Short Story: Something To Do

Old fashioned steam engine train

Photo via Visualhunt.

The town looked deserted as it methodically swept past Thane’s train window. His face and hands were pressed up against the dark, cold glass as he tried in vain to see if anyone was out and about. No one was.

He slumped back into his seat completely bored. His governess was snoring softly next to him, and there was no one else in their compartment. Thane subconsciously kicked his feet as he looked around. It was a tiny space. A boring space. A brown, dull, baggage-filled space. There was nothing out the window to catch his interest and certainly nothing in the compartment, and he wasn’t allowed to leave to find something interesting elsewhere, not even to the dining car.

He dug around in his coat pockets, his fingers itching to find something to play with. When he found nothing, he rolled his eyes and sighed with his bottom lip pouted out, causing his fine blond bangs to flip up momentarily. He paused, then blew again. His governess had been mentioning hair cuts lately, but he kind of liked his hair this way. None of his friends could blow their bangs up like that, he was sure of it. Or at least, he had never seen them do it. Then again, they probably never had to sit on a boring train with nothing to do but blow up on their bangs either.

He crossed his eyes to look at his nose. Nope, nothing interesting there. He let his tongue slide out of his mouth to see if he could touch his chin with it. No, again. He flipped his tongue up to touch his nose. He stretched his tongue and contorted his face again and again, but he couldn’t get them to meet. So instead he wiggled his tongue all around while making funny noises and ended it with a wet raspberry. He smeared the back of his hand across his mouth.

Thane glanced up at his governess and noted she was still asleep. He sighed as he leaned against the wall and stared out the window again. Wasn’t there anything to do?

His eyes widened at a sudden thought: He hadn’t checked his governess’ pockets yet. Oh, he would get in so much trouble if she woke up with one of his hands still searching through her coat. But oh! What a game it would be; an excellent game—as long as he didn’t get caught.

Still against the wall, he let his fingers tip toe towards her. He slowly leaned forward as his fingers inched closer and closer. She was still snoring quietly, completely unaware of the situation.

Thane carefully undid the button on her coat pocket and lifted the flap. He wiggled his fingers inside and felt around until he touched something smooth and cold. He wrapped his fingers around it and gently pulled it out. It was a pocket watch. Thane didn’t know she even owned one of those, let alone carried one with her. He inspected it carefully with the eye of an explorer as he swung his feet back and forth. One of his shoelaces had come untied and was occasionally flicking at his leg, but he ignored it.

The gold watch didn’t have a chain, and the front covering had hundreds of tiny indentations that looked like swirly lines when he held it an arms length away. Thane brought it back up to his face. How did it open? The only ones he’d seen before had buttons that would pop it open when pressed. But there wasn’t anything like that on this one. Maybe it wasn’t a pocket watch after all. He shook it, but didn’t hear any rattling. He pressed it to his ear and squeezed his eyes shut. There was a faint ticking. Thane grinned as he opened his eyes. It was a pocket watch.

He nervously glanced at his governess again to make sure she was still asleep, and then turned his attention back to the watch. He was determined to figure out how to open it. He spent several minutes running his fingers over it and tapping or pressing certain places in hopes of finding the secret button. But when he still couldn’t figure it out, he started to get bored again. Why wouldn’t the stupid thing just open? Frustrated, he dug his nails into the side intending to yank the front off. Instead, it opened smoothly. Thane blinked at the open face of the watch. That was easier than he expected.

Now that it was open, and he realized it was just an ordinary watch, he snapped it shut and snuck it back inside his governess’ pocket. He had been hoping for something a little more exciting than that for all the effort he had put into it. Thane tiptoed around to the other side of his governess to check her other pocket. She stirred and mumbled something. Thane dove into the seat in front of him.

Getting caught could mean a week of staying indoors and no desserts after supper. Or even worse, he’d have to be “nice” and play dolls with his sister when he got home. He shuddered. He couldn’t imagine anything worse than that.

