I present the first chapter from my novel, for your consideration. For those wondering, it is a young adult fantasy novel set in a fictionalized Oklahoma. I am still seeking an agent, but that process is half the fun, isn’t it? Let me know what you think in the comments.
Home Ahead, Home Behind
It was another sweltering mid-western summer when I came back home to Capra, Oklahoma. Outside the windows of the rumbling Greyhound Bus, undulating golden wheat fields passed by. Dust devils danced across the tops of the wheat without their Pecos Bill’s to rein them in, disappearing into to the wind as quickly as they had come. I sat skimming my favorite Jack London book and sipping a Coke out of a large sweaty Styrofoam cup. Capra was an insignificant town by all normal standards, nestled north of Watonga in Blaine County behind a lot of cows, wheat, gypsum and broken asphalt. To me, it was the center of the universe, the only permanent home I ever had. It was where my Grandmother, Popeye, the antique store, all waited for me. It was where I had left my magic typewriter five years before.
I was nine when I left for Germany with my father. Dad was an Air Force captain who had children too late and was left alone too early. When my mother died I was too young to even know her, save for thoughts of her face that I imagined were real sometimes. We never lived in one place for too long, which Dad thought would build good self-reliance, by his own words. Every summer since I could remember, Dad always brought us back to Capra to visit Nanny. He’d stay a week, sometimes two, but inevitably I would be left alone for the rest of the summer at Nanny’s house, which I eventually came to see as my one true home in the world.
That particular summer, I was going back on my own on a bus ride from New York, after having come in from Berlin on the biggest jet I had ever been on, despite being the son of an Air Force officer. On the seat next to me a cardboard box and my backpack jostled next to each other. The box was filled with new goodies that I had collected from little shops around Germany; comic books, gold teeth, and old worn out maps shook inside the box, waiting to be opened and given new life by their new owner. Black marks on the side spelled out “Popeye,” for the antique store owner who ran one of the only still-functioning businesses in Capra. Popeye was a weaver of stories by trade, and could talk for hours without anyone really noticing – or so he liked to believe. I was at least one person who was mesmerized by the tales he told. As I grew, Capra itself became a magical place to me, bursting with the stories that would become the fabric of my childhood.
I was six when he gave me the magical typewriter. It was an old, green, metal clunker that looked as if it might fall apart at any moment, and I loved it immediately. Popeye told me it was magic, and that it could create stories. He told me I could create stories, just like him. He didn’t know how truthful his words were. That night I took it home and into my room, and focused on it as hard as I could, trying to create something. Popeye had meant that the typewriter would allow me to write stories, but I thought that I could make them real. The world began to move around me and shift. I focused harder, thinking of a magical forest, dark, lit only by the moon. The bookshelves in my room creaked and grew leaves, and the bed sunk into the floor and swirled, becoming a pool of glittering water. The wooden floors in my room spread and grass sprouted up in between the slats, and the window shattered, and the sky dissolved the walls. The moon outside grew and shot light through the leaves of trees that shot from the ground around me. It was my own world.
I took the typewriter everywhere with me after that night. I made new worlds every day. They started as amalgams of my favorite books – I traveled often to Neverland, Narnia, and Middle Earth. Eventually my dreams became more and more my own, more daring. I slew a dragon one day, and captained a space fleet the next. I usually relegated these trips to my free time, at least in Capra. Often Nanny would take me to movies, and Popeye would bring me on trips to see old bookshops and antique stores where he had booths of his own items for sale. I read and watched movies voraciously, and amassed a small fortune in antiques. Everything that I consumed added layer by layer to my fantasies, creating new adventures in my mind. In 1986, when I left for Germany, I left the typewriter in Capra by some accident. I thought I had packed it with me, but when I arrived in Germany with Dad, it was gone. I begged and pleaded to go back, but Dad heard none of it. Every summer I hoped that we would return, but we stayed in Germany those five years without one single trip home. Eventually letters from Popeye and Nanny confirmed that the typewriter was still there, and I was at least satisfied that it was safe.
In Germany I spent most of my time reading, and playing Nintendo, imagining that the adventures I was having in books and games were ones of my own, but I began to forget and doubt my memories. As the bus rumbled down the road, passing fields and barns and little burnt out gas stations, the memories were starting to come back, but seemed unreal. Even the memory of Germany was staring to seem faded, and I found myself forgetting what my father’s face looked like. As I struggled to remember, I could only catch glimpses in my head of his face half turned away, working at his desk, or walking out the door in the morning to start his work day. I looked in the window trying to catch his shadowy reflection before I recognized myself. I leaned up and pulled my old leather wallet out of my back jeans pocket, and fished a photograph from the pocket behind receipts and other junk that had accumulated inside.
