Childhood Wonder

Following this post, I’ll be taking a break from blogging. I’ll still be keeping up with blogs here, and I can also be reached by e-mail, so please don’t hesitate to contact me if you’d like. I wanted to share one last story with you (for the foreseeable future, at least), and I hope you enjoy it. I also want to thank everyone for all the support you’ve given me since I began this journey. Your encouragement and friendship mean more than I can express.

 

mountains

Childhood Wonder

Graham made a slow circle, his boots scuffling through dead leaves. The trees surrounding him bowed their branches to the wind.

“Why don’t you just admit we’re lost?” Amelia asked. She slumped against an ancient oak, catching bits of lichen on her sweater. “Mom is going to be so pissed.”

“Watch your mouth,” Graham said, but he knew his daughter was right. He had violated the custody agreement by taking Amelia across state lines without his ex-wife’s permission.

He focused on the fading light to the west. Though Graham was no outdoorsman, he realized the night’s falling temperature carried the risk of hypothermia, and he worked to keep his face calm. “I’m pretty sure we came from that direction,” he said, pointing over Amelia’s shoulder. “I think if we head that way, we’ll get back to the road where I left the truck.”

“What if you’re wrong?” Amelia’s voice took on a whine he hadn’t heard since she was a small child prone to tantrums. “Our Phys Ed teacher said if we’re ever lost, we should stay put so it’s easier for the rescuers to find us.”

Graham forced a laugh. “We don’t need rescuers, but I want us off this mountain by nightfall, so let’s keep moving.”

“My feet hurt, and I’m starving.” Amelia pulled the cell phone from her sweater pocket. “Maybe I can get reception now.”

“No,” Graham said, more sharply than he intended. Amelia’s eyes, lined with inexpertly applied makeup, grew wide. “You won’t get reception up here,” he added. “Don’t waste the battery trying.”

He started past her, and she fell into line behind him. He was sure if they walked a little ways, they would find the dirt road where he parked his Ford pickup earlier. Maybe by the time they headed home, they could laugh about their adventure.

The day had started out promising enough. It was the first sunny, mild Saturday after a grueling winter, and with the dogwoods and redbuds about to bloom, Graham suggested a trip to the mountains where he grew up. Amelia was now twelve, and he knew it wouldn’t be long before she wanted to spend every weekend with her friends. But today she jumped to her feet, grabbing her sweater and cell phone.

“Should I call Mom?” she asked.

“No need,” Graham replied. “We’ll be back before dark. And this will have to be our secret, Amelia. I’m not supposed to take you out of state without your mom knowing.”

Amelia gave him a conspiratorial smile. “I won’t tell if you won’t.”

They left Graham’s house before noon, and during the three-hour drive to the Allegheny Mountains, Amelia chattered about her classes and the latest drama among her friends while forcing him to listen to what her generation considered music.

As Graham’s pickup climbed the mountain roads, Amelia grimaced. “My ears are popping,” she said.

“It’s the higher altitude,” Graham told her. “Try yawning.”

He rounded a curve, and only a guardrail stood between them and a drop of several hundred feet down the mountainside to their right. Amelia gazed at the houses clustered in the hollow below them. “Look how far up we are!” she said.

“When you were little, your mom and I brought you here to see your grandparents a couple of times, before they retired and moved to Florida. Do you remember?” he asked.

She shook her head. “Why didn’t we visit more?”

Graham shrugged. “Your mom said the mountain roads made her carsick.”

Amelia snorted. “That sounds like Mom.”

He glanced at her and grinned. “You know, when I was your age I used to climb the mountains around my house all the time. We didn’t have fancy video games and cell phones to keep us entertained back then. We actually had to go outside.”

Amelia rolled her eyes. “Sounds downright barbaric.”

“One time,” he went on, “my friends and I found a cave in the mountains about a mile from my parents’ property.”

Amelia turned in her seat to face him. “What kind of cave?”

“Not a very big one,” Graham said. “At least, it didn’t look big from the outside. The opening was narrow; you’d have to lie on your belly and slither between the rocks to get inside.”

She grabbed his sleeve. “Did you go in, Dad?”

“Nah,” he said. “I never had the nerve. Neither did my friends, but students from the state university used to explore it. They said the cave was home to rare species of bats and salamanders.”

