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Chandra's Blog

 

Entries in short fiction (3)

Sunday
Feb272011

PART 3 of 3, "This House" by Linda Davis

(Continued from the previous two posts. Click here for PART 1 or PART 2)

Today is the conclusion of the creative nonfiction short story "This House" by my best writer friend, Linda Davis. Her bio appears at the end. Enjoy!

 5.

 WALLS

The Romanies do not step on ants or destroy a colony of them, because they believe a nest close to home is a sign of future wealth

 

Europeans think Americans are obsessed with happiness.  In “Something for Nothing,” Jackson Lears says, “A providential sense of destiny could be expanded from individuals to groups and ultimately to nations – and to none more easily than the United States.  Prosperity itself came to seem a sign of God’s blessing.” (Lears, 3.)

A lifetime of good fortune had ill-prepared me for the challenges of hard luck. My internal mantra had changed from Someone has to win, why not me? to Why did this have to happen to me?? Sadness was only outdone by a profound sense of self-pity. 

I became careless. 

The year after Noel was diagnosed, I had three car accidents, lost my wallet twice and left things everywhere.  I stopped wearing a seatbelt. Got sick every six weeks. The cats went from pampered bliss to barely being fed. I even got some satisfaction from drowning with Ajax the perennial parade of ants that made its way into our home sometime around Labor Day. For a lifelong vegetarian who routinely picked up strays, and removed bugs found in the house to a safe spot outdoors, this was an extreme shift.  Blanca, our El Salvadorian nanny, spoke very poor English, so I stopped talking to her.  It was too much effort.  On weekends, when Blanca wasn’t there to tend to household chores, it was difficult to tell we had hardwood floors, since virtually every square foot was littered with toys, clothes and miscellaneous household debris.

I withdrew.

One of my accidents took place on Mother’s Day, which I can only assume was directly related to my dismay that the day went largely ignored by George.  I thought perhaps he too had become careless, until he eventually wished me a lackluster “Happy Mother’s Day.” Having my husband barely acknowledge me on Mother’s Day wasn’t the real problem.  I felt invisible to him. Or rather, more like his assistant. His frequent phone calls to check on how Noel was doing, his demands to know specifics of every report, at the same time he was unwilling to hear bad news.

“He didn’t too well,” I would say. 

“But he did okay, right?” He’d insist. 

Worse was his utter resentment of any time I took for myself. “You don’t have your writing class tonight, do you?” He’d say every week. My answer was always the same.  “Yes, I have it today as I have every Tuesday for the last two years.” When he questioned me on anything, I sulked, believing, because I was in crisis mode, I was beyond reproach.

I put up walls.

While it’s true that all parents give up part of their lives for their children, when you have a child that is Autistic, you give up your dreams too.  Wondering if your child will be a good student, maybe an athlete or an artist, whether he’ll marry and give you grandkids, becomes meaningless.  Now, the only goal is for him to be “normal.”

The repetitive hand motion that had been the alarm clock for his Autism is called perseverating, or “stimming” and most kids with Autism do it in one form or another. In “The Child with Special Needs,” writers Stanley Greenspan, M.D. and Sernea Wieder, P.h.D. say, “This behavior is often an attempt to compensate for sensory underactivity, to seek extra sensation in order to register input.” Some stim with their eyes, intensely tracking an object up and down; many flap their hands.  Oftentimes, stimming is accompanied by some bizarre vocalization, for the more severe, it can be a yell.  Some stims incorporate eyes, hands and voice.  (Greenspan, Wieder, 150.)

As difficult as it was to diagnose Noel, a year after his diagnosis, there was no mistaking him for a typical child.  He didn’t play with other children, he spoke in one-word sentences, he had a chronic sinus infection that caused green snot to spew from his nose every eight weeks or so, he barely ate, never interacted with his brother Julian, and stimmed for long periods of the day.

