Thursday, July 27, 2017

Affective Needs--Chapter Twenty Five

**New chapters posted Wednesdays**

I got home before my mother, but only because she was working late again. I had prepared myself to tell her the truth about where I’d been all day, to explain why I wasn’t here when she got home.
But I didn’t have to, because the house was still empty when I walked in.
I hadn’t eaten anything since the morning. Starving, I opened the fridge and stood staring at all the things I couldn’t even imagine being able to stomach. My whole body was shaky and weak, strung out from the intense electric vibration that had rattled my nerves ever since I had decided to go to Tennyson and see Porter.
I closed the fridge and went up to my room to lie down.
Flat on my back, my neck arched and my chin pointed high, I stared straight at my ceiling. There was a single glow-in-the-dark star left up there that no longer glowed in the dark.
For my eighth birthday, Bella Blake, at the time my best friend in the whole world, had given me a ten-pack of flavored ChapSticks, a Hello Kitty diary with a tiny silver lock and key, and a package of twenty-five glow-in-the-dark ceiling stars.
I had hugged her, sat shoulder to shoulder with her on the floor of my bedroom while we tasted every flavor of ChapStick. She was the only friend who slept over that night. We jumped on my bed, the stars in our palms, laughing and giggling until every star was stuck in a messy clump on the ceiling above my bed, then fell asleep way past the seventh time my dad came in to tell us to “knock it off and go to sleep.”
When my twelfth birthday came around, Bella didn’t come. The week before, Ashley Evans had invited her to spend the weekend in New York with Ashley’s mom at the Plaza Hotel.
And even though Bella and I had been inseparable since we sat next to each other in Ms. Newman’s kindergarten class, Bella went to New York with Ashley.
And I spent my twelfth birthday at Tony’s with my mom, eating lasagna, pretending to not be heartbroken. That night, alone in my room, I balanced my desk chair on my bed, the legs digging deep into the soft mattress, and scraped every glow in the dark star from my ceiling.
All except one.
I didn’t know why.
Did I not see that star?
My eyes blurred by thoughts of Bella and Ashley, New York, hotel pools, and laughter that left me out.
Had I left one on purpose?
One left for stupid hope?
One remaining for a single wish?
My heart had bled for Bella.
I had missed her friendship like nothing I had ever known.
And then, waiting for her to come back, watching her and Ashley grow closer, then giving up on ever getting her back—my heart had eventually coagulated in its own love.
I had spent the last six years making my love-turned-to-hate of Bella, and everything she did, an occupation.
Stupid stars.
Hot tears pooled in my ears.
And now—now I had also lost Eli.
And now, now I was losing Porter.
I closed my eyes to that dumb broken star. The whole world was a confused and broken place. A place filled to overflowing with lost and broken people.
My body, flat, stuck, still in the middle of my bed, at the edge of my room, in the corner of my house, at the end of my street, on the edge of my town, on the fringe of a landmass, a single point on the Earth—a small blue dot at an unknown location in the never-ending expanse of a universe that didn’t seem to know anything about the dark bottomless hole in the center of my soul.
A hole shadowed by the fear that none of this really mattered at all.
A fear that none of us mattered.
Downstairs, a door closed and my walls shook.
My mother was home.
I pulled my eyes from that plastic star and rolled onto my side until I faced my open bedroom door. I could hear my mother’s feet coming up the carpeted stairs.
“Ruth?” she called.
I didn’t answer her, but when she got to the landing she glanced toward my bedroom and our eyes met. She stopped where she was, her shoulders dropped and she frowned.
“Have you been there all day?” Her voice was soft and concerned.
She came into my room, pushed my legs over, and sat on the edge of my bed. Her hand brushed the hair away from my face. “Are you okay?”
I didn’t even know what that question meant anymore. “I’m not sure.” I rolled onto my back and sat up, my knees pulled tight against my chest. “I don’t think so.”
This answer must have made sense to her because she nodded.
“Do you want to talk now?” she whispered.
I looked at her from over the tops of my knees and shrugged.
She sighed, “How long?” she asked.
“A couple months . . . almost since he started at Roosevelt.”
“Are you two serious?”
I shrugged again. “I guess.”
“Have you slept with him?”
The question annoyed me, but I answered her anyway. “No. Not that it matters.”
She could tell I was getting defensive, she waited a few moments to continue. “Do you love him?”
“I said I did.”
“But do you?”
“I think so.”
“And he loves you?”
This I didn’t know, I let my silence answer the question.
My mother sighed again, “You know, when I imagined your first boyfriend, Porter Creed is not exactly the picture that came to mind.”
I gave her a quizzical look, “You’ve imagined a boyfriend for me?”
“Well . . . sort of, I suppose.”
“And . . . on a good day, he was like a straight Eli.”
This made me smile in spite of everything else. “And the bad days?”
She twisted her mouth. “The bad days . . . The bad days I envisioned you in the middle of some scandal with an older university professor during your freshman year.”
She shrugged and chuckled. “So I guess I’ve always worried about the whole ‘daddy’ thing rearing its head in that predictable way that it does with some girls who don’t have the best male role models. College just seemed like the most likely environment.”
“I cannot believe you’ve thought that.”
“It sounds much worse now that I’ve said it out loud.”
I shook my head at her. “Although I can see your reasoning . . . I don’t exactly have the best father figure.”
She stared at the space of bedspread between us.
“What did you ever see in him?” I asked.
