Our Orbit is now a finalist in Best Regional Fiction in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. The excerpt below is actually a “mash-up” of three separate passages from the novel, all within the first 50 pages. I’ve omitted a good deal of exposition in order to focus on the set-up of one character: 28-year-old MWF Deanne Fletcher.
Some readers have accused me of favoring an ensemble cast in this book at the expense of a single protagonist. I may be guilty as charged of this major sin. But if not, then Deanne is in serious contention for the role of main character. She launches the plot by taking an interest in growing her family via foster parenting. So I was so worried when beta readers’ reports rolled in with sky-high unfavorables for this key character. What a priss! She’s a ho-hum housefrau with scarcely a thought in her head!
Despite due consideration of the criticism, I didn’t find much to change. Yes, Deanne is a happy housewife who grew up on a farm and actually enjoys being pregnant. Her only “career” aspiration is to supplement her husband’s modest income via her home-based dressmaking business. She is a perfectionist with a tendency to favor social conventions. That’s all intentional!
Deanne is very good at her jobs. Does that make her a priss? A bore? A housefrau?
Visit recent posts on this blog devoted to foster care— “How to Help Foster Children WIthout Becoming a Foster Parent,” “When Visiting Opens a Wound,” and “Are You the Right Kind of Foster Parent?”
If you like domestic dramas, you’ll probably detect a bit more depth to Deanne’s character as the plot thickens. Here’s the rollout—
What a relief. The August heat wave had finally broken.
Deanne Fletcher enjoyed a breeze from the window over the sink as she poured glasses of iced tea for herself and her husband. She placed forks next to wedges of lemon meringue pie. Time permitting, she enjoyed making a special dessert on Sundays. She took the seat across from Rick at the kitchen table and waited for him to speak.
Rick took his time stirring a spoonful of sugar into his tea. He had yet to respond to the unexpected news Deanne whispered in his ear when he came home from a run earlier that afternoon. It was a topic they weren’t ready to discuss in front of five-year-old Kayla and eighteen-month-old Chad. Not till they’d sorted it out between themselves. With the children just tucked into bed, Rick kept his voice low.
“How old is the girl?” His hand rested on the stack of documents Deanne had laid on the table before cutting the pie.
“Nine,” she said. “Going into fourth grade.”
“Then it’s not the way we pictured things, is it? We’ll need to adjust our expectations.”
“But—” Rick glanced through the papers. “We made the basic decision last spring, when we took the training. If there’s an immediate need, we should help out. Right? It’s not like we’re in this for our own benefit.”
“That was my feeling, too,” Deanne said. She smiled. It felt like a good sign that their minds were thinking alike. The way they usually did.
What Deanne really wanted was another baby of her own. To carry a child under her heart again and cherish the first kicks of a new life nestled inside her—! But the family budget couldn’t take the strain of a third child right away, so they’d looked into fostering a less fortunate child as a compromise for the time being. Deanne had kept her fingers crossed for an infant. She’d been adjusting her expectations, as Rick so aptly put it, ever since the social worker called before dinner. They urgently needed to place a refugee from some kind of family train wreck.
The gears in Deanne’s brain had clicked into action: A nine-year-old girl would be able to help with chores, maybe watch the little ones once in a while. Now, now, it’s not about that, she told herself. But to her surprise, the prospect of adding a big sister to the family struck her as an appealing option.
* * *
Monday after lunch, Mrs. Ames arrived with the Winslow girl.
“Here we are, missy,” the social worker said.
But the child lagged back, out of sight behind the woman’s broad body. When Deanne ushered them toward the living room, she made a break and darted forward as if trying to escape. She froze at the sight of Kayla and Chad waiting on the couch.
Deanne thought she seemed small for a nine-year-old. And ill-proportioned: with sloping shoulders, arms that barely passed her hips, and knobby legs dotted with scrapes. Her hair was pulled into a thin braid that ran down the back of a threadbare dress. Quite a contrast to Deanne’s own children, who people often said could land modeling jobs if their parents wanted to circulate photos. They were especially beautiful these late summer days—hair flaxen from the sun and faces evenly tanned.
It’s not looks that matter, Deanne reminded herself, irked at the satisfaction she couldn’t help taking in the differences. What was that expression in the girl’s hazel eyes? Sadness? Fear? Poor thing must be shell-shocked.
Ever wonder where stories come from? Check out “On the Origins of Our Orbit”
Deanne knelt down. “Hello, sweetheart. We’re glad you’re here to stay with us.” Her outstretched arms drew the child like nail to magnet. Encouraged by the willing hug, Deanne went on, “Here are Chad and Kayla. They’ll be your brother and sister here at our house.”
The children slid off the couch to accept solemn hugs from the newcomer.
Looking to Deanne, the girl spoke for the first time. One hand on Chad’s shoulder, she asked in a breathy whisper, “Can I pick him up?”
Her name was Miriam. Placement was set for the school year, with extension probable “pursuant to the father’s legal status,” as Mrs. Ames put it.
The woman dropped her voice and added, “The father is apt to fetch a five-year minimum. That means reunification cannot be our primary goal.” Mrs. Ames shook her head. Levi Winslow had refused an interview to discuss details of his daughter’s care. “So the day-to-day is entirely up to you. I’m sure you won’t have any problems.” With a smile in the direction of the children, Mrs. Ames said good-bye and left.
