Miss London doesn’t mess around once the papers are filled out. She knows that old kids are hard to get rid of, so if a family wants one she sends the kid out to them ASAP. That’s why, two days later, Miss London was handing me a small duffle and giving me a quick hug.
“You be good for them.” She said. That wish to be going home with Miss London washed over me again. It didn’t matter how many kids she sent to new homes. She would always say “You be good for them.” and there would always be tears in her eyes. I felt like I was being sent away from the only mom I really had. I watched her all the way to the gates of The Center…there may have been tears in my eyes, too.
The ride took three hours. I started off just staring into the distance in the back of the metallic sky-blue minivan. Nick was driving and talking about their boys and their house. I could tell this guy was tough. He was solidly built, though not really big. His arm muscles flexed at every tweak of the wheel, but he was also very friendly. Always giving me a smile in the mirror and checking to see if I was all right.
Sarah was friendly, too. She was also a bit rowdier than Nick. When I asked to put on the radio (something we did not get to hear much of at The Center), she turned it on and switched it from country music to some screeching Rock music earning a quick frown from Nick. She frowned right back and then looked at me and winked. It made me laugh…partially because she wouldn’t back down from Nick, but it was also a nervous laugh because their frowns made me nervous.
After Sarah sang along with a few songs she turned the music down and gave me a sideways smile. That smile made me think of when I played tricks on my friends. It was a smile that said lets have some fun…but keep a look out for trouble. She showed me a few pictures of her art from her phone and showed me their house (which they had lived in since Nick Jr. was born). All through the ride Nick and Sarah talked about their life. They really wanted me to know about them. They probably thought this would help me relax, but I really began to feel like I didn’t belong.
As we finally pulled up to the house it was starting to get dark. I stared out at the house, my stomach quivering with dread. It wasn’t a bad looking house. The rough white stucco walls reached up two stories. That combined with the dark brown trim and the slanted dark tiled roof made the place look homey. There was a soft yellow light coming from the windows with shadows playfully moving from room to room. As I watched the shadows, I felt even more alone. This was not my family, I was an intruder coming into their home and trying to carve out a place for myself.
The Ramseys stood outside the van, Nick waving at me to follow them, his neatly combed dusty blonde hair framed an angular face that topped his tall, blade-thin frame. He stood straight with all the authority of a lieutenant police detective but I could tell his slight smile was meant to comfort me. I unbuckled the seatbelt and pulled the door open with a dull KTHUNK and stepped out onto the smooth concrete sidewalk. Grabbing my dark blue duffle bag that Miss London had given me, I hefted the weight of all that I owned onto my back: three pair of blue jeans, two t-shirts (one red and one navy blue), A nice white long-sleeved button-up shirt, three pair of socks and three pair of underwear (all provided by The Center). It did not make a very heavy load but I trudged up the stepping-stones toward the house as if I was carrying a mountain on my back.
It was like stepping into a dream. The twilight sounds of birds happily chirping mixed with the excited buzz of a variety of insects filled the air. A dog barking a few houses over as well a couple of girls riding their skateboards down the street, and the bicycles laying casually in Nick and Sarah’s driveway made the neighborhood seem welcoming. I walked up those stepping-stones amidst the neatly trimmed grass artistically decorated with red and yellow flowers and finely cut bushes waiting for the dream to end.
“Come on, let’s go in.” Sarah smiled at me with her quirky sideways smile that only lifted one side of her mouth and laid her hand on my back guiding me toward the large oak front door to the house. Her slight frame almost shook with excited energy as she opened the door and invited me in.
All movement in the house suddenly stopped. Then a loud thundering rush of fast footsteps and shouts rose from upstairs and made their way downstairs crashing together in a heaping tangle of young arms, legs and bodies of two boys at the bottom of the stairs. They quickly stood up, the older boy swatting the younger on the head in a “look where you’re going!” sort of smack. I had to laugh a little just watching it.
