editor’s note: chapter four in Callie Feyen’s first fiction excursion
In fifth grade I started writing the date next to each word I looked up in the dictionary. I guess it was sort of a challenge — would I ever look up the same word twice? Three times? But what happened was I’d end up forgetting the definition of the word, look it up again, see the date from when I last visited that page, and then end up remembering something from the day I looked up the word.
Take the word commencement: a beginning or start. I looked that up on June 8, 2019, the day of my eighth-grade commencement ceremony. I had on this bright red cap and gown, and both smelled like Elmer’s glue. At first I was disgusted, but then I felt sad because I couldn’t remember the last time I used Elmer’s glue and now I was headed for high school. Was I ready for high school? Did I learn enough to handle the next four years?
So after bobby-pinning the cap to my hair, I walked over to my desk, opened up my dictionary, and searched for the word commencement. I was relieved to learn that I was actually beginning, and to begin meant I didn’t have to know everything.
That day I found an old bottle of Elmer’s glue in my desk drawer, pulled it out and set it on my desk. I’ve kept it there ever since as a reminder to keep beginning.
Four Januarys ago, I don’t think I was sad or scared — maybe a mixture of both — but the world felt heavy. I knew my parents were upset about the outcome of the 2016 election. I also knew my aunts and uncles were not. I remember asking my mom about this: how could family members believe so differently? Who’s right?
“Welcome to the gray,” my mom said.
She went on to explain that I was at the age where right and wrong, love and hate, good and evil were going to be less distinct. “You won’t see the world in black and white anymore.” She looked at her hands and began to do this strange thing with her fingers where she bended and stacked them on top of one another. I didn’t realize it then, but she does this when she’s anxious or upset. “It’s going to cause pain to acknowledge that you can love someone who thinks and believes differently than you,” she mumbled.
My mom is an artist. She paints. When I started kindergarten, she went back to school and got her fine arts degree. She’d been a teacher before that, and word on the street was that she was pretty good. There was something about teaching that made her sad, and something about painting did not. So I was surprised when she took a teaching position after she graduated.
Once when I was supposed to be asleep, back in third grade, I heard my parents talking, and I could tell my mom was crying. I got out of bed, snuck downstairs, and sat on the steps to listen.
My mom was telling my dad how hard teaching was. “I’m a failure,” she said. Then, as if she were making a grocery list, she went on to detail all the ways she thought she wasn’t good enough. “Teaching is no longer an adventure,” she told my dad. “It’s only black and white. Right and wrong. There’s no poetry to what I do anymore.”
I thought of that memory when she welcomed me into the world of gray.
Soon thereafter my mom walked away from teaching and began painting full time. My dad made a studio for her in an extra bedroom in our house. The day of the presidential inauguration we walked to her studio, and she showed me her current project — a lotus flower, barely noticeable because it was in a sea of grays and greens and browns.
“Did you know that lotus flowers need all this muck to grow?” she asked. “They literally need the darkness in order to bloom.”
Then she told me about middle tint, a painting technique where the darker colors dominate the picture but give the piece depth and texture. “This way the other colors pop,” my mom explained.
We stood silently in front of her painting, and I watched as the pink from the petals seemed to creep its way out of the canvas.
She put a hand on my shoulder and gave me a side hug. “It’s time to find new ways to grow when it’s dark,” she said.
I went to my room and looked up the word inauguration: The act of starting a new operation or practice. Then I wrote the date in the margin: January 20, 2017.
Last night was New Year’s Eve and since we couldn’t go to any parties, my parents said I could have a few friends over to sit around the fire pit. I was going to invite Charlie, Sasha, and her boyfriend, McGrath, but he and Sasha got busted for making out in Rock Creek Park just outside the zoo. It’s not so much the kissing that was the issue as it was that McGrath’s family was podding up with another family over the holidays, which meant they couldn’t do things like go into grocery stores or coffeeshops.
Obviously, kissing someone outside of the pod was out of the question.
Needless to say, McGrath couldn’t come over, and I wasn’t going to invite Charlie because besides my dad he’d be the only boy there. So last night it was me, Sasha, my parents, Elizabeth, who I swear is 48 months pregnant, and Peter. It all sounds lame except we sat around the fire and told stories. Telling stories might be my favorite thing in the world.
It all started because Sasha was feeling blue about not being able to see McGrath, and I didn’t say so, but I was missing Charlie even though we are nothing, which makes it worse because I’m too chicken to say anything. Neither one of us was feeling super festive, but my dad made campfire pies, and Elizabeth and Peter kept giggling because it turned out that for their first official date, Peter tried to make campfire pies, but it was too windy and the fire was impossible to light.,
“Plus, Peter never told me what we were doing, so I had on these strappy sandals and a dress. Had I known we would be on the beach …” she trailed off and shoved Peter in the shin.
