As most of you know, I just publihsed my latest book: Will the Real Caroly Kneene Please Stand Up so as any self-repecting writer would do, I’m working on my next story while I muddle through marketing the darn thing. This next book is going to be a bit of departure for me in that it is going to be what is techniquely called a middle-grade story, but more on the level of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories, or Alan Bradley’s Flavia De Lucie books. I’m not sure quite how to catorgoize what this book is about, but the cloest thing I can come up with is it’s going to be an adventure/mystery type book, kind of like Lemony Snicket but different.
I haven’t come up with the title yet – that always take me a while – but the main character is a twelve-year-old girl named Agnes Kelly. It starts out in 1961, when the space race was going strong, along with the cold war. Agnes is a precocious young lady who loves learning new things. Of course, in 1961 Agnes doesn’t have access to the internet, so she has to learn things the old fashoned way, through books.
I’m also going to try something else a bit different with this book. I am going to share it (or at least a good portion of it) with you!
I know. It’s hard not to get excited. I know I am!
Please give me comments, suggestions, tell me mistakes I’ve made…whatever suits your fancy. I can’t promise I’ll incorporate your ideas, but I will read each comment and take everything into consideration!
Have a read at the beginning and tell me what you think! :)
It’s really hot and tight in here; there’s enough room to bring my hands up in front of my face, but that’s about it. It doesn’t matter though because I can’t see them. I can’t see anything. It’s dark. I mean black. No, it’s the definition of black. I’ve got this silky material all around me, and my head is even on a small silk pillow (or maybe fake silk. I wouldn’t know the difference), but it’s still hot in here, and I’m starting to get a little claustrophobic.
All this is mute. No, that’s not it. What do adults say?…Moot! That’s it! It’s all a moot point because I’m dead.
Maybe I should start over and tell you what’s going on here.
Okay, I’m not really dead, but I wish I were. I wish I were in that shiny, bronze colored capsule I’m staring at and not my father.
He died too young, or that’s what I hear all the adults around me telling each other. Despite his prematurely gray hair, I’d have to agree with them on this point, and I don’t agree with adults on many things, believe me.
I didn’t say that quite right. I should have said, ‘Despite that fact that his hair WAS prematurely gray.’ (I’m going to have trouble with the past tense thing for a while, I can tell.)
Considering the average life expectancy of an adult male in 1961 is 67.4, dying when you’re forty-eight is early. I know this factoid, as my annoying oldest brother would say, because I looked it up. Whatever I don’t know, I look up. It’s what I do. It drives my friend, Margaret, wild. Whenever we’re in the middle of a game of Risk, I’ll run to our set of encyclopedias to check, say, Argentina, which claims to be where the tango was originated, but more importantly was the first country to use finger prints as a primary way to identify criminals. That was way, way, way back in 1892. In fact, it was first used this way after a really interesting case, a murder case to be exact, the murder of Francisca Rojas’s two children. I had to go to the library to find out this little interesting fact. (It’s there. You can look it up yourself.) That was after we had put the Risk game on hold because Peg (that’s what I call her. Margaret is way too adult) had to go home and watch her little brothers and sisters. She’s got six of them, so it’s a lot of kids to watch. Anyway, who wouldn’t want to run a country that was smart enough to use finger prints to identify people? I always picked Argentina if Peg didn’t get to it first.
But I digress, as our old, English (as in, he came right from England) neighbor, Mr. Morrison, always says. When you say it: “I digress,” you have to hold out the “die” part of the word really long or it doesn’t sound English enough. Peg and I are always trying to pretend we’re sitting having tea with Mr. M. chatting (“chatting” is English, too, if you didn’t know) about the Queen Mum or some such nonsense, using English accents and holding our little pinkies in the air.
As I was saying, my father’s death was too early. It was too early for me, too early for Danny, Peter, and Max (my three younger brothers), too early for Adam (he’s just two years older than me) and Aaron (that annoying older brother I mentioned already) and too early for mom. For sure too early for her. Mom tries to be stoic [“not effected by passion or feeling” – I looked it up in Webster’s, of course.] Or tries to have a stiff upper lip, as Mr. M. would say, but I caught her crying one morning when I walked into the kitchen. I had gotten up unusually early during Easter break. I don’t know about you, but when I’m off of school, I stay in bed until at least nine just on principle. (I know, that’s another adult word. But I like adult words. So sue me!) Even if I’m wide awake at eight or even, heaven forbid, seven. I’ll just use the time constructively – as my mother would say – and get some good reading in. Mornings are a great time to read; the house is quiet and usually smells of coffee or if I’m lucky, sausages.