Amelia clapped her hands in excitement. “I want to see it!”

“Oh, we can’t go there today, honey,” Graham said. “It’s at least a mile-long hike from the road.”

“That’s nothing,” she scoffed. “I bet you still remember the way there.”

Graham visited that cave dozens of times in his youth. When he was a child and closed his eyes at night, images of the trees and rocks, and the stream meandering through the mountains, appeared behind his lids as clearly as a photograph. But that was almost thirty years ago.

“Come on, Dad,” Amelia said. “We’ll be quick about it. I’ve never seen a cave before.” He started to protest, and she set her lips in a hard line. “Don’t be like Mom. She never lets me have any fun.”

They drove on increasingly rough roads toward his parents’ old house. Graham turned onto a dirt lane and passed a sign that read “End State Maintenance.”

Amelia craned her neck, looking around them. “You didn’t have any neighbors?”

“Not on this road,” Graham said. He saw the gravel driveway on the left and slowed the truck. Through trees and thick brush, he could just make out the house. It was still painted white, but not the way he remembered it. The color appeared dingy now, and the roof desperately needed replacing.

“You think anyone still lives there?” Amelia asked.

Graham cleared his throat. “Hard to say.” He eased the truck farther down the road. “Your grandparents would be sad to see the house in that kind of shape. They were always real proud of it.”

He reached the road’s dead end and parked the pickup. “See that little trail through the trees?” he asked, nodding at the woods before them. “It leads to the cave.”

“Cool!” Amelia threw open the door, and Graham had to tell her to wait as he cut the engine and climbed out of the truck.

“Now if we do this, I don’t want you lollygagging,” he said. “We need to be back on the road and headed home by five at the latest.”

“I’m not the one you should be worried about,” Amelia said, and to prove her point, she took long strides. “You won’t be able to keep up with me.”

Graham snickered and followed her, figuring she would begin complaining about the rough hike at any moment, but she surprised him. Even as her blonde hair snagged on spindly tree branches and she tripped over roots protruding from the ground, she kept up her speed and her good-natured prattling, until Graham found himself winded trying to outpace her.

The trail’s outline grew fainter, obscured by years of fallen leaves. He wanted to stop a minute and get his bearings, but Amelia plunged ahead on a path only she seemed able to see, and Graham lagged behind her. Surely they would soon come across the boulder that resembled a giant turtle shell. It stood near the cave’s entrance, and Graham always marveled at it, wondering if it had rolled from the mountaintop centuries before.

“I can’t wait to see the cave,” Amelia said. “I’m going to take pictures to show my friends. Maybe I’ll get extra credit in biology class if I write a report about it.”

“Hey, Amelia, wait up,” Graham said. “Let me make sure we’re going the right way.”

She halted on the trail. “I thought you knew the way.” A hint of alarm crept into her face.

“I do,” he said. “It’s a straight walk from the road, but this doesn’t look familiar. I’m wondering if we got off course at some point.” He put his hands on his hips and surveyed their surroundings. Over the sound of his heavy breathing, he listened for the stream. He could always hear it, even when it was out of sight. But now he heard only the birds chirping into the ceaseless wind.

“I think we should head back,” Graham said.

He expected her to protest, but Amelia stared at the trees stretching out from them in all directions and nodded. “Okay. Maybe we can come back some other weekend, and we’ll bring a map and a compass.”

Graham threw an arm around her shoulders. “Sounds like a plan. Now let’s go. If we get back home too late, your mom will have my hide.”

They walked for hours before Amelia insisted they were lost and should stop. Now she trudged behind Graham again, grumbling that they should have stayed where they were, the way her Phys Ed teacher instructed.

She tugged at the back of his shirt. “It’s getting too dark to see where we’re going, Dad.”

Though a full moon rose over the trees, shadows snaked across the ground, hiding stray limbs and large roots. Graham shivered in the semidarkness. He heard Amelia’s teeth chattering. The light sweater she wore over her long-sleeved shirt did little to keep her warm. Graham shrugged out of his heavier coat and handed it to her.

The wind strengthened and whipped Amelia’s hair around her head. She pointed to a hickory leaning at a forty-five degree angle. “I know we passed that tree before,” she said. “Dad, we’re just going in circles. We’re lost.”

Graham turned his back to her and struggled to keep his voice level. “Let’s just sit and rest a minute, okay?”

