Fiction: A Legend Is Born

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Tenements, via Unsplash

The facts? The facts are these: I am wholly ordinary. Black hair, caramel skin, no extraordinary features, no super powers, although I’ve gotten pretty good at karate lately. Self-defense, you know. I am a city girl, after all, born and raised in the shadow of the tenements.

I make my living dyeing and designing special order fabrics for customers far more interesting than I am. I drink Folgers coffee and I don’t eat meat. My favorite channel is TCM, and I would consider my life complete if I could shake Gregory Peck’s hand. Considering he’s been dead over a decade, I’ve had to make peace with incompletion.

These are the facts. But sometimes reality is bigger than facts. Sometimes reality births a legend. And if the legend makes the world a better place, I’m all for that, too.

It began in the alley, where I found myself one muggy afternoon being used as a human shield by a punk who’d gotten himself cornered by the police. His foul-mouthed screams deposited spatters of saliva on one cheek while his revolver–sometimes the barrel and sometimes the muzzle–crushed my opposite temple.

Put the gun down, the officers kept yelling, but I was Punky’s only chance, and he wasn’t about to blow it. Unless, of course,  he managed to blow my head off with his twitchy trigger finger.

Best I could tell, the conflict seemed to be over some piece of property Punky swore was his, but the officers believed belonged to a jeweler on Second Avenue. Not even a diamond. A pocketwatch, or something. It seemed a damn fool thing to die for. Even worse if it was me doing the dying. The only thing I could do was stand as still as possible, so I didn’t accidentally set him off. I’ve never felt so helpless in my life.

I tried to distract myself by looking for variations in the rigid columns of windows and tenement faces that boxed us in. I’d never seen–or perhaps I’d just never noticed–how some fire escapes spiraled at the end of each flight. A sound pierced the clamor of the city and the shouting near at hand: Someone had hung wind chimes from the balcony.

Outside my little bubble, things were escalating. I could see the police officers had twitchy trigger fingers now, too. Nobody was going to save me except me. I might get my head blown off, but there was no point in standing there waiting for it to happen.

I closed my eyes, got my bearings in space, and when the muzzle of the gun waved away for a split second, I seized my chance.

I ducked and ground my heel into Punky’s toe. He flailed wildly, and I shoved and twisted and ran. Gunshots ricocheted off the brick. I hit the ground. The screaming stopped.

Footsteps approached. “Miss?” A police officer took my hand and helped me up. “Are you all right?”

I pulled out a handkerchief and wiped my cheek clean. Are you freaking kidding me? What kind of question is that? That’s what I wanted to say. What I said instead was: “I’m fine, thank you.”

And inside, I added:

I will never be a victim again.

A few weeks ago Alex asked me what story I was writing. I told him I was plotting a new story based partly on a true story that had always made me cry. I told him that story and then told him what I was thinking of doing with it to make it fiction. Like a typical third-grade, superhero-obsessed boy, he said, “Why don’t you ever write adventure stories?”

Alex, this one’s for you. A superhero is born. 🙂

Concrits always welcome!

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A Journal Entry

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Photo by ed_needs_a_bicycle, via Flickr

I try not to write about writing too often, but I hope you’ll indulge me this once. I’m in transition right now. My last novel is finished and in the query phase, but its first forays into the hands of the industry were not as successful as I hoped, so I put the brakes on. My last novel I sent out repeatedly, thinking I just needed to find the right set of eyes, and I collected a full file of form rejections. I’m not about to make that mistake again. So I’m in the process of finding fresh eyes to help me revise yet again.

I set aside the first couple of months of this year for fiction work, so I don’t have any looming deadlines right now. But I’m finding it difficult to get started. I have a new project, but I am not a pantser who can just take a good idea and dive in, see where it leads me.

When I write music, I spend very little time with a melody or lyric before I know it’s a keeper or not. I have a lot of musical ideas orphaned in my staff notebooks, because I could tell they were trite. But fiction is quite different. You can spend hours crafting ideas into scenes and putting words together, only to find that it has to be lopped unceremoniously from the piece.

I never mourn the loss of material, but I wince at the hours I lost creating it. I try to tell myself it isn’t wasted, that everything is a learning experience and I can use that material somewhere else later, but it rings hollow.

