Sunday, July 14, 2019

1st 5 Pages July Workshop - Sova Rev 1

Name: Jericho Sova
Genre: Young Adult Paranormal Thriller
Title: The Lates Society

Percival Wolfsbane stepped out of Lates Hall for the first time in a month. He looked around, found a nice, shaded bench to sit on, and took a tattered, rolled up notebook out of his coat pocket.

"I don't know what happened," he heard another student say as he flipped the notebook to a math problem he'd been working on. "It's too early to tell if it was him." 

Having been gone so long, Percival didn’t know who they were talking about, and normally he wouldn't have cared anyway. Campus politics had never interested him, and local gossip was something he strictly ignored. But today there was a tone to the conversation that Percival didn't like. A certain kind of fear was behind that other student’s voice; a fear mixed with reverence. And looking around, Percival caught the same dreadful unease in other people as well. It was hiding in the way a woman was rushing to her car before the sun set, wearing itself on the faces of two professors standing in the courtyard, and flaring up in the cigarette of a man smoking in the library gazebo. The fear was everywhere, permeating the campus like a disease.

And yet, Percival tried to ignore it. He told himself it was just his nerves and a byproduct of dealing with his brother’s death. Since the accident, Percival had been ignoring a lot of things. He found it easier than dealing with the pain. That’s what the math problem was for. Math problems were a puzzle. They made you focus, and when Percival bit into one, he didn’t let go until it was done.

This one, however, was becoming a nightmare. He’d been working at it for three solid hours, and the only thing he had accomplished were a few smears, eraser marks, and one bat-winged smiley face with fangs drawn in the upper corner of the page. 

Now, he concentrated on the numbers and tried willing them to fall into place. His hope was that the fresh mountain air would help him concentrate. But the numbers were obstinate things and refused to listen. When he thought he made progress in one area of the equation, another one fell to pieces. When he believed he stumbled onto something rational, a different part became irrational. At one point, he put his pencil to paper, and with a spark of intuition, jotted down a series of numbers. It wasn’t until after he checked his work that he realized he had tried this same path twice before. 

Frustrated, Percival slammed the notebook closed and shoved it into his pocket. Then the clock tower boomed announcing the time as six o'clock. Percival’s stomach grumbled, and he started ambling his way toward the cafeteria. As he crossed the courtyard, a rush of cold air swept through the valley, tearing leaves off their branches. One leaf danced its way around his head and landed in his untamed black hair. He shook the leaf out and continued on, while somewhere in the distance police sirens screamed.

After the buzz going on outside, the Autumn U cafeteria had all the excitement of a well-kept mausoleum. The walls were a beaten dull gray. The floors were a coffin wood brown. The people shuffled from one food kiosk to the next like zombies while they waited for their share of sizzling mystery meats and blighted vegetables. 

Percival made himself a salad and found an isolated table in the back to sit at. While he ate, he refused to look at the math problem as a matter of principle. It had already given him enough trouble as it was and adding indigestion to the mix wasn’t going to help.

He had been content to eat alone, but when Benjamin’s tray clattered down on the table beside him, causing him to jump, he found he was glad to have some company. And Benjamin was good company. Sure, he was a bit odd, but he was a friendly face, and since the accident, those were scarce. 

"You scared the hell out of me," said Percival.

Benjamin sat down and started to examine a slice of pizza for defects. He was gangly and thin with unkempt straw-colored hair and thick framed glasses that glinted in the cafeteria lights. If he were a bit less animated, he might have made for a good-looking scarecrow. 

"Nice to see you too,” he said. “When did you get back?" 

"Yesterday."  
"And you didn't call? I'm hurt."  

"I don't even have a phone. Mine was on my brother’s account."
Benjamin’s smile faded. "I’m sorry. If there was anything I could have done."

Not wanting to talk about it, Percival waved the comment off. “It’s fine. Besides, what was it your favorite author once said? ‘So it goes.’”

“Too true. Now let me be the first to welcome you back to Autumn U, or as the shirts say Au, the gold standard.”

Percival took a bite of his salad. “It’s good to be back. But maybe you can tell me what I’ve been missing.” 

Benjamin tore a burnt section of his pizza off, flicked it away, and bit into the pizza’s other side. “What do you mean,” he said around a mouthful of cheese.

“I don’t know. It’s like everyone’s on edge or something.” 

“You mean you haven't heard? The Triangle Killer's come back." 

