ran the length of the room.

“And when you finish,” he said as he snapped sheets of clean white paper next to me, “draw me a Jack Russell Terrier–if you get the chance. You know where the book is.”

Mr. Capp had been my art teacher since sixth grade. He never asked me any embarrassing questions, and he always had little tasks for me to do, like cleaning brushes or sorting through colored beads. About once a week he had me draw a dog for him.

The dog thing started in sixth grade. He caught me trying to copy out the cover of Shiloh on the back of my notebook while we were supposed to be constructing a color wheel. My face burned once I realized he was watching me, so scared I didn’t even try to hide my drawing.

I waited for the red-faced screaming and the slip to detention I probably had coming. After a minute of silence I braved a quick glance up. His forehead was all knotted up like he was thinking. He didn’t look mad, but could never tell with adults.

“Not bad.” He wagged his finger and directed me to sit at the table by the window. I did as I was told, even though my legs felt like cement. He disappeared in his art closet for a few seconds, then came out with a huge book the size of a mailbox. He slammed the book on the table, opened it up and pointed to a picture of a beagle.

“Try and draw that for me, hon,” he said, and walked away.

For five minutes I sat there trembling, my pencil frozen in my fingers, not moving a muscle. Was this a trick? Some kind of weird adult game to trap me? Except he never came back over to see if I was doing it, never called out to check on my progress. Did he really want me to draw?

After a very long and very painful five minutes, I finally lifted my eyes. Mr. Capp leaned back in his chair with his feet propped on his desk. He was gazing out the window and tapping a pencil on his chin. And then he stopped, turned to me, and smiled.

He smiled at me for all of two seconds, then went back to tapping his chin. But something in me kind of melted. I can’t explain why. And I started drawing.

Since that time I’d said maybe six words to him. He still talked to me every class, though, like we were having a regular conversation. I must have drawn at least a couple dozen different dogs for him. Once in a while one of them would show up somewhere on a wall or a bulletin board.

So for forty-two minutes, twice a week, I could unclench my stomach and relax. I was safe with Mr. Capp. That was a pretty big deal.

Other kids made fun of him behind his back. He’d married the guy he’d lived with for twenty years once it became legal in New York. Their picture was in the paper, smiling and holding hands. For some reason the other kids thought that was weird. I thought they looked sweet together. Happy. I wished I could happy like that when I was an adult.

But happiness would have to wait. As I was shading in the ears of my terrier, I glanced up. Five minutes to twelve. My pencil snapped.

“Careful there, hon,” Mr. Capp said. “Well, no point in sharpening that again, if you’ll excuse the pun. Looks like it’s lunchtime for you.”

*****

 “Look at all this,” Antonia said. The pink kitten backpack was still overloaded and slung pointlessly on her shoulder. I wondered if she’d taken it off since the morning. Her eyes darted in every direction and she swiveled her head back and forth like an automatic sprinkler. “This is way bigger than my old school.”

Somehow, I’d managed to snag Antonia as she spilled out of her reading intensive. I dragged her to the cafeteria before the line formed. Only seven kids in front of us. I closed my eyes and breathed.

4576, 4576, 4576 I kept repeating in my head. My lunch ID, the one I’d to punch into the keypad to pay for my meal, was the same one I’d had since sixth grade. But I wasn’t taking any chances.

“Do we have an assigned table? Can we sit where we want? Do they have pepperoni pizza?” The questions tumbled out faster than I could handle. Not that I tried to give Antonia any answer. I just grabbed a tray for her and myself and slid mine along the metal bars.

Now only four stood in line ahead of us. A damp hamburger and a dish of slightly green tater tots cowered miserably on my tray. The smell of floor cleaner and grease left over from 1964 mingled together into some unnatural fumes. More than likely it caused brain damage, which explained a lot about middle school.

Antonia was still jabbering away about something or other. I figured if I at least got us to the lunch table, she could jabber on all she wanted. I’d make an excuse later about why no one sat with us, why my eyes stayed locked on my tray and never looked up except to check the slowest clock in the world, and why I never said boo to anyone.