The boys were a perfect balance of Nick and Sarah. They had light brown hair, a nice mixture of Sarah’s long dark brown curly hair and Nick’s dusty blond. Their smooth thin, light-skinned faces both held Nick’s deep blue eyes, but Sarah’s dainty nose with that slight curve at the end. And, like Nick and Sarah, both boys had a thin, but solid build on them and a ready smile spread on their faces.
“Junior, Phillip, this is Norm. Norm, the older one here is Nicholas Jr and the younger one is Phillip.” Sarah said.
“I’m nine. Junior’s eleven. We don’t go to the same school anymore cause he’s goin’ to Junior High next year. So I’m gonna have the school to myself, –well and the other kids– but I don’t have to wait for him after school anymore, I can walk home by myself. I’ll be ten before we go back. How old are you?” Phillip began, but he was quickly interrupted by his older brother.
“Phillip! Geez! Give the guy a break, he just got here.” Junior said pushing his younger brother a little. He turned to me and said “Sorry, he can be annoying. Welcome to our house.”
“Thanks.” I said with a small smile. The smile slid away, though, as I confirmed my suspicions.
The house was not completely clean but it was not dirty either. It was…lived in. Games and toys were strewn about the dark laminate wood flooring of the front room. Two light tan well-used couches were pulled together toward a coffee table in the middle of the room. The set-up spoke of hours of games and family time spent together. The cushions were firmly indented by those hours and light stains created a pattern across the couches. Two cans of soda and two plates with remnants of dinner were still on the coffee table. The walls were covered with photos of Nick, Sarah, Junior and Phillip in various places. Nick and Sarah’s wedding, Baby pictures of both boys, birthday parties at the park, riding bikes, coaching the boys at baseball, Nick and Sarah at the lake and in the mountains. A family. They were a unit and I didn’t fit. I was an invader and sooner or later they would figure that out.
Then what? What would they do with me? Would they get rid of me like an unwanted dog? Would they try to trade me back? Or would they put up with me until I grew old enough to get out of their house?
We walked through the house, Sarah and Nick and the boys showing me different things, but I barely heard any of it. Tears threatened and I had to fight them because weakness is not something you show; you hide that and keep it locked away. If they kicked me out I would survive and move on. Maybe I would move on before they had the chance.
We made our way up the stairs with a quick look at Nick and Sarah’s room, and each of the boys’ rooms and came to the end of the hall.
“And this is your room.” Nick said
My room. I don’t even have a memory of having a space to myself. Ever. There have always been others to share with, large rooms with multiple beds, or small rooms where a few of us shared beds, but never my room. I looked around at a couple posters of baseball players and a fishing rod hanging on the wall. There was a large bed sitting against the light blue wall with a dark brown headboard and bookshelves on the sides. The brown laminate floors had a navy blue carpet with a large NY written in the middle. There was a large dark wooden dresser that matched the floors and the bed with a baseball sitting on top and a desk (the same color) over toward the window.
“We helped decorate!” Phillip almost shouted. “We love the Yankees so I picked the rug, and the baseball is Junior’s but we have lots of them if you want your own. And we just got the dresser and bed today.”
Nick picked up Phillip and patted his back and turned to me with a smile.
“We hope you’ll like it here.” He said
Maybe I will…Maybe I do fit here. All I could do was smile.
Part I of Norm’s story. Follow his life as he adjusts to new surroundings and challenges.
The New Family
I ran and leapt toward the top of the old brick wall and scrambled over just as a shot burst through the gray concrete block, shattering it beneath my hand. Thrown off balance, I fell sprawling on the rough pavement below. Already, blood had been flowing into my eyes from the gash in my head, as I hit the pavement, I could feel the pain as it ripped through my cheek. I turned back as I heard Junior jump toward the top of the wall and struggle to get a grip. I thought jumping the wall might help me a little. Maybe create a delay. At eleven years old, Junior was not a tall kid and the height of the wall might have provided a couple of minutes. It looked like those minutes were reduced to seconds. Junior grabbed a handhold on the brick he just shattered at the top of the wall. The lamplight gleamed off the barrel of his gun as he hooked his elbow over the top of the wall and began to pull himself up. He got to his feet at the top of the wall and took aim.