The photo was square, old, and yellowed. Its small size only let me see a little bit of my father, standing next to me as a small child. Tiny creases ran through the fish I was holding, and my father’s face, his strong jaw, his five o’clock shadow that showed even when he had shaved. He looked like an action hero, smiling next to me. It wasn’t the man I remembered. The man who never smiled. The man who didn’t congratulate me on good grades, but rather expected them without giving more than an offhand comment, if he thought about it. We had only been fishing once, the day in that picture. Even that memory seemed to fade as the bus screeched to a halt, and cleared my mind.
“Watonga.” The bus driver’s voice was fuzzy as it filtered through his intercom.
I quickly stuffed the photo back into the wallet, and put my wallet into my backpack along with my book. I hauled my few belongings off the bus, and set my box down on a bench under the awning of the gas station the bus had stopped at. I had very little with me – I tended to keep my things at Nanny’s house, for fear that I would lose them on the road with Dad, but the clothes I had kept at Nanny’s almost definitely didn’t fit me anymore. I had grown at least a few inches since I had last been to Oklahoma, and I had gone through more than a few pairs of shoes. The bus driver came out and opened up the luggage compartments on the side of the bus, and I walked back out into the hot sun, leaving my box on the bench, to get my suitcase. I only had a few clothes, and hoped that I could go shopping for at least a few new things during my stay there to replace the old kid’s clothes that were in my dresser at Nanny’s.
I dragged my suitcase back under the awning with me, and sat on the bench. The heat billowed up even under the awning, and I was thirsty. I left my belongings on the bench except for my backpack which I could easily carry inside with me. I filled up a large Coke, grabbed a bag of peanuts, and paid the sleepy man behind the convenience store counter, constantly looking outside the window as I did, hoping not to miss Nanny coming to pick me up. I stepped back out into the heat again, and plopped down on the bench next to the sum total of what I owned in the world, except for my antiques back in Capra, and waited, swallowing large gulps of soda. Soon enough, I heard the familiar rumbling and popping of Nanny’s truck reverberating through the air. I stood up in anticipation, watching the cars at either end of the street that the gas station was on, hoping each one would be her car. Out of what seemed like thin air, Nanny’s old black Chevy slid around a corner and headed for the gas station. As it did, I thought I could see another figure in the car next to her, hiding behind the window tint. A glint of sun caught the windshield and quickly obscured my vision. Nanny’s car screeched to a halt under the awning, parking in a space next to where I was sitting. I looked toward the passenger seat again, and I was sure I could see a small head. It wasn’t Popeye, not that Nanny would ever let him sit in the same car with her.
Nanny stepped out of the car, and looked the same as when I had left her five years before. She was round and so were her glasses, perched under her curly white hair. She had big arms and hands outstretched for a hug as she walked towards me. I hesitated for a moment, still focused on the figure in the car.
“Liebchen! It’s been too long!”
“Who’s in the car with you Nanny?” I asked. She let one arm fall, and used the other to hit me in the chest with the back of her hand. It was a light hit, as always with Nanny. Never enough to hurt, always enough to get your attention.
“You don’t see me for five years and I don’t get a hug?” A stream of German curses that I had never known the literal meaning of left her mouth, leaving the unmistakable tone to speak for them. I smiled and she pulled me into a hug. I hugged back tentatively, but knew she was holding something back. I kept my eyes on the figure in the car. A child? A midget? A sack of flour with a head?
“I missed you too,” I said. “Who is that?”
Nanny let go and looked sheepish for a split second, but her face quickly changed back into a look of happiness.
“There’s someone I’d like you to meet.” Nanny gestured toward the little figure in the passenger seat. “Henry, you can come out now Liebchen.” My throat tightened and felt dry, as if I the Coke I had recently gulped down had never existed. The battered passenger side door opened, and two sneakered feet dropped down behind it. A young boy with dirt brown hair and loose socks came out from behind the car door and wiped his nose. He leered at me with some suspicion as he walked forward, as if sizing me up. I did the same, and realized I was grinding my teeth. Suddenly Nanny’s hand appeared behind the young boy’s head, and I felt my head snap forward as Nanny’s other hand hit the back of my head simultaneously.
“That is no way to greet each other, you sheisskopfs!” Nanny said. I definitely knew the meaning of that one. I rubbed the back of my head and reluctantly extended my free hand towards Henry for a handshake. He took my hand with his small one.
“Jonah.” I said.
“Get in the car and I’ll explain everything on the way home,” Nanny said. Confused, I set my things into the back of the truck next to a few sacks of flour piled in the back, and kept my backpack with me. I felt cramped inside the small cab, squished up next to Henry. My knees touched the dash, and I my backpack was tucked in between my leg and the console on the red carpet of the truck floor.
“Henry is my foster child,” Nanny explained. “But we’re going to see about changing that. We’re talking to his social worker about staying here for good.”
