I have, for about a year, been working on a Middle Grade novel in fits and starts. But mostly with a lot of stops. It only has fifteen measly pages so far and I often wonder if I should continue with it as I have been, quickly bust it out, or give up all together. In a few sentence the premise of the book is as follows:
Natalie is a girl mostly alone and from a rough neighborhood. She keeps encountering an older lady who seems a bit crazy and has a large menagerie of animals with weird names. The old lady is bit disheveled and messy, but artsy and a mystery. The old lady loves books (something Natalie shares)and has shelves and shelves. As Natalie and the old lady strike up an unlikely friendship Natalie learns that all the strange names of the animals are literary—character and authors, so Natalie starts reading the books from whence the names of the animals came. She is a bright girl and a good reader, but doesn’t do well in school because she doesn’t see a point to it—her mother is too busy and her teacher seems to have given up. In the books she reads about kids who escape hard situations like in The Horse and His Boy, Bud, Not Buddy and A Wrinkle in Time, and she starts to see a way out.
And so here are the first couple pages. Comments and thoughts are more than welcome:
Lifting her backpack from the worn seat, Natalie slung it onto her shoulder and joined the line leaving the bus. Kids jostled and teased, pushed and laughed as they waited for the line to move. Natalie, at the back of the bus, stood apart at the end. As far from the chaos as she could. Cherry Blossom Apartments, the third stop on the route and, Natalie thought, the most embarrassing. The complex did not match its pretty Spring name. The long L shaped building was a weathered 1970’s brown with pea green doors and dirt splatters along the bottom half from the frequent hard rains and lack of functioning gutters. The roof came down low over the second story and made the building look like it was wearing a baseball cap pulled down low to its eyes. The windows and roof were newer, but the parking lot was bumped and cracked, a faded black with faded lines of white and yellow. Most places you could not tell one parking spot from another, much like the old, faded cars that were parked there. From the bus windows Natalie surveyed the usual parents and unemployed tenants awaiting the arrival of the kids. They were not many in number, but they were generally the same group every day. There was the quiet round lady in her colorful head scarves and plain dresses who had a baby in arms and two more small, wiry boys in high water pants who Natalie thought must be in kinder or 1st. There was the large yelling mother with dry, dirty blond hair whose equally large 1st grade son always smelled like pee and had inherited his mother’s habit of screaming. Also a quiet younger man with dark hair and dark eyes who waited for his petite, elaborately hairdo-ed sister, always giving her a hug and gentle kiss on her forehead. Along with those who waited for the bus, Natalie recognized the “burn outs”, as her mother called them. They dressed in pajamas or baggy sweats and seemed to spend the entire day in the parking lot smoking, drinking energy drink and telling loud stories. On the edge of the complex, where the bus pulled up to the curb, someone long ago had installed a picnic table. The wood was worn, carved into and rotting in some places, but was almost always occupied. Even in the rain. Nearby, around the table, there were an assortment of cast-off kitchen and lawn chairs. Cast-off because they were broken or rickety. Natalie knew the people who hung out here did not work, but lived on government money or bummed off others. Sometimes a face would disappear or a new one would arrive, but the group seemed to always stay the same.
The whole neighborhood was ugly, but Natalie viewed the scene before her with particular disgust. Her apartment complex was the worse of them and she hated getting off the bus there. When she could get away with it she would leave the bus line at school, slip around the side of the building and just walk home, but someone usually caught her and made her board the bus. The dismissal staff knew her trick and kept an eye out.
Natalie descended the steps of the bus and with her head down and hood up and walked the shortest path to her apartment. Her apartment was located on the crook of the L on the bottom floor, number 8. At the door came the familiar sound of nothing and no one so she went through the usual routine: unlocked the top and bottom locks, walked in, re-locked the front door, then tried the door to make double sure. Moving into the apartment she checked the back sliding glass door which was locked with an old broken broom handle laid in the track. Then she checked the three windows. When all was done she did it once more and headed into her bedroom. She shut the door and pulled a small discolored rocking chair in front of it. Satisfied, she dropped onto her mattress and pulled the cell from her jacket pocket. She swiped her finger across its cracked screen.
to Mom: I’m home. Just starting my homework.
She tapped the send button knowing it could be a while before her mom would have a chance to reply. Settling her small frame cross-legged onto her bed she pulled her backpack nearer and began to pull out her papers, library book and the food she had saved from lunch. Dinner and homework. She didn’t care much about the homework and what little she did care she knew her mother wouldn’t be checking anyway and neither would Anastasia. It was more something to pass the time. Natalie sometimes considered that it might be nice to get good grades and not have to hear her teacher’s lectures on applying herself. The work was always easy and it didn’t take her long, but mostly she didn’t see a point. No one made her do it. There would be no real difference if she did it or not.
Natalie shifted, sighed and stared at the math packet. Division. Simple. She snacked on the apple and bag of corn chips she’d stashed away at lunch and worked her way quickly through the first half of the front page, then set it aside. Pulling the band from her hair she let her thick, black strands fall and laid back on her pillow as she reached for her library book. She had picked it for its cover, a black and white haunted house that looked kind of spooky. She liked ghost stories and slowly made her way through her chips, trying to make them last, as she tried to enjoy the book in her hand. After the first couple chapters she found it predictable and a bit cheesy. Definitely made for kids. Natalie liked to read, but she’d read most of the good books in the school’s tiny library, so now she hardly bothered. Her phone buzzed, she tossed the book to the side and picked it up.
Mom: Great mija. Tell Stasia there’s frozen pizzas. Te amo.
to mom: ❤
It was going to be another long night. Anastasia likely wouldn’t be home or cooking any frozen pizzas.
She considered trying to make the pizza herself, but she rarely left her room once she got home. Instead she picked up her phone and watched what her friends had posted on the latest app they were all using. The ‘cool’ app seemed to change every few months. Angela had posted a video of a creepy looking mannequin at a store and Kasey a series of videos and photos with him using the big mouth voice changer. After a few celeb videos she posted a few of her own. She gave herself dog ears and pretended to lick her paw then used a voice changer, “Hey guys”, she said into her phone, “what are you up to tonight? Send me a message and we can chat.” She had to do it a few times before she got it the way she liked it, then as she waited she watched YouTube. Natalie liked funny videos, but also scary ones, although most weren’t actually scary. Music videos were ok too and she would sometimes practice the lyrics to songs she liked or songs that were popular. Natalie didn’t really follow any YouTubers, but she did try to keep up on who everyone was talking about even if she found them stupid. It was better to know, she thought, than to be left out at school when people were talking about whoever and what they had done or how cool they were.
No notifications came through of anyone wanting to chat, but she checked a couple times any way. No one was posting either. It felt like an especially lonely night in a string of lonely nights that made up her existence. She stayed awake, switching between her phone and the math packet, waiting for 12:12 am. Just as it arrived she switched her phone to the home screen, screen shot it and posted it. Twelve was her favorite number. It felt lucky and she wouldn’t mind a little luck in her life.