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Here’s the best thing about being a writer: it’s like having a magic wand to make whatever you want happen to imaginary people in a made-up world.
Here’s the worst thing about being a writer: it makes you wish even more that you had a magic wand to make whatever you want happen to actual people in your own real life.
I’m propped up in bed on a rainy October morning, sipping my special writing beverage, Swiss Miss hot chocolate, in the mug my brother, Hunter, gave me for my twelfth birthday this past April. The mug says, “Please do not annoy the writer. She may put you in a book and kill you.”
It’s hard to think of a mug much better than this one. Or a brother much better than one who would buy it for his writer sister.
And that’s the kind of brother Hunter used to be: the best brother in the world. But everything’s changed between us since school started back in August, tenth grade for Hunter, seventh grade for me. And I don’t have a magic wand to make things be the way they were before.
I still love the mug, though, especially when it has hot chocolate in it, topped with a swirl of whipped cream squirted from one of those cans that don’t look big enough to have that much whipped cream inside. I emptied one once out of curiosity when I was little, and believe me, there is a lot of whipped cream in there.
I’m writing a chapter in the first novel in my fantasy trilogy about this princess named Tatiana and her (very cute) wizard enemy, Ingvar. The problem is that I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I know Tatiana has to have more adventures, but she’s already been in an earthquake, and her father, the king, was murdered by Ingvar’s uncle, and she’s just discovered an amulet—that’s a magical object that protects her from harm. But if she has the amulet, nothing too bad can happen to her, and I’m only on chapter three, so maybe she has to lose the amulet somewhere, but it seems too soon for her to lose it when she’s only had it for two and a half pages. But if she has it, how can she have adventures? And without adventures, I have no plot.
So I put aside the novel, which I’m scribbling on a yellow legal pad, and open my newest Moleskine notebook. I love Moleskine notebooks so much, with their creamy narrow-ruled paper and limp, soft covers tied shut with a slim black elastic ribbon. I fill a Moleskine notebook every month with poems, journal entries, story ideas, bits of dialogue, and descriptions that pop into my head that I don’t want to forget.
On the first, beautifully blank page I write the opening line of a poem. Okay, not just a poem, but a new love poem for this boy, Cameron Miller, who sits next to me in journalism. A lot of kids think he’s weird, but I have a huge crush on him. He’s older than the rest of us because his parents took him out of school for a year to travel around the world—Paris! Buenos Aires! Beijing!—so he fell behind on a bunch of academic stuff. But he’s way ahead of us in everything else.
I’m not going to show any of these poems to Cameron, of course. I’m not a completely clueless person who thinks the way you get a middle school boy to like you is to write poems for him. I’d never show my Cameron poems to anybody except my best friend, Kylee Willis, who is the only person I can share everything with, however mortifying. Kylee is the most calm and comforting person I’ve ever known. I bet she’s awake, too, on this rainy morning, and thinking what a perfect day this is for knitting. Kylee is an amazing knitter. She can make scarves, hats, mittens, even sweaters.
Anyway, I keep my Cameron poems hidden away like Emily Dickinson did with hers. When I die, the poems can be published posthumously, which is a great word I learned that means “after my death.” Everyone will say how tragic it is that I died so young. In these fantasies, I haven’t totally worked out what I die from. In the books I like from long ago, it would be consumption, which nobody dies from anymore. The important part of the fantasy is how sad it will be that I died so young and that Cameron didn’t even know of my love. He’ll read the poems after they’re published and finally know that the girl who sat next to him in journalism was the next Emily Dickinson. And then he’ll wish he had said something to me other than “Hey” or “How’s it going?”
But unless I die young, which I don’t really want to happen, he’s never going to read my poems, because I’d die if he did, unless I knew for a fact that he’d think they were wonderful and that he liked me, too. But if he thought they were pathetic—or if he thought I was pathetic for writing them—I would totally, completely, absolutely wither up and expire. So one way or another, if Cameron reads my poems it will either mean that I’m going to die any minute or that I’m already dead.
So Emily Dickinson is the role model for me.
I take another sip of hot chocolate, wiping the whipped cream from the tip of my nose with the back of my hand. And I keep on writing.
* * *
Three poems later, I go downstairs to toast myself an English muffin. While I was writing my Cameron poems I also had a mental breakthrough about the plot for my novel. Instead of trying to figure out how Tatiana can face exciting dangers if she has a magical amulet to protect her, I can take out the amulet scene and move it to later in the book. I know this sounds like the most obvious fix in the world now that I’ve said it, but when it comes to writing, things that seem obvious as soon as I think of them never seem obvious until after I think of them.
