Rowan of the Wood – Chapter Two

Rowan of the WoodEach week I’ll publish a new installment of our award-winning YA fantasy novel Rowan of the Wood for your reading enjoyment. Comment below to be entered to win an author-signed free copies of the entire series! The more you comment, the more times your name will be entered to win!

Rowan of the Wood, Winner of the Indie Excellence Award for Young Adult Fiction, tells the story of Cullen, a young boy who meanders through the redwood forest every day on his way to school, losing himself in books and fantasy worlds full of elves, fairies, and wizards. Cullen’s life changes when he uncovers an ancient magic wand that is inhabited by a powerful wizard, Rowan.

Nearly fourteen centuries ago, Rowan and his bride Fiana were separated on their wedding day. Rowan manages to survive, trapped in time, until Cullen releases him from the wand. Fiana uses dark magic to stay alive as she continues searching for Rowan. Over the centuries, Fiana descends deeper into the darkness becoming something evil and eventually giving up her search…until a young boy brings Rowan back to her.

Get your very own copy of Rowan of the Wood in either paperback or eBook. Also, enjoy the other books in the series:

Witch on the Water: Book Two
Fire of the Fey: Book Three
Power of the Zephyr: Book Four

Coming in Autumn 2013, the fifth and final book: Spirit of the Otherworld

Teachers and educators, ask me how to get your class FREE copies of this Amazon bestselling novel and lesson plans as well.

CHAPTER TWO

Cullen trudged over the well-manicured lawn towards the misty redwoods. On this particularly cold October morning in Northern California, the frost clung to the grass like sugar clings to candied ginger. Cullen’s best friend Maddy had once brought some candied ginger from home and had given him a piece. Her mother, one of those organic health nuts, didn’t believe in giving children real candy. Maddy had to get hers from their other best friend April, who always had plenty to go around.

As he stepped into his lush sanctuary, Cullen’s gait slowed to a contemplative amble. The forest demanded a different attitude from him: It was a magical, eldritch place, especially when it was wreathed in its mist. The magic of this place did not lie solely with the trees. The sunlight held its own magic as it filtered down through the canopy, illuminating the mist, creating an air of reverence like an old cathedral. That was what it really was: A cathedral, built not to God but by God. Massive columns of living wood stretched up to the heavens. Daylight twinkled through arches of evergreen, illuminating various nooks of its choosing with a green-tainted radiance. Some trees had grown so massive they had split open their own trunks, creating hidden naves large enough for Cullen to lie within. Running water trickled in myriad springs and rivulets that perfumed the air with a tinkling chorus of liquid movement, while new growth and freshness caressed the damp air with sweet aromas. If only he could stay in this glorious place forever.

This was his favorite part of the day, the time when he left home and went to school. Once completely concealed from his house, he shrugged off his old Batman backpack and removed the tattered copy of The Hobbit that had once belonged to his father, his only memento of the man he had known so briefly. His backpack had also seen better days. Of the three large pockets, only one would hold anything without it dropping out along the way. It was a hand-me-down from his foster brother Rex, who was two years older than Cullen, much bigger and very rough on things. Nearly everything Cullen owned was a hand-me-down from Rex, except for his books and maybe his toothbrush. Those were his own. He readjusted the backpack so it once again sat squarely on his back. He forced the old paperback into the back pocket of his jeans for easy access later.

Cullen rolled up his pant legs a little too high, so they would not drag along the ground and to hide the frayed ends. He began to walk again. The air felt crisp in his lungs, and he took some pleasure in watching his breath cloud as he exhaled. He picked up a small stick and wedged a fir cone on the end of it. He imagined himself a great wizard on an important quest. He puffed on his makeshift pipe and blew out the “smoke” into the cold air.

Tomorrow, on Halloween, Cullen would turn twelve, the other reason for his unusual happiness that morning; although it kind of sucked that his birthday fell on a Saturday this year. It meant he would have to be home with his foster family, and they were rarely nice. With any luck, he would spend most of the day in the woods with one of his books. Generally, as a grudging birthday treat, the Samuels allowed him to have the day off after his morning chores, as long as he spent it away from them and preferably out of the house. They didn’t like Cullen much, and the feeling was very mutual. Besides, exploring the woods or reading within its protection made a perfect day by Cullen’s definition, so he wouldn’t mind staying away from the house. There would be no reading in the woods today, however, as it was a school day.