She raised her eyebrows as if the question surprised her, then settled her focus somewhere near where my wall met the ceiling, like she was trying, really, really hard to think of what she could have ever possibly have seen in a man who would one day comb his thinning hair back into a ponytail. She sighed. “Your father”—she actually smiled—“your father was very, very handsome.”
My face must have looked like I was about to throw up because she said, “I’m serious! You’ve seen pictures!”
Actually, I didn’t know if I had seen pictures of my dad when he was younger. At least not that I could remember.
“And besides that, and more importantly, your dad was—is—a very intelligent person.”
“A very intelligent person who wears ridiculous shirts.”
She smirked. “Well . . . he didn’t wear stupid shirts when I met him.”
I hugged my knees tighter. “Why did you get divorced?”
She took another deep breath and tilted her head to the side, “I always swore I would never badmouth your dad. It was important to me that you develop whatever sort of relationship with him the two of you were going to have without me poisoning the well.”
“He pissed in the well.”
Her mouth flattened. “Maybe, but I still wanted him to have a chance to not do that.”
“I’m not eight anymore. I’ve formed my own opinions now. Why did you hate him?”
She thought about this for a second even though I was pretty sure my mother could have answered much, much quicker. “I have reasons I left him . . . but I never hated him. I still don’t.”
“How is that possible?”
“Because I’ve seen your father at his most vulnerable. I know his fears, his regrets. I know exactly why he hides behind tasteless shirts, long hair, and a younger woman. Why he wants desperately to be thought of as important. Your father is very intelligent . . . he just never happened to do anything of consequence with that intelligence.”
I lifted my head off my knees and looked her in the eyes.
She sighed. “Wasted potential. Your father is full to overflowing with that. He has been practically choking on it for the last eighteen years.”
“Since he failed out of Harvard because of me.”
For the first time, I saw her eyebrows knit together and her face darken. “No. Since he dropped out of Harvard after we had you.”
“But because he had to. Because having a wife and a new baby—”
“And this is what he’s told you?”
I shrugged. “Basically.”
She nodded. “You asked why I left your father. I left because I was not going to spend a lifetime being blamed for something that was his choice. He didn’t fail out, and he didn’t have to leave. It was hard, extremely hard . . . yes. But we were making it—barely, but still, he didn’t have to drop out.”
“Then why?”
“Because your father was that kid who graduated at the top of his class in high school and when he showed up to Harvard, he saw for the first time in his life that there were lots and lots of other high schools with kids who graduated at the top of their class. And, in that environment, he was no longer the top of anything. He was surrounded with other people who were just as smart, or smarter. He was getting C’s, a D even, for the first time in his life. He didn’t know how to not be the best of everyone, so he stopped trying to even be the best of himself. It was his decision to leave. The plan was to go to another school, finish his degree somewhere good, but less competitive.”
“But he didn’t.”
“No. Harvard killed his confidence, damaged his ego in a way I don’t think he’s ever gotten over. He just threw up his hands.”
“You left him because he gave up.”
“No. I left him because at your first birthday, we had lots of friends over. Most didn’t have kids, but they came anyway. Your dad was standing with a group of his Harvard friends and I happened to overhear him tell them that the reason he left was because of me . . . because of you. That was the first time.” She shrugged. “Then I heard it again at dinner with his parents, and again when he was on the phone with his uncle. Suddenly, his entire personal script was the guy who had to give up his dreams because of a wife and a kid. When we started fighting, and he started throwing Harvard at me like a bomb, I realized it wasn’t just the excuse he was giving to save face in front of his family and friends. It had somehow become something that he believed even inside his own head. There was no way in hell I was going to subject myself to that for fifty years.”
“Why did he give up?”
“Because it wasn’t easy for him anymore. He was going to have to work for it, actually put in some effort. He didn’t know how to do that. Because he had always been so bright, he’d never really struggled with school before. He’d never learned how to persist in the face of something that didn’t happen the first time he tried it. So no, don’t let him tell you he failed Harvard because of you. The world is full of people sitting on goldmines of potential, but because their environments are hard, they throw up their hands in defeat. Your father is just one of many.”
I bit my lip. My brain, having just visited with both Karen and Porter, had jumped tracks. “But sometimes”—my voice was quiet, shaky—“sometimes things, the things around you really are too hard.”
My mom, hearing the tears in my voice, seemed to realize where our conversation had led me. “Yes,” she sighed. “I would also say that sometimes a person’s, a person like Porter, their living situation . . . you’re right. It’s not like you can just apply the same thinking to his situation. And I don’t. I know that Porter, and lots of the kids I’ve worked with, have been dealt a pretty shitty hand . . .” Her voice broke on the last words. “Some are much worse than Porter’s.”
Karen. Karen’s was much worse than Porter’s.
“And I would add, sometimes the most amazing people are born out of the worst kind of shitty life you could ever imagine.” She reached over and held my hand. Her fingers were warm and solid, a sure anchor in the middle of an unsure universe. “And sometimes life is like a goddamn tsunami that drowns a person before they’ve ever even had a chance to learn how to swim.”
“What’s going to happen to Porter?”
My mom shook her head. “I don’t know, Ruth. And it’s that not knowing if Porter learned to swim 
that makes me very afraid for you.”

