The last thing I remember is the scalpel blade glinting at me.
Fifth-period biology class. Only two weeks left of sophomore year. “Listen up, everyone,” Mrs. Sussman says. “Today, as promised, we’re dissecting frogs. Open your books to page 162.”
There is a diagram of a frog, sliced down the middle, splayed open. Heart, lungs, liver, intestines. I’m glad I left most of my lunch uneaten. Tessa and Eric walk around the room, passing out scalpels and disposable rubber gloves.
The room starts to spin. Slowly at first, then faster.
Frog eyeballs. Frog brains. Frog food inside a frog stomach.
I close my eyes, open them. Try to breathe. My face feels hot. The classroom has become a classroom underwater. Everything fluid.
Tessa stands in front of my desk, holding out a scalpel. “Dani, are you okay?” Her voice sounds far away.
Sunlight glinting off the razor-sharp blade. The sensation of falling.
“I know you don’t really want to be here, Danielle,” the Therapist Lady says.
Well, duh. “It’s Dani,” I tell her.
“Like Danny, D-A-N-N-Y, but the girl version. With an i.”
“Oh, I see.” The Therapist Lady sits back in her chair and purses her lips in a funny way, as if my name is a piece of hard candy she is considering spitting out. Then, after a moment: “I like it,” she announces.
It bothers me that I can’t tell how old she is. Younger than my mom, I think. She might be in her early thirties, but she seems older because she has middle-aged-lady bangs—the kind that look as if they’ve been curled under with a lint roller—and she’s wearing huge plastic-framed glasses straight from the ’80s and a chunky cardigan sweater with round pearl buttons.
The room feels hot and stuffy and too small.
“Do you have any tissues?” I ask. There’s a vase of tall white flowers on the table that must have a weird pollen or something, because I keep feeling as if I have to sneeze, but then it doesn’t come at the last minute. Which is even worse than sneezing all over the place. It’s like that feeling when you have to cry but you can’t produce any tears, no matter how hard you try.
The Therapist Lady hands me a box of tissues with pastel flowers on it. “Thank you for coming here to see me,” she says.
It wasn’t my choice. But I don’t say anything.
“Is there anything you would like to talk about?”
I study my feet. I shouldn’t wear sandals—my toes look so round and fat. The tangerine nail polish from the pedicures Anika and I gave each other last week is chipping at the corners. I try to curl my toes under so I can’t see them.
“Here,” the Therapist Lady says.
I look up. She has a book in her hands. She holds it out for me to take.
And I almost do take it, because it’s a book. Some girls have a thing for shoes or dresses or frappuccinos; my weakness is books. But then I realize it’s probably one of those stupid self-help, “Love Your Body Just The Way It Is” books. I shake my head.
“You don’t want it?” she asks. She looks confused.
“Why don’t you want it?”
I shrug. Curl my toes so they almost disappear.
She thrusts the book at me again. “Will you just look at it, please? For a minute? Dani?”
This is exhausting. “No offense, Mrs…”
“Cheryl,” she says. “You can call me Cheryl.”
“Well, no offense, Cheryl, because I know it’s not your fault they’re making me come here, but I don’t have a problem. It was just because of that stupid frog dissection.”
She doesn’t believe me, I can tell from her expression. What did my mom say to her? Everyone is making such a big deal out of this. It’s insane.
“I’m sure other girls have fainted in biology class before,” I say. “But they didn’t have to waste their summer going to see a crazy therapist. No offense.”
“None taken,” Cheryl says. She’s still holding out the book.
“Besides,” I tell her, “even if I did have a problem, which I don’t, reading that book wouldn’t help. Believe me.”
Cheryl smiles in an annoying, middle-aged-lady way. “Oh, it’s not a book,” she says. “It’s a journal.”
“It’s a blank journal. For you. I want you to write in it.”
“No, it’s okay.” I’m not going to take anything from her. If I take something from her, I’ll have to bring it back. And I don’t want to come back. I just want to get out of here and go home and get on with my life.
“Why won’t you just try it?” Cheryl asks.
“Just a little bit every day,” she says. “Writing can be cathartic, you know. Healing. And I know it may seem daunting to have a whole blank journal like this, but if you write even half a page a day it can really add up—”
“It’s not that.”
“It’s not like that. I’m not…afraid of writing, or something. I’m a writer. I already write all the time.”
“Really? That’s fantastic!”
Her enthusiasm feels patronizing. I wish I hadn’t said anything.
“What do you write?” she asks.
“Stories, mostly. Short stories. On my computer.”
I wait for her to ask what they’re about—it’s the question I hate, the question everyone asks. But, to my surprise, Cheryl doesn’t. Instead she says, “Well, this journal is different—it’s not for writing stories. I want you to write about yourself and your feelings.”
