Tuesday, July 10, 2012

More than Just Dust Bunnies, My Friends . . . by Judy Merrill Larsen

So, for this go round, we're digging up those old manuscripts from under the bed, or the back of the drawer, or simply opening up that file on the laptop that holds the what-ifs, the almosts.  
When I first started writing, I was so naive, I didn't know I'd have any of those.  See, the first novel I ever wrote, ALL THE NUMBERS, got me my agent and then was published.  Whoo-eee, I thought.  Piece.  Of.  Cake.  
I was an idiot.
Since then, I've written 3 full novels.  And, um, if you count how many incantations my current WIP has had, it probably counts as three or four more.  I mean, I've changed POV, narrators, time frame, who dies, and more.  And I know, as my wise and wonderful (and very patient!) agent reminds me, no writing is wasted.  But there are still times I look at those pages, and fall back into the lives of the characters--characters who seem real and whose lives I lived (and messed up!), and I want them to get out of the file and into the hands of a reader.  
But, until then . . . you've got this . . . I give you the opening chapter to a novel I wrote during the spring and summer of 2010.  We shopped it to some editors, who a.) loved my voice and b.) didn't buy it.  C'est la vie.  I have some ideas of what to do with it, some really good ideas, but for now, COLLECTING FEATHERS (as I'm calling it) is collecting dust.  One of these days I hope to circle back to it.  Enjoy.  (And no, it's not all in 2nd person.)

No matter what, there’s a tiny place in your heart that never gives up, never stops believing.
You collect shreds of hope wherever you can like feathers or falling leaves or shells on the beach.
No matter how many bodies are found, no matter how many leads turn out to be dead ends, no matter how many weeks, months, years go by with nothing, not one clue, not one word.  No matter how many people forget, stop asking, stop calling.  Even after the fliers turn yellow with age, the corners curling up around rusted staples, even the more recent ones with that damn age-progression picture that makes you sick just to look at it because it’s wrong even though you can’t explain why.
No matter how many times you hear the whispered “she must be dead by now” accompanied by pitying glances and shakes of the head.
There’s a part of you that can’t give up, that hopes beyond all reason, that never lets go.
Except for the really long dark nights when you do.  When you can’t help but imagine all the horrible things that might have, must have, happened to her.  You know she would have been calling out for you.  And would she have understood you were doing everything in your power to find her, help her, save her?  Or would she only have known you weren’t there?
Most people wouldn’t understand.  Can’t.  Or don’t want to even if they could.  
And time stops right then.  
From that moment forward you walk around in a daze.  And you wake up and think, what a horrible dream.  Except it isn’t.  And you let your mind wander for just a moment and think you can go back to right before and not let her walk out the door, her braids bouncing down her back, her scuffed tennis shoes squeaking in the snow on the front stoop, her mittened wave goodbye as she gave a quick look back at you before she headed down the driveway and you turned back to her little sister, sitting in the high chair, opening her mouth like a baby bird for more pureed peaches.
And in an instant, everyone becomes a suspect.  The crossing guard.  The custodian at school.  The man who mutters as he passes your house, his dog tugging at the leash.  When you’re wheeling your cart at the grocery store or humming along with the hymns at church, you’re not in the moment so much as surveying.  Searching.  Suspecting.  Looking for an awkward glance.  Or nervous tic.  A sign of some sort.  Because, you think, my God, I’m her mother, wouldn’t I sense it?  Wouldn’t I smell her on whoever took her?  Even when you go out of town, you’re on alert.  You walk down the street and look at everyone and think, was it you?  Or you?  Did you take her?  Or do you know who did?
You also want to smack every single person who tells you how well you’re doing.  And let them know they’re full of shit.  But you don’t.
There’s so much you don’t know.  About how to get through the day.  How to answer the questions.  But somehow you learn how to do it. 
Because of that tiny part that believes.
And it’s that same tiny part that pulls you away from the lure of a few too many pills swallowed with vodka, or a curve in the road that could easily be taken too sharply right into a tree or cement abutment.
And then, fifteen years and four months and twenty-three days after time stopped, you’re escorted into a dim room at a small police station in a town you’ve probably driven through hundreds of times on the way to somewhere else, but have never really noticed before, and there, sitting on an orange plastic chair next to a woman in a dark suit with a gun tucked in her waistband and a walkie-talkie in her hand, is your daughter.  
And for a moment, you’re too stunned to be sure it’s her, too scared to believe it, to even take a full step inside the little room, because if it’s not, if this is one more disappointment, you know this might be the final straw, this might be the one you just can’t bear, you might have finally reached the end and just curl up on the floor next to where she’s sitting and die, you’ll have simply had enough and some part of you will have decided, that’s it, no more, I’m done.
And you’re startled because the face you’ve been looking for all these years is a little girl’s face, with one missing front tooth, and a dimple in her left cheek, and bangs that are uneven because she trimmed them herself just the week before, and you think that you should apologize to her for yelling about that, but this is not that little girl.  Her bangs are long and tucked behind her ears and you think, oh my God, it’s not her, this is a grown woman, where’s my little girl, but then, your brain catches up to your thoughts and you know, absolutely know, that this is her, because there’s that dimple, right where it always was, and you see the shadow of the woman you used to picture when you’d sing your daughter to sleep, the woman she’s become in the intervening fifteen years.
And you want to hold her and never ever let go, and say I love you and never stop saying it, and brush your fingers through her long blonde hair.  Because she’s here, really she is, and all those dreams and prayers and tears and calls and fliers somehow brought her right here.  And you think of how you know every part of her, how you stared at those eyes and cheeks and chin for hours at a time when you nursed her twenty-one years ago.  And you know you’d recognize her laugh and her voice anywhere because you’ve listened for it in every crowd you were in for the last fifteen years.
But as you go to her, and as she looks up at you, and as you wrap your arms around her and kiss her hair and choke back sobs, you feel, for just a fraction of a second, a hesitancy in her, and you wonder if she feels it in you, too, and you wonder if you’ll ever really know this daughter again.
Because her eyes suggest that you won’t.

I live in St. Louis, MO with my husband, am the mom/stepmom to five kids (ages 19-27), and taught high school English for 15 years. I'm over on Facebook. My first novel, ALL THE NUMBERS was published in 2006. 


  1. Judy, I agree with your agent-- no writing is ever a waste! I was at a Jenny Egan reading a year or two ago, and she said that you have to write badly to get to the good stuff.

    And it shows! I love this intro. You will definitely come back to this one, I just know it!!

    1. Thanks, Brenda . . . the trick is to keep writing until you get there, isn't it?

  2. Wow, Judy, I would definitely keep reading after that! As a mother of two girls, one who is missing front teeth at the moment, I could picture this scenario WAY too easily.

  3. OMG...my heart shattered reading this, and all I wanted to do was pick up the phone and tell my daughters how much I love them.

    Wow...just wow.

  4. Loved this, Judy. Bet it will find a home eventually.

  5. Oh, Judy, this is beautiful...and heartbreaking...and so compelling. I would LOVE to see this story on the shelf someday. I know I'd devour it. Wonderful writing!!

  6. Thank you for doing this in large print; clearly, you know I just turned a half century.

    Great stuff, Judy!

  7. Great beginning, Judy. Very compelling. I hope you finish it, and thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks, Maria. I know I'll get back to it--I really love these characters . . . and hearing such nice things from everyone really validates it all for me.

  8. Powerful!! I do hope you find a way to tell this story.