Working Title (Or Complete Lack Thereof)

I may have mentioned that I want to write a book. Well, suddenly and without warning I found myself writing one.  It just...sort of...happened. I'm not exactly sure where it's going - or when - all I know is that it's happening. And I wanted to share it with you.

(And please - please - let me know your thoughts.)



The dream is always the same: My children are running through the vineyard in the late summer. Hiding behind the rows of grape trees, darting in and out, filling the soft summer air with the sound of their laughter. Their hair is wild and perfect and their eyes are full of light. Full of life. I run after them, through the vines, in between the rows, allowing myself to be infected with their contagious joy. I call out to them but they don’t hear me, they never do.  Suddenly their laughter softens and become distant – as if it only exists in a vacuum. The sky in the distance darkens and fills with smoke. I start to scream, my eyes searching desperately for the girls. I see only shadow. I’m frantic now, I can’t find them. I don’t know where they’ve gone. The sun is setting behind me and the smoke in the distance is growing and blanketing the hills in its smothering embrace. I run over a ridge and see my husband standing there, staring right at me. I exhale a sigh of relief and wave. I call out to him, but he doesn’t hear me. He’s looking past me at something in the distance. I turn, and see the girls just as they run past me towards their father, racing hand-in-hand, smiles still spread wide across their perfect faces. He lowers as they jump into his open arms and turn away from me, toward the darkness, the smoke. The fire. The sound of childhood hangs thick in the clear air behind me and the sound of their laughter echoes through the hillside. I keep screaming “Stop! It’s burning! Stop! Don’t go into the smoke!” But they don’t stop, they never stop. Always they disappear into the darkness.  I stand there until the smoke draws closer and I start to choke, ashen tears stinging my eyes and staining my cheeks. I keep screaming their names until I have no breath left. Until I see the flames and feel the heat. Until I’m staring directly into a wall of fire and in it, behind its evil flames I see them, all three of them, standing there smiling. Happy.  I scream until my voice fails. Until I can no longer see them waving goodbye.

I wake up drenched in sweat, clutching the pillows as if they are somehow tethering me to reality. I gasp for air, struggling to fill my lungs and numb the ache that their absence has left. My eyes desperately search the darkness for a trace of them- somewhere, anywhere. Reality creeps slowly into my consciousness and a new wave of sorrow washes over me.

They aren’t coming back.

They aren’t ever coming back.

I fall back into my pillow sobbing, wounded, exhausted, and drift off to a restless sleep. Flashes of headlines from the weeks following the fire, “Many Still Missing.” “A Nation Mourns” “Finding Hope Among the Ruin” play alongside images of my children on the day they were born. My husband and I on our wedding day, our first trip to California, the girls at the beach, eyes full of sunshine and wild flowers in their hair. I see the day we bought that little house in the hills and in an instant the image is gone, replaced instead by the pile of ash I found after the fire, when we were finally allowed back in. I see the men in yellow hats driving heavy machinery and clearing debris. I remember the women in their clean, bright Red Cross uniforms handing out water and kind words, and faceless neighbors that help me sift through the ash, as I dig desperately, frantically, for some semblance of the life I had so quickly, so abruptly just lost. I keep digging until I find it; A part of us. Of them. A token. Something . Anything…

 Some nights I escape the nightmares and I dream about the fire itself; The way the trees and the houses and the hillside caught like gasoline drenched tinder –the fire carried into infinity by the warm Santa Ana winds. I watch as the breeze quietly carries the flames  into the bedrooms where my family lay sleeping. Beautiful. Perfect. Alive. I watch it caress the landscape and light the sky. Licking upward in spurts and sputters of white and red and gold. I stare in awe as it peacefully and majestically devours everything in its wake – quietly destroying hundreds of lives and thousands of acres in a span of mere hours. Dawn rises as the fire draws its final breath and I am standing on the edge of the hillside staring into a vacance so wide that the only thing left is nothing.