Tomorrow might be boring, but there was plenty of excitement just beneath the surface here amongst the redwoods. He felt the magic as he walked through them, like entering Middle-earth or some equally wondrous land. Thick ferns sprouted wherever moisture lingered and complemented the deep brown of the monstrous tree trunks. He figured some of the redwoods measured bigger around than he was tall. He tested that theory sometimes, basking in the feel and the smell of the thick, decades-deep redwood duff beneath the trees. Cullen felt some divinity lived in these woods, gods or elves. He knew when he was here his father and his sister were with him. He wished his mother could feel it, too, but would she even know she was there with him? Best not to think of things you can’t change.

He dropped his impromptu pipe as he cleared the edge of the woods and emerged beside the road. Halfway there. He enjoyed the second part of his commute for a different reason. He could read. His foster parents didn’t let him read much. They frowned upon it as if it was somehow un-American.

“Normal people watch TV,” they would say to him, but they didn’t complain too much since it kept him out of their hair. They especially didn’t approve of what he read, as they thought there was something satanic about all those strange lands and creatures. Cullen believed in God and Jesus in the same way that he believed the sun rose in the east and noon happened at twelve o’clock. They were just facts in his world view, just another part of reality. He had not yet learned that people create reality for themselves. He also had not yet learned there were other spiritual paths to choose from. One thing he couldn’t believe was that God had anything against fiction. Surely God had more important things to worry about. Cullen loved fantasy, so he read whenever he could. Through his books he fled his unhappy reality and insignificance; he escaped his mundane life. Reading allowed him to be someone important, a noble adventurer saving the world and the people he cared for.

He pulled the book from his back pocket and began reading while he walked alongside the road. Cullen thought it was very easy to read and walk and be aware of the traffic around him. Some people would ask in amazement, “You read while you walk?” Cullen would just smile to himself. He couldn’t understand their surprise. He had long since trained himself not to be distracted by the ground whizzing around the pages of the book. Since his arms bounced with the rest of him, he could see the words without them turning into a blur. He could hear the cars passing beside him, so no danger there, as long as the driver watched what they were doing and didn’t reach for a CD or something and swerve off the road. If that were the case, it wouldn’t matter if he were reading or not. Still, he could multi-task in this, as in all things. He found doing just one thing too boring, too monotonous.

The frost slowly melted into the ground, and the sun felt warm through the toque on his head. His jacket started to trap too much heat within its ragged folds, so he unzipped it and took off the hat, holding it in his left hand behind the tattered book. He pushed his glasses up and wiped the sweat from his forehead, making his short dirty-blonde hair stick up at strange angles in the front. He failed to notice, since he had stopped caring about his appearance a long time ago. Couldn’t do much about that either. He could only wear what the Samuels gave him to wear. Such was the plight of an eleven, no, twelve-year-old.

Soon, he faintly heard his fellow students milling around at the Eel River Community School. A large lawn encompassed by the school bus unloading area kept the main building away from the road. Just across the street, where the school’s property and responsibility ended, all the smokers hung out, brought together by the same cancer installment plan and belief in their own indestructibility. A few athletes chased each other over the lawn, tackling and wrestling playfully. Everyone else hung out around the front, waiting for friends to arrive; then they moved inside.

Various students wore costumes for the coming holiday. Cullen watched as a witch and punk rocker crossed the lawn. A gypsy climbed out of a rather large SUV and slammed the door in a huff behind her. Cullen noticed that the pep squad had made a huge orange banner with black lettering demanding a “Happy Halloween” and had draped it over the main entrance.

The Eel River Community School housed grades seven through twelve. Cullen was in the seventh grade, although he was a year younger in age than most of his fellow classmates since he had skipped a year of school. The Samuels had only allowed it because they figured they could get rid of him that much sooner. Also, he received access to his trust, left to him by his father, when he graduated high school. Since he was a year ahead, he would graduate at seventeen. Cullen didn’t doubt that the Samuels would take his trust for themselves before he was a legal adult.

