A Little Bit Broken


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By this point, I think I’ve established my goal. Which probably means it’s now time to put out, so to speak.

My writing, I mean.

Let me tell you about the novel I’m calling “A Little Bit Broken,” named as much for the story plot as for my attempts to pull it together in a cohesive and intelligible way.

ALBB, as I will now refer to it, is actually a kind of a sequel. No, the first book has not yet been written. I plotted it out, outlined it fully, then got 40 pages into writing it before I realized that it absolutely wouldn’t work as it was. You see–and this is somewhat embarrassing to admit–one of the main characters was a professional football player who was having money troubles. Yeah, in retrospect, I see the flaw. Unfortunately, I didn’t want to accept it until Bunny outright laughed at me when I asked him how I could make that believable. In a loving, you’re-so-cute kind of way, of course. Still, he laughed. I accepted reality. Then I decided to take a break from that story until I could re-outline it with him as a soccer player.

Did you know some professional soccer players in the US only make about $40K? And it used to be lower! Crazy, right?

Anyway, in the process of writing and outlining that story, which is the first in what I’m calling the Eastside Youth Center series, I discovered two other minor characters, whom I immediately fell in love with. JD and Perry. ALBB is their story, along with Charlotte’s, who will complete their adorably messed-up threesome.

That is correct, I have decided on a contemporary M/M/F threesome for my first novel. Because go big or go home, amiright? But seriously, I probably should have started with an easy little fairy tale novella. As it is, I’m scared this book is going to be over 300 pages. And when I say “pages,” I’m talking standard Word document pages with 11pt Times New Roman. Not “book pages.”

But this is about learning! So if writing a completely rambling, over-produced story the lesson I learn, so be it.

Below is the first scene I wrote of JD and Perry interacting. It’s from the 1st non-existent book, and is told from the perspective of Elias, the impossibly-poor-football-player who volunteers at the Youth Center, and takes place in Austin, where there is an imaginary football team. So really, this was the first step I took towards Perry’s and JD’s book.

Just a reminder . . . I’m not actually a writer yet, so if you’re expecting something polished and perfect, this ain’t it. This is me sharing and learning, which is the whole point. I’m doing this to get better!

 

Austin wasn’t by any means the biggest city, population wise. But it sprawled like pancake batter on a hot skillet, stretching its borders until it could take you a full 90 minutes to drive from one city-limit sign to the other.

Of course, the god-awful traffic was also partly to blame for that.

My apartment was set just north of Ladybird Lake. Austin was divided by I-35, and all it took was driving down the freeway and turning your head to know that the west side was the better-off half and the east side the poorer one.

It still surprised me most days to find my apartment on the west side.

After a late lunch, I headed across the highway, following zig-zagging roads until I came to a long building constructed of white stone and gray brick with a colorful sign proclaiming it the Eastside Youth Center. The staff parking lot in the back was two-thirds full of practical sedans and older model SUVs. My ten-year-old Forester fit right in.

Three years ago, I’d been house-hunting for Dad before my first pre-season camp would take me to Florida for a month. Not surprisingly, I’d gotten lost on the unfamiliar side streets, which even now seemed about as logical as an MC Escher drawing. The front lot of the EYC was the first and only option to pull off of the otherwise residential road to check my phone’s GPS.

I hadn’t known what a Youth Center was, at the time. I hadn’t known such places existed, because there certainly hadn’t been one anywhere near the trailer park where I’d grown up back in Arkansas. And I probably still wouldn’t know anything about them if the door I’d parked a few spots away from hadn’t popped open with enough force to make me jump and slam my head into the roof of my car.

The boy who’d stomped out had been ten or eleven—close to Abby’s age—and looked as angry as she had the last time I’d been home and dared to go into her room without permission. At nine, she’d been happily running round in just an over-sized t-shirt and undies, and peeing with the door open so she could keep telling me about the Goosebumps books she’d been reading. Ten-year-olds apparently needed privacy that nine-year-olds did not.

On that particular day, the boy had stomped down the three steps and drawn back his leg to kick a crumbled bit of parking lot with—no doubt—all his might. My vantage let me see what he obviously couldn’t. The chunk he was aiming for was still attached to the rest of the wheel stop by a piece of rebar, and any force applied to moving it would only backlash on the one making the attempt.

