Breaking Twig (excerpt)

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By Deborah Epperson

PROLOGUE

 I must have been about five the first time Grandpa Eli told me the story of the Pickers and the Picks. He was sitting in his rocking chair on the back porch of the modest plantation house he’d built twenty years earlier. My imaginary friend, Claudia, and I were having a tea party under the shade of the weeping willow. A clump of purple flowers plucked from the wisteria vine trailing along the back picket fence served as our grapes, while half-a-dozen emerald leaves pilfered from a hothouse geranium represented mint cookies.

  “Becky Leigh,” he called. “Did I ever tell you the story of the Pickers and the Picks?”

  “No, sir.” I headed for the porch. “What are Pickers, Grandpa?”

  “Pickers are mainly folks who are big on the outside, but small on the inside.” He gave a push and the oak rocker resumed its familiar cadence. “Not necessarily tall and heavy big. Pickers are more like puffed up big.”

  I climbed into his lap, nestled into the crook of his shoulder. “Like popcorn puffs up when you cook it?”

  “No, more like a sore that’s got infected and is puffed up with mucus and poisons.”

  “That’s yucky.”

  He laughed. “That’s a true fact, Miss Becky.”

  “What do Pickers do?” I asked.

  “Pickers hunt for someone who looks like easy pickin’s.”

  “Easy pickin’s? You mean like when Momma makes Papa and me pick dewberries along the railroad track instead of by Lost Mule Bog because she says it’s easy pickin’s along the tracks? But it’s not really. It’s just the bog is messier, and you know how she hates messes.”

  Grandpa stopped rocking. “Are you going to be quiet and let me finish my story, young’un?”

  I covered my mouth to stifle a giggle. It was the funniest thing, my grandpa pretending to be mad at me. “Yes, sir. I’ll be quiet.”

  The rocker started up again. “As I was saying, a Picker hunts for someone he thinks will be easy pickin’s. That’s usually someone smaller, younger, or weaker in some way. It can be someone whose only weakness is that he or she is a nice person.”

  I tapped Grandpa’s shoulder. “How does a Picker change nice people into Picks?”

  “Well, he screams and hollers at them. He makes them do things they know they shouldn’t do. Champion Pickers are experts at bullyin’, intimidatin’, and dominatin’ other folks.” The rocker stopped once more. “Do you understand anything I’m saying, Becky?”

  “I think so. Maybe. Will I be a Picker or a Pick when I grow up, Grandpa?”

  “Can’t say for sure. Let’s try an experiment.” He helped me down and pointed to a line of ants marching across the porch floor. “Go stand by those ants.”

  I did as I was told.

  “Now, Becky, I want you to stomp them ants as hard as you can.”

  “Why should I kill the ants, Grandpa? They’re not hurting me.”

  “Because you can, girl. Because you can.”

  I began to stomp. I stomped the ants in the middle of the line, the ants in the back of the line, and all the ants at the head of the line. I stomped so hard my cat’s dish vibrated across the floor, tumbled over the edge, and landed in the azalea bushes that circled the back porch. I didn’t stop stomping until all the ants were either dead or beyond my reach.

  Grandpa Eli motioned for me to come back. He put his hands on my shoulders and looked me straight in the eyes. “That’s what Pickers do, Becky. They hurt other living things just because they can.” Pulling me closer, he asked, “How did stomping those ants make you feel?”

  I lowered my eyes. “Bad. I felt bad, but . . .”

  “But what?”

  “But when I was stomping them I felt . . .”

  “You felt strong?”

  I nodded, too ashamed to acknowledge my Picker-like feelings in words.

  “How do you think the ants felt?”

  “Terrible,” I said. “And so will Pinecone when he sees his supper is gone.”

  “Don’t you worry about that cat. He won’t starve. But that’s what happens when a Picker gets riled up. Lots of innocent folks get hurt too.”

  “Does this mean I’m gonna be a Picker when I grow up?”

  “It’s all up to you, child. You don’t have to be a Picker or a Pick. You can choose to be nice to people and insist that they be nice to you.”

  I climbed back into his lap. “And if they’re not nice to me?”

  “If you stand up to the Pickers in this world, they’ll leave you alone. Remember, they like easy pickin’s.”

  “Have you ever been a Picker, Grandpa, or a Pick?”

  “Sure. At certain times in life, most people are either a Pick or Picker. It usually takes a lifetime for folks to figure out they don’t have to be either one.”

