I have just finished revising this novel, originally published with the working title of New Creatures. The original reader's draft came in at 160,000 words. I was, and still am, surprised at how reading the manuscript did not feel like a long process. Several early readers commented similarly. That said, I have gone through five drafts now and cut the story down to 88,000 words (33 chapters).
I'm only posting the first four or five chapters of the revised story here at Tablo. If they appeal to you and you're interested in the whole story, please let me know in comments and I will figure out a way to get the whole thing to parties interested in further reading.
I'm quite proud of this story. It originally began as an outside-in look at gender identity for intelligent and thoughtful teens. Somehow during the course of inventing the Scattergood Family, though, I turned this into a touching story about family and music and food and baseball. The question of gender identity is no longer simply from the outside looking in. I see now that the reader has a huge role to play in figuring this puzzling issue out as well. If you read the whole story, perhaps you'll understand what I'm talking about.
My favorite comment from a first reader was from my friend Nancy. After finishing the whole first reader's draft, she wrote: "I started out having no idea what to expect, and then quickly found myself doing that 'just one more chapter before bed' thing--always a good sign! By the time I got to the [end] I was kind of in love."
I was too. I hope you will be. The Scattergoods are waiting...
Zaxy had been perched on the ledge of a giant window looking out on the airport runway for twenty minutes. All of a sudden, he yelled, “A plane!”
He stuffed the last of his hot dog into his mouth, then came skipping across the concourse to us, mixing in strange little hops and jumps along the way. “He’s coming. He’s here!”
I clicked out of my e-book, quickly pounded through the half cup of Dr. Pepper I had left, then stood up and slid my Kindle back into the cargo pocket of my shorts. We all followed Zaxy as he bounced back to the window.
“All right,” said Daddy, “everyone remember to be inclusive and supportive and whatever else makes sense.”
“What’s ex-cusive?” Zaxy asked.
“In-clue-sive,” said our older brother, Del.
“That’s what I said. What’s it mean?”
“In-clusive means be nice to the kid,” Del said. “Make him feel part of the family. And you didn’t say that.”
“Include him,” I said.
“I did so say that,” Zaxy said. He made a fist and put it very close to his face, then slowly tilted his head up towards our big brother.
“Enough, you two,” Daddy said. Mom had her hand on his arm. Our parents seemed a bit strange the way they were standing. The word, I know now, would more accurately be apprehensive.
We watched the plane roll up close to the terminal. Zaxy got very excited about the men on the ground helping direct it into place so the gangway could connect up.
“Look at that!” He said. “They have orange paddles in their hands and big ear muffs on their heads. They are so lucky!”
Zax is ten. When he saw the luggage carts and the little truck that was pulling it, he got even more excited.
“What are they doing? What are they waiting for? Are they going to take the plane apart and put it on that little train? How do you get a job like that? I want to do that. I like that little truck thing. I would love to drive it. Absolutely love it!”
He was so excited he missed seeing the gangway being maneuvered down to the exit door near the front of the plane. You have to be careful with Zax sometimes. He gets very upset when he misses something. It’s like he’s been robbed of an opportunity to go bananas.
No one told us we were going to have a summer-long visitor until the night before that visitor arrived. We’d already been at our vacation house, Muro del Sol, a full two weeks. I’d gotten over my frustration once again about being taken away from summer softball competition. My older brother, Delmore, had found new ways to kind of be a jerk. Zaxy had his sailing lessons. Already, he seemed happy enough as part of the mob of summer vacation kids that forms up there in Maine every year — a mob I’d once been a part of, and Del before me. Of course, for Zaxy it would all be different. There is no one in the world like my little brother Saxon Dean Scattergood.
And if you’re wondering, I think it’s okay being a girl trapped between two brothers. You learn a lot about boys that way. Some of it's good. Some of it's bad. In fact, last summer I learned a lot about boys and girls -- maybe more than your average fifteen-year-old learns, but not exactly in the way you might think.
People started coming off the plane.
“Will we recognize him?” I asked.
Del said quietly, to me, “Just look for the only male wearing pink shoes and a purple bow tie.”