His foster brother Rex, two years older and also in the seventh grade, never let him forget what a “nerd” being younger than everyone else made him. Trudy often justified Rex’s age by how they “kept him back” due to illness one year. The truth was he failed the third grade, so he was a year behind. He would be fifteen before the end of the school year.

Cullen approached the steps, joining the scores of post-pubescent boys and girls who came together and walked up the stairs into the school. This was the part of school he didn’t like—the other kids.

He pushed his glasses back up on his nose. Taking a deep breath, he stepped up onto the stairs and began the trek toward the row of double doors leading into the school. Taunts filled the air around him, but he had gotten good at ignoring them. He was small, young for his grade, and terribly unpopular. He hit the trifecta.

Four large boys approached him. Rex, the biggest and meanest-looking of the bunch, walked slightly in front of the other three.

Cullen tried to ignore them and wished he was invisible.

“Did you smell something?” Rex asked his friends. They all laughed obediently.

One of his toadies sniffed dramatically. “Yeah, smells like a nerd.”

Cullen just bowed his head and kept walking.

The four boys stopped him from moving forward by placing their combined six hundred pounds of fat in his way.

“Where do you think you’re goin’?” Rex demanded.

“Um, to class,” Cullen replied.

Rex mocked him, “Um, um, um…to class.”

Cullen tried to move around them, but the boys pushed him from one to the other. His glasses fell off, and one of them knocked the well-read paperback from his hands. The cover, barely attached, fell off to the side. The boys all laughed. Mr. Grims, the history teacher, interrupted their fun with a glare. They walked off congratulating each other, instead of continuing their torment, before Mr. Grims could yell at them.

Cullen stooped and picked up his glasses and his book. A small voice spoke above him.

“Why do you let him treat you like that?”

He looked up to see his friend Maddy, followed closely by April. Maddy looked like a Gothic princess. She was almost thirteen, and she was beautiful to him. She wore black fishnet stockings full of big holes under a tartan plaid mini-skirt. Red socks disappeared into her black high-tops, which were dotted with tiny white skulls. Her black bag had a skull on it too, and she wore a black T-shirt that hung off one shoulder, showing the red tank top underneath. Her black bangs hung in a harsh straight line above her cat-green eyes. She was not dressed in costume. In fact, her style had instigated the debates about school uniforms the previous year.

“Hi, Maddy, April.”

Almost the exact opposite from Maddy, April was pretty too, but in a more wholesome way. Her long blonde hair shone in the early morning sunlight. She wore a baby blue sweater, blue jeans, and carried a white cane. Cullen could see his reflection in her dark glasses. He quickly flattened his hair into place.

April had been blind since she was a baby. Her mother turned her back for a moment while leaving her pumpkin seat on a bar stool. April shifted or laughed or something, and the pumpkin seat tumbled down with April still strapped inside. She had fallen directly on her head, face down onto the concrete floor. She had only been about six months old, and she hadn’t seen a thing since. Although it had been a freak accident, her mother never forgave herself for turning away. Now she overcompensated for her neglect through overindulgence with nice clothes and candy—pretty much whatever April wanted.

Cullen shrugged. “What choice do I have?”

“Stand up for yourself,” Maddy offered.

“Kick his little butt,” April added.

“Yeah, right.” Cullen straightened his glasses and put his book away in his backpack. “That butt weighs more than me. Besides, life is easier if I just keep my head down and take it.” Those words held more truth than Cullen wanted to admit. Rex and his parents made life anything but easy.

A pretty young woman with chestnut hair walked past them. Cullen’s eyes lit up. He felt the butterflies in his stomach that began to flutter any time Ms. MacFey was nearby.

“Ooooh! Here comes your girlfriend,” Maddy teased. Cullen pretended to ignore her. “Hi, Ms. MacFey,” Cullen shouted after her.

She turned. “Well, good morning, Cullen. How is my little knight this morning?”