Here I go digressing again. You’ll see, I do that a lot.
So I walk into the kitchen way too early, looking for a snack before breakfast. The room smells great because Mom just made a pot of coffee. She’s standing in front of the coffee pot and it’s peculating away just fine, but she’s crying. She has one coffee cup on the counter in front of her, and her arm is outstretched and reaching into the cupboard, but she’s not moving. It was like it was stuck there with Elmer’s glue or something. She’s got her hand around another coffee cup and she’s shaking so hard I think she’s going to drop it. I froze. I didn’t know what to do. I had never seen my mother cry so hard in all my life. I mean she’s a real sap when it comes to a sad story on one of those “made for TV” movies she likes to watch, and she even cried when we went to see the old film, Bambi, with my younger brothers when they were replaying it in the theater. I’d seen it before, of course, but I rarely turn down a chance to go to the movies, so I went along. Mom started blubbering partway through the movie. You know that part when the hunter kills Bambi’s mother. It is kind of sad, even though they don’t show the mom being killed. That would be too gross for kids to see. Not me, of course, but for little kids. You see, my dad hunts.
There I go again. My dad USED TO hunt. And when he’d bring home a dead deer and hang it up upside down in the garage, it wasn’t a pretty sight, and I’m not squeamish. My mom would cry at stuff like that (not the dead deer in our garage, but the pretend dead deer that you didn’t even see die!), but I’d never seen her cry like this before. It was like something was breaking inside her that you couldn’t see, and it really hurt as it was coming apart.
So I did what any self-respecting twelve-year-old would do. I backed out of the room as silently as I could.
Now that I’m out of the coffin, I take in a deep breath of air and look over at my mother. Father Michael is waving an incense burner over Dad’s coffin as he moves silently around it saying something in Latin that I can’t quite catch. I make a mental note to look up the Catholic rights of the dead when I make my next trip to the library. I wonder if they’ll have that sort of thing at the ____ public library. I may have to ask Father Michael if I can’t find it at the library. I’ll have to bring along my book of Latin so I can translate it if it’s not written in English.
I know what you’re thinking: Latin?!
Yes, I have a book of Latin proverbs. I asked for it for Christmas last year. Mr. M. is always spouting off Latin phrases when he’s trying to confuse us kids (and my parents, by the look on their faces), so I decided I’d show him that all kids in the good old U S of A aren’t idiots, by leaning a few Latin phrases myself. Mr. M’s favorite is Carpe Deum (pronounced car-pay dee-um). I could have almost figured out the deum part (meaning day) but I had to look up carpe. The whole thing means “Seize the day!” That’s a pretty good one, I have to admit. My latest favorite is: Cum grano salis (kum gra-no saa-lis). I like it because it’s easy to remember and, like anything Latin, it makes you sound smarter than you really are. I’ll use it in a sentence and then you’ll figure it out right away: “You have to take what my older brother says cum grano salis.”
Did you get it? “With a grain of salt.”
I’m not exactly sure what it means other than my dad used to say it about our Uncle Bob when he would talk about all the things he did in the big war or, come to think of it, most anything Uncle Bob says. I think it means he’s full of beans, or something like that. Uncle Bob tells some pretty big tales.
You might think I sound kind of cold hearted with all this talk about board games and Latin words, but I’m not. I brought Kleenex in my purse (my only purse, mind you) because I never know when the tears will come out of nowhere. I mean almost nowhere. (Though I looked that up too. The human body produces tears by stimulating two glands called lacrimal glands, which are situated above each eye, behind the upper eyelids. These glands are responsible for excreting – isn’t that a deliciously disgusting word – lacrimal fluid, the medical term for tears. Lacrimal fluid is very salty, although there is some evidence that the level of salt changes depending on the cause of the fluid’s release. Isn’t that fascinating? [Note to self: check salt level in tears created for various reasons]). I cried a little when mom first told us kids the news, mostly because she started crying. It has seemed too weird most of the rest of the time, though, like Dad has gone on one of his work trips to some exotic place like Britain or Turkey, and he’ll be home in a week or so with some cool spear or bracelet made up of beads with blue eyes for my collection with a great story about how it was used or what superstition surrounded it. But this work trip has been really long, and I’m starting to understand that he’s really not coming home this time. My brain knows the facts but somehow it still doesn’t seem real.