We watched as travelers came off in little groups, lugging and wheeling carry-on bags. It occurred to me that it was odd we’d all come for this pick up. Usually Daddy chose just one of us to keep him company collecting visitors.
They kept popping out of the red door — a mom and two little kids; a business man; some touristy-looking couples with camera bags and cylindrical fishing rod carriers (these people were very loud, like they’d been drinking); a pretty, young woman with surprisingly beautiful, somewhat frizzy hair, wearing a bit too much makeup; another woman, in her sixties, looking lost and confused. Maybe someone she’d expected wasn’t there for her.
A few more people straggled out in batches. Then nothing.
“Where is he?” said Zax.
Daddy checked his phone to see if he’d gotten a message from Uncle Edward. He looked up again at the door and leaned on a railing. A few minutes later another family came out, and right behind them was a woman pushing a little kid in a stroller. Maybe a minute after that a man came hurrying through the red door, then another man who was more waddling than walking. Then nothing again. We just stood there.
“What’s happened to Robert?” Zaxy asked.
“I don’t know,” Daddy said. “Should I call Uncle Edward?” He stared at his phone like it might be magic.
Just then, the flight attendants came through the door. Mom stopped them and asked if there were anymore passengers still coming off. They said nope, the only people left were the pilots and cleanup crew.
We were all a bit confused. We turned to head back to the main part of the building. The pretty young woman with frizzy hair and too much makeup leaned against the wall across from the waiting area. She was rather tall and thin, and really quite beautiful in an interesting way, but I did not like that makeup. Her hair fell to her shoulders. Sunlight flashed in its brownish color, making it glint with a milky gold shine that even seemed to flick red. Something was up with her. For someone so attractive, she didn’t seem to be very comfortable with her body. Maybe her blouse and jacket didn’t quite fit. It was hard to tell.
She raised a hand and smiled. “Hey, Scattergood family.” Her voice was strained, like it didn’t know what to do with itself. “If you’re looking for Robert you’re not going to find him.”
“I’m sorry,” said Daddy, “Do you know my nephew?”
She giggled and chuckled at the same time, then shook her head knowingly. I turned to look at Delmore. His mouth had dropped wide open. He seemed frozen in place. Mom had her eyes closed, pointing her face towards the ceiling, shaking her head back and forth.
“Did you travel with Robert?” Daddy asked.
She chuckled again, then pushed off from her lean against the wall and took the several steps across the waiting area to us. Sticking out her hand, she said, “My name is now Rita Gomez. I had the name Robert when my father put me on the red-eye last night in San Diego. But I turned into Rita after we left Pittsburgh just before they served coffee and tea. I hope you don’t mind.”
She still had her hand out for Daddy to shake. I noticed how long those fingers were. My father had now assumed the exact same expression as his oldest son, Delmore. Neither of them seemed able to move. They just stared at this person with slightly open mouths and buggy, unblinking eyes.
We could have dealt with this situation in many ways. I like to think we’re pretty good as a group when things get weird. Was this person really Robert? I got the implication if it was a practical joke. But it could also be a serious problem that we were going to have to deal with for a long, long summer. Still, Robert could have been kidnapped and this was an elaborate ruse to hide the fact that he was being held against his will. He was, after all, the child of a somewhat famous scientist.
I looked at this person as carefully as I could. There seemed to be very light evidence of shaved facial hair. Her hands really were over-sized. And even though she was wearing women’s high-heeled shoes, those feet were stuffed in, much larger than the shoes allowed.
Everything added up. I tried peering into her eyes. The makeup seemed as well applied as that on any girl’s face at Cliveden Friends School where we all went. Could a boy really have done such a decent job, even if it was too much? I knew I couldn’t, and I was an actual girl – well, not in the way a lot of people think, but still.
My older brother and my father were now breathing through their noses in a funny way. They looked ridiculous — like they’d been punched or something. Mom continued gazing all over the place except at this person standing right in front of us. I was really worried the wrong thing was going to come out of someone’s mouth.