She called him that because his surname was Knight and because he loved reading fantasy. He would do anything for her, just like the stories of the knights and their ladies.

A lanky boy walked by with some girls. “Where’s the flood, Knight?”

Cullen blushed. He had forgotten to roll his pants back down after walking through the forest. Mortified, he stooped to do it now.

“Just ignore them, Cullen,” Ms. MacFey said gently.

“O-Oh, I do. I really don’t even hear it any more.” His face blazed red.

Ms. MacFey sighed sympathetically but quickly put on a cheery face. “Okay, kids, have a good day. See you in class—poetry today!”

April and Maddy groaned, but Cullen just beamed at the thought.

Ms. MacFey was their English teacher. Cullen loved it when she read poetry. He had written her a poem, but he wouldn’t show it to anyone, least of all her!  English was their last class of the day, and Cullen couldn’t think of a better way to end a school day than listening to Ms. MacFey discuss poetry.

Unfortunately, P.E. was their first class. Cullen was not a team player. This had a lot to do with his being the frequent object of overzealous roughness. Being smaller and rather shy (some said skittish) when compared to his classmates, he was often seen more as a target than a participant. This was just one of the reasons he hated P.E. Team sports were for team players, not for outsiders and outcasts.

Maddy joined him in his loathing but took it one step further. She realized she would never fit in, would never be one of the crowd. Furthermore, she never wanted to be, so she took up arms against them, opposing them with her outrageous fashion and utter contempt for normalcy. She took the broadcloth of her exclusion and wove it into a standard of defiance, trumpeting her cause wherever she went.

April was ambivalent. Her blindness set her apart. At the same time, it protected her from the bulk of the teasing and abuse. There was something sacrosanct about a certified disability that sheltered her from the basic cruelty of youth.

Each in their own way was an outcast, unclean in the eyes of their peers. Having nothing else but this in common, they banded together in mutual defense. They made what shift they could on the edges of a group that rejected them, but of which they had to be a part by the dictates of the older generation.

Mrs. Palamore, the Spanish, Computer, and P.E. teacher, recognized that not everyone was suited to team sports. Her policy was to allow anyone not wishing to join the team the option of individual physical training. This involved running laps or going to the weight room. The trio invariably chose the former option. Ambling leisurely around the muddy track, they discussed the events of their lives.

“So, have you asked Maxine to the prom yet?”  Maddy asked.

Cullen blushed, looking away without an answer.

“Oh, Maddy,” said April exasperated.

“My name is Madeline; I’ve told you to call me Madeline. Everyone knows he has a crush on her, even through she’s almost three times his age.”

April sneered.

Maddy constantly teased Cullen about his puppy love. Blind as she was, April could still see it was more from jealously than anything else. Maddy didn’t particularly want Cullen for herself, but she was used to his attention. She liked attention from all boys and didn’t like when they gave it to someone else. Any blind girl could see that.

“I just think Ms. MacFey’s cool, that’s all,” mumbled Cullen.

“Yeah,” said Maddy, “cool enough to have your kids.”

“Knock it off,” said April.

“What are you doing for Halloween?” Cullen asked, trying to change the subject.

“I’m going as a bat,” said April. “You know, as in blind as a…” She cracked up at her own joke.

“I’m staying home,” declared Maddy. “True evil takes the night off. Too many wannabes out and about. Besides, it’s a full moon so there is a special spell I’m going to try out.”

“I guess that puts me on the side of true evil then,” said Cullen. “I’m on door guard.”

“Hey,” said Maddy, “maybe we’ll stop by and you can give all the candy to us!  Then you can knock off early.”

Josh, the only other student in their class who opted for individual training, jogged past them, smiling shyly at Maddy. She ignored him. Unlike the trio, he took his exercise seriously.

“Ooooo!” Cullen teased, “He wants you, Maddy.”

“My name is Madeline!”

“When is the engagement, Madeline?” asked April.

“I wouldn’t give that geek the time of day,” huffed Maddy. They continued their stroll until the bell rang, and then they ambled back into the locker room, laughing and teasing each other.