Maybe if it was an open casket, like at Grandma Barb’s funeral, we’d see him super still and cold like Grandma was (I touched her hand when my parents weren’t watching. I had to do it just to see. You understand, right?!) But Mom wouldn’t let us see Dad’s body. She said they embalmed him and everything, but still, she wanted us to “remember him like he was when he was with us.”
As cool as the whole embalming thing is (I looked that up, too. It takes two gals of formaldehyde to embalm an adult. Check the facts for yourself.), I didn’t argue the point as I normally might have done. Seeing a frog in Mr. Pearson’s science room in a bottle of fluid is one thing. Seeing your own father in a similar state, is quite another.
We all stand for one more hymn, “Be Not Afraid.” My mother wordlessly shoves a song book into my hands. My brothers she ignores, but me, she expects to sing. I like singing generally, but solemn church songs ‒ not so much. I know a lot of church songs by heart since I go to the Catholic school attached to the church we’re standing in, St. James, and as such, we are required to attend mass every morning; so that’s a lot of singing. Why couldn’t our church be St. Ignatius (he started out as a Spanish knight!), or even better St. Christopher (the patron saint of travelers), at least then we’d have a bunch of people praying to us or to our church rather.
I touch my hand to my heart and feel the small, oval piece of metal next to my skin. It’s an honest to goodness Saint Christopher metal. My dad used to wear it in the big war ‒ WWII, of course. Grandma Agnes, my dad’s mom, told us he signed up to go fight, he didn’t wait to be drafted like some of them. She was pretty proud of him, but mostly I think she was glad that he made it back home. Me too! He’s…he WAS a pretty swell dad.
My school is named after the church: St. James School, which I’m sure you’ll agree, wasn’t very creative of them. It could have been Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow School, or The Rock Where I Build My Church School. Okay, maybe I shouldn’t be in charge of naming schools, but you get the idea.
I have a hard time finding the pages of the hymn with my white gloves on. Yes, I am wearing white gloves, because “that is what young ladies do,” according to my mother. I suppose I should try and be more lady-like, but it just doesn’t come naturally for me. Peggy, she was born a girl. Me…I suspect I am just a boy in a girl’s skin. It’s not that I want to be a boy. Boys…well, explaining how boys are and how I wouldn’t be caught dead being one would be a whole lot of pages in and of itself. Let’s just say I think I was born to improve the work we women get delegated to do, and I’ve got some big plans for us, ladies, so hold onto your hats!
When the song is finally over, we we’re supposed to file out. Aaron, being sixteen, gets to be one of the pallbearers. Adams wanted to but mom said he wasn’t old enough. As it is, I can see Aaron, in his oversized suitcoat, straining under the weight. There are five other men helping lift the casket off its perch, but still, that copper colored thing looks like it weights a ton.
[Note to self: find out the weight of an average casket.]
Grandma Agnes and some of her grown kids (my aunts and uncles) were sitting in the pew just opposite ours. Now Grandma is standing staring at us kids as we wait in our pew staring at her, not sure what to do. Mom’s already stepped out in the aisle, behind the casket. I’m the bottleneck. I was sitting next to mom like I usually do at mass, but I don’t remember what Father Michael said to us just before the service started. Mom told us to pay attention, but I was looking up at the large, tube-like metal lights that hang from chains from the ceiling. St James is a pretty big church, so there are five of them on each side of the aisle, and I was wondering how long those chains actually were since from where I was standing, a good twenty feet below them, my perspective would make them seem longer. Anyway, Grandma Aggie, as we call her, has the oddest expression on her face before she finally steps out of the pew after mom. She isn’t perturbed [perturb: “to cause to be worried or upset”] by my indecision; it is more like something has just dawned on her.
