Saturday, July 26, 2008

Kansas City, There I Went

In September 2005, I was invited to Kansas City, Kansas to participate in a brainstorming session for a company developing some new intellectual properties. I accepted the invitation for several reasons: (1) I was being paid, (2) it was for a company for which my brother-from-another-mother Rick Stasi worked, and (3) Kansas City barbecue, particularly a place called Zarda (Rick periodically ships me bottles of their sauce for home consumption).

The session discussed several properties, but one in particular interested me: Hey, Sophie! They had a bare bones concept: 14-year old New York girl is forced by circumstances to go live in the Louisiana bayou with a grandmother she hardly knows. It’s a fish-out-of-water story, with elements of the supernatural and even time travel thrown in and, when all was said and done, they wanted me to develop the story and write a series bible and a young adult novel, the first of what was hoped to be a nine-book series.

I started Hey, Sophie! in October and wrapped it up in April 2006 but due to a set of circumstances that would in themselves make a fascinating novel if I could ever unravel the chain of events, it and the rest of these IPs died on the vine. Which left this YA novel, all written and that I’m moderately pleased with, just sitting there, unpublished and not likely to be...there’s nothing I can do with it because it doesn’t belong to me (I was just, legally, at any rate, the work-made-for-hire writing monkey on it).

But here’s an excerpt from a chapter of Hey, Sophie!, wherein Sophie, who’s miserable being where she is and far more accustomed to riding the subway than rowing around the bayou in a pirogue (which isn't a dumpling, but a kind of small Cajun canoe), finds herself doing just that with Juan, the kid next door to whom she had previously been entirely rude:

© Stirred Water Studios

Chapter 5

The canoe drifted freely, going nowhere in particular. Juan pointed to a rock jutting up from the water about twenty feet to their right. “See that rock? Take a good stare and tell me what you think you see.”

Sophie squinted at the rock as they drifted by. It was...just a rock. A big, wet boulder. Well, okay, Sophie thought, that bulgy part there looked kind of like an animal’s leg...a dog’s paw. And that curve there could be a dog’s back and, just like that, Sophie saw it.

“A dog!” she said with delight. “Like a beagle, standing looking at that tree there. See, there’s his nose and muzzle and his tail and everything.”

“We call it the Dog Rock, and his tail’s a sign to follow right to the channel we came in by. She leads right back out to the lake right north of your grandmere’s house.”

He next pointed behind Sophie. She turned to see two large old tree trunks that had fallen across one another to form a giant X in the water. There was room under the bottom triangle of the X for their little pirogue to pass through. “That’s Hue’s Spot, ‘cause it was Robierre Hue who toppled those trees trying out his new chainsaw ‘bout twenty-five years back. But row through Hue’s Spot and keep going dead west, just follow the sun, and you’ll hit Yvonne’s Wharf over t’Warrenstown in about an hour. Other signs’ll tell you what direction you’re headed, how far you’ve gone, and how much farther you got to go.”

“Any chance of finding any of this on Mapquest?” Sophie said miserably.

“Don’t make a bahbin, girl. You’ll learn your way in no time, I gar-an-tee!“

“I don’t even own a bahbin, whatever it is,” Sophie said.

“It means don’t pout--and from the look on your face, you own plenty of bahbin. Come on, Sophie, admit it, ha? The bayou’s not so bad.” Juan’s face suddenly lit up and he pointed with the paddle off to one side. “Oh, Sophie, look at that!”

At first, Sophie wasn’t sure what it was she was looking at. It was a chunk of something, a log maybe, stripped of its bark to show the white wood, drifting along the still water less than a dozen yards from them. She blinked. Did that log have...eyes? And, wait a second. The water was absolutely calm. Their canoe hardly moved without Juan’s paddle in the water, but that log was making pretty good time on its own.

Sophie blinked again. Okay, not a log...

An alligator.

A white alligator!

At least six feet long from pale nose to pasty tail.

Sophie screamed. Juan shushed her; and the air around them filled with the screech, twitter, and cry of a thousand birds. The ‘gator ignored her and kept swimming.

“You doin’ it again, Sophie!” Juan warned. “That ‘gator just mindin’ his own business.”

Sophie leaned as far back away from the receding alligator as she could without toppling over the side. “Right--and his business is eating people.”

“Now you just bein’ silly, Sophie,” Juan said, dipping the paddle back in the water. “Gators don’t practically never attack people. Anyway, girl, don’t you know albino gator’re good luck.”

“To who?”

“To us, to whoever sees ‘im. They’re as rare as hen’s teeth, girl.”