Not thinking, I’d thrown my door open and given him his own reason to start. And also thrown off his aim so he missed his target and had to windmill his arms in order to just stay on his feet when all he hit was air.

“Sorry.” For scaring him. “I’m not sure breaking your toe is going to make you feel any better. Whatever’s bothering you.”

He’d puffed up, all 70 pounds of him, most of that skeleton and hair, and put on a glare that was actually pretty impressive for a prepubescent kid. Looking at him, I could easily imagine why the Spaniards had reached for weapons when they’d first encountered the Aztecs.

“I don’t want candy, and I’m not getting into your van, perv. So you better get out of here before I tell the counselors you’re creepin’ out here.” Though he rolled his R’s just a little and clipped the K-sounds, his English was perfect. And clearly he was familiar with English slang. That level of fluency wasn’t always a guarantee on the east side of Austin.

Pretty sure being labeled a pedophile was about the worst thing I could do for my career, I’d raised my hands—candy free—and stayed in the V of my car door—which was not a van. “Not creeping. I’m actually lost. Do you know how I could get back to 2nd Street?”

It felt like, had he had the option, he’d have pulled out an X-ray and an MRI to study me and gauge my authenticity as “not a creep.” Left with just his eyes, he came to a sudden and totally unexpected conclusion. “Holy shit, you’re Elias Redburn. You just got drafted by the Lone Stars. Man, you’re awesome!”

It was the first time I’d ever been recognized, and it kind of threw me that it was a little kid who did it. Shouldn’t he have been watching cartoons instead of ESPN?

Not that I’d ever watched many cartoons . . .

“Uh, thanks.”

It was him that came closer, holding onto the other side of the door to look up at me with huge eyes and the longest, straightest eyelashes I’d ever seen on man, woman, or child. “I play football, too. Just here with my friends. There’s a big field in the back. But I’m going to play for real when I get to middle school.”

I’d looked again, noticing a stretch of patchy grass sticking out beyond the edge of the building. It was brown and looked dead, but I knew now that was just how grass looked in Texas mid-summer. “Yeah? Is this a camp or something?” Summer camps cost money, so I’d never been, but I knew they were a thing.

The kid had just snorted, though. “No, doofus. This is a youth center.” He enunciated the words carefully to help my doofus brain comprehend. “My mom works a lot, and there’s no school right now, so I get to hang out here with my friends and Ms. Lydia and Ms. Mac and Mr. Huck . . .” A few more names were dropped, along with a stuttered list of all the cool things he got to do with those people, like football, tag, basketball, dodgeball, etc.

My impression was that anything that allowed him to run around yelling and being crazy was deemed “cool.”

“Sounds awesome,” I’d agreed when he’d wound down a little. “If it’s so great, though, why’d you storm out here to try and break your toe?”

“I wasn’t trying to break my toe!” He used his arms to emphasize just how wrong I was with broad sweeps and bunched fists. “Ms. Lydia said we could play outside after lunch, but the stupid girls just want to color and crap, and don’t want to go outside, so now I have to color crap, too! I hate coloring! It’s for babies!”

Abby, I knew, would disagree. But then, she was a girl.

The sun had been particularly brutal that day, so I’d stepped out from the wedge of my car to shut the door and moved to sit on the shaded steps he’d recently barreled down. “Maybe there’s something else you can do inside to pass the time until you can play outside.”

The little Aztec Warrior scuffed his sneakers over to plop down beside me, mirroring my posture with his elbows, one of which had a long pink scar from what had to be a deep cut, planted firmly on his bare knees. “Like what? Inside is boring.”

Recalling my own loathing of the indoors as a child, I’d smiled. “It doesn’t have to be. If the girls want to color, maybe they’d be willing to play a coloring game with you.”

His scoff had been immediate and deeply doubtful.

“Hear me out. My mom used to play this game with me when she was pregnant with my little sister and couldn’t move very much.” I’d swallowed the automatic sadness that still rose, ten years later, with every mention of her. “She would draw pictures of things around the house, and then I’d have to figure out what they were of, and bring all the items back to her in a certain amount of time. You get a point for every right item before the time was up.”

