The Current Project

Even if gender identity was a choice, no one has a right to force you to choose. Lily’s father needs to learn that lesson. Now, if only Jo can teach it to him before someone dies.

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When Backstory Comes Forward

“WESTMONT HIGH SCHOOL” The words engraved in plaster above the door drew Lily’s eye as she walked up the front steps.

Her heartbeat sounded loud as bass drums in her ears. The voices of the other students were a slow motion wave of sound both garbled and hostile. Their bodies a blur as they rushed past. Their glances foreign and invasive.

This dream scene from Cry Baby Cry actually started out as a backstory I wrote at the beginning as I was getting to know Lily better. Go read the original post HERE if you want to see what it started out as.

A hand grabbed her, some boy’s arm encased in a red and yellow letter jacket. “Hey. Who are you? You don’t belong here.”

Lily squeaked, ducked, slammed into another body. Smaller hands gripped her arms, gentler hands.

“Whoa there.”

The girl’s eyes warmed her like blue flames. The hallway had emptied out.

“Slow down, new girl,” Jean said, and smiled.

Chaos swirled to a halt and Lily could breathe again.

“Jean,” Lily said. “Jean.”

Relief swept over her.

“No, silly, it’s Bella. Remember?”

They were standing by the side of a swimming pool. Bella’s breasts pushed against the Hawaiian print blossoms of her bikini top. The cleft between them, shadowed like a chasm between snowy mountains, drew her fingers toward them.

The Sins of the Daughter

Lou ran a hand through his hair, causing the short strands to stand up even further. He had failed his Lord. That is what bothered him, more even than the threat of being reported to the police.

I was having a hard time writing one of Lily’s scenes and realized it was because I needed to know more about her father, so I decided to write a scene from his perspective.

Their cause was righteous, therefore God would protect them. The Lord had laid this mission upon his heart, to save these misled sinners and set them on the true path. But how could he be forgiven the sin of his failure to save his own daughter from the mouth of hell?

He dropped to his knees beside the couch, head bowed, clasped hands pressed tightly to his forehead. “Please, Jesus. Grant me the wisdom and courage and strength to do what must be done to save my grandchild. Forgive me for my failure with Lily. Thank you for bringing Martin to my aid. Without his support and guidance, I would be lost. A lamb caught in the brambles, Lord. But thou art my shepherd, I shall not …”

Since Lou Beckett is not one of my point of view characters, this will not appear in the book in this form, though the information contained within it will come out in one way or another.

The prayers continued long into the night, until Martin returned and found him there. Startled, Lou looked up when he approached.

“Is it done?” Lou asked.

“She has agreed to our terms.” Martin dropped down onto the couch and placed a reassuring hand over Lou’s clasped fingers. “She will come with us when we talk to the Bernabi’s.”

Lou, still on his knees, could smell on Martin traces of blood and sweat and semen, their weapons against the wages of sin. His joy nearly overwhelmed him. God always provided, as Martin had preached last Sunday.

He leaned forward eagerly, then hesitated. “How can we be sure she will say what we tell her to? What if it is a trick to try to escape again?”

“Zara Rose is important to her. She would not risk her life again. But—” Martin rose, began unbuttoning his shirt as he walked across the room. “If she tries to double-cross us, to tell them anything she shouldn’t, we shall be very disappointed, won’t we, Lou?”

He stopped and turned, his shirt unbuttoned, his belt pulled from its loops. He continued slowly. “We … shall be … so very … very sorry that her soul has been lost beyond redemption. And we will tell Gemma and Carl that the liar we brought to them is a warning, an example of what could happen to their own daughter if they do not permit me—us—to show her the error of her ways.”

Martin’s somber face, the intonation of his voice, the tall, erect posture, reminded Lou so much of his father. A man who had ruled his family with an iron fist and the holy cross of Christ. A man who would not have failed.

Lou stood up, his resolve strengthened, his faith restored. They would not fail, either, praise the Lord. If he could not save his daughter, he would, by God, see that the girl’s sickness was not passed down to her offspring. Lily would not spread the seeds of sin like her mother had.