He sat with his ankles crossed and his fingers intertwined in his lap as his eyes fidgeted around the room. He was so bored! What he wanted to do more than anything was to get off the train and play outside. But he knew that wouldn’t happen.

Thane looked up at his governess again. She was still sleeping. He studied her face as he weighed his options. He could wither away with boredom while she slept, or he could have a little fun. If he had fun, he might get away with it, but she might wake up, too. Basically, it came down to dying, having fun, or his sister. He shuddered again as he moved back to his seat by the window. He stared out at the scenery for a while, but he couldn’t stand it for long.

He didn’t want to risk waking his governess up, so he decided to tackle her purse instead, which she had resting beside her. She often said a lady always keeps the entire world in her purse. If that was true, and if he was a real explorer, in what more convenient way could he explore the world than this?

He lifted the purse onto his lap and began quietly rummaging through the contents. There were pencils and paper, makeup, and some sewing tools. There were also several other things he had never seen before, but they didn’t look all that exciting, so he ignored them. He dug around a while looking for anything interesting and was about to give up when his hand touched metal. Confused, he lifted the object out of the purse and discovered a pair of scissors in his hand.

He looked at his sleeping governess and cocked his head to the side in thought. What could he do with these? He smiled mischievously. She’s the one who kept talking about hair cuts. Wouldn’t she be surprised to wake up and find that she had one? Thane covered his mouth to keep from giggling. Oh, this could be fun!

He put the purse on the floor and stood up on the seat next to his governess. He carefully lifted her large hat off of her head, and stifled a sneeze when a fat feather tickled his nose. He gently put the hat behind him.

Her hair appeared stapled to her head. She had dozens of hairpins tacking up coils of hair up off her neck and face, which had been hidden under her massive hat. After some thought, Thane decided to leave the hairpins as they were, rather than risk waking her up. He checked one last time to make sure she was still snoring before he started snipping the scissors through the coils. He cut each one twice—the large ones three times—but they were all still fastened tightly to her head with the pins. He gently placed her hat back on her head, and sat down.

Thane had barely put the scissors back in her purse when a loud horn sounded. They were arriving at the station! He shoved the purse next to the governess and jerked his hands back into his lap as her eyes fluttered open.

“What? Here already?” she asked. She yawned rather ungracefully. “Well, we’d best get ready,” she said as she picked up her purse.

It wasn’t long before they were on the platform with their luggage and their ride. As the driver shoveled the bags into his vehicle, the governess turned to Thane and said, “Now, wasn’t that a pleasant trip?”

He smiled sweetly and said, “Oh yes, Ma’am.” When she turned and walked away, Thane whispered to himself with a grin, “It was very pleasant, indeed.”

————

This was a story I wrote during college, over ten years ago. The assignment was to write a short story beginning with the line “The town looked deserted.” There are some changes I would make if I was rewriting this today, most of them involving pacing, but I still really like this naughty boy.

Feel like trying out the assignment yourself? Start with “The town looked deserted” and see where it takes you. We had about twenty or so students in that class and no two stories were alike, in spite of all of them beginning the same way. I believe the word limit was 1,500 words, since mine is only just barely under it.

I always write stories too long and have to trim it down to the word limit. How about you? Do you have to fluff it up to reach an expected word count or do you have to trim it down? If you’re the type who manages to write right on target, teach me your magic. Please!

Short Story: Doorknob

Pregnant woman in foreground, morose man in background

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Once upon a time—or rather, many times—I suggested carefully chosen lists of names to my husband for our expected baby. Each time, every name was turned down flat without even five seconds of thought. The due date was approaching and I was getting frustrated. This child needed a name, and yet not only was my husband turning down every suggestion I made, he also was refusing to come up with any of his own.

I finally sat him down one night and told him we HAVE to pick a name. If he didn’t like my suggestions, he had to offer some his own. It was only fair.

