For Black History Month 2021, I’ve curated a YouTube playlist and additional study resources that have been helping to fill gaps left in my public school history education.
Every video in it is associated with longer documentaries, films, podcasts, and/or books and audiobooks, as well as museums. The last video featuring Stanford Psychology Professor, Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt talks about what needs to be done to slow automatic bias within the brain.
Roughly organized along a historical timeline, the video collection includes the following topics; cotton and sugar industries, the New York Times 1619 project, early free Black communities, slavery, Reconstruction, The Lost Cause, lynching, policing, Civil Rights, Confederate statue removal, historic figures, and contemporary work on caste, racism, and implicit bias.
Make It Right (MIR) Project was a multimedia campaign from 2018 to 2020 dedicated to educating the public and strengthening the media capacity of the national movement to remove and replace Confederate monuments and memorials.
Before We Were Yours accomplishes something I relish while reading for pleasure – it taught me something. The story is about a Tenessee baby stealing ring, Depression-era shantyboat culture, and institutional mistreatment of children.
For me, the most intriguing storyline follows a riverboat family from the ‘before’ time. Descriptions of nature knowledge gained while living on the Mississippi River are lush and sensory. It reminded me of the next book on this list.
The heartbreak, terror, and powerlessness suffered by poor birth families taken advantage of while at their most vulnerable and children separated from loving parents, and further – siblings from each other – was worthy of the strong emotions it stirred.
This book strengthened my convictions about the support needed for defenseless populations and about prosecuting those who value money over humanity.
The “Marsh Girl” is an enigma in the backwater settlement closest to Catherine’s (aka Kya) home.
Abandoned by her mother, siblings, and eventually, by her abusive alcoholic father, the youngster navigates on her own through her teen and young adult years. She becomes an avid self-taught naturalist who delves into life the cycles of the animals and plants in her South Carolina marsh environment.
‘Fear of other’ and class bias causes her neglectful community to turn against her when the son of a prominent family is found dead.
Where the Crawdads Sing will delight natural history readers while highlighting the social and emotional damage caused by indifference and loneliness.
Shelley Buck’s contemporary memoir gives the reader a viewpoint of life on a houseboat in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Shelley is a dot.com spouse with a high school-aged son attending a financially challenged charter school. While developing her author career, she seeks out a creative housing solution in uber-expensive Silicon Valley. Her journey takes the reader into a fluid dock community, repairs and maintenance unique to houseboats, and waterfront real estate under constant pressure from developers.
Buck’s canine-loving and nature appreciating observations intermingle with poetic narratives and moments of anxiety as she navigates through her soon-to-be empty nest and approaching retirement years.
If your reading mood calls for nature and water and you’ve got emotional reserves to explore traumatic children’s issues, Before We Were Yours and Where Crawdads Sing are great choices. If you want an uplifting family saga fraught with kids, pets, and mechanical challenges, Floating Point should hit the mark.
Best Wishes for Compelling Reading!
For ten more book recommendations from a historical fiction author/ reader, visit World of Mailman.
Kristen: …one of those books you don’t appreciate when tasked with reading it in high school, but it takes on a whole new meaning when you read it as an adult.
Graphic Novel | Fantasy
Lisa: The Grim Reaper’s child doesn’t want to follow in Dad’s footsteps. Listed as an NPR editor pick, this was a surprisingly charming story.
Graphic Novel | Native American | Folklore
Lisa: This book was on my bookshelf when I started reading Crossing the Owl’s Bridge by Kim Bateman. I attended a lecture of Dr. Bateman’s at a writers conference where she spoke about using the trickster and humor in writing. It was a perfect compliment to her book.
Grief & Loss
Lisa: Through folklore, Dr. Bateman explores the grief process humans share across cultures and time. Contemporary grief client vignettes make this a timely read.
The love we have in a relationship doesn’t die with the body. It helps us heal.
I read this book as SARS-CoV-2 was breaking out. Bracing myself for difficult times ahead.
Mary: A true accounting of the lives of the daughters of Ferdinand and Isabella. Taken from their personal letters, court records and historical documents. An interesting perspective on somewhat unknown but important historical figures.
Peggy: True, inspirational, funny stories. Easy read, great if you need short, interesting, individual stories. Seems like it would be a great book to give as a gift to anyone. I might buy a hard copy (got it from the library)just to pass around.
Lisa: Inspired by true events surrounding a group of fourteen women who were emigrating to America from Lahardane in County Mayo, Ireland. Eleven from the group died in the Titanic tragedy.
Karen: Starts out around WWI time period and goes forward from there. Great details about young woman solving mysteries. There are fourteen books in this series!
Mystery | Detective
Mary read this book.
Nonfiction | Time Management
Lisa: Another timely topic – rethinking how we spend our time. Book Quotes: “In 1965 a Senate Subcommittee predicted that by the year 2000 Americans would work fourteen-hour work weeks. And take nearly two months of vacation time.
“Do not let corporate values determine how you spend your days and what your priorities are. You are a big-brained social animal currently constrained by unrealistic demands and expectations.”
For a reluctant, hold-your-breath-and-swallow type of shopper, the NPR Book Concierge gives me a reason to look forward to the holidays. It’s become my go-to place for every bibliophile on the Santa list.
Satisfied reading experiences bring good cheer well into the new year.
With the ability to filter titles by categories such as; Book Club, History Lovers, Thrillers, and Graphic Novels the site makes finding what you’re looking for easy. Book descriptions are concise, not more than a few sentences…and I enjoy reading them, often saving titles on other wish lists.
I do frequent the giant South American river online retailer, but I use Smile.Amazon.com to send a portion of the sale to a local nonprofit.
May this pointer make your holiday shopping more efficient and laser targeted.
Phineas Gage’s niece, Delia Presby (Shattuck) Oliver’s gravestone appears on Ocean Beach when heavy storms move sand out to sea. It was last uncovered on June 4, 2012. The lettering — still legible — reads; Delia Presby, wife of, F.B. Oliver, Died, April 9, 1890, Aged 26 yrs., 10 mos. 27 days, — Rest –
2022 Update & Personal Note: While researching a set of my previously unknown grandparents, I discovered that I also have family that was disinterred (from Oddfellows Cemetery) and moved to the mass grave in Colma.
