Out of the Fire

Times had been hard since Julia’s father remarried. His new wife, Angelica, had no time and little to no interest in taking care of Julia, and so left her alone and feeling unloved. As an eight-year-old, this was painfully hard. More than anything, Julia yearned to be held in someone’s arms and hear the words, “I love you”. But day after day passed without a single encouraging sound.

Her father traveled a lot for work, so he was seldom home. Recently he flew off to Switzerland, a land that Julia longed to see, leaving instructions for Angelica to take his daughter shopping for new school clothes.

Like all kids, Julia loved new clothes. The first week of school everyone wore new stuff, showing off all the big-name brands that their parents had purchased. Before her father remarried, Julia was just like those kids, standing proud with her Nike shoes and Addidas yoga pants.

Angelica, however, did not take Julia to Macy’s or Nordstrom’s so that Julia could get the best clothes. No. She took her to WalMart and Target and hastily picked out the cheapest clothes she could find. Julia was given no say in what was purchased. In fact, when she complained about a neon orange t-shirt with a dinosaur covered in sparkles, she was told to shut up and be grateful for what she got. So she wore unpopular clothes and for the last two years had been the laughingstock of her class.

While her father was gone this time, without giving prior notice, Angelica moved in her three nieces, bulky teenagers with puffy faces and lumberjack thighs. The girls were haughty, rude and disrespectful to Angelica, openly ridiculing her and making fun of the way their aunt walked and talked, but it didn’t seem to matter as they were never disciplined. Because of this, the teens saw an opportunity to pick on Julia mercilessly, teasing her about her hair, her nibbled-on finger nails, and her dishwater-blue eyes.

One day a flyer appeared in their mailbox advertising a contest in which one singer would earn a full scholarship to Johnson School for the Arts in Denver, a residential school housed in a refurbished mansion.

Because Julia loved music, she dreamt of winning and of the escape it would bring. Every evening after she finished her seemingly endless list of chores, she retreated to her bedroom and sang every song that came to mind. She pictured herself on stage, standing before a panel of judges, hitting every note perfectly, so perfectly that she would be declared the winner right on the spot.

Her stepmother’s nieces also practiced. Not a one of them could sing on tune for more than a few notes and they had no sense of rhythm or timing, and even though they used a karaoke machine, they messed up the words.

Julia loved hearing them fail time after time. She knew that they would embarrass themselves on stage, probably earning a chorus of mocking chants similar to what they dished out to Julia. Julia pictured them turning beat red as the judges critiqued their performances, finding so many faults that there was much more negative than positive.

Finally after weeks of anticipation, the third Saturday in August arrived, the day of the contest. Angelica told her nieces to wear their best clothes and to do up their hair so as to look their best. Julia put on her only dress, even though it was practically see–through, combed out her shoulder-length hair and rubbed lotion on her arms and face.

When it was time to leave, Julia headed for the car. Angelica stood in her way, arms crossed over her chest, glowering. “You can’t go looking like that,” she said. “Go put on one of your new outfits.”

Julia went upstairs and changed as quickly as she could. Because she had no other dress, she wore her new pants, shoes and shirt. But she must have taken too long, for by the time she stepped out the front door, the car was gone.

Tears formed in her eyes. Julia thought about giving up and going inside, but then she remembered her dream. There was a chance that she might make it in time, if she was lucky and her friend Nat was at home. She walked as quickly as she could and when she arrived, Nat’s mom answered the door. Her mom invited Julia inside and offered her a glass of cold water.

After hearing Julia’s sad tale, the mom said, “Take Julia upstairs and have her try on a few of your dresses. When you find one that looks good, get dressed and come downstairs. Please hurry, though, as we have little time to spare.”

In the room Nat pulled out four dresses, and one by one, Julia tried them on. By consensus, they agreed that the pale green dress with a gauzy skirt was the best choice. Nat also loaned Julia a pair of black flats, which fit a little loose, but looked good enough that no one would notice.

