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Monday, July 21, 2014

Road to Junction

Find the rest of Jo here.

It’s mid-morning by the time we clear the Pendleton gates; about half an hour later we reach the first fork in the road. Granite is straight on, west along Route F towards the coast; we need to follow the old 99 north towards Junction. We’ve gone a bit out of our way, having to pretend we’re going towards Granite, so we go north on an old side-road that eventually meets up with old 99.

Used to be that Pendleton — the city what was there before Pendleton grew up — was bigger than Junction, but that was a long time ago, before the war. Most of the city that was there before — Eugene, maybe — got levelled in the war and Pendleton got built on top, originally as a base for the military, then later the city grew up just to the west. Junction wasn’t such a big target and mostly survived intact; after the war it spread out from the existing city, so now it’s the biggest city mid-Commonwealth.

The Junction-Pendleton road is more heavily trafficked than the one between Granite and Pendleton; with Junction the biggest city this part of the country and Pendleton an army base, I’m not surprised when we’re passed repeatedly by military vehicles and convoys. Doesn’t keep my stomach dropping to my toes and my heart leaping into my mouth every time one comes into sight, though. No one looks at me and Daka twice, since we keep to the side of the road when the vehicles go by and don’t get in anyone’s way.

About an hour and a half out of Pendleton, just after the turn north, I pack away my bomber jacket and sling my knife bandolier across my shoulder. My long knives get belted around my waist. Daka wants me to carry the gun, but I’m still not real comfortable with it, and anyway I can explain away the knives by declaring myself a travelling knife player, with the juggling skills to prove it. The gun is more problematic, because I’m sure as hell not a good enough shot to claim to be a sharpshooter. So the gun stays at the bottom of Daka’s pack. Daka keeps his flick knife in his trouser pocket and wears his hunting knife at his belt, but you’d have to be pretty stupid to mess with him.

Having traced the route on the map, I know it’s about seventeen miles all told to get to Junction; at the rate me and Daka travel, it’ll take us something like six hours, so I figure we’ll kip outside the city and investigate the trains in the morning. I don’t like the idea of trying to hop a train when we’re both tired; I’ve got a bad feeling we’ll end up on the wrong train. Heading south towards Sanfran is better than getting caught, but it’ll add days, if not weeks, to our trip north. The more I think about it, the more I reckon that hopping more than one train isn’t a great idea — the more trains we hitch on, the more chance we got of getting caught, and I don’t like that one bit.

This late in the summer, the land between Pendleton and Junction is dry and brown; the tarmac of old 99 is covered over by a thin layer of dust that swirls up around the hovers as they pass and resettles back down in new patterns. Me and Daka leave footprints in the dirt alongside the road that are swept away as soon as a breeze picks up. It’s turning into a real hot day with not a cloud in the sky, and I’m grateful for the trees that crowd up against the tarmac since they offer at least a little shade. We pass a creek about midday, dried up to barely more than a trickle, and we follow it off-road a little ways where it’s a little less dusty. We fill our canteens, drain them, and fill them again. Pendleton doesn’t lack for resources, and Granite’s smack between two rivers; the walk between the two is mostly forest and fields, with plenty of water and shade, so never in my life have I been as worried about water as I am now. Owen’s drilled it into my head that we need to take care to get water wherever we can. I reckoned he was exaggerating things to make a point, but having gone hours seeing little more than dust and dirt, I’m starting to think maybe he wasn’t exaggerating after all.

We sit by the creek with our backs up against tree trunks and eat the lunch Owen packed for us. I save half of my chocolate brownie for later; I love chocolate and don’t know the next time I’ll get any. Owen also found ration bars for us; they’re a funny grey-brown colour, weirdly chewy, and tasteless, but they’re also designed to keep you functioning when you don’t have time — or the resources — to deal with real food, so they’ll come in handy if Daka and I find ourselves in any kind of food trouble. I’m not looking forward to that day.

We’re not in any real hurry to get going again, seeing as we’ve nowhere to be tonight, so once we’re finished with lunch we lounge around for awhile. Daka naps while I keep watch, and then I try to nap once he wakes up. No luck — I’ve never been real good at napping, so instead I tell Daka to go back to sleep and watch the ants climbing up and down the tree in front of me.

When Daka wakes up again, we pack up and stuff our rubbish down inside our bags. We’ll find somewhere to get rid of it in Junction. The ration bars come with compostable wrappers, so when we get to that point we can just bury them and be done with it. Before we leave, I dunk a bandana into the creek, wring it out, and tie it over my hair before settling my hat back on my head. Daka does the same, though he strips off his shirt and soaks it first. He catches my look and laughs.

“It’ll dry in ten minutes once we’re back on the road,” he says.

He’s right. It’s even hotter now; the tarmac radiates heat, as do the passing convoys, and pretty soon Daka’s shirt and our bandanas are bone dry. That doesn’t last real long, though; we’re both sweating something awful. There’s a trickle of sweat between my shoulder blades, dripping down to gather at the small of my back; I’m used to the heat, but I’m not used to walking for hours in it, and I hate the feeling. Daka doesn’t fare much better than me; his face is shiny with sweat and there are big damp spots on his shirt. It’s too hot for conversation, so we just walk in silence along old 99 for hours. I’m grateful for my alliskin boots; they’re maybe not the most breathable material, so my feet are real hot, but they don’t rub and I don’t have even a hint of a blister even after hours of walking.