“Now.” Martin turned away again. “Let me shower and wash that bitch’s smell off me and then we will sit down and talk about our next move.”

Jo Likes Tequila

“He makes my skin crawl.” Why had she told Lily that? Jo poured another shot of tequila and sprinkled cinnamon on a slice of orange. Keisha’s breakfast nook was already littered with a half dozen naked strips of orange peel, flecks of cinnamon dust, and a quarter-sized puddle of spilled Don Julio.

Jo is not me, the author, although all my characters have traits I can relate to. However, I had fun making tequila Jo’s alcohol of choice because it is mine as well. Especially with cinnamon and oranges.

“Bottoms up,” she told Topaz as she licked the cinnamon, swallowed the alcohol, and bit into the orange. “Mmmm. Better than salt and lime any day.”

The cat blinked, bored, and licked the pads on one paw. She’d been sitting on the chair opposite Jo for the last half hour, watching her every move like a feline federal judge about to pronounce sentence.

“I’m only over here because it’s unhealthy to drink alone, you know,” she told her inquisitor. Then, noticing how slurred her words sounded, she added, “Shit. I better stop now or—”

She lost the thought, ate the rest of the orange pulp, and reached for another slice. Sans tequila this time. “Pace yourself, girl.” She picked up her phone and squinted at it to read the time.

Midnight. Jo spend a good ten minutes trying to figure out how that translated to Keisha’s time zone, gave it up and dialed her anyway. Topaz made a poor substitute for a best friend.

“Hello?” The groggy answer told Jo that no matter what time zone she was in, Keisha had been asleep.

“Sorry to wake you,” Jo said. “But it’s your fault really, for not teaching your cat how to talk.”

“Jo? You drunk, woman? ’Course you are. What time is it? Oh Lord, really? What’s going on? You okay?”

“You kidding? I’m great. Now, anyway. I made an ass of myself earlier today. Yesterday?” She pulled the phone away from her face to check the time. “Yep, yesterday.”

“What did you do this time? You didn’t call your boss a dick again, did you?”

Jo snorted. She’d been a reporter—barely a reporter, a gofer, really—for a short time at the renowned Chicago Tribune but had given that all up when she told her boss to get his fat hand off her fine ass.

“Nah. Nick’s not interested in my ass. Yours neither. Now Kevin Costner’s ass, that he could get behind.” She suddenly realized what she’d said and started laughing hysterically at her unintentional joke.

“Get some sleep, Jo. When you start thinking you’re a comedian you’re way past your limit.”

Maddy’s Place

There was a knock at the door, two taps, that was all, and the door opened.

Maddy’s Place is a fictional shelter, but there are real shelters serving as havens for single homeless parents. These minor characters are also fictional, but they reflect real kids I knew when volunteering at the Open Door in Chicago.

“Not allowed to have the door closed during the daytime.” A girl around Lily’s age with skin shining like brown satin stepped one foot into the room and looked around. “Don’t make no sense. Might’s well play with yourself during the day as at night. But them’s the rules irregardless. Come on, then. Supper time soon. How about bring the little one down to meet the crew? She look like she needs something to do anyways.”

Then the stranger turned and walked off down the hall, leaving Lily’s door wide open.

Sure enough, Rosie was awake, looking around the small crib like she, too, wondered where she was and what was going to happen from here.

When Lily and Rose went downstairs, however, the only thing that happened is she interrupted an argument over what TV show they should be watching.

“Lay off, you two,” said the girl who’d opened Lily’s door. “Let the new girl decide. You wanna watch?” She scooted over on the couch to make room for Lily. A toddler, about one maybe, scooted with her, watching Lily with wide, white eyes, two fingers plugged tight in his mouth.

“What’s your name?” The girl asked when Lily sat. “I’m Sugar and this here little ragamuffin—” She teased the little boy at her side by tickling his ribs until he pushed her away, giggling. “This is Ty-baby. My little Tyrone. It’s his birthday tomorrow. He be two years old soon, won’t you Ty Ty? Huh?”