My parents are sitting at the kitchen table eating egg-white omelets crammed full of veggies. My father is an orthodontist, and now that I have braces, he’s my orthodontist, too. His orthodontist name is Dr. Jaws, which he thinks is catchier than Dr. Granger. He must be right, because half of the kids at school who have braces go to my dad. His office also has a shark theme. If you want to make my dad go absolutely crazy with joy, buy him another grinning stuffed shark he can take to work, or come up with a new design for a shark-shaped Dr. Jaws refrigerator magnet.
My mother is a stay-at-home mom. She used to work as an administrator at the university, which she called “herding cats,” as professors don’t like being made to do anything they don’t want to do. She quit her job a couple of years ago because she read in a pamphlet she picked up somewhere—“Surviving the Teen Years: A Guide for Parents”—that the teen years are actually the most important years to stay home with your kids, because that’s when “things can happen.” “Things can happen” might be code for “Your kids can start acting the way Hunter has been acting lately.”
“Good morning!” Dad says.
This greeting could sound sarcastic if I said it to Hunter when he staggered out of bed past noon. Or it could just be an ordinary way of saying hello. But when Dad says it, he says it with gusto.
“Good morning!” I reply with equal gusto. It’s not fake gusto, either, because I just wrote three poems and had a plot breakthrough. If that’s not a good morning, I don’t know what is.
Mom beams. She doesn’t have as much gusto as Dad—few people do—but she’s happiest when the rest of us are happy, which is probably the definition of being a nice person. My mother is the second-nicest person I know. The first-nicest is Kylee.
“What plans do you have for today, Autumn?” she asks.
I shrug. Not a sullen Hunter shrug, but a mellow shrug of having a whole day to look forward to when there’s nothing I have to do.
“I guess I won’t be raking the leaves,” Dad says, looking out at the rain. He doesn’t sound disappointed.
“The band is practicing this afternoon,” Mom says.
“Here?” Dad asks uneasily.
I know both my parents think the band might be part of the reason Hunter is different now. The other guys in the band are older than he is—juniors and seniors. But maybe he changed first and then joined the band. I’m not sure.
Even though my parents are suspicious of the band, they still let them practice in our house, down in the basement rec room. It’s Mom’s fault. She told Dad how important it is during the teen years that parents know where their kids are and what they’re doing. The best way to do that is to make your home a welcoming place for your teenager and his friends. “If Hunter has to be in a rock band,” I heard her tell Dad, “better that they practice here, don’t you think?”
Now Dad gives a sigh. “Hot stock tip,” he says. “Invest in a company that sells earplugs.”
He laughs, and Mom joins in, so I laugh, too. Because the band really does play very very loud.
* * *
The band members start to trickle in around three. The name of the band is Paradox, and it has four people in it. The lead guitar and lead vocalist just happens to be David Miller, which is to say—drum roll—Cameron’s older brother. If Cameron were in a rock band, I bet he’d be its lead everything, too. Maybe he’s too cool to be in a rock band, even though rock bands are definitely cool. But if he were in a band, he’d probably write the songs for it. He’s one of the best writers in our journalism class.
The backup guitar and vocalist is Timber Jones, who has an Afro that I think he gets permed; it’s albino white, with one purple streak in it, except sometimes the purple streak is green.
The bass player is Moonbeam Rollins. I’m sure he gave himself that first name. He reminds me of this poem we read in school, “Miniver Cheevy.” In the poem, Miniver Cheevy, “born too late,” wishes he lived in the Middle Ages. Moonbeam wishes he lived in 1968. He wears tie-dyed T-shirts, sandals even in the winter, and a big peace sign on a chain around his neck.
Hunter is the drummer. He wanted to be a drummer back in fifth grade when kids got to choose what to play for instrumental music. But my dad said he had to do a “real instrument,” so he was a trombone player for two years before he refused to be in the school band anymore. Then this past summer he found a drum set super cheap at a yard sale down the street, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The first couple of times the band came over, I holed up in my room or headed over to Kylee’s. But lately I can’t resist hanging around the band because of Cameron’s brother being right here, in our house, in our kitchen, scarfing down the seven-layer dip Mom makes for them, with those tortilla chips that are little scoopers that break off into crumbly pieces and stick in your braces, speaking from unfortunate experience. I’m never in the kitchen with them—Hunter would hate that—but I sit in the family room just off the kitchen, pretending to be writing. Part of me hopes David will see me or at least cast his eyes in my direction as I’m musing over my manuscript.