It’s about seven when we hit the outskirts of Junction. Old 99 stretches straight ahead and I can just see the gates to the city in the distance, shimmering in the heat. We strike away from the road, west, following the curve of the edge of the city, until we find a sheltered copse of trees to pitch camp. Daka leaves me to figure out building a fire and by the time I’ve worked it out he’s back with a brace of rabbits. I circle the camp and find a few wild mushrooms and some blackberries while he skins the rabbits.

It’s just getting dark when I hear something crack in the woods. I lower my knife, which has a chunk of rabbit speared on it, and nudge Daka. He looks up and I nod towards the trees. We sit quietly for a few minutes, but don’t hear anything, so go back to eating. About twenty minutes later, I hear the noise again.

“Someone’s in the woods,” I say to Daka, real quiet.

Previous: Leaving Pendleton

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Leaving Pendleton

Find the rest of Jo here.

Early the next morning, I repack my bag, pull on my alliskin boots, and settle my hat on my head. There’s a bit of a nip in the air; summer’s on its way out, though the days are still hot enough. It’s cool enough this morning, though, that I’ve pulled out the jacket Owen gave me as a going away present. It’s an old-style men’s bomber jacket that Owen said was his great-granddad’s — worn brown leather, rabbit fur-lined collar and cuffs, front pockets. It’s not like anything else I’ve ever owned, but I like it. It makes me feel like I can do anything, which quite frankly is something I can use a lot of right now.

My knives are all tucked into the top of my bag; once we’re a few miles out of Pendleton I’ll dig them out, but I don’t want Uncle Larett to see them and start asking questions I’m not ready to answer.

There’s a tap on my door, and when I look up Owen’s leaning against the doorframe, a small bag in his hand.

“Looks good on you,” he says, nodding at the jacket.

I look down at it and smooth the fur on the right cuff. “It’s a little big, but I like it,” I say. “Thanks.”

“Here.” Owen pushes away from the door and hands me the bag he’s holding. “It’s the money to pay your life taxes.” He glances at the hall behind him and adds, “It should keep you going for awhile. Just don’t spend it all in one place.”

“Thanks,” I say again, and then realise he’s holding out a slim packet of papers. “What’s this?”

“Travel papers,” he says. “I sorted out a range of papers for you — you should be able to get in and out of the capital and any of the bigger cities or towns without any problems. What I couldn’t get you were travel permissions for any gov transport. You’re stuck hoofing it or stealing rides.”

“What are the odds we’ll get caught if we catch a ride?” I ask, flicking through the pages.

He grimaces. “Depends on the transport. If you can swing it, the train out of Junction will take you north towards the capital, around Portland. Otherwise you’re looking at days of travel and you’ll have to get through Portland.”

“How hard is it going to be to get on that train?” I ask, shoving the money and the papers down the side of my bag.

“Hard to say,” Owen says. “It’s the main north-south route through this part of the Commonwealth. There’s usually a lot of military and gov activity so it’ll probably be tougher than hopping one of the more local transports.”

“Okay,” I say and swing my bag up over my shoulders. “We’ll see how it looks when we get there, then.”

Uncle Larett and Daka are outside waiting. Daka’s pack has my revolver and the cartridges tucked down at the bottom, surrounded by socks and talismans; he’s pushed his hat back on his head and has his thumbs hooked in the straps of his pack as he talks to Uncle Larett and looks a lot more the figure of an adventurer than me. Or at least looks a lot more imposing than me, seeing as he’s about a foot taller. Oh well. No use crying over things I can’t change.

Uncle Larett enfolds me in a hug. “I can take you, you know,” he says as he holds me at arm’s length. “The hover can cover the ground to Granite in less than an hour.”

“I’m looking forward to the walk,” I say. I smile and pat his arm. “I’ve got Daka to keep me safe, anyway.”

Behind me, Daka barely smothers a snort by turning it into a cough. Making a quick recover, he says, “Oh, yeah, I’ll keep her safe. Don’t worry.”

Uncle Larett doesn’t look entirely happy, but since I’ve made the trip between Granite and Pendleton before without any harm coming to me there’s not a lot he can say, so he kisses my forehead and lets me go. I say goodbye to Owen, and then Daka and I start down the long drive that will takes us back through Pendleton towards Granite.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The kindness of family

Find the rest of Jo here.

Before dinner, I go looking for Uncle Larett. I know he’s home, because I heard the front door open and shut earlier, but I also heard him and Owen talking so I let them be. I play a game of catch with Daka in the meantime; he complains that I throw too hard, which I decide to take as a compliment. When I tell him we’re leaving in the morning, he looks disappointed but not surprised.

“I was wondering how long it was going to be,” is all he says. “We’ve already been here months.”

