(I didn’t start with ‘Chapter One’ because I wanted to open with ‘Once upon a time’), in which we encounter the reason this story has a conflict (because a boy meeting a girl is not one)
What should come next, according to conventions of both literature and drama, is my eloquent recounting of the moment I first glimpsed Veronica Sawyer. I’m supposed to tell you that sunlight cast her in a halo that burned her very image onto my oh-so-sensitive soul; that the beautiful smile upon her perfect lips made mine quiver with want of her; that she stirred within me the calls of both wild and poet alike; that I, to put it simply and to paraphrase Eddie Izzard alluding to Albert Schweitzer, quite fancied her.
Unfortunately, I can’t, mainly because I don’t actually remember meeting her—
and yet her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.—1
which is, perhaps, not the most romantic way to continue this story, but then again might be the most realistic. I played in a tee-ball league with Veronica’s brother, Tom, back when Tom and I were kids. The only things I remember about back then are the lopsided tees, the coach who would yell at me to ask what I was swinging at, and the Big League Chew. My teammates and I would stalk across the parking lot between innings to purchase from the snack-shack stale nachos smothered in half-melted Velveeta. My puking on second base became the highlight of an otherwise low season.
Quick and agile and preternaturally athletic, Tom was the shortstop for our team the Jacksonboro Bobcats, whereas I was small and uncoordinated and had instincts better suited to deep left. One day, Tom stopped Jacky Malone, the opposing team’s big, slow catcher, from beating the shit out of me, and from that moment forward, Tom and I became fast, if unlikely, friends. We were probably ten years old, and we wore cotton tee shirts as uniforms and hats that cost a dollar. Our folks and siblings came to our games, all of which were held on the field behind the local grade school, and I met Veronica for the first time at some point during the three seasons that Tom and I played in the league.
Three seasons of shredded gum and adolescent chaos, and the sole reason I’d ever joined was that I wanted to knock the stitches off a slowball. I think I believed that if I could just hit a single homerun, I might wake up the following morning taller and faster and better.
I spent three seasons playing deep left, and no ball I ever hit made it past the pitcher’s mound; hits fair and foul alike dribbled off the end of my bat.
Eventually I gave up the idea that I had any athletic potential and turned instead to school and grades. I sucked at math and hated recess, but then I discovered books. I fell in love with stories, and instead of returning to the league during sixth grade, I whipped through our town’s small library, which included everything H.G. Wells—
The stranger came early in February, one wintry day, through a biting wind and a driving snow, the last snowfall of the year, over the down, walking as it seemed from Bramblehurst railway station, and carrying a little black portmanteau in his thickly gloved hand.—2
and more Lewis Carroll—
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wade—3
I mention all this because this story is not solely about how hard I fell for Veronica. Any real story must contain conflict, and falling in love with a girl who didn’t love me in return isn’t one. That’s the way life so often happens. You fall for some girl or some guy who barely even notices you, and you can’t understand why you fell so hard for them, because you know, rationally, logically, they’re no great shakes, but you don’t care and you do it anyway. It’s a lopsided smile, a carefree smirk, a winking eye. Calloused fingertips with crescent moons of darkness under the nails or slender hands with elegant knuckles. It’s never chests or asses or anything so common, though you don’t look away from those, either.
No, the reason this story has conflict is simple; one day, the librarian at my grade school set aside for me a book she thought I would like, about an orphaned boy wizard who had a mop of unruly black hair over a zigzag scar. The big, bright cover seemed a little more colorful and a little more childish than I had begun to read by then (the Hardy Boys were always running from explosions), but I took the book home and began that evening to read, and by the following morning, I wanted nothing less in the world than to be . . .
You thought I was going to say Harry, didn’t you? The Boy Who Lived, as he was always known in those books? But no, because, you see, though Harry was the titular hero who fought the bad guy, if you read that first book, the character who actually came through in the end, the character who saved the day for Gryffindor, was Neville. I remember laughing with glee when Dumbledore awarded those final points to Neville, and I also remember realizing right then, as I closed that book, precisely what I wanted to do: I wanted to tell stories. Exciting stories. Awesome stories. I wanted to make some reader, somewhere, somewhen, feel what I did during that moment: a sense of infinite possibility.
The following day, I found myself scribbling through class, missing most of the notes I was supposed to take in favor of a story about . . . well, you know, I want to say I don’t recall that first, earliest story, but I do; two young boys very similar to Tom and me met space aliens who gave them special superpowers.
That story never made it past the acquisition of said powers, and neither, for years, did any story I ever started. What can I say? I only ever wanted to fly.
Progression finally began as I started to read more. After blazing through both the Hardy Boys and A Wrinkle in Time, I moved on to Poe—
Let me call myself, for the present, William Wilson. The fair page now lying before me need not be sullied with my real appellation.—4
before I found Stephen King’s Needful Things and Eyes of the Dragon and Dean Koontz’s Strangers and Watchers and Lightning.
Is it too melodramatic to say those stories saved me? It’s not as though there was ever anything particularly malevolent in my life, not like I sought in my library refuge from a drunken step-father. Still, in those stories, I found the potential for the possibility I so wanted, and I’m not sure what my life would have become without books. I grew up in that small town, where everyone knew the quarterback but nobody really cared about the valedictorian, nevermind whoever finished second (as I did), and most people just kind of stuck around. Most of the residents of my hometown had grown up there, often just as their parents had.