  “Grandpa, do you think a Picker, a champion Picker that is, can ever change?”

  “Maybe. With the passage of time and a heap of prayers, I think anyone can change.”

  I gave him a hug. “I think we should start praying for Momma right away.”

  Grandpa Eli smiled. “I think you’re right, Becky Leigh.”

       *****

I did start praying. But after both my grandfather and my beloved Papa died, and after the only noticeable change in Momma—despite eight years of fervent prayers—was her new husband, I stopped. I let the tales of Pickers and Picks slip from my mind and forgot Grandpa Eli’s warnings on the perils of becoming easy pickin’s.

  Not until one day in November of ’63 did I recall the lessons of the porch. That was the morning Momma and her new husband, Frank, went to the Miller’s house to watch President Kennedy’s funeral, and the time I got caught slipping into my new stepbrother’s room to borrow some paper. It was also the day a seventeen-year-old boy decided to teach a thirteen-year-old girl a lesson she wouldn’t forget. That was the day I knew for sure I was a Pick.

Breaking TWIG

Breaking TWIG

 

Shadows of Home (excerpt)

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By Deborah Epperson

Elita backed out of Rat Snake Slough and headed across open water to a slip of land she hoped was Tadpole Island.

After paddling the pirogue into the shallows, Elita jumped out, secured her ride, and headed toward a large clearing. She found a worn tree stump to sit on while studying her homemade map and tried to reassure herself that she wasn’t lost. Maybe it had been five years since she’d been here, but she’d spent her first seventeen years on the Caddo. Mathematical probability was in her favor.

“What’cha doin’ here, Girl?”

Her insides froze. She rose slowly, bringing her gaze to rest on a stringy-haired stranger standing fifteen feet away at the edge of the clearing.

He stood about six feet two, roughly eight inches taller than Elita. A barrel chest, thick waist, and wide hips rested on tapering legs that looked like they should snap in two under the weight of the body they supported. The stranger’s arms appeared too short for the rest of him, as if God had made them for someone else, but stuck them on this fellow at the last minute. No chin to speak of, his woolly dark eyebrows combined to crawl across his forehead. The man’s hands were massive, or at least they looked that way to Elita. That could’ve been because of the shotgun they caressed.

His navy blue tee shirt and rolled-up jeans were stained, but not dirty. An oval white patch containing a silhouette of a dog decorated his black cap. His clean-shaven, round face served as a pale canvas to black eyes that turned down at the corners.

“Why you messin’ around here?” he asked again.

“I was headed for Moccasin Bayou, but took a wrong turn someplace.”

He eyed her up and down before resting the shotgun in his left arm like a mother cradling her child. “Sorry about ya ma.” He shifted the shotgun to his other arm. “How’d she die?”

“A car accident.” Elita took two steps toward the man. “Jax Boudreaux, is that you?”

He nodded. “She were a good woman. Gave me four peach fried pies once. Peach is my favorite.”

Jax’s sudden appearance surprised her. The Boudreaux family kept mostly to themselves, especially Jax, the youngest of the clan. Rumor had it his mother was a quadroon, meaning she was one-fourth Negro, the offspring of a mulatto voodoo priestess from New Orleans and a white sailor. Elita understood how a person of mixed blood would shy away from some of the townsfolk, if you’d call LaSalle, Louisiana, with its population of 682 souls, a town.

Having grown up in Louisiana during the ‘50s and early ‘60s, Elita recalled that the public water fountains, restrooms, and doors into the town’s only grocery store had signs hanging over them that read Whites Only or Colored. She figured if people were only one-eighth Negro like Jax, they’d be considered white. But it didn’t work that way in the Deep South. If you carried any Negro blood, you were viewed to be a Colored, arithmetic be damned. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act in ’64, the signs came down. But signs are easier changed than minds.

Jax’s older half-brother, Luther, shared the same daddy, but not the same mother. Thus, Luther was viewed as being white. Nobody paid him much mind unless they wanted to hear the latest gossip or buy a mess of catfish for supper. Uncle Matt claimed Luther’s two talents in life were spreading rumors and catching fish.

“What brings you to Tadpole Island, Jax? You got trotlines set out around here?”

He shook his head. “The Caddo talks to me. She told me you were here.”

“I wish she’d talk to me and tell me how I got lost.”