I don’t have enough time as it is; I loathe wasting it. So I’m turning into a confirmed “plotter.” I want a good solid outline to work from before I dive into drafting a novel.

But I’m afraid now I’m crossing from prudent planning to procrastination. I’ve been in revision phase for so long that I feel overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the act of creation. In many ways I find the revision phase much easier; I can break it down into smaller pieces, some of which can even be done with little people around.

Mostly, though, fiction requires concentration. To wit: at least a solid hour in which nobody is climbing up on my lap, shouting at me or each other, or getting into the refrigerator without permission. But between Christmas break, snow days, and random appointments, I just can’t seem to get back to a good routine. Writing keeps getting pushed to the side in favor of parenthood. Some of that is inevitable (dental visits, IEP…) and of course, my children are my primary responsibility. Still, it’s hard to know I’m spinning my wheels and wondering how much of it is because I’m using distraction and tiredness as an excuse not to dig in.

Over the weekend I resolved to get up early and work with pen and paper on a short story revision. But it took three full days to get through those 2000 words. And I think better with fingers on a keyboard, so what was sketched out on the page in pen and paper was only a framework. Yesterday when I tried to put the changes in the computer, I found that my brain was full of cobwebs and crying out, “Nap! Nap! Nap!”

Perhaps unstructured time is not a recipe for success for me. Perhaps what allows me to succeed is the stress of having multiple projects on tap at any given time. Perhaps the need to stay focused keeps me productive.

To the handful of writer buddies who read this blog, I’d love to know how your process works when you’re starting a new project. How do you get from the germ of an idea to a full-fleshed outline? How do you get to know your characters? How do you flesh out subplots? For me it’s always started with an extremely immature first daft requiring many, many major revisions. It’s quite inefficient. For my new project I have all the elements in mind, but I’m having a hard time plotting the structure to incorporate them. I’d love to hear how other people make it work. Care to share?

Author Interview: Erin McCole Crupp

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Author Erin McCole Cupp Today I have a special post–a chance to chat with the author of a new Catholic novel: Don’t You Forget About Me, by Erin McCole Crupp, also known online as Mrs. Mackerelsnapper, OP (how can you resist a name like that?).

Can you start by telling us what the book is about?

20130713-095421.jpgSure, Kate!  Thanks for hosting me.  Don’t You Forget About Me follows Mary Catherine Whelihan, or “Cate,” a successful single woman more than happy to leave her ugly duckling past behind her.  Cate is also one of those “fallen away” Catholics, and incidental to that fact, she has been treating her feminine health issues with hormonal birth control pills since her teens—that’s a long time to be on The Pill.  Well one day Cate gets this cryptic email from her grade school crush, Gene, asking if he’ll see her at their grade school principal’s funeral—because he has a question he wants to ask her in person.  So against her better judgment, Cate goes to the funeral and finds out that she’s not the only one in her graduating class who is sick in some way.  In fact, it looks like the popular, athletic kids have grown up to fare even worse!  Gene is now a doctor—a faithful, Catholic OB/GYN—and he wants to find out why so many of their classmates are sick and dying.  Cate wants no part of it… until she finds herself a suspect in the questionable death of the worst of their class bullies.  Cate and Gene now have to find out who or what is making their classmates so sick.  In the process Cate has to tear down a lot of the walls she has built to protect herself.  After all, why would she even want to help these people who did so much damage to her as a child?

I enjoyed Don’t You Forget About Me for its humor and the vitality of the writing. Your characters are very real. I love how you have an extremely sympathetic lapsed Catholic, a lovable Jewish chemistry-professor best friend, and a sassy, winsome literary agent–all in the first chapter. In fact, the “Catholic” never really takes center stage in this book; it’s a thriller with Catholic elements. How long did it take you to create this world?

Is it too weird to say it took my whole life?  I feel like my brain is just this bucket of random facts and quirks that I’ve picked up from people I’ve met or experiences I’ve lived.  Got made fun of in grade school?  Plink! Into the bucket.  Have to text my BFF with every thought that crosses my brain?  Plink!  Into the bucket.  Endometriosis?  Cheddar cheese popcorn?  A nun who wore black oxfords and prowled the recess yard looking for troublemakers?  Plink!  Plink!  Plink!  Then God comes along, shakes up the basket, and those details and quirks link up where He wants them to.  If I just obey the call to write and keep my butt on the seat and my fingers on the keyboard long enough, a book comes out.  This time it was Don’t You Forget About Me.

