Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Jenny Adams and The Power of Words

I am thrilled to introduce to you a new guest writer here on my blog: Jenny Adams, motivational speaker and fellow anti-bullying advocate. She also happens to be my husband's niece! Today's guest blog post is a short introduction to Jenny and her work. Watch for more from Jenny in the coming months.

"I am an entrepreneur of a motivational speaking business SHIFT.Through SHIFT I have an anti-bullying/pro-inclusion campaign called "The Power of Words." This anti-bullying/pro-inclusion campaign was inspired by my own experiences with the power of words in my life. This campaign demonstrates to students the power of words and how they affect the world around them. The "Power of Words" message has a great impact on youth as I use a mixture of humor and frankness to reach them in a profound way. I also have a question and answer portion to the assembly along with teaching the kids a song.  I am also the former Ms. Wheelchair America 2014 and have shared the message of the "Power of Words" all over the nation in schools and youth conferences.

I also have a workshop, "Discover Your Identity." This workshop was inspired by my own search and discovery of my identity. I was born with partial limbs and have overcome my limitations by knowing my identity. I have shared the message of this powerful workshop throughout the U.S. in schools, universities, businesses, and conferences.

I know the power of identity from my own life experiences, therefore my passion is that youth would connect with their identity and purpose in the world. This is a great workshop for leadership and diversity training. This life changing, interactive workshop inspires students to discover and pursue their identity and purpose by unlocking the power of mutual encouragement and vision.

I also do advocacy work for people with disabilities. You may learn more about me and my story on my website

I believe in where I am going. I believe one day there will be stadiums of people waiting to hear me speak. I believe my business will go international."

And here's a fascinating article I found at Psychology Today that provides more information about the scientific evidence for the power of words and practical advice for moderating your own speech patterns to avoid inflicting emotional pain on others.

When Words Are Weapons: 10 Responses Everyone Should Avoid
Do your words do you and others justice?
by Peg Streep,

"Of all the adages that get bandied about, perhaps the most wrong-headed is 'Sticks and stones can break my bones/ But words can never harm me.' We all know from experience that it isn’t true –whether we wept with shame in the schoolyard as children, were reduced to quivering jelly by a parent’s criticism, or were torn apart by a lover’s contempt—but now science knows why.

It turns out that the brain receptors for physical and emotional pain are one and the same so, yes, you can have your heart and spirit broken more literally than not. There’s some evidence that the over-the-counter remedy for physical pain works for emotional pain too. It turns out too that when pain is inflicted intentionally, the hurt is greater—which is all the more reason to pay attention to the words that come out of our mouths. Years ago, when I was in graduate school in English, there was a professor who was justly famous for his withering put-downs of his students; it was said that his insults were so subtle and “rapier swift” that the victim wouldn’t know he’d been wounded until he saw the “blood.”" Read the entire article>>

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Forcing the Hand of God: Chapter 9

The whole crew and LinChing lolled about the front room. Rodger stared at the war-savaged countryside through the kitchen window, aching hands clasped behind his back. He shook out his arms, flexing his fingers before turning towards Mary Elizabeth. She went about her kitchen chores ignoring him.

He cleared his throat; the muscles in her back twitched.

“Mary Elizabeth!” he demanded. “We have to talk.”

She jerked around, a wide‑eyed look distorting her pretty features. She shook her head, wringing the tattered dish towel in her hands.

“No. Must clean up breakfast. Maybe later.”

“Mary Elizabeth, now.” He could see she was not going to budge. “We’ll talk here, then.”

She remained standing in the same spot, her head bent, eyes fixed on her wriggling toes.

“All right,” Rodger moved around so that he blocked off her view of the front room. “I’ve made arrangements for you to stay with the nice nuns at Tiandong.”

Mary Elizabeth recoiled like he had slapped her. He reached out to her, but she would not let him touch her.

“We’ll come and visit you—at least once a week.” Rodger swallowed hard. “And your father, too, as often as he wants.”

Without lifting her head, she murmured, “No. I must stay here. Have work to do. You go ’way now.” The dish towel dangled from her hand.

Rodger reached over and pulled her wrist. He bent over so that he was face to face with her and whispered savagely, “I can’t let you die in this God‑forsaken hovel! You’re going, and that’s all there is to it!”

She wrested free, surprising him with her violent strength. Her black eyes blacker, she snarled, showing even white teeth as she hissed, “I not go. This is my home here. Get the hell outta here yourself!”

LinChing had slipped through the doorway and stood beside Rodger. He placed a restraining hand on Mary Elizabeth’s shoulder, speaking softly to her in Chinese. Still she protested, until the sounds of “” dissolved into a wrenching sob. She threw off her father’s hand, pushed between them, and flung herself into her bedroom. The furious echoes of her slamming door caused each man’s head to snap up.

Rodger slumped against the door frame. LinChing touched his arm. “All right. I see to her. We’ll be ready in one hour.”

Rodger glanced at his watch, considering that it would be almost noon before they left and nodded. “I’ll help if you want.”

“No. We need no help.”

The words stung. He felt drained, emptied, except for his anger. He wanted to undo what he had just done and bring them all back into harmony. There was movement behind him as the men in the room busied themselves, hurriedly starting a poker game. Rodger stomped off to his bunk and packed his knapsack with overnight gear.

LinChing had slipped into Mary Elizabeth’s bedroom. The door eased open, and he dropped a bundle onto the floor. What few possessions the child had peeked through holes of a ragged sheet. Rodger thought of his sisters with armloads of doll clothes that couldn’t be stuffed into a single suitcase.

Out from the dark interior of Mary Elizabeth’s room whizzed a flying object. Only when it plopped against the chair next to Jimmy did the men recognize the missile as Mary Elizabeth’s doll.

Jimmy picked it up, holding it gingerly, as if it were imbued with life. Mary Elizabeth appeared, staring at them all fiercely. Her reddened eyes, swollen cheeks, and disheveled hair gave her the appearance of an exotic, caged bird on the verge of an escape.

Jimmy and Ted beckoned her. Ignoring them, she went to stand beside her father, not touching him, her head bowed so that her hair cascaded over her shoulders and covered her face.

Rodger walked over and jerked the doll from Jimmy’s hands and stood in front of Mary Elizabeth. He gently squeezed her shoulder until she looked up.

“We’re going to put her here on this shelf. That way, no one enters or leaves this house without your blessings. Just like when we leave the debriefing room.”

He slowly stepped over to the shelves and put the doll, with its grimy face and threadbare dress, on the end of the middle shelf, ever watchful of the kitchen and front door.

“Now it won’t seem like you’re away at all.”

She watched him. A smile played about her lips, softening her despondent countenance. A spurt of hope ran through Rodger.

With a toss of her head, she pointed to the doll and, locking eyes with Rodger, said in a beguiling voice, “I stay. Send the doll.”

The room exploded with laughter. Rodger embraced Mary Elizabeth, smoothing down her hair, brushing away the bangs so that he could kiss her forehead with a loud smack.