Phineas Gage’s traumatic brain injury (1848) made him famous in the psychology and neuroscience fields.
After his death (1860), Gage was buried in San Francisco’s Lone Mountain Cemetery.
In 1866, Dr. Harlow, who treated Phineas after his traumatic brain injury wrote to Mrs. Gage, Phineas’s mother, inquiring about his former patient.
One thing led to another and during the following year, David Shattuck, Mrs. Gage’s son-in-law, along with two physicians (past city mayors), dug Phineas up.
Note: The image above, left is not David Shattuck. Photographs/ daguerreotypes could be found of David or his wife Pheobe. In the interest of storytelling, public domain images are used as representations.
On a misty morning in November, I found myself in the Lone Mountain Cemetery looking down at my brother-in-law’s tombstone. Doctor Coon and Doctor J.B.D. Stillman stood at my side, each with a shovel in hand.
Guards stood at the closed entrance gates affording us privacy.
Coats came off as digging commenced. At first, I felt that I was committing an unforgivable sin. But as my back strained and my hands developed blisters, those feelings subsided, until my shovel made contact with something solid.
The other two paused, nodding to one another, then resumed. Once space was clear, the two doctors were about to lift the coffin lid when I interrupted. “Wait! Gentlemen, please bear with my squeamishness. Before you open it, would you prepare me for what I am about to see?”
Doctor Coon looked uncomfortable. He glanced at Doctor Stillman who replied, “Why, David, you need not see anything.”
“No,” I disagreed firmly. “I promised my wife that I would follow it through to the end.”
“She never needs to know,” Doctor Coon replied softly.
“I’ll know. Please, just tell me.”
“Very well,” the man sighed as he wiped his hands on his vest, “By now, all of the body fluids will have dissipated. The clothing will be intact. Likely, dry skin will still cover the skeletal remains. Hair will be present.” Coon paused to see how I was taking it. “Shall I describe what we’ll do next and the skull removal process?”
Squeezing my eyes shut, I nodded.
“Once the lid is off, the first thing I will do is hand you the iron bar. Next, I will test the skull to see if it separates from the spine. If not, Doctor Stillman has tools for that. I will remove any organic matter that freely separates. Doctor Stillman will take the skull and place it inside the box.” Coon paused, waiting for my response.
“Understood. Proceed,” I said gravely.
It took all three of us climbing inside the hole to pry the lid up and place it off to the side. I was surprised to see Phineas’s body exactly as Doctor Coon described.
Mummified-looking remains wore Phin’s clothes. But it no longer looked like the man I remembered. When I hopped out of the hole, Doctor Coon handed up the bar. It was ice-cold to the touch, heavier than I remembered.
Not wishing to watch more of the proceedings, I held it up, running a finger over the words etched on its surface.
This is the bar that was shot through the head of Mr. Phinehas P. Gage at Cavendish, Vermont, Sept. 14, 1848. He fully recovered from the injury & deposited this bar in the Museum of the Medical College of Harvard University. Phinehas P. Gage Lebanon Grafton Cy N-H Jan 6, 1850
I remembered Phin’s story about the engraver he hired to do the work, misspelling his name. I could hear Phineas saying, ‘When mistakes are made, it’s the good man who doesn’t get angry, but figures out how to move forward from there.’
I chose to focus on memories rather than listen to the doctors going on about their ghoulish activity.
“Mission accomplished,” Doctor Stillman proclaimed loudly, breaking into my thoughts. He and Doctor Coon replaced the coffin lid. “Let’s get that hole filled.”
When we finished, Doctor Stillman offered to take the skull with him to process it for travel.
I promised myself at that moment, that ‘the skull’ would remain inside its box until it was delivered to Doctor Harlow. I didn’t care to, ever, look at it, or have any member of my family see it.
Without my noticing, a murky fog had rolled in. The city beyond the cemetery walls had been engulfed in a chilly, dull, gray blankness of a November day. Seagulls could be heard high above in the blue sky that must be up there. Our boot steps sounded muffled.
Doctor Stillman cradled the box in front of him like a wise man on his way to deliver a gift to the baby Jesus. Doctor Coon carried shovels and a bag of tools. I kept pace with the others, Phineas’s bar grew heavier every minute.
A raven landed on a tombstone nearby. It shrieked, raising its wings like it expected a token in exchange for letting us pass.
When the guards opened the gates, the metal hinges let loose a high-pitched protest. I wondered if the flaming gates of hell would sound that way if this deed took me to that entrance.
Worse yet, would Phoebe ever forgive me for this?
~ End ~
Note: The dialog is fictionalized, but the people, dates, inscription, activities, and results are factual.
Donner Mountain trembled when Nian woke. Yawning, her jagged teeth glisten in the light of the round moon as a frigid white wave churns down a steep slope, snapping pine trees like chopsticks. Hunger and the smell of sustenance drove Nian’s movements. In this strange land, she located a field planted with rotting young men. Close to the surface, one paw scrape revealed juicy carcasses she scooped into her mouth. Careful not to shatter bones, she sucks them clean, spitting out neat piles, ready for bundling and overseas transport. Nian senses anxious thoughts of people huddled like mice beneath the deep snow. All of them, save one, missing family gatherings and the safety they provide. As the year of the Rabbit ends, they ready supplies to defend themselves from the Nian.
Inside a rough wooden cabin engulfed by a thirty-foot snowdrift, Gee Lee pitched his bed covers. Delirious, he sought icy air to tame his fire. Once it touched him, he shivered, curling into a ball.
Foshan had been nursing bossy-man for three days, leaving their camp cooking to inexperienced hands. Foshan hadn’t seen Lee sick during the two years they’d worked at Donner Summit. Lee claimed his good health was maintained by a steady diet of Ginseng and mushrooms.
