It’s almost St. Patrick’s day and as an Irish Girl I’m obligated to talk about Irish things. Thankfully, I love a lot of Irish things like my grandmother and my mother, strong Irish tea, and crusty soda bread. Some of those Irish things even influence my writing, here’s a list of the big ones:
Darby O’Gill and the Little People
When this movie came out in 1959 it was meant to be wholesome family entertainment. It’s terrifying. I saw it as a child one stormy day and have lived in fear of fairies every since. Darby is a good man who’s a bit of a slacker. He and his daughter are about to be kicked out of their home because of his habit of drinking instead of working. Thankfully his replacement, a very dapper, singing Sean Connery, adds some levity. Darby ends up extorting three wishes from the fairy king. They go rather badly; like death’s carriage in the sky and a banshee that still appears in my nightmares. While it has a happy ending, it’s spooky enough to be a scary movie for eight-year olds and people like me.
The Secret of Roan Inish
This Irish/American independent film tells the story of Fiona, a little girl who is sent to live with her grandparents. While there she discovers her family tree may include a selkie – an Irish seal shapeshifter. Fiona has a baby brother, Jamie, who has been lost at sea. She comes to believe her selkie ancestor is keeping him. Convinced the selkie will only return Jamie when their family lives on the island where the seals live, Fiona sets out to make that happen. This movie is filled with magic and I rewatch it every year. It’s responsible for at least three of the characters in the Death Witch series.
Tropical Brainstorm by Kirsty MacColl
NPR’s Celtic music show, Thistle and Shamrock, is a weekly listen in my life. Unfortunately, there are weeks when I have to switch it off, Irish music can get a bit depressing. That’s why I love Kirsty MacColl’s final album so much – the hit singer took inspiration from a trip to Cuba and blended the upbeat Latin rhythm into her Celtic songs. Yes there are some sad songs (AutumnGirlSoup), but the story telling (like ‘England 2 Colombia 0’, a catchy song about adultery and lies) is perfect. This album is perfect for dancing around the kitchen on gray gloomy days.
And then there are the books. My two favorites are Classic Celtic Fairy Tales by John Matthews and Irish Folktales by Henry Glassie (Editor) Classic Celtic Fairy Tales is beautifully illustrated, with each story followed by a notes section filled with references. Irish folktales contains well documented stories arranged by topic (faith, war, ghosts). Each story is preceded by the first name of the teller and the county they lived in. This anthology with stories from 1825 to the ‘present day’ is perfect when I want to pull a piece of folklore from a specific time or place. These two are the books I go to when I’m looking for a new monster or need inspiration for a character. Movies and TV shows are great, but these more scholarly treatments feel closer to the source. Someday, if I’m lucky, I’ll get to visit my grandmother’s home town in Ireland. I imagine the stories I hear there will be the ones in these books, with dangerous, beautiful fairies, brave men, cunning women, and a lot of magic.
I’m not sure when I got hooked on the Night Vale Community radio hour, the fictional radio broadcast that serves as entry into the world of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast. I’m sure I’ve only been listening for a few years. I caught on late, and Welcome to Night Vale didn’t start broadcasting until 2012. Somehow it seems like it’s been around much longer, like I’ve been listening forever.
Things like that happen a lot in Night Vale.
It’s like any other town, except that there’s a dog park that might be a portal to another dimension, and the secret police have outlawed learning. Or maybe learning is allowed again but wheat isn’t. In either case, the library is a dangerous place and the government keeps track of all middle school secrets. Oh, and there’s a five headed dragon running for mayor. So like any other small town, but not in most of the ways you think.
Narrated by Cecil, a wonderful radio host whose thoughts turn out to be deeper than you’d think, each week’s story is an encapsulated plot broken up by “the weather” – a single song by little known independent groups. It’s an example of the slow pay off of a story so strange it takes a minute for you to realize it. I can never tell how much of an episode is real and how much is story. I’m not alone.
Earlier this year I had the good fortune to see the live show entitled “Ghost stories”. Before the doors opened, fans showed off costumes and argued plot lines. (Is the whole show set in the afterlife?) With all its oddness, Night Vale celebrates scientists, like Carlos, Cecil’s boyfriend, and the group was happy to scientifically pick things apart. When the story started though, all that ended. Enraptured silence fell over the audience.