4576, 4576, take one hamburger, one dish of tater tots, one dish of peas, one milk, one fork, one napkin, punch in the number, walk to the round table, sit, eat, wait, 4576, 4576–

I had the drill down cold. In five minutes we’d sit down. Thirty-seven more, lunch would finally be over–sometimes eaten, sometimes not. I usually felt less queasy when it wasn’t. Ninety-four minutes after that the school day ended. Twenty five minutes later we’d hear the whoosh of the bus doors close behind us. And sixteen hours later the whole shebang would start all over.

Whoopee.

4576, 4576, 4576

Antonia tugged at my sleeve. “Lucy, Lucy, Lucy,” she said in her much too loud voice, “which one’s our table, huh? Tell me! Where do you and your friends sit?”

“Friends?” a familiar voice said from further down the lunch line. “What friends?”

No, no, no, please no. I didn’t have to turn around to recognize Kash’s snarl. The snorting noises that followed every nasty word she spat out had to be Ashley and Gretta. I tried not to listen, but the words still found me and drilled right into my brain.

“Who’d want to be friends with Freakshow? She smells like cat puke.”

“Oh Kash! You’re so mean!”

“Soooo mean!”

I peeked a glance at Antonia to see how she was taking this, but she was oblivious. Fine by me. The icy fingers, though, were squeezing the breath out of my lungs.

4576, 4576, 4576, please, please

“It’s true. Even bug-eyed Freakshow Junior smells like it. That’s because cat puke’s all they can find at the dump.”

“The dump! Gross!”

“Ew!”

Shut up, shut up, 4576, 4576, 4576

Only one person ahead of us. All I had to do was punch in the lunch code and I’d be set. Kash and her followers always clustered near the long row of windows, far, far away from my table. She could trash-talk all she wanted from there. We wouldn’t hear a word of it. Even so, the icy fingers squeezed harder and harder with every breath I sucked in.

4576, 4576, 4576–

“They go there every night for dinner. Eating cat puke and rat heads.”

“No! Gross! You don’t mean for real. Is that for real?”

“Ew!”

Finally, I reached the register. A sharp pain stabbed between my eyes. Everything was blurry. My shaking fingers paused before the keypad.

Okay, okay, 4756, 4756 . . .

My heart skipped a beat. Wait. Were those the right numbers? Is it 456, no, 47, no, what is it, what is it–

“Put them in already.” The lunch lady at the cash register, new to me, wore too much make-up and looked bored. Mrs. Dudley was scrawled on her name tag in magic marker.

My fingers couldn’t stop shaking. Those four numbers, the same ones I’d been punching in day after day for a whole year, had suddenly dissolved.

“Put them in already,” Kash mocked in a high voice. The twins snickered.

“You want me to do it?” Antonia asked. She reached over and banged keypad buttons at random.

“Stop that,” Mrs. Dudley snapped. She grabbed Antonia by the wrist and swung it away. “You’re holding up the line. If you don’t know your credit code, lunch is $3.45.”

“Nuh-uh,” Antonia said, blowing on her wrist. “Not for us. We don’t have to pay anything. We get our lunch for free.”

Mrs. Dudley raised her eyebrows. Laughter ran down the line. And the icy fingers reached up and grabbed me by the throat.

We’d been on the free lunch program since arriving at Oneega Valley because Mom’s pay was so low. So were a quarter of the kids in the school. But no one bragged about it. No one ever talked about it. Because everyone knew kids like us who got free lunch were nothing but poor white trash.

“Hear that,” Mrs. Dudley said over her shoulder in a very loud voice. “She gets her lunch for free.”

Two beady eyes and a hairnet appeared in a small window behind Mrs. Dudley. They disappeared for a moment, then popped back into view.