In an age when it’s hard to differentiate between schizophrenics, actors rehearsing lines and cell phone users on the street, you’d think society would be willing to turn a blind eye to a small child with a nervous tic.  But as Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “Men of cold passions have quick eyes.”  As much as I know that it’s human nature, friends acted oddly around Noel. Clusters of parents speaking in lowered voices to one another were the norm whenever we were at social engagements.  A blaring announcement on a megaphone couldn’t have made the topic of their discussion more obvious.

Even when a friend was exceptionally nice to Noel, I’d end up feeling bad.  They’d asked Noel twenty questions, not knowing that answering questions is the biggest hurdle of all for someone with Autism.  Like enemies outside a stone fortress wall, words seem impenetrable to the Autistic brain. If he happened to answer a few questions, they’d praise his progress.  If he didn’t answer at all, they’d say nothing. While the praise felt patronizing, the lack of it was worse.

As Julian got older, the differences between him and Noel became more pronounced. Not only did we have one child that was typical, and another neurotypical, in almost every aspect of their personalities, they were different.  Julian liked play, Noel was incapable of it. Julian talked non-stop, Noel spoke very little. Julian loved interacting with his friends, Noel only interacted with adults. Being alone with the two of them was a challenge since they both had very different ideas of how they wanted to spend their time. I often felt like I had twins in the physical sense: having to carry them both, changing diapers (Noel still wasn’t potty trained), dressing and doing everything one does for toddlers. But the bond that twins share, or even brothers, was missing from their relationship. In the playground, I’d sprint back and forth from the monkey bars, where Julian was, to the outskirts of the playground, where Noel was fixated on the wheels of the assorted baby strollers. On the rare occasion when they agreed to the same activity – like going on the swings – inevitably, I’d encounter some other obstacle, like not being able to get two swings in a row.  The other mothers somehow missed the desperate, maniacal look on my face. Many times, I failed to bridge the divide between their worlds.

It took me a while to realize that whenever I was having a really bad day, it was always related to how Noel was doing. The slightest negative report would leave me in a funk. The hardest times were those when he would do poorly for weeks at a time.  Keeping up appearances was about the only thing I had energy for. The reality of our lives was much different than the facade. Some days, my heart felt so heavy, the extra weight made it hard to lift my feet.

I turned to my no-fail system of coping with a problem: acquiring knowledge through reading. Therapists or doctors would recommend that I read this article or that book, saying, “This person is amazing! You’ll feel better after you read this.” I dutifully would track down said book or article, expecting to feel consoled, inspired, hopeful. Wrong. The more I read about people with Autism, the more depressed I became. I took little comfort in reading that Temple Grandin comforted herself with a self-invented squeeze machine, or that Autistic persons had to relearn driving every time they got behind the wheel. Most people with Autism don’t drive. (www.parentpals.com.)

In “The Child with Special Needs,” Autistic persons are described in this way:

Some children with Autistic spectrum disorders are also labeled mentally retarded because many of the component skills are severely affected.  Other children are considered Autistic but have unusual abilities.  They may be able to memorize whole books or carry out certain mathematical operations, they may even be precocious in some areas, such as reading – but they can’t connect intent or emotion to these component parts and thus give purpose and meaning to the way they function. (Greenspan, Wieder, 342.)

 

For the first time in my life, reading failed me.

Bad luck has a way of following bad.  The worst day post-diagnosis occurred on a sunny Thursday morning, when George and I had an appointment with Noel’s occupational therapist, Ms. G. Of all the professionals who worked with Noel, we trusted her opinion the most. We expected she was going to discuss his good progress, since he’d had positive reports of late, or maybe a conversation about kindergarten, just four months away.

George always begins appointments with small banter, a sign of what a true optimist he is.  I, on the other hand, sit tensed, feeling the shoes on my feet, and with my hands, the surface of the table in front of me. Mindful of the bad news she’s about to deliver, thankfully, Ms. G. doesn’t let George go on forever. She interrupts him, leans forward looking from George to me and says, “I have to tell you, I think there’s some M.R.”

 

 

6. 