Finally, I just stepped in front of Daddy, looked up at this person who was definitely a lot taller than me, and took her hand to shake. “Hi,” I said. “I’m Ivy. You’re freaking us out.”
The hand I held had long bones and weird young muscles. I wanted to let go and jump away. But that would have been very mean, and quite stupid. I go to a Quaker Friends school, I kept thinking. I’m trained for this kind of thing.
“Hi Ivy,” she said, with a big happy smile. “I remember you. I’m Rita.”
“But you were Robert when we were little, right?”
“Well,” she said as she let go of my hand and hitched her backpack higher on her shoulder. “I was kind of Robert back that one time you visited. I didn’t want to be. I know you all thought I was weird. I thought I was weird, too. I was very sad. But...”
She gave a great shrug — kind of happy, a bit embarrassed maybe, relieved, goofy, and a whole lot more. “...I also knew I was a girl all the way back then.”
“But you’re a guy.” This was Del coming to life.
“Not right now.”
“Really? So you’ve … you’ve ...”
She laughed. It was so relaxed and calm, that laugh. I wanted to hug her. There was something about this kid. I felt like I’d known her all my life. It was an odd sensation.
“No. I haven’t been altered if that’s what you mean. It’s called gender reassignment surgery. But what’s under these clothes is not who I am. It never was.”
Daddy, too, was coming to life, but not in a good way. “Excuse me … Robert.”
“It’s not Robert, Scat,” said Mom. “It’s Rita, right?”
Our cousin nodded patiently.
Mom stepped right into it all and just enveloped this completely beautiful girl in her arms. “We are so happy to see you, again … Rita.”
She pulled her head back and held our cousin by her shoulders, then just stared at her, shaking her head back and forth. It was one of her hard smiles, the kind where she was saying to life: “Nope. Not gonna freak me out. It’s weird, but that doesn’t matter. Because everything’s weird.”
Mom was pretty good at that. You learn it as a weapon if you live in Cliveden. Also, of course, she was married to our father. It wasn’t a fake smile like she might give to one of the moms in town who annoyed her. It was more the hard smile she might give a nice babysitter who spilled milk on the couch, or our housekeeper Kayeesha when she showed up late. Mom probably uses that smile a lot at the hospital where she’s an eye surgeon and teaches laser techniques to medical students. Everything’s a thousand times more intense at Jefferson University Hospital than the suburban Cliveden social scene.
“So you’ve gone and done something a bit big here,” Mom said, still smiling and holding this girl by the shoulders. I don’t think Mom knew it, but she was shaking her head back and forth a little more vigorously than she intended.
“Excuse me,” Daddy said from behind Mom. He had his phone out. “Do your parents know about this?”
Mom dropped her hands and turned around. “Scat...”
“No, Rikely,” Daddy said. “Seriously. Eddie would have told me...”
Rita laughed carefully, then looked at me and said, “Well, actually Eddie knows my intentions are to change, but he didn’t know I was going to just jump in with both feet today. My mom, too. I didn’t know it would happen myself until I was somewhere over Kansas at five o’clock in the morning.”
“You just did this?” Mom asked.
“Yeah, I guess I did. I got to Pittsburgh and had a three-hour layover. Time to think, you know. I bought this dress and top, some skinny jeans and a few other blouses, these shoes. Aren’t they nice?”
I looked down and didn’t find them nice. They were dark blue high-heeled things to match her dress.
She was still talking. “And then, well, the makeup I had with me. I’ve been practicing that for the last two years. It’s all—”
“I’m calling your father,” said Daddy.
“Oh, please, Uncle Scat, no,” Rita said. “Not yet. I need—”
Zaxy interrupted, “Are you Robert?”
“It’s Robert all right,” Del said quietly.
“But Robert’s a boy.”
“Well...” Rita looked down at our little brother.
“Do you like Sponge Bob?”
“Are you sure?”
Zaxy’s confusion got Daddy silently more upset, which kind of set Mom off in her strong “defender of children” mode.