Time spent prepping food with Mr. Gee had been the best and worst of Foshan’s life. Two years older, Lee radiated confidence as he ordered supplies and advocated for spices from home. His management style was firm, yet respectful. The man was devoted to his wife, and their young daughter; he regretted not seeing his son born before he left.
Lee’s shoulders were wide, his grip strong, and his voice felt like velvet brushing over Foshan’s skin. Worst of all, were Lee’s knowing grins while he offered womanly advice. “If your female behaves like warm cheese, she will be receptive when you approach her for clouds and rain; remaining faithful to marriage vows keeps vices from enslaving one while sojourning.”
Laughing with him, Foshan replied, “Do you consider cutting the emperor’s sleeve a vice?”
“Making love to a man?”
“It satisfies the urges,” Foshan replied, his eyes bright.
As if seeing Foshan for the first time, Lee’s smile faded, “I know, but I could not touch a man the same way I touch my wife.”
Foshan’s hope plummeted. He held his breath while turning away so Lee wouldn’t notice his disappointment.
Across the ocean, Liu was thankful the village had emptied for the Spring Festival. Round and ripe, she needed to escape the confines of the house. Since she’d learned of her pregnancy, Liu stayed hidden while her sister-in-law, Ai, paraded in public with padding over her belly. Mama Gee decided that Liu’s baby would be raised as Yang’s son.
Her mother-in-law’s plan meant that Liu could prevent her husband from knowing her shame.
As tall grass brushed against her calves, Liu couldn’t help worrying about Mama Gee’s assumption. What if the child was a girl? Liu wished Nian would take it.
Going to their secluded warm spring, the place Lee first introduced her to the delights of the flesh, felt like another betrayal of the man she loved. But there was no other place Liu wanted to be, except with him on Donner Mountain.
Bathing Lee’s forehead and giving him tea wasn’t helping. For the first time since Lee had taken ill, Foshan feared that bossy-man might die. Even thinking this thought could attract the Nian!
During the latest storm, the tunnel between Lee’s quarters and the kitchen collapsed, cutting them off. No one had cleared it and Foshan wasn’t about to leave Lee to do the excavation. Their tiny room felt as far away as China, and as silent as a tomb.
Guangzhou & Donner Summit:
Mama Gee in Guangzhou and Foshan on the summit worked to guard their space.
Pulling red cloth from storage they hung it on walls and draped it over furniture. They fed paper money to hearth flames while praying to ancestors for protection.
Drawing in a breath, Nian tasted the smoky flavors. Donner Mountain quaked when she growled.
Lee’s mind was as untethered and as windblown as paper lanterns released to the night sky. As the ground shuddered, his thoughts settled upon the source of his misery. “Norden?” Lee muttered. “How bad?”
Foshan wrung out another cloth, laying it on Lee’s forehead. “It’s a dream, Mr. Gee,” or a nightmare, he thought.
Following a messenger, Lee struggled up through the snow shaft coming into the midday light. Unaccustomed to the brightness, his eyes streamed like a woman in mourning. Shouts from a distance drew him in their direction.
At the mountain’s peak, Lee saw the opposite hillside swept clean. Stacks of lumber, wagons, mules, wooden tunnel frames and cabins were gone. Silence, where there should have been hubbub, made Lee’s breath hitch. In the valley below, splintered beams poked through the remains of a frozen tsunami like porcupine quills.
Joining men racing to save survivors, Lee saw fingers, shaped liked unmoving claws, and bloody legs separated from torsos. If not for jewel-colored sparkles winking across a sugar-dusted expanse, Lee would have thought the debris field resembled destruction rendered by a Bei River flood.
Like a dog frantically digging for a bone, Lee’s hands gyrated as he screamed, “Yang! Yang!”
Grasping Lee’s forearms, Foshan needed Lee to understand, “It’s not real!”
Sobbing, Lee ranted. “You told me to protect him, to make sure both your sons returned.”
Foshan wiped Lee’s tears, trying to soothe him. His heart fractured a little more with every word.
“I failed you, Mother!”
Gentle hands stroking Lee’s neck and chest calmed him into sleep while his inner vision replayed the next scenes.
Skies cleared and the sun-warmed. Snow warrens cracked open, forming deep channels directing swift flows of spring run-off.
Every day, names of the dead were read after meals. Lee had known them all but the name he dreaded hearing remained absent. Could Yang have run away? Maybe he was lounging in an opium den in San Francisco?
When a messenger came to stand beside his butcher block, Lee placed his knife flat on the work surface, following suit with his hands. Leaning all his weight over his wrists, he bowed his head.
“You must come,” the man said while pulling at stitches on his hat.
For the first time, Lee wished he were on a tunnel crew, blasting holes in impenetrable rock or carrying nitroglycerin from Howden’s mixing station into the widening mountain gap.
Arriving on the scene, Lee saw his brother standing where they’d uncovered him. A hammer, clutched in his right hand, raised above his head while his left supported a beam. His eyes were open. There were concentration lines between his brows, he was biting his lower lip. If his skin were not gray, if his eyes not cloudy, and his clothes not sopping, Lee could believe Yang would continue his next action.
Lee rode in the wagon with Yang, watching his body relax. Holding his hand over his brother’s eyes until they warmed, Lee drew down his lids.
Remaining with him, Lee watched as they stripped his clothes, bundled him in coarse cloth, placed him in a shallow grave, and covered him with mud.
The enormity of being the last Gee left, solely responsible for his parents, their wives and children settled on Lee’s shoulders as heavy as any granite boulder pulled out of the tunnel shaft.
Not, since watching his wife from the boat deck, growing smaller and indistinct, had Lee yearned for her with such power. “Liu, Liu,” He crooned, reaching for her, weeping.
A Wife’s Comforting Touch
As if summoned by the water gods, Lee opened his eyes to see Liu floating before him, her hair loose, suspended around her head, her face showing a mixture of confusion and pleasure. Lee ran his thumb along her cheek. Opening his arms, she came to him, pressing herself against his chest, wrapping her legs around his waist.