Mary Cate’s experience underscores a sad truth: that our Catholic schools aren’t always the haven of holiness we imagine them to be. Children are capable of lot of cruelty. Do you worry about drawing attention to that? How do we, as authors, walk the line between admitting the “warts” in the system and giving fodder to enemies of the Church we believe in?

Joseph Pearce says, “To live a creative life we must lose our fear of being wrong.”   If I point out the window and say, “Hey, the sky is blue!” I’m not drawing attention to anything we don’t already know.  We’re a Church of sinners.  If a wart is there, the only way it will heal is if I give it the attention of a doctor’s visit and some liquid nitrogen.  It might be painful attention, but ignoring it certainly won’t make it go away.  I worry more about not telling the truth in my fiction than I do about making things prettier than they are.  If fiction serves any practical purpose, it’s to teach us how to resolve our conflicts.  When we are afraid to admit there’s a conflict to begin with… “…so your sin remains”  (John 9:41).  Jesus was never afraid of the truth. We don’t need to be either.

All that being said, you mentioned “enemies of the Church.”  I’m fully aware that several of those enemies are more than happy to write of the warts of Catholics but won’t give a second of their time to write examples of faithful Catholics being the love of Christ in the world.  That’s where Catholic writers really do need to come in.  I don’t think anyone is more equipped to write along the whole continuum of human activity more than those people fed frequently and completely with the Real Presence of Jesus Who Is Truth.  So, I beg you, Catholic writers, don’t shy away from writing of human failings, but do show human goodness as well.

That’s such a good word of encouragement. Now, you know I have to ask how much of Mary Cate’s experiences are autobiographical! 🙂

Yes, they are completely autobiographical… about the life of a fictional character named Mary Catherine Whelihan!  Oh, you’re asking if I was bullied as a child at a Catholic grade school!  Well… I certainly had a less-than-pleasant experience myself, but I also own that I was a less-than-pleasant child.  There is such a difference between being victims of our childhoods and being survivors.  Which we are is a choice we make.  At the beginning of DYFAM, Cate is very definitely a victim and even relishes seeing herself in that role.  Do her experiences change her?  You’ll have to read the book to see.

Your blog is called “Will Write For Tomato Pie,” and you kept talking about this dish all the way through Don’t You Forget About Me. I was just waiting for that recipe to show up at the end. Do you have a recipe you’d recommend?

On Friday, November 22, our family’s adventure in making tomato pie at home will be up as a Meatless Friday recipe on CatholicMom.com.  I was impressed that I was able to make a tomato sauce for it that had the right consistency—as in I cut into the pie to serve it and ½” of tomato sauce just stood there and didn’t ooze off the crust.  However, the flavor, while good, was not quite the perfection that is Corropolese’s tomato pie.  So I’ll be trying my recipe again, but we’re in no danger of putting Corropolese out of business!

Oh, good! I can now try to make a tomato pie. 🙂 Now I can move on to other things. Let’s talk publishing biz! I saw in your interview last week at Ellen Gable’s blog that your focus is on story rather than theme. Do you have an overarching “philosophy” that directs your fiction writing?

I just want to rip out your heart, stomp on it, bury it, then give it back to you, healed and with wings.  That’s been my mission statement as a writer, so that even when others haven’t seen value in my work, I still have a great time writing it and can feel the smile of Mary when I do!

Since you said in the Full Quiver interview that you have another manuscript under consideration at a major Catholic publisher, you’re obviously pursuing several paths simultaneously. What makes you choose one avenue over another? What are the differences in the process?

It’s really important for a writer, in order to be of a professional mindset, not to be desperate.  If you know you have a polished, quality manuscript, then approach the publisher who has a better chance of welcoming it.  Don’t just send it out all willy-nilly, hoping for a nibble.  Do your research.  Full Quiver Publishing specializes in Theology of the Body fiction.  My other manuscript, a YA historical about St. Catherine of Alexandria, would probably look pretty weird in their catalog.  Asking them to spend time with an MS that doesn’t fit their mission is kind of insensitive on my part.  It’s just good manners, which makes it good business (in the sense of bringing Good to business, not in the sense of “manipulating people to get what you want”).

