Backstory: Joe

As I’ve let Rosenwood rest for the past couple months, it’s given me time to think. And watch movies. And watch more movies. And it dawned on me. The current draft of my script was lacking character depth. The scenes were okay. And I felt like I understood where my characters were and where they needed to go. But I could feel the lack of specificity. There were questions I couldn’t answer, things I justified with “because.” Hint: “Because I said so” doesn’t work well with writing. Kids, maybe. (Not usually.) But definitely not writing.

So I bit the bullet and started with Joe. Wait, Joe? Why start with Joe? At this point, I still thought I had Kathy down cold. So I needed to focus on my supporting characters. And theoretically, it would be shorter and simpler. What started as a page and a half turned into nineteen pages of backstory for Joe, Kathy, Jude, Mason, Rosenwood, and Squonk. For a little age/date reference, here’s a quick Joe and Kathy timeline.

Both born in 1984.
Age 11 (1995) when she was sent to an institution.
Age 15 (1999) when they reconnected.
Age 22 (2006) when they got married.
Age 26 (2010) when they had Jude.
Age 30 (2014) when they had Mason.

Enjoy each entry as we trek through history…

(Refer to my pinterest for all image sources/artists.)


Joe and Kathy have been friends since kindergarten. Back in the 80’s, it was usually because your parents were friends. But theirs weren’t. They were just neighborhood buddies. Rode bikes around and played around the neighborhood, a park nearby, and a little forested area. Kathy was an only child. Joe had an older sister, Jennifer, who at some point baby-sat them when their moms went back to work. She was snotty as a kid but grew into one of Joe’s good friends, someone who grew up to be another suburban working mom with a run of the mill husband. Joe and Kathy mostly kept to themselves, pretending, getting lost in their own little world. Sometimes there were other people they would hang out with at school, but no one as real as each other.

Joe always said he believed Kathy’s stories about visiting Rosenwood. And he tried. But he could never be as absolutely sure as she was, having not been there. Most of the time, when he got swept up by her stories and his belief was palpable, he was mainly wanting to escape his Dad and his home life. Everything about the the place and his Dad’s life scared him. The responsibility. The daily repetition. The gruff, unhappy attitude.

At some point, Kathy kept trying to cast magic in this world like she said she could in Rosenwood. There, she could control all the elements and sometimes do other stuff too if she was with Squonk. Joe didn’t like Squonk. He was jealous of him getting to spend so much time with Kathy. But he was with her here and wanted to be a part of her magic too. She tried a little something with all the elements. They got in trouble when they dumped a bucket of water on Jennifer from their treehouse. Air was a total bust. Earth was impossible. They dug a few holes in Kathy’s backyard and her Dad got mad. But it was fire that caused all the trouble.

They skipped recess and decided to try using the bunsen burners in the chem lab to experiment with fire. They didn’t know that the class had been experimenting with mineral salts and methanol. Of course, they wouldn’t even know what methanol was. As Kathy tried some of her hand moves to control the fire, she accidentally knocked over the bunsen burner. There had been a little puddle of colorless liquid on the counter (methanol) which burst into flames. Joe panicked and tossed a nearby beaker with colorless liquid onto the flame. More methanol. A fireball erupted. Thankfully, the teacher took a lot of the heat (no pun intended) because the chemicals shouldn’t have been left where students could get them. But it was the first time Kathy almost hurt somebody and then told the adults that she was trying to recreate magic from a place she visited called Rosenwood. That didn’t go over well.

Kathy tried again at a restaurant where they had candles burning on the table. Again, she fumbled the flame while she was handling it and set a nearby table on fire. Where were her parents? In the bathroom and paying the bill.

Joe started to get concerned. He wanted to protect her, tell her to stop, but he also wanted to see if she could really develop magic, partially because he was dying to see Rosenwood himself. If he couldn’t go there, maybe she could bring some of Rosenwood to their lives in this world. She seemed so happy, so lost, in her adventures in Rosenwood. And he wanted to be with her. He thought she was brilliant and absolutely cool for a girl. So he decided to control the experiment. He and she would go to their place in the woods and try there. It’s a place where they can get a little more wild and Kathy gives it her all. But when she’s flinging the fire around, Kathy gets out of control and sets her jacket on fire. Joe scrambles to put it out, but he burns his hand doing it. Scared and angry, he tells her that maybe having Rosenwood here isn’t a great idea and they should stop. She should just tell her stories. And when Joe’s parents find out about the burn and they figure out it was Kathy, they stop Joe from seeing her.

They have to go without seeing each other for a few miserable months. They still had school together but they weren’t allowed to talk. When Kathy started telling one of her Rosenwood stories that day in the classroom, he realized how much he missed her. [Kathy motives…Trying to justify everything that had happened and make things right with Joe,] Unfortunately, at the end of the tale, she tries once again to use fire magic. It’s like everything happens in slo-motion. Joe yells, “No!” But it’s too late. The students are terrified and Joe gets hurt. Again.

