Monday, November 21, 2011

Here's an excerpt from my young adult novel Sunlight...


Sol woke to his father's voice singing along with some Oldies station on the radio. Sol had been listening to music but dozed off, and his earbuds had slipped out. They whispered softly from his chest where they'd fallen and he turned them off. His father's voice was low and quiet and tinged with sadness even though he was singing a happy song. It sounded weak, compared to how Sol's mother's voice used to sound. She sang constantly when she drove, though the radio was rarely on. Usually, she sang the old-fashioned songs people sang in choir class and in church. A lot of them didn't make any sense, though some of them had a weird kind of undertone, as though once upon a time, they'd meant something, but people had forgotten what, so that all that remained was the tune, with no real power. Kind of like elevator music.

Sol had always liked her voice. Whenever he heard anyone else sing those songs, they sounded hokey, silly, grown people singing kids' songs. His own voice sounded weak and embarrassed when he sang along with a rock song, as though it wanted to hide. But she was able to infuse the words with a feeling and intensity that made them sound better than they really were. She did that with everything. Even saying Sol's name, she could make him sound better than he felt like he was. He heard her voice, drifting up from memory:

I've got a friend in Baltimore,
Little Liza Jane
I've got a friend in Baltimore,
Little Liza Jane.
Oh Little Liza, Liza Jane,
Little Liza Jane.
Oh Little Liza, Liza Jane,
Little Liza Jane.
I've got a friend in Arkansas,
Little Liza Jane...

He lay, feeling the motion of the car rocking him, and listened to the voice in his memory for a few seconds before opening his eyes. It was the first time he'd woken peacefully in weeks.

Outside the car, it was all sunlight. A brilliant, blinding brightness covered everything. Sol blinked and imagined he could feel the warmth from it, though his father had the air conditioner on. On either side, fields of sunflowers stretched as far as Sol could see. Their green stalks strained up towards the sun. Some of them looked as tall as people, and on top of the stalks, their heads were fat with yellow petals on the outside and a dark eye in the center, as though they were watching the car.

"Are you back with us?" Sol's father asked.

"Almost," Sol said. "Where are we?"

"Almost there," Sol's father said, turning to Sol. "See those sunflowers?"

"There are lots of them."

"Those are Dan and Jill's. They grow them for bakeries and processors all over the country."

Sol watched the dark eyes of the flowers flow past, wondering how they stood, with all that weight on top and only a thin stalk to hold them up. He imagined people with giant black faces and yellow hair standing straight out around their heads, which were so big, the people kept falling down. It made him laugh, until he wondered if there was more, here, than just sunflowers. There was something his mom used to say, and it came to him, then, in the didactic voice she used with her students: pretty is boring if that's all there is.

His father slowed and turned onto a gravel road that split the sunflower field in half.

"I think this is it," he said.

"You don't know?" Sol asked.

"I haven't been here in awhile."

"What if it's not? Don't people shoot trespassers here?" Sol asked. He looked around, nervously.

"You watch too many bad movies," his father said.

"You don't watch enough."

Sol could see a house ahead, rising out of the yellow and black sea of flowers. It was a big white square, two stories tall, full of windows.

"Isn't this the house from Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Sol asked.

"No, that was in Texas." His father glanced at Sol.

"You know what I mean," Sol said.

"I don't want to know what you mean," his father said. "This is a nice place, Sol. It's where your mother grew up. Different isn't bad. It's just different."

Sol didn't answer. At the mention of his mother, something caught in his throat as though he hadn't drank any water in hours.

They pulled up to the house and stopped. Sol's father turned to look him in the eye.

"Will you do something for me?" he said. "Will you give it a chance? It's just for ten days, and I'll be right over in Little Rock, less than two hours away, if something happens. You're fifteen, now. You should be able to handle this."

"Sure," Sol said. His father watched him with a worried look. But beneath the worry was something else, as though his father were about to shatter like a plate dropped on a hardwood floor. It made Sol uneasy. "But Dad," he said, carefully "as soon as I see a chainsaw, I'm out of here."

"Deal," his father said, still too serious.

"And if I see anybody strange in a hockey mask..."

"I'm with you," his father said, his face finally relaxing into a grin. "I never liked hockey, anyway."

Sol allowed himself a smile.

Aunt Jill was short and husky with curly, dark hair. She was tanned a golden brown and wrinkled like an overripe pear. Sol could see the resemblance to his mother in her face, her eyes, especially, which were warm and dark as though they kept a great secret, and the skin around her nose, which wrinkled when she smiled and reminded him of a rabbit.

"The spitting image of your mother," she said. "How old are you, now, 15?"

"Yes ma'am," he said. “Old enough to get married in four states.”

“Well we’ll have to keep you away from Missouri,” Uncle Dan said.