I “met” Ellen of FQP during a chat presentation at the 2012 Catholic Writers Conference Online.  I met (no quotes) the representative of the other publisher when I went to a pitch session at the CWG Live conference this past August. The larger house sent a rep to CWG live, who accepted my proposal packet and sent it on to their fiction editor, who has since asked for the full manuscript in order to help them make a decision as to whether or not investing time in this manuscript—not in me as a human being, but in this particular story the way I happen to have told it—would be a good investment on the part of their company.  In other words, if the MS is rejected, I’m not allowed to take it personally.  I did my best with the art, craft and business end of the writing.  The rest is up to God.

In both cases, the editor wanted to see the first three chapters and some sort of summary.  Since FQP is on the smaller side (though I don’t feel right calling them “small” as they grow), the decision-making process was less complicated and only one person had to make the decision whether or not to ask for the full manuscript.  At the larger publisher, there are several levels to go through before they’ll request a full manuscript; in the event they do like the full, there will still be more filters for it to pass before a contract would be offered.

Now, that’s the process for a solicited manuscript—one the publisher asked to see.  The process for an unsolicited MS (meaning you looked up the publisher and sent it to the editor in hopes they’ll consider) is a lot longer and more impersonal.  That’s why I am a huge advocate of attending writing conferences.  Your appearance at one of those is a testament to how seriously you’re taking this.  Conferences also help you build relationships with other writers and editors.  It’s hard to feel bitter about a rejection from someone whose sick grandmother has been on your prayer intention list.

Did you always know you wanted to pursue small/niche press publishing, or did you ever consider traditional or self-publishing? What nudged you this direction?

I’ve just always wanted to tell stories.  When I first started out, of course I wanted to land a huge contract with a big house and get gazillion dollar advances and bazillion dollar royalty checks and be on the front page of the New York Times, and win awards and and and and… See, I considered myself a storyteller years before I considered myself a Catholic first.  Anyway, as my reversion grew deeper and my writing changed to reflect that, I realized that what I write is not so likely to be promoted by the secularly-minded, profit-first world of Big House Publishing. I even tried forming a small press starting with my first novel, Jane_E, Friendless Orphan to create a fresh marketplace for Catholic fiction that would appeal to non-Catholics, but that was at a time that my primary vocation as wife and mother had a sudden increase in demands.  I knew I had to choose my Vocation over my vocation, and my writing went by the wayside for several years.  When it was time to take up the keys again, God led me to the Catholic Writers Guild… and the rest is history above!

I hope this wasn’t too lengthy and that my answers are helpful to others!  Please know that I pray for my readers daily and include them in my intentions at daily Mass.  Thanks again for hosting me, Kate.

You are most welcome! Good luck!

Fiction: This Tornado Loves You

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neko case quote, writing prompt, neko case lyricsThey say you can tell a lot about a baby in the womb. I knew this was true before you came along, little man, but I learned it all over again in the last four months you were inside my womb. I don’t think I got a moment’s rest, but I counted it a blessing because at least with you, I never had that worry when babies go still for hours at a time.

When you were twenty months old, your daddy christened you “the human tornado.” There was the time you ran headlong into the hutch, crystal goblets toppling like dominoes in a musical menagerie of destruction. The time you came down after bath and hit the freshly-mopped floor at a dead run, and immediately and spectacularly wiped out, twenty-six pounds of naked toddler splayed across the Pergo. The time you colored the brand new couch with a Sharpie you found underneath it. Ate two of those not-really-ladybug things (the proof was in your diaper). Strung the contents of both our wallets across the kitchen floor at least a dozen times. Locked Daddy out of his iPhone, and caused the computer to retreat screaming into a passable imitation of the apocalypse by sticking something (we never did figure out what) into a USB port.

And when I’d get mad, you’d reach your arms up and cry, and the more upset I was the more pathetic…and adorable…you’d look. “For the love of all that’s holy!” I would cry. “Can you just leave things alone? I don’t want to cuddle you right now!”

“He loves you,” your daddy would say to me, all puppy-dog eyes, when you came running to me caked with chocolate and spaghetti sauce, looking for the umpteenth boo-boo kiss of the day.