“You look wonderful,” Nat’s mom said. “We’d better hurry as it will take us a good twenty minutes to get there.”

When they arrived, Nat’s mom filled out the required paperwork, claiming herself to be Julia’s guardian. It was a little bit of a lie, but not a huge one, because Nat’s mom happened to be a cousin on her mom’s side of the family. Since her mother died, Julia hadn’t seen much of her aunt, but whenever Julia needed something, she always came through for her.

Julia waited backstage for her turn to sing. From where she was seated, she could not see the stage or hear the music, but she could see Angelica’s nieces. They took turns preening before a floor-length mirror and smoothed out each other’s hair, sticking pins in here and there to keep unruly areas flat.

One by one they left. One by one they returned with sour looks on their faces. Angelica hugged each, wiping away tears of humiliation, and then shuffled them out of the mansion.

Because Julia had registered so late, she was the last performer. As she waited, she sang quietly, going over how she would stand, move her arms, and allow her eyes to look out over the audience with a confidence that she felt down to her toes.

After a long, long wait, when no one else was left, Julia’s turn came. She was escorted to the side of the stage and told to wait. She peeked around the curtain and saw that only about fifty people remained. That gave her hope. The other kids must have done so poorly that their parents knew they’d never get accepted to the school and so left in despair.

When told to do so, Julia walked proudly to the center of the stage. She bowed and then stepped to the microphone. “Hi. My name is Julia Smythe. I’m eight years old and I love to sing.”

“Welcome, Julia,” one of the judges said with a smile. “Are you a good student?”

“Yes,” Julia said. “I never get in trouble, do all my work, and get good grades.”

“Excellent. You’re the kind of student that we’re looking for.” The judge picked up a pen and wrote something on a paper in front of him. “What are you going to sing?”

“Beauty and the Beast.”

“Please call up the soundtrack,” the judge said to some unseen person. “Julia, when you’re ready, nod and the music will begin.”

Julia took a deep breath to steady herself, raised her eyes and looked at the back wall of the auditorium. She nodded and when the music began, she gave the best performance she had ever done. She hit every note and followed the beat. When the music ended, she smiled a satisfied smile.

The audience clapped and clapped and then people stood until even the judges were on their feet. Julia blushed and bowed her head. It felt good to have so many people standing just for her. She loved it when they shouted her name over and over.

When the audience quieted, Julia turned to leave. While she was pleased that so many liked her performance, she believed that was because she was only eight. She thought she didn’t stand a chance at getting that cherished spot in the school.

Before she had taken the second step, the judge said, “Where are you going?’

“I thought I’d go home.”

He smiled at her. “Don’t you want to hear our comments? Aren’t you interested in knowing how well you did?”

Julia looked down at the stage floor. “Yes, but I’m just a little girl.”

“You’re a little girl with a powerful voice,” the judge said. “In fact, you have the best voice that we’ve heard all day. How does that make you feel?”


“Well, then, we have some great news for you. Are you interested in knowing what we have to say?”

“Yes,” she whispered.

“Julia Smythe, we are prepared to offer you a complete scholarship to the academy. It will cover your tuition and your room and board for as long as you succeed and wish to stay.”

Julia clasped her hands and bowed. “Thank you. Thank you so much!”

“All we need is for your parent to complete the paperwork and the deal is sealed. Is one of them here with you?”

“My mother id dead and my dad is away, but my aunt brought me here today.”

The judges took Julia, her aunt and Nat into an office. When they gave her aunt the paperwork, they said it had to be signed and returned within two weeks, and then Julia would begin school August 24.

Julia and Nat skipped all the way to the car. They sang “Beauty and the Beast” over and over until Nat’s mom couldn’t take it anymore. When they got to Nat’s house, her aunt sent Julia upstairs to change.