What the hell? Hopping to my feet, I began to run like death was at my heels, because, really, it was. I still couldn’t believe this was happening. The family seemed so nice. I thought that, this time, I had found what I was looking for. After all the crappy families I had to deal with, I thought I had finally found the normal, storybook family that would take care of me.
“Norm, you son-of-a-bitch, I’m gonna kill you!” Junior shouted as another shot rang out. I have no idea what he was shooting at because I didn’t hear it strike anywhere near me. “This is your fault!”
As I dove behind a car, I thought: Maybe he didn’t see where I went. It was a wish and I knew it. I just wanted this to be over. I wanted to get out of here and find a road and leave this crazy kid and this messed up family behind. I was done with all this shuffling around and never knowing if I was going to end up beaten, used up or just dead. I’m fourteen! I shouldn’t have to deal with all the crap in my life. I didn’t ask for this! I have had too many–
The sharp metallic twang of lead hitting steel sent an electrifying jolt up my back. I looked at the bumper, not even a foot from my head, and saw the smoking dent left by the impact of the bullet. No more time for self-pity. Junior was flailing to keep his balance as the rebound of the shot unsteadied him. It was only by luck that he didn’t keep his footing. He fell backwards with a scream. Rage covered his face as he toppled to the other side of the wall; a rage very different from the look of awe and hope that I had seen on his face when I first arrived.
It was not even three months ago, I was sitting on a bench outside of Rebecca London’s office. For a Child Protective Services employee, she wasn’t half bad. She was older than my great-great-grandma’s bones. Her thin wispy hair a dark shade of pinkish-red because she tried to dye it, but her hair was too gray to keep the color. She was as small as a bird. Most people who didn’t know her took care when they walked close to her because they thought she was a frail old lady.
I liked her. She had worked with kids since probably my unknown mother was born. But she still cared. I could tell. All the kids could tell. If anything went wrong or anyone had a problem, Miss London was the person they wanted to talk to. I’m not saying that she was nice. She could definitely be tough. She followed the rules and made sure that all the kids followed them, too. She had a quick eye and a sharp mind that let the kids know that you didn’t try to put one over on her. She could smell a lie when it walked through the door and she knew trouble as soon as the thought of it sprang inside someone’s mind. The younger kids always said she was psychic. But, really, she was just that good with kids
I sat there wondering what I had done wrong. Maybe she really did read minds and knew I was planning on getting back at Rafael for shoving my last pair of pants in the freaking toilet last night after Tomas had used it and not flushed. Rafael was always trying to get to me. Pushing past me at lunch, “accidentally” throwing the football at my head, magically ending up with my pencils during class. It got to me, I didn’t let a lot get to me, but he was so disrespectful. I know. It’s laughable to think anyone here will be respectful. A look past all the uncaring stances and the tough-guy-I’m-gonna-kick-the-crap-out-of-you-if-you-look-at-me-wrong attitude would show that there is a certain level of respect. I learned, early on, to keep my stuff where I can see it (or find it later). Part of survival is finding what you need and taking it; so, I never left my stuff out, it was just too tempting. I, also, know not to piss off the older kids and not to let the younger ones get overconfident. There is an order to things. But there is a respect for how it all goes. Rafael doesn’t care about that. At fourteen he towers over all of the kids. He is about twice the width of most of the doorways and is as solid as a tank. Even though he’s a bit slow, if you end up in his grip you may not escape alive. I remember one time he had me by the ankle. I felt like a rag doll as he threw me around the dorm knocking over dressers and a couple of the younger kids who failed to get out of the way.
“Norm, please come in.” Miss London was always so polite. When I was younger I used to dream that she was my mom. She would ask me to come to the dinner table and I would come and sit and we would have a polite dinner together. There would be nice porcelain dishes and glasses of milk. I would even offer to clean up after dinner. I loved those dreams.