Amelia settled against the trunk of a fallen maple, its bark blackened by a lightning strike. “Do you think Mom has tried to call me? If she can’t get an answer, she’ll realize we’re missing, right?”

Graham sat down beside her and patted her knee. “Absolutely,” he said. “Then she’ll go to the police, and they’ll trace your cell phone’s signal. That’s why we’re going to turn it on every so often.” Amelia nestled against him, and he hugged her small frame. “We’ll be okay, honey.”

Soon after dark, the sound of her deep, even breathing told Graham she was asleep. He closed his eyes and dozed alongside her, but the night air seeped through his clothes, and his shivering grew violent enough to wake them both.

Graham stood and reached for her hand. “We need to move around. It will raise our body temperatures.”

Her chin drooped against her chest. “I just want to sleep.”

“That’s why you need to keep moving.” He hauled Amelia to her feet. “I know you’re tired, but walk with me for a bit.” Looping an arm around her waist, he led her in small circles. The wind struck their faces like hard slaps.

Graham recalled the last weather forecast he heard. Back home, the temperature would dip to forty degrees overnight. It was at least ten degrees colder in these mountains, and the wind chill would make the air feel frigid.

“Come on, let’s jog in place,” he said.

Amelia groaned. “Dad, I’m exhausted. Just leave me alone.”

Graham gave her a shake. “You have to keep moving,” he said, the words garbled by his trembling lips. “It’s the only way you’ll stay warm.”

They jogged for several minutes before she stopped and reached into her pocket. “I’m going to turn the phone on again.” Her entire body quaked, and she punched at the phone with clumsy fingers. “Even if we had reception, I don’t think I could dial the number now.” Amelia looked up at him and tried to laugh, but it sounded more like a wail.

“Turn the phone off, Amelia.” He swallowed past what felt like a fistful of tears lodged in his throat.

She did as he said and returned the phone to her pocket. Then she stared at him, her eyes dull.

He fumbled with the buttons of his flannel shirt. It seemed to take hours for him to unfasten each one, but he finally wriggled out of it and removed the undershirt he wore.

“Dad, what are you doing?” Amelia asked as he pulled off his boots and socks.

“You need more layers of clothing, or you’ll get hypothermia.” Though his bare skin ached from the cold, he stepped out of his jeans and stood wearing only his boxers. “Come on, Amelia,” he said. “Put these clothes on.”

She shook her head. “You’ll freeze to death.”

“No, I won’t. I’m going to run while I look for the truck, and that will keep me warm. I’m taking the keys.” He held them up for her to see. “When I find the truck, I’ll drive to the nearest house and call for help. But you have to keep moving. Do whatever you can to stay alert so you’ll remember to turn your phone on every few hours.”

Graham helped Amelia out of his coat and her sweater, and then he tugged his undershirt over her head. He worked her arms into the sleeves of his flannel shirt and fastened the buttons, and as she leaned on him, he took off her sneakers and pulled his jeans over her leggings. He made her sit on the ground while he covered her socks with his own.

Graham laughed as he laced up the large boots on her feet. “Oh, if you could see yourself now.” He helped her stand and cinched his belt around her waist to secure the drooping pair of jeans. Then he replaced the sweater and coat. “Keep your hands in your pockets, out of the wind.”

She nodded. “Dad, you need to hurry. You’re going to freeze out here.”

He pulled her to him. “Keep running in place,” he said. “Turn your cell phone on and off throughout the night. Do not fall asleep.” The cold gnawed at his hands until he wanted to cry out from the pain.

Graham knew he had to leave her. He didn’t want her to see him succumb to exposure. His teeth chattered with enough force to bite through his tongue, and he was afraid to keep talking, but he kissed his daughter’s forehead and whispered, “I’m sorry. I only wanted us to have a nice day together.”

Amelia slipped a hand from her pocket and squeezed his fingers. “We did, Dad,” she said, sounding as though her mouth was numbed with Novocain. “I’ve had better nights, though.” She gave him one of her grins, and he longed to burn that final image of her into his mind’s eye.

Graham turned from her and tried to run, but his awkward gait made him stumble. He plodded through the trees, refusing to slow his pace until he was out of her sight.