“Scat, stop! Now, Saxon, we will discuss all of this in the car. Rita...” she stared again into that face. “Rita, you are coming with us. We had planned for a Robert type person, but that’s all changed now, obviously. You’re coming with us regardless, and of course you’re staying the summer like we planned. You are part of this family now.”
She looked hard at Daddy. “And we will not call Edward Scattergood, because Rita is now our responsibility, not his or Samantha’s. We’re going down to luggage. Delmore, please take Rita’s carry-on. Scat, put your phone away...” She placed her hand on his wrist. “Please, Scat!” Then she looked me right in the eyes. “And Ivy … well, Ivy...” I thought she was going to burst into tears.
Daddy trailed behind as we headed for the escalator. He’d put his phone away and was shaking his head and mumbling to himself.
Muro del Sol is the name of our family’s summer camp. It sits on the side of Captain’s Mountain above the Resonance Hills boat club. People from Boston named Waverly bought the property back in the 1920s and turned it into their special family summer vacation place. The land had been a big farm back when the village of Resonance Hills was just a couple fishing docks and a hunting lodge at the bottom of a bunch of mountains and hills next to Resonance Lake.
I don’t think the Waverlys had a name for their camp. But Daddy’s a writer. He once lived at a villa in Mexico that villagers called Muro del Sol, which basically means "wall of the sun." They called it that because of the way the villa glowed when the sun rose out of the ocean every morning. The sun rises out of Resonance Lake and lights up our camp the exact same way, according to Daddy.
I know it’s weird to call our property a “camp." There are two separate houses on it, along with a little barn thing where Daddy works, an old shed where we keep our small boats in the winter, and a special picnic area and barbecue pit up the hill behind the house where we can see the whole bay off in the distance. Our place is separated from the rest of the mountain by a ramshackle broken down fencing system – part wood, part stone, part just places where something used to be. Every year when we arrive, Daddy tells Delmore to get out of the car and open the main gate. Then we drive through and Delmore gets back in. The gate stays open all summer. We’re so lucky to live inside those old fences every summer. The village is about a ten minute drive from us – twenty minutes by boat.
It was mid-afternoon when we arrived back at the driveway leading up to the property. Rita got a kick out of seeing the big, weathered sign that said Muro del Sol with our family name underneath, and the fact that we had this long gravel drive winding up the hill to the parking lot in front of the big house.
Daddy pointed out the barn where he wrote his most famous book, Between the Rise and Fall. I was impressed that Rita understood the importance of that novel – both to him and, actually, to the whole extended Scattergood family. It is interesting how one book can turn a kind of opinionated man into a weirdo celebrity author. The whole thing is a story about a rich white guy in college who falls in love with a mixed race girl. But she isn’t interested in him. He thinks it’s because he’s white and has too much money. Over time, the guy slowly goes insane because his love has been thwarted since he’s a European American – something he can’t do anything about. Daddy wrote it a long time ago. I guess people would say he’s very white. Mom’s weird. Her father was African American and her mother is Norwegian. Mom’s first name, Rikely, was her Norwegian grandfather’s last name. That means we’re mutts, plain and simple. None of us have light skin except Daddy, and even his is freckly and kind of smeary looking. I have brown eyes that sometimes seem hazily orangish. Delmore has darker colored eyes. Very brown. And Zaxy has bright blue eyes that almost seem white sometimes. He’s got very blond hair, too, and kind of looks like he’s from somewhere like Norway, except his skin is a dusty dark tan.
Between the Rise and Fall has all sorts of strange discussions about race. It’s supposed to be funny even though the story is also very sad. We don’t really talk that much about race in our family, though. I don’t know if this makes sense, but when you’re a mixture of a bunch of things like all of us are, you kind of feel like you need to be a racial atheist. None of what other people say about race makes a lot of sense. Everyone’s always pointing fingers at each other. It just makes us Scattergoods feel bad. I think that’s why Daddy wrote the book. Maybe that’s why it was so successful, too. No one can do much about the color of their skin and their hair and the shape of their faces. That stuff has nothing to do with who you are as a person, but people still make decisions about each other based on what others look like every day.