There are many different types of ghost stories in the world. Welcome to Night Vale’s ghost stories were about the ghosts of who we could have been if we’d done the right thing. Ghosts of people who weren’t addicted, who parented well, and who made good choices paraded across the stage in the final minutes. Those last stories hit somber notes, leaving the audience moved and maybe saddened. Normally I avoid moments like that, life has enough trouble on its own, but after all the joy I’ve found in the off-kilter town of Night Vale, the bittersweet didn’t bother me.
I grew up hearing my father’s sailing stories of fierce mermaids who tore ships to pieces and drown sailors for fun. Between Dad’s stories and the mermaids in classic literature, I had pretty much all I needed to start the Monster Beach books with The Mermaid and the Murders. As I grow the series, I need new sea monsters, which meant a Research Road trip to the Georgia Aquarium.
I have two plot outlines sketched for alligator shifter novels, but neither of them include an albino ‘gator like the one who posed for me. I haven’t found any good alligator shifter lore, so I’d be creating something from scratch. I like the idea of a white alligator being more magical than the rest. They were certainly prettier than most of the gators I’ve seen in the wild.
Otters are one of my favorite creatures. I doubt they’ll make it into a book, but I couldn’t resist watching them for an hour or two. They’re tool users, and most aquariums challenge them to solve puzzles like how to break into a block of ice to get the shrimp froze inside.
Another personal favorite that I can’t find a way to fit in is the cuttlefish. These colorshifting Cephalopods look back at you with intelligence. Urban legends swear that you can mimic the movement of their tentacles to interact with them. Besides the great Cthulu, there isn’t a lot of lore surrounding these calm creatures which is odd when you consider that some of them are toxic enough to cause blindness or death when touched. They’d be a good character, but I’d have to think of something better than just “cuttlefish-shifter” to do with them.
Here’s where inspiration struck, the whale shark.
This picture doesn’t do the size of the shark justice. At 18 feet long they’re the largest of all fishes. Their graceful glide filled me with awe, immediately reminding me of Dakuwaqa – the shark god of Fiji. Dakuwaqa can shift form between being fully human, half human/half shark, and a very large shark. Unlike the whale sharks I saw Dakuwaqa has massive jaws to devour anyone who harms his reef or his people. While I’d be uncomfortable putting a god in my story, a descendant of the shark god might slip into a romance. Perhaps in a story inspired by this picture:
When I made up the salt golem sea monster (an ocean dwelling salt vampire) for The Mermaid and the Murders, it felt like I had to do a lot of explaining. I worked hard to weave the explanations into dialog and story scenes. I’m hoping my next monster will be a bit more familiar. I want something easy to relate to but also a little scary. The aquarium gave me some good ideas, now it’s time for some book based research…and maybe a trip to the swamp.
At the beginning of the year I fell in love with Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, and found myself reading three books a week. Like most torrid affairs it came to an end, leaving my to-be-read list nearly empty. While there’s always a stack of book I ought to read I drifted looking for something that kept me up at night, wrapped in the story. I haven’t found another series to devour, but by branching out into genres I don’t usually read landed a few gems.
Crazy About You by Katie O’Sullivan
This story is eighty percent romance and twenty percent thriller. Two people who seemingly don’t have much in common fall in love, and the seemingly unrelated problems they’re dealing with (infectious ocean waste and a not-boyfriend who might be in the mob) come together in the end. The dead body doesn’t appear until around page 120 but once it does things escalate quickly. The small tourist town setting was fun even as threats to the heroine keep adding up. I made the mistake of picking up this book on my lunch hour, and couldn’t concentrate for the rest of the afternoon.
Whiskey Beach By Nora Roberts
I got this book because a review promised ghosts. SPOILER – there are no ghosts. Oddly I felt compelled to keep reading despite that horrible omission. The story is a little on the long side, winding its way through 496 pages with smugglers, buried treasure, a murder, a stalker, yoga, and lots of massages. Still the mystery drew me in, easing me over long passages of character development and romance. I was impressed to see character back stories that had some depth and darkness to them. So while it didn’t have any ghosts, it made for a great way to spend an afternoon.
Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty
I’m not usually a fan of Middle Grade fiction. The threats feel watered down or made up. One book flew across the room after it revealed the titular vampire wasn’t a vampire at all and the whole thing was a great big misunderstanding! I hate the idea that kids are too stupid to see what’s real or when they do see the truth no one believes them. Thankfully Serafina only endures that hardship for a few pages. When people don’t believe her she takes on the supernatural terror herself. This book is genuinely scary and unique. The monster wasn’t something I’ve read about a hundred times. The story even avoided my second most-hated YA trope where all adults/parents are ignorant or absent. The way the ending came together felt fresh and entirely satisfying. I know Serafina’s story ends here but I wish I could read more about what happens to her and her life.
