Monday, February 20, 2017

Sit a Spell with First Chapters: December Sunrise

            A monster lurked in my house, scarier than the boogie-man that lived under my bed when I was three. Visions of Mama teased the front of my brain, ever with me, even on my best days. Oh, how I wanted life to be normal, for Mama, for my family. My head slumped to my chest, and I sighed. And yes, for me. When I realized I was chewing on my thumbnail, I yanked it from my mouth and focused on my teacher.
Mrs. Hatfield stood at the back of the fifth grade classroom holding an open book. Behind her, light poured in through the windows and caused her long, blonde hair to shine. As shiny as the giant’s gold coins in the Jack and the Beanstalk story. A sick feeling almost made me double over. Mama’s head wasn’t anything like my teacher’s. Not anymore. No, her dull hair fell out by the hand full.
With a sweet smile curving my teacher’s lips, how could I not do my very best for her? She loved us kids, and we all knew it.
            At the front of the class lined up like checkers on a board, four remaining students battled for weekly spelling champion. Every Friday afternoon we took our places, trying our best to remember all the words we’d studied that week.
            I can tell you right now—I love words. It’s amazing to me that 26 letters in the English alphabet can create thousands of words. String those words together and you can make sentences which turn into essays, poems, and stories. Most people think I’m much older than ten, ‘cause I love to use big words and spice up my sentences when I talk and write. 

I also love to read. Guess I picked that up from Mama. She always read me books when I was little, not that I’m that big now, just bigger. I do most of my reading on my own. Sometimes, though, when she’s reading a story to my four-year-old sister, Addy, I sneak into the bedroom and curl up beside them. But bedtime stories don’t happen all that often any more, not since Mama got cancer. She’s way too tired for that.