“Fine,” he said. He took a quick glance around the room and said, “Picture frame, Xbox, TV, bookshelf, book, table, chair, doorknob, telephone—”

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“You wanted names, I’m giving you names.”

I raised my eyebrows. “You would seriously name our child Doorknob?”

“If it’ll get you off my case,” he said and slumped back into his chair. His look was defiant.

“Fine, his name is Doorknob,” I spat before leaving for the kitchen. He was being such a jerk.

“Glad you like it,” he called after me. I heard the TV turn on.

I stood in the kitchen for several minutes, just stewing and yelling at him in my head. After I had collected myself a bit, I breathed deeply and thought, “Okay, then. Two people can play this game.”

* * * * *

The following Sunday, a friend at church grinned and said, “So! Have you two picked a name yet?”

“Yes, actually,” I said. I noticed from the corner of my eye that my husband looked at me. “We’re naming him Doorknob.” I smiled.

Our friend’s smile froze, and her eyes darted between my face and my husband’s, trying to guess the joke.

“He suggested it, actually,” I continued calmly, “He didn’t like any of the names I came up with, so when he finally came up with a few suggestions of his own, I compromised and picked one from his list that I thought I could live with.” I intentionally avoided looking at my husband, though I could tell from my peripheral vision that he was shifting his weight and staring at his shoes.

“Doorknob,” our friend said, still not believing. “As in, the handle on a door?”

“That’s right,” I said. I finally looked at my husband. “I liked it better than Table or Chair.” When he glanced up at me, I smiled sweetly.

My friend laughed, but it died off quickly when she realized we weren’t laughing with her. “Really? Doorknob?” She looked at my husband. “You suggested ‘doorknob,’ ‘table,’ and ‘chair’ for names?”

He scratched the back of his head and avoided eye contact with her. “Uh, yeah.”

“So, that’s that,” I said cheerfully. “Now that it’s decided we can stop arguing about it.”

“Well,” she said, looking unsure. “So long as you guys are happy with it. I guess.”

* * * * *

As we were driving home, my husband suddenly said, “That whole bit with the doorknob, very funny.”

“What?” I asked and looked at him. His lips were a tight line and he was gripping the steering wheel.

“You win; you made me look stupid. That’s what you wanted, right?” He glanced at me, then back at the road. “Naming the baby Doorknob was all my idea and you’re the martyr-wife who has to put up with me. I get it. You can end the joke now.”

Keeping my tone calm, I said, “I wasn’t joking.”

“Of course you weren’t,” he said with a sneer. “After suggesting Matthew or William, you’re suddenly okay with Doorknob of all things.”

“I’m not in love with it,” I said as I looked out the side window. “But you didn’t give me much to work with.”

“That list was crap and you know it.”

“I asked you in all seriousness to please give some feedback. A list of names you’d prefer since you didn’t like any of mine. You gave me one. So, I’m doing the best I can to compromise.”

“You—” he shouted, and then clenched his jaw shut and hit the steering wheel with his fist. He drove in silence for several minutes. “Fine,” he finally said. “Tell the whole world his name is Doorknob for all I care. But I know you won’t actually name him that.”

“I will unless we come to a different agreement,” I said quietly.

“Sure you will,” he said.

* * * * *

So, over the next few weeks, I did exactly what he said to do. I told anyone who was interested that the baby was going to be name Doorknob. My husband often stood by fuming, but he never denied it was his suggestion.

We got all kinds of responses. Some laughed, some didn’t. Many were confused. I had a couple of people pull me aside with serious concern, but no one could talk me out of it. I don’t know if anyone spoke to my husband about it, but he never mentioned it.

As time passed, he grew less angry and more sullen. As the due date approached, he even gradually came to accept it. The defiance was gone. The anger was gone. Doorknob was just what the baby’s name was. I was beginning to lose hope.

Were we really going to name the baby Doorknob?

