So if you’re wondering what we’re doing here, check the previous post, Backstory: Joe and/or check out the Rosenwood Pitch. Beyond that, let’s get going on Kathy’s backstory because this sucker turned into a short story on me.
Kathy remembers Joe from kindergarten. He challenged her to get across the monkey bars quicker and he broke his arm. She laughed at him, then carefully helped him over to the teacher, trying in her own upbeat way to make him feel better and assure him that he’d be alright. Which included talking about maybe the doctor cutting off his arm. It made him laugh.
From then on, they were inseparable. They lived down the street from each other and they were always riding around in the neighborhood or at each other’s houses. She liked going to his house. His big sister didn’t seem to like them and Joe always yelled right back at her. But Kathy liked having someone around that was like a sibling. At home, things were quiet. Her dad was well-meaning and hard-working. But he was bookish. Watched a lot of TV and kept to himself. Her mom, more friendly and outgoing, always wanted to go out shopping. Kathy always noticed that disappointed look on her mom’s face when Kathy said she didn’t want to go and that she’d rather go play with Joe. She didn’t feel like she fit in at her house. She wasn’t normal enough. She wasn’t girly enough. With Joe, she could be in other worlds. They could laugh and play. She felt like herself around him.
She’ll never forget the night she fell asleep and woke up in Rosenwood. She was nine. Her world was on the verge of being more complicated with boys and school demands. But Rosenwood helped usher her away from that a little while longer.
She wasn’t sure how it happened. She just fell asleep and woke up in a rose colored field. She wasn’t scared at first. She didn’t know to be. Everything was gorgeous and so different from home. When the ground started shaking, she felt how vulnerable she was, standing in the middle of a field with no where to run. A giant, lumbering figure was coming closer and she cowered at first, trying to scramble away. When she held her hand out, like she would fend him off with just that, her palm started to glow red. A wind rose and whipped around her. The beast fought its way forward and put its big hairy paw on her hand. His own eyes glowed red. The wind calmed. Squonk snorted. His fur was all mussed. It was around Halloween and she’d fallen asleep with a Mars Bar in her pocket. Somehow it made it to Rosenwood with her so she offered it to him. He poked at the marshmallowy nougat and stared at her, unsure. When she told him it was nougat, he pointed at her chest, shoving her back, proclaiming, “Nougat. Nougat good.” So he never really did call her Kathy. Always Nougat in honor of that first meeting. He became one of her best friends. Someone big who could protect her in this strange world and show her more about the magics she tapped into, a red energy that she just knew was the very energy of this world. It was Rosenwood herself. He never said much, but Squonk was her friend, her guide, and her connection to Rosenwood. When she woke up, she never questioned the reality of Rosenwood. It was like an out of body experience. Sort of like in a book she’d read, the Princess of Mars. Astral projection. Magic.
She told Joe the next day. At first he didn’t believe her. It’s the first real fight they had she can remember. They didn’t speak for a whole day. An eternity. But he knocked on her door and asked to hear more. He wasn’t sure if he believed her or not but he wanted to hear more about it. For the next couple of years, she visited Rosenwood every month or so. Time was different there so she could stay a good long time, a few days, and still wake up first thing in the morning. One incredible night. Sometimes she had dangerous adventures. Sometimes she just hung out with some of the locals. Squonk took her around and they explored and met all kinds of creatures and people. They would experiment with her magics and accidentally found out that she and Squonk together were exponentially more powerful. Holding hands or just touching, they had tremendous energy at their disposal.
Nothing was terribly structured about her visits. She didn’t always visit the same creatures or the same place. She saw a palace far off in the distance a lot of the time. But she never went there. Just being in this world was enough. Sitting with the odd little creatures and learning from them. Going on quests to get them what they needed. She felt like Bilbo exploring Middle Earth. She felt like she belonged here. Maybe forever. It was so much better than her life at home. Exciting. Dangerous. But the thought of running away scared her.
After a few trips and really learning how to wield magic in Rosenwood, she started trying to wield magic in her world. There was something so real and visceral about Rosenwood. She thought she could bring it into her life in this world. Maybe that would help her not want to run away and stay in Rosenwood all the time.
