Hop to It
“It’ll only take a second,” Mr. Anderson assures me, but I know it’s a lie. I can smell the alcohol on his breath from his daily bowl of spiked Fruit Loops. How is he still teaching?
“I’m telling you, I can’t do it. It’s wrong,” I insist. He smirks and continues shoveling large spoonfuls of cereal into his mouth.
“If you want the grade, Miss Roberts, you will do it. Weren’t you just telling Miss Maloney you’d kill to pass this class?” he smiles weakly then shrugs his shoulders and walks back into “the liquor store” as the students call it. It’s just a shabby closet, but every time Mr. Anderson goes in, he comes back out with a full bowl of cereal reeking of vodka.
“Alright class follow me,” Mr. Anderson calls, his hands gripping his fresh bowl.
I clench by teeth and grab a bucket off one of the tables. The muggy air smacks me in the face as I step out the back door and begin trudging up Pioneer Hill. I can see the indentation near the top. The ribbets and croaks grow louder as I get closer, making my stomach writhe. I finally get to the top of the hill and join my classmates in a circle around the little pond. The water is overflowing with frogs and toads of every shape and size. An eerie hush falls across the pond, like they know what’s about to happen.
“Okay class, as I said earlier,” Mr. Anderson begins, swaying a little on the uneven ground, “Grab a frog, or toad if you so desire, put 'em in your bucket and bring 'em back down to the classroom. The stabbers are in a jar on the counter. One thrust through the back of the head ought to do it.” We all stand in silence. What happened to being given dead, frozen frogs like in middle school? Catching and killing frogs on school property has to be breaking some kind of law, right? A moral or ethical law at least! Also, could they really not think of a better name than stabbers?
“Mr. Anderson,” Jess Maloney raises her hand from across the tiny pond, which more like an enormous muddy puddle, really. “Is this, like, allowed? What if we refuse?”
“It’s your midterm, Miss Maloney. What would happen if you refused a midterm in your other classes?” Mr. Anderson replies simply. My heart drops. A failed midterm? I can’t even consider a failed midterm. This is the first time I’ve had an “A” in any science class, let alone an AP class. My parents would kill me.
“If there aren’t any other questions, hop to it!” Mr. Anderson laughs at his pun. I clench my teeth even hard. It makes me sick. I stare down at the muddy pool of amphibians, completely ignorant of the genocide that awaits them. I squat next to the water and scoop my bucket in. Amazingly I catch a frog, and stifle a sob. The frog frantically tries to climb up the sides of the bucket but keeps falling onto its back. I shudder. There's no way I'll be able to go through with this.
I saunter back down Pioneer Hill and into the classroom. Victor Simms wasted no time putting his stabber to use. Thankfully he must have done it right, the poor frog is motionless, spread out across the tray. Hannah Rink’s frog doesn’t look as lucky. It flops awkwardly around the try, as if half of its body no longer works. The stabber flailing around out the back of its neck. I stare in horror for half a second and then rush across the room to my table.
My hands are slick with sweat and the frog has given up trying to climb up the bucket. It is now sitting perfectly still, like I do when I’m afraid. I sit back down in my chair and pull the tray over in front of me. It’s covered with a paper towel and four small pins to hold the frog down when it’s time to dissect. Hannah Rink is crying now, begging Mr. Anderson to put her poor frog out of its misery. I am absolutely going to throw up.
“I’m sorry buddy,” I whisper to the frog as I stare down into the bucket. I take a deep breath and scoop the frog into my hand.
The year had been hazy. Despite the crystal clear skies and warm breezes of the High Desert, for twelve months my mind had been lost in a thick gray fog.
It’s an odd thing, to lose one’s way. I’d hop in the car and get to my destination without an issue, but wouldn’t remember the drive. I’d walk the same streets, talk to the same people and take care of my responsibilities, but I couldn’t get a hold of my life. My joy was gone. My peace of mind had vanished. My heart was numb. My attention span vanquished.
I’d lost my way.