Percival nearly choked on a grape. He had heard about the killer. Everyone in Autumn had. It was the campus ghost story, the thing seniors told freshmen to keep them up at night. There were seven original victims, if he remembered correctly. Each one had their hands chopped off and their bodies carved up in some kind of ritualistic manner. Signs and symbols were cut into the flesh, and the victim's blood was used to write cryptic messages. No one ever figured out what the messages meant, and the killings stopped after a few weeks.  

"Are they sure it's the Triangle Killer," said Percival. "I mean that was what, twenty years ago?”

"Twenty-five,” said Benjamin. “And no, the police haven't confirmed anything yet. But I was talking to someone on the force, and she says it's definitely the killer.”

“How does she know?”

“Something to do with the symbols used. She was kind of cagey on the details.” Benjamin leaned in close. “And you want to know the best part? I think this might be supernatural.”

Percival rolled his eyes. Here it went again. Benjamin’s second greatest fault. His first was his fondness for breaking into places he shouldn’t be, but followed closely behind that was his desire to make everything paranormal. In his world, Occam’s razor could be summed up in three words. Ghosts or aliens. 

“You can't be serious,” said Percival. “Oh, God, you are."

"Look, twenty-five years is a long time to go between murders. And to come back without missing a beat seems supernatural to me."

"Twenty-five years is not that long," said Percival. "If the killer started when they were twenty, they'd only be forty-five now. It’s more likely the killer’s just… come back."

“Don’t you mean come back from the dead? There is no way you’re going to convince me this isn’t supernatural.”

“Nothing is ever supernatural. There’s just things we know, and things we haven’t figured out yet.”

1st 5 Pages July Workshop - Thornton Rev 1

Name: Patrick Thornton
Genre: Middle Grade, contemporary
Title: I’m Counting On You

I’m sitting on my front porch watching Stan, my best friend since kindergarten, toss a baseball in the air and snag it with his glove. The smell of freshly mowed grass is everywhere. Seventh grade is over and I should be summertime happy but . . .

Stan sits next to me, shoulder to shoulder and says, “So, you’ll be man of the house again.” 

“Very funny.” Kind of funny, since I’m a girl. Maybe not funny because I get teased for being a tomboy when most of the girls my age are into makeup and boys. I know Stan is only trying to cheer me up but that’s not happening; Dad leaves today. 

I get to my feet. “I gotta go.”

“Your dad’s going to be okay,” Stan says and adds, “Your mom too.”

“How do you know?” Stan looks down at his feet and wish I hadn’t said that. I put a hand on his shoulder. “Thanks for hanging.”
Stan tilts his head sideways and jerks on an imaginary noose. I don’t laugh and his face goes serious. “See ya tomorrow,” he says as I go inside.

Tomorrow. 

Upstairs, I sit on the edge of my bed and try not to think about what life will be like tomorrow. The chart I made matching up the two time zones—here in Virginia and in Afghanistan where Dad will be—is on the wall. I’ll use it to know what time it is for Dad when I’m getting up in the morning or having dinner or whatever. My computer, the only one in the house, is on my desk under the chart. The rest of my room is a scatter of posters of pro ball players and sports stuff.
           
I set there wanting to turn my brain off. I want to put the war—what could happen to Dad, what could happen to all of us—out of my head. 

“Think fast!” 

I look up just in time to grab a video game case flying at me before it hits me in the chest. It’s the new Xbox game Dad and I have been waiting for.

“Nice catch.” Dad stands in my bedroom doorway wearing his National Guard uniform, all brown and green camouflage. There’s an American flag on one shoulder and his MP patch on the other.  People say I’m a girl version of my dad, probably because of our dark eyes and curly hair. And I’m in pretty good shape from lots of sports. I’m hardly any version of my mom. She’s pretty and fragile. I’m not. 

My bed creaks when Dad sits down next to me. “Dill,” he says. 

My name is Dilla, after a great aunt I never met but everybody calls me Dill. Stan sometimes calls me Pickle. You know, because of dill pickle. 

“Uh huh.” I look into Dad’s eyes.

“I know it’s hard for you when I have to be away but you’ve always stepped up and done a great job with your mom and everything.”

No, actually, I haven’t.

“Your mom is getting better but this time will be harder on her since I won’t be able to call her every day like I do when I’m in the States. Phone service might not be so good from Afghanistan. And there’s the time difference.” 