She told Joe all about the things she could do… controlling the basic elements of Rosenwood (earth, air, fire, and water) and something like “waking up” everything around her. Everything would come to life and sort of do its own thing. She told him how she wanted to try doing all that in this world. This time, he believed her. Well, she couldn’t tell if he actually believed her or was just being a good friend and going along with it. But it was something just like when Daniel is training in the Karate Kid. She and Joe got a bucket of water, took it up to their treehouse and Joe tossed it out into the air while she tried to control it. Her theory was that there needed to be a little something to get things going. Some energy. And movement would do that, right? So he tossed it, she scrunched up her face and tried to control it, but it just fell. That’s when they heard, “BRATS!” Joe’s sister, Jennifer, got soaked. They couldn’t come down from their treehouse until dinner because she kept threatening to beat them. Then there was air. They had a standing fan going and Kathy tried to control the air. Nothing. She’s not sure why but they went to her house to try earth. It’s hard to get earth moving so they settled for digging holes and having loose dirt around to control. Nothing happened and her Dad stomped out, silent, fuming, and snatched the little shovel out of their hands. Then with only a few words, he kicked them out of the backyard and grounded Kathy. She couldn’t see Joe for a week. She’d never seen her Dad that worked up. She’d never gotten that much attention from him. It kind of set her on edge. Made her even more itchy to try magic in this world. To escape without having to run away.
She told Joe she wanted to try fire. He didn’t protest too hard. He grinned and said, “What kid doesn’t like fire?” So they snuck into the chem lab at school during their recess time. They had bunsen burners they could use and they didn’t want to sneak away lighters and stuff from home. They were afraid they’d get in trouble. Kathy was getting desperate. She really wanted this to work. She wanted this world to be magical because at this point, she just felt trapped. She felt like she was growing up in a world that was increasingly dull where everyone worried about stuff that she didn’t think mattered. That day, she didn’t even really see Joe. She just focused on the flame. And when she made a big movement with her hand and arm, something forceful to control the flame, she accidentally got too close and knocked over the burner. Something on the counter went up in flames and she scrambled backward. She knew right away those flames weren’t something she could control. Joe threw something on the fire and made it bigger, setting a little of the ceiling on fire. By the time it was all over, there were fire trucks, lots of smoke, a half soaked chem lab, and a visit to the principal’s office. They had to go in early every morning for a month and help clean up around the school. They might have gotten into more trouble, but the chem teacher got it worse. The chemicals he left out were flammable and they shouldn’t have been there. The only really bad thing that happened was Rosenwood. Kathy told everyone about it. Joe tried to wave her off as soon as she started explaining. She had never told them before. And as soon as she swept through a quick description of everything, she regretted it. They didn’t believe her. There’s this face, a half concerned, half disappointed face. Her parents were really good at it. They made those faces. And she knew she couldn’t talk about Rosenwood being real anymore.
Kathy’s parents were angry over the whole thing. Her mom was concerned, trying to make her talk about things. Her Dad sat in his lazy boy and grunted that they wouldn’t be going to the library for more books any time soon. She heard her mom whispering one night, saying something about a therapist. But her Dad’s grunts meant it wouldn’t be happening.
She was good for awhile. No Rosenwood. No magic. She was trying. And she was miserable. They went out to dinner a lot and there was this one Italian place. They had candles on the table. Her Dad had gotten up to pay and her Mom went to the bathroom. She kept eyeing the candle. The flame was dancing. Wiggling. It seemed alive. She picked it up and started with little movements. Wasn’t working. She glanced around. Her Dad was still at the counter. She tried one really big movement… and fumbled the candle. It rolled and caught fire to a table clothe that was pooled a little on the floor. The fire spread quickly. It took four waiters to get the table clothe off and douse it with water.
