Dear Readers: I am applying to a yearlong program to help me complete a novel draft. As part of the application, I will submit 10 pages of a novel in progress–of which I have three. (Your best idea is always the one you are not currently working on….) If you are willing to read 10 pages of two different stories and let me know which one you prefer, I’d get a kick out of your feedback. I’ll post the first excerpt today, and the next excerpt (of novel #2) on Friday. My application is due Aug. 9. Just click on the comment icon on WordPress and type in the title of your preferred excerpt to send me your vote.
Here goes with candidate #1, a young adult novel with an environmentalist twist, called “The Other Side of Hopeless Hill.”
Synopsis: Thirteen year-old Hope Hill is hopelessly antisocial: introverted and brainy, she would rather spend time with the plants and trees of her family’s farm than take part in the Snapchatting social whirl of Eden Middle School. When a greedy real estate developer plots to swindle Hope’s family out of their property, Hope finds herself inexorably drawn to the forbidden forest of Otherside Woods that borders the farm. There, she unlocks the mystery of her father’s strange death, discovering a natural realm of powerful forces, one where “Hopeless” isn’t quite so helpless after all.
A small girl emerges from the screen door onto the wraparound porch. She raises her nose towards the sun, like a cat, taking in the warmth of late May, the early morning’s quiet, the birdsong and distant crowing of the rooster over at the coop. Stretching, she whistles softly through her teeth. A click clack of claws on bare wood moves through the house, and a soft, golden head pushes open the screen door, followed by 80 pounds of tail-wagging fur. The dog comes to stand next to the little girl, and leans his head against her rib cage. She pats him absently, feeling only the pleasure of his softness under her hand, his calm breathing and gentle weight against her side. She pushes her feet into knee-high rubber boots and admires their smiling ducky pattern, skipping out into the morning. The coming storm is still hours away.
Wordless, she and the dog head across the barnyard, down a rutted path towards the pine forest at the far side of the cornfield. The sky is a clean bowl of clear blue. She can hear the tractor at work in one of the far fields, its engine humming distantly. Daddy. At the field’s edge, the girl retrieves a small tin pail hanging from a fencepost and crosses into the dark curtain of woods. There is a curling stream to ford, a little hill to ascend. She follows a wooded path strewn with needles the color of the dog’s fur. At last, they emerge into a clearing, ringed with low blueberry bushes and stately white pines. A vernal pool glistens in the sun.
The golden retriever happily paddles in the pool while the girl picks berries. A breeze ruffles her light-brown hair, and she looks up from her berry picking, as if expecting someone. She waits, smiles at the warm sun on her face, and resumes her picking.
When her little pail is full, the girl walks over to her favorite pine tree, the largest one, with a study split trunk, and fat low branches reaching out in a gesture that reminds her of Daddy, opening his arms for a hug. She sits at its base, her back against the bark, and nibbles berries. She can feel the earth’s vibrations pulsing up through her legs and buttocks: the thrum of bees and insects, the prodding of roots pushing infinitesimally through dirt, the chattering of small animals and birds. She feels the tree’s heart beating into her, of this, she is sure.
It makes her want to hug the world, to take it inside her, to fold herself into it. She kicks off her boots and digs her toes into the cool dirt. The sensation of earth on skin inspires her, and she stands and pulls down her pink shorts and underwear, pulls her daisy-print camisole over her head and walks naked into the clearing, arms outstretched. Slowly, she turns, sensing the air on her skin and tummy, the sun on her collarbones, the backs of her knees, her bottom. She is trying to become air, to merge her molecules with the breeze, and for a tiny second, she feels a thrill of freedom and release. She looks up at the sky, the small clouds drifting overhead, and images that she is vapor, wafting high above the earth. She can fly!
Crossing back to the tree, she places her palm against the trunk of the white pine to feel its quiet, sturdy pulse. She wishes she could become wood. She presses herself against the tree, hugging it, trying to permeate the bark, to draw its tree-ness into her body somehow. She feels such love for it all: the tree, the dirt, the air, the animals.
A bell rings out across the field – Mama calling her to breakfast. She startles guiltily. Why does she feel wrong for standing naked in the breeze, like a little woodland fairy, drinking the pleasure of a May-morning into her pores? Quickly, she tugs on her shorts and top, shoves her feet into her boots. She examines the contents of her pail, definitely enough to satisfy her family’s appetite for blueberry flapjacks. Daddy can eat about a hundred and ten, she reckons.
She whistles for the dog to follow; he gives a watery “shake”, and together they turn to head back down the hill through the woods. But her heart is too full of love to leave without a proper goodbye, so she runs back to the large white pine at the edge of the clearing and gently kisses the bark. “Goodbye, Big Tree,” she whispers. “Thank you for the air.” A rumbling of distant thunder replies.