And the war.

I shouldn’t bring this up again, but I do. “If I had a cell phone we could text. Mom wouldn’t have to know.”

Dad shakes his head. “No secrets from your mom.” 

Mom has anxiety issues and what her therapist calls cyberphobia. Tech things, almost anything to do with computers, can trigger a panic attack. She’s okay with the land line phone but cell phones, no way. 

Dad nods toward my computer—the one I had to have for school and the reason Mom seldom comes in my room. “You can email me anytime and we should be able to Skype once I get settled.”  He’s quiet for a second then says, “Remind your mom that letters are on the way and I’ll call her when I can. I know you’ll look after things while I’m gone.”

Gone.

Gone can mean never coming back. I want to tell him how afraid I am about that but I don’t because I know it would start me crying. So I say, “Got it covered, Dad.” 

“I know you do.” He taps a finger on the new game in my hands. “Hang onto that until I get back. Practice up so I don’t embarrass you.” 

It takes some effort but I twist my mouth into a fierce grin and look up at him. “Fat chance.” 

The Xbox is in the downstairs game room in a cabinet out of sight. It was a special Christmas present that Mom agreed to as long as the door to the room is closed when the cabinet is open. 

Dad runs a hand gently over my hair and stands up. “Time to go.” 

“Already?” 

“I don’t want to have to arrest myself for being AWOL.” 

Dad AWOL. As if. Dad’s a good soldier just like he’s a good policeman here in town when he’s not on duty with the Guard. He’s even got medals he wears on his dress uniforms. 

As we what we call ‘The Play Room’, I duck in and open the Xbox cabinet. I know it’s stupid but I give the game Dad gave me a kiss for luck like people do with a lucky penny or a rabbit’s foot. That actually makes me feel better, like it has a little magic that will make sure Dad comes home safe. I give the game a gentle pat before I close up the cabinet.

When we get to the living room Emily is hanging on Mom begging for something and, as usual, not taking no for an answer. Emily is wearing a little pink dress that used to be mine about a hundred years ago, before Mom had her first panic attack. Probably the last dress I ever wore. Mom is smiling down at Emily’s pudgy four-year-old face. But it’s a smile that looks like it wants to be something else. Mom is wearing what she calls a sun dress with bright yellow flowers on it and no sleeves. It seems to hang on her like she lost weight overnight.

“Jennifer, you and Em about ready?” Dad calls to Mom.

Nobody’s ready, Dad.

“Let’s go.” 

He puts an arm around my back and Mom slips under his other arm. As we walk out of the house Emily runs past us to the car. 
The ride to the airport is a depressing. Next to me in the back seat, Emily’s talking to a new doll, sometimes wagging a finger at the thing. Dad is talking quietly to Mom in the front seat. I feel like I’m in a weird, bad dream. Kind of floating but not in a good way. Next thing I know we’re pulling into the airport parking lot.

“Dill, come on. You need to keep an eye on Emily,” Mom tells me. 

Right. While Dad gathers his gear it’s my job to make sure Emily doesn’t run out in front of a taxi or a bus or something. 

Inside the terminal people with suitcases are run-walking while others sprawl on chairs or the floor. The place smells like air conditioning, sweat, sugar and coffee.  I wish there was a pause button like the one for the TV.

1st 5 Pages July Workshop - Lowrey Rev 1

Name: Nicole Lowrey
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Title: Beneath the Abyss

Dark clouds slithered across the sky and Laina flinched as the thunder rumbled the walls around her. Rain tapped against the windows louvers in the kitchen and she flicked them shut, clicking reload on her phone. Again. Come on, come on.

Why wouldn’t the internet load? Maybe the storm was making it worse.

A text from Veronica appeared.

Got the text from school? Results are up.

Laina’s stomach rolled with the beans and rice she’d eaten that morning. She moved the phone around near the window, hoping to get a better connection. She’d been trying for ten minutes, but it felt like an hour.

She squealed when her inbox finally appeared. Second email from the top were her mid-term biology results. She clicked it and scanned the page, looking for the result she’d been dreading all morning.

There it was.

Eighty-eight per cent.

B+.

Her chest sagged. Not the A she’d hoped for. She’d need ninety per cent to get into senior year bio. Higher to get into climate science at an Australian university, like her dad had done. A knot formed at the back of her throat. How would she break it to him? He’d been so thrilled when she’d told him her plans, to take her little sister Fiona to Melbourne and live and study there. That hinged on if she could make the marks for a scholarship. Unlikely, now.