It is a dreary and bluster May day outside, so I have to hold down my Easter hat ‒ last year’s model, a pretend white straw number with pink and blue ribbons around the band that trail down the back of my head ‒ to keep it from blowing off as we stand in our good shoes in the trampled grass at the gravesite. I don’t wobble on spikey heels like most of the ladies in the crowd, but I have on my white satin Easter shoes, and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to get the stains out. My first communion shoes were white patent leather, which would have worked much better under the current circumstances, but Peggy told me only little girls wore patent leather anymore and I’m practically a woman, so that was out.
Grandma Aggie is next to mom because she’s widowed too and, of course, it’s her son that’s in the casket, so she gets front row privileges like all us kids and mom. The Aunts and Uncles from both sides of the family are behind us. Dad’s got only one older sibling [sibling: one of two or more individuals having one common parent], Aunt Mary, then he’s got scads of younger ones, a few who still live in Ireland. But Mary is here along with Robert, Michael, Sean, and Sharon. Mom’s older sister Millie is here too and her brothers Roger and Tom. Funerals are like live genealogy lessons; you get to learn who you’re related to and, if you’re listening very closely, you get to find a few interesting family facts at the same time. I learned the first juicy tidbit just a few minutes ago.
“Uncle Bob sure gets cold easy,” Adam said as we were walking up the hill to the gravesite. “His nose is always red.”
“He’s not cold, you idiot, he’s a drunk,” Aaron informed us. “That’s what happens when people drink too much.”
I turn around and look at Uncle Bob. He sees me looking at his red nose and gives me a wink. If he’s drunk, he a pretty friendly drunk.
“Now, if you would like, you can take a flower as a memorial to our beloved Patrick,” Father Michael says.
I feel a hand on my back as my mom pushes me forward. She steps closer and pulls a rose out of the carpet of red and green that cover dad’s coffin.
“Go ahead, Agnes,” she says, so I pick a rose too. It’s the deepest red I’ve ever seen and velvety as a ripe peach. I put it up to my nose so I can feel the petals against my skin and I pick up just a hint of a scent, like laundry fresh off the line but a touch sweeter. Danny and Peter take one too, but the other boys notice it’s mostly the ladies that have flowers, so they just walk away with their hands in their coat pockets. Everyone is standing around like they’re lost, but Peggy spies me and runs over. She stops right in front of me and without warning, wraps her arms around me then steps back.
“I thought you might like a hug.”
“Yeah, I guess. Thanks.” I’m not a big hugger and Peggy knows this, but it’s been a weird day all around, so I just take it in stride.
We turn to stroll down the hill toward the waiting cars. There is an awkward silence between us that neither of us seems to know how to break.
“You coming to the luncheon?” I ask.
“You mean people eat after funerals? I thought they just went to home and sat around talking in whispers the rest of the day.”
“Yeah, of course they do. Adam says it’s an old sin-eater thing, but I think he’s just read one too many comic books. I think it’s a church lady thing. It’s the only way they know how to make someone feel better.” I say as if I’m the expert, an expert of one ‒ my Grandma Barb’s funeral ‒ but that’s one more than Peggy, so in this case, I am. “There’s all kinds of stuff to choose from, so usually you can find a couple things that are edible.” I start to pick up my pace just thinking of the platters of ham sandwiches made on small square buns, crusty casseroles of hot creamy potatoes, and pan after pan of desserts all waiting on tables back in St. James’ basement. Peggy quickens her steps to keep up.
I put my plate down in front of me at an empty table. Peggy and I were third and fourth in line behind Max and Adam. I had to help Danny, since he’s only four, so Peter had to wait behind us. Aaron is too cool to rush for the food, even though he can pack it away with the best of them. Besides a couple little ham sandwiches (just as I predicted), I nabbed some cherry Jell-O with whipped cream on top, a rice crispy bar and something that looks like a chocolate chip cookie but was baked in a square pan. I by-passed the veggie dishes since Mom is too busy talking with friends and relatives to make sure I have a balanced meal.
Peggy and I dig right in with ne’er a word between us (I heard Mr. M. say that once and I think it’s kinda cool, so I use it when I can). The quiet doesn’t last long, however.
“You must be Agnes,” a big lady in a dark purple dress says as she touches me on the shoulder.
“Huh?” I mumble, my mouth full of ham and bun.
“You probably don’t remember me, but I’m your mother’s best friend, Jane Parker. Well, I was Jane Mandel when your mother and I played together.” She picks up my hair and bounces it in her hands as if she wantsto take a hunk home for herself. I notice her hair is looking a little thin. “You look just like your mom when she was your age, the curly brown hair and all.”