The first year of grief is different for everyone. The first birthday, the first day of school, the first thanksgiving, a special day that maybe only the two of you had celebrated unbeknownst to the rest of the world.
Each day presses you down a little harder. The frustration and devastation of their absence hits you with a force so strong it’s as though your very soul has been sucked out of you. In the aftermath, you find yourself sprawled out amongst the broken pieces of your life “before”. The path you had been walking together now seems impossible, wrong even, to continue on alone. You must find a new way in this “after” life.
The first year was agonizing at best. I lost my way. But slowly, very slowly, a clearing opened in the hedgeways of my grief and I found a way to keep going. It still feels wrong, walking it without you. I don’t know that it will ever feel right. More than one life had been lost on that sunny summer morning, but I think mine is finally coming back to me.
After twenty-seven hours of doing all my body physically could to bring you into the world, you were placed in my hands and my whole world changed. I stared at your tiny little face; you looked just like your dad. I couldn't believe how tiny your fingers were, nor how tightly they gripped my pinky. Your eyes were wide open, and you were taking in my face with a focus and stillness I've never known.
I was in awe of you. I couldn't believe you were finally here. I stroked your smooth plump cheeks and rubbed my thumb across your fingers. I was so scared of dropping you, and immediately overcome by the fear of something happening to you.
The nurse came in and scooped you up to make sure you were doing alright. I remember watching her from across the room, my belly sore and aching. I was exhausted beyond belief but my mind was alert and aware of every movement and sound you were making. She brought you back to me and placed you gently in my arms. Within a couple seconds you fell asleep and I sat and stared at you. Marveled at you. I swooped my head down and kissed your chubby little cheek. You smelled warm and sweet, your skin as soft as a peach. The almost ten months of waiting for you was over.
I'll never forget it for as long as I live. My first baby. Our first kiss.
I'm more haunted by the things I see with my eyes closed. The only solution I've found is to run myself ragged from the moment my eyes open, so when my head finally hits the pillow at the end of the weary day I'm met with the dark dreamless sleep of exhaustion, and not Henry.
It was a week to the day after the accident that Henry started visiting me, though at first it felt more like harassment. No sooner had my eye lids touched he would flash across my mind, waving at me. His front teeth missing and his hair messy, as if he had just rolled out of bed. I didn't know until later that he was only seven years old, but he had seemed so much younger.
It's been almost a year now of Henry visiting me. Waving his tiny hand and baring his toothy grin. Sometimes that's all he does, smile and wave. Sometimes he talks to me, asking me why I followed him that day. A year later I’m still not sure. I've thought about nothing else these last twelve months. What was I thinking? Why did I follow a little boy I didn't even know? Was it worry for his safety? Partly. Was it curiosity? A little. But if I'm completely honest with myself and with Henry, it was because he reminded me of Joan.
The day of the accident was the twentieth anniversary of Joan's death. Joan Louise. My little sister. She had had the same unruly dark hair. The same toothy grin. The same sweet demeanor that endeared her to you instantly. She was only five when she died. Twenty years ago. But I still miss her with a fierceness that's hard to put into words, and I think...no, I know... that's why I followed Henry.
Henry walked alone down Old Murray Road. It's the same road Joan and I used to take as a shortcut to our grandparent's house. A narrow dusty road through the woods running parallel to the Metolius River. Henry was singing some tune I didn't recognize, kicking rocks as he went. I remember wondering why his parents would let him take this road alone, being desperately secluded with a dangerously blind turn right next to the river.
I was walking a good fifty yards or so behind Henry, keeping my ears alert to the sound of cars blitzing around the bend. He seemed completely unaware of the world around him, save the stones he kicked with his feet. He was nearing the turn in the road when I heard it. The grinding roar of a truck engine. My skin prickled and feet began running before I knew what was happening. Henry was still completely oblivious, bending down to scoop pebbles into his hands.
"Hey!" I shouted at Henry. I could see a bright red truck screaming through the break in the trees towards the bend.