Just like that.
Miriam had settled Chad on her hip and was carrying him about the room, as if it suited her to be the eldest child. Kayla was conducting a tour, pointing out the TV set in its cabinet and the corner nook where board games lay in a neat stack. Chad, meanwhile, seemed content in his unaccustomed perch, although he leaned away from this new sister, the better to stare into her face.
* * *
That Wednesday Rick had an evening meeting at the high school and couldn’t be home to help tuck the kids in. Determined to run a tight ship, Deanne got them in bed by a quarter to nine. After cleaning the kitchen, she sat down to work on bridesmaids’ gowns. She traced darts, pinned up the mauve satin skirts, and started running seams.
Foot raised from the pedal, she caught the sound of whispers coming from the children’s rooms. Ignore it, she thought. They’ll soon sack out. But after the next seam, it was stealthy tiptoes crossing the hall. Then came a loud creaking sound, followed by a thump and stifled sobs. Deanne stepped into the hallway in time to see Chad dash from the door of one bedroom across to the other.
What on earth? Chad was almost nineteen months old, but he’d never climbed out of his crib before. Deanne had dreaded the day he would start. She entered the nursery doorway—now Miriam’s room—and, in the glow of the nightlight, saw the girls helping Chad scramble onto the bed. Kayla was already under the covers. When the boy looked back and saw his mother, he gave a gasp that sent a chill rippling over Deanne’s shoulders.
“What is going on?” Her stern tone provoked fresh sobs. Deanne lifted Chad into her arms, tried a gentler voice. “Why aren’t you kids in your own beds?”
Kayla spoke first. “We were telling ghost stories and Miri told a scary one and Chad got scared.”
Deanne looked at Miriam.
The girl said, “I told him he should keep quiet…”
As if this should resolve the issue.
Kayla went on. “She said if Chad cried and made noise, you’d let Bloody Mary take and keep him at her scary house.”
The boy clung to his mother’s shoulder and gave a shaky sigh.
Deanne switched on the bedside lamp. “What story did you tell?” she asked, fixing Miriam with a pointed look.
“I told them about Bloody Mary that lives on Devil’s Hole Road.” The girl spoke quickly, just above a whisper. “They should know about her so they won’t get snatched, because she takes kids and puts them in her basement till it’s too late for their parents to know them, so they can never go home. And she doesn’t kill you or eat you herself, but she’s got this bathtub with a curse on it—? If you get sucked down the drain, the crazy people under her house will cook you in a big black pot.”
Miriam’s eyes were more intent than Deanne had seen before, half-frightened and half-defiant. “Miriam that’s…” A horrible story, she wanted to say. “That’s a very scary tale for little children like Kayla and Chad.”
“But it’s true!” the girl exclaimed. “Bloody Mary lives in the woods and we drove past her house one time. She came out the cellar with a brown sack in her hand!”
“Big girls like you might not mind talking about those things, but it’s too much for the little ones.” Deanne hoped it would not take stronger measures for Miriam to get the message.
Fortunately, the girl dropped her eyes and said no more.
In the kitchen Deanne ran cups of water for the girls. While they sipped, she chose a book and sat down to read them an extra bedtime story. She made her voice as soothing and monotonous as possible. Soon, Chad was asleep on her lap, while Kayla nodded off in the bed.
Miriam’s eyes were wide open.
“Would you like another story?” Deanne asked.
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Instead of answering, the girl said, “Tomorrow, can you call my daddy and find out if I’m supposed to go to your school?”
“Find what—?” This came out of left field. They’d talked about school many times, and Miriam had raised no such questions.
“Am I supposed to go with your kids, or back to my old school where I went before? Can you call the jail and ask for sure?”
“I could check with Mrs. Ames…” Deanne began. But the social worker had plainly said the father gave no instructions. Looking into the girl’s worried eyes, she asked, “Would you rather go to the school you know from last year?”
Miriam shook her head. “I’d rather go with your kids to their school.”
“That’s fine, sweetheart,” Deanne said. “That’s where we’ll take you. You and Kayla. Please don’t fret anymore.”
This assurance seemed to do the trick. Miriam rolled over and folded her hands. Deanne kissed her cheek and switched off the lamp. She carried Chad across the hall to his crib. His eyes fluttered open the moment his head touched the sheet. He stayed quiet long enough for Deanne to bring Kayla back and tuck her in bed, then he pulled himself to his feet by the crib rail and started to whimper.
Still scared, he said in that babyish way of his.
Where is your dad? Deanne wondered. She pictured Rick and the athletic committee stopping for beers after their meeting. Irritation rose in her chest as she glanced at her watch—a quarter past ten. She sat with Chad in the rocking chair. That always got him nice and drowsy. By eleven o’clock she settled him back in the crib. She tried to return to sewing, but her eyes were so bleary she mis-stitched a dart and sliced the expensive satin with the ripper, leaving a half-inch gash.
Throwing up her hands, she closed the machine, stowed the dresses in the armoire, and went to get ready for bed. As she turned back the sheet, Rick’s Toyota pulled into the driveway. He let the screen slam, which woke Chad, who started crying all over again.
Rick walked the floor, his son in his arms, for another half-hour. He finally resorted to wheeling the crib into the master bedroom. It was one in the morning before the house was quiet again.
~ ~ ~ ~
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Many thanks to RewritingMarySue, where portions of this post first appeared.
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