Ninety Dollars

Ninety dollars and twenty-three cents. Five dollars of it was pennies, kept in a glass jar. For a sixth grader, that’s a lot of money. I spent all morning rummaging under sofa cushions and behind the kitchen appliances to come up with enough for my purposes. The countertop was cold. I recounted all my money three times, so I knew I had more than enough. Nobody was going to scam me. Then, the first bell rang. My hands shook a little and I curled them into angry fists. I felt sick to my stomach.
Mamma had a big fire pit in the backyard. From inside, we heard the flames crackle and stretch towards the sky like rubber bands. Black wood popped into little eddies of smoke. Aunt Nina wanted to cook dinner for once, and we weren’t allowed anywhere near the fire pit until it cooled off; until all the smoke cleared. Didn’t want us to burn our hands, Aunt Nina said. But she brought the baby out to the patio and after that, of course, we didn’t listen to her. We were curious. The second bell rang, and I buttoned my coat. A cold wind blew down the street outside the funeral home.
I walked inside from the patio. Cold air rushed in behind me and sucked the breath from my lungs. In the kitchen, there was an array of food on the counters from our loving friends and extended family. The lights were off and I ate a baby carrot. As I walked, pennies rattled and rang in my pocket like little sleigh bells. Christmas was only a few weeks away. Over the hum of the refrigerator, I heard someone pull a chair out from the table and sit down. The chair creaked underneath her weight.
Aunt Nina sat cross-legged and tapped her foot on the kitchen floor. She wore a frilly black dress. My mamma wailed and cried upstairs. Aunt Nina offered no consolation; to tell you the truth, she looked annoyed. I hate my aunt with a passion. I wanted to cry too, there being no baby anymore. Poor girls, all three of them. She was gone too, Aunt Nina. Not dead in a physical sense, but mentally she wasn’t with us. She knew what she’d done to the baby. I heard the third bell ring, and I knew it was almost time for the funeral.
“It was a terrible accident.” Aunt Nina told me.
“What happened?” I asked.
“She tripped. She hit her head, and the fire pit tipped over. A terrible accident, for sure.” The fourth bell rang.
“Do you feel guilty?” I asked her.
“For what?” she said, “It was a terrible accident.” She picked a baby carrot off of her plate and ate it.
Not so much as an apology, and that wasn’t good enough for me. The boys on the corner know their way around a car. For all the police know, it’ll be her brakes’ fault. Poor Aunt Nina and her terrible brakes. Another terrible accident for the price of an arm and a leg. Ninety dollars, and twenty-three cents, and not a soul would be any wiser.

Redhead

When I was four years old, we lived in a small house with an oversized front yard. I remember being home one night, and there was something off about that dark expanse. Whatever it was, it left me frightened. An eerie and deep purple twilight enveloped everything outside our bay window. I crawled up onto a furry armchair. It was warm and bright indoors. Everything waved and vanished outside the window, muddled by the snowfall. For a moment, I thought I saw movement under the orange street lamps. As soon as it came, it was gone, merged with the black backdrop of suburban Philadelphia.

“Whatcha looking at?” Grandpa asked, walking into the room. I could smell the rum on his breath.

“Don’t know,” I said, pinching my nose. Grandpa raised an eyebrow. I looked outside again, peering into the darkness. Nothing. In a snowglobe on the bookshelf, just beside the window, a plastic ballerina perched on a small hill. She looked like mom; long red hair, slender. I tear up just thinking about it, even after all these years.

She was a dancer, that much I knew as a kid. Grandpa did not approve. Back then, I thought she twirled across stages, sucking mens’ breath away like a tornado. I imagined big spotlights and cheering crowds. She had flowing red hair and gentle green eyes. A graceful flower; delicate and slim.

At fourteen, when I found out what she really did, I can’t say I was surprised. She was always out late into the night. She brought home strange men at stranger hours.

I looked up to grandpa’s loving brown eyes. I realized nothing was wrong; there was no one outside. Couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

“When will mommy be home?” I asked. It was two hours past my bedtime.

At the time I had no idea, but outside, a short man stood ankle-deep in day-old snow. He stared into our living room with beady eyes. His hands were red-tipped like paintbrushes. A jealous lover, enraptured in the ecstasy of a kill; enshrouded in night time’s blanket. His breath congealed into clouds in front of his face. A bloody knife protruded from his pocket; a clump of red hair from palms.

When the Sun came up the sky was blue and the clouds curled up and disappeared like seafoam on ocean waves. There were tracks in the virgin snow. Drag marks, and a streak of red hair next to a figure sprawled out, frozen in time. That’s all I remember; the rest is just a blur.

Flat Characters

Hello.

Recently I’ve come to gripe with a trend I’ve been seeing in writing communities as of late. I’m not one to complain much, but when I see something I dislike and it burns in my chest with the same fire as this subject, I feel as though there’s some credence to my gripes. Therefore these instances (though rare) are not so much caviling as I would originally have led myself to believe.

So let’s get one thing out of the way. You can write characters that are queer or POC and make them interesting, compelling, and readable individuals. There’s no doubt about it. You can do it through the same mechanisms it takes to write a straight or white character and make them into something interesting, compelling, and readable. It’s a tough process to write a compelling character of any sort, don’t be mistaken. But it’s definitely possible. You can also write a plot in which a character’s skin color, sexual orientation, or gender identity carries the story’s central conflict. It’s been done before (To Kill A Mockingbird, for example) and it can be done again. It can be achieved in a fascinating and relatable way. Stories that attempt this or that pull it off are not the focus of this post, and I applaud those authors. I root for them to continue writing their stories their way.

My concern mourns characters who are notable for nothing other than being LGBTQA or POC. I’ll explain below.

I think I struggle with a related problem quite a bit, and it’s a tough cycle to escape from. When you start writing, a question will inevitably cross your mind: how do I write compelling characters? And you’ll go on blogs like this one or on subreddits for writers, where they will tell you that you need to know everything about your character. You need to know their date of birth, shoe size, favorite ice cream flavor, whatever. That certainly helps, but there’s much more to a character than his or her favorite color. What makes a character compelling is the conflict they experience! Their thoughts, machinations and relations to other characters and the environment are what makes them human and relatable. All these guides aim to teach you is that knowing everything about your character is what allows you to figure this out. You need to know how their appearance, preferences, and history shape the characters’ outlooks. I didn’t get this until recently, and I am just as guilty of this as anyone else. In part this is because I’m a new writer, but it’s also because I lacked the understanding of how to make characters human.

For a long time, I have struggled to grasp this. So I completely understand where an author is coming from when they don’t get why I have a problem with a character’s defining feature being their gender, sexual orientation, or skin color.

The truth is, I don’t have a problem with characters being LGBTQA or POC or transgender. I have a problem with flat characters. Those need work.

sam