All the men ringed around her, each giving her a brief and solemn kiss good‑bye. Jimmy patted her head, then his large hands cupped around her face as he kissed her cheek. Ted held his hand open, palm up, offering her a pack of gum.

Mary Elizabeth paused, pinched the green foil pack in her right hand, then bent and kissed Ted’s palm. She faced Rodger, an outstretched hand before him.

“Please, give back ivory marble.”

Reluctantly, Rodger dug into his pocket, pulling out the marble, fingering the intricate design a last time before handing it to her.

“Thank you very much.”

Much to his surprise she kept it gripped tightly in her hand. Then she pirouetted and quickly left through the front door to climb into the jeep Rodger had parked out front. A group of Chinese workers squatted along the side of the building watching the drama play out wordlessly, smoking pipes, the sweet smell of tobacco and opium wafting in heat waves streaming off the ground.

LinChing scooped up the tattered bundle and followed. Weary, Rodger hefted his knapsack over his shoulder and made the V sign to the men in the room as he left.

As he drove, Rodger looked over to LinChing and Mary Elizabeth. No one spoke. LinChing’s long hair, done in a queue, swayed as they bounced along and Mary Elizabeth sat upright with the wind whipping her hair into a tangled mess. The hot dust choked them and the sun poured mercilessly over them. Rodger weaved around the potholes and planted land mines.

Two hours later with the late afternoon sun behind them, they approached the mission from the backside, where the garden and courtyard lay. Rodger leaned back into his seat, slowing the jeep and pointed. “Look at it. Isn’t it beautiful? I mean, look at it! They’ve done a hell of a job making something beautiful here.”

He eased the jeep to a full stop in front of the mission. He waved as he saw Father McBride and felt some of the tension lighten as the tall man smiled and waved back.

Father McBride walked briskly over to the jeep. “Good day.” He shook hands with Rodger and bowed his head to Mary Elizabeth and LinChing. “Honorable guests.”

Like Chinese fire dogs, the two nuns guarded the doorway, silently observing them. Mary Elizabeth turned sideways when Rodger introduced her. LinChing tugged at her, but she edged behind his back.

Rodger growled at her. “Let’s go look at the garden.”

They waited for her, but she would not move. Rodger took her hand and pulled her along, through the gate to the lush enclosure. Sunlight played through the thick and overgrown leaves; lengthening shadows danced on the swept dirt path. The pungent perfume of flowers and the buzzing insects stirred the air as they moved along.

The feeling of dread that had dogged Rodger lifted, freeing him from Mary Elizabeth’s overbearing presence in his thoughts. LinChing spoke to her in soothing, lyrical tones, but she would not respond. Rodger figured Mary Elizabeth might thrive with the beauty of this garden and the attention of these good people and have a little bit of security here. If only she would give an inch. Perhaps Father McBride could get through to her. At least Rodger hoped the kind-hearted man might work his own small miracle with this sullen child.

“Sister Grace and Sister Pearl have fixed us supper.”

Father McBride waved them into the mission, past the nuns with hands shielding their smiles. “They have grown the rice and vegetables, tended a garden of what you might call ‘a blessing of necessity.’”

Rodger appreciated the wry humor of the grey‑haired priest and was disappointed when Father McBride didn’t join them for supper as they sat at a wooden table with benches in a sparsely furnished room. Rodger noticed immediately how the polished wood shone and the floors showed only the tracks of their dusty shoes.

“This place is really nice and clean.” He smiled broadly at the nuns who blinked at him without any discernible expressions as they placed the platters of roasted onions, peas, eggplant and steamed rice upon the table. “I’m impressed. The food is great! Mary Elizabeth, maybe the nuns will let you cook for them, too!”

He was exasperated trying to elicit any response from this motley group, crowded around a small, rectangular, roughly built table. After the simple meal was blessed twice with words he could not comprehend, they ate in silence.

Mary Elizabeth sat before her plate, one hand holding onto chopsticks, her other hand staying clenched in her lap. Rodger tried to catch her eye to wink at her, but she would not look up.

LinChing spoke after a bit in Chinese to the nuns. Smiling at him, the sisters began to clear the dishes, leaving the still laden plate before Mary Elizabeth.

Father McBride appeared in the doorway. “Major Brown, why don’t we go into my office while Sisters Grace and Pearl show LinChing and Mary Elizabeth to their rooms.”

With welcome release, Rodger followed the priest into a cramped room, divided down the middle by pale sunlight pouring in from an uncurtained window. Father McBride sat down at a battered wooden desk and pointed to a lumpy, green easy chair “Have a seat, Major.” He extracted a bottle of whiskey with two mismatched jelly jars from the bottom desk drawer. “Would you care for a shot of whiskey?”

“Yes, but…” Before Rodger had a chance to finish, Father McBride had poured the liquor and shoved the glass toward him. Leaning across the desk, he offered a cigar from a nearly empty wooden box.

Rodger rolled the cigar between his fingers. “New method of conversion?”

“Just since I’ve been here.” Father McBride drummed his fingers on the desk top. “Small pleasures.”

He turned in his chair and stared out the window. “It’s the stark contrasts that drive a person crazy. The beauty and the war. You try to live as if nothing unusual is going on around you, but tomorrow you know you could be dead. And you have so very little choice or say in the whole matter.”

He faced Rodger again. “I suppose you of all people know what I mean.”

“No, Father, I don’t. I chose to be here. There’s a big difference.”

The priest edged his glasses off, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “I didn’t get a choice, I was assigned here.” He shrugged. “I shouldn’t have made waves. At least not in papal waters.”

“Over here, it could be a tidal wave before any of us gets wet. We’re pretty much out from underneath brass thumbs.”

“Major, the way I see it, God set up this game board, laid out the rules, and threw in a factor of chance—or free will—and divided his men into two teams of equal strength. The unknown reward is for the winners.”

“Father,” Rodger began as he sipped the whiskey, then leaned forward on the desk. “It’s a poker game, at best. Win, lose or draw, it’s a matter of luck and a little skill. You bet against the odds that you’ll lose your life.”

“But the rules, Major. Even your game has rules.”

“Well, hell, even the good players break a rule now and then,” Rodger swallowed the rest of his whiskey. “Sometimes the pay‑off’s worth it.”

Smiling into the last of his whiskey, Father McBride drawled, “And I’ll wager sometimes it’s not.”

A rustling outside announced that the nuns were making preparations for bed. Rodger stood, extending his hand.

“I’ll not keep the good sisters waiting up for me. I have a feeling they’d stand there all night until I was ready to be shown my room.”

“Do you play chess?” Father McBride pointed over to a corner where grey dusky shadows fell across a small table set with an ivory board and chessmen.

“Yes, some. But the sisters...” Rodger arched an eyebrow toward the door.

“I’ll see to it. Why don’t you set up the board?”

As Rodger finished arranging the chairs at the table, Father McBride padded in and sat down. Rodger swiveled the board around so that the right‑hand corner squares were white.