The first time I swam I was three. My pudgy fingers reached forward in a stroke I barely knew, wrapped in salt water, happier than I had ever been. My parents pulled me from the water hours later but I never really left. Most teenagers slept in, but I went back to the water every day at four in the morning and four in the afternoon. Swim team captain, champion swimmer, the water is my home. It makes the doctor’s words hard to take.
“No swimming until we take out the tubes.”
Thanks to the ear infections I’ve spent weeks listening to muffled, unclear speech. His words boom into me. I put my hands over my ears, trying to block the sound. “So loud.”
“A side effect of the tubes, everything is two decibels louder. You’ll get used to it.”
I start to hear the whispers in math class. They follow me to history, scratches of sound, like someone talking behind you or in the hall. I haven’t gotten used to the tubes. Chewing blocks out every sound. Running makes my breath as loud as a rock concert. But when I’m not doing that, when I’m sitting or reading the whispers come back. Frustrated, I say what I’d been saying for almost two months.
“I’m sorry, I can’t understand you.” Every time I say it, people speak louder and slower, a look of pity on their face for the seventeen year old who acts like an old man. The whispers stop. A bliss of relative quiet falls over me. I hear the noise of my teeth rubbing together, the sound of locks clicking open on lockers, and a thousand conversations in the hall but I can’t hear any whispers.
They come back. This time I understood them.
You’re useless. Nothing. Nobody.
“No, I’m not.” My response startles my lab partner, who raises an eyebrow before going back to the experiment.
Then who are you? What can you do?
“I’m a swimmer.”
“Yeah, sure you are, dude.” My lab partner smiles. “Best in the state in the 50 meter. Everyone knows that.”
But the whispers say “A swimmer who can’t swim. You’re nothing.”
They’re wrong. It stings anyway. They keep it up all day. I’m nothing, useless, I’ll never get in the water again. They’re wrong and I don’t believe them, but the more I hear, the more I think about it. If I’m not a swimmer, if this thing with my ears doesn’t get better, who am I? When I couldn’t hear the gun, I started from the block just a second after the other swimmers. Not enough to hurt me in meets but enough that I couldn’t get my best time. I haven’t set any records, haven’t seen any improvements since the infection started.
And you’ll never set any records again.
I know the whispers lie, but it’s hard to hear them, over and over again, and not start to wonder if they’re right.
On the third day I can’t take it anymore. Every hallway, every classroom, every where I go in the school I hear them. Over and over again, repeating the same terrible lies. (I’m sure they’re lies. Really. Except what if they’re not?) The whispers have me half convinced. I break my word to my parents and head for the deserted pool. There, with ear plugs and water between us, I don’t hear them. But I can’t swim forever. Two hours in my arms burn. I’ll get caught for cutting class soon. Does it matter? If the whispers are right, nothing matters. I swim another few laps before I get out. The whispers start again in the locker room.
I’m not going crazy and the weekend proves it. Two days away from school, and I don’t hear them. I hear the water in my mouth and the rustle of the newspaper when I fold it. It should be a gift but the only thing I’m grateful for is getting away from the whispers. On Monday-
“Doesn’t matter if you hear us. It’s still the truth. You might as well kill yourself.”
For a second, just a split second, I think about taking that advice. How I might do it, how it would make people feel. Instead I add lying to cutting class and call the doctor’s office. I pretend to be my Dad. The whispers tell me I’ll never be as good as he was, never have it together the way he does. I talk over them, asking the receptionist to change my appointment. She gets me in that afternoon, and when I check in I lie some more about why he isn’t with me. I’m shocked it works. I remember what the whispers said.
There’s a loud pop when the tubes come out, a bright pain that radiates down my jaw. Pop and the world goes quiet.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” The doctor smiles.
“It was wonderful.”
He tells me a lot of things, but I’m focused on how I can’t hear the air coming through the vent anymore. There’s only one class left in the afternoon, and I might as well miss it, but I go back anyway. The whispers are gone. I walk the halls, check the locker room. Nothing. I’m in the auditorium back stage when the drama club starts to file in. I can hear them but nothing else, no lies, no threats.
Are they there, still trying? Still talking to me? Just in case I tell them, “Doesn’t matter if you’re there. I don’t have to listen to you anymore.”
A movement behind me makes me jump. I would’ve heard it a few hours ago, but now the girl surprises me. Pale, tired, she looks half dead with dark circles under her eyes. “You hear them? The whispers?”