ROOF

“70% of children with Autism have some mental retardation.” (Children with Autism: Parent’s Guide.)

The sad truth about diagnosing a child with a developmental delay is that immediately, you see them differently. They’re no longer your beautiful baby who delights you with the slightest action or expression. A lot of the time, the label is all you see.

When Noel was diagnosed with Autism, I had to fall in love with him again.  When Ms. G. labeled him as having some mental retardation, I had to do it all over again.

Falling in love isn’t easy for those whose emotions have been deadened.  One way to learn to love again is through the eyes of others. Admittedly, this is corny stuff.  But when you are in crisis, it’s surprising how useful clichés become. 

I have never met another father more in love and more involved with his children than George. Through all our trials and tribulations, he has worked tirelessly to help Noel. Other fathers of children with special needs do a fraction of what he does, if they stick around at all. I wish I could accurately describe the way George’s eyes light up when Noel walks into the room, but you’ll just have to trust me. And then there’s Julian. For all their differences, Julian is Noel’s fiercest protector. When we were in New York waiting for the subways, Julian stood by Noel, to make sure he stayed clear of the tracks and got off and on the train in time. When he’s around new friends, Julian puts his arm around Noel and says with great pride, “He’s my brother!” And Noel’s relationship with my mother is something very special. Sometimes when I’m having a hard day, I think of my mother’s love for Noel and feel better. He is, simply put, the light of her life.

Luckily, Ms. G’s diagnosis was proved wrong. And Noel isn’t hard to love. Through the years, the roof of our expectations for Noel has slowly been raised. Occasionally, we get a glimpse of the sky. Turns out, he really is answering all the questions asked him, just inside his head.

There’s a poetry to Noel’s Autism: the way he sees mathematical patterns in his head; memorizes the birthday of every person he’s ever met; learned to read by reading street signs and bus schedules; his undeniable need to touch someone when he sleeps; the enthusiastic way he greets people he knows; his love for babies and sleeping people; his intense love of being immersed in any body of water: be it bath or ocean; his adorable little face, framed with a haircut Paul McCartney would envy and cheeks sun-kissed with freckles; his adventurous spirit for travel and trying new things; his unrestrained belly laugh at slapstick; the little hop dances he does that makes his bangs bob up and down; the way he pretends he knows the words to songs and sing/hums along regardless; and most of all, his boundless love for family.

Sure, I’m worried about the day when Noel hits adolescence. Behaviors that were cute and different in a baby somehow become weird and menacing in an adolescent. Hopefully, love will see us through, as it has thus far.

Some say children with special needs are closer to God. Others say the misfortune we have in this life is retribution from the last. While I would never say I feel lucky to have a child with special needs, I will say – as many who’ve met Noel have echoed – if there is such a thing as angels among us, Noel is certainly one of them. And that must be lucky.

* *** *

  

BIO:  The Literary Review published Linda Davis’ story “The True Definition of Fat” in their winter/09 issue. She has also been a finalist in both Glimmer Train and New Millennium writing contests’. She worked with Antonya Nelson at Bread Loaf and Leonard Chang and Brad Kessler at Antioch University where she received her MFA in 2007. Prior to that, she was story editor at Wildwood Enterprises, Robert Redford’s company and worked in New York at Harper’s Magazine with Lewis Lapham.  Linda is seeking the right representation for her recently completed novel, A Kiss Means Thank You. She lives in Santa Monica with her husband and three children.

 


 

 

 

Friday
Feb252011

THIS HOUSE by Linda Davis. A short story in three parts...

This weekend, in three parts, I have the pleasure of sharing the writing of my dear friend Linda Davis. Her fiction has been featured in The Literary Review and has been selected as contest finalists in Glimmer Train and New Millennium. In addition to writing fiction and creative nonfiction that will stay with the reader long after, she is one of the savviest readers I have ever met, not to mention a steadfast friend and an inspirational mother. 

