“Your mother doesn’t love you,” she said. “You know she only sees you to get back at your father.”
I kept my back to her. I was ten.
“If you were grateful, you’d get back in this house right now.” My step-mother wouldn’t step out from the carport and she had to shout.
I was sitting on my suitcase in the grass under the oak tree. I hoped I looked like an orphan because I wanted the neighbors to see. To hear. Only our neighbors were too far away to ever witness much of anything.
“Don’t you come back in this house and say I didn’t tell you,” she said. “You’ll see. She’s not coming to get you.”
I kept my hands tightly together on my knees and stared at the end of the drive. My mom is to coming to get me, I thought. She wants to see me. But I’d learned the best way to make my step-mother go away was to say nothing. It drove her mad.
“Don’t come in here crying,” she said, and slammed the kitchen door.
I let my shoulders sag and turned to look down the road. My mother had never missed a weekend. She’d never been late or early. Always coming around the curve at 5:30.
The sunset was setting when my step-mother came marching back. “You got a phone call,” she said.
I waited until she was several steps ahead of me before I followed.
“I’ll miss seeing you this weekend,” mom said.
I sat on a barstool, my elbows on the bar, the phone to my ear. My step-mother stood in the doorway and watched. She tried to watch everything.
“I’ll miss you too,” I said. Speaking threatened to make me cry, but I pressed my elbows down hard on the bar. Crying would upset my mom and satisfy my step-mother.
“Are you all doing anything special for Easter?” she said.
Easter. Every other Easter I stayed with dad. I’d thought it was an ordinary weekend.
“You did remember it was Easter, didn’t you?” she said.
I nodded, forgetting she couldn’t see.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “I should’ve call yesterday and reminded you. Are you okay?”
“No, Mom. I didn’t forget. I just, you know, don’t care about Easter all that much. That’s all,” I said. “Do you have plans?”
“Something’s wrong,” she said. “Can you tell me?”
“Everything’s fine,” I said. “But I’ve got to go. Dinner’s almost ready.”
I heard my step-mother walk back to the kitchen and smack a pot on the counter. She’d probably let me eat, but she’d make me pay.
“Should I come get you?” my mother asked.
“No. I know what weekend it is.” I try to laugh. “It’s fine. I’ll see you next Friday, okay?” I could tell that mom was deciding whether or not to believe me. Possibly she was debating whether or not believing me was okay. She was the only adult who knew when I was lying.
My step-sister,N., came into the room and rolled her eyes when she saw me. “You’re so stupid,” N. said.
“Mom, I’ve got to go. My dinner’s getting cold.”
Mom promised to call me on Sunday. “I love you,” she said.
“Love you, too,” I said, avoiding my step-sister’s stare, and I hung up the phone.
Every character has a backstory. Some writers develop entire histories for characters to explain their motivations, their desires, and their favorite colors. I’ve heard some writers say they know what their character ate for breakfast. Other writers don’t care about all that past. They zip their character along and find explanations along the way.
When I try to write a history for a character, I find myself longing to write the actual story. I give up on notes and timelines and run. When I need to know why someone is making a particular choice, especially a choice they she shouldn’t make, I think about why. I may add it to the story or I may not. This method becomes apparent when people read what I’ve written. “What the hell is character thinking?” readers have asked.
What the hell am I thinking, I wonder. How much of the past is necessary to make a character believable? What slices from her history will explain who she is? How much backstory do you need to know what is coming?