“I am going to New York! That’s all there is to it.”
I slam the door and fling my body onto the bed. I bury my face in the pillows to muffle my angry, frustrated scream. I roll to my back and look around the room. The familiar floral wallpaper, a bookshelf packed thick with a lifetime’s collection of literature and journals, shelves of vintage dolls and knickknacks – all reminiscent of a simpler time in my life. A time when the hours were spent chasing after frogs and the neighbors pesky cat. Reading on the hammock in the vast expanse of yard in the front of our home, swimming in summer ponds with my girlfriends and daydreaming about what it would feel like to fall in love.  A time when these walls didn’t feel like a prison. When they weren’t so stuffy and suffocating and closing in on me.

I hear my mother softly coming up the stairs. She pauses when she reaches the door and stands there so quietly I swear I can hear her thoughts. A soft knock, and the door opens without waiting for an invitation. She looks at me, eyes pleading, and starts “Tenny, darling, please. Don’t go. I need you here. I can’t bear to lose you, too.”
“This isn’t about you, Mother. You’re scared, I get it, but this isn’t about you, or what you have lost. This is about me now. This is about my life, and my needs.”
She paces around the room and pauses to run her fingers along the base of one of my porcelain dolls. She straightens the doll’s dark curls and traces the creases in her velvet gown, studying her.  “Scarlett O’Hara.” I offer.
“Your doctor doesn’t think you should be leaving yet. You’re starting to make progress,” she says, ignoring my attempt to change the subject.
“I’ve been stuck between this room and that goddamn talk-to-you-until-you-feel-better doctor’s office for over six months, Mom. The only progress I’m making is that I’m no longer spending all of my waking hours in a fetal position. I’m pretty sure even Dr. Phil could recognize that’s not actual progress.”
“No – I mean –I just meant-maybe this isn’t the best time for you to be going.“
“I know what you meant, mother. And I don’t care. I am going to New York. I am going to start over.”
“But Tenny,” she starts. “They are your children. You need to be here.”
“They were, mother. Past tense.”  I’m screaming now, tears falling down my cheeks as the sobs build heavy in my chest, “Goddamnit Mom, don’t you get it!?!? They are dead. The girls. Graham. All of them. They are gone and they are never coming back.” I look at her, the anger in my face unmistakable and pointed. Her lip is quivering, and the tears in her defeated, sad eyes are threatening to spill over.
I sigh and pat the bed next to me. She sits and lets her shoulders fall as she takes a heavy breath, trying her hardest not to let me see her cry. I take her soft, delicate hand in mine and turn towards her. As I examine the lines in her skin I notice just how quickly these last few months have aged her and my resolve weakens. I see clearly the sorrow in her face, and it’s as if I’m staring at my own reflection.
“I can’t live like this anymore, Mom—trapped in a mausoleum of their lives. Everywhere I go they are all I see. This place – it’s too familiar There are too many stories here. Too many memories. I need to get away. I need to start over and make new memories – ones that they aren’t in. I need to start living my story.“
She pulls her hand from me and stands. “Fine,” she says with another sigh and she turns to leave.
“Mom, wait, I-“ but she’s out the door before any more words can escape my lips.

I finish packing and glance out the window. Suddenly it’s Christmas and the hill just off the front of the house is covered in a fresh blanket of white. I see the girls barreling down the hill on their new sled, Graham taking up the rear to ensure top speed. All three of them are laughing, the girls squealing with absolute delight. Whenever they come to me like this they are always so happy. I shake free the memory before it swallows me and force myself away from the window.  I slam my suitcase shut and head downstairs. My father is sitting in the kitchen reading the paper. He sees the luggage and looks up at me with a start. It’s obvious that my mother didn’t tell him the news. “Hey Pops,” I say with a soft sorrow in my voice, not unlike my normal tenor of the past few months.  “So I’m going New York. Brooklyn, technically.”
“I see,” he says, not looking up from his paper. He pauses, sips his coffee, then sets his paper down and folds it neatly in front of him.
“Look, Dad, this is something I just gotta do-” I start.
He stands up and wraps me in his arms, midsentence. “I love you Ten,” he says. “You deserve to be happy. Go find it. Go find you.”    
I bury my face into his neck, breathing him in, and wrap my arms around him tightly. He smells of old paper, coffee, and leather. I force myself to hold onto this scent, to barricade it in the part of my brain that I can access without the risk of suffocating in sorrow and falling apart and squeeze him harder. “If you get lost along the way, kid, if you stumble, don’t stop,” he says. “Keep going, you hear me? Keep searching. You’re out there, Tennyson. Your life is out there. Go live it.”
“I will, Dad,” I answer back. I open my mouth to promise, but the sobs finally break free from my chest and I choke on the words.