Linda and I met in Los Angeles 2007 when we shared mentor Leonard Chang in Antioch University's graduate MFA program. He had the good sense to recognize sympatico styles and put us together. We founded our Sunday Morning Bicoastal Long Distance Writers Club for Two and have been reading and editing each other's work ever since. 

Today, she is debuting part one of her stunning short story, This House. Enjoy, and remember to come back for Part Two tomorrow!

THIS HOUSE

1.

WINDOWS

 

         The Past is a Window into the Soul

The Future is a Mirror Without any Glass in it

  - Xavier Forneret


            My whole life I’ve been lucky. When I was twelve, my friends and I entered a writing/drawing contest with a major department store in Boston. There were over 5000 entries.  I was one of ten who won.  My picture was in all the local papers, and a poster size photo of my likeness hung in the downtown Boston store for over a year.

I’ve had “born” luck, easily attaining personal goals: becoming a member of the National Honor Society and captain of the track team in high school. And, I’ve had “superficial” luck: receiving six invitations to the senior prom, winning a radio contest for picking my ten favorite songs, or scoring a single third row ticket for the sold-out Elvis Costello show, just by asking.  

A childhood friend once remarked, “You are crazy lucky,” after I won an all-school raffle. As I sat ticking off each number that was called out, I thought, Someone has to win.  Why not me?

         My mother once saw a fortuneteller who confirmed my good luck by telling her “I see a crown on her head, symbolic of incredible happiness.” The one time I saw a fortuneteller, she said, “I’ve never seen anything like this.  Such good luck! Please come back in ten years and tell me all that’s happened to you.”

My lucky streak continued into my twenties and thirties where I successfully landed great jobs for Harper’s Magazine in New York and Robert Redford’s production company in Los Angeles.

         In my late thirties, I married my husband George.  We conceived on our honeymoon, which given the number of miscarriages and fertility treatments all of our 35+ aged friends were going through, seemed lucky too. I went into labor on my birthday and even though Noel was born the day after my birthday, I considered it the ultimate cosmic birthday gift to have a child born so close to me. 

Unlike many Los Angeles transplants, I had the good fortune of having my mother move to Los Angeles. As other transplants with children know, having family nearby is a saving grace. 

A month after we had Noel, we bought an old house, which we renovated. Six months later, the real estate market shifted dramatically. Two years later, it was worth twice what we paid for it.  More luck.

Two years after Noel was born, we conceived a second son within a month of trying.  Again, the fertility Gods were smiling on us. 

Even my bad luck was somehow good.  One rainy night, back when I lived in Boston, a car crashed into mine on the 95 freeway, setting fire to my car and trapping me in on the driver’s side by the median. I got myself out seconds before the car blew up. What did all the firemen say when they arrived? “Ma’am, do you have any idea how lucky you are?!” 

It’s true I’ve had my share of disappointments and setbacks: alcoholic father, parents who were too wrapped up in divorce to help me make good choices about my future, and open heart surgery for my mother, to name a few. But while my bad luck could be described as typical, my good luck was decidedly not.

 

2.                                                           

FLOORS

Circumstances are like clouds, continually gathering and bursting – While we are laughing, the seed of some trouble is put into the wide arable land of events – while we are laughing, it sprouts, it grows and suddenly bears a poison fruit we must pluck.

                                                                                              - Keats

When Noel was two and a half years old and Julian was eight months, I was strolling with them in front of Santa Monica’s City Hall.  Noel began to rub his hands together in a quick, repetitive motion.   He’d been doing this for about a week.  George and my mother thought it was cute; that he was imitating his baby brother Julian.  It troubled me.

As I leaned forward to maneuver the double stroller up a steep curb, the word “Autism” suddenly came into my head.  I had zero knowledge of what Autism was other than having seen the movie “Rainman.” Yet, like my certainty that I, as much as anyone, had a chance of winning the school raffle, somewhere in my mind I already knew this word was relevant to my life.