She was grounded. Seriously grounded. No TV. No phone. No Joe. Just school and home. She’d lay in her bed and pretend she was in Rosenwood. But she hadn’t been there lately either. She was miserable. And then there was a knock at her window. Joe. He had a lighter and he wanted her to try again. He really thought she could do it. She said she couldn’t sneak out. She didn’t actually like breaking rules. So she would meet him in the woods on the weekend if her parents let her out.
Thankfully, they did. Her mom felt sorry for her so she agreed to let her out for a couple of hours. Joe made a torch and set it on fire. They both giggled, completely nervous. Joe was trying to keep a straight face though. Kathy took it, scared. The fire was bigger than anything she’d been around, much less handled. But she tried. She really tried. She waved her hands and when they didn’t work, she started swinging the fire around, hoping to excite it, to get some kind of energy moving. Instead, a little fire dripped onto her jacket and caught it on fire. She dropped the torch, shocked, screaming. Joe raced in and patted at the flames, trying to get the jacket off of her. When everything was done, Joe had some pretty bad burns on his left hand. He snapped at her, saying they should stop this stuff and ran home. She tried to go say she was sorry a couple days later, when her parents would let her out of the house. But Joe’s parents said he couldn’t hang out with her anymore. At all.
She was miserable. She kept wanting to go to Rosenwood. She tried and tried to go. She’d fall asleep thinking about Rosenwood and Squonk and the rose and teal landscape. But she’d wake up in the morning in her own room in the dreary gray of the morning.
And then one night, she was there. But something was wrong. Squonk hurried her to a nearby tribe of a bird-like creature, something called the Scootoo. They were dying of disease and she was told that the flower they needed was only available on royal land. She was the best choice to go because if she was caught, the royals, also human, would perhaps forgive her indiscretion. Or so Squonk thought. Of course, Kathy was up for the adventure and she desperately wanted to save the Scootoos. She’d met them in passing but having now spent a little more time with them, she wanted to hang out even more with them. They were an integral part of Rosenwood as historians and spiritualists. Kathy and Squonk set out. On the way, Kathy asked why she hadn’t been back to Rosenwood. What happened that she wasn’t called back and why couldn’t she just choose to come here herself. Squonk explained, in his choppy, but incredibly pointed language, that she actually did choose to come to Rosenwood most of the time. Something must have been wrong, she must have lacked a certain connection if she didn’t come when she wanted to. He seemed to get a little down at that point and asked if they had done something? [he wasn’t sure that he should call her for this but he hoped it was a good excuse to get her here. he had missed her.] Kathy told him absolutely not! She’d been trying to come back. She wanted to be here. She might not actually leave again. Squonk looked at her, a little worried, but by then, they’d reached the Azok forest.
She and Squonk had gone into the Azok forest and burned away the paralytic mist with a beautiful bloom of fire all around them. They got the flower, which turned out to be a passion flower from Earth. But as soon as they picked it, the Azoks were on them. They were these faerie-dragonfly things that would shoot paralytic stingers. Kathy and Squonk made a run for it and after hoofing it out of the forest, Kathy thought they’d be safe. Nope. The Azoks were still angry and on their tails. Then another group of creatures showed up. Squonk called them Thaturs. They were the royal guard. Squonk insisted that Kathy run but she tried to help by whipping some wind magic at the Azoks. When she turned to run again, she fell into a pit. Something happened in that pit. There was a gem. A red gem. As big as an egg, but flat. She picked it up and tried working magic through it, most especially to get out of the pit she was in. But at an odd moment, her eyes glowed red and a red beam shot into the air from it. The beam pierced the sky. And then it stopped. Kathy scrambled back, terrified. She’d never felt anything like that before. She dropped the stone and got away from it. She definitely felt like she’d done something wrong. But she thought, as she picked up the passion flower, maybe that had more to do with her stealing this flower. She couldn’t shake the feeling that something just changed. Squonk got her out of the hole, they faced the Thaturs, and she brought the flower back to the Scootoo, saving their lives.