The toddler nodded then hid his face against his mother’s boobs. He turned enough to peek one shy eye at Lily, then buried himself deeper.

“I’m Lily.” She glanced down at the squirming bundle of baby in her arms. “This here’s Rosie.”

I deliberately picked Heather as a name because most people would suspect that to be an unusual one for a homeless woman, but throwaway teens come in all colors and from a variety of backgrounds.

“Lord, she cute. Hey, Heather, this one’s even littler than Popo. Come see. How old she?”

“Her name’s Pauline, Sugar,” a girl sitting on the floor said just as Lily answered with “She was born Friday.”

“I told you don’t call her Popo,” Heather finished, then added as she got up to coo over Rosie. “Three days? This little one is only three days old? Man, I don’t think Po— Pauline was ever this small.”

“Pauline ain’t no kind of name for a baby,” Sugar said. “Who names their baby Pauline?”

“It’s my grandma’s name, I told you. Now leave off.” Heather gently touched Rosie’s soft hair and then let the baby grab the tip of her finger. “Pauline’s five months. Been eating rice cereal for a week now, greedy little thing.” She smiled when she said it, though.

Lily looked for Pauline, but the only other people in the room were a young girl in an arm chair staring at Judge Judy on the television, and a three-year-old playing with blocks in a corner.

“She’s with her Daddy right now,” Heather said when she saw Lily looking. “They’re supposed to be back by now, though.” She glanced at the clock above the doorway and straightened up, clasping her hands.

“It’s only five after, girl, stop worrying so much.” Sugar turned to Lily. “Her ex is one jumped-up bastard, you ask me. Hit her so hard she lost a tooth. That’s why she here. He got supervised visits, though, once a week with the little one.”

She turned her attention to Tyrone, who had wiggled down from the couch to walk stiff legged over to the toys in the corner. The little girl playing there swatted at him and said, “No.”

“She yours, too?” Lily pointed to the three-year-old, who was trying to keep Tyrone from knocking down her block tower.

“No, that one’s Jessie’s. Jessie, mind your little one, ’fore she— Oh no, you don’t, you little cannibal.” She jumped up to grab Tyrone just as the little girl tried to sink her teeth into his arm.

She slapped the girl, who started bawling, which brought Jessie, finally, into the conversation. An argument broke out between the two mothers.

“That’s Jessie’s little girl?” Lily whispered to Heather, who was pacing now and still watching the clock. Jessie didn’t look old enough to have a three-year-old.

“Yep,” Heather said, then leaned down to hiss in Lily’s ear. “She had Eva when she was only fourteen. She was raped, I heard, or molested. Something like that.”

The woman who had let Lily and Jo into the house stepped into the open doorway and looked over at the screaming match while she wiped her hands with a towel.

“If you think you can stop arguing long enough to eat,” she said, “supper’s ready. And, Heather, the social worker called. The Kennedy’s backed up by an accident. They should be here in a half hour, though. Nothing to worry about, okay? Come on now, y’all. Food’s getting cold.”

Heather followed the woman out into the hallway, trailed by Sugar and a protesting Tyrone. Jessie grabbed her daughter by the hand and practically dragged her across the room toward the door, muttering. As she passed, she gave Lily a dirty look, like the argument had all been her fault or something. Her words didn’t have anything to do with the fight, however.

“Whole place can go to hell. Go to hell like all you all’s. Only one bathroom upstairs for five girls and their babies. What’s up with that, huh?” She said bathroom like the “th” was an f.

Then she stopped in the doorway and looked back at Lily, her voice clearer, her dark pimpled face creased with hatred. “Don’t you think you’re safe now, hear? Ain’t nowhere safe in this fucked up world.”

And then she left Lily alone, alone and shaking as if the words had been uttered as a prophesy from God himself.