Inside her office there were three chairs. Miss London motioned me to sit down in the empty chair; a man and a lady took up the other two chairs. I almost groaned but stopped at a severe look from London. Maybe she is psychic. She gave a small smile and motioned again. I smiled despite myself as I sat down in the chair.
Sitting down, all the things Miss London had done in the last week came together in my head. Insisting I cut my shoulder-length shaggy black hair down to a clean cut and short with a trimmed-just-over-my-ears look. Making sure I showered today so my light skin shined just right. Sending me to get my eyes checked with the Doctor staring at my blue-gray eyes as if they might explode. Having me go change after I dropped a little bit of my lunch on my worn jeans. It all made sense. I knew what this was. A meeting.
Everyone here knows what these meetings are. The younger kids…they always look forward to these meetings. They still hope that there is a chance they will meet the perfect parents and they will go off and live a “normal” life with baseball games or dolls, a triple-scoop ice cream (with extra toppings). I don’t hold any of that against the kids. I still want those things, too. But I have been to homes. I have been called in to Miss London’s office with those “parents” who are so eager to choose a kid and raise them and show them how to grow up properly. They have all these dreams, just like the kids, that once they get a kid their life will be happy. They bring the kid home and get him a dog. They show the kid off to their neighbors and family and have barbeques to celebrate the occasion. And then the kid accidentally knocks over a picture. Well, parents need to teach kids the way to take care of things so they smack the kid across the face and make him pick up after himself. When that kid gets a C on his report card instead of an A, well, lock the kid in a closet for the weekend so he will study more. If the kid finds a parent’s stash of pills and powder, well maybe the parent should shove some down his throat so he never does drugs because they make him so ill he wishes he were dead. If a parent comes home completely drunk and horny–
“This is Nick and Sarah Ramsey, Norm.” Miss London said.
“Hey Norm. Nice to meetcha.” The man said, standing up and offering his hand.
I shook his hand and the lady’s hand. “Hello.” I said after getting another look from Miss London.
I realized that the parents were nervous. The man sitting and wringing his cowboy hat in his hands, the lady turning to look at me every few seconds like I was a puppy who might bolt out the door and get hit by a car at any moment. They had a hard time talking, it was so bad. They each stumbled on each other’s words trying to tell me how wonderful their life was and he was a cop and she was an artist, gardener, and whatever else. And then they said:
“We have two other boys. A little younger than you.”
“Why do you want me then?” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. As if that weren’t bad enough, the words were so full of–I don’t know–just this anger. It was like a forest fire had sprung up in my chest and threatened to burst out and burn these two to a crisp. I clamped my mouth shut with a mumbled “sorry” as I looked at the shocked faces. But the guy smiled.
“I don’t know.” The man said. “I, well, I guess I just had a good life. I have Sarah and the boys and, well, I thought we could share that. I’ve seen a lot of stuff, some really bad stuff, as a cop and I thought maybe I could do something besides just busting the bad guys and putting them away. I would like to see some really good stuff happen.”
He was looking at me and the lady was looking at me with these tears in her eyes. If I were a samurai warrior or some bulletproof-vested army guy, I think this would have gone better. But I’m a kid. I heard him and he sounded so sincere. That vision clouded up my mind …eating at the dinner table…brothers…a mom and a dad.
“Could I go to the bathroom?” I asked. Miss London looked at me. Her eyes were searching me, seeing inside my head. I almost ran out when she gave a slight nod.
It was Rafael who gave me the answer I was looking for. I got to the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror crying like a stupid three-year-old when the door opened and I heard the familiar grunting of Rafael trying to squeeze his mack-truck frame through the tiny bathroom doorway. I quietly bolted into one of the stalls, locked it, and nearly jumped on top of the toilet seat. I took long, slow, quiet breaths and wiped the tears from my cheeks. All I needed was to walk out of here with wet toilet paper shoved down my pants or stuck in my ears. I could hear him thumping through the bathroom and going into the big stall and shutting the door. I sat there waiting for him to sit down before I could escape when it hit me.
