Saturday, October 8, 2011

Chapter One - Feedback Needed

Ok, folks. Here it is, the first chapter in my YA/Tween novel. Your comments and feedback will help me improve, so please share your thoughts with me . . . (cringing slightly) . . .
Chapter One:

Ease Dropping, Spiders, and True Lies.

The setting sun slanting through the lattice trim made a checkered pattern in the dirt under the front porch. Kenny crawled commando style through the rosy half light, kicking up dust motes that coated his spiky red hair and freckled face in grime. Slowly, he made his way towards the translucent film of a large spider web clinging to the stone foundation of the house. Safely stashed in his pocket was an empty peanut butter jar with holes punched in the lid, ready and waiting to put the spiders in once he caught them.

As he inched closer, almost reaching his quarry, the the clatter of the screen door and the hollow thump of footsteps sounded on the porch above, followed by the squeak of somebody plopping themselves down on the rickety old gilder. The screen door banged shut a second time, followed by the click of high heels and the squeak of a second body easing itself into the glider.

“Ah, thank you my dear.” Kenny heard his father say in his clipped British accent. “We've broken out the Bordeaux, I see. Lovely! Perfect for enjoying the sunset.”

Kenny crept closer to the spiderweb, only half listening to his parents voices.
“The night smacks of nostalgia, Minnie, can you feel it in the air?”

“Oh Hank, it isn't like you to be so melancholy!” Kenny's mother said with a laugh, the sound of her native Brooklyn evident in her voice.

“No, I suppose it isn't.” Kenny heard the rumble of his father's chuckle. “But still, I'll miss so many things after this move. . . you know, I've been with Wickersham for more than 20 years now. Odd to think the time has gone so fast, isn't it? It's going to be very strange, having to settle into somewhere new after so long in one place.”

Kenny, who had fumbled the jar out of his pocket, and was just stretching it out towards a gloriously fat spider suspended in the center of the filmy web, stopped cold. What was that his father had just said? Something about settling somewhere new?

“You must try to think positively, Hank. You'll get used to it, you know you will. Remember when we bought this place, how all the little night noises outside and the sound of the house settling kept us awake that first night, and we wondered if we had made a mistake? It was such a big change after a studio apartment in the city. Yet we adapted, didn't we?”

“True, Minnie. Very true.” There was a loud sigh, and a sharp squeal from the springs on the glider as someone shifted their weight. “Change never used to rattle me like this. I suppose I must be getting old. It was a good run in the old place, though, wasn't it?”

“Yes it was, my gallant husband! And whatever comes next, I'm sure it will be just as wonderful. Once the move is over, that is. Here, give me your empty glass, I'll take it in with me. I promised the twins I'd read them another chapter of Charlotte's Webb before bed.”

“I think I'll come in, too. I'd like to get in a little reading before bed myself. Maybe it will help me settle my thoughts.”

The glider's springs screeched once more, followed by the clatter of the screen door.

Kenny slithered backwards out from under the porch as fast as he could go, leaving the empty peanut butter jar lying forgotten in the dirt.

The porch that flanked the big white Victorian on both sides was Kenny's favorite part of the house. As well as housing a perfect spider habitat underneath, it was also home to a jumble of bikes, big wheels, scooters, and everything else that no one knew what to do with. There was a croquette set with two missing mallets, a broken swimming pool filter, assorted garden equipment and an impressive collection of rickety lawn furniture, among other things. With an endless array of interesting objects to tinker with above, and a thriving community of spiders below, the porch was fertile ground for Kenny's eleven year old imagination.

Yet Kenny was blind to the porch and its many pleasures. He was too distracted by what he had just overheard to think of anything else. He ran around the side yard, leaped over the dusky outline of a tricycle in the dark under the big oak tree and charged across the patchy grass of the back yard to hurl himself up the wooden steps of the tree house. He pushed the trap door up and emerged into the tiny space above to find his sister, Alexa and their neighbor, Bertie, sitting with their heads close together, pouring over their ipods. The light of the single naked light bulb that hung at the end of a long orange extension cord cast a pool of light over the two fourteen year olds, making Alexa's long red hair glow halo-like next to Bertie's dark curls.