Saturday, July 22, 2017

RITA Award Live Streaming, Thursday July 27th 7:00PM ET


The 2017 Romance Writers of America RITA Awards will be streamed LIVE from their website Thursday, July 27 at 7:00pm Eastern Time.

As a reminder, my YA contemporary Affective Needs is a finalist!

Here is the link to the RWA site. 


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Affective Needs--Chapter Twenty Four

**New chapters posted here on Wednesdays**
I left Abigail Atwater sitting with her sister, holding hands, staring out the window that looked out into the woods surrounding Harmony House.
I had promised her I wouldn’t share her story—she made me sign a nondisclosure agreement anyway. I sat there, right at the wobbly wooden table of Harmony House while she pulled it up, in a snap, on her laptop. I supposed attorneys would carry nondisclosure agreements around with them like other people carried tissues, or breath mints.
“It’s binding, you know. You are eighteen,” she reminded me. “If you think I won’t sue you, your family, and your unborn children . . . try me.”
I nodded, vaguely disappointed that she wouldn’t trust me, but mostly not caring about signing the paper to make her feel better. My original research concept was complete garbage now that I knew the truth about Karen anyway.
I was halfway home to Trenton when I fully understood why Abigail would want me to sign that paper. The real research opportunity was a gold mine, the stuff that made academic careers.
Genetically identical twins, separated at birth. One ends up with a mostly normal family, graduates college, graduates law school, owns a Mercedes and a high-rise apartment near Central Park. One ends up severely neglected. Starved and abused. Tied to her bed day and night. Never spoken to and kept in a diaper.
For eleven years.
Abigail Atwater knew exactly how the world worked. They would never, ever, leave her or her sister alone.
I would have made me sign a nondisclosure agreement as well.
Up ahead there was a sign mounted to the side of an overpass. When I was closer, I looked up and read: Basking Ridge, 2 miles. Flicking my blinker on, I checked my mirrors, glanced over my shoulder, and moved into the far right lane.
Visiting Karen today had been nothing short of amazing, even if I had no idea what I was going to do about my senior honors thesis now, but it had really only been a cover excuse. The exit lane for Basking Ridge was coming up on my right. I turned my signal back on and merged off the highway, down shifting Vader as we slowed going up the ramp and eventually came to a stop at the traffic light.
My real reason for driving up north today had nothing to do with Karen.