Sophie never took her eyes off the alligator, just making sure that it didn’t sneak back to eat the boat and them. “Do hens have teeth?”

Juan sighed. “No, Sophie. Hens do not have teeth--and there ain’t a whole lot of albino alligators neither.”

“Okay, so I feel lucky we’re still alive and he didn’t eat us, so why don’t we go home and...”

Juan’s eyes went suddenly dark and he held up his hand, silencing her.

“Huh? What’s...?” Sophie started to say in a whisper; but Juan made a shushing sound and quickly, but gently, moved the paddle in the water. He looked scared. And if her been-paddlin’-round-these-parts-since-I-was-in-diapers guide was afraid, Sophie decided she was perfectly justified in being terrified.

“Juan!” she hissed. “Is it a gator?”

As he rowed towards a thickly wooded outcropping, he whispered hoarsely, “Listen!”

Gripping the sides of the boat, Sophie frantically swiveled her head around, trying to hear anything unusual among the chatter of birds and the squeaks of small animals.

“I don’t,” she started to say, then stopped. She heard it now, a slow rhythmic splash and thunk somewhere near. And something else. Whistling! It didn’t sound like a tune of any kind Sophie had ever heard, just a series of random low-pitched notes. It was kind of creepy.

Sophie held on for dear life as Juan paddled around the stand of trees as if trying to outrun the fast-approaching whistler. When they were on the far side of the trees and shielded from view by the thick foliage, Juan brought them to a stop. Only then did he turn and look at her, raising a silencing finger to his lips. He gently parted the brush and pointed through it for Sophie to look.

The splash-thunk and atonal whistling drew closer.

On the one hand, Sophie didn’t know if she really wanted to look; she had visions of some hockey-mask-wearing movie villain rowing by in a coffin, using twin axes as oars. On the other hand...well, she was just too curious for her own good not to look!

Sophie followed Juan’s finger, peeking through the reedy underbrush.

And, considering she was expecting the worst, what she saw wasn’t particularly frightening at all. It was a large man on some sort of shallow flat-bottomed boat that he pushed through the water with a long wooden pole.

The man himself was tall, probably over six feet. But it was difficult to tell much about him at all the way he was hunched over, his head bowed and covered by long, greasy hair. He was dressed in worn dark clothing and wore a black cloak tied around his neck. Watching him, Sophie felt a wave of sadness pass through her. The way he stood, the air of loneliness about him...Sophie didn’t know what it was about this person, but she didn’t get the sense he was anyone to be afraid of. Still, Juan seemed to think he was and he ought to know.


As he passed the trees behind which Sophie and Juan hid, the man turned his head ever so slightly, just enough so Sophie could see one eye looking at her through the hanging curtain of stringy hair.

Sophie gasped and yanked her head back, her heart thumping in her chest.

But the man kept going, poling his boat past them and disappearing down a channel to the right of the Dog Rock. Neither Sophie or Juan moved until he was long out of sight and they could no longer hear his whistling over their own shallow, frightened breathing.

Finally Sophie said, “Who the heck was that?”

“That was T-John,” Juan said, as though that explained everything.

“Don’t make me beg you, Juan,” Sophie begged.

“T-John, he the old mystery man of the bayou. When we call someone ‘T,’ it mean petite, you know, like small.”

“That guy wasn’t so ‘T,’” Sophie said.

“No, ma’am, he ain’t. And he ain’t none too friendly neither. Folks round here say T-John been living alone in his shack in the bayou forever. Papa Pierre the oldest man in town, over one hundred years old, they say, and he remember T-John polin’ that very skiff through these same waters when he was a boy and his papa remember the same thing.”

“Oh, come on,” Sophie said. “No one’s that old. What’s so dangerous about T-John that we had to hide from him?”

“Well, my papa say to stay away from him and that good enough for me,” Juan said with finality. “Ever’one know you keep your distance from T-John.”

“But why?”

“You ask him!”

“Hey, I’m just visiting. How come no one’s ever bothered just asking him what’s going on?”

“T-John don’t talk. He mute. Ever’bod’ know that, too.”

“Gee, excuse me for not reading the handbook, okay? I’m not up on all this stuff. Mute swamp hermits and Big Foot’s a little out of my experience.”

“All y’all got to know is you don’t go tuggin’ at a gator’s tail,” Juan said. He turned his back to her and lowered the paddle into the water. “C’mon, I best get you home.”

“Geez,” Sophie said. “I think someone’s taking their bayou lore a little too seriously.”

Juan shot her a dark look over his shoulder. “Maybe someone ain’t takin’ it serious enough.”

They traveled home the rest of the way in silence.

That night, Sophie slept with a light on in her room.

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