Burrowing his face against her neck, it didn’t occur to Lee that breathing was unnecessary.
When Liu first dove into the pool, she was startled to find her husband. Believing it was a visitation beyond the grave, she was paralyzed. But when she felt his touch, when she saw his wounded expression, and heard his voice in her mind saying, Yang is dead, she knew it was something else.
Clinging to him, she didn’t notice her stomach was flat.
Do you remember the first time I brought you here? Lee asked.
You said the water’s buoyancy would allow me to control the pain. Blowing bubbles, Liu’s eyes crinkled at the edges with her smile.
Liu grinned, reaching down, she took hold of his rigid shaft.
At her wifely greeting, Lee bucked, sending a milky spray into the water. When he was capable of communication, Lee apologized, I dream of pleasuring you with exquisite leisure, my Willow, but I’ve been without you so long I lost control.
And I…. Liu, hesitated, remembering what she had to hide. Leaning in, she pressed her lips to his, Hold me!
They caressed and kissed, muscles tightening and releasing, as fluid as octopi in a coupling ballet. They repeated ravenous acts of love until contentment cocooned them like mists over mountain tops.
Floating with Liu’s back pressed to Lee’s chest. Lee unhurriedly caressed her. Mother will be devastated when she learns she’s lost another son, his thoughts said.
Yes, Liu agreed. YOU must return to me, I wouldn’t want to live without you!
Never say such a thing! Our children need you, I need you. Lee’s strokes moved down her torso.
Liu could feel the change in his body when his hands discovered something unexpected. Stiffening, she realized her encumbrance had reappeared. Ripping herself from his hold, Liu broke the water’s surface, inhaling an anguished lungful of air.
Following the Year of the Rabbit
Lee also jerked to wakefulness, squinting as his cabin came into focus. Still reaching for his wife, he called groggily, “Liu?”
She was sitting at the end of his bed, rumpled bed sheets draped around her hips. Her long hair cascading over a shoulder, the curve of her back glowed in the firelight.
“Come back to me, Love,” Lee smiled, holding out a hand.
A volley of firecrackers detonating outside heralded in the year of the Yellow Earth Dragon.
When his partner faced him, Lee’s afterglow erupted in a white, hot flash of fury.
Frightened by the noise and explosives, Nian retreated to the shadows. Licking her jowls, she sighed. Frozen, sweet corpse flesh appeased her gnawing hunger. Inhaling a mother’s excruciating grief tasted of fish roe, salty splashes of placental fluid exploding under her tongue. Two new purple feathers appeared in Nian’s mane. Betrayal and forbidden desire tasted of savory dumplings, a satisfying sticky lump, swallowed whole. Fresh yellow feathers appeared, gleaming in the lunar light.
Leaping into the heavens the monster followed the year of the Rabbit around the globe until reaching the South China Sea.
Settling into her underwater cave, Nian let the tropical warmth lull her into a restful year-long sleep.
Based on Chinese New Year legends and records from the Donner Summit Historical Society many elements are cultural and nonfictional.
Monster embellishment is an author vide! My additions to Nian include; her hibernation and feathers, her effect on snow slides, and her hunger for death and betrayal.
The title for this piece is a wordplay on “Cut Sleeve” a Chinese narrative about homosexuality written by Pu Songling in the seventeenth century.
Setting – Donner Summit 1865-1869. A harsh mountain environment near Lake Tahoe where railroad construction crews work 24/7 blasting tunnels through granite outcroppings and laying track. Winter storms drop between eighteen to twenty feet of snow. Avalanches claim lives; bodies, not recovered till spring thaw, are found with tools still clutched in hands.
Gee Lee – Chinese immigrant working as a camp cook for the Central Pacific Railroad. Lee embraces family obligations, toiling to send money home to improve impoverished living conditions. Dreams of returning to his lovely wife and young children keep Lee motivated.
Wèi An – Lee’s wife and mother of his two children, a daughter, and a son. Plagued by her controlling mother-in-law, Liu spends most of her time outside, working in the rice fields. Violated by a district official, she is now confined to the house.
Gee Yang – Lee’s older brother. Yang is charming and fun-loving; gambling and opiates have a magnetic appeal. He enjoys being away from his mother’s influence and is pulling away from Lee, who keeps reminding him of his responsibilities. He’s moved from working with tunnel gangs to constructing wooden show sheds at Norden.
Tang Ai (Eye) – Yang’s wife, mother of his daughter. Yang and Ai’s union did not produce a male child before he left for California. In this, Yang neglected his duty to the family. The couple discovered that living in the same house amplified their cantankerous relationship.
Gee Pei (Pay) – Matriarch of the Gee family, mother of Yang and Lee. After losing her oldest son in the Opium War, Pei sold her daughter-in-law and granddaughter to finance a California sojourn for her younger two sons.
Foshan – Lee’s Donner Summit kitchen assistant. He is named for his birth town in China. An orphan, Foshan plans to seek employment in San Francisco once his railroad job concludes. Foshan is wildly in love with his bossy-man.
Jaingshui – A reanimated corpse that hops. A Jaingshui is created when a Chinese person dies away from home and is not buried with his ancestors. Like the western vampire, the Jaingshui searches for life-energy (qi) to consume.
Nian – Chinese lion monster whose name means ‘year.’ Nian grows a unicorn-like horn and collects feathers in her shaggy mane. The monster hibernates in the sea or under mountains for eleven out of twelve months. The weather worsens when Nian wakes to hunt, during February’s new moon. On the menu; infants and children, crops, farm animals, early death, and betrayal.
Most of the girls Haylee’s age started getting their periods at thirteen. Haylee was well aware of this because those who were, “on the rag” didn’t have to shower in gym class. It was almost an honor and a sign that a girl had moved into womanhood.
When Haylee turned fourteen and was practically the last girl not to have gotten her period, her schoolmates started talking about it.