I’d barely finished talking when he was on his feet again. “I’m going to go see if they want to play that!” Then he was gone.

With the help of GPS, I’d finally managed to find my way back to recognizable roads, but my conversation with the little Aztec Warrior had hung with me through the rest of the day. That night, I’d pulled out my laptop and looked up the Eastside Youth Center. Beyond the summer and after-school child care it offered to low-income families, the place boasted a staff of trained psychologists and social workers who could act as counselors, mentors, and mediators when needed. And when families couldn’t afford it anywhere else.

It had been more curiosity than real intention when I’d clicked on the “Be an EYC Volunteer” button, but somehow, the very next week, I’d been back in front of that building. This time with a completed application form.

Three years later, I still felt a slight twinge of guilt when I walked through the back doors. Though I’d obviously never had a relationship, and therefore had never cheated on anyone, I always imagined it would feel a little like the mixture of shame and excitement I felt when I came here.

Football was my life. It was my career, my hobby, my future, everything. Having anything else . . . loving anything else . . . felt like cheating. But I couldn’t resist having this one thing for myself now anymore more than I’d been able to resist then.

Any lingering doubts or apprehensions pretty much vanished as soon as I stepped into the main room anyway.

In early October, at almost three o’clock on a Tuesday, the older kids were still held captive by teachers and principals and bells. Elementary school had let out, though, so the room was noisy with groups of little kids, divided by age and carefully watched over by counselors and other volunteers like me.

I smiled at the adorable little girl who’d wondered away from her play group by one of the lunch tables set up along the southern wall. “Bunny,” she told me, holding up a matted stuffed rabbit that was more gray than white. “Bunny want up.”

“Yeah? How high does Bunny want up? This high?” I swooped her up under her arms until she was a couple feet off the ground and giggling.

“Higher!”

“This high?” With her head even with mine at my full height, the giggling was more shriek than laugh.

“Higher, ‘Lias!”

All the way up with my arms straight over my head, she swung her stuffed animal until it just barely grazed the ceiling panel overhead.

“You know you’re just encouraging the impression that you’re more amusement park ride than authority figure when you do that, right?”

I let Ashlynn slide back down until she was seated on my hip, and we both turned to smile at the woman concerned with my perceived authority. A concern no one would ever feel about Ms. Mac.

“Oh, I don’t know,” I hedged. “I think it’s a pretty valuable lesson to learn that if they disobey me, I can just toss them up onto the roof until they’re feeling more agreeable.”

“No roof! Down!” Ashlynn whined, squirming until she got her feet and could run back to her group. Not before giving my leg a tight hug goodbye though.

“I might be concerned if every child who’s ever walked through these door didn’t worship the ground you walk on.”

That was a bit of an overstatement. In all fairness, that praise would have probably been more accurately directed towards her. Ms. Mac was a striking woman. Tall, with gray hair cut almost as short as mine that did nothing to soften the sharpness of her features or the generous shape of her smile, she had probably been beautiful a couple decades ago. Now, her figure was softened beneath her loose-fitting blouse and fine lines spread out from the corners of her hazel eyes to reach the narrow scar tracing her left cheekbone.

Physically, even almost old enough to be my grandmother, she was imposing enough to stop a pack of mischievous teenage boys in their tracks, and make them reconsider the next ten minutes of their lives.

Beyond that initial intimidation, however . . .

Thin arms wrapped around my middle to give me a quick squeeze before she stepped back to give me a thorough once-over. “How are you doing, sweetie? That was an incredible catch you made last Sunday, but it looked like you were limping a little afterwards. You didn’t hurt yourself, did you?” Regardless of age or actual relation, Ms. Mac treated everyone who came through her doors with the genuine warmth and affection of an actual grandmother.

“No, ma’am. I’m good. It wasn’t anything major,” I brushed off the concern, since there wasn’t anything she could do about it. Though I held on a little longer to the memory of her hug. “How are you? Did I miss anything interesting?”

This time of year, I tried to find time to talk with her on all my visits, because a lot could happen in two weeks with a couple hundred kids coming and going. In the winter and spring, I’d work full-time at the EYC, but inevitably those hours had to be cut back, first for summer training, then even more when the season kicked off.

