Giant Girl Made of Hair

The following extract is from my work in progress: a YA novel entitled Some Kind of Something which is inspired by my best friend’s first love.   Chapter Three reminds me a lot of how said best friend and I first met.  Happy Birthday to my Len-spiration!

Chapter Three: Giant Girl Made of Hair

Bench near the parking lot of Pioneer Hall. March 25th, 1986

If someone wears headphones—big headphones, proper headphones, the ones that look like cybernetic earmuffs slurping at your skull with spongy musical love, and an insulated cord so long it reaches all the way back to the womb.  If someone sits on their own in the middle of a bench wearing headphones like that, it’s a clear signal that someone wants to be left alone.  Most people understand this.

Althea Ray does not understand.

I have temporarily escaped from the Illinois Youth Orchestra.  The last straw was watching my brother flirt with First Chair Violist Megan who, I think, was flirting with Glowing Jordan of the Flutes.  I’m not sure if Glowing Jordan was flirting with anyone, but it didn’t seem like he was going to be ascending or transforming anytime soon either.

Hate to miss that.   

But I need fresh air and I don’t care if it’s allowed or not.  I’m sitting on a bench outside Pioneer Hall, watching the security lights in the parking lot tremble to life as the sun sinks below the horizon.  I’ve got my headphones on, there’s no one else around and there’s a fresh, crisp spring breeze blowing through my hair.  If anyone asks, I’m waiting to meet my parents before the concert.

The idea of the concert and my parents spoils the peaceful moment.  My pulse starts to race and my everything clenches in anticipation.  I’m not sure which looming crisis scares me more: performing as one of the youngest members of the Illinois Youth Orchestra or performing with my brother for our parents as one of the youngest members of the Illinois Youth Orchestra.

The security lights in the parking lot flick on and off like they can’t decide whether they’re meant to be up yet.  Or they’ve woken up ready to party.  A disco strobe parking lot.

Their indecision is not helpful.  My breathing becomes quick and shallow, my throat constricts and I’m about to launch myself off this bench and onto the disco parking lot, when the sound of heavy panting followed by a solid thump makes me jump.  Huge quantities of black hair greet me from an impossible height.

‘Hi.’

Talking black hair.  Flickering security lights silhouette the sleek head in lightening bursts like something out of a horror film.  I shrink into the collar of my black turtleneck. One hand emerges from the shadow and gives a little wave.  A second hand rests on the shoulder of an enormous purple case which contains either a giant guitar or a small child.

The giant’s hair is everywhere.  Black sheets of it slide from a neatly parted scalp, down the sides of a heart-shaped face, over narrow shoulders, across the purple case/coffin.  She—I assume it’s a she beneath all that hair—realises it’s in her way because one hand pushes it back, revealing a person.  In the dark, with the flashing light behind her, I can’t make out her features, but I think they’re mostly female and human.

‘Hi,’ she repeats.

She smiles tightly down at the part of the bench occupied by Chordelia then raises her black eyebrows as if asking my viola for permission to sit down.  Her full lips widen into a manic, sunbeam smile, all white teeth and infectious cheer.  The sort of smile beauty queens and talk show hosts practice in the mirror.   It’s a: “You’re going to like me and I won’t give up until you do so you might as well face it and make room for me because I can charm you under the table with my teeth tied behind my back” smile.

Fingers still trembling, I pull Chordelia, safe in her case, onto my lap, making room for the hairy giant with the monstrous purple coffin to sit down next to me.

‘Thanks,’ she mouths.  Her long legs vanish beneath the bench.  ‘I felt a bit stupid just standing out here by myself,’ she shouts into my ear.  ‘With this thing,’ she slaps the side of the purple case, possibly as a signal to silence the poor creature trapped inside it.

Why is she out here at all?  And why is she shouting?

‘What are your listening to?’ the giant girl of hair bellows.

Oh.  That’s why.