“I contacted your dad,” her aunt said when the girls came down for lunch. “He said to say that he was proud of you. He won’t be back in time to sign the papers, so he asked me to fax them to him. I can do that on my computer, so I’ve already sent him the paperwork. We should get it back later today.”

Julia smiled. In her borrowed clothes she had beaten out her stepmother’s nieces and all the other kids. Within a month she would be out of her miserable home and into a cherished academy. Life was turning out to be good after all.


The Importance of Tone

Tone is an important component in any piece of writing. Tone is set by conveying emotions or feelings through the choice of words. The way a character feels about an idea or concept or event, or even another person can be determined through the facial expressions that character uses, through gestures such as movement, action and arm waving, and even in the voice used.


The following are three examples of tone. the protagonist, Nicole, is the same in all three, but her attitude as she approaches a mundane, but necessary task is what changes the overall tone of each piece.

Version #1


The house was a mess.  The kids’ toys were scattered all over the family room floor, random socks hung abandoned across chair arms, and dishes in various stages of decay were piled high in the sick. Nicole looked at the mess in disgust. She knew she should do something about it, but lacked the energy to tackle the project without first taking a sustaining sip of her favorite drink: whiskey.

She poured herself a wineglass full, turned on the television, then sat in her husband’s recliner. She pushed back, sending the footrest high, leaned back and settled in for her soaps. All that television drama fortified her belief that there was no such thing as a good marriage. After all, look at her own.

Her husband, a handsome, successful businessman, left home before dawn and came home after the kids were in bed. He did nothing around the home, not even picking up his own dirty clothes. He seldom spent time with the kids on weekends, and when he was home, his phone was glued to his ear focusing on solving one crisis after another. Nicole often wondered if he was having an affair, but she was too tired to care and too terrified to ask.

When her shows were over and the whiskey long gone, Nicole began work. She flung the toys in the direction of the toy box, not caring if they actually fell within its sides. Next she tackled the socks, picking them up one by one, then tossing them out in the garage, where they landed in front of the hamper. The dishes were so disgusting that Nicole didn’t want to touch them, but she had no choice. If she didn’t wash them, no one would.

With furrowed brow, Nicole decided to tackle the dishes next. The easiest ones were on top, for they were from breakfast. She had fixed the kids pancakes which they drowned in syrup, now a sticky sludge. She scrubbed it off, sometimes having to exert a little muscle. She scraped off as much food remains as she could, then rinsed each dish before setting it in the dishwasher. It was a tedious task.

Next down were the ones from last night’s dinner. Spaghetti. Thankfully the sauce rinsed off quite nicely. Stacked next to the sink were the pots and pans. Now they were a huge mess. Crusted sauce. Hardened batter. Bits of hamburger stuck to the bottom of the skillet. Nicole kept at it until everything was either clean and put away or stacked in the dishwasher.

That was not the end of the job, however. There was dusting to do and changing of the kids’ beds. She went into the boys’ room first and stripped off the blankets and sheets. One set she put in the washer. The other she left on the floor. Back in the room, she sprayed the mattress covers with Febreeze and then ran a dust rag across the tops of the chest of drawers and around the legs of the beds.

In her daughter’s room she did the same.

Next on tap was the bathroom that the kids used. It was a mess. Damp towels in jumbles on the floor. Dried toothpaste in the sink. A dirty ring around the tub. While Nicole cleaned, inwardly she clenched her stomach, fighting the revulsion that threatened to erupt.

She loved her kids, but hated cleaning up after them. They were all of an age where they should pick up clothes and toys and change beds, but Nicole didn’t want to upset the family order. She was a stay-at-home mom with nothing important to do, so, according to her husband, she should be the one to attend to those details.

It made her so mad that somedays she thought about leaving. Considered packing a suitcase full of her favorite clothes and walking out the door while the kids were at school. She wouldn’t call to check up on them, wouldn’t come by the house to see if it still stood, wouldn’t email or text or make any attempt at contact. But where would she go? That’s what stopped her.