“Strictly by the book, eh, Major?” Father McBride scraped his chair closer to the table, his owl‑like eyes wider in surprise.

Rodger paused, enjoying the unsettling effect he had on the priest. “Playing by the rules makes the victory sweeter.”

“You choose your color, Major.”

“I’ll be Black, you’ll be White.”

Rubbing his hands together and smiling broadly, Father McBride replied, “It’s amazing how everyday things can be read as symbolic. Let us begin the battle.”

The first seven moves, Rodger played it safe, or seemingly so. Father McBride played skillfully, once in a while eyeing Rodger severely.

At one point, Father McBride whispered, “J’adoube,” then reached over and straightened his Queen.

On the eleventh move Rodger lost his Bishop. Father McBride waved a long, gnarled finger at him, admonishing,
“Prudence, young man, prudence!”

By the twenty‑second move, Rodger had sacrificed his two Rooks, then forced Father McBride into taking the Black Queen. That left Rodger with a single Pawn and checkmate. Father McBride sat back against the chair, stunned.

“So you see, Father, prudence doesn’t always win the game,” Rodger leaned back, stifling a yawn. “I admire your skill and judgment, though. You gave me a run for my money.”

“And you, Major, sacrificed all your men for the ultimate victory—on a long shot I’d play it close, too. You’ll end up a general before too long.” Father McBride stretched, his bones cracked audibly. “Shall we retire?”

“Another game next time,” Rodger offered his hand to Father McBride. “I’ll be bringing LinChing as often as possible to see Mary Elizabeth.”

“Yes, yes. Goodnight.” Father McBride released his grip on Rodger’s hand.

Customarily, Rodger knew, the men would sleep in separate rooms away from the main quarters. As he walked down the corridor, Sister Grace fell in step with him. He pointed to a room he presumed was Mary Elizabeth’s, raised an eyebrow, and stopped before the door. Sister Grace shook her head sternly. Rodger ignored her frown and tipped the door open.

Mary Elizabeth sat huddled in the corner on a mattress, hands clasped about her knees, head bent into her folded arms, rocking herself back and forth. She seemed, in a way, to be meditating.

“Goodnight, Bright Eyes.” Rodger shut the door, moving quickly away from her room into his own. Her eerie silence had unnerved him.

He had a hard time closing off his mind from the last image of her. All through the night he dreamed of desperately crawling through one tunnel after another, never finding the end. He awoke before full break of dawn, glad to shake off the nightmare.

He shaved, then searched until he found LinChing. LinChing sat deep in meditation on the patio ground. Rodger hesitated, remaining still until LinChing stirred, then eased himself down onto the ground as quietly as possible.

“Do you think we can move out early?”

He should have noticed the difference in LinChing’s demeanor: his total composure, his smooth brow and his pursed lips should have been the tip-off.

“I must stay with her.”

“Look, I know it’s tough for you. And her. But, without a mechanic, we’re grounded. You know that.”

LinChing raised his arm, then let it fall. “For her, sun will set and eternal night come.”

Rodger could chew that kind of logic to bits and spit it out right between LinChing’s eyes. He stood.

Towering over LinChing, he murmured, “I’ll be back in three days to get you.” He stepped away. “Tell her I’ll bring her something.”

He bolted down his breakfast of hard crusted bread and coffee. Father McBride and the nuns were weeding the garden when he looked out the kitchen window. He acknowledged them with a wave that he was leaving. He snatched his knapsack and left. Alone, Rodger drove fast and recklessly the next two hours back to the base. The mid‑morning heat sucked away his perspiration. He forced his thoughts on the next sortie, getting off the ground, into battle.

Gunfire rumbled in the background, making Rodger uneasy. Orders meant nothing to outlaw flyers, to Aces. Especially to someone like McGree.

Rodger leaped from the jeep and sprinted to the revetments. Two planes gone. McGree and Summers.

Rodger let the door slam behind him. Jimmy sprung out of his bunk, ready on the defensive.

“What the hell are they doing?” Rodger boomed.

“Uh, sir, McGree’s out. Uh,” Jimmy ran his hand through his hair, “Will an’ Ted went out just after you all left. Summers bought it.”

“Damn.” Rodger turned away. “I can’t leave any one of you bastards for a minute that you don’t think you’re bigger and better than God Almighty.” Rodger threw his gear down.
“So what the hell is McGree doing?”

“Lookin’ for spare parts from Summers’ plane.” Jimmy shifted from one foot to the other. “We’re gonna pick ’em up late tonight.”

Rodger heard McGree’s plane rumble in. “Tell him I want to see him immediately.”

“Yes, sir.” Jimmy hastily put on pants and ran outside.

When McGree ambled through the door, Rodger looked up from the maps spread across the table. “This better be good.”

“Well, sir, it was pretty routine up ’til we got to where the convoy was crossin’ the French-Indochina side. We sorta cleared the ground area. Nothin’ in sight—no planes or heavy stuff. Then three Nates came outta nowhere. It got pretty hectic, ya know, three against two. I got on Summers’ left wing. But one Jap stayed on our tails. I figure Summers was dead before he smoked out.”

“How is it you managed to evade three planes?” Rodger punched his pencil through his fingers.

“Flat out flew ’em”

“Did any follow you back here?”

“No, sir! I did some switchbacks.”

Rodger scrutinized McGree’s face, wanting to find a sign, any sign of a discrepancy. McGree was a crack flyer in a P‑40, but headstrong and heartless.

“Damned careless. No planning, no back‑up.”

Rodger tapped the pencil on the map. It was more likely McGree and Summers had gone their separate ways looking for their own sandbox to play in. Rodger gave up, knowing it was a futile attempt to convince McGree that everyone had to be a keeper of sorts. Out here, it was like running with a pack of wild dogs; God help the fallen leader.

“Find Summers’ plane while you were out there?”

“Yes, sir. Jimmy and me are gonna go out after dark for parts.”

“Not out of bounds, is it?”

“No, sir.” McGree stared back at Rodger.

Lying. Rodger knew it.

It would be risky taking the planes up without LinChing here, but Rodger hesitated only for a moment. “You and Jimmy fly wingman to me and Steve. We’re gonna have a looksee at the countryside.”

Rodger suited up. He checked his .45 automatic, fingered the leg‑zippered pocket for his knife, his side for a smaller pistol. He wondered if he could really use it if his plane were downed. It would just depend. But it was damned reassuring.

Rodger led the way to the revetments, shouting and waving away the coolies. Like a swarm of locust, they scattered.

“Off the field!”

Each pilot did a preflight, climbed aboard and taxied into position. The roars of engines deafened all other noises, and the violent vibrations were like a tuning process for Rodger that brought him and his plane in harmony. Pushing the throttle forward, he nosed the fine body around to face the wind. At the point of separation, the ground trailing underneath the wheels and wings, his head lightened, each thought riveted on flying. He felt like an eagle on wing.

Off to his left, Steve joined him. Maintaining radio silence, they flashed each other an “okay” hand signal.