The worst nightmares were memories and the worst dreams were a little bit true. She dreamed of living a life away from her family, just her and her cat. She dreamed of sun beams and Charlie, stroking his fur and never feeling afraid. The nightmare-memories came from every time her father hit her, except in them she was denied the mercy of blacking out. She was five.
Charlie went missing on Thursday, and her world nearly ended. Without him, the screaming and the tears, were so much worse. She tried hard to be good, but it was easier to avoid doing something wrong when you could come home from school and hide in your room with a white cat. Charlie’s body wasn’t really big enough to hide her, but he was big, and she imagined he could. With Charlie in front of her father wouldn’t see what she did wrong. He wouldn’t get angry, and she wouldn’t have a new nightmare-memory.
Except that Charlie wasn’t found until Sunday morning. His soft fur hadn’t changed, but his body was cold and stiff. Her mother was dressing for church, too busy to offer an explanation. Father only said “It’s dead.” with a shrug. She knew what dead meant, gone forever, but Charlie couldn’t be gone forever. She needed him too much. She thought she knew how much she could cry, how much she could hurt. Holding him in her arms without the hum of his purr, she felt a new depth of pain. It tore out of her, and something came with it, grief or maturity, or maybe something else.
She wouldn’t let Charlie go. Father slapped hard against her head but she wouldn’t let him go. Finally her mother intervened and supplied a box. They would bury Charlie in the churchyard and one day he would rise again with Jesus and live forever. But when her mother said it, her eyes looked the same way they did when she said your father isn’t angry anymore, he’s sorry he hit you.
She knew the people of the church loved her. Sometimes she dreamed that she and Charlie left to live with them. The family with three teenage boys who held her up to the basketball hoop so she could slam dunk. The old woman who always had candy in her purse. A hundred of them, maybe more, she couldn’t count so high, that all loved her and never hit her, and still they didn’t add up to one Charlie. Every time she peeked under the box lid he hadn’t moved. She cried, but after a hard look from Father she did it silently.
After church there was a potluck supper, but the thought of food made her sick. How could she eat when Charlie never would? Father insisted she get a plate. Her fingers couldn’t quite hold it though, and it splattered on the ground, splashing macaroni and cheese on top of green bean casserole. Father shouted, grabbing her arm. She broke away, peeling from his grasp for the first time, her mind fixed not on the inevitable but on Charlie. Two steps later she realized her mistake, and knowing the beating would be worse because of it, cowered on the floor.
The beating didn’t come. When she opened her eyes in tiny slits, everyone, all the people who loved her, were watching. They looked from her to Father, and his face changed from red rage to embarrassment. It would go worse for her later, but now she felt their love. She scrambled from the floor and ran to her chair. She took Charlie’s box on her lap, and while she basked in that love, she felt the box move.
Under the lid Charlie stayed stiff, but his back paw jumped. Was it the love? Was it that other thing, the thing that felt hard in the back of her throat, the thing that welled up inside her when she thought about Charlie never playing with a feather or curling up beside her. Maybe it was both, love and the other thing, and she reached into the box to pet her only friend.
Father grabbed her hand but she peeled away again, turning her wrist. The box lid fell to the floor and her fingers rested on soft fur. A second passed, and then another, Father’s eyes going wide with fear. In the box, Charlie purred.
The little girl would die with her face stuffed into a pillow. Or she would grow up to be a school teacher. Or a scientist. Or there would be a car accident when she was twenty. Cassie shook her head, trying to clear the images and come back to the here and now.
It was no good. There were too many of them. The futures, the possibilities, and the things she could see. Path over path interlaced with the reality in front of her. The little girl was three, then she was eight with two missing teeth. She was dead on a pink blanket, no she was ten winning an award at school. Bits of cotton stuck out of her teeth, no, no, she won a science fair project.
Dead or some other future, they kept coming up in pairs. Dead or a good life, dead or this, dead or that. Like rolling a pair of dice and always getting a six on one of them. Cassie felt the pressure behind her eyes. There would be flashes of light next, starbursts, and then the pain. She had to do something about this future.
Her knee ran into a park bench. She focused on that while she sat down, taking deep breathes of air. People were starting to stare at her. She had to get it together, to stop the pain from coming. Stop the future and you stop the pain, her mantra spooled out in her head.
Steadying herself, she focused on the futures. They ran through her mind like someone flipping through channels on the television. Flickering images of one life, then another. With concentration she could slow the flickering, and look for details in the background. The pink coverlet was a mess, balled up in a big hand. The scene shifted, the little girl as a grown up with a microscope. Cassie waited, it went back to the murder. The little girl wore a blue dress. Cassie squinted, sunlight making her head throb. In front of her, in the real world, the little girl wore the blue dress. It would happen soon.
