The War Blog
My father had risen from the dead, and all I wanted to do was slap him.
For what? I wasn’t sure. My grandparents had said he was evil and dead. If one part was a lie, was everything else?
One story I’d been told: During the entirety of my mother’s pregnancy with me, she and my father cooked meth, used meth, and sold meth. For months she denied she was pregnant. Then, surprise! I arrived. Eight weeks premature. All two pounds of me screaming for meth. So, my dad, being a humorous guy, a fun-loving jokester of a guy—especially high on meth—and my mom—evidently a doormat for every crazy idea the old man popped out of his euphoric head— embraced the idea of naming me Crystal M. Rock. Yes, that was actually my name until my brother, JD, and I were adopted by our grandparents Mac and Summer Rose.
JD and I had also been told that when I was three years old, our parents were killed in a car wreck. But apparently my father had actually been in jail.
Eugene Rock called my grandfather at lunch just as my brother and I were about to leave for afternoon classes at our high school in Anders Fork, Alaska. That was the first time I had heard anything about my father being alive. Or in prison.
Mac nearly choked when he answered the phone and heard Eugene’s voice. He jumped up and walked quickly through the living room onto the deck outside. I heard him say, “When hell freezes over, Eugene! And they’re not your kids!” just before he slammed the sunroom door.
My grandmother threw her towel into the sink. “You need to hurry back to school,” Summer said to us then followed Mac onto the deck.
JD put our dishes on the counter. My little brother was six foot three with massive shoulders. Though two years younger, he dwarfed me by more than a foot and a hundred pounds. “What’s that all about?” he asked.
“Our father is evidently calling from hell.”
JD shot me a confused look. “How can he call from there?”
I ran through the living room and sat by an open window. I could see Mac punching the air while Summer sat holding her head. All our lives we had been told that Eugene killed our mother and ruined her life.
“No, you cannot see our kids!” Mac shouted. “If I see you anywhere near them or our house, I will shoot your ass!” Mac ended the call.
“Is he coming here?” asked Summer.
“He’d better not.”
“Why did they let him out?”
“They can’t keep him locked up forever.”
Summer grabbed Mac’s arm. “He killed our Maya.”
“He served his time, and now he’s out. He said he wants to see his kids. When I answered the phone, he said, ‘Hey, Mac. It’s me, Eugene. How are my kids?’ all chipper like we were old friends meeting at the store.”
“He never tried to contact them all these years,” said Summer. “Why now?”
“I have no idea.”
“Crystal! We need to hurry!” JD yelled then went outside. Mac and Summer looked into the house. I ran back to the kitchen.
Mac opened the door. “Crystal Rose!”
“Got to run, Mac. I have to sing to the Lower School in five minutes.” I closed the kitchen door and ran to my Honda ATV. JD climbed onto the back. I was the only one my age who had no car or truck, but that was OK. I could win any race against another 4-wheeler.
“Crystal!” Mac yelled as I turned down our long gravel driveway twisting through the trees toward another gravel road.
For years I had wanted to know why my father drove the car drunk, why he flipped off the road into a tree, killing my mother and his irresponsible self. Why he kept Mom away from my grandparents. Why he beat her and kept her hooked on drugs and alcohol. Why he kept her from finishing high school. Why I lost my mother before I even knew her.
“Slow down, Crystal. Jeesh!” JD yelled over the growl of the engine as I skidded through the turn out of our driveway. A gust of cool wind from the west blew dead leaves across the road, only to be crushed by my tires.
Our father was alive, and he supposedly wanted to see us. Why had Mac and Summer told us he was dead? We already knew so much about our sordid past. Why would they keep that fact from us? Because they hated him so much? They blamed him for Maya’s addictions, abandoning us when we were babies, and for killing her in the wreck. But now I wondered whether any of that was true. Did they tell other lies?
Eugene Rock was alive, and I had no idea whether to be angry or happy or worried. I had no time to think this through because my first public performance of my own song happened in five minutes.
My school backed up against a stretch of spruce forest between the town and the river park. Most students lived within ten minutes of the K-12 building, and most had attended every grade before graduation. Teachers and principals changed frequently, but classmates grew up together.