While she waited for the last load of laundry to dry, she poured herself another whiskey and settled in front of the television. She watched a mindless interview-type show in which brokenhearted ex-lovers aired their woes to millions. There was screaming and yelling and insults being tossed back and forth, to the enjoyment of the live audience.

Nicole would love to have the gumption to tell her husband what she thought of him. To complain about his lack of involvement in the family’s lives. To yell about all the things he does not do around the house. To slap him in the face and kick him in the shins. But that wasn’t her style.

She kept it all bottled up inside, telling no one how she felt. Abandoned. Ignored. Used. Taken advantage of. Unloved.

Nicole got up when she heard the dryer buzz. She gathered the sheets and blankets and made her daughter’s bed.

Then she went into the kitchen and began preparations for dinner. She’d just started browning a roast when her kids burst through the door. Their smiles, their energy, their hugs. That’s what she lived for. That’s what kept her going.



Version #2


Nicole loved spring. Birds sang out merry tunes as they built nests and prepared for the hatching of the eggs. Trees sprouted buds, harbingers of bright green leaves that would soon provide comfort and shade. The grass grew in the yard and flowers bloomed. It was a time of high energy. A time to do things.

For her, it meant cleaning. Many of her friends moaned about time wasted dusting furniture, and a few even hired housekeepers to spare themselves of the task. But not Nicole. She loved the smell of furniture polish. Loved the waxy feel on the rags. Admired the shine on the table tops and legs and the tops of dressers and vanities.

She disliked cobwebs, but loved taking her whisk into corners and across the beams, removing every trace. It felt terrific to see all remnants gone. Her walls and corners free of evidence that a spider had ever been there.

Nicole’s favorite room was her newly remodeled kitchen with its honey colored cabinets and granite countertops. She whistled as she scrubbed the doors and drawer fronts, taking time to ensure that all finger smudges were gone. Using her special polish, she worked it into the countertops, rubbing until the surfaces sparkled.

After doing all that, it was time to take a damp mop to her wood floors. There was something cathartic about erasing footprints and going over and over every inch of the floor until it shone.

Finished with that project, Nicole got the vacuum cleaner out of the closet and pulled it down the hall. Her bedroom was the only room in the house that still had carpet. She plugged in her machine and pushed it around the room, bending over to get it as far under the bed as possible. Nicole loved how the vacuum made each fiber stand up tall.

She left the most challenging rooms for last: her kids’ bedrooms. Her daughter was a tidy little thing. Her treasures were neatly aligned along shelves her husband had built and hung. Her clothes were folded and in drawers, her shoes matched under the bed. Even her bed was always made. Nicole hated to disturb her things, but dusting had to be done. She was careful to put each item back in its spot, each shoe in alignment. After washing her bedclothes, she made sure that all corners were tucked properly, the pillow fluffed and the comforter centered.

Her sons was not as organized. Their baseball mitts were tossed on the floor next to dirt encrusted cleats and grass-stained shirts. Books were piled on the floor next to each bed, the top ones with lying upside down and spread-eagled.  Nicole bent to pick up random socks and crumpled shirts left under the bed and across the floor.

She striped each bed and carried sheets and blanket to the garage. Once the washer was going, Nicole returned to her sons’ room with dust rag and polish. She cleaned all surfaces, singing to herself a little tune that she sang to her kids as she tucked them into bed each night: “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” Not a particularly childlike tune, but one her kids loved.

Nicole saved the bathrooms till last. Her husband, thankfully, cleaned all the toilets. That was something they had agreed on before they got married. He also scrubbed the shower and tub because it was easier for him than it was for her. That left the sinks and floors. Nicole didn’t mind removing the bits of toothpaste her kids and husband left behind. It reminded her of how much she loved them, how happy she was to have them in her life, how pleased she was to be there for them.

