Chapter 5, UPSTANDER: An Excerpt

It’s not a simple thing, selecting the right excerpt to share. So many factors to consider. The selection can’t be from too late in the book, too riddled with spoilers. But you don’t want the isolated excerpt to mislead the reader into thinking, Oh, so that’s what the book is about! Because, obviously, it’s about so much more. This is but one chapter out of thirty-eight.

When reading aloud to large groups, I tend to go with two options: 1) Something funny, or 2) Something dramaticI think curious fans of Bystander might particularly enjoy Chapter 11, which details the origins of Griffin and Mary’s relationship. But I didn’t go with that here. Instead, we’re early in the book, a look into Mary’s home life. Is that the heart of the book, where our main character is more witness than participant? An innocent bystander watching the struggle between her brother and her mother? 

Sigh. Who knows.

Will six people even read this? Instead of “Who knows,” maybe I should have typed, “Who cares!”

The chapter below is just a taste of the writing, I guess, and some of the themes explored in the book. It’s a domestic scene, centered around a kitchen table. And that does feel right for many of my works of realistic fiction. I’m fascinated by closely observed moments that take place in families, the literature of the kitchen table.

It is summer, school is soon to begin, and Mary makes the mistake of entering her own home . . . 

 

5 [marshmallows]

Walking home, Mary resolved not to think about Griffin Connelly. That boy had jangled her nerves. We have a connection. Yeah, right. She looked forward to popping a marshmallow—or, okay, three— into her mouth. Not at the same time, of course. Eating marshmallows always helped bring her world into balance. Namaste, Mary thought, grinning to herself. She imagined a chubby marshmallow, with little stick arms and legs, doing yoga. Downward dog, maybe, or meditating. That might be funny to draw. Ohmmmm. If she could think of a clever caption, it might even be a cartoon: the mindful marshmallow.

Mary kept a secret stash of marshmallows in the back of her bottom dresser drawer. The big, extra-fat ones they sold at Stewart’s for s’mores. Marshmallows were Mary’s weakness. But, seriously, that wasn’t the best way to express it: a weakness. It’s not like Mary wolfed down an entire bag in one sitting. It wasn’t a problem; she wasn’t in a marshmallow crisis or any- thing. Mary knew that sugar was super bad for you— everyone saw the same videos in health class—but a couple a day wasn’t going to kill anybody.

Mary then made the strategic mistake of opening the front door. Home sweet home.

Her mother’s voice came from the kitchen, sharp and urgent, “Are you high right now? Just tell me.”

“Jesus, Mom, no!” Jonny shot back.

They were fighting again. It felt as if the air in the house was crowded with charged particles. Mary could sense the electrons and protons ricocheting off the furniture like steel balls from a shotgun. The muscles in her lower neck tensed and tightened.

“You’re lying—” her mother shouted.

“Hi! I’m home!” Mary called out in her sunniest voice. It was as much a plea as a greeting: I’m home; you can stop now, please. Mary heard the rattling of dishes in the sink, the scraping of a chair across the floor, but no greeting in response. She waited, slipped off her sandals. This is ridiculous, she decided. I’m in my own house. I live here.

“If you love me, you’ll stop.” It was her mother’s voice, raw with emotion.

“I told you. I’m not using,” Jonny retorted.

Mary stood at the entranceway to the kitchen. Her mother leaned against the counter, arms crossed, scowling. Jonny sat at the table, cereal floating in a bowl of milk. He wore an unbuttoned cardigan sweater. Yes, in August. The rules of this particular contest: no punching, no kicking, just words. Winner takes nothing. Jonny tapped a spoon in agitated rhythm on his right thigh. That was his giveaway. The way his eyes darted and his body vibrated with pent-up energy. The muscles of his jaw tightened from clenched teeth.

“Don’t come in here, May,” Jonny warned, not looking in her direction. “Mom’s acting like a crazy person again.”

There was a prickly edge to his voice, like razors strung across wire. His hair looked oily and uncombed. His pale skin appeared nearly translucent, except for the dark circles under his eyes. Mary thought, Don’t pretend I’m on your side. I’m not your ally, brother. I’m not on anyone’s side.

“I don’t even recognize you anymore,” her mother said. “This isn’t you, Jonny. It’s not you.”

“Oh, Jesus, here it comes,” Jonny muttered, the spoon rat-a-tat-tatting against his leg. He raked a hand through his hair.

Mary’s mother stepped toward her only son, palms open. “You’ve got to listen to me, Jonny. We can’t go on like this.”

Jonny flicked the spoon into the cereal bowl, splashing the milk. The spoon bounced and rattled to the floor, hitting his mother’s leg. “I’m trying to eat one bowl of cereal in this insane house,” he roared. “So freaking what? I slept late. Lots of people do. Besides, I have a stomachache. It hurts. I probably have an ulcer. Do you even care? Besides, what temperature do you keep it in here? I’m freezing!”

“It’s set at seventy-two degrees—”

“It’s too cold. I get the chills living here. It’s ridiculous, Mom. I’m nineteen years old. I party a little bit. A regular, normal amount. It’s one of the few things in the world that actually feels good. That’s my big federal crime, Ma? That I go out with my friends?”

“Your friends,” her mother scoffed. She brushed the thought away with a wave of her hand.

“Yeah, my friends.” Jonny rose to his feet, his movement sudden and alarming. “Real people who actually care about me.”

Mary stood paralyzed, watching it all. They had forgotten she was there. She had become invisible in her own kitchen.

Mary’s mother stepped back. She brought a hand to the side of her head, trying to collect her thoughts— or to keep them from exploding. With obvious effort, she adopted a softer voice. More soothing, calmer. “Jonny, please, listen to me. Please. You need help. I think you have a prob—”

“Oh no. No, no, no. I’m not going back to that place,” he said.

Her mother held out a hand, patting the air. “Okay, okay, just . . . sit . . . okay?”

“You can’t make me. I’d rather die than go back to Western Winds,” Jonny replied. He sat back down. Swiveled his head, stared coldly at his sister. “Good luck when I’m gone,” he said. “It’ll be just you, Mom, and the Garden Gnome in this demented house.”

The Garden Gnome was Jonny’s nickname for Ernesto, their mother’s boyfriend. Ernesto was short and paunchy, and he wore a scraggly, elfish beard. Not his fault, but those were the facts. Mary stifled a grin. She caught herself and flashed a time-out sign with her hands. “Stop,” she said. “Just stop.”

She crossed to the refrigerator. Grabbed two clementines, checked her phone, looked from her mother to Jonny. “I’ll be in my room,” she announced. “Headphones on.”

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