A crowd had gathered near my usual parking spot at the school, all watching a video on an iPad of Mike doing a pole dance at a party the night before. Even after the hundredth viewing, it still provoked mindless giggles. A now-clothed Mike was standing in my spot, enjoying the attention.
“Excuse me, Mike,” I said as I slowly drove straight toward him. “Careful, Twig,” he said as he jumped to the side.
JD loomed over him by six inches and fifty pounds.
“I heard everyone got laid at the party,” I said to Mike. “Too bad you had to settle for that pole.” Some girls laughed.
“Crystal,” said one of them, “you can come to my party tomorrow night. Everyone would love to see you there.” She smiled so sweetly.
“Yeah, but wear something low-cut so we know which sex to pair you up with,” said Mike, so proud of himself. A couple of guys laughed.
“Gender, Mike,” I said. “Sex is something you do, like humping the pole. Gender is male or female, which you seem to have a hard time distinguishing between. You girls should give him lessons. Thanks for the invite, but I’ll have to check my calendar.”
Once again I had been called Twig. Every guy in high school measured a girl’s worth by her bra size. Part of me wanted mine to stay small to keep the cave men from staring at me; part wanted to be normal and look older than twelve.
I walked quickly toward the main doors then heard the scraping of shoes on gravel behind me. I stopped and looked back at JD, who was struggling to keep up with me.
“Sorry, JD. Wasn’t thinking.”
“You don’t have to wait, Crystal. You have a big song to sing. Go get ready.”
He was the sweetest brother I could hope to have, but he had been messed up his whole life. His hips were deformed, so he walked with a rolling limp, like he was always skating up an imaginary little hill with his left foot first. He failed everything at school. And he was teased a lot. We thought he would never be able to live by himself.
One of the great loves of my parents’ lives—so we had been told—was Jack Daniel’s whiskey. Old No. 7. Mom practically bathed in the stuff. My brother was drunk when he was born, and so were my parents. They’d just come off a weekend binge, so they called him JD. I never knew his real name was Jack until he’d turned fifteen two months ago.
How much was true?
Probably this was. JD’s middle name was Daniels, and who would name a kid suffering from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome after whiskey, except total drunks and jerks?
And one of those jerks was on his way to see us. To apologize? Or to get another kick out of his handiwork? The only father I knew of was the devil, so I didn’t expect apologies.
The worst part of coming to school was running the gauntlet past our new principal who had started a program of shaking every student’s hand as they entered the building. This was supposed to make us all feel special and cared for, but everyone in high school hated being treated like babies. I called out, “Good afternoon, Mrs. Trimble!” trying as hard as I could to mimic her enthusiasm-on-steroids voice. She could not speak like an adult. Every one-syllable word was stretched to three and hit at least three notes. I half-sprinted through the hall trying to escape the “GoooooOOd AaaafterrrnooooOOn, Cryyyyyyystaaaaall!!” before it stole some of my brain cells.
Young kids were filing into Jody’s music room. The pre-kindergarteners walked with their arms hugging their bodies to prevent touching anyone or being touched. Even the teacher hugged herself. A touch would evidently kill. I squeezed past them and found Jody, her spiked blonde hair shimmering in the sunlight filling her room, the greatest music teacher ever. We had worked after school all week arranging the song I had written for a physics assignment.
I was ready to exhibit my “deeper understanding” of the content by writing a song on any topic in astronomy rather than take a test. I sure welcomed this new assessment program the school had adopted; otherwise, I could not pass physics.
Jody had worked with me the previous summer, improving my guitar and vocal skills. She taught me music theory and songwriting. She used to produce and sing demos for songwriters and bands in Nashville, both pop and country, until a few years ago when her husband was transferred to Alaska. She encouraged me to post cover songs on YouTube for the past month, and I already had a very small following, mainly younger students, but also a few others.
This past week we had worked on my song, “Be the Star.” She created tracks for drums, keyboard, and guitar, so our performance today would sound like a band. Jody had faith in me. My voice was great, she said, and I had a knack for lyrics. “Be the Star” would be my first public performance of my own song, and I was a little worried how everyone would like it. Actually, pretty scared.
“Thought you would come a little earlier,” said Jody with a singing voice like Taylor Swift. She was about as short as I was, which was a nice change from having to look up to everybody.
“Unexpected family problems,” I said, tuning my guitar. Actually, Jody’s guitar. All I had was an acoustic. She let her students borrow her old Telecaster.