Here, at The Kennedy Center for Children, there were all these kids and adults that I had to contend with. I was always watching my step with every new kid who walked through the door. I was not the biggest kid around and I was almost always the first one the new kids decided to bully. It wasn’t because I couldn’t defend myself; I’m actually a pretty good fighter. It was because I look like an easy target. I’m so small that people just think they can take advantage of me.
And then there is Rafael. For some reason he has it out for me. He would be happy if he could tie me up and hang me as his personal punching bag. I was finished with this. I could not live scared anymore.
I unlocked the door with a new purpose. At least at this new house I would only have four people to contend with. If the parents sucked then I would just leave. I would find another way to make it in the world. I was just done with being a victim all the time. There was no noise coming from the big stall so I walked stealthily out the door and headed back to Miss London’s office.
The Ramseys were filling out paperwork so I guess they hadn’t given up on me. I walked back in and they were all smiles again. I smiled back this time, though I’m sure my eyes were puffy from all the stupid crying. The man and lady took turns signing papers and patting my back or ruffling my hair. I had been through this before. This time, though, it seemed more–real. Maybe this was the storybook ending the little kids always hoped for.
I squashed that thought like a bug. This was an escape plan. I wasn’t going to be taken off guard. I may not be a samurai, but I was putting on my armor and it was not coming off. After I had been with them for a while, if things were going well, I would re-assess the plan. For now, these parents were my ride out of this life.
Have you ever wanted to write an intense fight scene that seemed realistic? Or, maybe, you just want people to emotionally connect with what your character is going through.
There are many ways to attain that vividness that writers want to reach. Most of us have a magnificent knack for storytelling. We can create worlds with wild purple flowers that, at first, seem innocent and beautiful, but later we find that the soft velvet exterior holds death within it’s thorns. Or, the evil woman living down the street, with her menacing grimace and old rotting teeth, after a few craftily written pages, turns out to be a sad depressed lady in need of a friend.
Yes, our imaginations can fill in most gaps and create visions whether we have had these experiences or not. BUT…
You knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you?
There is also a time when real life experiences can be captured on the page and emotionally reach out, grab your readers, and pull them into your story.
Find those moments and write them down. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to flow, but if you can capture the feelings, the movements, the psychological state of being of the experience, this can be a potent tool for your writing.
With that said, I will leave you with a poem I wrote after driving with my daughter today. It was her first time driving on swerving, mountainous roads and I am…well…not the best passenger ever. 🙂
A Mountain Drive
The overwhelming sense of fear
I’m going to die, but that makes no sense
Everything is well in hand
Everything is going according to plan
And yet, at any moment, I know
That our life will spiral out of control.
To the depths of my bones,
Though all evidence shows this is not the case,
My body, my emotions, my tears and sweat
Tell me that I do not have long to live.
Every movement is danger
Every reaction is exaggerated
Both hands on the wheel
Keep your eyes peeled
You don’t know what could happen
Nice driving, sweetheart.
Copyright Nevin Culley 2013
Here is the beginning of a scene from the book I am writing….Hope you like it!
I’m not sure how this happened. I run and leap toward the top of the old brick fence and scramble over just as a shot bursts through the gray concrete, shattering it beneath my hand. Thrown off balance, I fall sprawling on the rough pavement below. Already, blood has been flowing into my eyes from the gash in my head, now I think I just cut through my cheek with the pavement. I turn back toward the fence as I hear Junior jump toward the top and struggle to get a grip. I thought this ploy might help me a little. At eleven years old, Junior is not a tall kid and the height of the fence could provide a couple minutes. It looks like those minutes are reduced to seconds because I look back and he has a handhold on the brick he just shattered. As I see the gleam of the lamplight hit the barrel of his gun, he hooks his elbow over the top of the fence and starts to pull himself over. As soon as he is a little stable, he starts to take aim.