She was so happy when she woke up. She wanted to tell everyone about this new adventure. It was different. More dangerous. More exciting. And she had loved having people depend on her and saving them in the end. Everything about the encounter felt electric. And she brought all that excitement to class the next day. She had her little red book in hand, the one where she wrote down all her adventures, and they were going to read their essays today. She’d read this. When she spotted Joe, she grew even more determined. She wanted to tell him all about this adventure and saying it in class would be a legal way to talk to him. And she felt like today could be the day. Energy already seemed to be coursing through her. Maybe she could wield magic in her own world today. She told the whole tale in class. Most of the students seemed bored. But she didn’t care. She was there to tell Joe and he seemed really interested and into it. At the end, she drew out a lighter she’d brought and lit one of her spiral notebooks on fire, talking about the bloom of fire in the Azok forest. For a minute, she thought she could see it. She thought she controlled the fire on Earth. But no one cared. They were all terrified. The teacher panicked and pulled the fire alarm, dousing the whole classroom in water. And as she was carted away, her sneakers squeaking against the wet linoleum, she noticed Joe crumpled and bleeding on the floor. That made her fight. She struggled against the teacher, screaming. That behavior didn’t help when they got to the principal’s office.
Her parents came and all the adults argued. They didn’t know what to do with her. She was obsessed with something that, to them, didn’t exist. And she couldn’t show them. She and Joe shared a moment in the hallway. Caught each other’s eyes. And that was it. The last time she saw him.
They carted her into the guidance counselor’s office where she tried to explain everything she experienced with Rosenwood. Her latest adventure really freaked them out because there seemed to be danger involved. They said something about delusions of grandeur or something. And then she went to a psychologist. She explained everything again, but she was getting scared and tired. She wanted Squonk to be with her. She talked about not wanting to be here anymore and wanting to live there in Rosenwood. She thought it was safe. They told her it was safe to talk about that kind of thing. But it made them get more serious. There was more whispered talking with her parents. She hadn’t been back to school. She hadn’t seen Joe. And she hadn’t been able to get back to Rosenwood. They had started giving her pills. They weren’t always the same ones. But they made her feel funny. One day when they were going to another appointment, her parents had her pack a bag. They were going to take her somewhere, they said, somewhere she could get better. She had no idea what she meant but she hoped she wouldn’t have to take the pills anymore. They went and saw a nice man who talked with her about Rosenwood for awhile. There was a whispered word. One that would haunt her for years. Schizophrenia. And then she was taken to a room with nothing in it but a bed and a dresser. Her parents cried and told her they hoped she would feel better. That this was for the best. And they left her. A nurse came and gave her more pills. She thought maybe she could spit them out but they held her down and made sure she swallowed them. It scared her. And things never got better. They just got worse. No one believed her about Rosenwood. And when she stopped talking about it so she wouldn’t get in trouble or upset them anymore, they didn’t believe her. They knew she was lying. She would see other kids and teenagers around the place and she didn’t know what to make of them. Some were happy but they seemed really sinister. Some were definitely not happy. She would cry herself to sleep, begging to go back to Rosenwood. But she couldn’t focus. Something was happening to her. Eventually, her parents sat with her as the doctor explained something called ECT or electroshock therapy. They’d make her sleep and then electricity would help her think better. They said she wouldn’t feel pain. But there was pain. There was a giant IV they stuck in her. There was watching her parents say goodbye and cry again. But she still hoped that when she went to sleep, the really deep sleep they talked about, she would go back to Rosenwood. It seemed like she might. There was a noise. A whooshing sound. All in the black. And then a piercing scream, noise, and a disjointed tearing of colors. And black. Then again. And again. When she woke up from anesthesia, she hadn’t felt the electrical current. But she had felt something else. She woke up different. Scared. Tired. And alone. Something in her broke. She didn’t think about Rosenwood much after that. She somehow knew she could never go back now. And she tried to be okay with it. But for years after, she’d cry at night. Even when she believed it had all never happened, she cried because it still felt like something had been torn away. Something was missing.