His thoughts grew sluggish, and when his useless fingers released the truck keys, he didn’t bother to retrieve them. He was on the verge of collapse when he spotted a looming figure to his right. Peering through the shadows, Graham shook his head. It couldn’t be. But he recognized that hulking shape, the smooth boulder with the curve of a turtle shell.

Graham fell to his hands and knees and heaved his body over the ground. He didn’t feel the hard stones jabbing his skin. The cave—it was just beyond that boulder. The sound of a rushing stream filled his ears.

He crawled past the boulder and raised his head. The cave’s narrow mouth grinned at him, beckoning like an old friend. Graham dragged himself to its entrance and inhaled the musty odor, similar to that of a damp basement. Lying flat on his stomach, he poked his head in the cave, wishing to announce his presence. A word drifted through his mind, but he no longer knew its meaning. Still he parted his raw lips and called out his daughter’s name. As the echo of his voice faded from the cave walls, he took a deep breath and burrowed into the darkness.

What the Creek Carries Away

I’m super excited that my short story “What the Creek Carries Away” is featured at FICTION on the WEB. This proved to be one of the most difficult stories I’ve ever written (I lost track of how many times I revised it), so it’s especially rewarding to see it published now. You can read it here:

What the Creek Carries Away

Please note: This story includes mature themes and language.

Stumbling Upon a Wasp’s Nest

Last week, a friend and fellow blogger wrote a detailed and superbly constructed post regarding the author Kathleen Hale and her recently published article in The Guardian‘Am I being catfished?’ An author confronts her number one online critic. I’ve scaled back on a lot of social media lately, so reading my friend’s blog post introduced me to this story for the first time. I wrote what I considered a thoughtful comment to her post and then moved on to other things. Little did I know that I had stumbled upon a figurative wasp’s nest.

I really don’t want to rehash what happened between Kathleen Hale and Blythe Harris. Those who don’t already know what happened can read the article and also do a simple Google search to find many counterarguments on the part of book reviewers and bloggers. However, I feel that in order to properly address the issue, I need to spell out how I interpret the incident. I’m going to try to make this as brief as possible.

Kathleen Hale wrote a young adult novel called No One Else Can Have You. A book reviewer and blogger who calls herself Blythe Harris received an ARC of the book. Harris was also a prominent member of Goodreads, and she began sharing her thoughts on the novel there as she read it. In the beginning, she liked it, but when she read about 16% of the book, she started taking issue with it, complaining of the way the author addressed subjects like PTSD and statutory rape. I can’t tell if Harris ever finished the book, but her final review of it in January 2013 consisted of two words: “Fuck this.”

I’ve read again and again that Hale’s account in The Guardian should be taken with a grain of salt, and I’m not arguing with that. We’re hearing only her side of the story. So I’m expressing only what I’ve gathered from reading up on the situation and also from my fellow blogger’s well-researched post. (In case you’re wondering why I’m not linking to that post, it’s because I haven’t asked for her permission to do so.) From what I can tell, a couple of weeks after Harris posted her “Fuck this” review, Hale got into a snarky exchange with a reviewer (not Harris) on Twitter. Harris entered the fray with a tweet proclaiming that it was time to call out Kathleen Hale for her behavior. The book blogger/reviewer community’s wrath was stirred, and Hale took to Twitter to apologize to everyone. (According to my blogger friend’s post, these tweets have since been deleted, but people captured screenshots of them and shared them.) At some point in all this mess, Hale, who has admitted to having obsessive tendencies, saw Harris’s unflattering review of her book and took offense. Then she began, in her own words, to engage in “light stalking,” following Harris’s Twitter and Instagram accounts. Then a book review site called YA Reads contacted Hale and offered her the opportunity to pair up with any blogger she chose for an interview. Hale chose Harris. The personal account of the individual who runs the YA Reads site, where she shares her side of the story about what happened, states that Harris was confused as to why Hale chose her to interview her, since she didn’t like Hale’s book. But she agreed. Hale had asked the individual in charge of YA Reads for Harris’s mailing address, because she claimed she wanted to send Harris a gift for hosting her on her blog after the interview took place. Harris provided this, and it was passed on to Hale. It’s pretty clear that Hale took major umbrage with Harris’s review of her book, and she was eager to find out more about her “number one critic.”