I find Uncle Larett in his office, hunched over his desk with a file spread out in front of him. He has a funny preference for paper, from the books in the library to the files in his cabinet, despite the availability of non-paper tech. I think he likes the feel of it in his hands, like it’s a tangible thing, the turning of pages, that you can’t get with holo books or files. He has really nice handwriting, too, which almost nobody has anymore. If I write something, which I almost never do, it’s all spiky and cramped and pretty unreadable.

He’s writing something in the margins of the open file when I knock on the door, but looks up and sets aside the pen.

“Come in,” he says, pushing the papers away.

I come in a few steps, but linger by the door.

“What can I do for you, Jo?” he asks. He smiles, and for a minute he doesn’t look so tired.

“I came to tell you that I’m going to leave,” I say. “Soon. Tomorrow.”

He’s silent, so for a minute the only sound seems like it’s the pounding of my heartbeat echoing in my ears. “I see,” he says at last, steepling his fingers and resting them against his lips. “I’m sorry to hear that. I’ve enjoyed having you and Daka here.”

“It was nice to have somewhere to go,” I reply. “I really appreciate you letting us stay for so long.”

He leans forward, his eyes meeting mind, and says, “I wanted to talk to you about that, Jo. I’ve been doing some thinking the last few weeks, and I’m of a mind to file for adoption.”

It takes a minute for that to sink in. “Of me?” I stare at him. I hadn’t anticipated this. “But…I’m legally of age, Uncle Larett.”

“I know,” he says. “But I’m fond of you, Jo, and I don’t have children of my own. It’s been my plan for years to leave the house and the land to you. You might not realise, but I was always very fond of my brother, and I’d like to make sure that you’re okay and taken care of, for his sake.” He smiles. “And if I adopt you I can give you a little more protection from the ugliness of the world than you might find in Granite. You can come live here, with me. I could take you to the capital, you know, show you the sights…”

I’m stunned by his offer. And it’s really tempting — Uncle Larett can make it so that I’m never hungry or cold or worried about money ever again. I could sleep every night in a soft cushy bed and have a collection of pretty dresses to rival anything anyone in the capital wears. I could do anything I wanted with my time, be anyone I wanted to be.

But it would mean giving up the search for Dad and Kit.

And it would mean breaking my promise to Owen.

It would also mean putting Uncle Larett at real risk, as he was my only living relative.

“Gosh,” I say. “That’s real kind of you, Uncle Larett. Um…”

The smile stays on his face, but leaves his eyes. “You think it’s a terrible idea.”

Well, no, not exactly. Under different circumstances I’d’ve leapt on that offer before he had a chance to change his mind. “No, it’s not that,” I say. “It’s just that I left Granite kind of abruptly, and I owe a lot on my life taxes so I need to go back to pay those off, and I think if I’m gonna leave Granite permanently, you know, I think I should give everyone a proper goodbye so they know I’m leaving, and where to find me, right? And I’d like to say goodbye to my dome, I guess, if I’m never going to go back.”

“Oh, I see,” says Uncle Larett, looking relieved. “Of course. I’m sorry, that was remarkably insensitive of me. How much do you owe on your life taxes?”

I think about that for a minute. Mental math hasn’t ever been my strong point. Finally I name a figure that sounds reasonable and see Uncle Larett’s eyebrows lift a little in surprise. “Mom died right before my birthday,” I say, “so I kind of missed the official letter of notice that I had to start paying, and then I never got a job because I was dealing with all of the aftermath of Mom dying, and then I came here, so…” I trail off.

“How much money do you have?”

“Um. Almost none. Funeral costs ate pretty much all of Mom’s savings.”

His eyes narrow in thought. “How about I cover your back life taxes?” he says. “Once you move here we can find you some kind of work, if you’d like, but in the meantime we can get rid of that worry quick as you like.” He presses a button by the side of his desk and Owen appears almost immediately. “Can you make a run to the bank?” Uncle Larett asks. “Put enough to cover six months’ worth of life taxes on a credit stick and bring it back for Jo.”

“Granite doesn’t have the equipment to read a credit stick,” I interrupt. “We’re stuck on with hard currency.” I figure it'll be useful to have some ready money floating around.

Uncle Larett changes his order accordingly, and with a single glance at me Owen disappears again.

“That’s a lot more than I need to cover my life taxes,” I observe.

“You’ll have some money to spend,” he says, smiling. Standing, he adds, “Why don’t we go in for dinner?”

I follow him down the hall, feeling incredibly guilty. He looks happier throughout dinner than I’ve ever seen him, and I don’t like to think about how he’s going to feel when Daka and I don’t come back after a few days. He laughs and talks about the things we’ll do once I come to live with him for good, and part of me starts to wonder if the disappointment of me not coming back might kill him.

But for tonight I smile and eat and drink and laugh. I’ll destroy his illusions soon enough.

Previous: "Girl stuff"
Next: Leaving Pendleton

Wednesday, July 9, 2014


Find the rest of Amy here.