I forgot about my headphones.  Easy to forget because they aren’t plugged into anything.  The jack is stuffed into the back pocket of my pants.  I don’t wear headphones for entertainment, I wear them for protection. Like armour.  When I wear my headphones, no one tries to talk to me.  (Usually.)  I can pretend not to hear the nasty things people say behind my back and to my face.  My headphones defend me.

Beside me, the girl made of black hair stretches caramel-coloured hands and shakes out long, slim fingers.  Pianist hands, I think, though it’s probably not a piano inside that purple beast.  Now that my head isn’t picturing horror films, I recognise it as a cello case.  Like Hector’s.  Only purple.

Great.  She’s a giant hairy cellist. 

‘What are you listening to?’ she repeats, louder, closer and slower, tucking stray strands of hair behind her ears.   That hair has a mind of its own.  It wants to be free.

‘What?’ I ask breathlessly.  I slide half a headphone to one side, pretend I haven’t heard her, try desperately to think of how to answer, wish she hadn’t asked and wonder if she can tell I’m breathing like a marathon runner on mile twenty.

‘What are you listening to?’ she asks for a third time.

‘Umm…’  My face heats.  I suck at lying.

‘Is it shocking?’ she grins in a voice borrowed from some English Victorian parlour drama.  ‘Or just embarrassing and ridiculous?’  She rolls her the “r” of ridiculous.

‘Both,’ I puff, kind of truthfully.

‘I think I’ve seen you around the practise rooms at school.’

‘Probably,’ I nod, grateful to move on from the topic of what I’m not listening to on my headphones.  ‘I spend a lot of time there.’

‘I’m Althea.’

A caramel hand stretches out from behind the ebony curtain of hair and takes mine. Despite the early spring chill, her hand feels warm.  My cold, shaking fingers hold her too tightly for too long.

Althea doesn’t seem to mind.  She smiles.  Not the beaming beauty queen smile she flashed because she wanted something, but a real smile.  An awkward smile that doesn’t look forced exactly, just off.  Like her smile is still trying to figure out its purpose in the world.

‘Len,’ I mumble.

I try to take my hand back, but she holds onto it for another minute before letting go.  A familiar routine plays out on Althea’s face.  One I’m used to.  If she has noticed me before, hanging around the practise rooms, it’s probably not the first time she’s played this game.

I can almost hear her brain wonder: What are you?

Her eyebrows, black and thick as her hair, knit together.  Her eyes, big, black and almond-shaped, with almost no fold at the lids, study my face.  I wonder if she’s Asian or Indian.  I wonder if it’s OK to ask.  Her eyes drop from my face down to my chest then up to my neck.

Smart girlToo bad.  I’m wearing a turtleneck.

I wait for her to make up her mind.  To take in my square jaw and peachy skin; my long lashes and chiselled cheek bones; my short hair and gentle curls.  I wait for her to put this together with my alto/tenor voice, my long, lanky body, softened by puppy fat but still unformed, and my unhelpful name.  I wait for her to ask.  Like everyone else.

She never does.

‘What you listening to, Lenny?’  Althea doesn’t change her body language one bit.  Not to slide in closer or shift to make room.  Not that she could have.  Most of the available space belongs to her.  ‘Before I interrupted you,’ she adds apologetically.

‘Nothing,’ I confess, but she talks over me.

‘The Vivaldi piece?  That’s a tough one for the violists.’

‘Yeah,’ I respond, answering the second question, avoiding the first.

‘The third movement is kicking my ass,’ she sighs.

‘The embellishments on the first are a bitch,’ I agree, matching her swearing.

‘Don’t you think Vivaldi’s like the angry gym teacher of the string section?’

‘The one who makes us run in place and calls it a rest period?’

‘Yeah,’ laughs Althea.  ‘That one.’  I made her laugh.  Encouraged, I stretch the joke even further.

‘He’s like the bitter coach who thinks he’s pushing us to make us stronger.’