Tennyson Home for Boys and Young Men was ten miles off the highway.
When Sara had mentioned the name of the place where she was sending Porter, I might not have understood, but I had remembered it all the same. Finding it was as simple as an internet search. Tennyson was even helpful enough to provide a mapping link on their website.
When I pulled it up this morning and realized that Tennyson was halfway between Trenton and Harmony House up in Sussex County, I had decided I needed more observational data on Karen. That way if my mother asked questions about where I had been today, I wouldn’t have to lie. There would even be the physical record, Harmony House’s guest sign-in sheet, that she could check if she had completely lost trust in me.
Which, given the fact that I was sitting in Vader outside the facility holding Porter, was possibly completely justified. I didn’t think my mother would be mad, necessarily, if she found out I was here, but I had a feeling she would be really scared. That fear that settles in your stomach and crawls up your spine when you’re in the middle of an out-of-control situation.
Or maybe that was just the way I felt.
Standing out in front of the beige brick building that looked more like a beginners’ prison than a home for boys, out of control perfectly described the force propelling me inside.
I walked the narrow sidewalk that cut the wide lawn perfectly in half until I found myself at the door with a huge sign. “Ring Bell for Entrance” along with an arrow that pointed to the speaker box on my left.
I pressed the button.
A man’s voice, crackled and electric, echoed into the entrance. “Can I help you?”
“I’m here to see someone?” I hated how high my voice sounded, like I was scared. Which, of course, I was. I had a feeling Abigail Atwater’s voice never sounded high and questioning.
“Who are you here to see?” he asked.
Oh God, they were never going to let me in. “Porter Creed?”
“And you are?”
“Ruth Robinson.”
“Just a minute.”
They wouldn’t have told Abigail Atwater just a minute. One look at her through that fish-eye camera over the door and the guy would have wet himself trying to open the door fast enough. Abigail probably had some Open the Goddamn Door Now or I’ll Sue Your Ass document on her laptop that she could have held up for them to see.
The speaker cracked. “Pull the door.”
I couldn’t believe it.
A soft buzzing sound came from the door, so I lunged forward and pulled the handle. Were they actually going to let me see Porter? Did Porter actually want to see me? I had no idea, but all the anxiety that had been growing inside me ever since I woke up this morning suddenly broke loose and made my entire body shaky.
There was a small entrance area with a large industrial floor mat—Please Wipe Your Feet—and another set of wooden double doors with glass windows. Past these, there was a reception area that led to what I assumed was the main office and a small waiting room with several couches and uncomfortable-looking plastic chairs.
It looked exactly like what it was, a building that had once been used for something else, but was converted into a school. Not just a school, I reminded myself. Porter lived here now. It was also a residential facility.
Was he allowed to leave?
“Hello,” a guy sitting behind the open office window greeted me, but didn’t get up from his chair. “You’re here to see Porter?”
I swallowed hard and nodded.
“He only arrived last night,” the guy said.
“I know.”
The guy, who looked like he was maybe in his late twenties, scrutinized my face like he was looking for any sign that he should turn me around and march me back out the doors.
I tried to look like I normally look, like the entire world bored the crap out of me—but it was impossible. I cared way too much about being able to see Porter; without a doubt, everything about me practically reeked of that desperation.
He looked me over a moment longer then lifted a clipboard up to the counter in front of him. “You’ll need to sign in. I’ll send someone up to see if he wants any visitors. What did you say your name was again?”
I picked up of the pen and started filling out the form. “Ruth.”
“Ruth what?”
The guy reached over and lifted the receiver on his phone.
The form in front of me wanted all my biographical information as well as check-box promises that I was not trying to smuggle in any drugs, alcohol, or tobacco products. Check, check, check, and sign my name. I could only hope that this evidence of my being here wouldn’t eventually find its way to my mother.