            “Surgical,” Mrs. H announced with clear, crisp diction, drawing my mind back to the classroom.
            Trent stepped forward, staring at the ceiling, chewing on his bottom lip. “Surgical. S-u-r-g-i-c-u-l. Surgical.”
            I released the breath I’d been holding. We were now down to three. Would my title be stripped from me? My belly churned as sweat broke out on my palms.
            “I’m sorry, Trent. That’s incorrect.” Mrs. H’s face slid into a sympathetic frown. “You may take your seat.”
            Hands in his pants pockets, Trent trudged across the gray linoleum and slipped into his desk. He fingered the pencil resting in the desk slot, refusing eye contact with the rest of us contestants. Even though I wanted to win four times in a row, my heart hurt for him.
            “Mandy, surgical.” Mrs. H shuffled the book and locked eyes with the girl no one seemed to like, though I’m not quite sure why. Just because her mother’s poor doesn’t make her odious. I know that’s a not-so-good word, but somehow I like the ring of it. In case you didn’t know, it means revolting, nasty. She’s hardly those things. A little shy, maybe, but not revolting.
            Head hung low, Mandy stepped forward, gazing at her worn shoes. Again, my chest squeezed with pain. Her big toe peeked through a small hole. Other than that and a few scuffs, the shoes were clean, just like Mandy. I did notice a patch on each elbow of her blouse and made a mental note to sort through my closet to see what I might pass along to her. We appeared to be the same size. Mama was always telling me I had too many clothes, anyway.
            “Surgical.” Mandy’s words crept out. “S-i-r-g-i-k-a-l. Surgical.” Her grin turned into a frown when Mrs. H told her to take her seat. Red splotches broke out on her neck, and she tried to hide her face with her dark brown hair.
            Sitting in the desk across from Mandy, Marcus broke out in a laugh. Several other kids joined in.
            “Quiet!” Mrs. H slapped the book shut and snapped her fingers. She walked up the aisle and stopped at Marcus’s desk. She flashed him a warning scowl, then asked the next pupil in line to spell surgical.  
            I couldn’t believe it! Zoe couldn’t spell surgical. I started to panic. If none of these kids could spell this simple word, maybe I couldn’t either.
When Zoe returned to her seat, Mrs. H moved forward and studied me. “All right, Emma Rose, for the championship, four weeks in a row, please spell the word surgical.”
Sudden heat poured through my body. I couldn’t breathe. The room closed in around me. Marcus stuck out his tongue and screwed up his face, trying to shake me up. I swallowed hard, squeezed my hands so tight they turned white. With Mama sick and all, I knew a lot about surgery. I’d even seen the word surgical in a brochure while waiting with her in the doctor’s office.
I closed my eyes and invited my imagination to take over. A blackboard appeared. Slowly, a hand wrote out the word. As the letters appeared I repeated them. “S-u-r-g-i-c-a-l. Surgical.” My eyes fluttered open, and I exhaled. Marcus glared at me and gave a thumbs down with Mrs. H’s back turned. But my beautiful teacher just smiled, and I knew success was mine.
“That’s correct, Emma Rose.” Mrs. H moved to her desk and set the book on the cluttered surface.
Wow, spelling champ four weeks running! As I took my seat behind Mandy, my head swelled entirely too large. I had a gift with words. My family already said I was a pro at the game, “Dictionary.” Every new word I looked up, I also learned to spell. Of course, since Mama had to stop home schooling me, I didn’t get to play much. But maybe that could change.
“Hey, new girl, with the three first names . . .” Marcus leaned over and whispered across the aisle, but Mrs. H cut him short with another stern look and a reprimand.
After three months, he still called me “new girl.” As far as the three first names, well, I suppose Emma Rose Dawn could all be first names. But I’m proud of my name and of my parents, Ed and Sharon Dawn. It’s funny, but one of my favorite, no, my very favorite thing is the dawn when the sunrise sneaks up over the Blue Ridge Mountains in my backyard. Everything’s so peaceful. The sun tosses out pink ribbons, celebrating the new day. I love it.
Still, why are some kids so cruel? When I asked Mama and Daddy about it, they said sometimes children feel so bad about themselves they have to pick on others to make themselves look good. But I don’t see how that’s working for Marcus. Except for a couple other boys, everyone in class tries to stay out of his way. One time, I heard Marcus say he liked to mess around with his uncle’s guns. He said that with his chest all puffed out with plenty of threats to match. But I don’t think he’d really ever do anything. Still, I worry about that boy. To tell ya the truth, I feel sorry for him. If he feels so bad about himself that he has to bully others, well, that’s just plain sad.
Mrs. H sat behind her desk and reached for another book. “Okay, class, take out your health books.”
No sooner had the words left her mouth than a banging noise exploded from one of the lockers at the far side of the room.