At fifteen, still periodless, and showing no signs of physical maturation, the gym teacher called Haylee into her office and started asking embarrassing questions. Mortified, Haylee quietly informed the teacher that the women in her family had always been very late bloomers — she was grasping at straws — and that she was sure that it would happen any day.
The teacher, who was quite fond of the quiet, intelligent girl, looked doubtful. She empathized with Haylee’s discomfort, and she knew that with Haylee’s mother gone, the girl probably had no one to confide in. “Haylee, I’m not trying to embarrass you. It may be true that you are a late bloomer, but it could also be that something’s wrong, like a hormone imbalance. I’ve discussed it with the school nurse and —”
“How could you talk about this with someone else? It’s none of your business!” Haylee shouted. She felt as if she had been kicked in the stomach. Tears welled up in her eyes.
“It is my business, Haylee,” the teacher replied sadly. “Teachers have a responsibility to look after the welfare of their students. If it appears that a parent is neglecting —”
“What? You’re saying my father is doing something wrong because I’m not…” her brow furrowed. Haylee searched for the right words,“…growing up?”
“This is important, Haylee. You are not progressing normally; I have to call your father to make sure you see a doctor.”
“No! Just leave me alone and stay away from my father!” Haylee yelled as she practically jumped for the door. She felt trapped and needed air.
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Even before her talk with her gym teacher, Haylee had wondered if there was something wrong. At first, she was convinced that she had cancer eating away her insides, keeping her from growing. As she got older, she worried that she had a congenital disorder that stunted her growth.
Not long after what Haylee thought of as “The Big Period Incident,” she ordered herself a bra through a catalog and started stuffing herself. She also became an expert at avoiding gym class.
Despite her worries, Haylee stayed balanced. She enjoyed learning and took pleasure in her classes, easily outshining the other students.
When all of her chores on the farm were done for the day and she’d fixed her father dinner, Haylee would go outside and climb up on the old tractor. It sat rusting behind the barn. From there, she’d watch the sunset
The cool, evening air, as it caressed her face, had her smiling. She thought about how much she loved caring for their pigs, chickens and horses. The pictures and thoughts that they shared with her made her feel accepted as part of them. They saw her…really saw her. This was something that Haylee desperately needed.
֎ ֎ ֎
Seventeen-year-old Haylee was sure that she had a migraine, even though she’d never had one before. The excruciating pain started at her temples and radiated out like pinpoint pricks of burning sparks that crackled through her bloodstream. With eyes squinted into slits, Haylee, had to draw in deep breaths to keep her stomach contents where they belonged. Haylee gently managed the half-mile walk from the bus stop to her house.
The cool interior darkness that enveloped her as she crossed the threshold offered a fleeting sense of relief. Within moments, she was clammy and trembling again.
She held onto the walls to make her way to the bathroom. Once there, she let her book bag drop and crawled like a suffering supplicant toward the porcelain deity. After twenty minutes of dry heaves, she thankfully welcomed its cool countenance along the side of her face as she crouched there, embracing it for another ten minutes.
When it appeared that her world had ceased its sickening gyrations, Haylee gingerly moved a few inches to test her theory. I think it’s getting better, she thought. Although the agony persisted, the nausea had lessened.
Stooping carefully to retrieve her bag, Haylee didn’t bother to glance in the mirror as she shuffled toward her bedroom. Returning shortly in her bathrobe, she reached into the shower to turn on the hot water. If she had not been so preoccupied, she would have been shocked by what the mirror revealed. Dark hair hung limply around an ashen face. Her lips were gray. Her straight, angular body had become more rounded.
Shakily, she stepped over the edge of the tub. The cascading water soothed her, but only temporarily. Lost in a dull haze, but not knowing what else to do, Haylee stood there, eyes closed, remaining as still as possible.
At some point, her father started knocking on the bathroom door. Feebly, she responded. She was relieved when he finally left. Long after the water had turned cold and the house had become silent, she stepped out of the shower.
Laboriously, she slipped on her robe. The mirror reflected even more startling changes. Her hands and arms had begun to take on pronounced lines. Her neck, shoulders, hips, and legs had developed a graceful quality. The hurt she experienced blinded her to all else, but somewhere in the back of her mind, it registered that her robe was too small.
Without turning on the lights, Haylee went to her room. Feeling for the electric blanket controls, she cranked the heat up to high. Crawling under the covers, she curled into a ball.
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Frequently, with only the hum of appliances and the ticking of the clock for company, Haylee wished that her dad would linger for breakfast ─ but not today. She was grateful that he had left at first light. Rushing to put on baggy sweats, she raced to the kitchen driven by fierce cravings. She was ravenous!
Barely able to contain her desires, she opened the refrigerator and grabbed the first thing her hand landed on — milk. After a half dozen lusty swallows, the empty carton landed with a dull thud in the middle of the kitchen floor. Empty cheese wrappers followed by cold cut wrappers, mayonnaise, mustard and ketchup bottles, an empty pickle jar, Tupperware containers that had held Tuna Helper leftovers, a tray from what was left of a pineapple upside-down cake and an empty egg carton were added to the pile.
Haylee paused to survey the bare refrigerator shelves for anything else of interest. A deep burp, that tasted like mustard and tuna, bubbled up her throat. Not a bad combination… Haylee rejected the horseradish and jalapeno condiments. Resting one hand on her stomach while wiping goo from her face with the back of the other, Haylee thought. I don’t feel like puking after eating all of that! Another belch erupted, followed by more hungry gurgles.
Haylee began riffling through the cupboards next. Soon the plinking of empty tin cans sounded as they hit the floor. With a glassy look in her eyes, she licked food remnants from the dirty dishes in the sink. Consciously, she had stopped herself from tossing the Corel plates and bowls into her heap. Although the advertisements claimed that they were unbreakable, Haylee knew this was not true. Everything even remotely edible that could be gleaned from the trashcan was added to the increasing refuse pile in the middle of the room.
Haylee took a deep breath and sighed. She wandered over to the couch. What a relief not to feel starved! Her head barely landed on the cushion before she fell fast asleep.