She clicked back to her messages.

B+, you?

The phone pinged.

B.

Three squiggled lines jumped on screen as Veronica typed something. Then it vibrated again.

Can I come over?

Gritting her teeth, she tapped back.

Maybe later.

Laina pinched her eyes closed and wiped away the sweat brewing on her forehead. The summer heat in Mexico felt stifling. More humid than countries she’d lived in across the Pacific, or even South America. It’d be so nice to live in the dry heat of Australia again, settle down in their home country and just stay there, not moving every year or so for their Dad’s climate research. The traveling was fun, but making friends and starting school all over again sucked, every time.

She shivered as thunder crashed. If only she could hurl the ache in her heart into the clouds, watch it combust in an electrical flash. The storm was moving on, but there’d be another one later. There’d been nothing but rain all week. Right in the middle of dry season too. It was unheard of. They’d had to cancel the school fundraiser for the drought relief efforts when rain washed the stalls out. Totally ironic.

Laina’s phone vibrated again. Fiona had messaged her from her bedroom down the hall.

Something’s burning.

Laina turned and swore. Thick smoke billowed in plumes as she opened the oven door, dragging out the sunken black carcass of her sourdough. A blast of heat smacked her in the face, like she hadn’t been sweating enough already. Smoke filled her nose and she sneezed and flapped her hand to fan the smoke away.

Martha, their in-house nurse, appeared out of nowhere, slammed the oven door shut, and scolded Laina in a flurry.

“Que haces niƱa? I told you to be careful when you left the stove on two days ago. You’ll smoke the house out. What about your poor father?”

Laina tensed, flicking her head towards his bedroom door. With it closed shut, no smoke would creep in. Thank god. The cancer was drawing the last of his energy. If she’d aggravated his lungs…

She didn’t dare think what could’ve happened.

“Let me clean up,” Laina said and followed Martha as she bustled to each window, opening the shutters wide.

Martha swatted her away with a flick of her wrist. “I’ll fix it. Just make yourself useful somewhere else.”

Laina bit the inside of her cheek, blinking twice to stem angry tears from forming. She couldn’t even handle the smallest things anymore, not even a damn loaf of bread. Her grades had slipped over the past couple of months. And to top it off, Fiona still wouldn’t talk to her. It was all too much. School had given her time off to help around the house, but how was she meant to keep up, missing all her lessons? There was no way she could look after Fiona, the house, and be everything her dad needed her to be. Not with a foster home looming ahead of them.

She chucked the smoking heap of charred dough in the bin. A new wave of anxiety kicked its way up her throat and she fought to keep it down. She’d cried enough this week.

All she wanted to do was burst into her dad’s bedroom, wrap him up in her arms and tell him she had it all figured out. She’d look after Fiona, study hard and make it work, when he was gone. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t bear the disappointment in his eyes, knowing it wasn’t true.

The door to his room was splintering near the hinges, and needed a coat of paint. She’d meant to buy paint last week, but then got caught up when the water tank bust a leak again. It was hard enough keeping on top of the urgent jobs. Before he…

No, don’t think about it.

Laina chewed on her lip until the tang of blood hit her tongue. He slept most days, waking to eat in the mornings and afternoons. Energy sapped from his body like a leaky tap. Nothing she could do would help.

Martha swept up again like a belligerent sparrow and thrust a basket into her chest.

“You’ve been hanging around doing nothing all day. We need water and groceries. How can I make your dad’s dinner when we have no water?”

Laina dropped the basket to her feet. “I’m more useful here than out there! And seriously, what if something happens to him while I’m out?”

“That’s why I’m here. Now go.” Martha bustled her to the door with a jab of the broom’s sharp bristles before she could protest. The door to Fiona’s room stood ajar and Laina stuck her fingers around the wooden frame, digging her nails in before Martha swept her outside.

Fiona sat against the wall, her knees curled into her chest, nose deep in a fantasy book. “Come with me,” Laina said, swallowing as her voice wavered. Fiona’s eyes lifted from her pages then dropped back. Laina pulled back, an ache swelling in her chest. So Fiona was still giving her the silent treatment. The worst part? She had no idea why.