She stayed there for six more months. Talking in therapy. Taking pills. Getting the screeching treatments. And when she went home, it wasn’t home. Her parents had moved. And she’d be going to a new school. By then, she’d had time to think. To picture what a new life might look like. She’d met a bunch of other kids in therapy and she was scared of them. They were truly troubled and mostly down right scary. She had just been convinced that her dreams were real. Once she accepted they weren’t, she only had to manage the depression that sprung from the disillusionment. She was normal. She wasn’t like these people. And she was determined to have a normal life. So when she got out, she didn’t tell anybody about her past and what she’d gone through. And she tried not to think about it. She took her pills, she went to therapy once a week and classified it as one of her “extracurricular activities” in her mind. Just a check-up. And after she finished homeschooling her eighth grade year, she did everything she could to be normal at her new school. She joined the band, she made a few friends, she got interested in boys, she made decent grades. Once, she saw someone she’d met at the institution. She ignored him.
Then, Sophomore year, one of her worst fears came true. Her high school football team was playing her old school district. Freshman year, she’d been sick. But there was a new attendance policy and to join the honor band, you had to attend all the football games. No exceptions. She sat in the stands and tried to avoid anyone who might happen by from her old school. She didn’t want any of the fire incidents or Rosenwood brought up in front of her new friends, her new life. And then there was Joe. He’d gotten so much older. Cuter. Still on the short side. But stocky. He was a football player on the sidelines. She wanted to talk to him, say she was sorry for everything she’d put him through as a kid. She still cared a lot about him. He was the one part of her past that she’d revisit even if it made her stomach drop. He was looking at her. She’d looked too long and he saw her. She tried to hide a little and then the band director was calling for “Louie, Louie.” Joe was lost in the sea of players and she thought she might have an anxiety attack.
Later that week, Kathy had run to the store for her mom and she bumped into Jennifer, Joe’s sister. She was seventeen and much friendlier than she used to be. There wasn’t much mention of the past except for her asking where Kathy was living now. Kathy was literally just one suburb over in a different school district and Jennifer was surprised they hadn’t bumped into each other before. Kathy found herself saying yes to dinner at Jennifer’s house. It was a reflex politeness. She didn’t really consider the consequences until there she was. Back in Joe’s old house. They hadn’t moved. A lot came sweeping back that first night. Surprisingly little about Rosenwood itself. Just her and Joe. And twinges of pain from a past burdened with the context of how it ended. Joe came home all sweaty from football practice. She had to laugh a little at how shocked he was that she was there. But she caught him in the hall and tried to apologize, tried to find the words to explain what had happened and how much there was still something about him. In a world where she had had trouble seeing what was real and what wasn’t, he was always real. A rock, right there in front of her. Not much of that actually came out of her mouth, but he cut her off. He sort of laughed it off and said it was all in the past and he was fine. He was awesome now. She saw something in his eyes though and looked down at his hand. He still had the scar from the woods. And she gently touched his eyebrow. He’d gotten a scar that day in the classroom. A lot of emotion she was uncomfortable with welled up inside her and she squeaked out, “I really am sorry,” before she shuffled back to Jennifer, putting on a big smile and laughing at whatever was on TV. Dinner was a little awkward because Joe’s parents didn’t quite know what to make of her being there. But everyone was trying their best to be polite. Joe kept looking at her funny but she was just as obsessed with how he’d changed. And then Jennifer mentioned a time when she and they had stayed up late and played hide and seek outside in the dark and Kathy had startled Joe and he’d punched her and they’d all tried to cover for the black eye because they knew Joe would have gotten in trouble for punching a girl so they said she’d run into a tree. They all laughed. Joe’s parents were shocked and amused. And the tension was relieved. She could be normal here too. She wasn’t just the girl that went crazy. It was nice to have a little of her old self back. Dangerous. The only part of her old self she’d also back in. But nice.
She started going over there all the time. Those high school nights were everything. She loved having Jennifer as a friend and hanging out with Joe again. Everything at their house just felt super… normal. And she liked normal. Or what she expected normal to be. Her parents were always looking at her, talking about the pills and her therapy sessions. She had a hard time leaving everything behind around them. Every once in awhile, Joe would ask too. She could tell he was really curious about everything even though he said he was over it. But she always changed the subject, made a joke, did anything but discuss that. And she hadn’t told anybody about her meds and therapy sessions. This was too nice to ruin. Late nights talking with her guy best friend. High school drama with friends and band competitions and grades. Dreaming about the future. Having her own place, her own life. A whole new chapter.