Harris ended up backing out of the interview. Hale expressed her frustration to the person who arranged it, and then Hale’s behavior turned creepy. Since Hale had been following Harris’s social media accounts, she discovered what she felt to be inaccuracies regarding Harris’s identity. (I’m not delving into all that–you can read Hale’s article to learn how her suspicions were roused.) Armed with Harris’s mailing address, she decided to do some online digging, and she discovered that no one by the name of Blythe Harris lived at that address. Harris’s online profiles state that she is a 27-year-old schoolteacher. Her profile picture appears to be that of a woman in her twenties. According to Hale, Harris used pictures of this same young woman on her Instagram account and claimed they were taken during Harris’s recent vacation in Greece. Hale started to suspect that Harris wasn’t who she said she was, so she ordered a background check and discovered the person living at the address Harris had provided to the book reviewer site was actually a 46-year-old woman Hale calls “Judy.” Judy worked in insurance, not as a schoolteacher. Hale ended up renting a car and going to Judy’s house. (Let me state here, in case there is any doubt, that I consider this abhorrent behavior on Hale’s part.) While standing at Judy’s front door, Hale changed her mind about confronting her, and before leaving, she placed a book on how to live a happy life on Judy’s doorstep.

Hale’s obsessive behavior continued when she called Judy at work, not once, but twice. The first time, Hale didn’t reveal who she was, but the second time she revealed her identity. Judy became distraught, claiming she’d never heard of Blythe Harris and didn’t know what a book blog was. She also said that the profile pictures on Blythe Harris’s accounts were of Judy’s friend Carla, and according to Hale, Judy said that the person pretending to be Blythe Harris stole the photos of Carla. After this phone call, the person claiming to be Blythe Harris blocked Hale from all of her social media accounts. And now that Hale has recounted all of this in her article, book bloggers have come out in droves to condemn her behavior.

I’m also going to condemn Hale’s behavior right now. I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know if what she did was technically illegal. But just because something is legal doesn’t make it right (see factory farming). I expressed this opinion in my first comment on my friend’s blog post. I think if a stranger is calling a person at work in regards to anything other than that person’s work, that’s harassment. If Blythe/Judy feels threatened, I hope she reports this to authorities and obtains a restraining order against Hale.

But here’s how I stirred up the wasp’s nest. In case you didn’t know, wasps communicate using pheromones. If you unsuspectingly stumble upon a wasp’s nest, the first wasp to sting you will simultaneously send out a pheromone message to other hive members to attack. I posted my comment condemning Hale’s behavior, but I also stated that I thought it was wrong of Judy/Blythe to steal another person’s photos and pass them off as her own in the creation of her online persona. (In another review on Goodreads, Harris specifically states that she is NOT using a pseudonym and that her profile isn’t meant to be anonymous.) I asked how many of us would be comfortable having a (perhaps overzealous) book reviewer/blogger using our profile picture as her own. I also spoke of the bullying and mob mentality I’ve personally observed on Goodreads. (For the record, I am not an active Goodreads user. I had never heard of Harris before this incident. I am also not affiliated with the site Stop the Goodreads Bullies. I don’t know any of the people who run it.) The blog post author stated that she didn’t think Harris’s using another person’s photos as her own was relevant, and we respectfully agreed to disagree. (Because we’re civil like that.) Many people flocked to the blog to excoriate Hale and rush to Harris’s defense. I didn’t respond to any of these comments, because I believe we’re all entitled to our own opinions. I don’t feel it’s right to attack people for theirs, even if I disagree with them. However, these same folks started taking issue with my original comment. I kept seeing notifications where people were replying to me and calling me out in the comments thread.

At first I tried to respond civilly, though I felt my words were being twisted and taken out of context. I had to endlessly repeat that I do NOT condone Hale’s behavior. Other commenters said I shouldn’t assume that Harris was using a photo that wasn’t hers. They claimed Hale had lied and misrepresented so much in her article, I shouldn’t trust any of her claims. Well, if we’re going to take that route, then all of these Goodreads users/bloggers/reviewers are in an uproar for no reason. If Blythe Harris is indeed Blythe Harris, then Hale didn’t show up at Blythe’s house. She didn’t contact her by phone. She contacted someone named Judy. (Although it’s a big coincidence that after Hale’s contact with Judy, Blythe Harris blocked Hale from all of her social media accounts and is now, according to other bloggers, in hiding.)