I’ve tried to read Between the Rise and Fall several times but couldn’t get past the third chapter. Delmore says he read it start-to-finish two years ago, but I think he’s lying. He can talk about the beginning really well and the ending, but the middle stuff never comes up. And now, two years later, he claims his memory isn’t so good.
Rita told us she’d read it, too. You’re going to think this is weird, but she’s mixed as well. Her dad, Uncle Edward, is like our dad – they’re British and Scottish and Irish, supposedly. The Scattergood family was very Quaker way back in history. But Rita’s mom, Aunt Samantha, is Honduran on her mother’s side. I don’t know about the other side.
Talking about that novel to Daddy sometimes makes him unhappy. He wrote four other novels after that, but none were as well-received. He’ll tell you that having a “prominent anything” can be the kiss of death. Everyone just expects another version of that same major accomplishment. But you, as a writer, want nothing more than to top that first success. It’s kind of like the Red Sox second baseman, Dustin Pedroia. He was named the most valuable player of the American League in his second year with the team. He’s still pretty good every year for the most part, but unless he gets another MVP trophy, is he really that good? Poor Daddy. Poor Dustin.
Sometimes, though, it makes my dad happy when people tell him they’ve read Between the Rise and Fall. But when Rita piped up about it, I couldn’t really tell what he was feeling. I think she still weirded him out. I know she still had Del in a tizzy. As soon as we got out of the car he was almost sprinting across the driveway to the trail that leads up to the little house. Mom and Zaxy were heading inside. We were standing with Daddy on the front porch. He was very distracted all of a sudden. Probably because he’d been reminded of his book. Rita’s gigantic suitcase sat at the edge of the drive waiting for us to take it off to the little house where the teenagers stayed.
“We’re going to go get Rita set up in the little house, Daddy.”
I said that to him, but I was smiling as an apology, looking at my weird cousin because I could tell Daddy was lost in his thoughts.
“Oh. Okay. I’ll see you later then...” With that, he patted my shoulder, then turned to Rita looking like he was going to give her a hug, but he stopped himself. He just patted her shoulder, too, then headed off towards his barn.
She had her backpack and a carry-on she was lugging. I decided to take her suitcase. When I tried to lift it, though, it was awfully heavy. “What have you got in here? Boulders?”
“Besides my clothes, it’s pretty much full of books. I need to read at night. Mostly stuff about gender and being a woman, you know? I’m trying to catch up.”
“You should have spared yourself the weight,” I said. “This is Scat and Rikely Scattergood country. Wait until you see the books we have in the great room.” I pointed back towards the main house. Our great room is the most wonderful place in the world, with bookshelves everywhere, a billiards table, couches and chairs for reading, a super-high ceiling, and windows that look out front to the lake and out back up Captain's Mountain.
“I’m sure you’ve got a lot of good books here, but there's stuff I need to read in that bag. I’m putting this summer to good use.”
“We only read around here when the weather’s bad.”
“Just when it’s bad?”
“Well, at night, too, sometimes. There’s no TV. No Internet. No cell service. But we’ve got tons of books.”
She stopped walking. “Wait. What?”
“No media. No Internet.”
“None? Not even cell?”
“Cell is spotty at best. You gotta use the mountain. Maybe twenty minutes up — if you want to talk to someone or even text.”
“No one told me this.”
“We’ve got a landline if you need to call your dad or mom.”
“We can just hook up an old modem.”
I laughed at that and started up the hill, lugging her case with two hands. “Nope. Del and I tried that last summer. We bought one of those old things at a yard sale way down in Blue Hill near the ocean. But there’s something really crappy about our phone line. You’ll hear it if you use it. A lot of static and sometimes we get other people’s conversations floating in. It’s weird. Modems can’t handle the noise on the line.”
“How can you deal with no media, then?”
I sighed. “I kind of like it.”
“You get reception okay in town. Sometimes I use the library computers. Delmore and Zaxy play plenty of computer and video games that they bring up, so...”
We were at the top of the trail. It turned left at that point on flat ground winding through some trees and then broke into the clearing where the little house was.