The Ugly Past Rears Up

What was it about Lily’s scream that had touched a raw nerve in her? Jo almost shuddered as she remembered. She’d been worried and anxious about Lily’s situation and her reaction to the subject of contacting her family, but that scream had taken Jo beyond those mostly detached emotions. The scream had shaken her—she tried not to think it, there had to be a better to way to say it, wasn’t there? But no, maybe not. Jo had been shaken to the core. A gut wrenching, tearing sensation that touched a nerve so deep she didn’t want to know where it came from.

Author’s Aside: The difficulty with character arcs that occur over several books in a series, is making sure that someone who picks up book four, say, without reading one through three, understands what’s going on, without sounding repetitious to long-standing readers.

Did it have something to do with her father? With why she couldn’t seem to let go of her distrust? She was reminded of a dream she often had: a young boy dead in the gutter of a dark street, hand stretched out as if reaching for rescue. Was there some deep dark secret memory she didn’t want to look at?

Then she realized Jack was standing there watching her with a line between his eyebrows that couldn’t have been any clearer if it had formed a question mark. How long had she been standing there struggling internally? She was losing it, for sure. And in front of Jack no less.

Jo smiled, a little, her gaze meeting his then away then back again. “Thanks, Doc, I needed that.”

She turned and walked back to the office, satisfied. Just the right mix of sincerity and humor, she thought. Confidentiality crisis averted; friendship saved.

Jack knew nothing about her father’s past and Jo’s struggle with it. Only Keisha was privy to that secret. But she’d almost told him when he looked at her like that, with the memory of his comforting arms around her.

Jo shook her head slightly and opened the door into the office. Someday. Maybe. Or maybe not.

The Dam Has Loosed!

Jo pulled Jack out into the hallway with a firm grip that left red prints on his forearm. When she saw there was no one else in the corridor, she put a hand on her hip and stabbed him in the chest with one finger.

Author’s Aside:
I have been struggling with the same chapter for about two weeks. Then suddenly when swimming today, this (and a bunch more) came flooding in.

“I know you’ve got rules you need to follow, Jack,” she said, seething. “And there’s good reasons for them, I realize that. If there weren’t rules, it would be too easy for assholes to really exploit these kids by pretending they were helping. But I say fuck those rules, Jack. Today I just want to screw all the rules and do the right thing. If you can’t get her into Maddy’s Place, then that’s fine. I’ll figure out something else. But they’re not calling her family, you hear? Please don’t let them do that.”

Then suddenly his arms were around her and she was pulled close to his chest. She stiffened at first, but he felt so good, he smelled so good—all man and dried sweat and some remnant of aftershave. And, God, he was a good hugger. Her arms were trapped between them, so she couldn’t hug him back, so instead she just let herself go, closed her eyes and let herself get lost in the hug.

It wasn’t a romantic embrace, although she’d imagined that happening quite a few times in the darkness of her lonely room at night. It was an “I’ve got you” hug, a “don’t worry about a thing” that was comforting and warm and believable. She never wanted him to let go.

He did, of course. After a long, sweet minute he pulled her away from him, just a little, his hands holding her arms. Were his cheeks flushed? They were. He kept looking away from her, too, like he was embarrassed to look her into the eyes.

Author’s Aside:
Yes, You’re right, I do see romance in Jo and Jack’s future. But that’s the good thing about writing a series. You can take your time with some things.

“Thanks for doing that, Jo,” he said softly. “For calming her down like that. That girl—” The break in his voice made Jo’s own throat ache as well. “That girl has been through hell somehow. From someone. Probably her father from the sound of it.”

He let go of her and looked around like he had just suddenly realized they were standing in the middle of the hallway where anyone could see them. They were still alone.

“Whenever someone is in physical danger like I believe Lily is,” —his voice was back to normal now, although maybe just a tinge softer than usual?— “we can ask the courts to waive the parental consent rule. It takes a while to go through, and there’s a whole lot of hoops to jump through, but she can stay at the shelter while that’s being done. Or until you find a way to get proof she’s of age, if she is.”