Spending even half my Tuesday volunteering every other week was a stretch on my schedule. But I’d made it work because . . . well, I needed it to work.

“Nothing the kids won’t fill you in on, I’m sure. We do have a new boy coming regularly after school.” Her lips were thin with the effort to suppress a smile. “He’s JD’s age. They’re . . . very different from each other.”

I snorted, not needing anymore of a head’s up than that. Javier Delgado was the little Aztec Warrior I’d met that first day. Even though she insisted it was because of my standing in the community and the psych degree I’d gotten at OU while passing the time between football games, I was pretty convinced Ms. Mac had only agreed to accept my application, crazy schedule and all, because of JD’s glowing—and deafening—endorsement for me when I’d come back the following week.

Just like the real Aztecs, the kid could be a little territorial.

The older kids trickled in gradually over the next thirty minutes. I was helping watch over Ashlynn’s group with Lydia, who’d recently finished law school and had been upgraded from volunteer to lawyer-on-retainer for the EYC.

“You’ve been spotted,” she nudged me with the elbow not occupied with supporting a homesick little boy trying to get through his second day ever away from his mom. Lydia was great with the babies, with a personality about as cuddly as Ashlynn’s stuffed bunny.

I followed the path of her huge brown eyes to find a grinning, gangly youth loping straight towards me.

He was still mostly skeleton and hair, but in the past year his shirts had tightened up a bit over muscle. Using both hands to shove back the mess of thick black waves, JD came to a squeaking, bouncing halt just a foot short of crashing into me.

“Dude! Oh my god! That catch was freaking awesome! Can we play flag outside?” If he learned to talk any faster, I’d be lucky to catch one word in four.

“Dude! Go get the stuff and meet me outside.”

And then he was gone again, his sneakers squeaking his rapid progress towards the storage closet in the corner by the shelves of board games.

Lydia chuckled and waved me off before I could check and make sure she was okay on her own with the toddlers.

Knowing the drill, and having noticed their friend’s trajectory, about half of the other boys were already dropping their backpacks before turning to run back outside.

Only one stood with a frown amidst the commotion, looking confused.

“Hey. I’m Elias.”

The kid had hair just a little darker than mine and eyes pale enough that I’d been able to make out his pupils from thirty feet away. “Elias? Seriously? I didn’t think names could get much shittier than mine. Sucks to be you, man.”

He also, apparently, had a chip on his shoulder as deep as the English channel. A landmark his British accent suggested he was likely familiar with. That, and the uniform he wore from one oft he private schools, marked him as wholly unique at the EYC.

“My mom was a fan of western romances,” I offered, shrugging. Unique, he might be, but if he thought he’d have the monopoly on bad attitudes in a place like this, he was setting himself up for major disappointment. “So you gonna tell me your crappy name so I know what to be jealous of?”

The fingers he used to scratch his nose didn’t quite cover the small twitch of his lips. “Perry. It’s short for Peregrine, because my dad was a fan of himself.”

I raised one eyebrow and carefully measured out my disbelief. “And you think Elias is worse?”

“Shut up.” Another small twitch, this one almost reaching those crazy eyes of his.

“You like flag-football, Perry? We’re going outside to play a game, if you want to come with us.”

He shifted from one foot to the other while considering the offer, his frown back in full effect. “Nah. American football’s a game for stupid jocks.”

It was bad timing that JD happened to be passing by on his way out the door. He flat out stopped, dropped the basket full of flags he’d been carrying, and turned on Perry in full warrior-mode. “You did not just say that to Elias-freaking-Redburn!”

Crap.

“JD—”

He bowled right over my attempt to diffuse the situation without even letting me finish his name. And the venom of his attack was so unexpected, I was too stunned to make a second attempt. “Who the hell are you to call Elias a stupid jock? Just ‘cause you go to the preppy school and wear stupid preppy clothes, you think you’re better than us? Insult Elias again, and you better watch your back, rich boy. Because there ain’t no where you’re gonna be safe from me!”

Perry stood beside me, mouth firm and eyes unimpressed.

“JD! Cool it!” I finally snapped, butting in before he could finish drawing a second breath. “Perry doesn’t even know I play football. So chill.”

“Uh, yeah, I do. Doesn’t change the fact that it’s a game for guys too stupid to get real jobs.”