“You know,” I said, realizing what she was about to see, “it’s really okay not having any electronic stuff connected to the outside. It really is. Just give it some time.”
She didn’t say anything to that. I was in the lead and came through the trees first. Behind me I heard, “Oh, my God!” Then a laugh.
The “little house” is not so little. It was designed to be the house we stay in during the winter. The walls and roof are super-insulated and there’s triple glazed solarized silhouette windows that absorb heat in the winter and repel it in the summer. Half its power comes from solar panels arrayed on the south-facing roof. They’ve never worked that well, but we love them anyway.
The structure is built partially of stones and boulders that had been piled up on the property since before we bought it. The rest is wood salvaged from a warehouse that was being torn down in Portland. Daddy bought the whole thing and had it shipped up here for the architect and builders to puzzle over. The front of the place is where they used most of the stone, except the porch, which is made of the biggest timber pieces from the old warehouse. That front is startling to everyone, which is why Rita said, “Oh, my God.” It looks like some modern sculpture that’s supposed to seem like it’s actually primitive.
Delmore was lying in a hammock on the porch with earbuds attached to the sides of his head. Smoking a cigarette.
We stood kind of staring up at the house, but also watching Delmore Scattergood make an ass out of himself, blubbing smoke rings into the air and flicking his fingers like he was the coolest guy in the state of Maine. It almost seemed like he was trying to impress us.
Rita swung the backpack off her shoulder and dangled it around in front of her while she opened up a small pocket. “Wow. Your parents let you smoke?”
“Absolutely not,” I said. “Del’s just a rhino butt.”
My cousin screwed up her face a bit as she reached into the pocket of her bag. “He’s a rhino butt because he smokes? Or he’s just a rhino butt in general?”
“Well, kind of both,” I said. “But mostly the smoking.”
At that point, she pulled out what she was looking for — a yellow lighter. Then she reached in the pocket of her jacket and took out a pack of cigarettes.
“I guess that makes me a rhino butt, too.”
She watched me and seemed very amused as she removed a cigarette from the pack. I glanced up at my brother on the porch. He still seemed oblivious to the fact that we were there. It also occurred to me that he had run off as soon as we got home. Was that because he needed a cigarette? Or was he just trying to get out of lugging Rita’s suitcase up the path to the house?
“I get the picture,” Rita said, “You don’t approve of smoking. Sorry about that.”
She lit her cigarette and seemed very pleased with herself. Blowing smoke out of her nose and mouth simultaneously, she said, “You can leave my bag here. I’ll deal with it. Go inside or back down to the big house or whatever it’s called. I’m gonna have a smoke and chill a little.”
She waited for me to say something. It felt like she was my big sister for a second.
“Are you really going to smoke?” I asked, trying not to sound disappointed.
She took another drag and exhaled. “You want one?” She held the pack out to me.
“No way,” I said. Then I stalked up the porch steps.
I hate being mad in any way at all – ever, actually. If I get mad, it makes me even madder to think that the person I’m mad at is so mean or stupid that they’ve made me mad. Mom says it’s one of the biggest challenges of being a middle child. She also says that girls sometimes have it worse than guys expressing their anger. I’ve been good at not always telling people what I’m thinking most of my life. Or, maybe I should say, that’s been one of the bigger problems I’ve created for myself, as you’ll see.
Delmore still had his eyes closed. He was wagging his head back and forth, listening to his iPod with a cigarette smoldering in the fingers of his left hand. His legs were crossed at the ankle near the end of the hammock. I walked past him heading for the door. At the last second I gave his feet a backwards ninja kick which knocked him out of the hammock onto the floor. I stood over him for just a moment, noting how confused and lost he looked, then went inside and slammed the door. I thought about locking it, but decided that would make me look like a rhino butt myself.
I could hear Delmore yelling and cursing at me. But I could also hear our cousin chattering away and laughing at him, so I figured it was pretty unlikely he’d come after me. Besides, what could he do? Neither one of us really knew how to fight. We went to a Quaker school. And he couldn’t exactly tell on me.