Back in middle school, reading was a punishment. If I was grounded, I wasn’t allowed to play video games, watch TV, or even draw. I also couldn’t go out to see my friends. Okay, fine: friend.
Instead, all I could do was read and write.
This was my step-mother’s idea. On the one hand, it all started out with good intentions. She was a reader (much more so than my dad) and so she’d buy me books. I was often in the car with her when she ran errands, so I spent most of that time either playing Pokemon in the backseat or reading. It’s how I got started on the Harry Potter series.
But that only took up a couple hours of the day, and I couldn’t read that whole time. I was never really compelled to read on my own. Well, I say that now, but there was a book I read at least three times called The Skull of Truth by Bruce Coville. I don’t know why I liked it so much, and I kind of want to re-read it as an adult to see if I can figure it out. There’s got to be a reason why the title and author are fresh in my mind to this day.
So, if I got bad grades, or the school called about missing homework, or anything else, I would be put on lock-down.
You have to imagine the context of time in this. I was a middle-schooler. So all I had to occupy my day were school and free-time. From the time I got home until the time I went to bed—about a seven hour span of time—I had nothing to do but anything I wanted to do.
But when I was grounded, that was seven hours I had in which the only activities I had available to me were reading, writing, and homework. It’s a hard span of time to fill when you’re that young. I think I even got in trouble if I chose to fill this time with sleeping instead of anything productive. Maybe I’m making that detail up.
Even when I wasn’t grounded, though… well, that’s the point of this post.
I think it started around fifth grade, when I won an “honorable mention” for a short story I submitted to something we had going on at the school. It was a mandatory writing project, so everyone submitted something. I didn’t win anything, but still, an honorable mention for the first story I’d ever written was a huge accolade at the time. The sentimental part of me wishes I still had that story. Then again, I’m not very sentimental.
After that, my step-mother decided it would be a good idea to compel me to write. At first, it was just a suggestion: You’re a good writer, maybe you should write more. Then it became compulsory, and I would have to write. I don’t remember if the constraint was time-based or number of pages. I think she changed it up.
I only remember one of the stories. The last one, which was a little bit of revenge.
Some more context: At the time, we had two dogs (Buddy and Jake) and we lived in the country. There was lots of wildlife. It was also around Christmastime, and there was a sit-com on the air called “Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place.” I don’t remember much about it, except that there were a couple of guys and a girl. And possibly a pizza place.
So I wrote my ultimate short story: Two Dogs, a Squirrel, and a Christmas Tree.
My step-mother read the title and laughed. She thought it was creative. It certainly could only foretell a hilarious and heartwarming Christmas tale.
I really wish I could have watched her face when she read it.
Sidenote: I just realized she was about the age I am now when all this happened. Feels weird.
The story started out innocently enough. The dogs befriended a wounded squirrel. Particularly, Buddy befriended it. He had once brought a baby bunny to our door. He held it gently in his mouth and didn’t hurt it. Jake would have killed it. So part of this story was based on real life.
So the squirrel came to live in the Christmas tree. I don’t remember the details of why or how. But I do remember the rest of the story.
It was a constant circle of Buddy going outside to play with the squirrel before they returned back inside, followed by Jake going out to play with the squirrel the next day. Then Buddy played with it, then Jake, then Buddy… You get the idea. I’d written this cycle enough times until I filled an entire page.
Then they all died.
My step-mother was furious. I don’t know if it was because she knew I was screwing with her, or because the animals had died. I don’t really care, to be honest. She never made me write again after that.
But she did give me a powerful gift with this whole debacle. At that point, I realized how much power one could wield with words, a basic instrument that all of us have. Words can change worlds and affect the future. Words give us the power to create and destroy.
It was a power I would learn to wield, but on my own terms.