Two days after my due date, my water broke at home. Once the contractions got close enough, we drove to the hospital and checked in. I labored there for another 14 hours before the baby finally made its way into the world.

He was perfect. His head was misshapen and his nose was squashed, but he was puffy and pink and slimy and all ours. A beautiful, healthy baby boy.

The nurses and doctor were giving us some space afterwards as I nursed the baby for the first time. My husband sat on a stool near my head and just watched us. Judging from his expression, it was in awe and in gratitude. At one point he put his hand over mine, which was on the back of the baby’s head—and I thought, “We’re a real family.”

Not long after that the medical staff came back in. My husband left with a nurse and the baby for the first bath, and I was stitched and cleaned up.

Apparently they asked my husband to fill out the birth certificate at this point, because when they wheeled the baby back in, my husband pointed at the name card at the head of the bassinet and said, “What do you think?”

It said his name was William.

Before I could respond, he said gently, “We can still call him Doorknob if you want. Or DK for short.”

I nodded, unable to speak. Then the tears fell. He sat on the edge of my bed and hugged me, and I sobbed into his chest.

“I love you,” he said into my hair. I cried loudly and gripped him even harder.

I knew he knew I meant, “I love you, too.” And, “Thank you.”

* * * * *

Hope you enjoyed this bit of fiction I wrote based on a comment I saw on a baby naming site. The woman was venting about her husband who wasn’t helping at all with names, and when pressed for suggestions started naming objects around the room.

It struck me as funny and relatable, since my own husband and I had struggled with names with our children. So, I started to write about what that woman must have been feeling… and before it knew it, this little story had tumbled out of me. (But please note, I don’t condone this kind of behavior. It just makes for an amusing story.)

What about you? If you’ve had kids, did you and your partner struggle to agree on names? Did you have a name picked out before the baby was born, or wait to choose from a short list after the baby was born? Both of our kids were a few days old before we finally settled on their names, since it was so hard for us to agree. Our second child’s name didn’t even come from the list we took to the hospital!

If you don’t have kids, what’s the weirdest name of someone you’ve met? (We’ve all heard the Internet’s list of Abcde and Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii, etc.) I met a set of siblings once who were named Serenity, Roman, and Talon. And another set of siblings named Princess Raven, Princess Safari, and Prince Apollo.

True story!

What is love? Wisdom for a new bride

A bride-to-be with her fiancé

Photo via Visualhunt.

In honor of Valentine’s Day, which is coming up in a few days, I’d like to share a speech I gave to my good friend at her bridal shower a couple of years ago. I hope these words, which have been edited slightly to fit the format of a blog post, will be able to bless you, too.

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

First of all, I’d like to say that I’m so happy for [the bride] and how God has led her to this point today. When [the maid of honor] asked me to share a devotional about marriage, my first thought was that I felt honored. The second was panic. How do you sum up all of the things you’ve learned or are still learning in five minutes? Not to mention I’m no marriage veteran. There are women in this room who have been married for more than 20 or 30 years, and I’ve only been married for 8 years. But I gave it some thought and realized the best wisdom I could share would be the lesson I’m wrestling with now.

So, here goes:

What is love?

The dictionary has a number of definitions, all of which are accurate but don’t completely sum up the abstract concept. And yet each one of us grows up to understand what love is, or love isn’t.

Or do we?

1 Corinthians 13:4-7 is a well-known passage for its description of true love. It’s become so familiar it’s easy to brush it off with a “yeah, yeah, yeah.” I was ready to do so, too, when it came up in my devotions near Valentine’s Day. But this time I decided to try to pay attention, though I didn’t think I would learn much.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

Turns out, I struggle to love my husband. It doesn’t seem that way. I still feel warm and gushy inside when I’m around him, and I love holding his hand or hugging him. I don’t find myself attracted to anyone besides him. I feel happy when he’s affectionate with me.

