The Character

 

The Character was written, and published, in March, 2010.  So it is getting rather dated, I know.  Still,  it continues to be one of the two that consistently sell very well (the other being Broken).  More than that,  everything about The Character is especially powerful and meaningful and special in my personal life and in my heart.   The story revolves around Anna, a ten-year-old who is currently experiencing sexual abuse at the hands of her father.  She meets a grown man, named Ash, who becomes her friend;  an anchor in her time of need.  Since I penned the last word,  I have not been able to re-read that book in its entirety.  I have to skip pages, sometimes even whole chapters.  But beneath its intense depictions of sexual abuse shines forth bright and beautiful hope.  One reviewer wrote,  “Certainly,  I don’t know if you or someone close to you endured the kind of terror Anna did but if you/they did, this book is a reverberating,  ‘I survived and shined!’   It is one of the greatest examples of art as redemption I have seen.”    That review stirred me, moved me on deep levels, because what that book tried to show was that there is hope even in the midst of unbelievable terror.  Ash isn’t a normal kind of friend;  he’s quite unique.  I don’t want to give his secret away, but I do want to say that I wish every little girl and every little boy in trouble had access to a friend like Ash.   Going further,  I think every adult could use a friend like him, too.  I  give away or sell every book I get my hands on.  I have not had a physical copy of The Character in my hands until recently, when I ordered a bazillion copies for a book tour.   I went back and re-read some of it late, late last night.  I re-read this particular chapter twice, back-to-back, and my heart fell in love with Ash again.  So I’m posting it—not just an excerpt but the entire chapter—because I want to share these two oh-so-beloved and special characters with as many people as I possibly can.  Not to sell a book, but to inspire hope.   If you are familiar with any of my excerpts, you know that most of them (if not all) contain some form of graphic depiction of abuse or other disturbing scenes.  This one does not;  those excerpts are trying to shock readers into action.  This excerpt just wants to serve as a reminder of what tenderness and safe friendship look like.

Please note:  this book is extremely personal and took a great deal of tears and really hard work to write.  It is copyrighted by Tiffini Johnson and absolutely no part of this writing—or any on the entire blog—may be reproduced in any format without my written, express permission.   The book can be bought online or by request at any bookstore, or in e-book format.  You can click here to buy it for $8.99.

 

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Ash stood next to me. Both of us had our arms behind our backs and we were leaned forward, trying to see all the different flavors of ice cream behind the glass. I like to copy Ash. When he does something cool, which is almost all the time, I try doing it, too. It makes me feel like I’m almost as neat as he is. Right now, we’re trying to decide which type of ice cream to buy.

Today is a good day. For one thing, it’s Saturday, which means I don’t have to go to school and I get to spend more time with Ash. For another thing, Daddy went to see my grandparents in another city and won’t be home tonight. This means I know Daddy won’t come to my room tonight. This makes me feel…lighter, happier, freer. And thirdly, just before I came to the park, where I kind of thought Ash might be waiting for me, I checked my piggybank. It’s where I save all the loose change that I find lying around the house. In it, I had nine dollars and sixty-three cents. This means that I have enough money to buy not only myself an ice cream but Ash an ice cream, as well. I feel grown-up. I feel special. I feel important, being able to buy him a special treat. Today will be a good day.

“What kind do you like to get?” I asked, tipping my head towards him.

The girl behind the counter looked my way but when she saw that I was talking to someone else, looked away again. Ash frowned and shook his head. Then he stood up straight again.

“How many different flavors are there?”

“They say on TV that they have thirty-two.”

“I think I’d like to taste test all thirty-two before I decide.”

A grin is tugging at his mouth. He arches his eyebrows and nods.

“I’d like to start by tasting lime,” he says.

“Uh—”

“Do they allow taste tests here?”

I smiled.

“I don’t know.”

“Why don’t we ask and find out?”

I shrugged. I looked up towards the girl.

“Excuse me.”

She comes over.