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Something roused her from her nap shortly before her dad was due to come in for lunch. Yawning, Haylee sat up, arched her back and stretched. She opened and closed her mouth, testing it’s parched, cottony texture. Cupping a hand over it, she expelled hot breath while taking a whiff to see if it smelled. The scent of fish, sour milk and onions made her frown. Thinking that she needed to brush her teeth, Haylee stood up. It was then that she noticed the state of the kitchen. “Did I do ALL that?”
It looked like a cyclone had gone through and pulled everything out of the shelves except for the plates, glasses, and silverware. A tingling underneath her skin had Haylee absently scratching her extremities. Something else felt funny. Reaching up to her chest, Haylee found sensitive mounds that filled her hands. She pulled the neckline of her sweatshirt away so she could look inside, “Holy!….” Her heart pounded as she explored that rest of her new contours. With a sense of wonder and delight, Haylee let out a sigh. So I was right!
Her eyes darted back to the mess in the kitchen. Dad’s going to be here soon! Leaping into action, she pulled out a roll of garbage bags. Haylee began shoving loose items into them. In under thirty minutes, she’d filled five! After hauling the trash bags outside, she returned to mop and wipe down the counters. At least, it smells fresh, Haylee thought as she surveyed her handy-work.
֎ ֎ ֎
The slam of the screen door announced her father’s arrival. He was greasy from crawling around under the walnut shaker. Not saying ‘hello,’ he paused at her side, took a quick sniff, raised his eyebrows, then continued striding toward the kitchen. Hesitating, he turned back, “Aren’t you supposed to be in school today?”
Knotting her fists in the fabric of her sweatshirt, Haylee hid most of the stains from her recent activity ─ as well as a few other developments ─ “Ahhh….. I wasn’t feeling good, so I stayed home.”
“Huh,” Eugene muttered before turning around to continue. Haylee held her breath as he reached for the refrigerator door.
“Aw, crap!” his voice sounded hollow coming from inside the appliance. “I don’t have time to go shopping today.” He straightened and looked at Haylee. “How can we be completely out of food?”
She smiled sheepishly, “A couple of friends from school stopped by to bring my missed assignments. They were hungry, so I told them that they could raid the kitchen.”
Nodding, he sighed. “They did. Going to have to wait till tonight before I can run into town. Make a shopping list?”
“Sure.” Haylee wondered how he could so easily accept her made-up story.
“I’ve got some beef jerky in the truck. Want me to bring you some?” he asked as he breezed past. The screen door slammed again before she had a chance to reply.
“I’m feeling better, Dad. Thank you so much for asking.”
֎ ֎ ֎
That night, Haylee slept fitfully. A headache had started again. By midnight, she was curled into a ball, feeling nauseous and dizzy. What’s wrong with me? her mind screamed.
After spending more than three hours in agony and terror, Haylee’s body suddenly jerked as a piercing, sharp pain ripped through her abdominal area. With swelling eyes, she opened her mouth to scream and found that she couldn’t breathe. Her heart was pounding so hard and fast, she thought it would burst. She panicked and clawed at her throat, leaving angry red marks. Her eyes rolled back in her head.
Sometime later, she roused. The pain was still with her, but she was able to move. She noticed that her legs felt warm and slippery. She reached over to turn on her bedside lamp. Looking down, she was horrified to find that she was lying in a pool of blood. Inhaling a shaky, ragged breath, her throat constricted. Daddy, …please help me, I’m so scared.
After a struggle, Haylee managed to get herself onto her feet. She could see thick ribbons of dark red snaking their way down her legs. “Daddy,” she croaked, starting to weep. Holding onto the furniture and swaying, Haylee slowly inched her way to the bathroom. Once there, she collapsed unceremoniously into the bathtub. Sinking into a blessed darkness where the pain didn’t follow, Haylee felt sure that she would never wake up.
Usually a heavy sleeper, Eugene woke with a start. A glance at the clock on his nightstand told him the time was 4:00 a.m. Fuzzily, he wondered what roused him. A strong smell of gardenias brought him fully awake. He wondered if it was left over from a dream he’d been having about his late wife, Doris.
He fumbled for the switch on his bedside lamp. Temporarily blinded by the illumination, Gene’s eyes squeezed shut. He scrambled to put on his clothes.
Flipping on the hallway light, he immediately spotted the dark pools of liquid and what looked like dragging footprints on the floor. When it dawned on him what he was seeing, Gene’s heart thudded. “Jesus in Heaven!” he muttered as he ran down the hall. Bursting into Haylee’s bathroom, Gene took in the scene.
His daughter lay in a heap in the tub, looking as white as a corpse. The bottom half of her nightshirt was soaked with blood, and her legs were smeared with it. “Haylee!” he cried. A fresh, steady stream was pooling and dripping down the drain.
Falling to his knees, he grabbed her shoulders. “Haylee! Haylee! Can you hear me?”
She was limp. He felt for a pulse. It was there, but it was fast and weak. Reaching for a towel, he stuffed it tightly between her thighs to stanch the flow. Gently gathering her up in his arms, Eugene ran to his truck, saying all the way, “Dear God, I beg you, please don’t take my girl away from me too!”
Stretching Haylee out on the bench seat, Gene cradled her head in his lap. With unsteady hands, he struggled to put his key in the ignition. He looked at them and saw them covered with blood. It was almost his undoing. Closing his eyes, he told himself that he had to stay calm.
Arriving at the hospital, he raced around the truck to scoop her up. The towel he had used to staunch her bleeding was soaked through. “Argh!” he exclaimed. Hastily, he ripped off his shirt to replace the sodden towel. When they burst through the emergency room door, Gene’s eyes were wild.
Immediately, Haylee was whisked away. Gene made a move to follow, but a nurse blocked his way. He would have fought to get past her but stopped when she told him that if he wanted to help, he would have to stay out of the doctor’s way.
Looking down, he saw a petite, redhead with intense blue eyes regarding him. In a firm but hushed tone, she said, “She’s in good hands.”