Nothing could keep you down. Not your big brother sitting on you, or your big sister locking you in the closet when you were both supposed to be napping, so we didn’t find out until we came in an hour later and found every single piece of clothing in all five storage boxes flung higgledy-piggledy. Not even the time you tried to follow your siblings up the ladder of the old-fashioned slide at the park, and you fell from the fifth step. “He’s a tough boy,” we said every time somebody winced at seeing you on the bottom of a doggie pile. “He has to be. He has three older siblings.”

But it turns out there was one thing that could knock you down, my little tornado. It’s been lying in wait in your brain since the day you were born. And now that we’re here in a place of tubes and leads and beeping monitors and perpetual fluorescent daytime–now that the question is not when you’ll cause your next havoc, but if…now I’m asking for only one thing. Come back. Come back and cause me some mayhem.

writing prompt

Note to my regular readers: Michael is fine! I promise! When I saw the “tornado loves you” graphic at WOE this week, all I could think of was the wild, wanton potential for destruction and adorability that coexist in toddlerhood, and although I tried to come up with something else, this was what wanted to be written. I have such a wealth of material to draw from, how can I not use it? (Challenge: which incidents in this piece are entirely fabricated? Can you guess?)

This is the third of the seven pieces I set as a November writing goal, but the first I’ve posted online. And by the way–yes, children have strokes, too.

The Avengers and other Quick Takes

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___1___vacuum

I went to a family wedding in southern Missouri last weekend. It was quite a culture shock; very suddenly, when I turned onto I-44, I found myself surrounded by John 3:16s, Baptist churches three times the size of my (very large) parish, a Mack truck dealership that took up both sides of the highway, and an NRA museum. It was one of those, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore” moments. And in the brochure/attractions rack at the hotel: the flyer at right. Upon my honor.

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Between traveling, parent teacher conferences, early outs, Halloween parties, and four, read that FOUR days off school (okay fine, 3 1/2, but that half day might as well not have existed), I realized I had to write off this entire week for work. And naps, for that matter. Michael’s very flexible these days, but the down side is that he never, ever wants to take a nap. And he used to be so easy to put to bed!

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I had a vaguely hysterical moment with Nicholas this week in the car. He sneezed, told himself “bless you,” and kicked off a discussion of the Trinity. At the end of it, he asked thoughtfully, “What if God sneezed?”

I am totally writing a story about that. The Day God Sneezed. Christian and I were having all sorts of fun that night coming up with silly things to include.

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November

November (Photo credit: kurafire)

Speaking of stories…it’s November 1st, which for Catholics is All Saints Day, but for writers kicks off NaNo, National Novel Writing Month. The idea is to write 50,000 words in one month–plant the butt in the chair, stick the fingers on the keyboard, and write. I’m ambivalent about taking on this challenge for several reasons–let’s call it six: Christian, Alex, Julianna, Nicholas, Michael, and Other Commitments. It’s unrealistic for me to think I could average 1666 new words every day. Yet I see the value of it–deadlines work.

So instead I’ve set a different sort of writing goal for November: seven new flash stories, at least half of them not for blog prompt posting. By the end of November, I want to have some new stories ready to send out. Or at least, within striking distance. To the writers among my readership: are you doing NaNo? What’s been your experience?

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Time for the obligatory Halloween take. It was a cold one; Michael and I only lasted half an hour, after which we opened up our house for trick-or-treating. He went crazy giving candy to other kids (and scoping out the contents of their baskets. “I’ll trade you one of these for seven of those!” was Christian’s joke). So you can imagine my surprise when a kid ran to the door in a black robe and said, “I’M SUPPOSED TO BE ‘THE SCREAM’ BUT THE MASK IS TOO HOT!”

“Too hot?” I said, but he was already halfway to the street. I traded rueful glances with his dad. “Well, when you run that fast…” he said.

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But I know you all were really just coming here for Avengers Family pics, right?

Halloween 004 closeup

Alex as Hawkeye, Michael as the Hulk, Julianna as Captain America, Nicholas as Iron Man, me as Black Widow and Christian as Thor.

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I need one more QT, so I’ll offer this: as difficult as Nicholas can be, every so often he has a moment so sweet that it makes it all…well, it helps me see the big picture. Yesterday someone asked him what the best part of his school Halloween party was, and he said, “My mom and Alex and Michael coming to it.” Awwwwwww…….