“Alexa! Alexa!” Kenny yelled, as he pulled himself the rest of the way through the trap door, which he closed with a bang. Alexa and Bertie both jumped, startled, and pulled the ear buds from their ears.

“Kenny!” Alexa shrieked. “What do you mean barging in here? You totally freaked us out! Go away!”

“Hey, Kenny.” Bertie said, with his usual sleepy-eyed grin. Tall, lanky and utterly unflappable, Bertie lived in the house directly behind the Dornfest home. His backyard ran into theirs, separated only by a bushy hedge and the thick-trunked old sycamore tree where they had their tree house. No one knew who first built the tree house, or even which family technically owned it, since the tree it was in straddled the property line. Bertie, an only child, had happily shared the tree house with the boisterous Dornfest clan for as long as they could all remember.

“Alexa, shut up! I have to tell you something! It's important!” Kenny was so flushed and anxious looking Alexa bit back what she had been going to say to make him leave. “Fine. Speak.” She said imperiously, giving Kenny a look that said this had better be worth it.

“I heard dad and mom talking, they didn't know I was under the porch!” Kenny wiped the back of his hand across the sticky dust on his forehead as a trickle of muddy sweat dripped into his eyes. “Dad said he was going to miss this house, and Mom told him not to worry, he'll like his new job once the MOVE is over. Alexa, I think we're moving!”

Alexa's mouth dropped open as her imperious glare evaporated. What? Moving? How could they be moving? She had never known any other home but this one, the big ramshackle Victorian on Tipton Street that she liked to think looked like a grand old lady, spreading her skirts in a stiff curtsy. How could her parents possibly want to leave it?

True, the house was a bit shabby and run down, and she had often heard her father grumble that it was too much to keep up with. He  was constantly starting home improvement projects that he never finished, but she had always thought that was just because he got bored with them, not because he really meant the house was too much to handle. And it was true, their mother wasn't that great at keeping up with the house work, and she, too, often vaguely complained about the house's lack of modern conveniences. The washer and drier were inconveniently located in the big kitchen, next to the bulky gas range that was so old that it had to be lit with a match. The plumbing was noisy and yes, the paint was peeling horribly on the blue shutters, a few of which were loose and hung at odd angles--But still, how could they want to move? This was their home!

A sudden thought occurred to Alexa, and she leaned over and grabbed Kenny tightly by a handful of his dust streaked tee shirt. “Kenny, if you're lying about this to be funny, I'm going to kill you! You will be D-E-A-D, dead, do you understand me?”

Kenny wrenched free with a scowl on his face. “I'm not lying Alexa! I wouldn't, not about something this important! If you don't believe me, then go ease drop on them yourself and you'll see!” Offended, Kenny jerked open the trap door and disappeared down it, muttering angrily to himself.

Alexa watched him go, then turned to look inquiringly at Bertie. Bertie just shrugged, unperturbed. “Hey, it's Kenny.” He reminded her. “It isn't like he hasn't lied before. Remember when he tried to convince us he caught a tiny UFO and had the aliens trapped in a shoe box under his bed?”

Alexa laughed and rolled her eyes in relief. Bertie was right, of course. Kenny was the king of the tall tale, how many times before had he tried to convince her of something far fetched, insisting it was real? He was, after all the, same kid who had dug up Mr. Chisholm's rhubarb plot, claiming there was buried treasurer hidden beneath it. And, she reminded herself, it had been Kenny who claimed he had found the winning lottery ticket in the gutter last fall, too. She had allowed him to suck her into both of those incidents, with disastrous consequences. No, not this time, she resolved. She wasn't going to fall for it again. Just the same, something about Kenny's expression when he burst into the tree house stuck in her mind.

Over the next couple of days Alexa found herself looking for reasons to hover at the edges of her parents conversations. On Friday night as they sat at the kitchen table, sipping their after-dinner decaf, she busied herself with watering the bushy spider plants and ferns that nearly covered the kitchen windows. She overheard nothing other than a discussion about her father's acid reflux for her pains. On Saturday, as her parents settled down in the living room for the evening, she crawled along the floor shining a flashlight into the heat registers, pretending to look for her communion ring that Martie Ruth had dropped down the grate months ago. Unfortunately, the most exciting thing she discovered was that her mother was particularly good at guessing the answers on Wheel of Fortune.