Jo didn’t even blink an eye at the hoop jumping metaphor. Jack’s unending supply of cliches now felt quaint and comfortable.

 

Jo’s Hot for Jack

Jack was playing basketball in the parking lot when Jo arrived at the Night Moves Center. There was an indoor court, too, since the center was housed in an old high school building, complete with gym, but this was just an informal pickup game, two-on-two, not the team builder he organized once a week.

The Night Moves Center is actually a fictional merging of two real life places I knew when I volunteered in Chicago. The outside is the buildings and parking lot where the Night Ministry bus used to park and the inside is the common room of Emmaus Ministries.

Jack looked good, Jo had to admit, even with his dark hair dripping with sweat. Who plays that hard in heat like this, she wondered. His damp t-shirt showed off the muscles in his shoulders and lean belly. And then, of course, there were those delicious, tight-ass buns.

“Good pass, TJ,” Jack shouted, even though the boy he complimented was on the opposing team.

“Yeah, but not good enough to beat us, hey, Jack-man?” A skinny kid Jo didn’t recognize stole the ball and lobbed it in the net. “That’s ten! You got beat down, bro. We the winners!”

Despite his obnoxious glee at winning, all the players shook hands with each other willingly enough, then patted Jack on the back and thanked him for a great game. Jack waited till the others had walked off before he came over to where Jo was watching.

“Lily here yet?” he asked.

I’m thinking one of these books needs to have a little Jack on Jo action, don’t you think? And I’m not talking about basketball.

He lifted the hem of his t-shirt to blot the sweat beads on his forehead. Jo tried not to be distracted by the glimpse of his abs. “I haven’t seen her. I’m early, though. Hopefully she shows.”

She had contacted him first thing that morning to tell him Avril had called and said Lily agreed to talk to them. Jack’s voice had been all professional over the phone, so Jo hadn’t been able to determine whether he was still pissed at her. At least he had agreed to join her and Lily when they met at the Center to talk about Maddy’s Place.

Even now, though Jo studied his face for frowns of disapproval, he seemed neutral enough when he answered, “Why don’t we go stake out a private room inside where we can talk when she gets here.”

“I thought you had an office here,” Jo asked as they walked inside. There were at least fifteen kids lounging in the “front room” area. A small window air conditioner rattled so loud in its attempts to cool off the huge space that they had turned up the television to its max volume. Reruns of NCIS blasted across the sound of talking and laughter.

“Not officially.” Jack led the way upstairs. “Most of my time is spent over at the shelter now, although they’re thinking of changing that. Splitting me between both places more.”

“I suppose that means more work for the same pay.”

“I don’t mind.” Jack walked past the director’s closed door and pointed at it with one thumb. “Marge needs the backup. They lost two caseworkers last month and the number of kids always doubles in summer.”

“Lost as in quit, or fired?”

Jack had opened a door on the right, glanced in, and entered without giving her an answer.

“I’m not asking for a story or anything,” Jo continued, feeling flushed and awkward. “Just curious, not scandal seeking.”

“This should do.” Jack sat behind the desk and waved to a couch along the wall for Jo to use. “Trevor Banks and I used to share it, but he’s one of the ones that moved on. Voluntarily,” he told her with one eyebrow raised. “Are you apologizing for something?”

The question took her by surprise. “What do you mean?”

“You don’t usually try to explain yourself.” Jack’s deep voice grew even more weighty and calm. “Did I strike a nerve the other day? I told you I was sorry. I thought we knew each other well enough by now not to hold grudges.”

Jo took a deep breath and let it out. “We do. Sorry. Just touching a sore tooth with the tip of my tongue. I’ll stop now.”

Avril Feeds Rosie

Avril sat down and started talking to Rosie, asking her what kind of fool would send a beautiful baby like her to such a messed up world anyway. The baby watched her with wide eyes as if she understood all of it, as if she had the answers maybe even, but wasn’t about to let on what they were. Soon the fevered sucking on the nipple slowed, allowing a trail of water to slip down the side of her mouth. One tiny fist spasmed upward, latched onto a bit of fabric, and held on tight.