"Little boy!” I screamed, “Get off the road!" Sweat was blurring my eyes and my jacket felt as though it was choking me, but I didn't stop running. Henry turned around, a smile breaking across his face, and waved at me.
The truck flew around the corner. I waved my hands wildly as I ran and screamed at the driver to stop, but I knew it was no use over the roar of his engine. I don't know whether it was God, or the neon glare of Henry's jacket, but I watched as the driver yanked the steering wheel to the right and everything turned into slow motion.
The truck, going too fast for such an abrupt turn, rolled. And rolled and rolled and rolled, finally colliding with a tree. Glass shattered, metal crunched, dirt sprayed. High pitched ringing blared in my ears and my legs wobbled. In the horror of watching the truck I hadn't realized I stopped running. A foreign and overpowering urge to laugh bubbled up my throat. Hysteria. My feet sprang to action once again, and I ran over to the mangled truck. The windows shattered and hood wrapped around the tree. One look inside and I knew there'd be no need to check for a pulse. The man was dead.
Despite the sweat pouring down my face and back, an icy chill swept over me when I realized I hadn’t seen what happened to Henry. Refusing to think of what I might see when I found him, I began shouting.
"Little boy! Little boy, where are you!" Nothing. I looked all along the tree line, shouting all the while, but Henry wasn't anywhere...and then I looked to the river.
It's about a ten-foot slope from the edge of Old Murray Road into the Metolius. The river is quiet there, practically silent, but deceivingly fast. In the madness of the accident I had forgotten all about it. I slid down the slope and stood along the edge of the bank.
A collection of logs had built up in the middle of the river about 25 yards down from my spot on the edge. I scanned the water for any sign of Henry. I assumed a boy his age could swim, but I couldn't be sure. I started hurrying down the bank. The water is thankfully a brilliant light blue. It would be easy to see him even from a fair distance. The ringing was no longer pulsing through my ears, but my skin was cold and sweaty. I was on high alert and barely managed to keep my thoughts in a straight line.
I was about to go back up to the road when I saw what looked like a small neon shirt wrapped around one of the logs in the river. I strained my eyes, and it was Henry. He was gripping the too-big log with all his might, his face was turned away from me so that his dark hair blended into the bark of the log. I was about to jump into the water when abruptly, thankfully, I remembered how fast the current was in the seemingly slow river.
"Hold on!" I shouted. Henry turned his face towards me, but I couldn’t make out his expression. "Hold on, I'm coming!" I ran back up the river's edge a ways and then jumped into the water. I let the current take me down to the collection of logs. I had never been more thankful for all the summer growing up along river, learning how to swim with the current. I tried to grab the first log, but the slime made it impossible to grip and I was pulled past. Two, three, four logs escaped my grip, and then I saw Henry. I wouldn't miss the next log. I grabbed the bark with all my might and cried with relief when my hand slipped through a crevice in the log. I had a firm hold and was a little over an arm's length from Henry.
"It's going to be okay," I told him, my voice confident despite my alarming internal panic. Henry was crying softly and looking out at the river petrified. The ice-cold water swept swiftly between us like it was being sucked down a drain. I knew that I’d have to be fast and precise. If I got swept away, who knew how long it would take me to get to the shore and back to Henry, before his poor little arms let go from exhaustion.
"Hey," I said gently. Henry broke his gaze and stared at me, wild eyed and terrified. "It's going to be okay. I'm going to get you home." His dark hair was matted against his pale face as he slowly nodded.
"What's your name?" I asked him, forcing myself to smile. He said nothing for a moment, looking at me as if he wasn’t sure I was really there. Like I was something from a dream.
"Henry," he whispered, barely audible over the flow of the water.
"Henry. I like that name," I smiled in genuine, trying to ignore the forceful tug of the river on my legs below. How Henry was able to hold on to that log at all is still a mystery to me.
"Okay Henry, I'm going to come next to you. Is that okay?" He nodded again. It had been years since I prayed, but I was desperate. God, I beg of you. Don't let me miss this log.