Long stretches of the countryside showed no signs of wartime activity. The teeming vegetation was interrupted only by patches of rice paddies where short, bow‑legged men, women and children bent low to harvest crops.

At the sounds of their low‑flying planes, mothers on the run scooped up babies and tied them onto their backs. As Rodger and Steve flew past, they moved back into the fields.

“Damn,” Rodger swore under his breath. It meant these people recognized American planes.

It wasn’t much of a mission. There was no air warfare. Back on the ground, Rodger could almost touch the frustration in his men. They all wanted action. Any action. He suspected more than ever that McGree and Summers had created some of their own.

Under the black, cloudy night, the Japanese raided their base. Except for Will and Jimmy, none of the other Tigers made it to his plane in time to get into the air. The two airmen returned shortly after midnight. No one was hurt, but irreparable damage had been done to the buildings.

The men milled about, cursing at one another and the sky overhead. Rodger inspected the minor damages done to the planes. They would have to pack up and move.

Rodger would have to make LinChing leave Mary Elizabeth and return to base. He needed his best mechanic.

Pointing to an area map inside what was left of the briefing room, Rodger stabbed at a spot that was Bose, forty‑five minutes from Tiandong. “Like it or not,” he spoke harshly aloud, “LinChing comes back.” He assigned a crew to go set up a new base.

McGree hefted a crate, shifting his weight to turn around. “Tell him we got spare parts. From Ted’s plane.”

Rodger glared at McGree. His last sortie with Summers had been responsible for the Japs finding them. He had led them right here.

“Some peace offering that is,” Rodger grumbled. But at the moment, it was all he had to offer the old man.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Bully Dogs Chapter 8: Where's a Good Magician When You Need One?

“Well, Frances, how did your day go?” Mom asked as I came into the kitchen. She’d baked chocolate chip cookies, and the two biggest ones were still warm, perfect with cold milk.

I shrugged. “Nothing much to tell.”

“Nothing, Frances? Are you sure?” She had that look that told me she knew something, but I couldn’t figure out what.

“Huh?” I looked real hard at her, hoping to find a clue in her face.

“Mrs. Hammershaw called me today. About that incident on the playground.”

“Oh, that. There’s nothing really to tell, Mom. Annie, Marcy, Sue, Ursala, and I were talking, and really, that’s between us, anyway.”

“That’s what I figured. I told Mrs. Hammershaw I thought the best thing to do was let you girls work it out.”

Good, I thought, we wouldn’t have to go into it anymore.

“But,” she added with a dramatic pause, “you might give some thought to how much alike you and Marcy are.”

I choked, not having expected anything like that from her. “No, way!” I sputtered.

She stood with her hands on her hips, her eyes piercing into my head to see how my brain worked. I tried not to move a muscle, just watching her as she continued.

“It takes two for a conflict. Without you, Marcy will find someone else to put down so she looks good. You’re convenient because you’re a volunteer.”

She paused, I assumed, to let that sink into the many holes she’d just bored into my head. In a softer voice she added, “You’ll have to face her, or someone like her, the rest of your life. You can’t just wish your problems away, dear, because they come back at you like rabid dogs.”

“Bully dogs,” I groaned, feeling that Marcy and the bully dogs were a huge lump of concrete I had to carry in my backpack everyday.

“What bully dogs?” my mom asked, leaning across the counter on her elbows.

It had just slipped out, and I couldn’t figure anyway to take it back. “Old mean, Mr. Wessenfeld’s dogs. Sometimes they chase me on the way to school.”

“And what do you do?” Leave it to my mom to ask the obvious.

“I run from them.” I wished I could have just nipped another cookie from the plate without her seeing me.

Then she pointed to the plate. “Have one more and tell me how long has this been going on.” She pushed those wonderful, chocolaty cookies toward me.

“They’re usually out at seven-thirty. Most times they chase me to the school yard.”

“Do they go after anyone else?” My mom looked at me, and suddenly those cookies lost their taste.

“No—um—I don’t know! Sometimes they go after a cat or squirrel, or Mr. Wessenfeld calls them back.”

“Frances,” I could see that my mom was thinking, and that always spelled trouble for me, “I want you to go talk with Mr. Wessenfeld. Tell him you’re having a problem with his dogs.”

“Mom! I can’t do that! No way am I going near those bloodthirsty dogs!!!!” I realized I had just shouted at my mom, and she was not looking real happy. “Mom,” I begged. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. “Can’t you understand I can’t go there? What am I supposed to do, walk through the yard right up to the front door? Those dogs wouldn’t let me past the gate.” My mom wasn’t softening up one bit. “I don’t know what to say to Mr. Wessenfeld. Can’t you call him and explain things, please? You’re an adult. You know, do it adult-to-adult.”

She shook her ugly head no, and I thought I was going to be sick to my stomach. “I’m not going to do it.” The tears came, but I didn’t care. I imagined only too well what those bully dogs would do to me. “I’m too young to die like that.”

She brushed the tears from my cheeks. “You’re too young to let fear dominate you, Fran. Knowing how to be brave isn’t reciting a spell or saying the right words like in the fairy tales; and you’ll never find a book that gives you a simple, magic formula. The magic is inside yourself, here,” she said, patting the place where my heart was about to go into cardiac arrest, “and here,” as she touched my forehead. “You have to think yourself brave and then make yourself act bravely. Even though you’re scared, you do what has to be done. Then, each time you tackle something you fear and overcome it, you’ve won a major battle for yourself. But you have to make up your mind to do it.”

Sounded to me like I was off the hook. I dried my tears and nibbled on the rest of my cookie. “I’ll go see Mr. Wessenfeld tomorrow.”

My mom handed me a tissue. “No, you’ll go see him today.”

I didn’t argue with her, not when she was standing in front of me looking like General Patton ordering his troops into battle. Only I wasn’t sure if I could make myself go, that’s how frightened I was.

“Then I might as well go right now.” I don’t know why I said that, maybe because I felt doomed anyway. “I’ll change my clothes before I go.”

“Oh, don’t bother, honey. You can do that when you come home.” My mom walked me down the hall, giving me a hug as she pushed me out the door.

I couldn’t make myself move off the porch. In my head, I saw the bully dogs tearing into me as I walked into their yard. Well, at least my mom wouldn’t get any money back at the school clothing exchange if she’d try to turn in my uniform all torn and bloodied.

I wondered if Carol and Pattie would come see me in the hospital. Maybe they’d bring me some games, like Hangman and Connect-Four. And books. I could read a lot if I were lying in bed all day waiting for my thousands of wounds to heal.

I couldn’t stand there all day on the porch. The Wessenfeld’s house seemed a lot closer than it usually did when I’d leave for school. By the time I got as far as the Patterson’s house next door to the Wessenfeld’s, the dogs were barking and jumping at the gate. I stayed right where I was on the sidewalk, like I was frozen or something. Sweat trickled down my sides. I’ve heard dogs smell fear, and I’m sure I reeked enough that a dog clear over on the other side of town knew how scared I was. That probably made those bozos feel like the Super Dogs.