“Could I taste the lime? I’ve never had it before.”

“Sure.”

She grabs a white spoon and dips some lime on it. Then she hands it to me. I turn and hand it to Ash. He licks a little bit of it off and then hands it back down to me. I try it, too.

“Hm. What about raspberry?” Ash asked.

I ask the lady for a taste of raspberry, and Ash and I repeat the taste test. I am ready now to choose my flavor but Ash decides he needs to try a bite of the lemon. I don’t really want to ask the lady for a third taste test. I know we’re not supposed to do that. But Ash smiles at me. He has the prettiest smile. I ask for the lemon. The lady sighs heavily and gets me a taste. While she prepares it, Ash uses his elbow to poke me in the side. I look up at him and he makes a silly, angry face. He is laughing because the lady is getting irritated. I frown and shake my head. Anger is not funny. She hands us the lemon. Then I get ready to order the kind I want.

“I think I need at least one more taste test,” Ash said.

I look up at him.

“Ash…”

“Come on, one more. I’m not sure yet. I really need to taste the sherbet.”

I quietly ask for another taste test with the sherbet. The lady scowls at me but gets it ready.

I am poked again by Ash. When I look at him, he sticks out his tongue and puts his hands on his hips, then looks at the lady. I can’t help but laugh cause he is so silly. And it is kind of funny, asking for taste tests, even though we don’t need to. After this taste test, Ash tells me he wants the sherbet. I order a double dip sugar cone sherbet.

Once she had it ready, I said, “I want to order one more, but can I try the butter pecan first?”

Ash’s shout of laughter is my reward. He takes his sherbet from me and winks.

“Atta girl,” he said.

The lady is frowning at me, but I don’t care. I am smiling so big now my face hurts. Ash is happy.

 

***** ***** *****

 

“You have a chocolate face,” Ash tells me a little bit later.

We took our ice cream out of the store because we made the lady mad. We are sitting by the ducks in the park, the same place we first met. I really like this park. I take my hand and wipe away my chocolate face.

“I didn’t really need the taste tests, you know. I always get chocolate,” I said.

Ash smiles and looks toward the ducks.

Then he leaned sideways, closer to me, and said in a loud whisper, “I always get sherbet.”

I laugh at the look on his face.

“Sometimes it’s fun just to have fun,” said Ash.

I think about that for a minute before I shrug.

“I don’t like it when people get mad at me.”

“I know.”

He takes a bite out of his ice cream and then shrugs.

“But anger isn’t a bad thing, not by itself it’s not. I get mad a lot,” Ash said.

“You do?”

“Oh sure.”

“Why do you get mad?”

“Well, for lots of reasons. If I can’t remember a story the way I want to, I get mad. Sometimes I even get mad if I can’t go to sleep at night, or if I wake up and can’t go back to sleep.”

He shakes his head.

“But, when I get mad, I tell myself a story, or sometimes I just go somewhere by myself. That makes it better.”

I nod.

“Do you ever get angry, Anna?”

I think about this for a minute. Then I shake my head.

“No.”

“Never?”

“No.”

“What about at the kids at school? When they laugh because of something you do?”

“No. I feel embarrassed but that’s not the same thing as being mad.”

“You’re right, it’s not. What about when you think you should be able to do something, like maybe pass a test, but you can’t do it?”

I shake my head.

“Nope. I just cry then.”

“Hm.”

He takes another bite of his ice cream. His is gone now. I still have a little of mine left. Ash tips his head back to look at the sky. It is a really pretty day today. The sky is so bright and blue, and it’s not at all cold. It’s not hot, though, either. It’s really perfect. I wish it could stay like this forever.

“Guess what?” I asked all of a sudden.

I take the last bite of my ice cream and then wipe my hands on my jeans.

“What?”

“I finished my story about the tree. You know, the one we had to do for school?”

“You did? Hey, I want to hear it. How about we go over yonder, in a shady spot, so you can tell it to me?”