‘Totally,’ she giggles.

‘I hate that guy.’

‘Vivaldi’s a bully.’

‘He was a violinist,’ I shrug.

‘The diva sopranos of the string section,’ she replies.

‘Totally,’ I chuckle.

‘Maybe he wanted revenge for all the hours spent practicing.’

‘Probably,’ I agree.

A dark cloud settles over the conversation.  I wonder how many years she has sacrificed to the gods of music.  As many as I have?  I wonder how good she is.  Better than me?  Better than Hector?

If she turns out to be better than Hector, that would be awesome!

‘Sounds like we have a lot in common, Lenny.’  She places one hand on her purple case and one hand on Chordelia’s, patting them with a grim kind of fondness.

‘Len,’ I correct her.

Then, before I can stop myself, I give away the punchline to my favourite joke.  Just blurt it out.  Like it means nothing.  Like it isn’t my weapon and shield.

‘It’s short for Helen.’

I wait, breath held, for her reaction.  She shrugs.  Like it doesn’t matter.  Boy?  Girl? Vegetable?  Mineral?  It’s almost always the first thing people want to know about me.  But Althea doesn’t seem to care.

Well, this is different…

‘J Althea Ray,’ she proclaims formally, holding her hand out again, this time waiting for me to take it.

I worry my hand will be too clammy or slightly shaky but, to my surprise, it feels steady.  The pulsing terror at my throat is gone.  Like magic.

‘Helen R Timothy.’   Her hand feels deliciously warm.

‘Timothy?’ she repeats, incredulous.  ‘As in Hector Timothy?’

‘Yeah.’  I take my hand away and pull Chordelia to my chest.  The spell is broken.  She’s going to be another Hector fan, I just—

‘But he’s such an asshole.’

The world stops spinning for a moment.  Did she really just call my brother an asshole?  Wonderful Hector?  Genius Hector?  Hector that everyone loves?

‘Umm…’ I mumble, completely wrong-footed in the best way.  Like stepping off a high dive and falling into a pool of cotton candy rainbow clouds.

‘Sorry,’ she backtracks, ‘no offense, but your brother is kind of a—

‘Dick,’ I finish for her enthusiastically.  ‘Yeah.  He totally is.’

And in that moment, I know.  The instant she calls my golden brother an asshole, I know this is someone special and magical and important.

‘What’s the J stand for?’ I ask, struggling to tone down my sense of wonder.

‘If we’re still friends a year from now,’ she grins mischievously, ‘I’ll tell you.’

One year later, she will.

Advertisements

Great YA Couples

images (2)With The Fault in Our Stars about to fall on cinemas across the world, fans of the beloved novel are queueing up and Kleenex is cleaning up.  I haven’t decided if I can or should go yet.  At first, I was worried because I love this book so much and couldn’t bear another Golden Compass horror.  But even John Green has blessed the film and praised its stars.  Now my hesitation is more about preserving my mental health than my sense of literary integrity.  I still have not fully recovered from Les Miserables.

The film has also generated a fair amount of discussion on great YA fictional couples.  Who are the great YA fictional couples?  What makes them so memorable for us?  How do they manage to stir our hearts and other parts so thoroughly?  I like a good love story as much as anyone and probably far more than some.  Love makes for rich motivation and objective in a story.  Romance gets the reader on your protagonist’s side.  For young adult readers, it can also have a profound impact on developing their understanding of emotion, sexuality and their sense of self.

Previously in this blog, I have expressed emphatically the need for sex-positive heroines in YA fiction.  I made vague reference to a few characters whom I believe embody those qualities in a way which nurtures young readers.  Now I want to explore which couples have made a real impact on me as a keen reader of YA fiction.  Some of these characters I discovered when I was, shall we say, a part of the target audience and some have come to me as an adult fan of YA/Cross-over books.  My favourite twelve YA fiction couples.