Oh, vomit. “No, thanks.”
“Dani, I would appreciate it if you would at least try.”
“Well, I would appreciate it if you would let me go home.”
“We still have a bit of time left in our session.”
“How much longer?”
Cheryl just sits there, letting the silence stretch longer and longer, until it begins to seem as if the silence is a weight, pressing the walls inward. I feel claustrophobic.
“Listen, Cheryl,” I say, to break the silence. “I like to write things that people would actually read.”
She nods. “That makes sense.”
“So that’s why I don’t need your journal.”
“But writing in a journal is different from writing stories, Dani. They have different purposes.”
I look at the clock. Four minutes left. “Why would anyone want to read about my feelings?” I ask.
“Nobody but you and me have to read it.”
“Then what’s the point of writing it?”
Finally it comes. A big, wet, disgusting sneeze.
“Goodness!” Cheryl says. “Bless you.”
Even though I felt it coming and pressed a tissue against my nose, there’s still snot all over my face. I take another three tissues and wipe it away, then ball up the mess and toss it at the small wastebasket across the room. Score.
“Nice shot! You should play basketball.”
“Used to.” The fabric on my chair is itchy against the backs of my bare legs, and the room feels even smaller and hotter and stuffier than it did when I first walked in. I stand up and scratch my leg. “Can I go now?”
“As long as you take this with you,” Cheryl says. The journal’s cover is a soft, plain, robin’s-egg blue, which isn’t the worst color, I guess. I take it from her and shove it in my canvas tote bag. Her smile is so huge—almost as huge as her glasses—that I feel strangely sad, and a little embarrassed.
“See you next week!” she calls after me. “And Dani—please just try, okay?”
This is pointless. I have nothing to say.
(Okay, Cheryl, are you happy? I tried.)
“Keep trying,” she says at our next session.
“You have to open up, Dani.” She’s wearing a different sweater this time—more like a vest, actually, with short sleeves and a hideous round collar. “The journal only works if you sincerely try your best to be honest with yourself.”
“Why would I lie to myself?” I ask.
“Everyone lies to themselves sometimes.”
“Like about what?”
“Maybe about relationships, about motivations for doing things or not doing things, about self-image…”
“But that makes no sense. Don’t you think I would know if I were lying to myself?”
Cheryl gives me a sad look. She seems disappointed, which kind of makes me feel bad. Disappointment, not anger, has always been what cuts me deepest. Growing up, all my parents had to do was give me that “disappointed” look, and I’d do anything to make it up to them.
I take the journal and flash Cheryl the smile my sister, Caitlin, taught me. Like the lid of a soup can painstakingly peeled back. The smile I force open to keep from crying.
“See you next week!” she calls after me.
Cheryl seems like a nice person, and maybe this journal thing helps some people, but I just don’t see the point. For me at least.
“Well, Dani, I’m happy that you’re trying.” Cheryl speaks slowly, as if taking time to select the exact words she wants before she says them. “But I think you can try…a little more.”
“I don’t get what I’m supposed to write about.”
“Anything you want.”
“Let’s hold off on the stories for now,” she says.
“But they’re what I like writing.”
“I want to learn more about you.”
“There’s not much to tell.”
“I think there is,” Cheryl says quietly.
“Everyone has a story to tell about themselves.”
“Well, I’m sorry, but I tried. It’s just not working. I don’t know where to begin.”
“Maybe you could start by writing about your past. Introduce yourself.”
“But I already know myself. I thought you said this journal was for me.”
My name is Danielle Dickinson, but everyone calls me Dani. I am not related to Emily Dickinson, but I like to tell people that I am. She is my favorite poet. I am sixteen years old. I live with my mom and dad and younger sister, Caitlin. She’s thirteen. And we have a dog named Thoreau, but everyone calls him Thor. He’s supposed to stay outside in the backyard because he has a huge bladder problem—actually, I guess, a tiny bladder problem—but sometimes Caitlin and I let him inside when we have the house to ourselves. It usually makes him excited, and we have to keep a close eye on him to make sure he doesn’t get too excited, if you know what I mean. It’s not like you can put diapers on a boxer. Believe me—Caitlin and I tried it once. Anyway, letting Thor inside is risky business, but me and Caitlin are real risk-takers. We live on the edge.
At least we used to, but Caitlin isn’t home as much nowadays. She has gymnastics practice all the time. Mom works as a secretary at a law firm. Dad sells houses, which is tougher than calculus these days, with the mortgage meltdown. He’s been working a lot lately—even weekends. So most of the time it’s just me and old Thor. Home alone.