***

The final bell rang. All the students sat quietly looking up at Ms. MacFey. She was an excellent teacher, one of the few who the students didn’t rebel against. She somehow inspired obedience and respect in her classroom, primarily by showing respect to her students.

“Dismissed,” she said.

The entire class simultaneously rushed for their books and things, and began to dash out the door.

Over the noise and rustling she shouted, “Quiz on Monday!” and began to erase the examples of iambic pentameter from the board.

Cullen lingered behind, frequently looking up at his teacher, catching glimpses of heaven incarnate.

Maddy and April approached him, waiting. April held on to Maddy’s elbow, who began to tap her foot impatiently. “Are you coming?” Maddy asked.

“Yeah, in a minute,” he said.

Maddy rolled her eyes. “Whatever.” She tugged April along behind her as she walked out of the class. “Later.”

“Bye, Cullen,” April said as Maddy pulled her from the classroom.

“Bye,” he said a little too late for her to hear. He looked back dreamy-eyed at Ms. MacFey. “Ms. MacFey?”

“Yes, Cullen?” Ms. MacFey asked.

A flush of embarrassment came over him. “Nothing,” he mumbled, looking down at his backpack. He slowly put his books away and then began to help put the room back in order. He often did this just to spend a little more time with his favorite teacher. He did have a little crush on her, a confused amalgamation of his approaching puberty and his need for a mother figure in his life.

“You’ll miss your bus, Cullen,” she said matter-of-factly.

Cullen shrugged. “That’s okay,” he said, picking up paper from the floor and straightening books on the shelf. “I like to walk home. It gives me more time to read.”

“Reading any new books?” Ms. MacFey asked.

“Nope, just the same old ones.”

“Which is your favorite again?”

“The Hobbit,” Cullen said, immediately thinking of his dad. “I have that and all the Narnia Chronicles at…uh…home.”  The thought of home made Cullen instantly sad. It was the weekend now, too much time with the Samuels on the weekends for Cullen’s taste.

Not letting him dwell on the thought of home, Ms. MacFey said, “Well, I happen to know that the library just got in some new books, and the librarian made sure to order some new fantasy books just for you. After all, you are her best customer.”

“Wow! That’s great!” Cullen exclaimed. “I hope they got the new Terry Pratchett book. I can’t wait to read it! He’s so funny!”

They finished setting the classroom to rights, and Ms. MacFey looked around with satisfaction. “Well, I guess that’s it. Thanks for your help again, Cullen.”

Cullen smiled faintly and turned to leave.

“Nice work today, too,” she said, as she often did. Cullen was a very good student. All the teachers adored him; he made their thankless jobs a little more satisfying. Teachers dream of students like Cullen who show interest and effort. This, of course, didn’t help his social status with the other kids.

“Thanks,” he replied, blushing slightly. He turned to leave.

“Just a minute, Cullen. I almost forgot,” Ms. MacFey said.

Cullen turned back to face Ms. MacFey. Sometimes on Fridays she brought him some candy or a comic book. She reached down into her desk drawer and took out a brown paper bag, slightly larger than a lunch sack. She reached her hand inside and pulled out some Lord of the Rings movie trading cards.

“Wow!” exclaimed Cullen, rushing forward and eagerly taking the cards from Ms. MacFey. “Thanks!”

“And that’s not all!” she said, offering him the rest of the bag. “Here.”

His face stuck in an expression of disbelief. “There’s more?” Reaching into the bag, he pulled out a brand new hardback copy of The Hobbit.

“Happy birthday, Cullen,” Ms. MacFey said kindly.

“For me? Really?”

Cullen ran his hand over the green leather binding and the gold edged pages. A dragon, etched in gold, posed majestically on the cover. The Tolkien symbol and title shimmered in gold on the green spine. The gold leaf pages pinched a green satin ribbon that matched the binding. He had never seen such a beautiful book, and he hadn’t had a real birthday present since his mom went away.

Don’t think of that now. This is a happy moment, hold on to the happiness.

He looked back up at Ms. MacFey. “Thank you. It’s so beautiful. How did you know it was my favorite?”