He nodded, “She has to be alright.” His voice was strained.
The nurse directed him to a quiet, empty treatment room where she had him sit on a table. Coming back from closing the door, she brought tissues, rubber gloves, and moist towels to clean him up. As she reached out to hand him a tissue, she found herself caught in his grasp. He pulled her close and laid his head on her chest. His large body shook with deep soul-shattering sobs.
Gene realized his tears were more than just fear of the danger that Haylee was in. They were self-loathing for ignoring Haylee after her mother’s death, and dread that he would never have a chance to tell her he was sorry.
֎ ֎ ֎
Feeling euphoric, Haylee noticed a light, floating sensation. Hearing muted voices, she struggled to become fully conscious.
Her dad’s face came into view. She wondered why he looked so tired. There were deep lines on his forehead and around his eyes.
He reached out to brush the hair off of her forehead. Seeing her eyes focus on him, he turned to speak to someone. “I think she’s coming around.”
A woman’s face appeared. A bright light was directed in one eye and then the other. The woman spoke to Gene. “She’s stronger.”
Haylee could hear muted voices from a distance. Then her father was back. His hand felt warm and strong when held hers. “Haylee, do you know where you are?”
Frowning, she moved her head slightly. “You’re in the hospital. I brought you in early this morning.”
Closing her eyes, Haylee nodded.
“You are going to be just fine.” He rubbed her hand. “You need to rest. Go back to sleep. I’ll be right here.”
֎ ֎ ֎
Sitting in a chair next to her, Gene watched his daughter. For the first time, he noticed that she was looking a lot like her mother. Now, instead of cringing, that thought brought on a resigned smile.
Gene could tell that the doctor felt uncomfortable informing him that, “The only thing we can determine at this point in time is that she was having an unusually heavy menses.”
Dr. Lester was a tall, dark-haired woman in her fifties. “Her bleeding has stopped on its own. She appears to be out of danger, but I’d like to keep her for observation.”
Gene pushed the doctor for answers. With a few short, icy words, she told him that they would do everything they could.
Feeling unsettled but relieved to have made it through the crisis, Gene returned to Haylee’s bedside.
֎ ֎ ֎
When Haylee woke the next morning, that insatiable hunger had returned. Confined in a situation where she wouldn’t be able to satisfy it, she began to panic. She had to get out of there!
Between nursing shifts, Haylee asked her dad to go buy her a magazine. As soon as he was out the door, Haylee was out of bed and buttoning his jacket up over her hospital gown. Peeking into the corridor, she waited until it was clear. Spotting a laundry cart, she grabbed it and wheeled it away while searching for a sign that would direct her to the staff locker room.
In street clothes, it was easy to exit the building. Once free, Haylee ran, and ran, and ran. She made one stop, in a dumpster behind a grocery store. Hunger satisfied, for now, she burped forcefully. Her hands hurt ─ they ached deep down in the joints and had begun to feel hot. Making the decision not to worry over, yet, more weirdness, Haylee resumed her run.
In her front yard, Haylee stretched, feeling abundantly strong and powerful. There was another sensation there also, something strange and different. She couldn’t put her finger on what it was. Just then, a bug landed on her arm. When she moved to swipe it away, she heard a —thwap. She stared in astonishment. There was webbing between her fingers! She wiggled them noticing the increased resistance. She flicked the other hand—thwap! Now this hand had the webs too! They glistened and sparkled. When the webs were out, she felt a potent energy humming just below the surface of her skin, as if it were waiting to burst forth.
She flicked both hands at the same time—thwap! The webs were gone! She practiced making them appear and disappear until her fingers grew sore.
֎ ֎ ֎
Her dad had let her wear some of her mother’s clothes since none of her own fit anymore. Wearing a halter dress and sandals instead of jeans, cowboy boots, and snap-up shirts, Haylee’s classmates didn’t recognize her when she returned to school.
Speaking to no one in the corridor, Haylee shyly met many of the eyes trained on her. She saw interest in the boys’ faces and looks of scorn on the girls.
When she answered, “Here,” to roll call in homeroom, silence fell as everyone turned in her direction. Scrunching down as far as she could, Haylee shut her eyes and willed everyone to stop gawking.
Regaining his own composure, the teacher cleared his throat, “Well, Haylee…you are looking well. I mean…did you have one of those glamor make-overs?”
The highlight of Haylee’s day had been Curtis ─ a boy she’d loved since fifth grade. He’d never looked twice at her. Recently broken up with his latest in a long list of girlfriends, he’d sought her out. “I heard that you suddenly turned ‘hot.’ I had to come to see for myself.”
Thirty minutes later, he’d asked Haylee out for her first date.
֎ ֎ ֎
The night was clear and the stars twinkled brightly as Curtis drove his Ford pick-up. Haylee sat close to him on the bench seat. She willed herself to relax. When he turned the truck onto a deserted levee and parked about a quarter mile off of the main road, Haylee’s heart began to beat quickly. She could feel herself starting to perspire.
“This is my ‘getaway’ place. I’ve never brought a girl here before,” he said as he hopped out of his door.
“Oh,” Haylee responded, feeling pleased.
Holding hands, they walked a little way. Turning a corner, they came upon a train track that went out over a trestle with the river flowing below. Helping her onto the railroad ties, they sat down on a rail. Curtis fished a couple of pennies out of his pocket showing her that the two coins had the current year. “I thought we could put them on the tracks to have the train fuse them together so we could remember our first date,” he explained as he put them in place.
Haylee was touched. “How nice!”
He leaned toward her to plant a soft kiss on her lips. It was over before she realized what he had done.
“We’ll have that memento before too long,” he whispered. He returned to kiss her again. This time lingering and gently coaxed a response.
Small rumbles began then, in Haylee’s core and the ones on the tracks.
Haylee was so absorbed, that it was a few moments before she realized that Curtis’s hand was on her breast. Shocked, she moved so she could push him away. Tearing his mouth from hers, Curtis whispered, “Don’t!”
Wedging her arms between them, Haylee complained, “Let go!”