But sometimes when I’m chatting it up with other women, I air his dirty laundry. I don’t say it in so many words, but I know it sounds like, “Men. We women are so much better than them.”

That is prideful. That dishonors him.

Sometimes I’ll know that a certain undesirable chore needs to be done. But I also know that if I pretend not to notice and wait, he’ll do it instead without complaint.

That is self-seeking.

Sometimes I have trouble forgiving him for a mistake he’s just made because I know he’s done it before. And he’ll probably do it again, eventually.

That is record keeping. That is not trusting.

I’m learning that real life isn’t like the movies.

At 30 years old, you’d think I’d know that already. But it’s surprisingly easy to accept the world’s definition of love—butterflies in your stomach, a racing heart, eagerness to spend time with this person, feeling thrilled and alive when they do something special for you.

But that’s not love. That’s attraction. That’s feeling. While those things aren’t wrong to enjoy, they aren’t what marriages are made of. Love is a choice—a very difficult choice at that.

With that in mind, let’s read that passage again:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

I’m learning that if you regularly act in ways that Love is not, the truth is, you don’t truly love those around you, even if you say, “I love you.” This is not something the world will warn you about.

Now my husband, he’s not perfect. Though most days he’s a better husband than I could have ever wished for, there are occasionally days when I feel he doesn’t deserve my love. But when I married him, I made the choice to love him every day in spite of how I feel. That’s part of what “for better or for worse” means.

Love perseveres.

Choose to love him even when you don’t feel like it, not just when it’s easy to love him.

Love protects.

Make intentional choices to protect your marriage, whether the danger comes from the outside (financial difficulty, time stealers, pornography, criticizers) or from the inside (resentment, jealousy, selfishness, pride).

Love honors others.

Be careful in how you speak about your husband and how you speak to him. Show him respect.

This already gives us more than enough pressure to get it right, but verse eight just adds to it:

“Love never fails.”

Oh, how often I fail! And I’m sorry to say that you will, too. But if there’s anything the Ultimate Love, our God, has shown me, it’s grace. It’s mercy. It’s forgiveness.

What freedom!

We will continue to make mistakes. Probably more often than we’ll get it right. But we’re free to trust in the hope Christ gives us. By His example, I know we can learn to truly love. And I know we will be forgiven when we mess up, because love is patient and not easily angered. It keeps no record of wrongs.

[Dear bride], you will be able to truly love your husband because Christ first loved you.

That’s my wisdom for you. I hope it serves you well for many, many years.

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Whether or not you believe in God, does this advice resonate with you? What advice would you share with a bride-to-be? Any great stories to tell about Valentine’s Day? I’ll go first: The first Valentine’s Day my husband and I shared after we started dating, he gifted me with a hair dryer. I had made him a tiny book out of a deck of cards with all the reasons that I loved him—super sappy and not at all practical, which he didn’t know what to do with. I’m happy to say we’ve both learned to be a better gift givers since then, ha ha! What’s been a favorite (or well-intentioned but funny) gift you’ve received? Are there any gifts you’ve given that resulted in an unexpected reaction?

Writer’s block does not exist

Mindfully drinking tea

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Distraction exists. Fear of writing something stupid exists. Trouble narrowing one’s focus exists. Plot problems exist. Fear of success exists. Fear of the unknown exists. Mental exhaustion exists.

But writer’s block does NOT exist.

If you find yourself sitting down to write and staring at a blank screen or notebook, something specific is hindering you. The trick is to search yourself and figure out what.

It’s too easy to blame writer’s block, this great big smotherer that has blanketed your thoughts and frozen your fingers so that you cannot write. You’re paralyzed and it’s not your fault! You have writer’s block. You can’t help it.

It’s easy to find excuses. It’s hard to get to the root of the problem and find a solution. So, we hide behind “writer’s block” and don’t write.

Push through!

Or take a break. Whichever.