Last Tuesday I let Thor come inside. Twenty seconds later, he peed on the living-room rug. It’s a beautiful, blue and white Oriental rug that used to be my grandma’s. But Mom was so tired when she finally came home that she didn’t even notice. You might think that’s a lucky thing, Cheryl, but to be honest it was actually kind of a let-down. The whole thing doesn’t seem all that fun anymore, now that it’s not such a risk. I mean, where’s the thrill and danger if you don’t even get in trouble when things go wrong?
Now I let Thor inside all the time. Partly because I feel sorry for him having to stay outside all day, and partly because he keeps me company.
The worst part of each session with Cheryl is when she sits there at her desk reading my journal, and I sit across from her with nothing to do but watch her read. Today it seems to take forever.
Maybe I shouldn’t have put in the part about Caitlin and me being “risk-takers.” Maybe that was a bit much. Sure, sometimes we let Thor inside, but it’s not because we’re risk-takers. It’s because we’re bored. But I wanted to give Cheryl some material to dig into with all those skills they teach in therapist-school. I might have gone overboard, though. That’s what I tend to do when I write—push the envelope too far, until nothing’s believable anymore.
I try staring at the brightly colored posters on the walls of Cheryl’s office, but it doesn’t make the time pass any quicker. “Loving yourself is the most important love there is.” “Every day is a new chance to be the person you want to be.” “Make each day your masterpiece.”
Oh, please. Does Cheryl really believe those corny sayings?
She closes the journal—at last—and looks at me warmly. Good. Maybe she’ll ease up a little on me now.
“Dani, this is wonderful. I really think we’ve broken the dam, don’t you?”
“Isn’t that an expression you writers use? For when you break through writer’s block?”
“Oh, yeah. The dam, yeah.”
“I think this is great and you should keep going.”
“Well, your family—maybe tell me more about your sister.”
“My sister?” A knot springs up in my stomach. “Why do you care about her?”
“She’s a part of your life—”
“I thought we were here to talk about me, Cheryl, not her.”
“I didn’t mean to upset you, Dani.”
“I’m not upset.”
I stare at the “Love yourself” poster, featuring a smiling girl standing confidently, hands on hips. I imagine drawing a mustache on her. Or zits. Wonder how much you’d love yourself if you had a huge pimple on your nose, huh?
“Okay, write about something else, then,” Cheryl says.
“Your home, maybe. Describe where you live.”
I live in a suburban town called Urbana. Population: 82,247, according to the “Welcome to Urbana” sign. Three elementary schools, two middle schools, one high school, five churches, one synagogue, one Tai restaurant, half a dozen burger joints, one über-health-nut-soy-and-wheatgrass “vegan eatery,” two movie theaters, and one shopping mall that just recently got remodeled and expanded. It now includes an assortment of fifty-two “venues-in-demand”—we’ve got J.C. Penny, Sears, Foot Locker, Mrs. Field’s Cookies, White Barn Candle Company, Sam Goody, Hot Dog On a Stick…
…but no restrooms.
That’s right, they forgot to put a single sanitary facility in the entire complex. They’re supposed to finish building the bathrooms by the end of the summer, but for now people have to stop their shopping and rush outside to the Porta Potties lined up in the parking lot like bright blue alien spacecraft. It’s hilarious in an absurd Urbana sort of way.
I can’t wait to get out of this town.
“You’re doing great, Dani! Keep at it!”
“Thanks.” Cheryl is quickly approaching my maximum tolerance for exaggerated enthusiasm, but I don’t think she notices, because she keeps pouring it on.
“I’m so proud of you! I really think we’re making progress—”
Tolerance exceeded. “Does that mean I can write stories now?” I interrupt.
“Let’s hold off a smidgen longer. Maybe you could try writing more about yourself”—Cheryl raises her eyebrows for added emphasis—“and how you are feeling.”
I roll my eyes. The cartoon sun in the “Make each day your masterpiece” poster is grinning down at me in a condescending way. I hate this office.
“Keep trying this for now, Dani,” Cheryl says. “Write about what you like to do.”
Well, duh. I like to write. Stories mostly, not this stupid journal stuff.
I don’t really know how I started writing. I remember always liking to read, and then one day I started to write too, I guess. My dad has this old manual typewriter that used to belong to his grandpa—Grandpa Daniel, who I’m named after. I would sit at his desk (him being my dad, not Grandpa Daniel) and punch out stories on the typewriter when he was away at one of his “Open House” deals. Mom showed me how to press down hard on each key to get the letters to print, and she’d come in and help me put in a new sheet of paper whenever I got that far along (which was rare). I think more than writing I liked the clacking sound the keys made. Typewriters just sound productive, don’t you think? I always felt so important, typing on that thing.