“Everyone all right? Nobody died, did they?” She was joking because my family was probably the most straight and narrow in town.
“No, he undied.”
She raised an eyebrow, expecting more.
The kids started clapping and stomping feet. “We want Crystal!” The room was full with a few high school kids peeking in at thedoor. Normally the presentation of student projects was not such a big deal, but Jody insisted that all of her music students be able to come.
“How is everybody?” I shouted. “You OK?”
“Yes!” they roared back.
“Great. As you know, I’m going to sing you a song today, with the help of our amazing music teacher, Jody.”
Jody blushed and bowed as kids pounded the floor with feet and hands.
“This is a new song I’ve written, called ‘Be the Star.’ I know some of you follow me on YouTube”—several kids shouted—“but all those are someone else’s songs. This is my first original song, and I hope you like it.”
Jody started the track, then stood a little behind me with a microphone and guitar, ready to sing harmony. I played the opening riff then sang:
Be The Star
A beautiful star
Breathed its life into heaven
Such a long time ago
The journey became a legend
The silver found your eyes
And the gold became your smile
Iron filled your soul with strength
And love sparked the fire
The stars above are shining for you
A stellar family
God chose His brightest and His best
And put you here with me
Be the star that you are
And shine your light
For the world to see
The stars above are shining for you
A Heavenly family
You have so many cousins
And ancestors beyond your sight
So far away yet with you
The sky glows with all their light
Stardust fills the air
And every word I sing to you
The heavens know your name
And everyone you never knew
Sometimes you’ll feel very small
Like a crumpled leaf tossed by the wind
And you’ll wonder, “What’s the point of it all?”
Just raise your eyes and look again
Just raise your eyes and look again
Be the star that you are (repeat 3x)
The room erupted in applause. Everyone leapt up, causing teachers fits. Alan had somehow snuck in a bullhorn and ran around the room shouting, “Go, Crystal, go!” until someone yanked it from him.
I raised my hands. “Thank you. Thank you. Do you want to hear it again?”
“Yes!” they shouted.
“Do you want to sing along?”
Some of the guys shouted, “No!” but the girls drowned them out.
Teachers handed out the lyrics to the chorus. I explained to them when they were going to sing and went over the melody a few times, then Jody restarted the track. So many voices belting out, “Be the star that you are,” was amazing. Even some of the boys sang.
Afterward I explained why they were all made of stardust and the meaning of the lyrics, as my physics teacher smiled at my supposedly deep understanding of fusion and supernovas. Yeah, what?
Teachers tried to line up their kids, but several came to me with paper and pencils for autographs, including the fifth grade twins, Junie and Janae. I almost cried every time I saw them. They’d been born ten weeks premature and had needed many operations. One day Junie lifted her shirt to show me all her scars—horrible, twisted things. Janae reached puberty in third grade and now had a chest ten times bigger than mine. I knew she had heard guys making comments about her, comparing her size to that of several high school girls. She walked through the high school wing staring straight ahead, trying very hard to ignore everyone and remain stone-faced. I worked with them as an aide in the Special Education resource classroom everyday.
As I was signing autographs, their mother, Ashley, came in with her newest boyfriend, Harold. She wore a sparkly dress, heels, and a jacket with a fur ruff. Bling hung from ear lobes, wrists, and neck, and the air suddenly cloyed with her perfume and weed. If her boobs had been pushed up any higher, they would have touched her chin. She still tried to be the hottest chick in town.
Ashley had five children. All of them premature. All in special needs. The only two we were positive had the same father were Junie and Janae. I had heard a rumor that their grandmother was trying to get custody of all the children.
Harold looked like he was eighteen. Tall, pretty face, but with leering eyes. They both seemed stoned, and I swear he was ogling Janae’s breasts. He carried their Love Pink backpacks. Our SPED teacher, Beth, greeted them both with warm handshakes and smiles, trying to counter Ashley’s obvious upset, her high-heeled, knee-high boots slapping the floor as she scowled at her girls. Beth was the kindest, most patient teacher I knew.
“Junie, why aren’t you waiting for me in the office?” asked Ashley. “I told you to be there right after lunch.” Then to Beth, “I’m taking her with me to have her nails done. She should have told you.”