…Um, so which is it? Push or pull? The answer lies with you.

If it’s fear, you’ll probably be better off if you push through. Quiet your inner editor and just write. What’s the worst that could happen? You’ll have written something that’s not worth showing anyone. But is that so bad? You write to get better at writing. So, even if what you’re about to write ends up being garbage, you’ll have gotten some writing practice in. You’ll know for next time what does or doesn’t work. And you can legitimately call yourself a writer because you actually WROTE something, instead of just THINKING about writing something.

Writers write. If you don’t write, you’re not a writer, no matter how many good ideas you have.

Back to “writer’s block.” If fear of something isn’t what’s troubling you, what do you do? Say you’re distracted. Perhaps taking about 30 minutes to write down everything that comes to mind will help. Things like: I need to return my library books before I go home. Oh, and Susie needs to borrow my notes for the test next week. Did I tell Mom about that meeting after school tomorrow? I better check with her later. And I need to make sure my green shirt gets in the laundry so it’s clean for picture day. …except that I let my sister borrow it, right. Guess I’ll have to get that back from her first.

And so on.

After half an hour or so of getting all of the random bits floating around in your brain down on to paper where you know you won’t lose it, your brain will quiet enough to create. You’ll be free from distraction. And if while you’re writing you think, “Shoot, I need to call my classmate about that one project,” just add it to the piece of paper and keep going. You can deal with everything on the paper after you’re done writing for the day.

What if you’re exhausted? Your brain is so full, or you feel stretched thin, or you’re juggling so many projects you can’t think straight. Or you’re just plain tired and need a nap.

Then do so. Sleep. Or get outside and take a walk. Get a cup of coffee or tea and mindfully drink it, thinking of nothing else but the smell of it in your nose, the taste of it on your tongue, and the feel of it going down your throat.

Then after your break—where you’ve intentionally not thought about writing, grammar, characters, plot points, deadlines, and so on—take a deep breath, and push on, as described above.

If you’re not tired, not distracted, love your story, but still find yourself procrastinating? (Most common form: “I want to write it but I just don’t have time!” but you have time to check your Snapchat and Tumblr.) That’s an obvious sign that something is not working in your story. Take the time to figure out what’s not working and how to fix it (even if that means scrapping something you’ve already written) so that you can’t help but write again. Words only stop flowing when you’ve got a problem—you don’t know what happens next, you’ve got a plot hole, you need to go back and change the protagonist’s point of view, etc.

Obviously these suggestions aren’t “one size fits all.” What you need depends on what’s stumbling you.

But one thing is clear:

Writer’s block, the hopeless condition in which you are unable to write and nothing can be done about it, does not exist.

You are in control. You must decide. Then you will be free to write again and won’t be able to stop.

What tends to trip you up? When you have trouble writing, what’s bugging you? For me, it’s usually a pretty even split between plot problems I haven’t noticed yet or fear of success. What if this gets published and, though I’m proud of it now, later I regret it? Sometimes I have to hogtie and gag my inner critic to get my words on the page. Anyone else struggle with this too?

Pursuing writing

Ready, set, go!

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It’s been a long time since I’ve written for this blog, but I’ve decided to take another stab at it! This time, my focus will be tighter. I’ve written a few random posts that were loosely tied together by the common thread of my New Year’s resolution for 2015, but it still felt a little directionless.

I’m starting over. I’ve decided to pursue my dreams of writing in earnest, so this will be my author blog. I’ve had a few things published—mostly articles and reviews—but since I haven’t published books of my own yet (just pieces included in other people’s books), I guess I’m more “writer” and less “author.” But I’ll get there. I’ve wanted to write novels since I was a teenager. I’m going to make it happen.

My plan is to update once a week. Once that feels comfortable and I have a routine down, I’d like to post more frequently, but I’m taking this one step at a time.

What have you attempted recently that excites you? Have you tried anything new, or something you haven’t tried in a long time?