Laina slammed the front door behind her and ran. She needed to get away, get far away from it all. Their cottage by the coast in Tulum was a short walk from everything. The market, the forest, the beach. Pelting down the dirt track, she slipped between timber posts and into the woods behind the line of bright homes. A soft breeze flicked at the tendrils of her hair, tickling against her flushed cheeks. She stopped when she reached her favourite spot, pressing her palm against the rough bark of a flame tree.

A patch of sunlight broke through the clouds and hit the leaves of the flame tree, setting them ablaze like crimson fire. Her heart swelled, looking at the way they glittered, catching the light. 

A blue-crowned motmot flitted into the clearing, blue and green plumage shining bright. They were her favourite birds, with long tail feathers that extended into dazzling blue ornaments.

1st 5 Pages July Workshop - Abdow Rev 1

Name: Emily Abdow
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Title: Knives and Ribbons

The toes of Esper’s boots, once her father’s, tipped over the cliff’s edge.
She leaned forward, peering down into the darkness, and shivered. So far up, it seemed almost soft. She hoped, for her father’s sake, that falling felt like flying.
From the royal city of Balmyra to where Esper stood, on the mountain of Deadener’s Peak, the people of Allaysia mourned. A knight had arrived at the iron gates this morning with the news: King Roran was dead.

At night, Esper’s sadness snuck upon her like an ambush. It drove her here, to the sheer, jagged drop; the only edge of the village not walled in by slabs of gray stone. She didn’t mourn for a king she’d never met, but for her father, Lord Aeric, who had served as King Roran’s chief advisor. When Lord Aeric perished in the first Bloodrose attack, King Roran waged a war against the red-cloaked rebels in revenge. With King Roran went a piece of her father’s legacy.

She wrapped her palm around the hilt of Kabar, her knife, feeling the familiar bite of the engraving on the hilt. She remembered the day her father had given her Kabar. She’d been only five.

He’d held the knife out, hilt first. A flower blossomed at the blade’s tip, stem snaking onto the hilt where thorns rose in angry points.

She’d opened her soft palms and cried out as the thorns pricked her skin, drawing blood. When she’d tried to let go he’d wrapped his hand around hers, forcing her fingers to the metal. She’d felt the press of his calluses, hardened patches in the pattern of her fresh wounds.

“As long as you wield Kabar,” he’d said, “I can keep you safe.”

That was the last time she’d seen him, twelve years ago. In those twelve years, her own palm had callused like his. When she missed him, as she did now, she clenched the hilt and dared her skin to give. But now she was too hardened to bleed; it was a hardness that ran soul-deep.

“Esper!”

The shout startled her. Her boots crunched as she tilted further than she’d planned. A pair of arms wrapped around her middle, hauling her back from the edge. His body was hot against hers, his skin sugary with the scent of his mother’s sticky snow candies. But tonight, she was in no mood for sweetness. She brought both elbows to his stomach, breaking through his embrace.

“Grower’s seeds!” she said. “Faean, you could have killed me.”

His green eyes widened. “Me?” he said. “Kill you?” He shook his head, his hair, sunrise orange, flopping against his forehead. “You’re the one trying to die the same way as your father.”

She gritted her teeth. “I would be proud,” she said, “to die fighting Bloodroses.”

Faean sighed. “I meant falling off a cliff.”

“He didn’t fall,” Esper said. “He was pushed.”

“Ah,” Faean said. His eyes glinted. “You’re waiting for a Bloodrose to push you. Let me go get my red cloak and—”

Esper slammed her shoulder into Faean’s chest. The impact sent him sprawling. His head knocked against a bulge of crystal root protruding from the mountain.

“Oof,” said Faean.

He deserved a knot on his head for his humor. He deserved worse. She pinned his elbows with her knees, her favorite victory position, and dug her weight into the bone of his joints.

Faean winced, face flushing and puffing.

“Spare my freckles,” he wheezed. “My mother says I’ve got the southern star above my left nostril.”

She pressed her knife to his pale throat. She wouldn’t cut him, of course, but she'd slap the silliness out of him with the flat of her blade.

“At least let me have one last dessert,” he begged. “I’ve got some pine sap on my chin.”

He stuck his tongue out, struggling to reach a sticky patch of amber on his pale skin, and her anger evaporated. She raised her knife, so it hovered above her best friend’s throat, now just a formality.

“Any last words?” she said. “Speak, before I flay you for my own dessert.”