Later, Jennifer sits him down at home and explains that Kathy may be dealing with something called schizophrenia. And Rosenwood is her delusion. She’s not special or magical. She’s crazy. That moment was the end of his innocence. Everything happy and fantastic he’d believed about the world went with Kathy. And he didn’t get to say goodbye. He just rode by her house one day and a for sale sign was out. And then they were gone. He quietly put away all his nerdy things, mostly books, and tried to join the real world, a little ashamed he’d ever believed at all. He fell into the footsteps of what he’d labeled his boring suburban family and his duty bound but always mildly unhappy dad. He needed a new group to belong to. And Jennifer had been really cool since all that stuff with Kathy. He picked family. He struggled for a couple years, trying to find his place without the fantastic in his life, but eventually he melted into the world of suburban achievement and duty.

Four years later, when he spotted Kathy at that one football game during Sophomore year, his stomach dropped. She looked like she was doing okay. I mean, she was a band nerd, so she was definitely weird. But she didn’t look crazy. She was actually trying to hide a little. Probably didn’t want to attract the attention of a lot of their school mates. But her gaze eventually found him and they locked eyes. At that moment, the band ramped up and she scrambled to follow. And Joe disappeared into the crowd of players.

When he showed up at home later in the week, Kathy was there. She was actually hanging out with his sister. They ran into each other at the store and Jennifer invited Kathy back to the house for dinner. They didn’t say much about what happened when they were left alone for a minute. She started to apologize for Rosenwood and all of it, but he cut her off. He lied and said he didn’t like not being able to say goodbye but he was okay with it all. He was past it. She took his hand and looked at the burn scar. Then the scar on his eyebrow. And quietly said, again, that she was sorry before going back to Jennifer. Over dinner, he looked for any sign that she was crazy. But she seemed recovered. His sister brought up some stories about when they all ran around together when they were kids. Nothing about Rosenwood. But lighter, more surface stuff. And it was easy to fall back into a rhythm.

For the next few years, they ran into each other more. Kathy hung out with his sister and when she and Joe were together, after awhile, they fell into a comfortable groove. He brought up football games, which as a band nerd she’d rib him about, and often he bumped into her at the local eatery after everything on Friday nights. They sat around and watch movies and TV. Talking about what they’d do after high school —travel, make some big leap toward a career, etc— knowing they’ll never do it. Sometimes, he tried to ask her about Rosenwood and the institution she was in for awhile, Lakeside. But she wouldn’t talk about it. And he didn’t know much about her ongoing therapy and prescription meds for a long time. But she was over a lot. And he was caught off guard when he realized at some point that she seemed like one of the family. The family he held so close. So when they ended up going to the same college, they started dating. Not anything super formal. They were just long time friends who didn’t really ever focus on anyone else. Joe liked that the relationship was easy to develop. She was his best friend.

One late night, they finally talked about what happened. She told him about the institution. He hesitantly asked for details. She mechanically launched into stories about other patients and the pills. She was a little cold about it and listed everything like facts in a file. When she mentioned electroshock therapy, he stopped her with a kiss. He said he never wanted anything like that to happen to her again. And he proposed. With tears rolling down her cheeks, she said yes. They huddled together on the bed, holding on to each other for dear life, for a long time..

They got married two years later and started their descent into suburban malaise. They were consumed by “shoulds” that rarely endorse actual living. They started to blame each other for how hard being married and being adults was. He struggled to find work at first, which absolutely went against the image of his dad he had decided to chase. It felt like Kathy started to drift. They didn’t sit around together anymore. She was working long hours as an account executive at a marketing agency. They had actually moved for the job so he was missing his family, too. He went to client events with her but he felt like a bum and an extra in her life. And when he finally got a job that launched his career, he put himself completely into it. He wasn’t incredibly happy, but he was doing what he should. He provided. He protected. There was at least something satisfying in that.

To some degree, he started seeing something hardening in her. He didn’t know how to put his finger on it. But he used it as an excuse to indulge his attitude towards her working. He asked her to stop working as much. She got bitter about it and for a long time, she kept doing her job. To everyone else, when they hung at the local bar with their friends, they were normal. They each laughed and joked with the guys and gals of the group. But they didn’t seem… together. And Joe was still missing his family. They didn’t ever talk about their dreams anymore. Partly because they didn’t talk anymore. He did what he could to protect her, but something made her bitter about being protected.

They got pregnant and had Jude. Their lives changed. She softened a little, but only toward the baby. And she stopped working. Joe was finally where he wanted to be as the sole provider with a home and a family. But when he looked at them together, he felt the pressure of his responsibility. He worked harder. Longer hours. He developed hobbies like golfing that helped him develop work relationships, but really got him out of the house where he just didn’t feel terribly welcome anymore. Kathy seemed to have taken over and he felt like a third wheel. And then he was a fourth wheel because they had Mason. Instead of pouting, he settled into the life as the expendable who makes himself indispensable by making lots of money and giving his family as much as he can manage. And he realized that’s what his dad was doing.

Now, at some point, when he’s about to fall asleep on one side of their king size bed, a good three feet away from Kathy, he realizes they haven’t just talked, cuddled, and dreamed, in a long time. Their life isn’t “bad” so he feels guilty thinking things like that. Like he’s pouting that he can’t be a kid anymore. He chastises himself. Tells himself he needs to man up and keep going. Of course, in the next moment, he reaches over to watch Youtube or check League scores. Anything to get his mind off the life he can’t seem to fix. Because the whole cycle —feeling satisfied getting the “shoulds” done, feeling unwelcome in his home, still not feeling like he’s doing anything right, wishing for something else, chastising himself and starting again tomorrow with the “shoulds”— is incredibly tiring. But it’s the duty of a man.