I couldn’t believe my feet were moving! But I began inching along until I stepped onto the driveway and then stopped. I couldn’t go on, and I couldn’t go home. I stared at the dogs, and that made them crazier. I took little steps closer, and the black Lab charged the gate, making the posts creak. I stopped dead still. The dogs and I locked eyes, only they continued to bark, and I no longer had a voice to call for help or anything.

“Whaddya want?” Mr. Wessenfeld materialized out of nowhere, looming over the gate, waving a book at me. “If you’re selling cookies, I don’t want any. Go ‘way.”

I’m sure no one would want to sell him any cookies. Besides, it was almost May; the Girl Scout Cookie Drive was in February. And he couldn’t make me disappear with a wave and command, not when I’d gotten this close. “No!” popped out of my mouth, and real loud, too!

Mr. Wessenfeld looked at me as if I had three heads and green hair. “Whaddya mean, ‘no’?”

I shook my head, more to loosen my thoughts than anything else. “I’m not selling cookies. I came
over to talk to you.” I pointed. “About them. They chase me every morning when you let them out.”

“Aw, they won’t hurt you. Stop running from them.” He started to turn and go back inside his house.

“No, Mr. Wessenfeld!” I had to make him understand that it hadn’t been that easy for me with his dogs. The dogs whined, and the Lab eyed me, probably sizing me up for his dinner. “I don’t like them chasing me all the way to school. You’ve got to make them stop it!”

“I do, do I? And just what makes you think that?” He folded his arms across his chest as he leaned against the gate post, staring me down. I wished I had the power to turn him into a rock.

We stared at each other for a long time, and my head began to pound, and I squinted at him even harder. He had dared me to answer him, and I was going to. Only right then, I forgot what I was going to say.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Forcing the Hand of God: Chapter 8

“Ada?” Adele’s cool voice echoed through the phone.

“Yes,” Ada answered, fearful without knowing why. “I was just outside watering. These afternoons are too nice to be inside.” She gave a breathless laugh, hoping to dispel her anxiety.

Adele paused. “Ada,” a silence that cut Ada in two, “it’s John. He’s had a stroke.”

Ada gasped, “My God! No!” She reached out toward the window that faced John’s house. “When? How is he?”

“Early this morning. He’s in intensive care.” Another pause. “I’ve got Heather and Rachel with me. Dr. Richards is confident that John will be coming home soon. He mentioned to Madeline that you had been trained as a nurse in homecare.”

Ada steadied herself against the doorjamb. “Yes, I worked for a while. When Steve and Dan were alive.” She didn’t mean to bring them into this. “I wouldn’t know what to do anymore.”

“I think Madeline needs the reassurance more than anything, Ada.” She gave a self-deprecating laugh. “I’m not very helpful.”

Ada nodded, though she knew Adele could not see her. But she could visualize Adele: eight months pregnant, the beginnings of being uncomfortable, yet the awakening of the spiritual bond between mother and child, between the giver and given. No, what Adele did not realize is that Madeline would need her, too.

Like a weight of chains, Ada felt a bond of sisterhood with Madeline. “I’ll go over to the hospital right away and talk to the doctor and Madeline.”

After she hung up, she stood immobilized. Hearing the mailman’s rustling on her porch, she forced herself to move. She retrieved the bundle of mail, and without looking through them, let the letters drop upon her dresser top.

She drove with care, aware that she must anchor herself in reality and not let her fear undo her sensibility. Meeting with Dr. Richards, she remained calm and felt the emergence of her other self that could cope, the other woman of her that could push aside all feelings and do the job at hand.
She walked through the day, talking and soothing, arranging and ordering for Madeline and John. She committed herself to them; reluctantly, she agreed to come to the house and be his caretaker. Madeline, dry‑eyed but showing strain in the taut pull of her lips and stiff carriage, left Ada at the hospital to talk with Dr. Richards about the particulars.

Ada edged gingerly into the room where John lay stretched beneath the white sheets, looking peaceful in his sleep. Tubes criss‑crossed his nose and over his arms; yet he seemed as if any moment he might wake and laugh at the incongruity of this cruel joke.

Ada touched his cheek, but he did not awaken.

“Oh, John, John,” she murmured, easing away from him.

At his door, she stopped, pressed her hands over her eyes to wipe away the tears, and walked down the bright sterile hallway, out the doors and to her car. She could not remember any particulars driving home, only the surprise that she sat in her car parked in her driveway.

She slammed the car door shut, fumbled for her door key and finally stood alone in her bedroom. She flung her car keys and purse onto the bureau. A letter from Rodger snagged her attention. She picked it up and hugged it to her, plopping onto the crazy‑patch quilt, patterns of her mother and grandmother so lovingly sewn by the fireside, and broke the letter’s seal.

Rodger’s words described a strange, frightening land where bombs blew up and people died. As the fading daylight blurred the words on the last page, Ada shivered. Could she take in two foreigners? she wondered. Could she do that much for Rodger? A little twelve‑year-old girl and her aging father? Ada’s hands began to tremble, and the tears smeared the words on the paper.

“Give me time to think about it,” she whispered. “Just a little time.”

Through the next week, Adele, Madeline and the girls occupied Ada’s time, so much that she put off writing to Rodger. Adele and Madeline had both written to him, leaving a space for Ada to think before she, too, sent him a letter. At last, one evening, she sat before the blank stationery and faced the question squarely.

“Yes,” she said simply after the first paragraph, “I would gladly have Mary Elizabeth and her father, LinChing, live with me.”

She wrote about the details of her life. John would be coming home in the morning, and during the day, she would be his caretaker until he was stronger. He had done remarkably well, recovering from his slight stroke. He might even go back to work in a month or so. Ada tapped the pen against her teeth.

I’ll be here for John if he needs me. Just like I’m here for Rodger.

With a flourish, she signed her name then added a postscript: “Don’t worry about us here at home.”

Folding the letter in thirds, she was overcome by melancholy. Maybe she should have left this town after Dan and Stevie were killed, gone and found a big city where she could lose herself in the crowds and faster pace of living. Instead she had chosen to stay cloistered in her house. And now she had Rodger and a circumspect life. Moments like these saddened her to think how easy she had come to be alone. She got up; it was so late, and she must be rested for tomorrow when John came home. As she turned out the lights, she felt herself fading, transfiguring into a spirit in a disarray of billowing white substance tracing down the hall, consecrating the house. She walked around her bedroom, unwilling to turn on the lights, feeling the room absorb her. She undressed in the dark and climbed naked into bed.

The room was too strange. She felt so alone with her things. Her dreams began swirling with confusing images of Rodger, Stevie and Dan, their faces and bodies intermixing.

She pulled herself away from them, forcing herself to awaken. Turning on the bedside light, she was surprised by the rivers of tears that blurred her sight.

This was her room. No trace of anyone. Just bits of sewing, unfinished projects, clothes needing to be ironed, shoes scattered about—hers, every room of this house was filled with her.