“She’s 4576,” a husky voice growled from the back. “And her sister’s 3827.” I banged the numbers in frantically one after the other and took my tray from the lunch line. I hoped Antonia was following me, but I didn’t dare look.

“Think they don’t have to pay for nothing,” Mrs. Dudley grumbled as I slunk away. “Maybe somebody at home should try working for a change.”

My hands shook even after I sat down at the round table. Antonia, who thankfully had followed after all, set down her tray next to me. She didn’t sit, though. She remained standing with her head tilted to one side, staring back at the lunch line.

“Why’d that lady say that?” she asked.

“Sit down,” I whispered.

“But why’d she say that?”

“Please sit down,” I whispered again, as loud as I dared. Antonia finally sat, but her eyes never left the lunch line.

“Mom works,” she said.

I nudged a pile of the green-tinged tater tots around with a plastic spoon. “I know,” I said quietly. “Eat your lunch.”

“Works hard every day.” Antonia faced me. Her cheeks were colored her flustered shade of blotchy pink. “She don’t know nothing about Mom.”

I squeezed my eyes shut and gritted my teeth. “Please,” I begged her. “Let it go.”

Antonia scowled. Then she took off her backpack, propped it in her lap, and buried her face in it. I could hear her mumbling something, but I wasn’t going to make a scene about it.

Of all the different ways I’d played out this day’s lunchtime in my head, I’d never planned for this. Why did I let Kash get to me like that? She didn’t say anything she hadn’t said a hundred times before, and worse. And why couldn’t Antonia keep her big mouth shut? Mom was always going on about how I should be more patient with her because she couldn’t help the way she was. Sometimes I wondered if Antonia didn’t take advantage of her ‘helplessness’ more than Mom realized.

None of that mattered now. I didn’t look up, but I could feel dozens and dozens of eyes zeroed in on us–the stupid girl who wouldn’t talk to anyone and her loud mouth crazy sister who was moaning into her baby backpack. A couple of pathetic losers. Poor white trash. Freakshow and Freakshow junior.

My eyes started to burn. Please don’t cry please don’t cry I pleaded, even as the sobs rose up my throat.

Then the table suddenly jerked and banged into my ribs. I swallowed the sob and opened my eyes, ready to glare at Antonia for her clumsiness, which was about all I could do. What I didn’t expect was the sight of the big, goofy grin plastered all over my sister’s face.

“This is going to be good,” she said.

Antonia shoved aside her lunch tray, planted her backpack on the table with a thud, and rested her chin on it, all the while still grinning like a cat with a mouse under each paw. Now I was really worried. She must have snapped under the pressure and lost her mind. I couldn’t blame her. It was a miracle the same thing hadn’t happened to me a long time ago.

“Antonia–” I started, but she held up her hand.

“Watch,” she said. “You’ll see.”

You’ll see? A vision of Antonia bolting out of her chair to tackle Mrs. Dudley and shove carrot sticks up the lunch lady’s nose wandered across my brain. Part of me dreaded it. Another part of me wondered how far she could jam them up before someone pulled her off.

But Antonia didn’t move. She just sat there grinning her big, dumb grin, and drumming her fingers.

What on earth does she think’s going to happen? I pretended not to care, deciding that lining up my shriveled peas in groups of three was the most useful thing I could do. Let her sit there and grin all she wants. Nothing’s going to happen.

And for the second time that day, I was dead wrong.

I heard it before I saw it–like the rumble of a distant train. A strange clattering rang out from the lunch line. I turned to see what the commotion was.

Mrs. Dudley stood by the large aluminum basket holding the half-pints of milk. Her face was pinched with confusion.

No wonder. The milk basket rattled and shook and bounced from side to side, and the cartons flipped and knocked into each other.

Nobody was touching it.

Mrs. Dudley reached out a finger to touch the basket. It clanged loudly. She drew it back quickly like she’d been given a shock.

“Emma? Something’s wrong with the milk,” Mrs. Dudley said, trying to sound calm and not succeeding very well.