Once out of C-Prime’s atmosphere and into clear space, Amy automatically plotted a course towards Peleteth before realising with a sigh that she’d been through the spaceport too many times in the recent past. Kiterat would put her further from Idylla, but it had been over a year since she’d gone through it, and given her recent high-profile capture and visit to the capital, it seemed a good idea to lay low for a while. Normally she’d have dropped off the radar for the better part of a year, but with the current situation she was a bit short on options. Kiterat would have to do.

The flight to Kiterat was interminably dull. Amy found herself wishing for a solar storm, a Commie patrol — anything to ease the boredom. The Pelican’s database didn’t offer much in the way of entertainment; she’d already listened to Alfreadon’s famed Symphony No. 4 three times, and suffered through three whole chapters of Tellaris’s Something Borrowed before deleting the entire file from the computer.

At long last, Kiterat appeared on sensors; upon hearing just who was requesting to dock, the Kiterat officials nearly fell over themselves to ensure Amy’s docking experience went as smoothly as possible. She disembarked to discover a waiting escort; annoyed, she summarily dismissed them, and disappeared into the crowds.

Originally her plan had been to stay a few days on Kiterat before booking passage on an expensive liner for Annieka Brenner and then disappearing into steerage on one a freighter, but a message from Cam forced her to change her plans. Via the signal box, he sent that he’d heard chatter that indicated Idylla might not be safe much longer; he couldn’t confirm anything, but with Grayson and his kid on their way to him, Cam no longer felt secure in being able to keep them safe.

Amy booked a suite on a cruiseship bound for Elysia under her own name for three days hence, looped six hours of footage on her room, and that afternoon boarded a crowded freighter due to drop supplies at Idylla in four days. No one gave her a second glance; Ellie Taymor was quiet but polite, with brown hair and a plain face, a tendency to flinch when spoken to, and barely enough money to pay for her fare. Scarcely anyone noticed when she came aboard, and when she departed at the Idylla spaceport no one noticed she’d gone.

Previous: Pelican 

"Girl stuff"

Find the rest of Jo here.

It’s a scary thought. We’ve been here months now. My hair’s grown out into a messy, fluffy bob that I usually keep out of my face with a bandana; I’d take it all off again except Uncle Larett commented that I was looking more and more like Mom the longer my hair got, and I guess I’m more vain than I thought, because I like the idea. So my hair stays. At least short it’s easy to take care of. And I’ve gained weight, which everyone else in the house has mentioned a lot — I guess I looked worse than I thought when Daka and I first turned up. Uncle Larett’s preferred descriptor is ‘emaciated’; Owen says I was gaunt. I don’t think anyone’s ever going to call me plump, but at least I don’t resemble a skeleton anymore.

The annoying about putting weight back on is that I suddenly have curves again. Not abundant ones, mind you, but enough that I suddenly realise they’re there. And then there’s the other stuff that comes with being a girl that’s reappeared with the weight gain. It’s not that I mind being a girl, it’s just that sometimes it can be super inconvenient — especially when living in a house full of men.

I hitch a ride into Pendleton one morning with Uncle Larett and Daka, a few days before I’m planning on leaving. Owen isn’t real happy about me running out on a morning training session since he’s determined to cram in as much as possible before I leave, but a mumbled excuse of “gotta go deal with girl stuff” is enough to shut him up and let me go. Which I’m grateful for.

Uncle Larett, as he drops me off before he and Daka carry on to his office, tells me that I should buy anything I like and have it charged to him.

“Because,” he says with a smile, “if I can’t buy things for my niece, what am I supposed to spend my money on?”

I go to Helene’s first, figuring that if Uncle Larett’s lady medic can’t help me then she can at least tell me who can. She’s just finishing with a patient when I arrive, so I don’t have to wait long before I’m ushered into her office.

“More injuries?” she asks me, a slight smile on her face.

“No,” I say. “Um, look. When I was in Granite Doc Jim used to give me this stuff to, um, you know — ” I stop. Helene waits. “You know,” I continue, feeling stupid. “Every month. He gave me an herbal mixture. To stop — ” I clam up again and can’t finish the sentence. which is stupid, but no one talks about this stuff.

“Oh, I see,” Helene says. “You want to stop having your period.”

My face feels like it’s probably bright red. “Yes,” I say, and manage to add, “I get a lot of pain. So…”

She gets up and opens a cabinet. “Well, I’m not sure what your doctor gave you, but I have a drug I can give you that will do the same thing. It’ll keep you from having it and you also won’t experience any of the unpleasant side effects” She glances over her shoulder at me. “Is that okay?”

“Yes,” I say. “That would be great.”

“I guess you were awfully thin the last few months,” she says, sitting back down at the desk and setting down a narrow vial with a slim silver rod inside. “I’m not surprised it’s only becoming an issue again now. When did you realise?”

My face gets even hotter. “Um,” I say, my voice strangled.

Helene smiles and opens the vial. “Don’t worry” she says, loading the silver rod into a med gun. “It’s okay if you don’t want to tell me. I don’t need to know anything else. My job is to make sure you feel the best you’re able.” She takes my right arm in hers and gently moves it. “Looks like this has healed up nicely,” she says before pushing up the sleeve of my tunic. “This will sting,” she warns, and then presses the tip of the shot to my inner arm and embeds the rod in my flesh.