When I got home, I quickly ran to get my “What to Expect: The Toddler Years” book; the same one I’d consulted for sleeping, feeding and other developmental hurdles which at the time seemed insurmountable.  I looked up Autism in the glossary and found the page in the book.  There were ten bullet points listing the characteristics of children with Autism. Noel answered to eight of them. The description of Autism read:

“Autism is a syndrome characterized by impairments in social relatedness, language and communication, a need for routine and sameness, abnormal movements and sensory dysfunction. Autism is a lifelong condition.”

 

I lay face down on the floor in my bedroom, unable to move for a long time, inhaling carpet when I was inhaling at all. Noel and Julian were in the bath at the time and soon, began calling to me. It took tremendous effort for me to go to them because I didn’t want to see Noel in a different way. It was two hours before George would arrive home from work.  I couldn’t tell him over the phone. That much I knew. I desperately wanted to sleep, certain that if I could only lose consciousness I would wake up and discover this had never happened. After I toweled the children off, I put them under the covers of our bed, hoping to lose myself in the folds of the covers – a compromise to sleep. I remember feeling like I was looking down at us from overhead and seeing an x-ray of our bodies: Noel with a broken brain, me with a broken heart. The phone rang.  I knew it was George. He always called around this time. I thought about not answering, but selfishly I wanted to hear his voice even if I couldn’t tell him. Maybe it would help comfort me. Didn’t work.

His first question, as always was, “How are the boys?” “Good,” I said without a second’s hesitation. I quickly got off the phone, using Julian as an excuse.  As I hung up, I remember envying George’s last two hours of ignorance of Noel’s condition. Two hours later, when I showed him the book, he fell to the floor and unlike me, wept profusely. 

The next day, we paid an emergency visit to Noel’s pediatrician, Dr. W.  After observing Noel for over a half-hour, he declared, “I’d be very surprised if this was anything neurological.”  As much as I wanted desperately to believe him, I knew he was wrong.

Even with his misgivings, Dr. W. referred us to neurologist, Dr. C, whom we had to wait an agonizing forty-eight hours to get in to see.  Finally, we made our way to her cluttered windowless office, ominously located just above a children’s cancer clinic. Dr. C. did not smile or attempt to ease the burden of bad news with any smiles or consolatory remarks.  She diagnosed Noel as Autistic as casually as if she’d told us he had a minor cold.  It took five minutes.  

You may be wondering why no one had noticed Noel’s Autism sooner?  I’ll try to explain.  Noel was our firstborn. Although I’d done more than my share of babysitting through the years, this was my first experience with a baby.  So, I relied on professionals. He’d been at nursery school and seen by various healthcare professionals his whole life (when he was one, he had a blocked tear duct that required a minor operation.)   Although he’d walked late, many children do and as long as he did by 18 months, Dr. W. wasn’t concerned.  While he didn’t demonstrate any interest in his peers, Noel was intensely focused on adults, especially those closest to him.  He certainly had no aversion to being touched.  If anything, he sought it out, burrowing under covers and pillows and reaching his small hands to fit inside my shirtsleeves,  (Later, we would discover that this was indicative of sensory issues: a component of Autism.) 

He also had language.  Language plays a crucial role in Autism.  It’s the yardstick by which many children are measured: those who talk and those who don’t. Noel spoke from the time he was eight months old, sooner than his typically developing brother, although, at age two, when Noel should have progressed to full sentences, he was still stuck on single words. Lastly, we had the example of Dr. W. stating his disbelief at Noel’s diagnosis.  So, instead of being hard on myself for not knowing sooner that Noel was Autistic, I opted for my last sliver of confidence-building in the dreary, hopeless shattered dream days after Noel’s diagnosis: I had been the one who had diagnosed him. 

Dr. Temple Grandin, the most famous, well-educated Autistic person in the world who has garnered national attention for her award-winning designs of humane slaughterhouses says early diagnosis is tantamount to progress. Ironically, perhaps this had been, my last dance with good fortune: diagnosing my own son’s tragic misfortune. Needless to say, we never went back to Dr. W. again.