“I forgot, Mommy,” said Junie.
“You always forget. I should just leave you here.”
“I want to go, too,” begged Janae.
“You don’t have any nails because you chew them off, even though I’ve told you not to,” Ashley snapped.
“I try to let them grow, but then I forget and chew them.”
“You both have sieves for brains. I’m surprised either one of you can remember your names from one day to the next,” said Ashley.
Both girls looked at the ground.
Beth moved between them and put an arm around each girl. “It might be best if you took both girls today. Maybe Janae can get some false nails. They would keep her from chewing.”
“Please, Mommy?” asked Janae.
I couldn’t take it anymore. I knelt between both girls and held their hands. “Remember the song. You guys are stars, made from the brightest and the best.” They smiled at me. “You are going to look so pretty with new nails. You’ll be an even brighter star.”
And then I sang, “Be the star that you are, and shine your light for the world to see. The stars above are shining for you, a Heavenly family.” They giggled then hugged me.
“I love you, Crystal,” said Janae.
“Me too,” said Junie.
“Love you both. Now go with your mother and show me your nails on Monday.” I stood up and looked at Ashley, deadpan. “You have two great girls, Ashley.”
Harold grabbed Janae’s hand and walked her out of the room, staring at her chest. Ashley turned in a huff and followed him, with Junie trying to catch up.
“Thank you, Crystal,” said Beth. “You are so good to them.”
“Trying to make up for what they don’t get at home, and because they are precious little girls who were screwed up for no good reason.”
Beth squeezed my hand and gathered her students.
Jody grabbed me. “That was an amazing performance, Crystal Rose. You crushed it. You have such stage presence. You weren’t nervous at all?”
“Not about singing, but I was about how they’d respond to the song. They seemed to like it.”
“Think so! Can’t believe you belted it out like that. You’re fearless!”
“I’m nervous in class or walking in the hall, but give me a guitar and let me sing, and I feel pretty good. Maybe I think the guitar protects me.”
Jody laughed. “It does look pretty large on you. Hard for anything to get around it.”
“Is that a shrimp joke?”
“From one shrimp to another, yes.” Jody wore the biggest smile, revealing her oversized teeth.
“Thanks for everything.” I hugged her hard.
“I recorded the show and will email it to you. You need to upload this one. No more covers for you!” She held my face right in front of hers. “You can be a star, yourself. Keep writing. Keep singing. And don’t take crap from anyone.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I gave her the guitar and walked away. Toward math class, where I would feel very untalented, and then toward physics, where I hoped to disappear like the star I sang about. On the way, a few kids complimented my singing, including Stacey and Haley, two of the hottest girls in school.
“That was amazing, Crystal,” said Haley. “I could never get up on stage and sing in front of a crowd like that.”
“Uh, Haley,” said Stacey. “Remember last weekend in the truck bed? There was quite a crowd. Don’t think Crystal would do what you did.” They both laughed and walked on.
My mind kept wandering back to lunch and the phone call as I listened to the droning teacher point at the Smart Board. Why did my father want to see us? Could he really be as bad as Mac and Summer had told us? They claimed Eugene had killed my mother. Maybe he wanted to kill us, too. Or maybe we hadn’t been told the whole story. What would I do if I saw him?
When I was two and a half and JD was just a few months old, Mom told Summer that Eugene was beating her. They lived in Conroe, Texas, at the time. Mac and Summer persuaded her to leave him, come to the Native village where they taught—Tuvaq—and leave us with them while she detoxed in Fairbanks then went to rehab. They said I was horribly skinny and filthy. JD slept, cried, and stared, unable to focus on anything, unresponsive to any sounds or facial expressions. I was very underweight, undersized, hardly talking, sucking desperately on a pacifier.
Mom flew us up then left the village the next day and never showed up for detox. Mac and Summer never heard from her again. A few months later, according to my grandparents, Mom and Eugene died in a car wreck. Summer claimed that Eugene talked her into going back to him and abandoning us, that he was the reason she kept using. Eugene was the reason she died. But regardless of why she left us, she left us. And whenever I thought about that, I got angry and I cried, which is what I was doing when the bell rang. I loved Mac and Summer, but I didn’t remember being with my parents. Now one of them might be coming to see me, and I had no idea what to expect or how I would react.