Those books and stories made me want more, and when I started writing myself, I began to seek new experiences. Writing, if it didn’t make me cooler and better and more interesting, at least made me believe I could be if I stuck with it. Most of all, writing made me believe I could find something more interesting, and for a young kid in high school who can’t quite find a place no matter how hard he looked, in that sort of possibility lies salvation.
I found mine through studying. I found mine in Jack London’s outdoor adventure stories, which inspired me to join the Boy Scouts and ultimately earn Eagle. I found mine because I realized I would need a car to go anywhere worth visiting, which made me get a part-time job working at a local hardware store, where I learned how to solve the sorts of domestic problems to which one can apply a wrench. By the time graduation came around, my activities around the community earned me several local scholarships that allowed me to go to college.
All through those years, I wrote. I graduated from pens and ruled notebooks, first to my family’s computer until my parents surprised me with a desktop for my sixteenth birthday. My parents had never been particularly well off, which made the gift that much more significant, and I made sure, over the next few years, to earn their money’s worth from it. I used it to write the application essay that earned me a full academic scholarship to college, all the English papers that helped boost my GPA, and, of course, the first stories that weren’t just adolescent fantasies of super powers and space aliens.
No, they were bad Dean Koontz rip-offs.
But that was okay. By then I was reading Douglas Adams and Richard Cox and Neil Gaiman, through whom I eventually found Jonathan Carroll and Will Shetterly and then the Nielsen Haydens, Patrick and Teresa, two editors at TOR, a major science fiction publisher. By then, in other words, I had begun to read more books by better writers, and most of all, was seeking them on my own, beyond the confines of the classrooms where my teachers were still trying to convince me Shakespeare was a genius and Pygmalion was how every suitor in the world was supposed to feel—
Women upset everything. When you let them into your life, you find that the woman is driving at one thing and you’re driving at another.—5
And okay, so maybe it really was.
By then, I’d long outgrown little league, but Tom and I were in the same patrol in our local Boy Scout troop, and so I saw Veronica often over the years, at courts of honor and various scouting functions. She seemed to get prettier every year, bypassing awkward adolescence to blossom into the beauty of oncoming adulthood. You could tell just by looking at her she was going to break some hearts, while I, on the other hand, remained pretty much a set of thick glasses with a squeaky voice and parted hair. Plus, of course, my pen.
When Tom and I began to hang out more often, playing PlayStation tournaments of martial arts fighting games, I began to see Veronica more often, as well. Some people are lucky when the people they fancy never give them the time of day, or realize they exist, but with Veronica, I had the opposite problem: I became such good friends with Tom that I basically became a second, honorary, older brother, more a best friend than a crush.
Which was why I decided to write her poetry before I left for college upstate.
God, I was such a cliché, wasn’t I? That’s what I’m thinking as I recount those gawky, awkward years—part-time job at a hardware store, Boy Scout, track and swimming, second in my class. Christ, it’s like I was the supporting character actor in my own damned life. Those poems, too, were wholly unremarkable; imagine every cliché every high school senior has ever come up with, every groan-inducing stanza and cringe-worthy metric foot. The details of those poems are hazy, now—
and just before dawn I burn with desire
while I attempt to extinguish this delirious fire
that burns at my core and all the while,
I think of you.
Just before dawn.6—
but I know I wrote nine of them, each worse than the one previous. About the only original aspect of the endeavor was its title: “True Images of Beauty,” as I’d read that ‘Veronica’ was Latin for “true image.”
(I discovered later it’s actually derived from the Greek Berenice, meaning “bringer of victory,” which means that even when I was original I was wrong, which may become a running theme here.)
I wanted to let her know how I felt. I had spent so many evenings with her in her family’s kitchen, just chatting, often eschewing another round of UltimaFighter just to talk to her. I got butterflies watching her pour a glass of water. I’d never actually told her that, but my major mistake was believing she hadn’t already known; I’m not sure it could have been more obvious had I skywritten it on her living-room ceiling.
I composed those poems and bound them and then left them, one evening, in her mailbox. Just an hour or so later, Mrs. Sawyer called my house; considering I left my feelings behind on paper so I didn’t have to look Veronica in the eye when I told her I was so in love with her, is it appropriate Veronica confirmed her solely-platonic feelings for me through her mother? That’s exactly what happened.
It’s not like I hadn’t known she loved me like an older brother, no more and no less, but the actual confirmation made the world seem smaller, and darker. I can’t say I had hoped otherwise; one of the reasons I hadn’t said anything before then was that I had convinced myself that, so long as I never said anything, so long as Veronica never had to tell me—either outright or through her mother—that she only loved me as a friend, there might still be hope for more.
Of course, there was not.
Not until I met Angus, anyway. But first, college and some years after.
6 is not actually a link. Those are actual lines of actual poetry I actually wrote when I was a senior in high school. I mean, how lame is that?
Might our young hero-narrator turn Veronica’s eye? What will happen when he goes away to college? When the hell is this story set, anyway? Tune in next week for all the answers to these (and other, even more interesting questions)!