Read The Trouble with Emily Dickinson Online
Authors: Ken McKowen
Tags: #love, #gay, #lesbian, #teen, #high school
Copyright 2012 by Lyndsey D’Arcangelo
Cover and Book Design: Publishing Syndicate
Edited by Theresa Elders
Published by Publishing Syndicate
Print Edition ISBN
Digital Edition ISBN
Library of Congress Control Number
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Published in the United States
PO Box 607
Orangevale, California 95662
This book is dedicated to
the young poets and dreamers
of the world.
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops all.”
My river runs to thee: Blue sea, wilt welcome
The words lingered in JJ’s ears, compelling
her lips to move along the edges of the syllables. The coffee shop
was bathed in dim light, except for the spotlight that held the
woman centered on stage as she captured the packed crowd with Emily
JJ sat at a table off in a corner by herself,
her cobalt blue journal opened wide. She glanced down at the pages
of rhymes and rhythmic phrases she’d never once shared with another
human being. Though she’d been attending The Spot’s Friday night
open readings since her freshman year at private school, JJ never
before had come to fulfill a class assignment. That would have
mixed business with pleasure. Unfortunately, that was what she was
doing at this very moment—mixing business with pleasure.
“My river waits reply. Oh sea, look
The woman reciting these words was JJ’s
creative writing teacher, Mrs. Clark. She’d required the class to
attend a poetry reading dedicated to Emily Dickinson. One by one,
other students took the stage to read a poem from Dickinson’s body
of work. Thankfully, this wasn’t mandatory, so JJ could sit quietly
in the corner and blend in with the crowd, as if she weren’t even
there. She was a fan of Dickinson, of course, but not enough of a
fan to brave the stage and read a poem outloud to the audience. Her
stage fright always got the best of her.
The host of the open reading, a short man
wearing square black-framed glasses who worked the coffee counter
during the day, took the microphone and expressed his thanks for
the large turnout. JJ remembered he’d once taken her for a boy.
Since she wore her hair cut short, with bleached-blond tips,
usually board-stiff from gobs of gel, her soft tomboyish appearance
confused him and he’d mistakenly called her “sir.”
JJ had simply blinked back at him. He’d
immediately recognized his mistake and offered her numerous
apologies, along with a free cappuccino. She dismissed it as a
misunderstanding, knowing he hadn’t done it on purpose. Others had
made far harsher comments about her ambiguous appearance before,
and not one of those people had ever offered her a fresh cappuccino
to save face.
When the winning performance of the night was
announced, JJ wasn’t the least bit surprised to see one of the
students in her own writing class walk up on stage, smiling widely
in her sunshine-colored get-up. Her name was Olivia. Olivia
Now that’s a writer’s name, thought JJ. Much
more colorful than her own cow-milking farmhand name of Josephine
When she was a child, she’d responded to
everything from Josie to Jo, but decided to call herself JJ before
she came to Sampson. She believed that going by her initials
introduced elements of curiosity and originality, themes she liked
to showcase at the forefront of her personality.
After she left the coffee house, JJ shuffled
along the broken sidewalk toward campus. As she walked her
flip-flops, smacking against her heels, kept up a soothing beat.
She realized if she sped up just a bit, the beat would change.
She tucked her journal under her left arm
like a tightly kept secret. She wondered if she would ever muster
up enough courage to step up on that stage and share such secrets
with the world. Though she knew deep inside that she was as
talented as the rest, a self-deprecating fear constantly gripped at
her sides and held her back.
A rumble echoed in the distance. The night’s
predicted thunderstorm grew closer. JJ leaned against a flickering
lamppost, and then slid down to the sidewalk. Her blueberry-colored
sweatshirt itched against her back as she reached into her baggy
shorts for her pen. She chewed on its end for a moment, as words
played in her head. Lightning flashed, making its mark on the sky.
Then a thunderous crash shook the air.
JJ focused her attention back onto the blank
page in her journal. She scratched out the words in her nearly
ONE SIMPLE WORD, TINY, UNASSUMING yet, undeniably
When IT REACHES THE HEART in my chest, causing IT TO
When IT TRAVELS THE LIMBS of my body, causing THEM TO
When IT SEEPS into my mind, causing THOUGHTS TO
When IT DWELLS in the pit of my stomach, causing IT
ONE SIMPLE WORD; ENDLESS EXISTENCE
Can’t I just ERASE IT FROM MY MIND?
Raindrops began to spot the page, smudging
the ink. JJ tilted her head, and with her eyes tightly shut let the
water tickle her face. If she sat there long enough, she hoped the
rain would wash away all of her fear.
A smooth black BMW slowed and stopped at the
curb beside her. Though the windows were tinted, JJ knew who was
behind the wheel.
Queenie McBride, heiress to the throne of the
McBride Estate, rolled down the window. Her long blonde hair was
pulled back into a baseball cap and her almond colored eyes were
barely visible in the darkness. She happily wore her usual smug
expression on her long face. It somehow lent her the appearance of
a seasoned woman, someone aware of the complexities of life.