“I’ve seen that tattered paperback you carry around everywhere and figured you could use a new copy.” She smiled at him, saddened that such little gestures as this were so unusual for him. A tear came to Ms. MacFey’s eye, and she quickly turned away saying, “Run along now, Cullen, and you have a happy birthday tomorrow.”

He carefully placed the new book in his shabby backpack and left happier than he had felt in years.

Cullen ran home with his arms spread wide. He felt like flying. He was flying!

When he saw his trail, he ducked into the redwoods like a rabbit rushes into the safety of its burrow. This was the best day of his life!  A brand new hardback of The Hobbit! He loved The Lord of the Rings trilogy and C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, too, but he loved The Hobbit most of all.

He plucked a long stalk of wild oat straw and wove it into a ring. “My precioussss,” he hissed, as he slipped it onto his finger to vanish from the sight of all those who tormented him.

Walking as silently as a hobbit, he came upon his favorite part of the forest. He still had some time before dinner, so never too anxious to get home, he strayed from the trail and walked through the silent forest to his favorite tree. In the mornings, the mist gathered the thickest here beneath the largest tree he had ever seen. It must have been thousands of years old! Easily twelve feet in diameter, it marked the center of Nature’s temple. Yet it was but one tree in a ring of them that had started out as suckers of a much larger and older tree that had disappeared millennia ago, leaving a clear floor where it had once been. Cullen liked to hide out in this ancient grove and read whenever he could get away from home. He planned on being here most of the weekend. With any luck he could swing it and have a peaceful birthday.

He sat down at the base of the largest tree, next to the opening of its inner chamber, and felt the hardness of the trunk behind him. The tiny cones and twigs crunched as he settled in the thick duff. Looking up, the trees reached up to the heavens, forming a protective barrier all around him. He felt the safest here, as if nothing could ever hurt him again—his fortress from the malice of the outside world. He ran his hands over the strange and marvelous markings around the opening of the natural cave within its massive trunk. These grooves on the trunk seemed almost natural, as there were certainly no clear forms or letters among them. They looked like scratches, like formulated abrasions. Cullen believed these odd marks were left there by an ancient traveler, marking this sacred spot. They looked like a series of lines intersecting another, longer line. This was one of the many reasons he loved it here.

He placed the Batman backpack down in front of him and reverently took out his new hardback book. He ran his hand over the embossed cover before opening it. On the title page were the tiny figures of a wizard, a hobbit, and thirteen dwarves questing through a wild landscape. Cullen sighed, cherishing the best birthday present he had ever received. Well, ever since that horrible day. The last day he saw his mother, his sister, or his father. He hadn’t had many good days after that one, but this day topped the list. Definitely.

He snuggled back in a fold of the gigantic trunk and began to read. The time slipped away, and before he knew it, he strained to see the words in the fading light. He jumped up when he realized how late it was, shoved the new book deep in his backpack and ran back toward the trail. He nearly tripped over a formation of neatly piled stones, stacked like a little castle. He knew this forest as well as he knew his books, but he hadn’t noticed that pile of stones before. Strange, he thought, with the small portion of his brain not occupied with the fear of being late.

Breathless, he finally cleared the edge of the forest and saw the Samuels’ house down the slight hill. It was actually a manufactured home that had been driven to its current location on the back of a huge semi and superficially made to look like a charming cottage. A wooden lattice covered the space between the ground and the bottom of the house. A wooden deck, made from the same trees that surrounded the property, met the front door. Three steps led up to the old aluminum screen door that muted the autumn colors on the seasonal wreath hanging behind it on a white metal door. A half-moon shaped window on the otherwise solid front door let in little natural light.

He climbed the stairs slowly, not wanting to go inside. Fantasy time had ended. Now he had to face reality.

The interior of the glorified trailer gave an indication of the kind of people who lived there. The plastic strips that covered the seams reminded Cullen of band-aids hiding blemishes. A bland layer of thin plastic also covered the walls in place of real wallpaper, increasing the feeling of sterility. His foster mom, Trudy, could literally sponge down the walls to clean them, which she often did—or had Cullen do.