Uncle Dan was stocky, a full head taller than Jill. His arms were long and dangled like an ape's with thick muscles that looked as hard as tree branches. His legs were short and stout and he stood hunched over, as though hiding his height. He was tanned a darker brown than Jill, his face stern as though he smiled only with great effort. He had a ring of gray hair on the edge of his head and a bald dome in the center and wore a bright cap Aunt Jill had woven to keep his head warm though it looked out of place on him.

Sol hadn't seen either of them in a couple years, and he didn't really remember much about them. His father told him he'd been to their house before, but it was unfamiliar. Time had become strange like that for him, though; even that morning seemed so long ago he could barely remember it.

After the re-introductions and exchanges of hugs, Uncle Dan helped Sol and his father unload their suitcases and carry them upstairs. He gave them a tour along the way. The house was a big square with a porch all the way around the front and sides. The front door opened to a living room with stairs along the wall. The wall above the stairs was covered with pictures of children Sol didn't recognize, and lots of old-timey black and white pictures that were probably of Sol's long-dead ancestors. The furniture looked handmade, which, Sol knew from his many outings with his mother to Amish markets, meant pricey. Or maybe Uncle Dan had made it.

Upstairs, a hall split the house in half, with rooms on either side. They each had their own room. There was a bathroom in the back corner, and a couple other rooms. Downstairs, the living room led to a kitchen, with a TV room on one side and a laundry room on the other.

Back in Baltimore, Sol lived in a townhouse, which was about half the size of this house, if even that. On the way back to the car, Sol asked his father where the kids in the pictures were, and his father said they couldn't have kids.

"I guess those are foster kids," his father said.

“You “guess.” So you’re not sure,” Sol said. “It could be kids they’ve gathered up to sacrifice to Cthulu on the Winter’s Solstice. They could keep them chained up in the basement.”

“What?” His father said. “Sol, what are you talking about? No one is chained up in the basement.”

“The attic, then.”

“Sol,” his father said. “No one is sacrificing anyone to...whatever you said. You
definitely watch too many movies. ”

“Cthulu is from a book,” Sol said. ”By H.P. Lovecraft.”

Sol’s father studied him. “When I was your age,” he said. “I was so busy trying to get laid, I didn’t have time for books.”

“I don’t believe that for a second,” Sol said.

“I didn’t say ‘succeeding.’ I said ‘trying’,” Sol’s father said, sending Sol back inside.

The house smelled fresh and clean, and all the windows were open. Sol took another suitcase upstairs. Through the screen in his room, he could see a wide yard with a garden near the house that curved around the back and a swing set standing empty, with two swings swaying in the wind. Sol went to the bathroom to wash his face, and through that window, could see the back of the house, with more garden, and a path that led to a barn and another small building beside it. Past the barn were a field and a stand of trees Sol could barely make out. Back in the hall, it was so quiet that he could hear the creaking of the swings and voices downstairs. He listened hard, but couldn’t hear any whimpers from the attic or the basement.

Sol was starting to get the feeling he was going to be very, very bored there. His music would only go so far. His father hadn’t wanted him to bring any video games, though he'd snuck in a couple things, and he was pretty sure they didn't have anything like that on the farm. In the TV room, he saw an ancient, clunky-looking computer sitting at a desk in the corner, but it looked like there were probably a couple squirrels inside on a treadmill powering the thing, so you had to put acorns in it to make it work. The more he thought about it, the more depressed he became. It's just ten days, he reminded himself, but it didn't really help. Ten days of being away from his cyber-friends was a lifetime.

He crept down to find everybody else and heard his father's voice.

"He doesn't seem to have any friends," he said. Sol heard the usual clink of ice cubes in a glass that meant his father was drinking.

"How's he been doing, since..." Aunt Jill's voice trailed off. "The funeral?"

"Distant. Withdrawn. Quiet. Not fitting in at school.," his father said. "But he's been like that ever since we moved him into a public school, really."

Sol’s fingers curled into a fist.

"He's always been quiet," his father added. "He'd rather play a video game or read than talk to people."

“That’s because people suck,” Sol said to himself.

"At least he reads," Uncle Dan said.

When he did talk, Sol wanted to say, the other kids hardly ever understood what he was talking about or got his jokes, so he just kept quiet.

"He's just so passive," his father said. "He just lets the world pass him by."

Sol's mom had always said that he let life happen to him, instead of seeking out new things on his own. That was why she'd put him in public school, so he'd have to explore new things and get out of his comfort zone, whatever that meant.

"Growing up is hard," Aunt Jill said. “Especially with what he’s going through.”