Forcing another smile, I took a deep breath and reached out for Henry's log and let go of mine. I dug my fingers into the first part of bark I touched. My fingers screamed in protest, but I didn’t care. I dug in so deep I could feel cuts slicing along my fingertips, but I was securely attached next to Henry.
"Whew!" I laughed, hoping to put Henry at ease. I could only imagine the fear tearing through his little mind.
"Okay, Henry. This next part is going to take some courage. But you seem like a brave boy to me." Henry looked up at me, his eyes uncertain but again he nodded.
"Now you see," I smiled. "I knew you were brave. Okay Henry. I need you to hug me around my neck, don’t be afraid of hugging me too tight. I'm going to float on my back, with you on my tummy and we're going to float to the shore back on to land. Do you think we can do that?" Henry looked back at the river. Tears filled his eyes. He was silent and suddenly seemed so small, but he whispered,
"Brave boy,” I smiled through chattering teeth. “Here we go Henry. I need you to let go of the log, and I'll pull you to me. Grab around my neck and don't let go." Henry gave another quick nod; his eyes wide and face pale.
"One, two, three, go!" I held out my hand, and Henry grabbed it fast as lightening. I pulled him into me, and he hugged me around my neck as he shook violently. My chest ached and eyes watered as I held him there. So small and frightened. For a brief moment, I felt as though I had traveled back in time and was hugging Joan.
"Here we go, Henry. Let's get you home," I whispered into his ear. With one arm tightly around Henry, and the other still clamped on the log, I pulled my feet up to the surface and got myself into the floating position. I took another deep breath and let go of the log. I put my arms out to the side, all the while telling Henry to hold on tight, and that we were almost to the shore. He continued to shake, violently but silent on top of me.
After what seemed like an eternity, we reached the shore, about a quarter of a mile down from logs, right by the intersection of Old Murray Road and Sisters Highway. Henry rolled off of me and onto the bank, and I crawled up and sat next to him. We sat there, soaked to the bone and frozen, looking out at the river, saying nothing. I put my arm around him and pulled him next to me. I'm not sure how many minutes passed before we heard a rustling in the trees behind us. I turned around and running down the hill was a small group of police and park rangers, and a frantic looking woman -- who I later learned was Henry's mother.
"Henry!" She screamed as she rushed ahead of the group and threw herself upon her son, bursting into sobs. I tried to stand to give them space, but my legs wouldn't move. My body felt as though it had turned to stone.
The accident was a year ago today, and no matter how hard I run, I don't think I'll ever stop seeing Henry. That small and brave little boy. He is alive and well, but I can’t shake the “what ifs” haunting me if I hadn’t followed him that day. His family was spared the grief my family was not when we lost Joan and I'm so thankful. For over twenty years I've been running, trying to escape the past. My therapist says that one day I'm going to run myself beyond repair and that may be true. But running has kept me alive thus far. And running saved Henry.
Midnight Blue is an enchanting color. To me it represents beauty, mystery, the extraordinary. It's contrast against soft blushes, bright turqoise and cozy yellows makes it all the more beautiful.
Free Write Post
I have no idea where this post will lead. My fingers urge to write but by mind is loud and disorganized. As I write I can feel all the clutter being sorted into the folders of my mind.
I'm tired. My kids have been waking up at random hours of the night, and I've kickstarted myself back into daily workouts. My body aches, but I'm glad for it.
I'm excited for the summer. In the next three months I'll be traveling to New York City, West Point, Boston, Newport, Kennebunkport, Montpelier, Fort Jackson, Savannah, St. Augustine and Orlando. Goodness gracious that seems like a lot when you write it all out. I'm excited nevertheless. The last three summers I've been landlocked in Oregon. So much has happened over the last three years. I'm excited to get away for a while.
I don't want to pack anymore, but I can't wait to move. I've been procrastinating but I can't avoid it any longer. The moving truck gets here thursday and I need to pull myself up by my bootstraps and conquer the kitchen. It's a daunting task, but considering I've moved more than twenty times in my twenty-nine years of living, I'll survive it.