She quickly pulled on her long flannel nightgown. Although she fought sleep, it enclosed about her until the bright sun filtered through the slats of the blinds. Dust motes danced in the sunlight.

It must be late morning, thought Ada wildly. I must hurry.

Ada came in through the opened front door of the Brown’s house. She caught sight of Madeline as she settled John into his study which had been converted for his convalescence, then looked to see Adele standing alone at the top of the stair landing. Adele pointed to upstairs.

“The girls are still sleeping. The poor little ones. They don’t know what to think or do.”

Ada felt a surge of confidence as she met Adele in the living room. “It’s only going to be for a little while, Adele. You’ll see. John’s strong. Resilient.”

Adele smiled and patted Ada’s arm. “Come in the kitchen and I’ll show you what the drugstore delivered this morning.”

They were together in the kitchen arranging the medication, comfortable in one another’s company. Madeline’s sharp voice from the other room made them both stop short of their task.

“For heaven’s sake, John!”

Ada tensed. Adele turned awkwardly, steadying herself against the table. “I’ll go see if I can give Madeline a hand. Maybe you could bring John’s medication while I go get the girls up.”

Ada could only nod, careful to keep her back to Adele to hide her anxiety. She looked over her shoulder to watch the tall, well‑built woman leave the room. She wished she had the ease to move about these people so freely.

Ada came out into the hall at the sound of whispers. Looking up, she gave Rachel and Heather a small wave as they watched, huddled together at the top of the stairs, the frantic movements below them.

Adele, half-way up the stairs spoke with gentle authority. “Rachel, help Heather get dressed, and I’ll walk you two down to the library.”

Madeline bolted out of the study. Ada held out John’s medication, but Madeline had turned to Adele. “He’s impossible! He’s not sick enough to be nursed, but not well enough to be on his own!” She flicked her wrist at the study, as if she could dismiss the whole distressing matter.

“I’m sure it’s hard on a man who’s been used to being so active,” Ada began. Madeline’s hardened stare frightened Ada. She closed her hands about the vials and gave a low laugh low, hoping to draw the anger out of Maddie.

“Why don’t you get away for a spell. You deserve it. Adele and I will manage here.”

Adele nodded emphatically. “Yes, Maddie, go on. I’ll take the girls, and you go on to your bridge club.”

Madeline’s eyes were focused on the creaking door that inched open, exposing the outlines of table legs, the thick Oriental rug upon the shiny hardwood floor, and the plump raspberry velvet brocade couch where John lay.

“It’s been so trying these last few days!” Then snatching her gloves and purse, she rushed out the front door.

Adele sighed. Heather and Rachel came tripping down the stairs and waited with unblinking stares until Adele gathered them one in each arm. “Perhaps tomorrow the girls could have a little picnic with John in there. Let me know if he’s up to it, Ada.” She guided them to the front door. “Bye.”

John called from the study. “Ada?”

“Yes, John.” She picked up the tray with water jug and glass from the hall stand and moved carefully into the study.

“I brought news from Rodger. Would you like me to read it?” She handed John a fistful of pills and a glass of water.

John gulped down the pills and nodded. He swung his legs away from the cushions, pulling his robe taut around his middle. He motioned for Ada to sit close to him.

She sat down stiffly, tugging at her dress to cover her knees, and then fumbled with the pages, tearing the envelope as she took the letter out. John watched her, but Ada avoided his eyes and slipped on her reading glasses.

“He says it really has been quiet on the Chinese front. Not much action, except in the poker games.” She peered over her specs, meeting John’s twinkling eyes. “He says if he got as many strikes in the air as he does on the ground, he’d be the most decorated Ace around!”

She shuffled the pages. “He says right here, ‘Haven’t had much chance to write Dad. Trying to get leave to come home. Miss the bull sessions to discuss the good old times we never had.’ ”

Ada jerked upright when she realized what she had read. But John said nothing, waiting for her to continue and she did. “’Tell him I got a letter off to him. It left tomorrow.’”

Ada heard a sharp intake of breath, flinched, and looked over at John. To her surprise, he was chuckling.

“Here,” she handed him the letter, “why don’t you finish this while I get some tea?”

John hesitated before taking the letter. He looked searchingly at her. Flushed, she jumped up and headed for the kitchen. The doorbell rang, and in mid-stride, she turned around and grasped the knob, opening the door with a hearty yank.

A distinguished, silver‑headed, mustached older man in military uniform stood erect before her “My, God! What do you want?” she cried out.

He took a step back, peeking over his shoulder uncertainly. “I’ve come to see Madeline Brown. Have I gotten the wrong address?”

In sudden embarrassment, she clapped her hand over her mouth. “Oh, no, excuse me. It’s just…that I thought…that…,” she stammered. “Well, they have a son, and...”

“No, ma’am, I don’t bring any bad news. At least not of that kind.”

Ada, relieved, dropped her sweaty hand from the door knob.

“I’m Kyle Mansard, Madeline’s brother. I’m sure she’s not expecting me, but if you would be so kind as to tell her I’m here?”

“Oh, no, she’s not here.”

“Then may I speak with Mr. Brown?” He had a tone that belied his impatience, and Ada got the distinct impression that he thought of her as hired help.

“Won’t you,” Ada hesitated, glancing away from his direct stare, then waving him into the living room, “come in and have a seat? I’ll tell John you’re here.”

The kettle was singing. Ada ushered the man into the living room, turning to inquire of him as he sat on the couch, “Would you like a cup of tea?” She began to collect her wits again.

“Yes, that would be very nice. With milk and sugar, if you please.”

Ada wanted to explain the circumstances to him, but the whistling teapot had an urgency she couldn’t ignore. That he thought of her as a housekeeper stung. She flung silverware and china onto the tray, telling herself to stay calm. She sat down on the opposite end of the couch from him and poured a cup of tea for each of them.

“Please excuse me, and I’ll go see if John is up to coming in here.” She didn’t understand the strange man’s quizzical expression. Surely Madeline would have written to her brother, but quite possibly he did not know. “Otherwise we’ll have to join him in the study.”

John had fallen asleep with the letter clutched tightly in his hand. His head was thrown back and Ada traced the outline of his face with her eyes. His hair lay askew, sticking straight up in the air in some places, but with his eyes closed and his mouth relaxed, he had lost the rigidity about his features that so aged him. He could have been a young man napping. With a dreadful sense of purpose, Ada returned to the living room.

“He’s sleeping. I shouldn’t like to disturb him—the doctor feels it’s so important for him to rest.”

Kyle’s teacup stopped in midair. “Has something happened to John?”

“You didn’t know? John had a very slight stroke. He’s being allowed to recuperate at home.”

Ada resented having to explain things to this man, but he waited, his persistent stare demanding more information.

“I’m qualified as a nurse in homecare.” Ada suddenly became aware of the nearly empty house.
“Adele is looking after the girls. And Madeline is away tending to some business.”

“Adele is here?” Setting his cup down, Kyle leaned closer to Ada. “And how is she getting along these days?”

Ada felt drawn in by honest, unblinking eyes. “Very well. The baby’s due the latter part of July, or first of next month.”