“Ma’am? Is there a problem?” The police officer wore a concerned expression. Cassie nodded, then looked back at the little girl. He’d broken her concentration and the images became a jumble again. A spike of pain lanced through the right side of her head. That hand reaching for the pillow, taking it out from behind the girl. It wore a heavy silver ring. Cassie fought to stay in that future, the one that came just hours from now. “You hurt your knee?”
Tears of frustration began to form in her eyes and she felt her nose start to run.. If she told him and he didn’t believe, the little girl would die tonight. She needed him to believe. This couldn’t be like the other times. All those futures no one believed in. She gritted her teeth.
“I hit my knee on the bench.” She slid back, letting her shoulders rest on the warm metal, keeping her eyes on the little girl.
“Let me take a look.” He dropped to examine her knee, and over his head she saw the flash of the ring in the sunlight. The heavy silver ring, on the hand attached to the hairy arm. The one the little girl would see just as the man smothered her. Without thinking she let a cry slip out, the future hurt. The cop misunderstood. “Yeah, you smacked the bench pretty good.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Cassie leaned forward, putting her mouth close to his ear. “The man with the cotton candy, to your left, do you see him?”
The cop turned to the left slowly, as if he guessed her strange behavior was somehow important. He nodded in a gesture no one else would see.
“He’s going to kill her.” She could see it, the whole scene now, staggering forward with each pound of her head. “He’s going to murder that little girl tonight.” She steadied herself with a hand on the cop’s shoulder. They must have looked so intimate. But really, all she saw was the room, with the pony dolls by the bed, and the little girl’s fingers in the shaft as sunlight as she reached for air. “Before sunset. He’ll smother her in her bed. You have to stop him.”
Cassie pulled back, memorizing everything about the soon-to-be murderer, the thick black hair, the expressionless eyes. Wetness hit her lip, tears or from her nose. She scrubbed at it with a hand, not caring because it was stopping. The cop got up from his kneeling position, walked over to the man, hand on his gun. Cassie watched at the way his head tilted to the left, talking into the box on his shoulder, calling for more men.
“Excuse me, sir?”
The murderer dropped the cotton candy.
“Uncle Mike?” The little girl’s asked.
And just like that her headache evaporated. Cassie indulged herself in the scene for a few more seconds, watching not the people in front of her but the images in her head. The girl and science, the girl getting married, the girl teaching children, the girl winning awards, the girl struggling to pass classes. So many futures, she let herself smile for a minute, there would be death eventually, but not today.
Cassandra hurried away before anyone had a chance to ask any questions.
He adjusted the gravity suit, playing with the knobs that kept out temperature and forces of physics while he waited for his turn to come. She was there again, working, the way he always saw her. Thick black braces covered each wrist, synthetic material coating steel, all wrapped tight with velcro. He wondered how her wrists would look without it. Would they be thin and delicate or permanently lined, thick with work?
“Morning, shifty.” She smiled at him, eyes lighting up in her moon shaped face. She was pretty, not exactly beautiful, but each time he climbed down off the great machine he though she was the best looking girl he’d ever seen. Her hair wasn’t just shaved off or pulled back, but set into elaborate braids all around her scalp, dips and swirls of them that sometimes drew pictures and sometimes spelled words. Today it was a star, probably for Founder’s day. He’d ask her to the picnic when he got down, if he got down.
“Morning, climber.” She watched his smile for a while. Normally all she had to watch was monitors and cursors, lines upon lines of code telling her the great machine needed a shift or would need one soon. Then she’d start the program to determine how much, what kind, where. Math. She did math and ran math programs all day. She thought big thoughts, and talked about concepts even bigger than that: planetary alliances, orbital patterns, the need to keep the universes spinning in just the right direction, how a small shift could cause a big reaction. This guy – she gave him a glance up and down – with his meaty arms and squat stature, he didn’t know big thoughts. Just climb the machine, fix the problem, climb down. Maybe because if he thought too much he’d think about the number of climbers who fell each year, or the numbers that caught in the gears each day. “Ready to get started?”
“Sure.” He knew lots of climbers that didn’t have an arm or a hand, a few that were in tongue-operated wheel chairs, lots of lucky ones that were just plain dead. “Do you understand how it works?”