Curtis held her tightly, “Relax. I won’t hurt you.”
Haylee could hear annoyance and frustration in his tone.
“I said stop!” she yelled. On its heels, another wave of quivering radiated through her middle, stronger this time.
“What the….?” Curtis said.
The train lights appeared a few miles out. Curtis jumped to his feet, pulling Haylee with him as he started walking quickly toward the river.
“Where are you going?” Haylee asked. Her voice was several octaves higher than before.
“Kick off your shoes,” he directed as he kept tugging her onward. The ground beneath them dropped away as they started across the trestle.
Bending over to grab a shoe in each hand, Haylee could feel herself trembling. Glints of moonlight undulated on the surface of the water.
Jumping from railroad tie to tie, they jogged between the iron tracks. Curtis urged her to hurry. Looking behind them, she saw the train approaching ─ fast!
“Curtis!” she shrieked.
Run!” He clutched her wrist and squeezed. He smiled with a wicked gleam in his eye.
Haylee’s heart hammered wildly. The tracks shook. She pulled her arm away from him, so she could focus on running.
The sound of the high, plaintive whistle was ear shattering. Curtis laughed, but Haylee couldn’t hear it.
They were about twenty yards from the far edge of the bridge when the train rolled onto the trestle. Running for her life, Haylee screamed. Adrenalin effectively masked the tremors that had her quaking from the inside out. The heavy rumble from the massive amount of iron and steel breathing down their necks had Haylee thinking about how her dad would feel when he found out how she had been killed. Haylee was preparing for the impact when she was roughly yanked at a right angle. She went flying, before tumbling down a grassy embankment.
It took a few moments to realize that she was still alive, that she had stopped moving, and that the engine and its cars were rolling past them. Nothing appeared to be broken. A white-hot anger flared up. Locating Curtis, she crawled toward him. He was laying on his back, laughing and shouting about how great that was!
Cursing, Haylee hit him with balled fists.
While holding her hands, he dragged her over to him and began kissing her. She struggled. He rolled on top of her. Between wet kisses, he kept repeating, “You are so awesome!” Curtis held her in place while grinding his hips into her pelvis. Haylee could feel his excitement.
The vibrations within Haylee intensified. Something shifted in her mind.
She ceased to be afraid. A foreign desire had taken over. It was something that didn’t care about boys with busy hands and dangerous senses of humor. It didn’t care about the physical act of intimacy. It wanted something much deeper than that.
Haylee lay beneath him, unnaturally still.
Curtis noticed that the fight had gone out of her and paused to look. Alarmed at what he saw, he rolled off her.
She sat up abruptly, considering him with a steely gaze.
Unnerved, Curtis scrambled to back away, he looked all around as if searching for an escape route.
Haylee stood up, still holding his eyes with hers. She unfastened her belt, letting it drop. In one simple movement, she removed her dress. Clad only in her underwear, Haylee wasn’t shy or embarrassed. “Is this what you want?” she asked in a slow, sultry tone.
Curtis couldn’t take his eyes off her now. He inhaled deeply, nodding. His breath caught in his throat, he reached out, bringing her to a kneeling position. He began kissing her again. Haylee did not resist. She made encouraging sounds. She did not want to frighten him again.
His hands roamed in places that would have had her fighting against him if she’d still been in her right mind. Greedily, Curtis clawed at her clothing. When Haylee felt the hooks of her bra let loose, she violently flipped him over.
An ‘oof’ escaped him as he slammed against the ground with a thud. With a detached point of view, like she was watching someone else, Haylee observed as her fingers, the webbing, in particular, molded themselves perfectly around the contours of his face.
Struggling furiously, Curtis tried to peel it away. His eyes bulged as he battled using every ounce of strength to save his life. The more he thrashed the tighter the webs adhered.
Witnessing the gruesome process was fascinating. As was the fact that it barely took any effort to hold him down. At the moment that Curtis accepted his fate, Haylee closed her eyes.
A feeling of indescribably sweet euphoria filled her. Infused with a glowing liquid light, all tension dissipated. With sparkling eyes, Haylee raised her weightless gaze to the stars. The webbed hand that had been bonded to Curtis’s mouth and nose released. Slowly and delicately, she lifted it away. She took a deep breath and stood—stretching languidly. In a daze, Haylee stood up and walked around to get used to this new sensation. Her lungs filled and expanded with breaths that drew in more air than she ever thought possible. Her thoughts came as swift as lightning. This is what all the strange things were leading up to!
After a while, Haylee wandered back to where Curtis lay, pale and trembling. Her eyes grew wide as she realized that she now knew a lot of things about him.
A surprise — since he always seemed so cool and confident — were the many nights he’d spent alone and afraid in an empty house when he was too young to fend for himself. His parents drank too much and fought too viciously. A distasteful look crossed her face when she learned that he planned to have sex with her and then describe it in graphic detail to his buddies at school.
Haylee dressed slowly. When she finished, she stood over him, watching. His pink skin glowed against the dark grass. He squirmed weakly reminding her of a maggot removed from its food source. How did I ever think that I loved him? she wondered. Haylee picked up his clothes and threw them in a heap near his feet. “Get dressed!” she demanded. When there was no response, she squatted next to him, shaking his shoulder. “Put your clothes on!”
He turned toward her. Haylee was startled to see the look on his face — or rather, the lack of a look on his face. It was as if he were asleep with his eyes open. In that instant, she understood that he was a shell emptied of its contents. Those…were now inside of her.
Haylee realized that he was not capable of putting his clothes on without help. Muddling through that awkward task, Haylee got him to his feet and tugged on his hand. His mechanical actions smoothed out and began to look almost normal once they got going. She led him back across the trestle.
On the other side, Haylee relived those awful moments running across the bridge and the shock of what she’d done to him.
Reaching the spot where he’d placed the pennies, her eyes scanned the area. Not far away, they lay on the track, blended together into one. Haylee picked up the fused metal. Her first thought was to put it in his pocket, but then she changed her mind.