“The Caddo’s mad at you cause you and your ma up and left her.”

Elita didn’t mean to laugh. She did that sometimes when she got nervous.

Jax’s face darkened. “It’s not funny, Girl. The Caddo can be real hurtful to those who upset her. You should know that better than most.”

His insinuation was less than subtle.

“My daddy loved this place. His death was an accident, pure and simple.”

“There ain’t no accidents in the Caddo.” Jax studied the sky. “Dark’s coming on fast. The loup-garou will be prowling soon.”

She hadn’t heard the term loup-garou since leaving the Caddo, but every child raised on the bayou knew about them. Some folks called them werewolves, while others referred to them as rougarous or shapeshifters. Half-human, half-wolf. Whatever the term, they were the most feared of all the creatures rumored to haunt the swamps of Louisiana. Like the werewolf, a loup-garou couldn’t be killed with regular bullets. And when one bit you and tasted your blood, you became one of them.

Even as a child, Elita had never believed in the tales of the Cajun werewolf. Still, the thought of navigating the bayous alone at night made her feel uneasy.

“You’d best come with me, Girl, before the loup-garou finds you here.” 

Dammit. She’d only been home a week and already managed to get herself into a bind reminiscent of her early teenage years spent on the Caddo. Why hadn’t she listened to Nettie?  Her father had spoken the truth—Elita was jackass stubborn. She was also a twenty-two-year-old educated woman who wouldn’t be intimidated by ancient tales of imaginary swamp monsters. But Shotgun Jax and the alligators that navigated the murky waters of Caddo Lake were not fantasy.

In her haste to make it to Moccasin Bayou, she’d forgotten to get a lantern or a flashlight. Alligators didn’t worry her in the daylight, but at night they could be mistaken for a submerged log. In the dark, she might paddle right over the top of a gator. An angry alligator could flip a pirogue over with one swish of its mighty tail.

“We need to git.” He glanced around the clearing. “We need to leave before it’s too late.”

Jax’s nervousness was catching. You’d think an anxious man holding a gun would be worrisome enough, but no. Her annoyingly inquisitive brain kept wondering what could make a man who knew the Caddo as well as Jax did, a man protected by a double-barreled and no doubt loaded shotgun, so anxious.

She decided to take her chances with the gators. “I can’t leave my grandpa’s pirogue here, so I’ll just drift on home before it gets good dark. It was nice seeing—”

“Be quiet, Girl!” Jax took a couple of steps toward the lake. “You hear that?”

“I don’t hear anything.”

“That’s cause the Caddo won’t talk to you, but I hear. He’ll be here . . . soon.”

Elita’s scalp tingled, never a good sign. She’d almost decided Jax was hallucinating when she heard the sound of a boat motor.

“A Mercury engine. 135 horsepower.” Jax shook his head. “You shouldn’t have come here, Girl. You shouldn’t have come.” He stomped off toward the woods.

She watched Jax’s retreat until the underbrush and fading light swallowed him. The precariousness of the situation settled in her chest. Alone, Elita would face the menace that had sent Jax and his shotgun fleeing. Her mind swirled. Should she jump in the pirogue and paddle as fast as possible toward Rat Snake Slough? She couldn’t out-paddle a motorboat, so she might as well get ready for the unknown coming around the west end of the island.

Elita picked up a sturdy limb. Her father had dubbed her Warrior Girl of the Caddo for a reason. This would not be her first fight.

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Birth of a Book

 

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By Deborah Epperson

(originally published April 25, 2016)

Yesterday, I gave birth to my next novel. By that I mean I finally got to write the two sweetest words in a writer’s lexicon—THE END. I know some may think the two sweetest words are UNDER CONTRACT, but I disagree, especially in this new world of ebooks and self publishing.

Getting to the point where you can write those precious two words is (as every writer knows) not really the end, but rather the signaling that a new phase can now commence. I liken writing a book to giving birth because at times it can be exhilarating, painful, exciting, agonizing, a delight or a grind. Plus, there’s the emotional roller coaster that can easily be compared to the hormonal fluctuations of pregnancy. You know those late nights when you write something you think is so good, it must be inspired by the gods. Then when you read it the next day, you feel more like that person in Munch’s, The Scream. Little wonder why the letters on the DELETE key wear off first.