“Okay.”

We get up and start walking. Everything is so pretty at the park. I like all the flowers. Whenever I see the gardens, with their hedges and decorations, I always wonder who came up with the idea for it to look this way. The gardens at the other park, the one Mama likes, don’t look like these. These are bigger. It must have been really hard, making just green grass look so neat and pretty. The tree that we are walking toward is in the center of the biggest garden. That’s cause this tree is the biggest one in the park—it stands by itself. Around it are smaller gardens of different types of flowers. It is one of my favorite places in the park.

Ash stretches out on the ground. His red shirt has ridges down the front of it. It makes him look really strong. He puts his head in the palm of his hand and smiles at me. I sit down beside him and lean my back against the tree.

“Okay, peanut, go for it. I’m all set for my story.”

“Well, once upon a time, there was this monkey. The monkey thought it would be nice to have his own trees to climb in. So he went to the store and bought three trees to plant. When he planted the trees, he called one Mama Tree, one Daddy Tree and the other one, the one that was smaller than the other two, he named Baby Tree. The monkey was very good at taking care of the trees. Every day, he went out and watered all three of them. He knew that it would take a long time for the trees to grow into big trees, but that was okay. He didn’t mind to wait. Well, one night, a huge, huge storm came. It rained so hard. From inside his house, the monkey watched the trees. They were leaning real bad. Especially Baby Tree. The monkey was scared that it was going to fall over. If it did that, it might not stand back up. The other two bigger trees were doing okay, even though they were swaying a lot, too. The monkey went out in the rain and tied a small stick to the little tree. He was trying to help make it stay straight in the rain. Then the monkey went back inside. He watched it for a little bit, and it seemed to be doing better. It didn’t bend so much. So the monkey went to bed.

Well, later that night, when it was real dark and real late, the rain started coming down harder and harder and harder. The stick helped Baby Tree, but the two bigger trees started swaying and bending. They were having a hard time staying up straight. They were scared of falling to the ground and drowning in the rain. Then the big Daddy Tree said to Mama Tree, ‘Hey, bend a little toward me and I’ll bend a little toward you. That way we’ll help keep each other up.’ So Daddy Tree bent in a little toward Mama Tree, and Mama Tree bent in a little toward Daddy Tree. Baby Tree was in the middle. At first, this helped everybody out. It kept a lot of the rain off of Baby Tree, and it helped Mama Tree and Daddy Tree from falling. But then the storm got worse and worse. It kept pushing Mama Tree and Daddy Tree in even more. They were starting to lean on Baby Tree. Baby Tree started crying cause it was getting pushed to the ground where all the water was. Mama Tree said, ‘We gotta push ourselves off of Baby Tree.’ But Daddy Tree said, ‘If we do, we’ll all drown.’ So they didn’t.

The next morning, the monkey came out of his house to see how the trees were. Mama Tree and Daddy Tree were sagging a little, but they were still okay. Baby Tree, though, was smashed. It lay on the ground and couldn’t be helped. Mama Tree and Daddy Tree had to use it to help themselves.”

Ash’s dark eyes looked different than they had at the start of the story. They were a lot darker. After a long time, he shook his head a little and bent it down, but he still didn’t say anything. I started feeling a little panicked.

“You don’t like it?” I asked, frowning.

If he didn’t like it, there was no way I could ever turn it in to my teacher.

Ash lifted his head and smiled a small smile.

“It is a good story, Anna.”

His voice was soft.

“I like it. Thank you for sharing it with me. Now, I think you need to share it with your teacher.”

“You really do like it?”

“I really, really do. You’re a very smart young lady.”

That was such a lie that I almost snorted. He laughed softly and looked away from me. Then he looked back and reached out a hand. He touched my arm and nodded.

“You are. Mark my words, that story will get an A.”

“Maybe.”

“Hey, do you see that bird?” Ash asked me suddenly, pointing up to the sky.

I did not see a bird.

“No. Where?”