There’s something about a baby that makes a heart melt, even a street-wise, smart-mouth transvestite heart like Avril’s.

“You about done with that tasteless water?” Avril realized she was talking all “goo-goo baby-ized,” but didn’t care at all. No one else could hear her but Rosie and she seemed to like it. “You do, don’t you, sweet thing? You like it when Auntie Avril talks the sweet talk, don’t you?”

This was the first time she’d ever been so close to an infant, except for when she’d helped deliver this one. She’d heard how natural it felt to cradle them in the crook of your arm, how their eyes could melt into you like welcome laser beams.

“Babies supposed to smell good, too, though, ain’t they?” she asked Rosie. “Not all stinky like you. You a stinky girl, yes, you are. Stinky girl.”

Was that a smile? No, they didn’t smile this little, did they? Whatever gas had passed across Rosie’s face, Avril felt it tug at her insides like a string tied to her colon.

“How about Auntie Avril see if she can get some of that street stink off of you, hmm?”

Rummaging in the baby box on the floor, she found a small bottle of Johnson’s baby shampoo and another receiving blanket. When she finally lowered the baby into a sink full of warm water, Rosie jerked at first in surprise, sending up a small splash, then kicked and squirmed enough to create a tsunami.

The child was a natural born Michelle Phelps. “Or maybe you a Mike?” Avril asked Rosie. “I’m not about to make the same mistake my daddy did. You free to grow up to be whoever you want, child, no matter what parts mother nature gave you on the outside. You remember that.”

Dreams

In her dreams, Avril was kneeling in front of Lily again, hands held out to catch the baby sliding out of the girl. “Push,” she told Lily and suddenly there it was, slipping into Avril’s waiting fingers like a pit from a cherry.

When Jo dreams earlier in the book, I use italics and present tense, hoping to bring the reader into the dream to give it more depth, but for Avril’s dream, it seemed more appropriate to watch it from the outside, like this.

“What is it?” Franco yelled in Avril’s ear. “What is it?”

Avril knew he was asking if the baby was a boy or a girl. She tried to focus on the tiny naked worm she held. The baby’s face was twisted and squinting, clearly pissed off at being born, but for the life of her, Avril couldn’t tell what gender it was. It was like she held a baby Ken doll in her hands, one that squirmed and was covered with wet, blood-speckled slime.

“What is it?” Franco asked again, but Avril could only look at him in confusion. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “I don’t know anymore.”

I question if this is a realistic dream. I want to show Avril’s fluidity and possible confusion over her own sexuality, but is this too stereotype?

The baby wailed in protest, fists waving, feet kicking. Avril was ready to wake up. Enough of this nonsense, she told herself. Wake up. Wake up.

Except it wasn’t a dream. Not the crying part anyway. Avril awoke to hear the sound of a baby bawling somewhere in the building. Groaning, she rolled over and pulled a pillow over head trying to drown out the disturbance. It had been an extra late Saturday night for her, working hard to make up the lost time traveling to Englewood to track down that pesky Franco. Bad dreams or no, all she wanted was to get back to sleep.

Then arguing rose over the sound of the baby. “No. I don’t want to,” someone whined, close and high pitched. The answer was male, but almost as feminine sounding, “Well, where else, then, huh? You wanna go back to Riley’s, do you? For fuck’s sake, Lily, make up your God damned mind already. It’s here or Riley’s or out on the streets. You think Rosie’s safe on the streets, do you?”

Lily? The name, filtered through the pillow, sounded like part of the dream, but when Avril heard Joe Clark from next door bellow down the hall, “For Christ’s sake, shut that kid up, will you?” she knew she was wide awake. The voices had to belong to Lily and Franco, which meant the baby was little Zara Rose.

Just as the reality of that made itself clear, a knock on the door brought Avril fully upright in bed.

“Avril?” Franco called. “Avril, you home? Come on, open up.”