“Since when did you take on foster children?” I asked, ignoring that Henry was even in the car. I vaguely noticed him staring at the Gameboy in the side pocket of my backpack.
“You don’t know this about me, but before you were born, my house was a foster home. I stopped taking on kids when you were born though, because of what happened to your mother.” Nanny always danced around the subject of my mother, despite the fact that I had never known her. She died in childbirth. Dad never discussed at any depth, and Nanny would only go as far as to say that she was a good woman, and was everything her son had needed in a wife, but never wanted to elaborate. As a child I had searched around the house sometimes to find something about her, but Dad had always kept any trace of her tucked away, and Nanny had pictures. Sometimes I still wished that I had known her, but I had long since given up on searching for who she really was, content to have one parent, or what often felt like no real parents at all. Nanny and Popeye were more like a real mother and father to me growing up, and that was fine by me.
Nanny continued to try and explain things as we drove along, tapping Henry for confirmation of certain points she made along the way. She spat out cute little anecdotes about Henry’s time there but my mind glazed over the last hour of the drive, lost at first in a churning of my own thoughts, about the time I had been away, about the times when I hadn’t been there before. My head filled with images of fat children running around Nanny’s house before I was born, happy, full of food, not knowing that they would soon be replaced. I realized Nanny was still talking when the car stopped, and my mind was brought from my daydreams, broken bits of Nanny’s words still hanging about me like fog. We had arrived in Capra, at the Co-op gas station and commissary that formed what was the cornerstone of the very tiny town. The old, grey pavement of the disused highway met with Capra at a fork of even more broken and crumbling pavement that led into the streets of downtown in one direction, and the residential areas in the other. At the cusp of the diagonally placed township was the Co-op, where Nanny got supplies, magazines that were months old still dust-collecting on the rack, and where Popeye got crosswords, decks of cards and any other puzzle or game that struck his fancy at the time.
“Come in with me, make yourself useful,” Nanny said. “Be good Henry.”
“Yes Nanny,” Henry said, using her familiar name. By all rights, I thought he should be calling her by her proper name ‘Vivian,” – but perhaps he had been there a bit longer than I had thought. I suddenly wished I had listened closer inside the car, somewhat afraid that Nanny would give me a pop-quiz on Henry’s likes, dislikes and personal history at any moment. As we walked inside the commissary, with its high metal ceilings that kept in little heat in the winter, and did nothing but let it in in the summer, Nanny grabbed a cart and headed to the desk. The clerk, Joseph, greeted her by name. He was an old man, much like most everyone else in Capra – it was not a place where young people were moving to in droves. Joseph was a tiny man with a big round head, and glasses that didn’t fit his face. I imagine he couldn’t see out of them very well anymore, as there was no eye doctor in Capra, and his glasses hadn’t changed since I had known him.
“Jonah? Oh, good to see you again son,” Joseph said, squinting through his tiny round spectacles. “Finally back home, eh?”
“Yep,” I said. It didn’t quite feel like home so-far, I thought.
“I’ve got that flour shipment in for you Vee,” Joseph said to Nanny. Nanny handed over a small lump of cash, and Joseph pointed behind him. Nanny gave him a look, and Joseph seemed to straighten, as if she were about to scold him. “I’ll bring it out for you.”
Once he had left, Nanny turned to me, and pointed her finger towards my face. Her eyes flashed with anger. She had to point upward, I noticed – I had gotten quite a bit taller since I had left. I tried not to laugh at the sight of her pointing upward.
“Now look here. I saw you get that glazed over look in the car,” Nanny said, shaking her finger. “Just like your father. You never want to hear anything important.”
I raised my hands in protest, but she stopped me cold.
“Henry is a nice young man, and he needs some guidance right now. A good influence,” Nanny continued. “He’s been through a lot, in and out of foster homes since he was three years old. Right now we’re just fostering him, but if I have anything to say, he’s going to be staying. I would like it if you two became friends.”
We. She kept saying we. “Who is we?”
“Well, Popeye is helping out.” Not Popeye too, I thought. “Now this is the last I want to hear you complaining, dummkopf.”
Joseph came back out again with a metal cart full of flour, and Nanny immediately transformed from her angry state back to a happy one, thanked Joseph, and grabbed hold of the cart. Joseph handed me two bottles of Coke.
“Still a Coke drinker?” Joseph said.
“Yep,” I responded.
“And still not much of a talker,” he chided. “This other one’s for Henry. Tell him I said hi.”
I guess everyone knows Henry, I thought.