I slid the clipboard back across the counter to the guy, who glanced at it and said, “Take a seat.”
The waiting room was empty, the collection of chairs carefully arranged to facilitate conversations for groups of two or four. The light coming in through the window was a soft gray that promised rain and made the shade of white on the walls feel like it would suck out your soul if you stayed here too long.
On the drive down, the sunny clear skies up near Harmony House had gradually clouded over and turned the day into a dreary overcast.
There were too many choices, so I sat in one of chairs grouped in four, they felt more casual, less intentional—the twos were intimate, and I was afraid of what Porter would think if he did choose to come and see me. Last night, in the dark and chaos of Shady Village, Porter was angry with me for calling the police.
Porter blamed me for Sara taking his sister away.
My eyes found a dirty spot on the wall above the low bookcase. Its anemic collection of dated hardbacks and beaten paperbacks looked neglected and never used.
I could feel my pulse in my neck.
What if Porter didn’t want to see me?
What if he did?
I felt every second, every moment, like the slowest of ticks in the middle of a very long life. I forced myself to not pull out my phone and track the time—Porter was not going to come. I could feel it. He was too angry. And not just about his sister, although that was certainly enough, but about the lies.
Of omission, sure. But still. Porter was not stupid.
I stared out the window and wondered if I was really going to continue to sit here and wait. Wait for the word, the look, the information from the guy behind the desk that Porter didn’t want to see me.
I was just sitting here waiting for the humiliation of rejection.
I didn’t care.
There was a noise to my right, and when I turned my head, Porter stood in the doorway next to the bookcase, staring at me, his expression utterly unreadable.
My heart rushed and a flood of adrenaline swept through my veins leaving me soggy and limp in its wake. I stared back at him and waited to see what happened next.
Seconds dragged but I didn’t say anything, couldn’t say anything. He had to know why I was here, had to know that this was me throwing myself at his feet, waiting for forgiveness.
But what if he didn’t know that?
“I’m sorry,” I breathed.
I watched his chest fill, and deflate. Fill, deflate. He was thinking, deciding. What happened next mattered. What happened next shaped everything that happened after.
He swallowed.
“Ruth . . .”
I waited for it to come.
“You shouldn’t be here.”
I kept waiting.
Porter shook his head. “Everything . . .” His shoulders sagged. I stood up. “Everything is too much.” His voice broke.
I was moving, across the floor, around chairs.
Porter’s head hung, his shoulders shook, his face was wet.
My arms opened, my hands found him, my muscles pulled him into me.
“Ruth . . . you should go.” But he didn’t resist me. His arms wrapped all the way around my body and held on to me like I was the only thing that might save him in the middle of a dark and violent sea. His face buried into my neck and I felt his lips making more protests, more excuses, more reasons about why I should leave, walk away, and never look back.
I turned my head so my lips were near his ear. “I can’t, Porter,” I whispered. “Even if I should, I just can’t.”
My hands cupped his face; my lips brushed his lips.
“No, Ruth,” he whispered, but when I kissed him harder, he pulled me closer.
My arms wrapped around his waist and my head pressed against his chest—I could feel his heart pound hard and fast against his ribs. We stood there, hanging on to each other, the rest of our world broken and decimated.
I never wanted to let him go.
I never wanted to leave this place.
I could have stood there forever, wrapped up with him, scared, but scared together.
But now, right here, in this place—it was not a decision that was ours to make.
“Time’s up.”
The voice startled me and sent a shiver of dread down my spine. Porter and I released each other and turned to see who was here. Who was giving us orders now.
It was a guy. Another twenty-something in baggy jeans and a loose flannel shirt standing in the doorway Porter had come through, holding up his phone that was beeping and showing 00:00:00 against a bright white screen.
“What?” my voice fired at this stranger and his commander expression.
Porter’s hand slid into mine.