“Right there”

“In the tree?”

“No, silly. Right there. See it? Straight up.”

I looked. I looked really hard. But I still didn’t see a bird.

“You’re fooling me. There’s no bird.”

“There is too. That cloud looks just like a red bird.”

I got it now. He loves to make shapes out of clouds. This time, when I looked up, I did see the bird shape in one of the clouds.

“How can something white look like red?” I asked.

Ash sighed heavily and rolled his head sideways to look at me.

“Seriously, Anna, use your imagination. That cloud is red.”

“If you say so. It’s moving anyway.”

“Yeah.”

A second’s pause.

“Hey, let’s follow it,” Ash said.

“What?”

Ash was already on his feet.

“Come on, we’re going to follow that bird.”

I laughed. I liked that game.

“Maybe we’ll find its nest,” I said.

“That has its three baby birds in it.”

“Maybe we’ll get to see it pick up a worm to feed its babies.”

“I bet there’s a crow at its nest and the crow is about to eat the baby birds. We’ll get to watch the mama fight away the crow. Did you know there is nothing as dangerous as a mama when she’s protecting her babies?”

“That’ll be fun,” I said.

We were walking through the park. Both me and Ash had our heads tipped back so we could follow the bird cloud. It was really fun. I didn’t know where we were going, and I did not care because Ash was with me.

“Hey, our bird is changing!” Ash said suddenly.

I started laughing.

“It’s not a bird anymore, Ash! It’s a pretzel.”

“A pretzel? You turned my red bird into a pretzel?”

“Well, look at it! It’s a pretzel!”

I was laughing so hard. Ash laughed, too, his head still tipped back. Our pretzel bird was now moving slowly just ahead of us. It met up with another cloud. It stuck to the new cloud and changed again.

“Hey, our pretzel just got eaten by an airplane!” Ash said.

“No,” I said seriously. “Our pretzel bird just got on an airplane. It will help her reach her nest faster. She had to fly a long way away to find food for those babies.”

“Ah, well, all the better. She might get back home before the crow gets there.”

We were still walking. A minute later, our airplane pretzel bird began to stretch out. It got longer and longer.

“Anna—Anna—”

“It’s a—ooph,” I said as I ran into someone. I looked up and saw the teenage boy I’d run into. My face got red.

“Sorry,” I muttered.

He ignored me and kept walking, but I heard him mutter, “Nutcase.”

My heart sinks. I was a nutcase. I was walking backwards with my head tipped up, trying to see where a cloud would go, and laughing because it kept changing shapes. I looked back at Ash. He smiled at me.

“Birds eat nuts.”

I laughed.

 

***** ***** *****

 

“I see one!” Ash said, with his head tipped back.

He was looking up a real tree this time. After we lost track of our airplane pretzel bird, Ash wanted to go on a hunt for a real bird’s nest. He grabbed a huge stick and started walking. It took me a minute longer to find the right kind of stick, and when I finally found one Ash was on up ahead of me. He was so tall. He was so strong. And he was so nice. I really loved him.

I took off running, calling after him to wait up. He did, smiling down at me, and we’d gone off in search of the bird’s nest. People passed me and looked at me funny. Ash said they couldn’t understand why a pretty little girl like me would want to talk to him. I thought that was dumb. If they knew Ash, they’d want to talk to him, too. I thought they looked at me funny cause every time I thought I saw a bird’s nest, I went crazy trying to point it out. Ash would put his hand over his eyes and squint, looking. Then he would say I was seeing things and move on. He wanted to be the one to find the bird’s nest. I didn’t really care which one of us found one, but I played along and argued that I would find one before he did.

It was all part of the story.

I wasn’t really surprised when he called out that he saw a bird’s nest.

“Where?” I asked.

He pointed to the top of the huge maple tree he was standing in front of. I tipped my head back to see and, sure enough, I could see just the edge of the nest. It didn’t look like a very big bird’s nest, but it was definitely a nest. I wondered what was inside it.