Ha, Sol thought; it was a nightmare. He ate his lunch surrounded by kids he barely knew who chattered away at the top of their lungs. They all had their own cliques: jocks, potheads, nerds. Even the loners had a clique. And the word got around that he'd been in private schools, so kids thought he was stuck-up. One mouth-breathing Neanderthal had called him a sissy and a rich boy, and said he would meet Sol on the front steps after school to fight. Sol spent the whole day dreading it and finally forced himself to go to the steps at the allotted time, but the other boy didn't show. Sol had hoped this would be the end of it. Far from it. The next day, the boy spread a rumor that it was Sol who hadn't shown up, and he was labeled a chicken.

His mom had told him that high school was a phase, that these things didn't matter in the long run, and when it was over, he'd never look back. But that was years away. He was stuck in the now, when it did matter. Now, she was gone. And he still had three more years of high school to dread. And it wasn’t like he could just tune out. Sol knew that his one shot at getting out of the herd was getting into a good college, so he’d have some options.

"It's hard fitting in to a new school, Jim," Aunt Jill said, cutting through Sol's thoughts.

"I don't think he wants to fit in," his father said. "I mean he gets the grades; I just wish I could find some way to bring him out of his shell."

Sol cleared his throat loudly and went into the kitchen with the others, just as his father drained the dark liquid from his glass. He greeted Sol with a shy grin, his face flushed. Sol made a point to check his watch, and his father looked away.

After unloading the car, they ate what Uncle Dan called a 'country dinner': mashed potatoes made from real potatoes, home-baked sunflower rolls, chicken fried in sunflower oil, fresh vegetables from the garden; all the ingredients they'd grown or raised themselves, Aunt Jill told them, except some of the spices, and the flour, which they'd bought locally.

"What about the chicken?" Sol's father asked.

"We uh ‘harvested’ it this morning," Uncle Dan said.

Sol's father glanced at Sol.

"What?" Sol asked, looking from his father's face to his Aunt and Uncle. He replayed the conversation in his head. "What do you mean 'harvested'?"

"They mean they killed the chicken and cooked it," Sol's father said.

"What?" Sol asked, "Why?"

"So we could eat it," Uncle Dan said. "For the special occasion of your visit."

"You mean you really killed it?"

"Yes," Aunt Jill said, "I mean we really killed it."

Sol's face dropped into a look of horror. "Is that legal?" he said.

"Uh-oh," Uncle Dan said, holding his arms out to be hand-cuffed. "Lock me up. Chicken killer."

Aunt Jill laughed. "Yes, Sol. It was our chicken to do with as we wanted."

"But, you killed it? I mean," Sol paused, unsure if he wanted to finish the question, "how?" Sol asked.

"Well, first you need an ax," Uncle Dan started to say, but Aunt Jill cut him off.

"Not at the table," she said. She turned to Sol, "it was quick and humane," she said.

"Humane?" Sol said, shaking his head at the word.

"Just don't think about it," his father said, selecting a drumstick. He passed the chicken around and Sol watched everyone else pile their plates high. Uncle Dan took a bite and Sol's stomach lurched like he was going to be sick. When the plate came around, Sol refused it.

"Have some salad," Aunt Jill said, putting some on Sol's plate. He picked at it, but his stomach wasn't in it. Everything smelled like the chicken, even the salad. It smelled so good it made his mouth water, but all Sol could think about was that poor chicken who gave its life for them. Harvested, they'd said. It was like an episode of "The Twilight Zone." He could hear the others chewing and smacking their lips. His stomach flipped like a light switch from queasiness to hunger. He was starving but he felt guilty for being hungry, and even though everything did smell and look good, he stuck with the salad, but still ate little.

After dinner, they went out onto the porch to relax. Sol's stomach murmured, and every time he thought about it, he felt guilty again, so he tried to ignore it. Finally, Aunt Jill went inside and came back with some fruit and nuts and cheese on a plate and handed it to him. Sol wolfed it down thankfully.

"He's not concerned over the feelings of that apple," Uncle Dan said.

"Hush, Dan, let him eat," Aunt Jill said. “It’s not his fault.”

They were quiet for a while and Sol put his earbuds in again and listened to music until he noticed everyone laughing at something Uncle Dan was saying. Sol turned the music off and listened himself. He didn't know what the big deal was; Uncle Dan was just telling stories about things that had happened on the farm or in town recently. But pretty soon he found himself drawn in. Most storytelling Sol had heard was just kids bragging about stuff that probably hadn't even happened or telling dirty jokes that weren't funny anymore once you knew what the words meant. Uncle Dan's stories were different. He was funny, but he didn't tell a story just to get to a punch line. He was like a musician playing an instrument, crafting the details like notes, paying attention to each one. Everyone listened as though it were a concert, and when he finished, they sat in silence again.

"That was funny, Uncle Dan," Sol said.

"Thankee," Uncle Dan said. "Better than a video game?"

"No," Sol said. It made his Uncle laugh.

“It’s real life,” Sol’s father said. “Real life is better than games.” His face was flushed red, and he was slurring his speech. Aunt Jill and Uncle Dan watched nervously.