The décor was somewhere between the charmless Americana of country living and the rigidity of a deeply religious home. On the top of a cabinet that held an old fashioned TV was a pair of hands, pressed together in prayer. Another set of hands sat next to it, a plaster cast of a very large hand holding a very small one mounted on a piece of marble. A small gold plaque nestled in its ivory base read: “Dad & Son, Richard’s 1st Birthday.” That was Rex’s real name—Richard, but he had gone by Rex since before Cullen’s arrival. On the other side of the praying hands, past a paste tiara, stood what looked like an open ceramic book. The poem “Footsteps” trailed down one page in its uneven lines, and a picture of a footprint-speckled beach covered the other.

Several pictures of Rex growing up through the years and pictures with his parents, Frank and Trudy, dotted the walls. No one but Rex looked particularly happy in the pictures. Rex didn’t look happy, so much as pleased with himself. Frank and Trudy always smiled, but there was no happiness in their eyes. Instead, their eyes betrayed two miserable people keeping up appearances with their empty grins.

The modest sofa had an intricate floral pattern in pastel colors. A matching floral arrangement blossomed in the center of the coffee table. The flowers looked so real, only a touch would betray their bogus blooms. Frank’s dark brown recliner ruined the otherwise sterile cheeriness of the room.

The family sat at the dinner table in the kitchen. They didn’t have a separate dining room, something Trudy often complained about. She wanted to entertain, and she would yell at Frank for not making more money. Frank would coldly remind his wife that no one liked her, so who would she entertain? Then she would pour herself some of her “ginger ale.” Everyone knew what it really was, but you never told her. No, that would just make her even angrier, make her drink even more. When she was good and drunk and angry, she would get to preaching. Even Frank went out of his way to avoid that. She liked to drink her “ginger ale” from a martini glass, because it made her feel sophisticated. Cullen rarely saw her without it.

Frank worked long hours, though not long enough according to Trudy, at the local logging company. Fortuna had a huge logging industry, and Cullen believed Frank took special pleasure in cutting down the trees that had been alive for centuries. It was more than that. Frank was proud of it, saying it demonstrated the power and elevation of Man over all other life. Frank always got caught up in power struggles, and he didn’t let go easily. He was just like a bulldog. His sagging jowls gave him the looks to match.

The dining family all glanced up at him and then went back to their food. They continued eating as if he wasn’t there.

“Sorry I’m late,” Cullen said.

Frank grunted.

“You’re lucky you’re not any later,” Trudy said. “Dinner is almost over,”

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Cullen said, as he sat down at the table.

“Don’t forget to say grace first,” she added. “Be grateful to Him for your meal, even if you’re not grateful to us.”

Rex continued talking with an unfriendly sideways glance, as if Cullen had interrupted an interesting story. “Anyway, like I was saying, I tripped the little spaz. He actually started crying!”

Cullen took a small helping and put it on his plate. There wasn’t much left. He ate in silence with his head lowered. Rex roared with laughter.

“That’s nice, dear,” Trudy said, sipping from her martini glass, already a little too tipsy to follow the conversation.

“That will teach him, my boy!” Frank beamed. “He won’t be refusing to help you any more!”

“As if I need his stupid help!” Rex slapped Cullen on the head. “Not when I have my own nerd for a brother.”

Cullen just continued eating, silently.

Trudy chimed in, her words already slurring slightly, “Cullen, you help Rex tonight with his math.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Trudy turned to Rex. “We’re putting your costume together tomorrow, right?”

“Trick-or-treating is for kids, Mom,” Rex replied.

“You’ll have a great time. You always do.”

But all the kids he torments and steals candy from won’t, Cullen thought, knowing better than to say anything like that out loud.

“Alright,” Rex said with a sly smile, as if he could read Cullen’s mind.

“It’s a date!” Trudy exclaimed happily, sloshing her “ginger ale” on the table.

Cullen ate quickly so that he would be finished by the time everyone else began leaving the table. When they did, abandoning their dirty dishes without concern, Trudy snapped, “Cullen, clean the table and do the dishes.”

Cullen knew. He had had to clean the table every evening for six years now. Ever since he came to live with the Samuels. He gathered the empty plates and took them to the sink to wash them.

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