I moved in front of the smart ass kid just in time to catch JD as he launched himself across the short distance.

“That’s it! I’m kicking your fancy, white ass, rich boy!”

With tempers where they were, I couldn’t risk letting Perry get out another shot, which his open mouth made obvious he planned to do. So I did just what I’d told Ms. Mac I’d do. With one arm around JD, I looped my other across Perry’s chest and physically dragged the both of them outside to dump them on the grass where the rest of the boys were already waiting.

Enough!” I yelled, before either one of them could voice a complaint. There was a sublime three seconds of silence after the echo of my booming voice faded. “JD, quit being a stupid jock and proving him right.” The boy snarled, but pink rose up on his high cheekbones, visible even on his darker skin. “Perry, quit picking a fight you know you’re not going to win.” A couple inches smaller than JD and with half the tenacity, Perry sneered but didn’t use his mouth for anything else.

“I don’t care if you guys don’t like each other.” Understatement, since even Ms. Mac had gone out of her way to point these two out to me. “No one gets along with everyone. But you don’t see any of the adults here going around having screaming matches and trying to attack each other, do you? Well?”

The muttered negatives were practically sub-vocal, but I accepted them.

“No, you don’t. So how about we all try acting like adults.” I included the rest of the boys with a sweeping look, just to make sure they didn’t get any bright ideas. “Now, whoever still wants to play football, line up so we can divide into teams. Anyone who doesn’t want to play is welcome to go back inside.”

Every single boy found a place in the wobbly line that formed in front of me, with JD at one end and Perry at the other. I could have gotten creative with the numbering to avoid it, but I was pretty sure they’d fight more on the same team than they would opposing each other, so I just did evens-odds and watched as Perry belted on his yellow flags and JD cinched up his red.

For half an hour, they played their hearts out. It even looked like we’d get through the game with no additional drama.

Then Perry, who obviously was not as familiar with the game but had a surprising amount of speed in his skinny legs, said something across the line of scrimmage to JD. Something I couldn’t hear, but could see the effect of.

I tried calling time-out. Too late.

Red team’s QB called the hut and JD was on him.

The rest of the players heard my second yell and froze, leaving the only movement on the grassy field the rolling ball of gangly limbs, flying black hair, and inventive curses.

In over two years, I’d never seen an actual fight at the EYC. I’d seen plenty of peacocking and heard some insults that I was sure would impress even a locker room full of NFL players, but no physical altercations.

That my first one included JD wasn’t as big of a surprise as I’d wished it was.

Foregoing any attempt to talk them out of their antagonism, I grabbed the closest one—which turned out to be Perry—and just started walking back to the door. He squirmed free just inside, but that was fine. I hadn’t been holding him that tight, worried I’d accidentally hurt him.

But now that he was listening, I bent for full-on eye contact. “You know where Ms. Mac’s office is?”

Between attempts to brush grass stains off his pale polo shirt and flatten his spikey hair, he spat out a, “Yeah.”

“Good. Go talk to her. And when she asks you what happened, you remember that I’m going to give her both my and JD’s versions before you answer.” With a nod, I sent him on his way through the main room and to the halls beyond. Ms. Mac would do more for him than I could even if I’d had a lifetime of experience and a PhD of my own.

Unfortunately, there weren’t two of her, which left JD with me as a poor substitute.

He was still outside, laughing with his friends and standing like he’d just single-handedly beat the whole Spanish army.

“Game’s over. Everyone inside,” I said, never moving my eyes off the boy. He knew better than to try to get cute and sneak past me. “You want to tell me what happened?” I asked when we were alone, just like we’d been that first time three years ago. And just like that time, I sat down on the steps by the back door and planted my elbows on my knees.

“The dude’s a jerk off, E-man. You heard him mouthing off. He doesn’t belong here.” Shoulders slumping, he slouched down next to me so we could both look out over the field and the boarded-up houses beyond it.

“Why? You mouth off plenty,” I reminded him.

He flashed a smug smile.

It faded the next moment when I asked, “Or you think it might have something to do with the fact that you think his parents have money?”

Both smugness and smile faded. “I know his parents have money. He gets picked up in a freaking Mercedes. Why the hell would he come here if he can afford those preppy clothes of his and a car like that?”