The question was a break in protocol, but his shifter, she didn’t blink. “Aliens left it for us, so not really, but I think the gears you work on move because of heat down in the planets core.”
“You’d think the aliens would make it perfect then, self-lubricating, never get stuck.”
A lot of shifters thought so, but she only laughed. “It’s the 9th gate again. Stuck open. I’ll try to hold the shift, but once you pop it in place things will move pretty quickly.”
“They always do.” Maybe this time he’d be too slow, spring out of the way a second too late. His suit would stop him from hitting the ground too hard. It would seal the pressure down around the wound. Lots of guys made a living one handed. Losing the arm would be worse, but not impossible. He just needed to fall right. He latched the suit on to the heavy wire line that ran up the side of the great machine, a wedge of metal seven stories high and stuck into the earth’s crust. The machine hung at the bottom of the world, upside down when you looked at the globe, but streaking into the sky above him. Now he hung with it. “Well if we want to see winter I’d better get going. See-ya, Shifty.”
“Hey wait.” She looked at him and he half turned back, one leg already moving against gravity as he went up the side of the machine. “The Founder’s Day parade. You up for it?”
“Sure. It’ll give me something to look forward to.” She watched his grin while he climbed. It faded away after thirty feet and she gave her attention back to the monitors. After all, someone had to make sure the Earth moved.
(I’ve often imagined that I could write a complex novel about relationships, prejudice, and sexism set in the deep South like Harper Lee or Fannie Flagg. Sadly, I tend not to make very far with stories that don’t have lots of dead bodies or supernatural fun. This opening is one of my favorites from the pile of never-was.)
I’ll never forget the day Miss Josephine arrived. She wore white linen to direct the movers as they worked around unloading the van. White linen and we were miles away from Labor Day. One of the neighborhood ladies ran over right away to tell her her mistake but she just laughed. She knew. She knew all our rules and she plain didn’t care. That was when we knew we were in for a summer no one would ever forget.
“Well call me Josie, everyone does!” she said with a laugh, but every child on the street knew better. Adults were Mr. and Mrs. After they insisted; they were Mr. and Mrs. with their first name. Rules like that made our world spin in the right direction but Miss Josephine had come to knock it off kilter. Later, much later, when I was older and jaded, I loved her for that but at the time I was just as scared and confused as everybody else.
She’d bought Mr. Walter’s bookshop downtown, bought it lock stock and barrel according to my grandfather. All she had to do was turn the key and it could be like Mr. Walter was there himself, nothing would have to change. But she didn’t. She covered the windows with thick brown paper and closed up shop for a week. We all wondered about what went on behind that brown paper. The drug store sold our comic books, ordering just a handful of copies so we all had to rush there or be left out. They sold candies too, nail polish that peeled off in long strips and makeup that my sister seemed to think I’d want some day. I didn’t know what I wanted. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to that brown paper wrapped Christmas present of a store, because it could have what I wanted, what I’d been searching for all along without knowing quite what it was.
I was fifteen that fall, with long legs that were finally growing out of their bony knees. Fifteen and at odds with the world, my body was pulling me one way and my mind was pushing me another. My mother had declared that fifteen meant no more playing with the boys, whether it was baseball, fishing, or shooting it didn’t matter. She’d shipped me off to stay with my Aunts for the summer and I guess the boys in the neighborhood found someone else to cover second base. When I got back they invited me along a few times, maybe for the sake of the games we’d played the year before, but my mother was true to her word. Fifteen was time to be a lady. Ladies didn’t play second base.
There were lots of new rules for me that year, rules that didn’t make a bit of sense. My months with my elderly Aunts had been time without time, there were clocks and calendars but no sense of moving forward. They knit sweaters for me even though it was Georgia in July, hotter than any hell ever described – sweaters in patterns better suited to a seven year old. I was a child there, like I’d been a child at home before I left, but walking back into my front door that September I was suddenly something else, some woman-girl trapped between two worlds.
I missed second base the most, missed the easy camaraderie of my teammates after a game. I wasn’t ready to join the Eastern Star with the other girls, I didn’t want to giggle and lick ice cream like a fool all summer, worried about my nails or whatever Seventeen magazine told me to worry about. I didn’t know what I wanted to be, I was a lot like that store, wrapped up and waiting to show the world what I would be.
Miss. Josephine found me outside her shop. I should have been in school or maybe I should have been home with my mother. I should have been lots of places but I was there, throwing a baseball up in the air and catching it, wearing a pair of blues jeans rolled up against the heat and a shirt my brother had outgrown a summer ago. Mother had bought me a slew of dresses for the school year but I didn’t care for them. I dug Tommy’s shirts out of the goodwill box by the door and changed after she’d stopped looking.