“I already checked the expiration dates,” a husky voice called out from the back.

“No, I don’t mean the milk’s gone bad,” Mrs. Dudley said. “It’s–it’s moving.”

“What?”

“I said–”

Bang!

The aluminum basket jumped up out of it metal slot about a foot, hovered for a second, then slammed back down. Mrs. Dudley shrieked. By this time every head in the lunchroom was turned to watch. No one said a word. No one got up to help.

The basket leaped up a second time. Mrs. Dudley. grabbed it on either side and tried to shove it back down. The milk basket didn’t budge.

“Stop it! Stop it!” she yelled. It slammed down a second time, then started bouncing up and down more rapidly, going a little bit higher each time. Mrs. Dudley’s face changed from pasty fear to tomato-red rage. She kept her hand clamped tight to the basket, even when it leaped so high she was barely standing on her tiptoes, bellowing out words not exactly school appropriate.

Antonia punched me light on the arm. “Here we go,” she said.

Before I could ask what she meant, the basket dropped down and the banging stopped. The room went completely quiet except for Mrs. Dudley heavy breathing. She hunched over the basket with her hands gripping the sides. Thick veins stuck out in her neck. A satisfied look of victory spread across her red, sweaty face.

“Got you,” she wheezed.

And that’s when the milk exploded.

Every carton of milk burst open at the top and shot its contents straight into Mrs. Dudley’s startled face like a strange, wet fireworks. The volley of milk hit her so hard she was thrown a foot in the air. She rode the brown and white wave for a moment until gravity took over, and she fell back on her bottom with a huge, damp plop.

Even after she landed, a downpour of white and chocolate milk continued to rain on her. She didn’t move or try to get out of the way. She just sat there blinking with her mouth open, sitting in a huge, swirly lake of milk. Finally, the last of it sputtered out of the ruined cartons.

For about five seconds, there was complete silence, except for the drip drip of milk from her hairnet and the click of the minute hand on the wall clock.

Then Mrs. Dudley screamed.

After that, it was chaos. Kids doubled up with laughter while adults burst into the lunchroom and ran in every direction, shouting and pointing fingers and sometimes slipping in the brown and white puddles pooled up and down the lunch line.

It was the craziest thing I’d ever seen. But what I remembered most was how Antonia sat there the whole time clutching her backpack to her stomach, rocking back and forth, and smiling like she’d never stop smiling the rest of her life.

 

Chapter 4

The cafeteria was all anyone talked about the rest of the afternoon. The Atomic Milk Bomb and Revenge of the Cows were a few of the names I overhead. The teachers were the worst. After shushing the kids and scolding them for gossiping, they’d whisper to each other and hid their smirks behind closed fists like they were coughing.

No one bothered with me. The Milk Bomb had made me invisible. Even Kash didn’t evil-eye me when she passed down the bus aisle on the ride home. She was too busy chattering with the twins.

As first days went, it hadn’t turn out half-bad.

I worried about Antonia, though. She didn’t say much on the bus and kept her head buried in her backpack like she’d done at lunch time. I wondered if her cafeteria grin was an act, only pretending she wasn’t bothered by Mrs. Dudley’s nastiness.

I touched the back of her hand. She turned it over and wrapped her fingers in mine. We stayed like that the whole way home.

I thought about raiding my coffee can bank for the ten birthday quarters I’d been saving for a root beer float. It could wait. A chocolate bar from the convenience store would be just the thing to perk up my sister. Especially if it had almonds.

The bus slowed and let us off. As it pulled away I tapped Antonia on the shoulder to share my candy bar idea. Before I could get out a word she’d grabbed hold of my sleeve.

“Come on!” she said, yanking me behind her as she rushed on ahead. She was smaller than me, but her grip was a steel vise. I stumbled along as best as I could. When we got to the ginkgo tree, she pushed me hard onto the stony ground.

“Ouch,” I said, rubbing my bottom. “Watch what you’re doing.”