“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. To JD’s credit, it was kind of odd. The EYC was built for those who couldn’t afford the fees for the nicer centers and programs on the west side of town, but still deserved the benefits. “Have you tried asking him?”

“What, like, talking to him? Why would I do that?”

My laugh probably wasn’t the best answer—didn’t want to encourage him—but it slipped out before I could help it. “You know a better way to get to know someone? I don’t think you were learning a whole lot about him when you were rolling around on the ground trying to tear his head off.”

“I don’t want to know him.”

Thirteen-year-old boys were still learning how the world worked. And JD had more to deal with than most his age. Knowing all that, I sighed out a long breath. “You know I’m not supposed to play favorites, right?”

Oh-so-slowly, the corner of his mouth crept back. “Yeah. I know, E-man. Just like I know I’m totally your fav.”

Acknowledging that as truth, I held his spiky-lashed eyes when I said, “So you know I’m not just giving you lip service when I tell you; I think you’re better than this, JD. I think you’re an awesome kid, who knows what it’s like to have responsibilities. You know life isn’t about just doing what you want to do, when you want to do it. It’s also about doing the things you don’t want to do, because it’s the right thing.”

He scrubbed a hand through his hair, scuffed his shoe on the cement, and generally tried to not look at me for a long time. Finally, under his breath, he muttered, “I know.”

“You’re a leader, kid. All the other boys here, they don’t care nearly as much about football as you do. But anytime they see you dragging out that equipment, they run out on that field because that’s where you’re going.”

I could tell by his expression that he was less convinced of the truth of that statement. Which was fine, because hey, he didn’t need a bigger head than he already had.

“My point is, if you go beating up kids who are smaller than you. They’re going to think that’s okay. And I really don’t want to spend the little amount of time I get to be here during the season dragging you idiots out of fights. Get me?”

“He isn’t that much shorter than me,” was his only response.

I didn’t expect much more than that, so I wasn’t disappointed with the lack of simpering apology or promises to never repeat past mistakes. Mostly, I’d hoped to give him something to think about.

Leaving him to decide when he was ready to come in, I went back to the main room. Perry was sulking in the corner with the board games, playing some handheld videogame that I knew had to belong to him. No way that kind of thing was in the EYC’s budget.

There were plenty of other adults in the room to keep an eye out for trouble, but I also trusted JD to at least steer clear for the rest of the afternoon. It was tomorrow and the next day that I worried about, which was why I headed to Ms. Mac’s office to fill her in. Because it would be another two weeks before I could come back and see for myself how they were doing.

That was the worst part of the football season. These kids needed stability, because so many of them didn’t have it at home. JD’s mom worked two jobs to take care of him and his two younger siblings. And that was just par for the course at the EYC.

How much help could I be if I wasn’t even around for more than a few hours twice a month this time of year?

Ms. Mac pointed out none of this. She just thanked me and promised to keep an eye on the situation.

I stayed for another hour, helping some of the older kids with their homework and letting JD and Perry cool their heels on opposite sides of the room.

By the time I got home, I was exhausted in a totally different kind of way than I was used to after a long practice. The way I’d be tired tomorrow, no doubt, assuming the trainer okayed my hip for more than just watching tapes.

Exhaustion was exhaustion, though, and my worries about tomorrow were no match against a soft pillow and warm blankets.

JD’s and Perry’s story in ALBB will take place ten years in the future, but this was my first impression of them. To be honest, I started out thinking it would just be an interesting subplot for Elias to help them through their differences, but then I couldn’t stop thinking about them. JD, in particular. I wondered what he’d be like as an adult, if he’d make it as a professional athlete like Elias, and who he’d end up with. I kept thinking about it until it became more interesting than the flawed premise of the first book.

I will no doubt go back to Elias’s story, but for good or ill, I’m committing to making ALBB my first complete novel. And just a fun little head’s up, it’s not going well. Which is good! That means learning opportunities abound.

Next week, I’ll start enumerating them and, hopefully, solving them.

P.S. – Ideally, yes, I’d post more than once a week. But unfortunately, I still have a day job at this time. And am also trying to practice actual writing. As I get more comfortable with the schedule though, I’ll try to bump it up to at least twice a week.

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