Nanny pushed the cart outside easily, and directed me to pull down the tailgate of the truck. I did as I was told, and Nanny and I began throwing the sacks of flour in the back of the truck. Nanny seemed to pull them up with ease, having lost none of her strength in the time I was gone. I was grateful that I hadn’t laughed earlier – she could probably still throw a mean right hook to the arm too. Still, looking at this woman throwing the sacks of flour in the back of the car was like looking at someone different. I had thought Nanny always fended for herself, ever since Grandpa died in the war. Now it seemed she almost couldn’t be without children in the house, like replaceable commodities that could be changed out easily depending on the situation, like light bulbs, or flowers in a vase.
We barreled down Thompson Avenue, Nanny’s street, with a full load of flour stacked in the back of the truck. It was a cracked road that sloped downward, and had nearly been ground to gravel by years of driving. At the end of the road, the pieces of pavement mixed with a dusty white gypsum pathway that led up to Nanny’s house, a squat looking house surrounded by tin outbuildings and a disused red tractor with wheels taller than me. Nanny skid the car into park in the awning that passed as a garage, kicking up white dust. Out front, the diamond chain link fence gave way to a few rosebushes and a gray wooden archway that was flecked with the remnants of white paint from a time before I was born. The lawn behind the gate looped around the back of the house, meeting up with a rickety board fence that held a large field with a rusted pink bathtub, a few pygmy horses and a shack that used to be Grandpa’s toolshed. The backyard continued its horseshoe path into the backyard, and the fence met with a chicken coop behind, a few pear trees, and a clothesline. Behind the coop was an open front tin shed, filled with junk accumulated through the years. Fishing poles, license plates from old Watonga buses that Nanny had driven, sawdust caked Coke bottles and old radios with sliced open speakers where rats lived.
Henry jumped out of the car holding something, but I couldn’t see what – but he was too small to help unload anything anyway, and Nanny didn’t bother chasing him down. There weren’t many places Henry could go in Capra, and she had rarely seemed to worry about me getting lost when I was Henry’s age. Nanny and I slowly unloaded all the flour, carrying it through the front screen door and into the foyer that served as her laundry room and pantry all at once. I asked to be excused, and Nanny looked at me significantly for a few moments, as if she was worried.
“You’re not going to Popeye’s yet, young man.”
“I know, dinner first.”
“You can go tomorrow.”
I considered protesting for a moment, but shrugged and gave up. The truth was I was tired. I was still feeling jet lagged from the plane ride, and the two day long bus ride from New York hadn’t helped. I wanted to see my home again, to reassure myself that it was mine and that it was all still there – to find where I had hidden my typewriter, to make sure nobody had taken it – to make sure that it actually existed. I tried to walk casually to my room, through the kitchen and living room, where my door was closed on a wall full of old family pictures. I opened the door slowly, and saw that everything was mostly how I left it. The bed had the same brown quilt, the same kidney shaped desk under the window, and the same brown shag carpet. I dove to the closet and threw open the doors and to find the old chest where I had left my typewriter, sitting on the bottom of the closet, dusty and dark in the partial sunlight coming from the window. The old brass hinges and accents on the black chest gleamed as they were exposed to sunlight for the first time in years. The rectangular lid creaked open, and the box had been filled with linens. My throat went dry, and cold beads of sweat formed on my forehead. I felt ill as I threw back blanket after blanket, pillows dashing to the floor behind me. My fingernails scraped on the bottom of the wooden chest. I could feel my breath going in and out of my lungs faster and faster.
“Nanny!” I yelled, sitting on my knees. The room felt cold.
“What is it?” Nanny came around the corner of my door. Her voice sounded pinched and worried, and she looked at me with concern.
“Where is my typewriter,” I said slowly.
“What happened to the room?” She said. I ignored her.
“My typewriter.” I raised my voice.
“That is no way to talk to your grandmother,” Nanny scolded. Her voice didn’t have any authority in it, coming out of her mouth in a sort of shocked softness as she looked around the room. I looked around too. Sheets, quilts and pillows lay around the room as if they had been a bomb made of linens. Some books had come off the shelf along with a porcelain knick knack, landing next to the pillow that had apparently hit them. “It’s on the top shelf. I moved it there a few months ago.”
I looked up, and saw the typewriter case sitting on top of the shelf. I grabbed it as casually as I could, and set it on the bed. My insides were still squirming, but they were slowly calming down.
“Thank you.” I moved to close the door as Nanny walked away. I sat down next to the typewriter, and opened its brown case. Inside was a pea green typewriter, old and made of heavy thick metal. The buttons on it were round and black, and some of the letter tines were missing, like teeth missing from a mouth. I typed a few letters, and listened intently. The silent seconds seemed to last forever. Had it all been dreams? I closed my eyes.
Finally, a whisper – and another. Voices and stories in chorus like a song you remember but can’t describe came, but like in a long forgotten song, I heard voices and things I didn’t remember. They began to flow out of the typewriter like water, increasing in volume, overlapping until they were indiscernible, flowing together like the sound of a crashing waterfall – and then silence.
Something sounded different.