“Those were great sandals,” Peter said, and Elizabeth smiled and looked at her lap.
“I made up for it, though,” Peter said. He had found a brew pup theater that was playing the seventh Harry Potter movie.
“My favorite,” Elizabeth said, looking at Sasha and me. We looked at each other and grinned. Sasha and I love us some Harry Potter.
“Those were good times,” Sasha said. “When you could go to the movies, and, you know, kiss people.”
We all laughed, and this is what I love about my parents — they don’t get annoyed when they hear snark. At least, not always.
“I hope this year will be different,” Elizabeth said, rubbing her belly.
Nobody said anything. I watched the fire, and my thoughts went to Charlie. At least Sasha had a chance to kiss McGrath.
“We’re just missing so many big things,” I said, sitting back in my chair and pulling my feet up. I was for sure pouting. “We can’t even go to the inauguration.”
The fire was getting low, so my dad put two more logs on it. The flames were almost smothered, and it got really dark and cold. All that was left were a handful of orange dots shivering in the last of the 2020 night. My mom leaned forward and blew on them, and they seemed to wake up and grow.
“I really wanted to go to the 2009 Inauguration,” my mom said. “But it was cold, and Carter had the flu, so we watched it on TV instead.” She crisscrossed her legs and rested her hands on her knees. “I felt bad that we lived so close, but didn’t make it.”
I was 4 years old, and so sick. I could barely get off the couch. Severus Snape, my favorite character in all the Harry Potter series, could’ve been getting inaugurated, and I wouldn’t have been able to go.
“Then in 2013, the three of us went,” my mom continued. “I couldn’t wait for Carter to watch this historic event.”
My dad started to laugh. “Carter insisted on figuring out the Metro route that day. She was determined to use every color of each line: red line, yellow line, blue, and green,” he said. “We hadn’t planned for that and worried we’d be late.”
I looked at Peter and Elizabeth to see what their expressions were. I was 8, and was totally intrigued by the Metro map. It’s true I wanted to try to ride each train and was disappointed when they were all gray instead of the colors they claimed to be. It was like that time I learned that a carpool was a term for ride sharing, and that a car with a pool attached to it wasn’t going to come pick me up for school and sports practices.
“And then it was so cold,” my mom said. “So we went in and out of the museums on the mall to stay warm, remember that?”
I did. My parents bought me a hot chocolate at one of them. With extra whipped cream.
“We were standing by an aquarium, and I was shocked by this clownfish,” my mom said. “I kept saying, ‘Carter, look at this clownfish!’ but all she saw was the starfish clinging to the side of the glass.”
I remembered. I was worried about the starfish. She seemed to be working so hard.
“Watching Carter, I realized how dazzling the starfish was,” my mom said, and then she looked right at me and Sasha. “It all doesn’t happen at once. There are special things you miss because other special things are happening,” she said. “So I say don’t beat yourself up because you think you aren’t experiencing the big things. I think you probably are. I think the big things are happening all over the place. I’m sure you’ll see them after a while.”
Sasha, who is what I like to call a “huggy hug person,” which I am not (I cringe when people come in for the hug), put an arm around me and gave me a squeeze. “I love your mom,” she whispered.
Sasha is the best friend I’ll ever have, I am sure of it, so I don’t mind her hugs. I actually love them.
“I love her, too,” I whispered back, grabbing Sasha’s hand and giving it a squeeze.
The fire popped against the almost-January night, and I missed Charlie, and I wished McGrath were here too, and that we could all go to the inauguration together, but I was content, and I was ready to head into the gray, gray world and hunt for what shines.
Take a word’s definition, and see if you can come up with a story for it.
What you need are a couple of seasoned sandwich irons, bread that toasts well, butter or cooking spray, and then whatever fixins’ you like. I like to make calzones: pizza sauce, mozzarella cheese, pepperoni. I also love a good cherry campfire pie. Slap whatever you want in between the slices of bread, close the sandwich iron, and hover it above the hottest part of the fire for maybe 2-3 minutes. I like mine extra toasty, so I always hold out a tad longer.
Browse more poetry prompts
I have been a fan of Callie Feyen’s writing for quite some time but I finished this book in almost one sitting. If you have ever been in 8th grade, fallen in love, had a best friend, or loved reading, you will love this book. As the mother of an 8th grader, my other genuine hope is that my son will one day have a teacher as gifted as Callie.
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