“Then why do people play games?” Sol asked.

“Because they can’t handle the real world,” Sol’s father said. He looked right at Sol when he said it, so there could be no doubt who he was really talking about. Sol felt himself blush.

“Everyone needs a little escape now and then,” Aunt Jill said. “That’s what we’ve been doing by listening to stories, escaping.”

“There’s a lot of difference between talking about things that really happened and playing a video game,” Sol’s father said. “That’s pure escapism.”

“What would you call drinking alcohol?” Sol said. “Is that ‘pure escapism’?”

Sol’s father got a nasty look on his face.

“Jim,” Aunt Jill said. Sol’s father looked at her, angrily. She shook her head. Sol was surprised when his father clamped his lips together and didn’t respond.

"Well, I'm wiped," Uncle Dan said. "I'm going to bed."

Everyone followed him up, silently. Sol didn’t realize that he’d been shaking until he got to his room. It took him several minutes to stop, and when he finally crawled into bed, he realized he'd left his music downstairs.

He lay listening to the wind and the noises of the night, which were surprisingly loud. There were lots of bug noises, crickets and things he couldn't identify. He was in a world of half-sleep, randomly thinking about things that had happened that day.

Even though his Aunt and Uncle seemed okay, he definitely didn't want to be there. He'd had it out with his father for weeks about coming.

"We're committed," his father had said. He taught sociology at the University of Maryland, and he'd taken one summer term off from teaching in order to attend a conference in Little Rock, which left Sol stuck. So he'd arranged for Sol to stay with his Aunt and Uncle in Arkansas.

"I didn't ask you to do that," Sol said. "You should've asked me what I wanted."

"Well, it's too late now. It's a done deal. They expect us to come."

"You go. I'll stay here."

"Okay Sol. You want to know the truth? That's exactly why I didn't ask you. Sometimes we have to do things that we don't want to do but that are in our best interest. Remember when we had to force feed medicine to your pet rat? She didn't want to take it, but it was in her best interest to take it. It was difficult and painful but it had to be done. And after a couple times, she just laid back and took the medicine. And she got better."

"She died," Sol said.

His father glared at him. "A year later," he said. "Of old age. She was three. That's a healthy age for a rat."

"So going to Arkansas and living on a farm for two months is like giving antibiotics to Daisy how, exactly?"

"Sol, I don't want to argue with you about this. And I don't have to. We're going. That's it. End of discussion."

Sol slammed his bedroom door so loudly he knocked pictures off the wall in the living room. He heard them thud to the floor, which made him feel a little better. Then his father cursed loudly which made Sol feel a lot better.

* * *

Sol woke. For a moment, he didn't know where he was, then the feel of the strange bed reminded him. A new noise had joined the crickets. It was a rhythmic squeaking and a kind of rubbing sound. He'd been dreaming about the squirrels he'd imagined in the computer; someone was making them work really hard and their wheel was squeaking. Now that he was awake, the noise was still going. It sounded kind of like the noises you heard from other beds at boys’ camp. He didn’t want to think about that.

He found his cell-phone and flipped it open. The clock said midnight, and local time was an hour behind Baltimore time, so it was eleven. Too late to be swinging. Maybe it was a bear, scratching itself against something like they did in the zoo. He remembered his mom saying that Arkansas used to be called the bear state, but now most of the bears were gone, except up in the mountains. Was he near the mountains? Sol didn't know. He'd slept through most of the drive. What he remembered was flat land as far as he could see. It didn't seem particularly mountainous. Maybe not a bear then, maybe a deer.

He flipped his cell phone open and used the light to find his wallet by the bed. He flipped that open and dug out a photo of his mom. It was a head shot, showing her open smile and plain, sensible, teacher's hairdo, and clothes. It was the only picture of her Sol had. His father felt that Sol was clinging to the past too much, so he'd taken all of the other pictures and put them away in a box.

"We have to move on," he'd said. "It's been almost a year. You can't sit in your room all day looking at pictures." Sol didn't mention the picture he knew his father kept in his dresser drawer. It didn’t really matter what he said; he’d learned that lesson.

Sol had printed this picture off the website for the school. He stared at it for a long time, then he found the other picture behind it and looked at that one for a long time too. If his father knew Sol had this one, he'd have been even more upset.
Eventually, Sol fell asleep, and dreamed of swinging on the swing set, going higher and higher, almost to the top of the house while a bear with a bald patch and a bright red hat pushed him. On top of the house, Sol could see Daisy, his pet rat from when he was a kid. She was doing something with her back to him and didn't see him, and he couldn't tell what. Sol wanted to jump off the swing and onto the house, where Daisy was, and see, but every time he swung higher, the house grew higher, so he couldn't quite make it. Then a deer came up, singing like Sol's father had been in the car, and said it was his turn, and Sol had to get off.

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