When her work was done, Nicole took one last walk through the house, looking for things she might have missed. She did find a spot of dust on the front of her husband’s chest of drawers and a cobweb high in the corner of her daughter’s room. These she quickly removed and then put away her cleaning supplies.

Finished, Nicole got herself a cold soda, turned on her computer and began to write. She composed a poem that spoke of the beauty of spring, of familial love, of commitment and devotion. She smiled.



Version #3


When Nicole arrived home after an exhausting day at work, the dog greeted her at the door. This was a harbinger of things to come, for the dog was supposed to have been put in the backyard right before her husband left the house. She bent over and patted the dog on the top of her head, gave her a few kisses and told her how much she loved her. And then Nicole noticed the smell.

It was an acrid stench. It seemed to be coming from all directions at once. Nicole knew what had happened. The dog, in desperation, had urinated and pooped in the house. Now Nicole had to find the deposits, remove them, and cleanse.

Tears fell. She was too tired to deal with this. It wouldn’t have happened if her husband hadn’t been distracted. He must have gotten a call from work, telling him to come immediately to put out some new fire, and then rushed out of the house, forgetting all about the poor dog.

She pulled out her phone to call him, to complain, to whine, but then realized how childish it would seem.

“Oh, well,” she thought. “Might as well change clothes first.” Nicole went into her bedroom and slipped into her work jeans and an old, sloppy t-shirt.

It wasn’t the dog’s fault, but Nicole did not want to look at her for fear of striking out in anger, so she put the dog outside and locked the door. It was like punishing an innocent, she knew, but it also made a statement as to how she felt about the mess left for her to clean up.

Then the search began. She found two piles of shit on the bathroom floor, which she scooped using a plastic bag. Then she mopped until the floor sparkled. She cussed and swore as she worked, letting the words fly with each movement of the mop.

There was more shit in the front room, nicely deposited in front of the television, in a spot that she would never have missed. It was a runny glob. The poor dog must be ill, Nicole thought. She fell into her recliner and let the tears flow. The mess. And now a sick animal.

Where would she find the time to take the dog to the vet? Her husband should have to do it. Hold up his end of the deal. She hadn’t wanted a dog. It’s not that she didn’t like them, but Nicole felt it wouldn’t be fair to leave a dog home alone long hours while they went off to work. And then the dog would have to be boarded when and if they traveled. She had protested, but her husband won the argument. He brought home a beautiful black lab puppy. All wagging tail and smiling eyes.

Cute as a tiny puppy, but too big to be trapped indoors for hours on end. Nicole had insisted that a run be built in the backyard, so her husband had hired a contractor. It was perfect. Shade. Fresh water. Shelter. The dog hated it, Nicole knew, and it made her cry to put the dog out there, which is why she left it up to her husband.

By the smell, Nicole knew she’d find more evidence of the dog’s discomfort if she could just get up and get going. Instead she turned on the television to the horrors of the evening news. She cried when she heard about the murder of a teen who was doing nothing more exciting than walking home from school. More tears fell when the news spoke of soldiers killed in a battle in Afghanistan. Again she cried at the mention of a wayward whale that had washed ashore and died on the beach. In fact, it seemed all she did was cry.

Nicole did not react when her husband came home. She didn’t respond when he called her name, nor when he bent over and kissed her cheek. “What’s wrong?” he asked as he gripped her hand in his. “Are you feeling okay? Is something wrong? Can I get you something?”

“Oh, hi,” she said. “Nothing’s wrong. I mean, the news makes me cry and I’ve no energy to finish cleaning up after the dog.”

“The dog?”

“You forgot to put her out. She made a mess all over the house.”

He stood and looked about. There was a puddle on the kitchen floor. A damp spot on the carpet near the back door and that runny pile in front of the television. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll do it while you rest.”

He busied himself about, cleaning and scouring and scrubbing and even fixing dinner, while Nicole sat and cried some more about the news.