Mrs. H’s head shot in the direction of the sound. “What on earth?” She rose and walked toward the thumping as a few of the boys, Marcus included, burst into laughter. She located the locker in question and swung open the door.
Johnny fell out onto the floor, a crumpled mess with his hair matted to his forehead. He peered up at her with red-rimmed eyes and chapped cheeks.
She knelt beside him, softness in her eyes. “What were you doing in your locker?”
Johnny’s gaze skipped around the room, finally landing on Marcus. “I got trapped and couldn’t get out. I finally fell asleep.”
She helped him to his feet. “Go to the washroom and freshen up. Make sure you get a drink of water.” She turned her fierce gaze on Marcus. “I’ll have a word with you, young man. Out in the hall, if you please.”
Marcus slumped in his desk, arms folded across his chest.
“Now!” She clapped her hands and moved toward him, her body stiff, fists pressed to her legs. “The rest of you turn to chapter ten in your health books and read until I return.” She walked to the door with Marcus. “And remember, I can hear everything that’s going on in here.”
I peered back at Kimmie Sue Wharton, my new best friend, sitting two rows over since her last name started with “W.” She twisted a strand of hair around her finger and chewed on her tongue as she poured over her book. Then her head popped up, and we exchanged grins. Her smile made me feel all warm inside, and I turned back to focus on my book.
A few minutes later, Mrs. H and Marcus returned. I don’t know what she says or what she does when she takes him out of the room, but when he comes back in, it’s like he’s a different boy. He sits in his seat all straight, like a little man. When she calls on him, he says “Yes, ma’am,” all proper-like. But his good behavior never lasts long, and soon he’s back to teasing the girls and blowing spit-balls across the room.
The last bell rang, and all the kids sprang into action gathering books, backpacks, and sitting on the edge of their seats ready to fly when Mrs. H said the word.
“Walkers may get your coats and line up.” Mrs. H stood and moved to the door. That was my cue. I only lived a couple streets over from the school. While most Mamas and Daddies wouldn’t dare let their kids roam free these days, I lived in a town that was more like a big neighborhood with only 2,949 people. “You wouldn’t find a safer place,” my daddy always said. And today, Kimmie Sue got to come home with me for a sleepover. Daddy said it’d be okay as long as we weren’t too noisy. After all, Mama needed her rest, especially after a chemo treatment. 
Outside, the sun played peek-a-boo from behind a gray cloud. I’d put in my order for snow, being the fifth of December and all, but none had appeared. How I wanted to sled down the school hill, screaming and laughing along with Mama, Daddy, and Addy. That funny feeling passed through my tummy again. It wasn’t likely Mama would be able to do that for a while. Probably never. Maybe I didn’t want it to snow after all.
I turned to Kimmie Sue, her red sock hat mashing her bangs. She blinked through the hair that teased her dark eyelashes. “I’ll race ya to the road,” I said.
Kimmie lifted her shoulders to adjust her backpack, eyes sparking, feet on the ready. Every muscle in her body seemed to tense. She’d never win a spelling bee, but boy, could she run.
“Ready, set, go!” I screamed, and off we charged, up a small hill past other kids and down, finally skidding to a stop at the bottom as a car whizzed by. Breathless, I patted Kimmie on the back. “You win, just like always.”
Face flushed, she unzipped her jacket and grinned, a dimple appearing in her chubby cheek. Four permanent teeth sat in a row on the top and bottom with others yet to come in on the sides. Like me. But that wasn’t the only thing we had in common. We both loved Barbie dolls, ballet, homemade cookies, and laughter. And it didn’t take much to split our sides.
We studied the street, looked both ways, and darted across. On the other side, Mr. Whitmire stood on a ladder putting up Christmas lights on his gutter. An inflated Frosty smiled in the yard, alongside a merry-go-round with three plastic horses. Two tiny reindeer, the kind made out of sticks, lay beside the open garage. Mini-lights twinkled from the bushes.
“Hi, Mr. Whitmire,” I yelled, passing his house. Mama and I had baked a basket of cookies for him when he moved to Gosmer to be close to his daughter. He never talked about her, and he didn’t have any grandkids. Kinda sad. But that worked pretty good for him and me, ‘cause I didn’t have a grandpa. With a white beard like Santa Claus, except shorter, he enjoyed telling me stories whenever I visited him. 
He glanced over his shoulder and kinda lost his balance.
A deep frown flickered across his face, quickly replaced by a weak smile. Kimmie and I snapped our heads back to the road in front of us and kept right on walking without looking back. Giggling, we turned onto Lasser. Three houses on the left, a white dog with floppy ears barked and danced on the top of a picnic table in the side yard, a chain running from his neck to a short metal pole in the ground.
“Ooh, look, there’s that dog that barks in two-four time.” Kimmie covered her mouth, her giggle now turning into full-fledged laughter.