I keep everything I write in a special box underneath my bed. I know it sounds weird, but my stories are safest there. In my house, if you leave stuff around—especially important stuff, like permission slips or coupon specials or physics homework you’ve slaved over—it has a tendency to disappear. Important stuff often gets buried underneath the piles of junk mail and catalogs and old newspapers that clutter just about every free countertop. And then that stuff gets thrown out in the trash or recycling bin when Mom goes on one of her routine “cleaning binges.”
“What’s that?” Caitlin asks, interrupting my writing.
I forgot to write in my journal this week, and I’m meeting with Cheryl at 9 a.m., which is in exactly 23 minutes. I didn’t think Caitlin would be awake this early. She’s usually a late sleeper.
My sister is beautiful. She has piercing green eyes and amazing cheekbones, and she’s so thin she could be on the cover of Seventeen. She sits down across from me at the breakfast table, warily eying my half-eaten bowl of Special K.
“Good morning,” I say.
“I asked you, what is that?” Caitlin repeats, pointing at my journal.
“Oh, it’s just…this stupid project. For school.” I don’t want her to know I’m seeing a therapist. It would distress her.
“But it’s summer,” she says. “You don’t have schoolwork.”
“Yeah, I do—they give you work to do over the summer for the next grade. Summer homework. It’s lame. Just wait till you get to AP classes.”
“Well what do you have to do?”
“Just, you know, keep a journal and stuff. About my life.”
“Why would anyone want to read about your life? That’s boring.”
“I know, right?”
“What are you writing about now?”
“About how Mom throws every single thing away when she goes on her cleaning binges.”
“Oh, tell me about it!” Caitlin rolls her eyes. “I tore out this really great workout from Fitness and left it on the counter because I got distracted. Who knows where it is now.”
“Probably already been recycled into paper towels or napkins or something.”
“Or maybe it’s still around here, buried under those crap CDs the parentals bought at that yard sale last week.”
“Hey,” I say. “I happen to like James Taylor.”
“Dani, please. An old guy with a guitar?”
“Have you even listened to his music?”
“I don’t need to. Mom and Dad like it, so I know it’s lame.”
I carry my bowl of milk-drenched cereal to the sink and begin feeding clumps down the garbage disposal with my spoon.
Caitlin follows. “Anyway,” she says, “my point is, our house is a huge black hole.”
“More like a giant garbage disposal.”
“Ewww, Dani, that’s disgusting!”
She turns and slips out of the room, and I don’t see her again until dinner.
Ghost Fingers centers around a teenage girl named Dani, an aspiring writer who lives with her parents, her younger sister, Caitlin, and an elderly dog named Thor in the California suburbs. The novel is told from Dani’s perspective, and it soon becomes clear that something is not quite right in her life and her world. She reluctantly begins seeing a therapist named Cheryl, who encourages Dani to keep a journal about her thoughts and feelings. However, Dani is unwilling to write about her problems—or her complicated relationship with her sister—directly. Instead, Cheryl learns more about Dani from the “fictional” stories she writes, interspersed throughout the novel, which also give the reader insight into her secret life.
As the novel progresses, Dani makes a surprising new friendship, rediscovers her love of basketball, and deals with the heartbreak of sudden loss. She ultimately has to decide whether being brave enough to speak her truth is worth the risk of betraying her sister.
The idea for this novel first sparked to life when I was still a teenager myself. I have always loved to write, but writing became especially meaningful for me during the emotional roller-coaster of high school. In my senior year I had an independent study hall during first period, and I spent the entire time writing stories. Ever since then, I have seen writing as a reprieve and release, a source of freedom. Growing up, I felt boxed in at times by others’ perceptions of me—in fact, I think this feeling is not uncommon among adults as well—and writing became a way for me to escape into many different lives, inhabiting a wide panorama of characters, voices, and experiences. I felt that my fictional stories captured my authentic self, warts and all, better than any nonfiction essay could. When writing in the guise of fiction, it was easier to be honest.
Even though my high school years are long past, I still gravitate toward writing fiction for young adults. That time of life is such rich soil for a writer—so many intense emotions and new experiences that linger with us. In Ghost Fingers, I was interested in exploring the gray area between truth and fiction, the healing power of writing, and the way writers often sprinkle bits of themselves into their characters and storylines. One true bit from my life is the character of Thor, inspired by my beloved boxer dog, Gar, who slept at my feet for much of the writing process of this manuscript.
Dallas Woodburn, a former Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University, has published work in Zyzzyva, The Nashville Review, Flyway, The Los Angeles Times, and Monkeybicycle, among many others. Her debut short-story collection, Woman, Running Late, in a Dress, won the 2018 Cypress & Pine Short Fiction Award and is forthcoming from Yellow Flag Press. Dallas is the founder of Write On! Books, an organization that empowers youth through reading and writing endeavors: www.writeonbooks.org. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her amazing husband, overflowing bookshelves, and windowsill succulent garden.
Embark, Issue 3, January 2018