“My, God! Neither she nor Rodger wrote me of this!”

Ada, flustered, offered the first excuse that came to mind. “Perhaps the letters haven’t caught up to you, with everyone moving around these days.” She blushed, wanting to be away from this man. “Adele will be back soon from the library. She and the girls. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some things I must get done.”

“Oh, please go about your routine.” He pulled himself gracefully up from the couch, stretching. “I’ll amuse myself with magazines or this book.” He picked up a red-leather hardbound with its title obscured.

Ada returned to the kitchen and prepared a roast, rubbing spices of basil and sprinkling oregano liberally before she shoved it into the oven. The girls’ squeals could be heard as they came bounding through the front door, Adele trailing behind. Ada stopped at the kitchen doorway just as Rachel halted in mid‑stride when she sighted the strange man; Heather, right behind her, couldn’t stop and plowed into her. Both girls tumbled into a heap before the bemused eyes of their uncle. Ada laughed with him at the sight of tangled arms and legs.

John called out. “Ada! What is it?”

She went to the study, leaving Adele in Kyle’s embrace. She collected John, who leaned heavily against her as they walked awkwardly out to the front room. Rachel and Heather were pressed against the kitchen door frame, eyeing them like two surprised fawns.

Hunched over his cane, with an awkward grace, John extended his free hand. “Kyle, long time. How are you?”

“Fine, fine.” Kyle took John’s hand in his and pumped it, letting it go abruptly. “It appears you’re not.”

“Oh, a little setback. It comes with the banking.”

John shuffled over to a chair. Kyle backed into the couch and sat down next to Adele, who immediately grasped his hand in hers. John motioned the girls over to his side.

“You probably don’t remember your Uncle Kyle.”

Heather was chewing on her fingers. Rachel peeked from underneath half‑closed eyelids, then turned to face the stranger with a defiant look.

He spoke first. “If you want, just call me Kyle. Rodger always did.”

Ada felt the warmth of recognition and smiled. This man, so like Rodger, had a charm about him, an inborn sense of what it takes to make people respond. Both girls giggled.

Rachel, arms akimbo, asked boldly, “Where do you come from?”

A well-tanned hand gestured. “If you give me that atlas there on the table, I’ll show you where I’ve been.” He traced routes in between bits of conversation with John and Adele, always able to include Ada with a quick glance. She sat apart, silent, yet so much a part of this family, feeling as if she were sailing in a tiny boat on a river that flowed towards a great ocean.

Madeline materialized from nowhere. She looked them over, her expression curiously blank.

John stopped speaking and looked from Madeline to Ada. Adele looked at Ada, then at Madeline. Rachel and Heather widened their eyes. Kyle turned and met his sister’s eyes.

“How very like you, Kyle,” Madeline exhaled, “to show up without so much as a call or a letter.” It was the softness of her voice that shocked Ada, almost as if Madeline had embraced Kyle, yet she stood tensed, as if to do battle.

“Oh, I’m sorry, but I wasn’t sure where I’d be at what time.”

“Nonsense, you always know.” Madeline stood firm in her stony certitude. The silence stretched out. Madeline and Kyle stared at one another.

John spoke. “Kyle, old man, you’ll be staying with us, I hope? You’ll be very comfortable in Rodger’s room.”

Adele chimed in. “I dare say, you might appreciate those pictures of boxers better than I.”

“I hadn’t intended on staying. Just a visit.”

“Nonsense,” Madeline reiterated, pointing to the porch behind her. “Bring in your suitcase. You’ll sleep in Rodger’s room.”

Kyle chuckled. “All right.” He started to get up.

“Stay.” Ada commanded, waving him back into his seat. “I’ll set it inside as I leave.” She got up and went over to Madeline. “I’ve put a roast in the oven and set the table. Adele knows Kyle and will help with John. Everything will be ready to serve at six-thirty.”

“Ada! Please stay for dinner, too!” Madeline ordered, with a hint of urgency in her voice.

“Oh, no, thank you. I’ll be on my way. I’ll be over early tomorrow morning.” She started for the door.

Heather began to cry. Madeline’s face clouded with annoyance, but before she could scold, Ada rushed to Heather and hugged her. “Come over later, both of you, and listen to Captain Marvel with me.”

The girls beseeched their mother with watery eyes.

“Yes, yes, you may, but be home for dinner. But only for an hour.” Madeline walked Ada to the door, squeezing her arm as she leaned over to whisper, “It’s just that we never got on that well. What a rude surprise! Of all days!”

“I imagine,” Ada whispered back.

“Oh, Ada! What would I do without you?”

Ada patted her arm. “Adele will be here. She’s very nice to have around, isn’t she?”

“Yes, yes, I suppose. But I do wish you would stay.”

Ada had an uneasy feeling of indebtedness. She could almost see strands of Madeline’s web hooking onto her; she had to sever the threads.

“Maddie, you might want to enjoy these precious few times spent with your family without me around. Besides,” she added sharply, “you’ll be seeing me quite enough during the day.”

Madeline stared at Ada in astonishment, her jaw slack. Then, stepping away, she slammed the door, the echoes ringing in Ada’s ears. Ada quietly eased the door back open and slipped Kyle’s suitcase inside.

She walked through the gate and into her back yard. Oh, she was bone-tired! A breeze played about the trees. She inhaled the fragrant night air.

It was the sort of evening folks should enjoy in a comfortable chair. Pulling one alongside the edge of the tomato plants, she sat. She took out Rodger’s letter and finished reading the parts she had given John.

When Rodger came home, she had hoped that they could have some time for just the two of them, like the old days. She was just plain tired of having to share so much anymore.

I have more than other widows, I know, she thought. Yet like the sunrise and sunset, I am but a part of someone’s day.

Her other self, the one with unclouded eye, knew, knew she would be there for them as long as she lived and breathed. With a little smile at herself, she leaned down and plucked a few straggling weeds around her tomato plant, smoothing back the dirt to cover the small wound. By summer’s end she’d have enough vegetables to give to all of them. Yes, she would like that; to give them each something out of her garden. She pushed away the chair and kneeled on the ground to begin another row of weeding before darkness fell around her.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Bully Dogs Chapter 7: Invisible Girl

It turned out to be a drizzly morning, dark clouds overcast, but not cold. My sweater felt good. A jacket would have been too heavy and hot, and I would have ended up carrying it all the way, but I had a hard time convincing my mom I didn’t need it. Because she’s cold, she thinks I’m cold, and it just isn’t so. Finally, I told her I’d carry it, not wear it, and she became reasonable and said it was up to me.

I was in no mood for the bully dogs as they came after me, so I picked up a thick, short branch and was going to swat the Lab across his nose, but Old Man Wessenfeld yelled for them, and they went scurrying home. They turned around so fast they ran into each other, like three clowns trying to get their act together. Annie wasn’t on the playground or by the doors, so I read until the bell rang to go in.