The guy raised his eyebrows at me. “I said, time’s up.”
Porter’s body shifted away from me.
“Time for what?” I demanded.
“Ruth . . .” Porter’s voice was gentle.
“His visiting time—it’s over now. Let’s go, Romeo.” The guy raised his hand and motioned with only two fingers—hurry up—like he had been here, done this a thousand times before.
My chest seized and anger flashed through my veins like a wild fire. My eyes zeroed in on this asshole. “Visiting time? I’m sorry, is this a prison?”
The guy tilted his head a fraction of an inch while the corner of his mouth raised.
“Am I amusing you?”
“Oh, you have no idea,” the guy said. His face hardened again. “Let’s go, Porter.”
My hand tightened on Porter’s at the exact moment he was trying to let mine go. I looked up at him—he was leaving.
“I have to go, Ruth.” His voice was calm. He bent down and kissed me one more time, his hands cupping my face. When he pulled away, he looked into my eyes.
“I’ll come back tomorrow,” I promised.
“I’m waiting . . . I really hate waiting.” The guy’s voice dripped with sarcasm.
Porter shook his head and dropped his hands. “Don’t come back.” He stepped away from me and started walking toward the guy.
“I’m coming back.” My voice broke on the words.
Porter shook his head, and when he reached the doorway, he turned and faced me. Tears streamed from his eyes. He took a breath. “Don’t come, Ruth. I won’t see you again.”
“Don’t say that.”
The guy put his hand on Porter’s back.
“Goodbye, Ruth.”
The guy was closing the door.
“I am coming! I’m not going to just leave you here.”
The door shut with a click.
“I love you, Porter!”
I stood waiting, watching, hoping Porter would burst through that door one more time and sweep me up into his arms. I stood there and cried, my chest crushed under the weight and pressure of the whole stupid world.
The guy sitting behind the counter opened a metal cabinet drawer, pulled out a file.
My fingernails dug into my palms. The pain felt good; it felt real.
The phone rang.
“Hello, Tennyson Home. This is Tom.”
The room was darker, grayer. Outside, fat drops of water clung to the windows; others slid down the glass in thin wet streaks.
“I’m sorry, he’s left for the evening. Can I take a message?”
The door wasn’t opening. I stared at it, imagined Porter on the other side of it, wondered what would happen if I opened it. What if I was the one to burst through, rush the hallway, sweep Porter up into my arms?
The guy behind the counter hung up the phone, stood up, and walked away.
If I was going to do it, now was the time.
I took a breath, my arms and legs weak with fear and defiance. I tried to move fast. I tripped and recovered; my hand reached for the door knob—I was really going to do this.
My heart pounded.
The knob was cold and hard against my palm. It turned, loose like a quick promise.
Then stopped.
The door was locked.
The guy returned to his desk behind the counter, glanced up at me, then sat back down in his chair and whatever work was spread before him.
I stood there, frozen, defeated by systems. Procedures. Measures that had been taken long before I had ever even showed up.
I was not the first girl to stand defiant in this waiting room.
Porter was not the first boy locked behind this door.
“We lock the front door in five minutes,” the guy explained without bothering to look up. “If you don’t leave on your own, we call the police.”
It wasn’t even a threat, simply a fact.
My hand slipped from the knob. What would Abigail Atwater do?
I took a breath and wiped my face, walked over to the counter, and swallowed my pride. “When can residents take visitors?”
The guy pulled a trifold pamphlet from a plastic holder on my right and handed it to me. “Days and hours are listed on the back.”
I flipped the homemade handout over and read the schedule. “So this is not a prison, it’s just run like one.”
The guy smirked. “Hardly. If you’d ever in your life been to an actual prison, you’d think differently.”
The condescension in his voice made me squirm, but he was right. I had zero experience with any of this. I turned to leave. I was almost through the door when the guy called out to me.
“Want some advice I’m sure you won’t take?”
I stopped and faced him.
“Listen to your boyfriend.” He shook his head slowly. “Don’t come back here.”
I let his words sink in, acknowledged that he had seen some version of me here a hundred times before, then shrugged. “I can’t do that.”

His mouth flattened into a disappointed frown, then he nodded and sighed. “I know.”