“Come on,” said Ash, looking towards the tree. He started circling it. The tree forked, and he put a hand around one limb of it.

“Let’s climb it and see.”

I was surprised when he said he wanted to climb the tree with me so that we could see it better. I wasn’t altogether sure that I could climb a tree. I never had before. But I wanted to. I’d always thought it sounded cool to say that you had climbed a tree. And if I climbed one with Ash, I knew it’d be okay cause I knew that Ash wouldn’t let anything happen to me.

“Okay.”

I walked to stand in front of him.

“Grab hold here,” he said, showing me where to put my hand.

“And put your other hand here. You’re going to climb on top of that branch there.”

My heart was beginning to race. I wasn’t real sure I could do this. I reached out and grabbed hold of the branch. Then I pulled my foot up and onto it. I didn’t fall. Ash was right behind me, too, waiting for me to climb up so he could climb. I reached for the next branch. Then the next. Then the next. It was getting easier to do the further we went. My heart wasn’t racing so much. I felt better and less scared every time I got to a safe branch. I could see the bird’s nest real good now.

“We’re almost there, Ash!” I said excitedly.

“Great. Keep going.”

I did.

A few minutes later, I was sitting on the same thick branch as the bird’s nest.

“What’s inside it?” Ash asked.

“I can’t see it for sure.”

“Scoot closer to it.”

I grabbed hold of the bark and started inching my way closer to the nest. I told myself not to look down. We had climbed a long way up.  I did not want to think about getting down. Ash put his hands on my knees and smiled at me from the branch below me.

“You’re fine. Keep scooting.”

With his hands on my knees, I wasn’t scared hardly at all. I inched closer to the nest until I could finally see over its edge.

“There’s three eggs in here, Ash!”

I was real excited. I could see the eggs real good. They were pure white, with no spots or anything. I wondered what kind of birds they were. I wondered where the mother bird was.

Ash wondered the same thing, I guess, cause he said, “Eggs are cool but bad. If the mama bird gets back here, she’ll peck our heads off. Come on, let’s go back down a branch or two so she’ll feel we’re safe.”

That sounded like a good plan. Except I couldn’t get down off the branch I was on. I didn’t want to. I was sure I’d miss my footing and fall to the ground. That would be bad. Daddy would kill me if he knew I’d climbed a tree. Girls aren’t supposed to do things like that. That made me feel really nervous. I felt my palms start to get sweaty. I wasn’t breathing too good, either. Now, I was scared.

“Come on, Anna, you can do it. See, watch me.”

Ash wrapped one long arm around the tree trunk and swung himself like a monkey onto the branch below him.

“My arms are not monkey arms like yours.”

“Monkey arms?” He laughed.

“I’m not as tall as you.”

“Kids do this all the time. Come on. You’ll be fine.”

I scooted until I was laid down on the branch. Then I wrapped both arms around the branch I was lying on and scooted my legs. I scooted them until they fell off. Then I slid down, holding on with both arms, until I felt my feet hit the branch below me. That was good.

Finally, I made it to where Ash was, two branches below the bird’s nest.

He sat, legs swinging from the branch, a smile on his face, like always. I scooted up until my back was against the trunk of the tree. That made me feel safer. We weren’t that high off the ground anymore, but it was still a nice fall that I didn’t want to do.

“You should write a story about that bird.”

“There wasn’t a bird in the nest,” I pointed out.

“Not that bird. The airplane pretzel bird.”

I smiled. Then I tipped my head back and looked up toward the nest again.

“What kind of bird do you think those eggs are?”

“Don’t know. Wanna sit here until they hatch and we find out?”

I laughed.

“You’re silly.”

He winked.

“We’re pretty high off the ground, aren’t we?” I asked.

“Pretty.”

“I see the swings from here.”

“Yup.”

“Those are my favorites.”

He was quiet so I didn’t say anything else either. After a few minutes, he moved and started climbing down again.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“To the swings. Race ya there.”