Faean made a show of gasping for air. “Send Clara my love.”

“Grower’s Seeds.” Esper rolled off him, onto her back. “Couldn’t you pick better last words? How about, ‘Esper, you’re destined to be the greatest knight in Allaysia.’”

Faean rubbed the back of his head where a knot was already forming. “But you’re already so certain of that. Why waste my dying breaths making you more insufferable?”

Esper countered. “Why waste your dying breaths on a woman you’ll be too dead to marry?”

“It’s the same as wasting my living ones,” Faean said. He picked at his nails, gray with rock dust from the mines. “Clara will never choose someone from an outer ring. She’ll marry someone who reads, or Prince Rain himself.”

Esper hated when Faean talked like this, like he was worth less than those in the inner rings. His father had mined ore for barely five copper seeds a day before losing his arm in a mining accident. Now, Faean labored beneath the mountain, and his mother did her best to help by selling her sticky snow candies for a half copper each.

If Faean’s father could read, he could have made a living by lending seeds or recording trades. But reading was a blessing reserved for the innermost ring. Because one’s ring was determined by how many seeds one paid as tribute to the Grower, Faean’s family tree couldn’t be replanted in a ring closer to the Grower’s Tree.

“You won’t be in the outer ring forever,” Esper said. “Not once you become a knight.”

Faean was quiet.

“Come on.” Esper rose to her feet, holding out her hand. Faean took it and she pulled him up. The moment he steadied himself, she slid her fingers from his and delivered a blow to his shoulder. This one was not powered by rage but tempered. After all, she needed her training partner to be well enough so that she could batter him again tomorrow night.

They sparred, boots slipping and sliding on thick crystal roots. The roots flickered with silver ether, the world’s lifeforce, which flowed from deep beneath the mountain into the trunk of the Grower’s Tree.

Even by the cliff’s edge, Esper could see the great tree towering at the center of the village, a blur of bright silver light with a translucent crystal outline. She looked away, blinking, the shape seared into the underside of her eyelids.

Faean landed a blow to her jaw.

Her teeth snapped together, dark spots joining the light. She dropped to a crouch and spun, sweeping out her boot. Her foot connected with the back of Faean’s knees, and he fell forward, hands splayed against a root.

He was up before she could pin him. They circled each other, boots performing a memorized dance among the roots.

“That’s the only time I can get you,” Faean said. “When you’re distracted by the Grower’s Tree.”

“It’s blinding,” Esper said.

Faean raised an eyebrow. “Not if you don’t look.”

“Of course,” Esper said. “I’ll just ignore the divine source of life. The one so powerful only the Planters can be trusted to protect it.”

“I don’t trust the Planters,” Faean said, matter-of-factly.

Esper stumbled over a root.

Faean didn’t use her weakness to strike. “It’s time they shared their power,” he said.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

1st 5 Pages July Workshop - Thornton

Name: Patrick Thornton
Genre: Middle Grade, contemporary
Title: I’m Counting On You


CHAPTER ONE – AN EMPTY SPACE


I’m sitting on my front porch watching Stan, my best friend since kindergarten, toss a baseball in the air and snag it with his glove. School is out and I should be looking forward to goofing off in the warm Virginia summer and being at the top of the middle school food chain next year but . . .

This time Stan keeps the ball in his glove and comes over and sits next to me. He falls against me, shoulder to shoulder and says, “So you’ll be man of the house again.” 

“Very funny.” Kind of funny, since I’m a girl. Maybe not funny because I get teased for being a tomboy when most of the girls in school are into makeup and boys. I know Stan is only trying to cheer me up but that’s not happening; Dad leaves today.

I get to my feet. “I gotta go. Thanks for hanging.”

Stan tilts his head sideways and jerks on an imaginary noose. I don’t laugh and his face goes serious. “Your dad’s going to be okay.” Then adds, “Your mom too.”

“Yeah.” I wish knew that to be true. 

“See ya tomorrow,” he says as I go inside.

Tomorrow. Upstairs I sit on the edge of my bed and try not to think about what life will be like tomorrow.  

The chart I made matching up the two time zones—here at home and in Afghanistan where Dad will be—is on the wall. I’ll use it to know what time it is for Dad when I’m getting up in the morning or having dinner or whatever.
           
For now, I just want to turn my brain off. I want to put the war—what could happen to Dad, what could happen to all of us—out of my head. 