In the past, whenever I’d felt scared or received bad news I would think/wish/pray my way out of it. Things I couldn’t change – my mother’s bad heart, or my own broken heart –fixed themselves with time. When Noel was diagnosed, I remember thinking initially that I could outsmart fate, as I always had.

This time, there was no out. 

A dear friend said to me, “We’re at an age when we’ll all receive our share of bad luck: diseases, death, tragedy.  This is yours.” My good luck had come to a halting conclusion.

 

* *** *

 

TO BE CONTINUED TOMORROW.... Click here for Part Two

 

 

Wednesday
Jan192011

Writers on Wednesday--Melissa McNallan 

This week I have the opportunity to share a new author and the captivating summary of her first novel. Be sure to click the link at the bottom for more--the first chapter is on her website. Enjoy! 

Un(in)tended
A debut novel, written by Melissa McNallan.

When home isn’t really one and away leads Indy astray, finding someone to hold onto might be the only way.

     No one meant to give Indy a bad roll. Her Mom didn't mean to die in a car accident when Indy was just nine. Her Dad hadn't meant to neglect putting chains on the wheels of her Mom's car, though the facts concerning his neglect are up in the air on that. When her parents named her, they thought it was a fine name, really, original and all - Independence Angel Munson.
     At nine, Indy prayed for rhinestones and lots of them, including a tiara so she can shine as bright as Daddy says her Mom does. Aunt Marge had always cautioned Indy and anyone else forced to listen about choosing prayers with care.

Saving was what Indy needed. The stillness of living in Harmony, Montana didn’t offer it, not ever. The brand of saving found in a good God-fearing church was too frightening to seek. At thirteen, she already knew her whole family (except her Mom) was pretty much damned, besides the next life wasn’t on her radar. She needed to be pulled from the rut she fell into the morning she stumbled over the tire trucks Daddy left behind when he left her in the care of her Grandmother.

When her Daddy returns home with his girlfriend Lydia, who wears rhinestones and has the whitest teeth Indy’s ever seen, Indy dares to hope. When they tell her she’s going on the road with them, Indy’s sure her luck’s going to change.

The first clue that Indy’s luck wasn’t exactly headed for the better should’ve come before she’d even crossed the state line into Idaho. Daddy started serenading Lydia with Conway Twitty’s “Tight Fitting Jeans.” In all fairness, it did come on the radio and he was just singing along and giving Lydia loving looks. The song’s about a lady who is too uppity to have ever been inside a bar before, but then she goes in one and meets a cowboy who knows her for what she is. He takes her back to his place and screws her.

The next clue might’ve hit when Lydia explained the rules with the “Do Not Disturb” sign, “I’m going to hang this on the doorknob so your Daddy and me can have some grown up time. No knocking when it’s on the knob.” It was hours before the sign was taken off. Daddy’s bar fights, Lydia reminiscing about her old life in Vegas as a stripper, the greedy eyes of men as they sat along the bar made Indy apprehensive, but the only way out was a phone call to Aunt Marge. Things weren’t bad enough for that.

It’s in Bradenton, Florida, her favorite town, that Indy finds trouble, the kind that can’t be ignored. While there, she also finds Billy. He likes Kerouac and is philosophical about life. Indy doesn’t understand a lot of what he says, but that doesn’t concern her. She’s living the life Billy’s only been able to read about. She fascinates him. They might be the answer for each other....

 

To read the first chapter of Un(in)tended, the novel where things were never meant to go wrong but usually do except sometimes, visit http://melissamcnallan.wordpress.com/

 

 Melissa McNallan is a  2010 Prose Minnesota State Arts Board Grant Recipient. She has served on the Editorial Board of The YellowJacket Review. Her work has been published in The Storyteller, Empowered Magazine, Armchair Book Reviews, Rochester Women, The Plainview News and The YellowJacket Review. She lives with her husband Mitch, daughter Elizabeth and their dog Buddy in Southeastern Minnesota.