Antonia didn’t hear a word I said. She danced around the tree, waving her arms, kicking up her feet and letting loose with several ear-splitting howler-monkey scream.

“What’s got into you?” I yelled.

Antonia ignored me. She stopped to watch the bus as it turned the corner. When it disappeared completely, she stuck out her tongue and blew a wet raspberry. Then she plopped herself right next to me.

“So . . . what did you think?” Antonia was grinning like she had at the lunch table. It was starting to get on my nerves.

“About what?” I asked, a little annoyed. “Like how you almost broke my butt-bone?”

Antonia groaned and rolled her eyes. “Not that! You know. Spoosh!” She puckered her lips and wiggled her fingers in the air.

“Oh, the milk,” I said, still rubbing. “Yeah, I guess that was kind of weird.”

“Did you see her face?”

“The lunch lady? Sure. She was pretty upset.”

Antonia snorted. “Serves her right.” She pulled her back pack to her lap, zipped it open and stuck her face deep inside. At first I thought she was searching for something. But then I heard her whispering.

“Antonia?” I said.

She laughed and lifted her head. “It was all her idea, you know. About the milk. Wasn’t that a good idea?”

“What are you talking about?” I asked. “Whose idea?”

“Whose? Hers.” Her hand dove into her backpack. Sheets of paper, notebooks, and colored pencils were flung carelessly over her shoulder. Then she jammed her tongue in the corner of her mouth and strained at whatever was stuck in the bottom.

Finally, her arm jerked free. More paper and pencils shot in all direction, followed by a huge yellow cloud that swallowed both her hands. Antonia kicked the backpack aside and smoothed the cloud in her lap until it settled into tight blond curls. Then she spun it about.

Hush-a-bye. She was holding Hush-a-bye.

My stomach fluttered like it did on stormy nights, when the tree branches rattled like dead bones. Maybe it was the dark space in the eye socket where Antonia had cleaned out the mud, or the tiny smirk on the doll’s thin lips I hadn’t noticed before. Or it might have been the thought of Antonia with a battered doll’s head buried in her backpack all day long. Ugh.

I frowned. “Why did you bring that to school?”

“I told her what the lunch lady said,” Antonia said, ignoring my question. “She thought it was mean. She said mean people like that need to know what it feels like to treat people like garbage.” Her bottom lip trembled a little. “Mom’s not garbage.”

“I know,” I said. “She shouldn’t have said those things. But why did you bring that–that thing to school?”

Antonia glared at me. She covered Hush-a-bye’s ears with her hands. “She is not a thing,” she whispered. “She has a name.”

“Fine.” I gritted my teeth and resisted the urge to do something hurtful. “Why did you bring Hush-a-bye to school? Do you know what some kids would say if they saw you brought a doll’s head to school?”

Antonia uncovered Hush-a-bye’s ears. She tilted the head towards her and smiled. “They’d say ‘hello pretty girl with the curly blond hair’.”

I threw a twig at Antonia and hit her smack between the eyes. The urge won out. “No,” I said as she frowned at me. “They’d call you a weirdo. Is that how you want to start middle school? As the class weirdo? How do you expect to make any friends being the class weirdo?”

Antonia’s chin sunk down to her chest and she sucked in her lips. Her pouty face. I didn’t care. She had to hear the truth whether she liked it or not, for her own good.

“I don’t want to make you feel bad,” I said, trying to sound a little less harsh, “but if you’re going to make it through the year–”

“Where were your friends today?”

The question stopped me cold. I wasn’t ready for it. Antonia’s head was still down, but the doll’s single green eye looked straight at me. Like she already knew the answer.

“I don’t know what you mean,” I said.

“All the other kids sat with someone else.” Antonia raised her eyes. “How come you didn’t?”

I waved my hands in circles like it was no big deal. Mostly I was stalling until I could think up a good excuse. “Oh. That. It was . . . You know . . . I . . . I wanted it to be just you and me for lunch. Did you say the milk was Hush-a-bye’s idea?”