Compared to what I’ve experienced the last few months, the sting barely registers. I rub at the spot as she sets the med gun aside. No blood. That’s a nice surprise. “Will you — that is, do you have to tell my uncle?” I ask.

She looks surprised. “I certainly don’t have to,” she replies. “I have to log the drug as dispensed in the system, so it’s on record that you’ve received it, but there’s no need for me to inform Larett if you’d rather I didn’t. He can of course access the drugs information if he wants, as it’s freely available, but it’s unlikely he’d do so.” She smiles at me again. “Is there anything else?”

“My arm’s been giving me some pain,” I lie. “Any chance I could get a few more of those pain pills?”

She shrugs. “I don’t see why not. Hang on.” She gets up and crosses to the door for a quick, whispered conversation with her receptionist. The receptionist disappears for a minute and returns with a bottle of green tablets I recognise as the pain pills. “Anything else?” she asks, handing them to me.

“Can you recommend somewhere to buy underclothes?” I ask. This feels less embarrassing. No one talks about this stuff, either, but at least it’s not quite so personal.

She laughs, but it’s not a mean laugh. “Ruby Kessler has a shop on Napier,” she says. “She should have anything you need.”

“Thanks,” I say, clutching the bottle of pills close and standing up.

Helene meets my eyes for a long moment and then says, “Take care of yourself, Jo.”

I don’t know what else to say, so I say “Thanks” again and duck out of her office as quick as I can.

Here’s the thing. I’m headed out on what I’d probably call an adventure if it wasn’t me having the damn thing, and the last thing I want to be worrying about is what I’m going to do out in the middle of nowhere once a month when the curse of being female descends on me like a bowling ball to the gut. Not only is it about the world’s most inconvenient thing when you’re not exactly well-equipped with the amenities, but I also happen to be one of those people who gets pretty incapacitated when said curse hits. I lost so much weight after Mom died that I had months that were blissfully free of that particular pain and misery, but two weeks earlier it was back with a vengeance. I have this horrible image of myself doing my Captain Courageous thing, marching across the Western Commonwealth, only to be laid low by this stupid thing every month. There’s something ridiculous about it, too, once the embarrassment is out of the way, and as I walk to Ruby’s I have to laugh a little at myself. I keep trying to pretend I’m a brave hero, but really I’m just a scared kid. I’m not even grown up enough to be able to talk sensibly about things with the doctor. I’m not real sure what it says about me that I’m better with knives and hand-to-hand combat than I am sitting across from another person having a mature conversation.

Pendleton is laid out in a perfect grid pattern. There used to be another town here, a long time ago, and sometimes you can see parts of the old city — a wall, a sculpture, one of the old lampposts. It was razed a long time ago, though, like a lot of the old cities, and in place of the crooked, meandering streets they put down neat tarmac grids. There’s no getting lost; if you end up where you don’t want to be somehow, you just turn around and walk back the other way without having to worry about where you came from.

Napier is a street two blocks to the north and one to the east of Helene’s office. Ruby Kessler’s shop — shinier than anything I’ve ever seen in Granite — is about two thirds of the way down the road and is pretty easy to spot; the front window is a giant holodisplay that rotates through different undergarments. It’s enough to make my face go hot again, but no one else on the street seems to notice. It reminds me of how far away from so-called civilisation Granite is.

Trying to ignore the ripplings of embarrassment at being seen entering a shop with such blatant advertising, I push open the door and go in. A bell jangles above me, and I look up to see an old-fashioned bell attached to the door. It’s a funny contrast with the high-tech holodisplay in the window. A buxom blonde woman appears in front of me without warning.

“Can I help you find something?”

“I need a strapper,” I say, gesturing vaguely at my chest. Seriously, the amount of running I’ve been doing lately has made it really obvious to me that I need something to strap myself down. Otherwise I just hurt.

The woman — who turns out to be Ruby Kessler — is much less scary than she first appears, and she helps me find what I need with minimal fuss. Once I explain what I’m after, she vetoes my original choice and finds me a strapper that flattens me out so much that, when I stand sideways, just about makes me look like a boy. And, even better, I find three more pairs of leggings and two more tunics to add to my supply at home.

I feel a little funny charging things to Uncle Larett’s account, but when I see the total for my items I realise I don’t actually have the money to pay for it anyway. And he did say it was okay, so I figure it’s fine.

I head home with an armful of items, finally feeling ready to leave Pendleton. The only thing left is to tell Uncle Larett I’m leaving.

Previous: Training
Next: The kindness of family

Friday, July 4, 2014

Gwen's Castle: Arrival at Castle House

New chicklit, inspired by a recent stay in Wales. 

It had been years since Gwen had set foot in Wales, and though it wouldn’t have been accurate to say she’d forgotten how beautiful the countryside was, she had forgotten how much she’d loved this part of Wales. The road briefly ran alongside the water before twisting away up a hill, the carriageway so narrow that branches scraped against the passenger side of the car and fragments of leaves spattered across the seats like so much green shrapnel. As she rounded a corner she was faced with a lorry trundling along in the opposite direction, inconsiderately taking up most of the road, and she experienced a momentary terror, as she pulled the car as far left as it would go, wondering whether she was more likely to get flattened into a sad pancake by the oncoming lorry or tumble windscreen over boot down the embankment before getting stuck in a tree. But the moment passed, though it took her heart a few more miles before the rapid pitter-patter died back down to its more normal beat.