Okay, this is pathetic, but today I even changed into a flowy white dress, because Emily Dickinson always wore white dresses. My plan, or rather my dream, is that David’s eyes will fall on me as I’m writing, all Emily-Dickinson-ish, and then maybe he’ll say something about it to Cameron later.
“Hey, lil bro, is there a girl in your class named Summer or something?”
“Autumn. There’s a girl in my journalism class named Autumn.”
“That’s right. Autumn. Well, she was writing all the time I was there, I mean, just totally lost in writing her story.”
“Yeah, she’s like that in journalism, too.”
“I think the two of you have a lot in common. You both like to write, you’re both sensitive, you’re both mysterious…”
No. Even I can’t imagine any world, however fantastic, in which this conversation actually happens. Besides, none of the band members, including David, can even see me from the kitchen, and they’re deep in conversation about the band, talking about what they’d play at a gig if they ever got a gig. From what I overhear, it’d mainly be covers for songs by well-known bands, as well as songs by some indie groups, and maybe a couple of originals.
“Do you have a piece of paper I can use to write down the playlist?” one of them asks. I think it’s Timber. His voice is the deepest.
“There’s got to be one around here somewhere,” Hunter says.
“Can we just rip out a page from this notebook?” Moonbeam asks. “It looks like a fancy one, though.”
I left my Moleskine on the kitchen table after lunch.
The notebook with my Cameron poems that I wrote this morning.
Including the one titled “Ode to Cameron.”
I should leap off the couch, race into the kitchen, and snatch the notebook from their hands before anyone can peek inside. But I’m paralyzed, like a squirrel spied by a dog who freezes into a squirrel-shaped statue.
“It’s my sister’s,” Hunter says. I hear the sneer in his voice. This is not the voice of someone who bought me a perfect “Don’t annoy the writer” mug only a few months ago.
Don’t open it. Don’t open it. Don’t open it.
“Hey,” Hunter says, and he’s chuckling now, “get this.”
“‘Ode to Cameron,’” he reads in a fake high voice.
All the air is sucked out of my lungs as if Hunter’s words are a whooshing vacuum cleaner.
“‘Ode to Cameron’?” David asks. “As in my brother Cameron?”
There isn’t any other Cameron in our school.
Hunter keeps reading in the same warbly falsetto. “‘If thou wouldst die, the snow would yield / yet another grave for me.’”
Are those such terrible lines? I’d like to see Hunter write anything a tenth as good. But they definitely sound terrible read aloud by Hunter with the other guys cracking up.
Hunter continues: “‘If thou wouldst leave, my heart would break / like a ship wrecked on the sea.’”
Puking sounds. I cover my ears. Is Hunter the one pretending to puke? Or are the other guys fake-puking, too, including David?
Now my heart is broken, exactly like a ship wrecked on the sea.
I can never face Cameron again. Ever, ever, ever.
And I can never forgive Hunter. Ever, ever, ever.
If Hunter still liked me, even the tiniest, teensiest bit, he could never make fun of me—of my writing!—in front of all his friends, including Cameron’s brother.
I can’t bear it anymore. I can’t.
Even though the damage has already been done, I’m there in the kitchen now, grabbing at the notebook as Hunter, guffawing, holds it above my head, too high for me to reach.
“Give it back!” I shriek. “Give it back!”
From the corner of my eye, I can see Timber doubled over with laughter, but Moonbeam gives me a sheepish look.
“C’mon, Hunter, give it back to her,” David says.
With utter contempt, Hunter tosses my notebook onto the floor so that I have to crouch down to pick it up in the most humiliating way.
All four boys are silent now, watching me. But my eyes are fastened on Hunter, even though he’s looking away, perhaps smarting from David’s comment. He must know what a mean thing he just did.
“I’m going to publish my poems someday,” I tell him. My voice starts out wobbly and quavery, but it gets louder and stronger as I keep on talking. “I’m going to be a famous writer, and then you’ll be sorry you ever made fun of me. I’m going to write something about you, and the whole world will read it and know what a terrible brother you turned into!”
Then I stumble out of the room. And I do mean stumble. My Emily Dickinson dress is too long, so I catch my heel on it and trip against the kitchen table, whacking my knee so hard my eyes sting with tears.
Text copyright © 2016 by Claudia Mills