I couldn’t help but join her. Before long, we were laughing so hard, we had to hold our stomachs. Oh, it hurt. But no sound came out. I glanced at her face, red like she’d been in the sun too long. Tears streamed from her eyes, leaving streaks on her cheeks.
As we stepped onto my sidewalk at the end of the street, I stopped to catch my breath. “Whew! You almost made me wet my pants.”
“Me, too.” She crossed her legs and stared at me, and we burst out laughing again.
“Race ya to the bathroom.” Kimmie started to run down the sidewalk, but I grabbed her arm. “No, wait, Mama’s not feeling good. We have to be quiet.”
Kimmie clapped her hand over her mouth. “Oh, sorry.” She tiptoed toward the front stoop as if she were already in the house.

I shook my head and followed.
Silence greeted us inside. No Christmas music. No gingerbread smell coming from the kitchen. Only the dreaded quiet. So different from years past. My mama loved the holiday season so much she decorated the house on November first, except for the tree. Daddy and I always took a special date to chop down a fir two weeks before Christmas.
Who knew what would happen this year.
“Where’s your mom?” Kimmie tugged off her mittens then lowered her backpack to a living room chair.
Without a word, I crept down the hallway, Kimmie on my heels. A strange sour smell hung in the air when we passed the bathroom. I swallowed and covered my mouth. Mama and Daddy’s bedroom door was cracked so I peeked inside. Addy sat on the carpet, bent over her Little Mermaid coloring book, a blue crayon in her hand. Her head popped up when she saw me.
My grip tightened on the doorknob as Kimmie tried to slither in beside me. “Where’s Mama?” My mouth went dry.
“Puttin’ clothes in the washer.” Addy fished for another crayon in her box as if Mama putting clothes in to wash happened every day in our house. It didn’t. Most days, either Daddy or me had to do it.
A lid banged shut, and slow steps scuffed up from the basement. Mama’s worn face appeared at the top of the stairs. “Well, hello girls.” She must have used every last ounce of energy to say that ‘cause her shoulders kinda collapsed as she moved toward us. As we stood side-by-side, she placed one hand on my cheek, and the other on Kimmie’s arm. Even though she wore a scarf to hide her balding head and a shadow circled her eyes, she managed a smile.
I guess Mama’s smile is about the most beautiful thing in the world. Daddy told me once that’s why he married her, because her whole face seemed to glow whenever she smiled. Like she hid some secret just bursting to get out.
I screwed up my face. “You all right, Mama?” Oh, how I wanted her to be. How I wanted her trip to the basement to mean she was getting better. That the hard months she’d been through—that we’d all been through—were over. “I thought you had a treatment today.”
She knelt in front of us. “I did.” Her lower lip trembled, then she formed another smile. “But ya know what? I don’t feel near as bad as I did after that last round. In fact, I feel pretty good.” She plopped her fist on her hip. “What would you say to some hot chocolate?”
“Me too!” Addy slammed her coloring book and scrambled to her feet.
I took Mama’s hand as the four of us padded to the kitchen. “I can help.” I opened the cabinet where we kept all the drink mixes and reached for the cocoa packets.
“So can I,” Kimmie chimed in, leaning against the striped wall paper that matched the placemats on the table.
“I wanna stir my own.” Addy climbed into a chair and struggled to her knees, arms resting on the wooden table.
Mama poured water into mugs and placed them in the microwave. “How about you girls put the packets on the table? We’ll let each person fix her own.”
That’s the way it was these days. Each person fixing his own, from hot chocolate to lunches to laundry. ‘Cause Daddy said everybody had to pitch in to help until Mama got over her cancer. And there was nothing I wanted more than Mama to feel good again. 
But when in the world would that be?
Kimmie and me joined Addy at the table and waited for the microwave to ping. “Stop picking your nose. That’s gross.” I knocked Addy’s hand away from her face. Mama didn’t need that kinda stuff to deal with.
Addy twisted her mouth and howled. “Stop it!”
“Girls,” Mama said in that sing-songy way we’d grown used to, as if she was trying to figure out whether to be mad or amused.
 When the microwave beeped, Mama carried the cups to the table. I scooted a mug over to Kimmie and one to Addy along with a packet for each. Then I passed out spoons from a jar in the center of the table. I glanced at Mama. She stood by the stove, face white, hand on her stomach.
“Aren’t you gonna have any chocolate?” Oh, how I wanted her to say yes. To be normal.
Her face kinda twitched like a bunny’s nose, then she ran out of the room.
The front door opened and in walked Daddy. Home early. Thank you, Jesus. His strong face slid into a grin when he joined us at the table. Before he had a chance to speak, a sound like vomiting came from the bathroom, followed by that awful odor.
His smiley eyes turned sad. He brushed a hand over the table and pushed back his chair. “I’ll go check on Mama.” He winked—something he did to reassure us.
But I knew the truth.
Mama couldn’t take much more of this. And I wondered if we could either.

December Sunrise
 A little girl’s Christmas wish comes at a high cost.

Emma’s Christmas list isn’t like other kids’. Instead of toys, she wants her mama’s cancer to go away, the town to stop arguing over the Ten Commandments, and nice Mr. Whitmire to reunite with his estranged daughter. Grandma Doreen holds the key to a family secret that just might fulfill some of Emma’s desires, but not before tragedy strikes.

A young girl’s heart for helping takes her to a dark place only the Light of Christmas can illumine.

December Sunrise, available here.


chappydebbie said...

I absolutely LOVE this book!

Eileen Rife said...

You're always such an encouragement, Debbie. Thank you!

The End of One Story, the Beginning of Another

I flip through the calendar, a gift from my missionary daughter. Family face after family face jump off the pages. Grandkids roasting mar...