MINOR SPOILER ALERTS

 

1)      Will & Lyra from His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. 

If you have not read this trilogy run don’t walk to your nearest book store now because it’s a life-changer.  The relationship between Will and Lyra builds slowly, beautifully over the course of two books.  When they eventually get together it’s sweet, tender joyful, awkward, sexy.  And if you want tragic agony forget Romeo and Juliet or Hazel and Augustus—these two take the prize.

 

2)      Hazel & Augustus from The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.

 Eighteen-year-old me would have flatly refused to read this book.  I would never have picked up Twilight either.  My adolescent logic would have gone something like this: Everyone is reading it, Everyone is talking about, Everyone has probably just seen the film and not even touched the book, Everyone is a lying poseur ergo I will not read it.  Eighteen-year-old me would have missed out because teen me didn’t always realise that some things are popular for a reason.  This is popular for a reason.  Yes, it is heart-breaking and I sobbed many times—which is embarrassing if you’re listening to an audiobook whilst shopping in Sainsburys.  But it’s also funny and honest and so very smart.  Run don’t walk.

 

3)      Harry & Cho from The Order of the Phoenix by JK Rowling.download (1)

What?  Harry & Cho?  Not Ron & Hermione?  Not Harry & Ginny?  Nope.  Harry & Cho.  Not because I think they are such a great couple but because I have seldom read a more honest portrayal of first love.  Harry crushes on Cho from afar for three books, cursing Cedric for getting there first.  Then HURRAH Cedric dies and Cho is single.  The course of their relationship is unflinchingly truthful.  Once Harry gets Cho he really isn’t sure what to do with her.  She has her idea of what a Couple should be and Harry, who clearly has not read the Teen Romance Handbook, is delightfully clueless. From their first damp kiss under the mistletoe to their cringe-worthy first date in Madame Puddifoot’s Tea Shop to their break-up that was not so much a break-up as a fade-out.  Totally, hilariously honest.  Ron & Lavender are a close second.

 

4)      Colin & Maggie from The Unicorn Creed by Elizabeth Scarborough

Not strictly speaking a YA novel, but I read it when I was thirteen and again at sixteen and eighteen and twenty-five.  Definitely one of my favourite fantasy novels with one of my favourite couples at the heart of it.  What do I love about Colin & Maggie?  I love that they are friends first.  I love that Colin starts off with traditional ideas of feminine beauty which Maggie challenges.  I love that Maggie wins.  I love their love scene—both of them are ill, unwashed, imprisoned.  What better way to kill time and keep warm in an ice dungeon?

 

5)      Tiffany & Preston from I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Prachett

Tiffany Aching is one of my top five YA heroines.  She is someone who is quite thoroughly ordinary, but shapes her life, her world and herself into something extraordinary.  For three books, readers think Tiffany is destined for the baron’s son Roland—and they make an interesting couple.  But Preston is just perfect: funny, far too clever and brave.  My favourite human traits in one package.  I love that Preston chases Tiffany.  I love that it takes her ages to get it.  I love the last line of the book.

 

tumblr_lpzrq6KGE31qadd37o1_4006)      Eponine, Marius & Cosette from Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.

Love triangles are a classic trope of YA fiction: Edward-Bella-Jacob; Jace-Clary-Simon; Peeta-Katniss-Gale.  You can keep them because Eponine-Marius-Cosette beats all.  Again, not a YA target novel but I remember Les Miz from stage and page at the age of seventeen.  Eponine: first inhabitant of The Friend Zone.  Oh how I identified with her.  On My Own was my go-to shower song.  Who am I kidding?  It still is.  And, unlike Jacob, Simon or Gale she goes all the way for the one she loves.