Happy early November!

7 quick takes sm1 7 Quick Takes about rattlesnakes, books, and holidays that should be more fun than they are

Fiction: Stardust

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unsplash_5243a2eb2bc02_1It began on a magical night beside the river Thames… or so my mother tells me. There was a twenty-car pileup and my parents were stranded in the fallout as her labor gained momentum. By sheer dumb luck, there was an OB three cars up and one to the left. An hour later, I came screaming into the brightly-lit night beside the blackened river, with all the lights of the city twinkling in its eyes, and beyond it, St. Paul’s gleaming like something out of a fairy tale. “The whole world was alight,” Mom used to say. “There was magic in the air.”

It’s been a good run since that  night. I don’t regret a moment of the twenty-three years I was given. We all knew my run was going to be shorter than most, although I admit I wasn’t prepared for it to be quite this brief. Still, I’ve made the most of the moments. I’ve learned, I’ve loved, I’ve given my all.

unsplash_523b2af0710a7_1And tonight, it will end, at the far corner of the world, in a place where no created light has ever shone. I feel my smallness here, beneath the dark skies and the deep silence of the back country. I can feel it coming, death spreading its fingers out from someplace deep within. I rest my head on my husband’s shoulder, our sleeping bags zipped together and our fingers threaded together. There’s nothing to say, only one last moment to embrace as we gaze up at the stardust slung across the heavens like a thick carpet for me to tread on my journey into eternity.

Fiction: Peaches and Bread

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“What d’you wanna be when you grow up?” asked Steve.

“What kinda question is that?” responded Malachi. “I’m gonna be a machinist like my dad. Just like you. Right?”

Steve didn’t answer. He lay on the soft grass in the shade of a peach tree, his hands behind his head, and stared up at the sky. It was a perfect day: cool, with little whorls of warmth twisting up from the earth and down from the late fruit, as if summer and fall were flirting with each other. All the windows along Sycamore Street were open, and beside Sam’s house, the mouth-watering smell of baking bread made the boys’ stomachs rumble.

“Why, what you wanna do?” Malachi said.

Before Sam could answer, his little brother’s head emerged from the anthill he’d been examining. “The ants are looking for big bugs to fight the grasshoppers,” Benji said.

They ignored him. Everybody ignored Benji, because he never shut up. “I want to fly planes. Maybe the space shuttle,” Sam said.

“Whaaa? There’s no more space shuttles, genius. They’s all in museums now.”

“Well, whatever comes next, then.”

“Is blue a color?”

Sam sighed. “Yes, Benji.”

“Is orange a color?”

“You know what your problem is?” Malachi grabbed another peach from the pile beside him. “You gotta learn to be satisfied with what you got. Look at this. Nice shady spot to sit, all the peaches we can eat, and all in your back yard.” He tossed a peach.

Sam bit into the soft flesh. The juice ran down his fingers, sticking them together. He and Malachi had been friends since they were knee high to a chihuaua, but on the cusp of high school, there was no denying they just weren’t headed the same direction anymore. “So that’s enough for you? You don’t want something more?”

“Like what?” Malachi tossed the pit and wiped his fingers on the grass, then sniffed the air. “Matter of fact, I do. I’m thinkin’ a piece of that bread sounds like just the thing.”

Benji pounded on Malachi’s arm. “Can I tell you a joke?”

“Sure, Benji.”

“What if a person went down the drain?”

Sam rolled his eyes. “I’m just saying,” he said, “there’s gotta be more to life than doing exactly what our dads did. Haven’t you ever wondered what’s out there?”

“Benji bow-wow!”

Malachi laughed and knuckled Benji’s head. Benji giggled and ran off singing his ABCs “rock star style,” which meant lots of air guitar and no pitch at all.

“Hey!”

The boys scrambled up as Mr. Olivet, with his shock of wild hair that always seemed to be running away from his craggy features, stalked across the lawn toward them. “Yeah, you, ya little punks. Who told you you could sit under my tree and eat my peaches? Get outta here! You’re lucky I don’t call the cops!”

Sam grabbed Benji and dragged him toward home, away from the heady smell of late-season peaches and fresh bread and back to the house that smelled of stale smoke and leftover Chinese takeout.

Back. But not for good.

Write at the Merge Week 29