What the hell? The thought pops into my mind as I hop to my feet and run like death is at my heels, because… really…it is. I still can’t believe this is happening. The family seemed so nice. I thought that, this time, I had found what I was looking for. After years in the system, these guys were supposed to be the storybook ending.
“Norm, you son-of-a-bitch, I’m gonna kill you!” Junior shouts as another shot rings out. I have no idea what he is shooting at because I don’t hear it strike anywhere near me. “This is your fault!”
Maybe he didn’t see where I went. It seems like a wish more than what really happened. I want this to be over. I want to get out of here and find a road and leave this crazy kid and this messed up family behind. I am done with all this shuffling around and never knowing if I’m going to end up beaten, used up or just dead. I’m fourteen! I shouldn’t have to deal with all the crap in my life. I didn’t ask for this! I have had too many…
The sharp metallic twang of lead hitting steel shoots an electrifying jolt up my back. No more time for self-pity. Junior is standing at the top of the fence and is now flailing to keep his balance as the rebound of the shot throws him backward. It is by luck that he doesn’t keep his balance and he lets loose a few very unchild-like words to show that he is not happy. Rage covers his face as he topples back to the other side of the fence; a rage very different from the look of awe and hope that I had seen on his face when I first arrived.
Copyright Nevin Culley 2013
~Photo by ABC News
They are so strong
in their willingness to run toward danger
when the natural response
is to head in the other direction.
We think that their courage
will always keep them standing
between the danger and those who need help.
It is tough to understand
that sometimes our heroes have been lost.
But even when these heroes fall,
they live on in those who take up their battlecry and fight on in their name.
In Memory and Honor of our Fallen Heroes
Copyright Nevin Culley 2013
What am I doing? How do I do this? Am I good enough, credible enough, wise enough, funny enough, creative enough to accomplish what I want? Will anyone be interested in what I have to say? How can I get this started and make a go of it? Is this going to work?
This is that wall that I climb when I think of writing. When I sit and set my fingers down on the keyboard and look at the screen I have to scale this wall every time. It isn’t a mantra that plays in my head, it is just a wall with all of my doubts and insecurities and past failed attempts.
I have found ways to get past this wall.
The “Push Through Method”: Just write. I sit, I put my fingers on the keyboard and just start typing until something comes out and I can begin tweeking it.
The “Cheerleader Method”: I get someone I love, respect, and/or trust come and give me some kudos. Usually, just mentioning that I want to write will have these people say something encouraging to me. A “That sounds great” or “Ohhh, I loved the idea you were telling me about the other day” can help me get past the wall.
The “Psychological Method”: I look at the wall and feel, no…REALLY Feel the emotions tied to writing and creativity. It is all in my mind.
The “Send Me In, Coach! Method”: I can do this! This is nothing! This story is mine and I am going to own it!
All of these methods can work at different times. And there are many others…other resources and people and connections that we (you and I) can use to get past this wall. But the wall is still there every time.
So work with me for a moment. Close your eyes…Ok I suppose it is difficult to close your eyes and read at the same time. 😛 So, instead, just imagine the wall. Set your hands on the keyboard and look at your wall. Get the whole scope of your wall…the height the thickness, the feel of it. Now…what you did not see before is that there is a door in this wall. It may be an old wooden door with rusty hinges, or it may be a Vault door…Thick metal to keep the secrets safe. It could be covered in vines, hidden from your view or maybe it is a portal into a universe of your making. What ever the door looks like, around your neck is the key.
Open the door. You have access to the other side..Only YOU have a full access pass to this place. You can give people glimpses…windows in to the worlds you can create. They can take rides with you through your realms on horseback or on hovercrafts, but only you can take them there.
On the other side of this door is your path. Set down your foot…then take one more step…OK, now another…and another……
Now, enjoy your journey.
Copyright Nevin Culley 2013