The past has been bugging me lately. Things I haven't thought about for years have been swirling in my mind, and I wish they would leave me alone. It's funny to me that the past has come and gone, but it is very much alive, and very much still present. There are some memories so acute, I feel like I could reach out and touch them.
I've started reading regularly again, and my oh my, does it feel good. As much as I love watching shows on Netflix or Hulu or Amazon, nothing excites me or captivaes me like reading.
That's the end of my rambling thoughts. My fingers feel better and my mind a little clearer. Until next time.
Little Dancing Girl
It's only when the city sleeps her sould feels wide awake.
The cool dark sidewalks and street lamp light her only company,
The ones who see her dance.
Her light brown hair and pale pink skirt blow in the breeze.
Her petite hands float up and her feet begin to leap to the tune of the sleeping city.
She spins and swirls and bounds and taps with the orchestra of the night.
#writing #fictionwriting #flashfiction #writingcommunity
In the Quiet
I'm an introvert, so I crave time in the quiet by myself. However, I'm also a young mom and in the rare time I get alone, my head is normally swirling with all the ways I've failed my kids. I wasn't patient enough, engaged enough, fun enough, fill in the blank enough.
If I'm not beating myself up over the ways my parenting needs help, I'm thinking about places I'd love to travel, or things I hope to accomplish with my writing career. I think about my family and wonder how they're doing...specifially my two aunts who have each lost a son in the last two years. I think about my mom and how much she loves her sisters and worries about her own kids, as all moms do.
I love time in the quiet. It soothes my soul, despite the criticism I fling at myself. I'm comfortable with my own company. That isn't to say I don't have a lot of personal growth and work to do, I know I do. I may not like everything about myself, but I actively try to work on the things that need polished, or to change.
The older I get I realize that quiet is a luxury and being able to enjoy the quiet is a gift. There was a tie in my life when the quiet was something I avoided at all costs. I didn't want to be left alone with my thoughts. They were loud and condemning and angry and sad and confused. I would fall asleep every night with my headphones in, playing music, so that I wouldn't have to listen to all the arrows flying at me.
At the end of it all, I love the quiet. I need the quiet. Next to snuggling kids, it's my favorite place to be.
#quiettime #inthequiet #alexandrapennell #writing #writingcommunity #writerscommunity #honesttalk #realtalk #writers #writer #jointhetalk
An Honest Critique
I am critical. I have high expectations of everyone around me, even my darling two year old, and when those unspoken expectations aren't met, oh, I am a force of criticism. I may not always voice it with my mouth, but I speak it with my facial expressions, with my indifference, with my heart. I keep a record of wrongs and I hold them tight to fester and bubble, eating me away slowly. I'd say most people would be surprised to hear that I struggle with a critical spirit, but it's always been my demon. I'm my biggest critic, and I struggle to extend grace when an expectation hasn't been met by myself or someone working in my vicinity. It's so ugly. It's so lacking in grace. I'm a rule keeper, over acheiver, people pleaser, and harsh critic.
Writing is the only thing that truly quiets my mind. As an introvert I spend a great deal of time in my own thoughts, and they can quickly become a heavy fog if I don't get time to write. Journaling soothes my soul, writing excites my spirit. Writing is unapologetically who I am. All guards are down when I write. I'm so careful with words when I speak, and often times I don't fully expand on what I think or want to say. When I write, however, I can clearly articulate what I want, what I think and who I am. As a stay at home mom of two under three, I can ver quickly and very easily feel like I'm unseen, unheard. Writing brings me back to me. The world has been changed through the words printed or written on paper. Writing is a powerful thing. I love that writing is something you can get better at. It's like a sport. Some people are naturally more gifted but the hard workers get things done too. Writing is freeing, unlimited, powerful, adventerous, dangerous, and satisfying.
#writing #whyiwrite #writers #writer #aspiringauthor #alwayswriting