It was a pretty quiet morning after prayers were said and reading groups assigned. I got promoted another level, and I dreaded having to deal with the thicker packets of worksheets. Steve and I were in the same group, and like always, he was all smiles and quips.

“Hey, Franny, this is no problem; this is easy.”

Easy for him, but I had to work at it. I don’t know how it was for the other two in our group, but I almost wished that I wasn’t so good in reading, because it wasn’t only spelling “comprehensive” that I had trouble with; it was reading comprehension. The questions get harder and the answers more confusing each level, but I supposed I’d manage to get through those last eight weeks of school all right.

If only I could have gotten through school without having to deal with Marcy, Sue, Ursala, and my one-time friend, Annie. I found out the hard way that “friend” doesn’t always have the same meaning two days in a row.

Annie didn’t eat lunch with me but came up to me at noon recess. “Fran, come over and we’ll talk with Marcy and Sue. Let’s get this thing straightened out so we can all be friends.”

“I’m not going over there, Annie. Thanks anyway, but maybe you shouldn’t get involved.” I had a bad feeling about this, and I was irritated with Annie for butting into my business.

“Oh, Fran, how do you ever expect to make them your friends?” Annie almost shouted at me. But she lowered her voice at the last minute and waved the group over to us. “Come on; let’s talk it over.”

As they came over, Annie became all sweet and smiles. “Marcy, don’t you like Fran?”

“What’s there to like?” Marcy had a way of curling her lip that she thought made her look cool. To me she looked dumb, like Old Man Wessenfeld’s Lab.

“Fran always looks like she’s just walked out of a hurricane. Or maybe she thinks that’s the latest in hairdos.” Marcy laughed as I imagined a hyena laughs.

Annie turned around then and asked me, quite seriously, “Yeah, Fran, why don’t you do something about your hair?”

At this point, Annie was no longer my friend. Sue eyed me like I’d seen salespeople who want you to buy something from them. “And why don’t you wear a bra, Fran? It’s disgusting.”

“Yeah!” agreed Marcy, enlightenment all over her face.

“Because I choose not to. Because I don’t let anyone think for me, thanks anyway you guys.”

Ursala walked away, and I liked her for that, although she was still Marcy’s friend. I also left, knowing full well they stood there discussing my attributes. Maybe they should’ve tried to solve some of their own personality problems instead of mine.

During math, Annie slipped me a note, apologizing if my feelings had gotten hurt over what Marcy and the others had said at recess. Mrs. Hammershaw must have seen me take the note because next thing I know she was beside my desk, demanding I hand it over.

She called me to her desk for a conference. “What is this all about, Fran?”

“It’s nothing, Mrs. Hammershaw. We had a discussion on the playground at noon is all.”

So, of course, she called over Annie, Marcy, Sue, and Ursala to tell their versions. Marcy spoke up first.

“Fran wanted to know what we thought about her, so we told her that she could do something about the way her hair sticks up all over.” Marcy wiggled all her fingers in the air over her head.

Mrs. Hammershaw eyed me. “Fran, in the future you might think twice about inviting criticism.” She tapped the note with her finger. “And do you think, Marcy, that it is your moral duty to tell Fran what you think are her shortcomings?”

She blushed at that, and to tell you the truth, it made me feel good to see her uncomfortable while Mrs. Hammershaw stared at her. People always gave Marcy only compliments—”good going,” “nice try,” or “terrific idea!”—even when she’d goof up, and maybe she got a taste of how she could make others feel sometimes.

Mrs. Hammershaw looked down the line from Marcy to Sue to Ursala to Annie and, at last, to me. “I think you girls should give some thought to how your words can affect others. I’d like each of you, except for Fran, to write me a one-page paper on how the Golden Rule applies on the playground as well as in the classroom.”

“Mrs.....Mrs. Hammershaw,” I sort of stuttered. “We were just talking it over, like I said.” I sure hated to see Ursala get into trouble over this since she hadn’t really been in on any of it. It would have been so much better for me if no one had gotten into any trouble.

“Well, Fran, I’m sorry that this had to happen at all. I’m much too interested in what everyone has to say about their actions to let it go unnoticed.” Mrs. Hammershaw folded the note in half and stuck in the top drawer of her desk. “You girls may go back to your seats.”

Then she stood, as if she needed to watch each one of us to make sure we took our right seats. “Now, class, take out your math books and please start on page forty-one, set nine. I want this classroom quiet while I am in the office copying your English worksheet.” When she left the room, I glanced around at the others.

If looks could have killed, I’d have been dead as lead. At that moment, I wondered if God disliked me, too. He must have had bigger worries than mine to take up His time because He sure wasn’t helping me out.

I didn’t say anything to my mom. I didn’t want to hear any more advice from anyone, let alone from my mother. I just wanted at least a good showing at the volleyball games and to make it until the end of June without anymore confrontations. My grades were decent, and I would get another merit award for attendance at the school year’s last assembly.

Or I would have, if the bully dogs hadn’t cornered me the next day for what seemed like hours. There I stood, huddled against the knurly oak tree, waiting for one or all three beasts to attack me when the golden retriever whirled around, sniffed the air, and all of them took off after a cat. Because of them, I was late to school for the first time ever. I always got a merit award for zero tardies and absences, and now that little record was ruined.

At recess, I said practically nothing to Annie but hi and absolutely nothing to Marcy or Sue. Ursala and I exchanged a “Hi, how are you?” and even worked on a science project as partners. I felt kind of misplaced, but it didn’t get any worse than that.

All the girls on the team showed up for game at Holy Rosary on Saturday. Marcy, Sue, Ursala, and Annie went about their business as if I didn’t exist, and we didn’t have anything much to say to one another on the volleyball court. It made the game interesting, and I was very glad when it was over but sorry as anyone that we had lost it. We weren’t out of the play-offs, but our chances of winning three games in a row were slim. Miss Ford told us we had played a good game against a tough team, but I wondered if we could have played better if we hadn’t been mad at each other.

Sue and Marcy walked close by me, and Sue talked to Marcy loud enough to make sure I heard. “Next year, we’ll have someone else other than Fran’s mom get the coach’s present, someone with better ideas.”

I guess I could have told them that it would have been fine with my mom, I’m sure, but I didn’t. If Marcy and the others really felt that way, why didn’t they say it to my mom’s face? It might have solved a lot of headaches for everyone, although I doubted Sue or Marcy could have gone up to my mom and said that to her. I didn’t think they were that gutsy—or stupid.

On my way home from school Friday, I could see Old Man Wessenfeld’s yard from across the street, and all three bully dogs were sitting in a row at the chain link fence, panting and looking like little kids pooped out from playing hard. The big black Lab cocked his head and watched me, while the cocker spaniel and bird dog tilted their heads so close together they almost touched noggins. They should have been circus dogs, or court jesters. And I would have been king for a day and commanded them and some other subjects. There’d be an end to some squabbling in my realm, for sure.

I just wished it were that easy. You know, easy like all the grown-ups say kids have got it. Things never are that easy, especially of course, if you’re talking to an adult. Then your whole life gets complicated.