Miss. Josephine snatched the baseball out of the air on a good up-throw. Snatched it with a pitcher’s gripe and looked at the ball not me.
“You can’t have played with this one for more than a week,” she said, examining the stitches. “Lord knows it still feels like summer, why not round up a game?”
My jaw dropped open and I just looked at her. The answers were myriad: because my mother wouldn’t approve, because the boys I’d played with had moved on, because honestly at 1:30 on a Tuesday afternoon in the middle of September everyone else was following the rules. She didn’t pay any mind to my silence.
“Well if you aren’t looking to play, maybe you want to work. I’ve got boxes that need to be unloaded, follow me.”
“But-” I was talking to thin air. She’d gone on ahead, opening the door to the shop without looking back, not noticing if I was following.
I stepped inside the door and the world went dark. Not pitch black but dusty golden stripped dark. The sunlight was coming in a few holes in the paper here and there, punching through the inside like a ribbon. The shelves that Mr. Walter’s had kept so tidy were in a disarray, half empty here, over stuffed there. In one corner of the giant square room three empty shelves leaned against each other, locked together in a dozen different mazes of plastic coated wire.
“Those shelves.” She pointed to the ones my grandmother liked to browse on weekends. They were tall spindles filled with devotionals, “Serve the Lord in a Woman’s Way” and “Southern Prayers for Southern Souls”, entreated me to turn my troubles over to the Lord. I didn’t tend to listen. I didn’t really have any trouble except for losing my spot on the team and I suspected God had bigger problems to deal with.
“They need to be emptied. Take the boxes over there. Keep track of how many go in each box and pack them tight.” She dispensed the instructions and walked away again.
“Don’t you want to know my name?” I shouted to the empty store.
“I know you,” she said, poking her head in from a back room. “I know every body. They just don’t know me yet. Those shelves, then we’ll take a break, huh, May?”
And there it was, she knew me, she knew my name, and I had a job.
My uncle’s hair sticks out of his head like wiry cotton balls over his workbench. The top is littered with tools I remember from countless Christmas presents. In our family, you might want coloring sets or toy cars, but you got book binding supplies: supple brushes, powdery glue waiting to be mixed, even sharp exacto blades no matter how young you were.
“We start young,” Uncle Gus reminds me. He is really Gustav, not Gus, because all of us are named after long dead relatives with old fashioned names. “We start young and we remember the rules.”
He expects me to repeat them, and so I do. “Never more than then a few pages, never sooner than a month, and never, ever, work on your own diary.”
“Good.” He nods, talking to himself more than to me. “So it should be good. I wouldn’t leave you like this but it’s a government job and they never take no for an answer. It’s an emergency really, no one else can do it. Besides, I’ll be back in a few days.”
The lock on the bookstore door fights me, but once I get inside the scent embraces me. It’s vanilla, old pipe smoke, paper, glue, and ink. The smell of my childhood summers, spent here in Seaside, the smell of my life before I went off to college. The shop is small but orderly, used books in three rows, well aired and tenderly loved antiques in another. Our money doesn’t come from those. It comes from the square sign in the window ‘Expert Diary Repair’. I’ve never actually done it, not on a real diary, not alone. I’ve practiced with newsprint books, I can smear the cheap soy based ink with the flick of my wrist, but words written in a spidery crawl worry me.
Then again, in the end, it’s just a book, no matter how much family treats it otherwise.
My first customer comes in wearing a stylish coat in a size too large. Fine wool, monogrammed, and the letters match his name, so a wealthy man and maybe he’s lost weight. There’s not too much you can judge just by looking at him. Only that his perfectly bald head shines under the shop lights.
“I was looking for Gus.”
“He’s away on a job.”
He doesn’t trust me, doesn’t reply.
“He’ll be back in a week, maybe two.”
He fingers the pages of his book, red leather, the initials stamped on the front. He’s counting the pages, flipping them slowly while his head barely nods. Every diary in Seaside is the same, a new day always starts on the right hand side, the date in top right corner. The pages are never numbered.
“I don’t know about two weeks, a week maybe…” His eyes turn up to me. “I need more.”
He thrusts the diary out for me. Someone made this well, with space along the spine for additions and the leather cover slotted in snuggly. No pages will fall out of this book. I think I recognize Gus’ hand in it, but it’s only a guess.
“How many pages?”