When she’d taken the keys from the man at the rental place, she’d lied straight to his face and said that of course she’d driven on narrow Welsh roads before and it would be fine. She had driven on narrow English roads, and narrow Scottish roads, but that was over a decade ago now and anyway she’d been eighteen then and rather less aware of her own mortality. Now she was all too acutely aware of her own failings as a driver — she drove too fast, took corners too sharply, braked hard for anything — including leaves — that appeared on the road, and got overly anxious about sharing the road with anyone else. And yet somehow she’d never acquired a ticket.

The village appeared before Gwen realised she was upon it, and had she blinked twice she’d have found herself on the other side and none the wiser. As it was, she’d already overshot the village shop, the pub, and the church — which, to be perfectly honest, formed the bulk of the village — as well as the turn she was looking for by the time she realised where she was, which resulted in possibly the worst three-point-turn Gwen had ever performed in order to get the car pointed back in the right direction.

This time, she crawled along until she spotted the turn to her left, twin pillars capped by tiny lions marking either side of what looked like a suspiciously narrow road. Gwen sat in the road, her indicator blinking frantically, before sighing and turning her car towards the opening, telling herself it was hardly the narrowest turn she’d made in her life. But then she actually got the car between the lions and got a look at the road in front of her, and ended up sitting for several minutes, the boot hanging out over the pavement, as she contemplated the very steep and very narrow stretch of road in front of her.

“Oh, bollocks,” she said, before rolling down her windows and pulling in her mirrors. As she crept up the drive, she reconsidered her previous assessment: it might not be the narrowest road she’d ever been on, but it was the steepest and narrowest and least straight road she’d ever been on all rolled into one. Which meant, she decided once she was halfway up and it occurred that at some point she’d have to drive back down, that just possibly it would have made more sense to park on the road and walk up the road. But then she’d never been one to shy away from a challenge — even to the point of being stupid about it.

The house at the end of the drive was a big, three-story — four if you counted the weird half-level basement thing that let out onto the drive, which Gwen wasn’t sure she did — Victorian house painted a pale sea-foam green. Far from blending into its lush green surroundings, the green house stood out like a beacon, rising straight up out of the hill; Gwen had spotted it while on the train across the bay. A set of steps wound up the left-hand side of the house, past a small red octagonal shed and through plants that threatened to overtake the path; a fluffy black cat sprawled in front of the open front doors, basking in the late afternoon sun.

As Gwen triumphantly pulled into an empty parking space at the top of the drive, next to a battered grey Renault Clio that looked like it might collapse into pieces if she so much as breathed on it, a middle-aged woman came out of the front door of the house, leaned on her cane, and waved. Gwen put her age around fifty-five, but then expanded that to ten years on either side. She was terrible at guessing ages.

“Hello!” the woman called as Gwen stepped out of the car and slammed the door behind her. “Welcome to Castle House! I’m Evelyn Davies, the owner. You can call me Evie.”

“Hi,” Gwen said, opening the boot and pulling out two suitcases. “That’s one hell of a driveway you’ve got.”

“It’s such a shame, isn’t it?” Evie said. “I think it puts some people off coming. Have you come a long way?”

Gwen hesitated, and then said, “Well, I was in Thailand ten days ago. Before that I was in South Africa. Most recently I’ve come from Oregon, on the West Coast of America.” She paused, her attention caught by movement in the shadows just beyond the front door, and then continued, “Sorry, I’m Cara Gwendolyn Dunleavy. Please, in the name of all that’s holy, call me Gwen.” She held out her hand. “I’m Gwyneth Jones’s great-granddaughter.”

“Oh!” Evie’s eyes went wide. “Why, I remember you! I haven’t seen you since you were a little thing. I’m sorry about Gwyneth.”

“Thanks,” Gwen said. Her gaze drifted back to the front door; she thought she could just make out a person there, standing just beyond the reach of the sun. “It’s been a long time.” She thought she vaguely remembered Evie, but to be honest she wasn’t entirely sure. The last time she’d been to visit Gwynny, she’d been eight, and far more interested in Gwynny’s cats and playing on the beach than meeting adults.

A wave of exhaustion hit her like a two-by-four, halting any further consideration of the matter, and Gwen stifled a yawn. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but would you mind showing my room? I could use a shower and some sleep. I’ve been travelling something like twenty-four hours now.”

“Oh, heavens, yes,” Evie said, turning towards the house. “Tris! Come help Gwen with her bags.” She looked back at Gwen. “I don’t know if you remember my nephew, Tristan Davies? He must be a year or two older than you.”