My father finally releases his comforting hold on me and lets me go. I wipe the tears from my eyes, kiss him softly on the cheek and turn towards the door. “I want you both to know how very much I love you, and how sorry I am. For everything,” I offer. It’s the only version of an apology I have to give them – and I know it’s not enough, not even close.
“We know, Ten,” my mother says softly. “And we’ve told you a million times, there’s nothing for you to apologize for. The fire wasn’t your fault. If you were there, you’d be gone too.” She comes to my side and turns me towards her. The tears have overflowed now and are streaming down her cheeks. “I am so happy that you weren’t there, Tennyson. So unbelievably happy.” She wraps her arms around me in the first embrace we’ve had since before the fire, and in that instant I’m suddenly seven years old. My body softens as I melt into her and the sobs start again, so fiercely this time that I’m afraid there are going to break me into a million tiny pieces.

After what seems like a lifetime, my mother releases her embrace. We are both still crying though our tears have long since dried out. It takes me a moment to collect myself, and when I finally have, I look into my mother’s eyes and see her for the first time in months. I can see her pain, her heartache, her desperate desire for me to be and have happiness, and I sigh. She returns my gaze, smiles, and gives me another hug, this one quick and to the point. “Why is it we always understand each other better when words aren’t getting in our way?” She asks.
A sudden lightness comes over me, and before I know what’s happening I begin, “Um....’cause you kind-of sort-of really suck at words, Ma.” Just then a sound escapes my lips that, though barely audible, can almost be considered a laugh.
“Well, I see you’ve fixed your sarcasm transmitter, so that’s a plus” she retorts.
“Guess I was wrong about that whole not making progress thing, huh?” I say. It feels good bantering with my mom again. We haven’t done this in ages and she always was my most worthy opponent when it came to a battle of wits. Suddenly I hear a chuckle from behind us.  In one fluid movement, as if our heads are on opposite ends of the same axle, my mother and I turn to look at my father. His hand is cupped over his mouth and he’s suppressing a laugh. “What about this is funny to you, Pops?” I ask, eyebrow raised, a playful smirk on my lips.
“Well, Ten. I don’t know how to say this, but, uh, you two look like you’ve been beaten up by a pair of drunken hyenas.”
“What sort of thing is that to say to your daughter, Ben?” My mother retorts, playfully.
She brushes the hair out of my eyes then holds me at arms length to examine me, looking to find some shred of proof that my father is incredibly incorrect. Without warning she starts laughing. It’s been ages since any of us have heard such a hearty, full, happy laugh. “Actually, we look like a pair of drunken hyenas,” she says as she attempts to regain her composure.
“Speak for yourself, Mom,” I say, poking her. “I look amazing after a crying jag. After all, this is totally my new look. I’m thinking of making a YouTube video on how to get the  ‘Girl-Who-Lost-Everything-Tragically-Chic Look.’ Maybe It’ll be called “TragChic”. I’ve always loved a double-entendre. I think it’ll catch like wildfire.” The room is silent and the mood changes so suddenly it’s as if someone flipped a switch. This is how it’s been since I came home. The mention of certain things: children, husbands, fire, suddenly became taboo. It’s as if everyone signed some secret code that they wouldn’t talk about anything that might upset me, anything that might make me remember what I’ve lost. As if I could somehow forget. The tension is palpable, and we all stand there in silence. As if we are playing a game in which the first person to speak loses. I clear my throat, straighten my hair and stand up. I head toward the door, grab my tan trench coat off its hook and fold it over my arm.