CHAPTER ONE: Field Day
Field Day at Johnny Appleseed Memorial Middle School dawned with a raspberry sorbet sunrise that would later melt into a perfect late-September day: crisp blue skies, cartoon-puff clouds, and leaves hinting at the blaze of color to come. Yet another day begun in beauty, but sure to end in epic disaster as far as Hope Hill was concerned.
As usual, Hope and Ian were up at 5:00 a.m. for chores. Sister and brother toiled wordlessly in the calm: mucking, feeding, picking, packing, opening gates and smacking the dusty haunches of this cow or that pig. Their boots were caked in dirt and manure long before most of their classmates hit the first snooze alert on their cellphones. Hope loved the early mornings, when the air was still and she felt her oneness with life – the birds sang to her, plants grew with her, the breeze blew through her, the sun radiated around her. Every dawn, she coached herself to savor it: the sense of knowing who she was, and that she was okay—better than okay, even–that came from simply being on a quiet morning. Because every day by 8:15, when the bus rolled into Johnny Appleseed Middle School, her identity as someone who made sense on this earth would be mushed to applesauce.
Field Day promised to be ten times worse than every other disaster for “Hopeless” Hill. The tradition had begun at the turn of the last century, when Eden Falls was still a patchwork of working farms and every student’s school day was bracketed by fieldwork. A September festival celebrating the harvest with playful competition in apple picking, cider pressing and the like made sense back then. But now? Eden kids grew up in housing developments with names like Golden Acres and Millennium Ridge, their parents commuting to Springfield, Worcester, Pittsfield – even Boston – anywhere they could find work. Field Day had morphed over time into a rite of eighth grade ascension at JAMS, a festival of competition and Queen Bee clique-ery featuring races, exhibits, a talent show, and most mortifying of all to Hope, the crowning of “Miss Honeycrisp” and “Johnny Appleseed”. JAMS students looked forward to it from the first day they crossed the threshold of Johnny Appleseed in kindergarten. Hope dreaded it with the fear of 1,000 lifetimes.
This morning as she worked, that dread oozed over her brain like molasses, sticking to every thought. She tripped over a grain bucket Ian had just mixed, spilling it and leading her golden retriever Finny into a paroxysm of snuffling, munching, sneezing delight. “Damn it, Finny, leave it!” she snapped, earning a raised eyebrow from Ian, who was hefting drop-pick orders into the back of the old Ford to be delivered later in the day. Then she parked the mobile water tank too far from the chicken coop and had to get out maneuver the tractor closer two more times before the hose would reach. The chickens clucking eagerly around her feet while she tried to work usually made her laugh, but this morning, they drove her crazy. She kicked at the dust and grumped at the birds and was generally surly in her movements. So, of course, she’d kick over a pail of fresh milk.
“Jeez, Hopeless, can you not try quite so hard to be the clumsiest person ever born?” Her brother’s superior tone stuck between her shoulder blades like a dart.
“Shut up, Ian,” she muttered under her breath.
Ian looked at her appraisingly and in a rare moment of magnanimity, walked over and picked up the pail at her feet. Her older brother was everything Hope was not: superhero beautiful, straight A’s everywhere, well liked by everyone, captain of everything. As if that wasn’t enough, he was also effortlessly funny. She once overheard their mother say to a friend, “Ian is my golden child. It’s like his own personal sun shines down on him.”
“What’s the deal, Hope?” Ian asked. “You freakin’ out about Field Day? It’s not that big a deal.”
That was easy for him to say. Ian, of course, had been unanimously voted “Johnny Appleseed.” He came in first place in every event involving athleticism (including bobbing-for-apples), earned three blue ribbons (for woodworking, robotics, and an original short story), and then won the talent competition with a stand-up comedy routine about life in Eden that ended in a breakdance and a standing ovation. His prowess led his team, the Seeds, to a win of historic proportions over the rival Apples. People still talked about it, even though he was now a junior at Eden Valley Regional High. Hope, on the other hand, anticipated a string of humiliations.
“Not a big deal for you, Captain Appleseed,” she said, angry color rushing to her throat and cheeks. “But I’m not you.”
“Oh, yeah?” Ian said, his blue eyes taking on a mischievous gleam. “Go ahead, take a poke at these rock-hard, manly abs. Go on, give me your best shot.”
“Get it out of your system, I can take it!” he teased.
He drew his arms back and stuck out his chin like a gorilla. “Come, one punch, right here,” he said, thumping his solar plexus. “You can do it, Hopeless.”
“Don’t call me that!” Hope didn’t even feel it coming on her before power surged down her arm and out her fist as she smacked him in the chest.
“Oww!” they both said, simultaneously, looking at each other in shock.
“I didn’t think you’d actually do it, Hope,” Ian said wonderingly. “You got some mustard in that right jab.”