I try and envision this lady when she was twelve and I just can’t do it. She’s three feet wide, okay, maybe just two, but that and the purple dress are too imposing to be able to shrink to a size eight miss in my mind.
“You made it, Jane,” my mother says, coming up behind her and giving her a polite hug.
“Of course, Pickles. Nothing could have stopped me,” she says, still holding onto my mother. “I’m so sorry.”
Pickles? Did she just call my mother Pickles? My mouth is hanging open, and I try to shut it before the Jell-O I just took a bite of comes giggling out.
My mother sees me gaping, but she diverts her attention to my plate of food as if her friend hadn’t said anything strange. She furrows her brow at the assortment, gives me a disapproving look, but doesn’t say a thing. Ah, the benefits of a crowd full of family and friends!
She turns back to her friend. “We’ll have to talk later,” she said, in almost a conspiratorial tone [conspiratorial: involving a secret plan by two or more people to do something that is harmful or illegal: of or relating to a conspiracy]. Now I can almost see my mom and Jane huddled together on the church playground, heads bend close, whispering secrets to each other like Peggy and I do. Then mom gets pulled away by someone else, and we’re left in peace again.
“Did she call your mother Pickles?” Peggy asks.
“That’s what I heard,” I say, shrugging my shoulders. Then I turn my attention back to more important matters, my food. That is until I feel another poke. I turn to look but the person has already walked around me. I swing back around and Grandma Aggie is setting her plate down next to Danny.
“Mind if I join ya?” she says, sitting down. I guess it doesn’t matter what I think because she’s “joining” us anyway. Actually, I don’t mind Grandma Aggie. She’s got a cool accent, like Mr. M. but hers is from Ireland, where she lived most of her life.
I know, I say “cool” a lot. I guess I picked that up from Aaron. He says it a lot too, but mostly when he’s talking about music ‒ his most favorite thing ‒ or when he’s talking to girls ‒ his second most favorite thing.
I expect her to start talking, asking me how school is going, what I like to do for fun, what I’m going to do this summer…stuff adults always ask kids, but she doesn’t say a thing. She just eats her food in peace and quiet like the rest of us at the table.
Peggy pokes me under the table and tips her head ever so slightly in Grandma Aggie’s direction. She thinks it’s weird too. My eyes go wide in an “I don’t know” expression and we set back to eating and watching the crowd, saving up our observations and things we’ve overheard to share when we’re alone.
The tranquil scene is disturbed once again when Aunt Mary and her husband, Darren, sit down at the table, followed close behind by Uncle Sean, Aunt Sharon and her husband, Bill, and Uncle Michael. With Grandma Aggie’s kids are all sitting down next to each other, I can see the family resemblance. They all have the same light skin and freckles that dad had, though I think Aunt Sharon has covered her up with a crap-ton of makeup. Most of them have the same light or red-tinted hair, except Aunt Mary’s; hers is a dramatic rust-colored red, but Peggy would say that it came from a bottle.
Grandma Aggie looks up when her kids sit down, but doesn’t say anything until she notices someone is missing. “Sean, go get your brother, Bobby.”
“Hello, Agnes,” Mary says as she puts her napkin in her lap. “And how is Danny doing?”
Danny looks at Aunt Mary as if she just spoke Martian or something then looks at me for interpretation.
“He doesn’t talk much,” I tell her. “He’s only four.”
“Ah, yes, four,” she says, as if that explains it all, then she turns her attention to Peggy. “And are you a friend of Agnes?”
Peggy gives me the same expression as Danny, but I kick her under the table, letting her know that I only interpret Martian for little kids; she’s old enough to answer for herself.
“Yes,” Peggy finally gets out. But that is the extent of it.
“Well, please to meet you, Peggy. It’s nice of you to be here for Agnes.”
Peggy nods her head and drops it back down to stare at her food. My friend, who normally hardly shuts up, is suddenly speechless. I have to grin at her red cheeks.
“Do both of you girls go to St. James?” Mary asks.
But before either of us can answer, Grandma Aggie speaks for us. “For God’s sake, Mary, leave the girls be, can’t you see they just want to eat.”