The shadow detached itself from just inside the front door and came out into the light, revealing a tall, dark-haired man in a t-shirt and jeans. Gwen’s breath caught. She didn’t remember Tristan Davies any more than she remembered his aunt, but whatever he’d been like as a child, he’d turned into a remarkably attractive man. If he was a year or two older than she was, Gwen guessed that that meant he was probably around thirty. Maybe a little older, depending on how accurate Evie’s recollection of Gwen’s age was.

“There’s been a rumour floating around that some relation of Gwyneth’s was coming in to deal with her property,” Evie was saying, “but we’d no idea it would be you, did we, Tris?”

Tris made a noncommittal noise and brushed past his aunt to pick up Gwen’s suitcases.

“The Garden Apartment, dearest,” Evie said. “The door should already been unlocked.” She turned a smile on Gwen. “Just follow Tris on up and I’ll be there in a tic. I just want to grab a few things for you. Oh, and remember to take your shoes off when you’re inside the house!”

Gwen trailed after Tris, pausing to slip off her flats in the entryway, and then padded barefoot up the stairs, her shoes dangling from her hand. Inside the house was pleasantly cool, with a faint lingering scent of vanilla and hyacinth, and a substantial amount of afternoon sun streamed through the high windows. Gwen felt at home immediately, which, all things considered, was just as well seeing as she was likely to be sticking around awhile.

Tris stopped at the top of the first flight of stairs and set Gwen’s bags just inside the open door before stepping back outside.

“This is you,” he said. His face was entirely unreadable, which Gwen found unnerving. “Bedroom, lounge, bathroom, kitchen. There’s a veranda the other side of the kitchen. Remember to take off your shoes any time you’re inside. Keys are in the doors, though most people don’t bother to lock things around here. The cat comes and goes as she pleases, so if you don’t want her in the apartment you’ll want to keep your doors closed.” He paused, waiting, Gwen guessed, for her to ask questions if she had any, but when she didn’t say anything he continued, “If you need anything, Aunt Evie lives on the ground floor and my door is just up the stairs to the right. Knock at any time.”

Unable to stop herself, Gwen said, “Now, do you really mean that, or is that a polite way of saying ‘if you need anything, go see my aunt, and make sure you only do it between nine in the morning and four in the afternoon’?”

“I beg your pardon?”

Gwen flushed. “Sorry. I never learned to hold my tongue. I just meant you didn’t exactly sound thrilled at the idea of having a needy inmate banging on your door at two am because they’ve gone and run out of loo roll.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Is that likely to occur?”

“Gosh, you’re a right barrel of laughs,” Gwen muttered, but didn’t have a chance to say anything else as Evie came up the stairs at that moment, her cane thumping on the carpeted stairs.

“Now,” she said, “you’ve towels and the kitchen is stocked with pans and cutlery, but if you need any laundry done do let us know as there’s a washer and tumble dryer downstairs that you can use. I’ve not got the booking on me just at the moment — remind me how long it is you’re here?”

Gwen pulled a face. “I wish I knew,” she said. “My understanding is that Gwynny’s property is in pretty poor shape, to the point that it’s really not currently fit to live in.” She sighed. “At least, that’s what the lawyer said, but I don’t think he’d been there since before she died, and obviously Gwynny was living there when she died so I’ve really no idea what condition it’s in.” She pushed her hair out of her face. “I’m planning on going over in the morning to have a first look at it and get an idea of what the hell I’ve got myself into. Obviously as soon as you’ve got another booking you can chuck me out, since I know you’ve probably got bookings scattered around the next couple of months.”

“Well, we’ll make sure you’ve somewhere to go,” Evie said decisively. “Now, if you need dinner, the Rose just up the road does an excellent roast, and you’re always welcome to join me and Tris for dinner at any time. There’s also a takeaway just up the road about ten minutes by car. Tris can show you tomorrow if you like.”

“Thanks,” Gwen said, wondering if it was just her sad sleep-deprived state that was making her feel like Evie was trying to match make, and deciding that must be it because no one in their right mind was going to look at an exhausted, grimy woman in need of a shower and decide to throw her at their nephew. Tris certainly hadn’t reacted to his aunt’s comments in any way. He was just standing there with that blank, unreadable expression on his face, his dark eyes focused on Gwen’s face.

Gwen yawned widely, which served as an effective cue for Evie to head back downstairs and take Tris with her. She shut the door behind her, thought about locking it, and decided not to bother. Her bags she left in the hall, only opening the one to drag out her pjs and toothbrush; a quick but blissfully hot shower later, she crawled into bed, pulled the duvet over her head, and was asleep almost as soon as she closed her eyes. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

Writing strong women

If I were to tell you that I set out on a mission to write strong women, that would be complete and utter bullshit.

I started writing when I was quite young - I say eleven, though my mother insists it was earlier. At the time, I was super sick with ME/CFS; though at eleven I was a little better than the preceding few years, in which I spent a lot of my time on the couch, I still wasn't exactly radiating energy and enthusiasm.