But now, after only a fourteen year pregnancy, my new book-child is born. Next comes the infant and toddler stage of editing, revising, editing, revising, editing . . . (you get the picture). I’ll have to go in and clean up all the “mess” and hope I don’t make a bigger one when I do. Example: Somewhere in the book the sheriff’s name mysteriously changed from Emmett to Virgil. Thank goodness for Find and Replace.

The school year stage comes next. You get to pick how you want to dress your book-child. Bright covers or dark noire? A landscape or person on the cover? Sexy, bold, simple or sedate? Hire a professional or do it yourself? What do you want the back cover, front cover, and spine to look like? What font? Use your name or a pseudonym? And gosh-a muddy, you’ve got to pick a title, a perfect title, one that grabs the reader’s attention.

Finally, your baby is ready to graduate, to be presented to the public like a debutante at a Southern Cotillion. You’re so proud, so hopeful readers will swoon over her, tell their friends about her, and plunk down their Visa card for a chance to hold her in their hands or see her on their Kindles.

And then, you start all over again with that new story that’s been swimming around in your head for a couple of years. Are novelist part masochists or expectant dreamers? Maybe, a little of both.

Thanks for stopping by,

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“Feliz Navidad!”

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Well, around here “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” The “O Christmas Tree” is lighted, packages are wrapped in “Pretty Paper,” and I admit there’s been some “Kissing by the Mistletoe.”

At every store, you’ll find a Salvation Army Santa ringing those “Silver Bells.” Strangers greet each other with “Happy Holidays,” while the kiddos sing “Jingle Bells” for the 248th time and build “Frosty the Snowman” in their front yard. It truly is “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

I hope your loved ones will be “Home for the Holidays.” I phoned my daughter to say “Please Come Home for Christmas” so it won’t be a “Blue Christmas” at the Epperson’s house. 

I’m wishing for a “White Christmas.” Our hike to the mailbox last evening was more “Ice Skating at Night,” than walking in a “Winter Wonderland.” I know the skiers in my family (of which I am not one) are chanting “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow.” I’d rather stay in with a cup of cocoa and enjoy “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.”

And although we’re all excited because “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” we can’t forget the reason for the season. On that “Silent Night,” and “The First Noel,” the “Star of the East” shone over the stable while “The Friendly Beasts” passed the word that “There’s a New Kid in Town” and his name is “Emmanuel.” I’d like to ask the Virgin Mother, “Mary Did You Know” “What Child Is This” sleeping “Away in the Manger” on this “O Holy Night?” 

How will you and your friends and family celebrate the season? Going for a “Sleigh Ride” or going “Caroling Caroling?” Are perhaps you have plans to be “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree.” Whatever you do, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

But please remember “Baby, it’s Cold Outside.” So, stay safe and warm. I heard that last year “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” 

From our family to yours, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

 

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Deborah Epperson

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‘Tis the Season to Stock Up on Writing Supplies

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By Deborah Epperson

 

You can’t turn on the television at this time of the year without seeing a glut of advertising for back to school sales. If you’re like me and your kids are grown, you may be tempted to tune the ads out, but don’t! If you’re a writer, a crafter, an artist, or work from home in any capacity, this is the time to shop smarter for yourself.  school supplies

There’s no better time than now to restock your home office. Back to school sales provide the perfect opportunity to save money on computer paper, pens, notepads, and almost anything you need (or want) for your office. Been thinking of getting a chalkboard for the kitchen to write down those grocery items as they pop up? Hoping your laptop can last until the Black Friday sales?

Now is the time to check out prices. It’s also a great time for artist and crafters to stock up too. Scissors, glue, colored pencils, tape, and chalk are priced right.

While you’re tracking down bargains for your office and home, you might consider picking up a few extra basic school supplies like pencils, paper, and folders to donate to your local school. About 94% of teachers end up buying some classroom supplies out of their own pockets.

Call your local school and ask them what supplies their teachers need and donate a few to them in honor of that special teacher you or your children had. Mine was Miss Alice Cashen, honors English, grades 10-12. Great teacher and great humanitarian. Without her years of preaching about the power and the importance of books, I’d have never dared think I might be a writer.  

Remember Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who advocated for a girl’s right to an education and defied the Taliban who in 2012 shot her in the head for doing so? After surviving her attack, Malala continued her activism for women’s educational rights, and received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Malala said, “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.”

As writers, we know the truth and the power of those words.

Thanks for stopping by,

Deborah Epperson

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