“A hundred, no two. At least two.” It’s a big decision for him, but not for me. At the work bench I put the pages in with no trouble, then flip through the rest. I’m not reading, just… looking. We never read. It’s a third unspoken rule. We keep secrets, and we only have one of our own. My father tried to tell me once, what it meant to do what we do, but he was dying by then and the words didn’t make it out. I’ve always been too ashamed to tell anyone, so I finger these pages, trying to see why some pages were glued together, others not.
The man returns, anxious for his diary back but then no one comes in all day. I search the internet for the dates, there’s a car accident, an obituary, and nothing. My family’s secret stays hidden.
The girl comes in three days later. Her hair falls past her shoulders in a cascade of deep brown color. She’s the same age as the girls at college with me, but with a ring in her nose and a look that tells me she wouldn’t share their views. She’s not local but she knows Gus.
“He and I talked about music. I’m a bit of a musician. I work in the music shop down the way. Do you like music?” Her hands are moving, picking at the skin around her finger nails. One of them starts to bleed and she puts it in her mouth for a second.
“Doesn’t everyone like music?”
The finger leaves her mouth, a smile. “Leslie.” She starts to hold out her hand, but then draws it back. I take it anyway, a quick shake just to touch her palm.
“It’s a family thing.” I try to make light, not to let her know how odd it is to be a family that coverts only books and gives only book tools as presents. I think of my mother surrounded by printed words and how Leslie would cringe at the stacks and stacks of books.
“Gustav told me.” She smiles, bright and sweet like the sun in the spring. “He and I were talking about something, and I’ve decided but he’s not here. Can you help?”
“I’d like to but you haven’t said what you need.”
“Oh.” A blush climbs into her cheeks, it’s adorable but I can see her nerves. “There’s a song, I heard it about a month ago. It’s stuck with me, like a broken record. The notes ascend, and then they blend and go down.” She sings for me, not words, just tones, then catches herself, maybe a little embarrassed. “When I try to write my own music, I end up writing that. Every time.”
I’m not sure I can help with that. I know about music on the radio, about the classical concerts everyone goes to in grammar school, but I’ve never written a note.
“I thought… you glue the pages together right?”
Her unsure voice changes my world. We glue the pages together. An obituary. A car accident. Blur the words and glue the pages together, make it a secret.
I nod, wondering if that’s what my father meant to tell me. “What’s the name of the song?”
“King and Queens, by Samantha Jett.” She pulls the book out of her bag. Moleskin, mass produced, the cover stamped with musical notes on a plum background. Nothing custom made, nothing showy. She’s too young for that, but not so new to Seaside that the dates and days don’t line up as they should. “I heard it on the fourth.”
Her finger marks the page and she tells me she’ll be back tomorrow morning. It’s on the tip of my tongue to ask her out, to learn more about her, but now isn’t the time. When she leaves I lock the shop and head to the workbench. Her fourth of March is in front of me. She went grocery shopping, and heard the song in a store, called her mother, thought about buying clothes but worried over her budget.
My hands shake, letting the glue powder plume into the air, then I mix it too thick. I’ve done this with newspaper pages, blank pages, with practice books, but I never knew what I was practicing for. The brush quills are white, tipped with gray. They soak up the glue like they’re eager. The first words I blur are the date, dragging the brush from the left to the right, eventually covering the whole page in a thin film.
There’s guilt when I take away the call with her mother. Was there something important there? But she’s asked me for this. It’s not a choice I made on my own. I realize the power as I do, and know I will never make that choice on my own. To do it once would be to open a cell and let the monster out.
She’s back the next afternoon, all her anxiety gone. “Sorry I’m late. I’ve been fiddling with a new song on the guitar. I sorta forget everything else.”
“Oh?” I try to keep the thrill out of my voice. “What’s it like?”
“Chords, notes, you know.” She pays me while she thinks about it, her eyes moving off to the side. “What’s any song like?”
I pause to consider my next words, to wonder if I’m about to undo all my good work. “You know that song, what’s it called? Kings and Queens? By Samantha somebody? I can’t remember the last name.”
“Sorry, I’ve never heard of it.” Her eyes remain free of recognition.
“Well, don’t it’s not that good of a song.” Her book goes into her pocket. The secret is glued together forever, the words blurred until they don’t exist. And if there’s no entry in your diary, no record that a thing happened, did it happen? “Have you eaten lunch?”
“No, I… when I’m working on something, I forget.”
“Let me take you out.” I push open the shop door, leading her to the café. I’ll write about her in my own diary tonight, page after page. Enough that no one can ever glue them together.