Known in Virginia as the conquerors of the
cotton industry, the McBride family could trace their lineage back
to before the Civil War. They owned a plantation where slaves once
had worked their lands. Queenie despised her family roots and
everything they stood for. Her revenge was to spend her parents’
money as frivolously as possible. Of course, there was the added
shock value of being a lesbian. It wasn’t the only thing that she
and JJ had in common, but it planted the seed from which their
“What are you doing?” Queenie asked in an
accusatory tone. “Are you finding yourself again?”
“I’m exercising my right of creative
“Care if I interrupt?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Not if you want a ride back to school.”
JJ reluctantly closed her journal and climbed
into the front seat. Queenie hit a button on the radio that sent
the Indigo Girls blaring in surround sound.
“New speakers,” Queenie yelled above the
music, pointing to the back of the car.
As they headed on to the school grounds,
Queenie began to sing. Within seconds, JJ joined in and their
voices blended with the music. They entered the conservative bubble
of Sampson Academy with Queenie riding the high of buying her new
state-of-the-art speakers at her parents’ expense while JJ tried
desperately to erase the word fear from her mind.
With the rain falling outside her open
window, Kendal McCarthy was finding it hard to concentrate on Emily
Dickinson’s poetry. She lay on her stomach, staring at the words on
the page as if they were written in Greek.
For some reason, school was something that
had never been easy for her. She had to study hard just to keep a B
average. In public school, she’d coasted easily. Unfortunately,
when she transferred to Sampson Academy during her freshman year,
Kendal discovered she wasn’t prepared for the serious kind of
studying that private high school courses required. During the
better part of her junior year, her grade point average slipped so
low her parents had threatened to pull her out of Sampson
altogether. If she wanted to graduate with the rest of her class,
Kendal had no other choice but to seek help.
With a little tutoring on the side and an
obligatory willingness to do her homework instead of partying, she
managed to pull her grades back up. Her hardest class this semester
was Women’s Literature, and she’d decided to get some help after
she received a low grade on an essay assignment.
Kendal pulled her small frame off the bed and
stood in front of the full-length mirror, which hung between the
two single beds in her room. Her hair was cut in a layered angle
just below her neckline and was the color of auburn leaves
preparing to fall. The greenish-blue tint of her eyes seemed to
change color depending upon the way the light hit them. Her face
was heart-shaped with a slight curve angling along her
She was pretty and she’d always known she was
pretty. Good genes her mother had told her, you were blessed with a
Kendal sighed. The fact that she was
beautiful used to satisfy her. At one point it had been enough. But
she’d grown tired of it somewhere along the way. This was her
senior year at Sampson and she felt as if something was missing,
some unforgettable experience that would help her figure out who
she was and who she wanted to be. A vacant space existed inside of
her and nothing had been able to fill it, not cheerleading, not her
friends, not her looks, not even her popularity. Nothing.
She could hear the rest of the girls of
Deacon Hall running around the dorm getting ready to venture out
for the night. Their vivacious laughter only reminded her that she
wouldn’t be joining them. Instead of partaking in common adolescent
delinquencies with the rest of the students at Sampson, she and
some random tutor were going to be nose-deep in Emily
The door to her room swung open. Christine,
her roommate and fellow cheerleader, barged in and squealed, “We’re
getting ready to go out. Come join!”
Kendal hissed at the request. “I probably
shouldn’t show up late to a tutoring session,” she said
“You’re such a good student. You do know that
Kyan is going to be at this party, right?”
“Yes, you only told me a billion times at
“You sure you can’t skip this?”
“Yes, so quit asking.”
“Fine,” Christine raised her hand into the
air. “Happy studying, then. And um—don’t wait up for me.”
Kendal fought the overwhelming urge to join
everyone in the next room and fill her ears with the latest school
gossip—until she spotted the open book out of the corner of her
eye. Her stomach turned with guilt.
After gathering her things, she pulled Emily
Dickinson off the bed and slid the book of poetry into her
backpack. She left the dorm as fast as she could, knowing that if
she lingered any longer she might get swept up in the
The rain had slowed to a drizzle and the mild
wind felt cool against her cheeks. She crossed the soggy lawn
listening to the sounds of the campus come alive in the damp air.
Sampson Academy was a small private high school with a small-town
feel. It took only about five minutes to walk across the entire
Kendal took one last look across the quad
toward her dorm and then up the road at Marlon Hall, the dorm where
the all the soccer players lived and where all her friends would be
hanging out. She gazed longingly at the colonial building until she
felt her backpack rub against her shoulder, reminding her that
Emily Dickinson was waiting for her.
“A hundred and ten dollars for a new pair of
Nike shoes?” JJ dribbled the basketball between her legs. “I can’t
believe you spent that much!”
“Actually, I got a discount because I bought
them online,” Queenie explained. She was standing under the basket
waiting for JJ to shoot the ball. “Besides, I needed to improve my