“Think fast!” 

I jump and look up just in time to grab the video game case flying at me before it hits me in the chest.  

“Nice catch.” Dad stands in my bedroom doorway wearing his National Guard uniform, all brown and green camouflage. There’s an American flag on one shoulder and his MP patch on the other.  People say I’m a girl version of my dad, probably because of our dark eyes and curly hair. And I’m in pretty good shape from lots of sports. I’m hardly any version of my mom. 

My bed creaks when Dad sits down next to me. In my hands is the new Xbox game we’ve been waiting for. He points at the game. “Practice up so I don’t embarrass you when I get back.”

It takes some effort but I twist my mouth into a fierce grin and look up at him. “Fat chance.” 

Dad responds with a chuckle. “Dill,” he says. 

My name is Dilla, after a great aunt I never met but everybody calls me Dill. Stan sometimes calls me Pickle. You know, because of dill pickle. 

“Uh huh.” I look into Dad’s eyes.

“I know it’s hard when I’m gone but you’ve always stepped up and done a great job with your mom and everything.”

No, actually, I haven’t.

“Your mom is getting better but this time will be harder on her since I won’t be able to call her every day. Phone service might not be so good from Afghanistan. And there’s the time difference.” 

And the war.

I shouldn’t bring this up again, but I do. “If I had a cell phone we could text. I could keep it secret from Mom.”

Dad shakes his head. “No secrets from your mom.” 

Mom has anxiety issues and what her therapist calls cyberphobia. Tech things, almost anything to do with computers, can trigger a panic attack. She’s kind of okay with cell phones but will not have one. She won’t let me have one either because she’s heard about kids getting cyber bullied. So, no cell phone for me or Mom. Dad has a cell phone for work but he keeps it out of sight. 

“You can email me anytime and we’ll work around the time difference to set up Skype calls once I get settled.”  He’s quiet for a second then says, “Remind your mom that letters are on the way. That should help her feel better while I’m gone.”

Gone.

Gone can mean never coming back. I want to tell him how afraid I am about that. But I don’t. “I’ll take care of everything here, Dad. You can count on me.”

“I know you will.” He nods toward the game in my hands “Don’t let anything happen to that and be ready for a serious beat down.”  He gives me a pat on the back and stands up. “Time to go.” 

“Already?” 

“I don’t want to have to arrest myself for being AWOL,” he says as we head downstairs.

AWOL. As if.

Dad’s a good soldier just like he’s a good policeman here in town when he’s not on duty with the Guard. He’s got the medals and citations to prove it. 

As we pass the family game room, I duck in to put the new game Dad gave me on top of the Xbox console. I know it’s stupid but I give the game a kiss for luck like people do with a lucky penny or a rabbit’s foot. That actually makes me feel better, like it has a little magic that will make sure Dad comes home safe.

In the living room he puts his hands on my shoulders and bends down just enough so we are eye to eye. “I’m counting on you.” He looks past me into the kitchen. I turn and see Emily hanging on Mom begging for something and, as usual, not taking no for an answer. Emily is wearing a little pink dress that used to be mine about a hundred years ago, before Mom had her first panic attack. Probably the last dress I ever wore. Mom is smiling down at Emily’s pudgy four-year-old face. But it’s a smile that looks like it wants to be something else. Mom is wearing what she calls a sun dress with bright yellow flowers on it and no sleeves. It seems to hang on her like she lost weight overnight.

“Jennifer, you and Em about ready?” Dad calls to Mom.

Nobody’s ready, Dad.

“Let’s go.” 

He puts an arm around my back and Mom slips under his other arm. As we walk out of the house Emily runs past us to the car. 
The ride to the airport is a depressing. Next to me in the back seat, Emily’s talking to a new doll, sometimes wagging a finger at the thing. Dad is talking quietly to Mom in the front seat. I feel like I’m in a weird, bad dream. Kind of floating but not in a good way. Next thing I know we’re pulling into the airport parking lot.

“Dill, come on. You need to keep an eye on Emily,” Mom tells me. 

Right. While Dad gathers his gear it’s my job to make sure Emily doesn’t run out in front of a taxi or a bus or something.
Inside the terminal, lots of men and women are hugging people they’re leaving behind. I want it all to stop. I wish there was a pause button like the one on the TV remote. 

Dad kisses Mom and Emily then turns to me.  He kisses me on the cheek then hugs me. I want to