“Maybe you should enter the pummeling-apples-to-a-pulp competition, I think you’d stand a chance at that one,” he laughed, rubbing his ribs.
“I’m not angry ‘cause I’m not going to win, hello? I’m angry because I have to even participate.”
“Listen, Hope, you may surprise yourself, you know? Remember what Dad used to call you? His little great-horned owl?”
“Well, he’s dead. And that helps me right now how?”
“You notice stuff. You’re not flashy or very fast—“
“You’re welcome. But Dad always used to say you were the strong one.” He put his arm over her shoulders. “You entered your nature fairy Photoshop collages, right? Those are smokin’ hot.”
“I told Mr. Z. I wanted to withdraw those.”
“Are you kidding me? Those are cool.”
It was okay that Ian was trying to be nice. But Hopeless Hill, the gawky loner/farm girl who grew vegetables and would rather draw flower fairies than snap-chat her every move with a battalion of giggling friends? Even Ian knew: Her 8th grade year would be a middle school hell.
* * *
Clipboard in one hand and a wireless mic in the other, Mr. Zaloom faced the bleachers at JAMS in full Field Day regalia: red shirt and socks for the team color of the Apples, white shorts and baseball cap to represent the rival Seeds. Students and teachers from kindergarten to eighth grade were seated on the grass behind a cordon of colorful flags.
“Esteemed colleagues and guests, students of Johnny Appleseed Memorial, judges, and especially, to our rising eighth graders, the Class of 2016: Welcome to Field Day!”
A whoop of excitement went up from the assembled audience, the younger elementary students in particular cheering with delight.
“All right, now, settle down, settle down,” Mr. Z chortled. “I know we are all excited to re-enact this wonderful tradition, celebrating our students’ many talents, accomplishments, and good sportsmanship.”
Hope sat on the soccer field with her 35 eighth grade classmates, grouped by team. She considered the other kids from her grade who were Seeds: A handful of sports-y boys and girls who played on Eden’s club soccer or little league teams, like Ginger O’Brien and Armand Otero; their class vice-president, Kyle Collins, and Abby Diamond, number one in Girl Scout cookie sales for the entire valley every year since third grade. All pretty nice kids. As for the Apples, they had wrestler Justin Ferro, the entire track and field team, class president, Peter Wu-Boyle, and twins Suki and Didi Wilmerding, the uncontested stars of every JAMS class play since first grade. They had a lock on the talent competition. Last but not least, there was the ruling trinity of JAMS social scene: Melany Dunmore, Tiffany Rodriguez, and Bethany Bubak, or as Hope thought of them, the “‘Anys”. Melany was JAMS’ undisputed Queen Bee, complete with sting.
“What are you staring at, Hill?” demanded Tiffany, who at 5’1” and 92 pounds was the trio’s tiny enforcer. She could cut you down to size with a single glance of her piercing black eyes. Her favorite target was the cafeteria staff; she once threw a full-on hissy fit when Javier, one of the servers, inadvertently splashed gravy on her sleeve. She unleashed a stream of Spanish abuse on the blushing old man, then loudly translated into English for the benefit of her friends: “I told him he’s a moron, and he smells, and he needs to take a shower and then go home and practice ladling gravy on plates, if he owns any plates.” The ‘Anys collapsed into self-satisfied titters. Other students did their best to look away.
“Hopeless, I’m talking to you,” Tiffany hissed. A movement in the trees on the far side of the field caught Hope’s eye. A light breeze was picking up. Puffy clouds floated soundlessly. Hope liked the way most of the tree trunks grew crooked, tactfully leaning around each other towards the sun. She wished she were sitting over there in the shade, maybe reading, or just listening to the birds.
“I’m not sure if she can hear you, Tiff, she’s wack, remember?” said Bethany. “Hopeless, HOPELESS!” Bethany leaned over and snapped her fingers in Hope’s line of vision. Hope turned her gaze wordlessly to Bethany and quietly stared.
“Jeez, you’re so weird. You creep me out,” said Bethany, disconcerted. Hope smiled to herself. She loved how the wordless stare unnerved people.
“Nice one,” whispered Nolan Colón from Hope’s other side, a fellow loser by virtue of his unfortunate last name, which actually didn’t rhyme with Nolan, but what snarky elementary schooler could resist the obvious smear? The Colón family owned a working dairy farm on the far side of Eden; like Hope, Nolan was a kid who worked early mornings and late evenings, with the dirty fingernails and animal odors to prove it.
Hope widened her eyes at him in a deliberately spooky expression that made him laugh.
