Nearly the entire time I’ve worked on my Middle Grade novel The Short Bus, I’ve thought the story has had little do with me personally. Recently, however, I realized that it has everything to do with me.
When I first started writing the book, I wondered what it would be like to be the most ordinary kid in the world. So ordinary that you were almost transparent. So average that you were forgettable.
Most people, after all, have at least one thing they do well. So what would it be like, I wondered, to be the kid who didn’t seem to do anything well?
In some ways, like Xero, I’ve felt invisible at times. As a boy, sure, but even as an adult.
Even recently, I experienced this very thing, at the same time, it turns out, that I was coming up with the idea for the novel. Like Xero, I wanted someone to see the one thing I did best. I tried to show it every way I could think of. In the end, though, that someone didn’t see anything at all.
The novel is about a boy who thinks it’s what you do that makes you extraordinary. He hasn’t learned yet that it’s really just a way you are. Sad to say, I don’t think I understood that myself until Xero showed me.
The following is a very brief writing sample, a short chapter from my Middle Grade novel, The Short Bus.
Bear in mind, it’s a chapter that didn’t exist until, well, just now. It’s brand new. In other words, it’s a rather rough draft. Still quite raw. I hope you enjoy it though.
Oh, by the way, since this is an excerpt from later in the novel, you might need a little backstory:
Xero is thirteen. He and his best friend, Webb, have made friends with a boy they call Knee Boots (an older boy named Kevin who suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury four years earlier). John is Knee Boot’s father and Mick is Xero’s brother. There was a recent confrontation at school between Xero and Mick and Knee Boots happened to be there. Witnessing the conflict upset Knee Boots due to what happened that terrible day in his past. Xero has gone to check on Knee Boots. To make sure his friend is okay.
When he reached Knee Boots’ house, Xero knocked on the front door, then stepped back, and waited on the stoop.
A small light came on, like the tiniest of stars. The inside door opened.
It was Knee Boots’ mom. “Oh,” she said softly. “Xero.” She opened the outside door which was mostly glass and stuck her head out, her voice hushed. “Hi.”
He noticed the way she stood in the doorway. She doesn’t want me here, he thought. I knew it. Knee Boots doesn’t want me here.
“Um,” he said. “It’s late. I . . . I shouldn’t have come so late. I should go,” he turned to leave.
“John mentioned that Kevin had a moment with you and your friend, Webb, yesterday while I was out.”
He nodded. “We were looking at some of his sketches . . . I don’t know what happened, but–”
“He gets that way sometimes. He remembers something, but he doesn’t understand why it’s not the way it was anymore. And I don’t know how to explain it to him so he does. He gets sad then.”
“We weren’t trying to make him sad.”
“I know. John knows. Usually, an hour after he’s like that he’s laughing again. By the time I got home, Kevin was painting as though nothing had happened.”
“He brought me the drawing at school.”
Xero nodded. “The same one that made him upset.”
“I didn’t–” She looked over her shoulder, as if she’d heard something stir inside the house, then stepped out onto the front stoop and closed the door behind her. “I didn’t know that.” She smiled, but it seemed to have all the curl taken out. “John’s reading to him now.”
She didn’t say, or I’d tell him you’re here.
He probably doesn’t want to see me after today, anyway, thought Xero. “I just wanted to make sure . . . he’s okay. Today in school–”
“Yes,” she said. “Principal Rudd called.” Xero lost his breath, his stomach emptied in a whoosh of air, as if there was a vacuum somewhere deep inside him. “He wanted me to be aware that Kevin might not have had a good day.”
“Yeah–” Xero lowered his head.
He wanted to say, Welcome to my world. He wanted to tell her, That’s just one of my brother’s special gifts. Only, he felt as if it was all his fault somehow. As if maybe Mick wouldn’t have been there if Xero hadn’t made that stupid video. That Knee Boots wouldn’t have been there either. That maybe the large boy would have been better off never meeting Xero.
“He mentioned that Kevin might have been around some boys during a confrontation.”
Xero nodded. “Were you one of the boys?” she asked.
Xero sighed, then looked into her eyes. They were soft, but not sad.
“Yes, ma’am. My brother–”
She stopped him with her hand. It was almost a wave. Almost a greeting. But he knew, the moment he saw it, what it really was. An end
“Xero.” She took a deep breath and let it out. “You’re an extraordinary boy. An extraordinary person.” He couldn’t believe how flat those words sounded. How he felt just the opposite. “And I think . . . I think getting to know you has been good for Kevin. And for me. You’ve reminded me that some people–” She paused, taking another big breath. “I just . . . I can’t let Kevin get mixed up with boys who have confrontations.”
Xero had no idea how to respond to that. He couldn’t remember a time when he didn’t have a confrontation with Mick. Isn’t that what big brothers do? Wasn’t that why his mom always called it ‘boys being boys?’ He needed her to understand. Knee Boots was an only child. She didn’t know. That’s just what brothers do.
“My brother,” he blurted, “he took the drawing and Knee–Kevin took it back. But that was pretty much the end of it. Except Mr. Connors came and made sure Kevin got to class okay,” he wanted her to know that her son had been escorted safely, “and then he took me to the office.”
“When he called, Principal Rudd asked if I knew you.”
“Oh.” He was a balloon boy with a tear in his chest, all the air that had filled him, gone.
“I told him you were Kevin’s friend.” For a moment, he started filling up again. “And Kevin certainly does like you. I like you. But,” she paused and Xero knew what was coming. If there was one thing having a writer for a father had taught him, the word ‘BUT’ was almost never followed by anything good. You never heard a parents say, you didn’t clean your room for the tenth day in a row, but tonight you get ice cream. “I’m afraid, Xero. I’m afraid.” He’d never heard an adult say those words, not ever, and they made him feel hollow inside. Not deflated this time. But empty. “As much as John and I and Kevin like you, and we really do, but . . . we can’t take a chance that . . . that something might happen.”
“He was off to the side almost the whole time.”
“Even off to the side isn’t safe. Things can change in an instant. And suddenly,” she shook her head, “the person who’s off to the side,” she struggled with the words, like they were impossibly heavy, “suddenly that person . . . is the one in the middle of it all.” Her eyes were melting right before his. Not flooding, not streaming, just turning quietly into water.
He remembered what she’d said before. Everything happened, she’d said.
“But, I didn’t start it. It was Mick and–” Why I am being punished again for something Mick did? Why does he have to ruin everything? I hate him. I really hate him.
“I’m sure you didn’t. You’re a good boy,” she put her hand on his shoulder. That’s when he realized his eyes were melting too. He wiped his face and looked away. “And I know you’re a good friend. I know you would never do anything to hurt Kevin.”
“I know.” She nodded and squeezed his shoulder. “And because you are his friend, I hope you’ll understand. I just can’t take the chance.”
She let go of Xero and stood a bit straighter. She was taller than him, though not by much, but looking up in that moment, he felt so small. So young.
“Can you tell me that it won’t happen again? That Mick or someone else won’t confront you about something when my son is there?”
Of course he couldn’t. He never knew when Mick would show up looking to unleash his wrath. It was never a matter of if, but when.
Xero sighed, lowering his head, turning away. There simply was no word for this sort of ending. This goodbye. His feet were impossibly heavy. His legs. As if something from her words had seeped into his bones. Into his heart.
He sloughed across the front yard and into the street.
“I do appreciate how kind you’ve been,” she called after him, but the words were just sounds bouncing off his back, falling to the ground.
Closing Doors – Rusty Knob #2 in Black and White by Bitzcelt used via Creative Commons License on Flickr.