There wasn't much I could do but read and write - and I did both. I read voraciously, to the point where my mother stopped trying to read ahead for books above my grade level to make sure they were appropriate, and just trusted that I'd let her know if I didn't think I should be reading them. (I did.) My penchant for writing strong but imperfect female characters undoubtedly can at least in part be traced back to my reading material; I read books like Pride and Prejudice, Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie, Alanna the Lioness, Rose Daughter - books by amazing women (Jane Austen, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Tamora Pierce, Robin McKinley) who wrote complex, strong, damaged, flawed, and above all real people. And later, strong women in television also fed into my writing tendencies: Buffy, from Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Captain Janeway and B'Elanna Torres from Star Trek: Voyager; hell, even Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus and Carmen from Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? All kinds of women, all kinds of worlds, all kinds of jobs and aspirations and fears. I'm not sure it ever occurred to me until I was older that well-rounded, complicated women weren't always the norm, that they weren't always well-represented in fiction and film and television.

Then there are the women in my family. My mother is an amazing woman who grew up helping take care of her younger siblings, battled her way through a lot of shit years and a lot of demons, worked as a dental hygienist, lived in San Francisco and Berkeley and Portland in the 1970s, worked in free clinics, spent time counselling others, very much advocates counselling for everyone to deal with their own shit before passing it on to their kids, travels the world with her friends and ignores societal conventions that say senior citizens are supposed to live quiet and sedate lives, and, most importantly for me, never gave up on me no matter how much I hated her in all those years I was sick. Sick, angry children can be incredibly difficult to deal with - I was severely depressed, I was mean, I was angry, I was violent, and above all I was too sick to do anything. My mother gave up working to take care of me and my older sister, and I will be forever grateful for all of the time and energy and love that my mother gave me. Strength is not only about being able to march out and face the monsters. My mom is kick ass in so many ways.

And then there's also my maternal grandmother, who grew up a tomboy on a farm in Michigan with no running water and then moved out West, where she knew no one, to work for the airlines. She married my grandfather after knowing him nine days because he was educated and she wanted her children to be able to get an education. The fact that I'm sitting here writing this, in my third year of a PhD, is in no small part because of my grandmother. She travelled the world until she was in her seventies, survived back surgery, thyroid cancer, and brain surgery, and lived for nine years after an emergency tracheotomy left her with a tube in her neck through which to breathe. Even in death she was damn stubborn; she'd fail and fail and we'd think that it was the end, only to find her standing at the end of her bed demanding to know why she couldn't walk on her own.

There are other strong women in my family: my great-grandmothers on my mom's side; my paternal grandmother, who immigrated from Germany at the age of nine; my sister; my aunts. I have, my whole life, been surrounded by strong women, women who deal with the shit that life serves them and carry on. Strong women are role models by their courage, their compassion, their ability to accept their flaws, and their strength to work through whatever life deals them.

And then there's me. When I was eleven years old and angry and sick and depressed, I wrote to make some of the pain go away. And I wrote girls who could do things that I couldn't. At that age, I hadn't yet developed my own writing voice, so a lot of other writers snuck in and out and I worked. But my heroines could run and fight and go on adventures - they could do everything I couldn't do. I gave them the abilities I wished I had and set them loose on their fictional worlds, letting them act as surrogates. Then, my women were nearly invincible, much as I wished I could be myself. As I grew older, I began to develop women with fears and flaws to accompany their strengths, pulling from my own life experience as well as my observations and knowledge of my own family and the world.

I don't actively set out to write strong women anymore. They write themselves, and more often than not they tell me in no uncertain terms that there are certain things they cannot, or will not do, or that the things I make them do will scar them in ways that will have to be dealt with later on. Having dealt with the deaths of both my grandmother and my father in the last two years, death has begun to write itself into my work more strongly, but the way that it affects my heroines is not always the way that it affected me, just as relationships between heroines and their fathers or mothers or siblings often don't in any way relate to my relationships with my family. My heroine Jo, in a YA dystopian work, carries her mother's dead body home through a storm and stays with it for two days before anyone finds her. This isn't the main focus of the book, but it damages Jo and leaves her vulnerable and scarred in ways that she won't realise for a long time to come. But it doesn't stop her from going out and trying to find her sister. As a child, Amy, in the science-fiction novel Empire's Legacy, observes her father murder her mother, and that single action leaves her with anxieties about letting people get close - she neither trusts nor loves. She is clever and strong and an excellent pilot; she has a doctorate in Empire Studies; but her childhood has left her damaged in ways that she can't recognise and, even if she could, she doesn't know how to fix. Spencer Murray is an alcoholic, angry, depressed writer grappling with the death of her aunt, a death that she considers her fault; a mother who never really wanted her; and a father who's been dead for years. Her self-destructive tendencies threaten to send her spiralling out of control, but I consider her strong nevertheless.

Every strong woman I know is strong in a unique way, and part of what makes her strong are her flaws - her weaknesses, her anxieties, her fears, the mistakes she made in the past. I write strong women like the women I know - and more often than not, they teach me more about how to be a heroine and a strong female protagonist than I knew when I started writing. Strength is not a matter of being able to fire a gun, endure an arduous trek, or survive torture. It is a quiet ability to survive, persist, and learn, to acknowledge your own weaknesses and strive to be better without abusing yourself if you sometimes fall down. We all fall down. The important thing is to get back up again.