Other commenters accused me of attacking people who use pseudonyms. I never said that Judy/Blythe should not have used a pseudonym. I understand the concept of pen names and the need to protect one’s privacy online. I couldn’t care less if Judy/Blythe called herself Jane Smith and claimed to be a zookeeper. I took issue with her stealing another person’s photos and using them as her own on her social media accounts. Is that illegal? Again, I don’t know. But as I said before, just because it’s not illegal doesn’t make it right. (I also issued the caveat that if Judy/Blythe is using these photos with permission, then my concerns do not apply. But that’s not what I gathered from the conversation Hale recounted.) Those rushing to Harris’s defense claim that Hale violated her privacy, which is true. But didn’t Judy/Blythe also violate the privacy of the person whose photos she stole and claimed as her own?

I will admit I spent far too much time responding to comments on my friend’s post. I tried to make my point in a respectful way, but I was baffled that so many people were not only taking issue with my comment but also seemed to be personally affronted, as though as I were attacking them. I thought to myself, Where are these people coming from? Now last week was crazy for me personally, and I guess I was a bit slow on the uptake, but I finally realized that many of these commenters were buddies on Goodreads. I also had a sneaking suspicion that many were also Goodreads friends with Blythe Harris. I’d angered one wasp, and the message got sent out that someone had dared to disagree with the current popular opinion that Harris did nothing wrong. The comments directed at me became more and more aggressive, and I’ll admit that my attempts to remain completely respectful failed at times. I’m not a fan of groupthink. I’m not a fan of people rallying their cronies to attack a person who doesn’t agree with them. I disagreed with a lot of people commenting, but I didn’t round up a posse of my own to back me up. To me, that’s cliquish, high-school behavior, and it’s the same kind I’ve seen on Goodreads. (People also took issue with me criticizing Goodreads and describing the mob mentality I’ve seen there. Goodreads is a huge site, and I’m aware that not all readers and reviewers behave this way. But there is an extremely vocal and cliquish minority who does, and you know what they say about a few bad apples.) I ended up getting called nasty, judgmental, a “vice and virtue vigilante” (which might strike some of you who have read my more controversial works as rather funny), and accused of trying to smear Goodreads users. I was also equated to those who shame rape and domestic assault victims. One commenter ended up turning on the blog author, challenging her neutrality because she was allowing me to express my opinions. So at that point, I decided to bow out of the conversation. I realized that by continuing to comment, I was actually providing some very sad people with enough drama to gorge themselves for a week, and I didn’t want to be part of that.

You might be wondering why I’m posting this. For one thing, I see that people are being referred to my blog based on what I’ve commented on my friend’s post. Because I did invest (too much) time responding to comments and trying to make my point, I wanted to explain myself here, as my words were twisted and taken out of context on the other thread, and continue to be. For another thing, I don’t like it when people are hindered from expressing their opinions for fear of inciting a gang. In my initial comment responding to my friend’s post, I wrote: “… the mob mentality is a real problem, to the point where writers are afraid to speak out about it for fear of retaliation. Isn’t that a form of censorship in itself, when harassment silences people through fear?” I still stand by that statement.

Note: I’m really tempted to close comments on this post. I want my blog to feel like a safe place where people can express their opinions without fear of reprisal. As far as I know, WordPress doesn’t have an option to approve a commenter only once, so I’m being very careful about the comments I’ll allow. People can scream about censorship if they want, but the way I see it, there are seemingly countless blogs out there where those who disagree with me are welcome to express their views to like-minded individuals. I will not permit commenters on this site to be bullied and personally attacked.

Warning: If you are a writer and believe you may ever be in a position where you’re beholden to book bloggers for help in promoting your book, or if you are or may in the future be active on the Goodreads site, I strongly advise you to think carefully before sharing your opinion here unless you want to (respectfully) disagree with me. For those who think blacklisting on Goodreads doesn’t exist, I’d encourage you to check out the listing there for Hale’s next novel, which won’t be released until 2015, but has already been flooded with one-star reviews. As far as I can tell, the reviewers haven’t read an ARC of the book, so they’re not attacking the work–they’re attacking the author because they’re angry about her behavior toward Harris. I don’t blame any writers for choosing to give this wasp’s nest a wide berth.