In the background, Mr. Z droned on about sportsmanship and community, about there being no winners or losers, about character building and equal opportunities for “all JAMmers to shine.” This was fine with Hope – the longer his pep talk, the safer she was from the inevitable moments of humiliation she knew lay ahead. An ant climbed a blade of grass near her foot, hefting a crumb twice its size. Hope was mesmerized by his trek. Where did he think he was going? He’d get to the top of one blade, scurry down, and then climb the next one. An exercise in facing insurmountable odds with endless effort, she thought to herself. Like me. Maybe an ant is my spirit animal, she thought grimly.
“HOPE HILL!” Mr. Z bellowed. Hope snapped to attention and realized that her classmates were standing, arranged in little groups of three to six students each. Everyone started giggling as she scrambled to her feet in confusion. “Glad you could join us,” Mr. Z said cheerily, and with some affection – when he was not coaching sports, Mr. Z was the life science teacher, and Hope was one of his star students.
“You’re in group five, with Nolan and Ruby Feingold,” he said patiently.
“Losers!” Justin Ferro, team captain for the Apples pretended to sneeze the word into his sleeve, to the great amusement of the ‘Anys.
Hope walked over and stood with Nolan and Ruby, the transfer student from LA. One of her dads was a famous Hollywood entertainment lawyer, and the other was a screenwriter doing research on rural New England. Her outrageous fashion sense, ranging from stylish to downright wacky, was an endless source of amusement to the ‘Anys. Ruby, however, could not have cared less about the opinions of a bunch of suburbanites who thought an afternoon at the mall was high culture.
Ruby smiled at Hope. “Welcome to the bottom of the barrel, sweetie. The bad apples nobody picked.” She hung her head, feigning dejection, then laughed. “High praise, coming from this crowd.”
Hope smiled back. She couldn’t help but like Ruby; she was a much-needed breath of fresh air, with her sarcasm and costumes-of-the-day. Today, Ruby had somehow managed to transform the Seeds’ uniform — all-white polo shirt and white shorts — into a fashion statement, with a cropped top, shorts high above her waist and cinched like a paper bag, and white soccer socks pulled up over her knees, in the manner of thigh-high stockings. “Take that, ‘Anys,” thought Hope.
The first event was a three-legged race, followed by a human wheelbarrow race, and a fireman’s drill (each team member had to scramble in an out of a fireman’s “uniform” – plastic boots, rain pants, raincoat and hat – and then run back and tag their next teammate). Hope, Nolan and Ruby were dead last in each competition coming into the obstacle course. Being in last place meant they had to run the course after all the other groups already finished and were seated on the grass to witness their mortification: Ruby barely able to scale the climbing wall, Nolan flopping unceremoniously off the rope ladder into the mud puddle below, and Hope getting wedged in the tunnel tube, requiring Mr. Z and a couple of other teachers to dislodge her.
As the three of them moved on from the obstacle course to the exhibit tables, Melany Dunmore approached Hope. “Are you okay?” she whispered breathlessly.
Hope and Nolan exchanged glances; sympathy from “Melanoma” Dunmore was not to be trusted.
“I’m fine, thanks,” Hope replied curtly.
“That’s a relief,” said Melany, stickily sweet, placing her arm around Hope’s shoulders. “Did they have to grease you up to pop you out?” Titters from her posse ensued. “You know, I have to watch my weight, too,” she purred. “If you ever want to shave off some of that extra poundage, just let me know. I’d be happy to share my secrets. Now smile.” Melany held up her phone and snapped a selfie that would later make the rounds of JAMmers’ Instagrams: Melany, dazzling and, slim as a rail, and Hope, big-boned, disheveled, glaring,
“On to the tug-of-war – you can anchor your team, Hope. Ooh, and then the exhibits,” Melany cooed to her friends. “I’m sure your Tumbler is going to get a blue ribbon, Tiff! And Bethany, your death-by-chocolate cookie bars, too. Of course, my Tumbler does have more followers, and my applesauce cheesecake is pretty on-point, but we’ll see. What did you enter, Hopeless? Maybe a prize egg from down on the farm?”
Hope felt like slapping the smug smile right off of Melany’s face. Or like kicking herself for even showing up today. She should have taken the demerit for cutting a mandatory activity. She could have served a workday on Saturday, happily weeding the landscaping at the school entrance, or cleaning blackboards, or picking up trash in the woods at the edge of the soccer field.
Hope breathed deeply and let her eyes focus on the distant tree line that framed Melany’s head. She imagined Melany was a tree, and that a great wind rose up and tore out her roots, tossing her aside like a rag doll, snapping her scrawny trunk. The image, cruel though it was, made her smile – not the effect Melany was trying for. Melany may not have been the sharpest tool in the shed, but she could sense Hope’s malevolence and was surprised by it. She stepped closer to Hope, breathing into her ear, “You don’t deserve to take up space on my earth. You. Are. Nobody.” And then she pivoted sharply away, leaving those words ringing in Hope’s mind.