The suffocating summer heat is still lingering but the night holds the promise of cooler air. Breathing air. I pick up my bags and as I reach for the door my father calls out, “Tennyson, wait!” In a moment he’s there, holding the door for me as the warm air rushes into the cool of the house. He takes my bags and walks me to my car. He puts the bags in the backseat and watches me solemnly as I climb in. “Look, Dad, I’ve gotta get going,” I say in a half-assed attempt to ward off whatever fatherly advice is inevitably coming my way.
“I know, kid. I know. I just – I wanted to tell you that I’m proud of you. I want you to know that you’re brave as hell and that, well, that I love you.”
“I’m not brave, Dad—“
“Don’t interrupt me, Tennyson, dammit. You are brave. And maybe, hopefully, going to New York will help you see that. And maybe it’ll help you see that life isn’t wrapped up in a pretty little box. It’s messy. And hard. And it’s really fucking unfair, Ten. And wow, does it hurt sometimes. But it’s also wonderful, okay? Even after all of this, it can still be wonderful. They were your life, Tennyson. And they’re gone. But you...well, you are not. So don’t be afraid to live, okay? Don’t be afraid to dream.”
“Like you were, Dad? Afraid of living your life, of being a writer, so you sold out and joined the family firm?” I lash out at him.
“I wasn’t afraid, Tennyson. I did what I had to do,” he replies, dryly, an edge to his voice.
“Oh that’s right, my mistake. You just had to give up on your dreams.” I’m being unfair and I know it.
“I didn’t give up anything,” he sighs, as if I’m a toddler and he’s explaining something he’s already explained fifteen thousand times. “I simply traded my old dreams for new ones. Someday, you’ll understand that. Someday you’ll know.” He steps back from the car and into the shadow of the night.
His voice betrays him and I can detect a catch in his throat, a rasp in his usual crystal baritone, “Dreams are true while they last, Ten.”
I stare at him through the darkness. Moonlight reflecting off his features making him look like a young man again.  “And do we not live in dreams,” I whisper too softly for him to hear. It’s Lord Tennyson, his favorite poet, my namesake, and the same phrase he’s repeated to me my whole life. The phrase I made him promise never to say to me again.
“Dreams don’t last, and I’m living proof of that.” I throw back. “But you want promises, fine. I promise you that I will do exactly as you’ve asked. But not because I’m brave.”
“Oh, Tennyson. If only you—“
“This has nothing to do with courage because there isn’t anything for me to be afraid of.”
“I know, honey I just—“
“Don’t you get it, Dad?” I shout. “I literally have nothing left to lose.”

I start the car and slowly pull out of the driveway, watching my father’s silhouette as it disappears in my rearview mirror. As soon as he’s gone the tears pour down my cheeks and I let out sound so painful, so raw it actually hurts to be released. The trees whiz by in a blur and I’m on the interstate before I know it. The concrete stretched out before me glows in the moonlight like an industrialized yellow brick road. If only I were headed to Oz. I chuckle to myself at the thought of Munchkin Land, which instantly makes me think of the girls. As if it by reflex, or pure defense mechanism, my hand reaches for the radio.  I crank the music loud enough to sufficiently drown out my thoughts and I drive off into oblivion.


  1. Wow! You sure know how to capture an audience! Next chapter please! Love it!

  2. That was a great read. Very rarely can I get sucked in to something within in the contents of the prologue and first chapter. VERY well written. I do hope you continue. I agree with Theresa...NEXT!

  3. I want to keep reading, Athena. You immediately engage the reader. How talented you are.
    But, don't share your whole book with your admirers. Choose a couple and keep them close to heart. I may just have the perfect editor to guide you in this process. When the time comes, and if you want, I will talk to him.
    Incredible work!