7)      Clary & Jace from The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare

images (1)

Don’t judge me…ok, go ahead and judge me…but I liked this couple most when I thought they were brother and sister.  It made their romance far more dangerous and naturally far sexier.  Forbidden love doesn’t get much more forbidden.  As a couple, I like the fact that things start off damsel in distress-knight swoops in to save the day but evolve into something far more equitable as their relationship grows.  He saves her, she saves him, he kidnaps her, she plunges an angelic sword through his chest then they save the world together.  Epic stuff.  I also like the way sex is honestly and various presented throughout this series.  Clare shows us sex used for power, for control, for comfort, for fun, even as something holy and redemptive.

 

8)      Michael & Lina from The Twelve Dancing Princess adapted by Andrew Lang.

Sometimes only a bit of storybook romance will do.  I have read various adaptations of this Grimm fairytale but Andrew Lang’s is my favourite—possibly because it was read to me so many times as a child.  I love that Lina and her sisters take joy into their own hands—sneaking off night after night for clandestine dates with handsome, captive princes.  I mean, how sexy is that?  And the classic princess-pauper class divide is here with Michael a mere gardener whose magic flowers win the princess’s heart.  Meanwhile, Lina risks everything because she does not want Michael to become just another love slave of the magic cave.  Beautiful stuff.

 

9)      Eilonwy & Taran from The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander

One of my most beloved books from childhood and one which I think has the most to offer young readers.  The quest for identity is central to YA fiction.  Why am I here?  Who am I?  Where do I come from?  How do I live my life?  What am I supposed to do with myself?  When can I start to do that?  These questions live in the hearts of all young people and it is the job of YA authors to help them make sense of the questions and the answers.  Orphaned at birth, as far as he knows, Taran struggles throughout five books to figure out who he is.  At first, he seeks only to learn who his parents are.  When he meets Eilonwy his search becomes far more important as he yearns to discover that he is someone worthy of her.  For her part, Eilonwy could have cut his efforts short sometime in book three but then neither of them would have been able to make the choices they do in the end. Oddly, I remember the fourth book Taran Wanderer being my least favourite as a child.  Re-reading them as an adult, I found it the most profound and interesting of the series.

 

10)  Marco & Celia from The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I’m still in the throes of passion for this book which I read for the first time last month.  Visually stunning, emotionally wrecking and so damn romantic it hurts.  As a couple, Marco and Celia are one of those die for you, kill for you, burn down the world just to roll around in  your ashes kind of forever loves.  Poetry, wine and flowers might be acceptable tokens for some lovers, but these two give each other funky clocks, magical ice gardens and pull down the stars—literally.  Sigh.

 

11)  Jo & Laurie from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

I might be alone in this, but does anyone else want to dig up Louisa’s grave, shake her bones a bit and say: SERIOUSLY?  I love this book.  Little Women means a lot to me.  But SERIOUSLY?  Laurie winds up with Amy?  A-MY?  And Jo marries some old German dude?  For REAL, Louisa?  No way.  OK, I agree that Jo should not have taken Laurie’s proposal right away.  She needed to grow up.  He needed to grow up.  But once they both matured they would have been great together.  I don’t buy it.  I don’t like it.  Let’s re-animate Louisa’s corpse with some Voodoo mojo and make her sort it out.  Who’s with me?

 

12)  nou_0711_seph_call_243x317Sephy and Callum from Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman

This is another run don’t walk sort of book.  I think it should be required reading for the planet.  Sephy and Callum make my list because their love story is so damn messy.  There is passion, friendship, affection but also ugly prejudice, uncertainty, violence, betrayal, cruelty.  Their defining love scene is not just awkward it is uncomfortable in many ways.  But ultimately it is a love story.  The complexity of it makes it all the more memorable and real.

 

I apologise for the hetero-bias of this list.  I wracked by brain trying to come up with queer couples that have impacted my reading and came up with nothing.  Willow and Tara from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which isn’t a book) or possibly Sam and Frodo from Lord of the Rings but their additions seemed lame and forced.  My mother always says I read the wrong stuff.  Now taking suggestions for Queer Romance books.