By the time I got out of the tree, Ash was running. He wasn’t running as fast as I knew he could. He was letting me catch up with him. I ran to where I was walking by his side, and then I slowed down. There were other kids at the playground. I wondered if any of them had a friend as good as Ash. I didn’t think they did. I was glad that there were two swings open side by side. Ash got one, and I got the other. He started swinging right away. It took me a little longer to get going. It is still a little hard for me to push myself. But I know how. I just have to make my legs work hard. It wasn’t long, though, before I was going just as fast as Ash.

“You’re right, Anna—this is fun,” Ash said from the swing beside me.

I barely heard him.

I love the swings. When I get going really fast, like I am right now, I can feel the cool wind across my face. It feels good, even though I usually don’t like cold things. I like the way it blows the hair off my neck. I pump my legs real hard to make me go faster. I pull my arms out and then back, my legs in, then out again. It feels good to work my arms and legs like this. I turn my head to the side to look at Ash. He is swinging fast, too, but I am going faster now. He still has his little smile on his face. That makes me happy.

After a while, swinging gets a little hard and I slow myself down. Ash does, too.

“Hey, you ready for a break?” he asked.

It is getting a little darker. The sun is not so high in the sky now. And I am getting tired. I nod. Me and Ash walk back towards the garden, the one that has the big tree we like so much. When we get there, we both lay on our backs and stare up at the sky. There are white lines from airplanes flying across and a few puffy clouds right above us. None of them look like anything, really, though.

I yawn.

I am getting sleepy.

It has been a lot of fun playing with Ash today, though. And I am super glad that he liked my story.

“Ash?”

“Yeah?”

“I don’t want to go home.”

He didn’t answer me.

I looked over at him, but he was still looking at the sky. When he did look at me, he smiled a little.

“Here you go,” he said.

He stretched his arm out. I lifted my head and he put his arm under it. It was nice to lay on his arm. I knew that nothing was going to hurt me right now cause Ash was here. I wanted Ash to go with me everywhere. I loved him a lot. He was my best friend. It is hard when there is not a place at home where I can feel really, really safe.

I closed my eyes and yawned again.

“Anna Peanut?”

“Hm?”

“I think it’s time you got home, before your mama starts lookin’ for you.”

He was right, of course. But I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t want to. If Mama got worried, though, Daddy would hear about it. It had been a perfect day. I didn’t want that to change when I got home. I sat up.

“Okay.”

“Come on, I’ll walk you back.”

And he did. We didn’t talk a lot on the way home. I was just thinking about the airplane pretzel bird, the ice cream, the bird’s nest, and the swing. I was thinking how glad I was that Ash is my friend. When we saw my house, I just turned to him and wrapped both my arms around his waist in a hug. Ash put both arms around me, too. It felt really good. Nobody gave me hugs like Ash did. His hugs always made me feel like I was loved.

“See ya later,” I said.

“Ecrivez-moi, peanut.”

 

***** ***** *****

 

Birds were chirping outside my window. I smelled bacon and biscuits cooking. My back hurt. I opened my eyes and looked down. Why was I at my desk? I must have fallen asleep and slept most of the night at my desk. I looked down. My story notebook was open. I rubbed my eyes and stretched. Then I looked down at the story notebook again.

 

“Hey, our bird is changing!” Ash said suddenly.

I started laughing.

“It’s not a bird anymore, Ash! It’s a pretzel.”

“A pretzel? You turned my red bird into a pretzel?”

“Well, look at it! It’s a pretzel!”

I was laughing so hard. Ash laughed, too, his head still tipped back. Our pretzel bird was now moving slowly just ahead of us. It met up with another cloud. It stuck to the new cloud and changed again.

“Hey, our pretzel just got eaten by an airplane!”

I’d been reading the story of me and Ash at the park. I smiled and closed the story notebook. Maybe that’s why I did not dream of Daddy last night.

It was time to get ready for church.

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