She and Joe actually applied to the same college and got in. Joe’s mom threw them a party and they went shopping for dorm stuff together. Well, she dragged Joe along and he goofed off with kids toys while she picked out sheets. School was stressful at first and while she did fine in school, privately she was a wreck. She spiraled, thinking she might never escape the depression and anxiety issues she had, that she’d never be normal. But Joe was there. He’d hold her hand and talk through things with her. And one day, he said they should date. Her heart leapt and when she said yes, her whole world came back into focus. Not much changed about them being together. More physical stuff. She felt very grown up. So when they were sitting in her dorm one night and he asked about the institution, she told him. She never had before. But it had been long enough, she could matter-of-factly spout the facts without getting emotional about it. She told him about the pills she’d taken and how they made her feel fuzzy and dull. She told him about the other kids that had scared her with their problems and how she never wanted to be like them. And she told him about the electroshock treatments. Getting the IV and being prepped with little adhesive pads and the screeching noise in the black of sleep and— he kissed her. She hadn’t noticed but he’d started to cry a little. Not weeping. Just a tear or two. She was still a little confused by that when he asked her to marry him. He said he never wanted her to be in a place like that again. He always wanted to be with her and protect her. There was something about the thought of him always being there, of another person wanting to protect her that much… she actually melted a little. She cried and said yes. When he hugged her, she let herself hold on really tight.
They promised not to get married until they’d graduated so they barely scraped through graduation before they got married. At first, everything was great. She got a job a firm in Chicago and they moved. Everything about their lives changed and Kathy was really excited. It’s what she had always wanted. A grown up life. But then Joe couldn’t get a job. There were so many things he could have been doing, but he was content to shoot off a couple applications and sit around the rest of the day. And when he wasn’t sitting around, he was griping at her about little things, little habits. They’d known each other for years and seen each others weaknesses. But they were having to deal with the consequences together. If he spent money, she dealt with it in their budget and it was stressing her out. Her various ways of trying to help him find a job just made him even more irritable. So she disappeared in her work. She was a marketing account executive and made work her priority. When Joe did find a job, things weren’t much different except they had more money. And he said she should quit her job and let him provide for them. That made no sense to her. She liked what she did. It wasn’t about the money. And Joe mentioned missing his family a lot and kept throwing out there that they should move back to their hometown but that only annoyed Kathy. By this point, he knew about the pills and the therapy and he started being just like her parents. Looking at her differently. Wanting to talk about it. So she’d just bring up their jobs to change the subject and he’d get frustrated. She was happy to talk about the facts and figures of their future. He had his head in the clouds and it felt like going backwards to her.
Part of what they’d both wanted, what was part of “normal” for her, was a family. They didn’t plan on it, but they were happy when they got pregnant with Jude. She wanted to be around and give him the best life she could so she quit her job. Joe was happy with that one. But after that, he was never around. He was working over time because they’d gotten used to two paychecks and now they wanted to move to the suburbs. Kathy put everything she had into being a mom and taking care of the house. Everything had its time and place. When Jude had a speech delay, she learned to loosen up a little and play with him more. But there was still all the pressure of her adult life, the household responsibilities and charity work she’d picked up. And then they planned to have Mason because Jude needed someone to grow up with. The boys were great and Kathy poured herself into a disciplined home life filled with community activities, sports, school PTA, and anything else where she could be in charge, be in control. She’d wanted this life, but now that she was here, it didn’t feel like she thought it would feel. She loved her kids with all her heart and their smiles and laughs were some of the few warm moments she felt these days. Joe had all but disappeared except occasional drunken sex (both having been drinking) and the rare moments they bumped into each other, had awkward interactions and then walked away feeling like they didn’t really know each other. At least, she felt that way about him. The way he talked, the way he wanted to be kids together again made her cringe. They weren’t kids. They were adults. They had kids and should be even more adult.