By the time Alexa woke up on Monday morning, she was finally well and truly convinced that Kenny's tale was just another of his imaginative fabrications. Summer vacation was winding down, with barely a week and a half to go before school started. As she stretched lazily, reveling in the slanting rays of the mid-morning sun like a cat, she once again resolved that she wasn't going to waste any more precious vacation time brooding over Kenny's nonsense. After texting Bertie, and her best friend, Jenna, to make sure she hadn't missed anything exciting by sleeping late, she made her way down the back staircase to the kitchen for breakfast.

The back wall of the big, bright kitchen was lined with tall Victorian windows nearly covered by a profusion of potted plants in macramé hangers. The sun shining in through the leaves of the plants gave the kitchen a cool, forest-like feeling that Alexa loved. The kitchen was also Mrs. Dornfest's preferred work space. A freelance grant writer, she often worked from home and most mornings could be found at the big round kitchen table, usually tapping away on her laptop with a mess of papers spread out all around her. This morning, to Alexa's surprise, it was her father who was seated at the table. Still wearing his dressing gown, he was trying to read the paper while convincing eleven month old Luke, the youngest Dornfest, to eat his oatmeal. 

“Good morning, Alexa, love. No Luke, we don't throw our oatmeal, we eat it. Open up son, there's a good boy.”

Alexa frowned as she collected her favorite cereal from the pantry and milk from the fridge. “Dad, aren't you going to be late for work? Where's Mom?”

“Luke, no, no. Give me the spoon, son. Ah, what was that Alexa? Work? No, no work for me for a bit. You're going to be stuck with me, I'm afraid. Your mother will be be working outside of the house for awhile, didn't she tell you?”

Alexa plunked her cereal bowl down on the table and generously sprinkled sugar over the flakes floating in the bowl. “No, she didn't mention it.” She mumbled through a mouthful of cereal just as her younger siblings, eight year old twins Martie Ruth and Toby, came barreling into the kitchen from the backyard. 

“Daddy, daddy!” Martie Ruth shrieked, her red ponytail bobbing in a long curlicue down her back. “Make Kenny leave us alone! He's scaring us!” She threw herself against her father and buried her head under his arm, causing him to spill the oatmeal he was about to feed Luke down his sleeve.

“Yeah! Kenny's being mean, Daddy.” Toby pouted, his freckled face flushed from running. “He has a jar full of spiders, he keeps chasing us with them. Make him stop!”

Mr. Dornfest detangled himself from Martie Ruth's embrace and dabbed at the oatmeal on his sleeve with a paper napkin. “Alexa, would you call Kenny in here, please?”

“With pleasure!” Alexa swished past her younger siblings and threw the back door open. Kenny was nowhere to be seen. “KENNY, DAD SAYS GET IN HERE!” She bellowed. “RIGHT NOW!”

When Kenny did not appear Mr. Dornfest took his glasses off and polished them with the edge of his bathrobe, something he usually did when trying to remain calm. “Twins, go upstairs and wash up.  Your mother said I'm supposed to take you and Luke to the library for story time today. We've got to get moving if we don't want to miss it.” As the twins clattered up the stairs he stood up and lifted Luke out of the high chair. “Alexa, when your brother shows up please tell him I'll deal with him later. And tell him he had better not let any of those spiders of his loose in the house, either.”

Alexa shuddered. “Ew! He better not!” Now that the kitchen was empty Alexa sat back down to finish eating her cereal in peace. She liked having a big family, but sometimes it was nice to have some quiet alone time, too. She reached for the newspaper her father had been reading, intending to hunt through it for the entertainment section. But as she picked it up the page it was folded open to caught her eye. The title of the article read “Steps to Avoid Foreclosure.”

Alexa dropped her spoon with a clatter, her appetite suddenly gone. She stared at the newspaper article without seeing it, as all of a sudden the morning's events lined up in her mind's eye. Her father not going to work. Her mother suddenly having to get a job outside the home. Now this article? It all added up.

Kenny was right!

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