Antonia’s face brightened. “The milk!” she howled, and doubled over with laughter. “That was a good one.”

“Must have been some kind of freak accident,” I said.

Antonia shook her head vigorously. “No, no, no. That was Hush-a-bye. She made it happen.”

“She made it happen,” I repeated. It wasn’t the craziest story she’d ever made up. When she was eight she’d insisted a race of wasp-angels lived under her pillow and made her their supreme queen.

Except she wasn’t eight anymore. It wasn’t a good sign. Maybe she’d had a hard first day in middle school, and this was her way of running from it. Running away from problems was something I knew a lot about.

Part of me wanted to help her, tell her she didn’t need to make up stories. I’d be there for her. I’d be her big, strong, older sister who’d protect her from all the middle school crud that might crawl under her skin and slowly worm its way into her heart.

But another part of me wanted to avoid any more questions I didn’t want to answer. Guess which part won.

“How did she manage that?” I asked.

Antonia scratched her head. “I don’t understand it all exactly. It’s kind of like magic, except you have to want it real bad to happen. Real bad. She can’t just do it because she feels like it. So I asked and I asked and then she could do it. The asking is like a key that opens up her magic.”

“A key?”

Antonia nodded. “Yeah. A key that opens up a door of magic somewhere in her heart and lets it go outside. But some other kind of magic comes back inside her too and fills her up. That’s the best part! She gets some magic back on herself, a good kind of magic that helps her. That’s why I took you to the tree. She said something special was waiting here.”

Antonia set Hush-a-bye against the gingko trunk.  She snaked her fingers through the dry grass around it looking for something or other, her face a mask of concentration. I stood and looked vaguely around, not having a clue what I was supposed to find. After a few minutes and no luck, she slumped back against the truck and peered up through the branches.

“Oh! Oh!” she squealed and sprang to her feet. “You see it? You see it?”

I peered up through the thick nest of greenery. “See what?”

Antonia didn’t answer. She grabbed the lowest branch and pulled herself up. She scrambled up the tree like a chipmunk.

“Don’t go to high,” I called out when she disappeared between the leafy branches.

“Got it!” Antonia said from a point very far up the tree, so far I felt a little dizzy. Even so, it took her no time to shimmy back down to solid ground.

“Don’t do that again,” I scolded her, but I don’t think she heard me. She was too busy showing Hush-a-bye what she’d found–a thick, dark red ribbon knotted up at one end into a small pouch. Whatever was inside, it couldn’t be very big.

Antonia picked at the knot with her teeth until it fell apart. Then she slowly peeled opened the cloth. Her eyes grew big.

“Oh, Hush-a-bye,” she whispered. “It’s beautiful.”

“What is it?” I craned my neck to see. “Who put that up there?”

She snatched Hush-a-bye from the trunk without answering, then sat hunched over with her back to me. I was a little miffed at being kept in the dark. I wasn’t used to Antonia keeping secrets from me.

“I’m not going to sit here all day and wait for you,” I said, sounding a little snippy.

“All done,” Antonia said. “Come and see.”

I thought about dragging my feet so Antonia would know I wasn’t happy waiting, but my curiosity got the better of me. I ran around to face her.

Antonia sat cross-legged with Hush-a-bye in her lap. Her face shined with sweat, and her eyes gleamed.

“Look.” She spun Hush-a-bye’s head about to face me.

At first she looked like the same busted up doll’s head I’d pulled out of the river bank, only a little cleaner. Her head rocked back and forth in Antonia’s fingers, and the afternoon light flashed off her eyes.

A strange thought crawled through my brain. She’s laughing at me.

Then a shiver went up my spine.

I’d heard that expression before, but I’d never really understood what it meant until then–like someone sliding a cold, dead finger up the middle of your back. But I didn’t shiver because of some imaginary laugh I didn’t hear. I shivered at what I saw.

Hush-a-bye’s empty left socket was now filled with a brand new, bright green eye.