My mouth is hanging open again and I have to make an effort to shut it. I didn’t know grown kids got in trouble with their mothers too.
Not a word more is spoken at the table until Uncle Sean sits down, with Uncle Bob close behind.
“A meal fit for a king!” Uncle Bob says, and he says it so loud I think the whole dining hall can hear him. He almost tips his very full plate over as he tries to set it down. “Whoops-a-daisy!” he says with a laugh.
Grandma Aggie is boring two holes through his head with her eyes, but he doesn’t seem to notice. Everyone else at the table looks politely away or just ignores him. Danny, Peggy, and I are mesmerized.
A church lady arrives in a crisp, frilly pink apron with a coffee pot in hand. “Would anyone like some coffee?”
Most of the adults turn their cups over and get filled up. “Just half a cup for me, if you don’t mind,” Uncle Bob says. Then once the lady has stepped away, he pulls a thin, metal container from his breast pocket and pours some clear liquid into the cup until it’s full.
“Do you have to, Bobby?” Grandma Aggie says.
“I’m still jet-lagged, mother. If I’m gonna sit through all this chit-chattin’ and hand-shakin’, I need somethin’ to keep me going,” he says and takes a big sip. Uncle Bob has the same accent as his mom.
He seems to spy me over the rim of his cup. “Well, you must be Patrick’s Agnes,” he says with a warm smile. “I’d know you a mile away.”
I can’t help myself, but I smile back and nod. Of course, he really wouldn’t be able to make me out if we were standing a mile apart. Probably the only thing he could tell is that I was wearing a dress, but it’s one of those many “figures of speech” that adults like to use. I’m sure you’ve heard your share too: six of one, half dozen of another; that’s the pot calling the kettle black; and the always confusing: that’s neither here nor there. What the heck is that supposed to mean? Anyway, I’m digressing again.
What happens next is amazing and funny at the same time. Uncle Bob stands up and reaches over the table to give me a hardy handshake, letting his tie fall in his food in the process. Danny giggles.
Uncle Bob looks down and laughs along with him. “Just testin’ the food,” he says, wiping it off with his napkin. “If it goes up in flames, then I know it’s too hot to eat.”
He winks at Danny, which makes him giggle even more.
Uncle Bob starts in on his food, shoveling it in like it’s going to run away before he can get his fill. But he still manages to talk between mouthfuls. “You know your daddy was quite the bookworm when he was a kid,” he says, pointing to the book I have next to me on the table. I always carry a book with me to social functions; in case I get bored and I want something to do.
I look up from my rice crispy bar. I haven’t seen much of my dad’s family since they all live on the east or west coast or over in Ireland, so I know very little about them or about my dad when he was young. “What did he like to read?” I ask, interested in any shred of information about my father’s past.
“Spy stories mostly. I think his favorites were the Richard Hannay stories, but he liked Simon Templar, too and good old Sherlock Holmes, a course.”
“I’ve never heard of Richard Hannay or Simon Templar,” I say.
“Probably before your time,” Bob says and downs a big gulp of his special coffee. “Not too surprising then that he got into the…”
And without warning Grandma Aggie stands and steps behind Uncle Bob cutting him off in midsentence. “Robert,” she says through tight lips, as if she’s afraid her false teeth are going to fall out, “have you seen what the lovely ladies have made for pie?”
Uncle Bob looks at her strangely. “I’ve got half a plate a food yet…”
But Grandma Aggie interrupts him again, this time picking him up by the collar of his shirt and pulling him to standing. “But you wouldn’t want to wait until it’s all gone,” she says and pushes him in the direction of the dessert table.
Everyone at the table is as surprised by Grandma’s little maneuver as I am, but I’m not looking at my relatives or even at Peggy, I’ve got my eyes glued on Grandma Aggie. She’s reading Uncle Bob the riot act over at the dessert table – that’s another one of those sayings I’m not quite sure where it came from, but basically, it means he’s getting an ear full, and you don’t have to be a genius to know what that means. I’m concentrating hard on Grandma’s face, specifically her lips. But she’s turned ever so slightly away from me that I can only make out a bit of what she’s saying: “I told you…” and “…your lips” among the finger wagging and eye scowling she’s giving poor Uncle Bob.
What I need to find out is what in the world did my dad “get into” that Grandma Aggie doesn’t want me to know about.