January 2, 2018

Long Steady Distance: a progress update and an excerpt

Because my more social media-savvy friends are encouraging me to do things like have Twitter giveaways and post excerpts, I'm going to post another part of the manuscript here. I hope you like it!

Meanwhile, I'm making good progress on the final draft: I've typed in all my macro-level edits and a few true friends are going through and finding all the typos that I missed in my five million readthroughs. I should make my goal of January 25th finish!

If you'd like to try to win an advance (digital) copy, please feel free to do the retweeting thing here.

Okay! Here's an excerpt. This one is actually the opening of the book so I hope it grabs you!

-hh

LIFE IS THE EXPRESSION OF PROTEINS.

It’s written on the summer-clean blackboard in Harris's familiar scrawl. I stare at the words until I’m no longer seeing them, my mind zooming down into my skin, down into the cells, into the spiraling DNA coded with the instructions to keep it all going…

“You can understand my concern, Mr. Harris,” says Mom, bringing me back. We’re sitting in plastic classroom chairs, pulled up to the front of the room so we can sit across from Harris at his desk. She’s eying the message on the chalkboard, too, and not in a good way. “I’m very proud of Emily, but isn’t this a senior class?”

Harris meets my eyes for one moment. I look down at my lap, shoulders tensing up. I remember Biology 1 from freshman year, learning about the fight or flight response. Harris taught us about species-specific defense responses, taught us that there’s also a less catchy third option: fight, flight, or freeze. That last one is what my body always seems to default to.

It’s late August, the first day of my junior year. The early morning sunlight streams straight through the windows and into my eyes. In the morning, Harris’s classroom basically becomes a greenhouse, between the plants on every available surface and the second-floor east-facing windows.

Homeroom hasn’t started yet. Harris isn’t even my homeroom teacher. Mom set up this meeting several days ago, when our schedules came out and she saw I was in Senior AP Bio. Which I had signed up for at the end of the spring. At his suggestion.

“I know Emily pretty well by now, both academically and personally,” he says. “I’m more than willing to take her into this class as a junior.”

Mom pats my hand. I duck my head lower.

Harris does know me well. My first day freshman year I was back in this classroom, and he and Mom and I were having a meeting with the same purpose. His classroom looks the same now, just more dried snakeskins tacked to the wall, more student presence. Notes pinned to the corkboard, posters comparing plant stamens to straws sucking soda. The mice in the terrarium on his desk are different—two grays and one little brown one, instead of the three white ones that had been in rotation back in June. The label on the terrarium still reads Snap, Crackle, and Pop, though. They don’t know about their destiny as snake food.

“I suppose I’m more concerned about the curriculum,” Mom says once it becomes clear that Harris is not going to bring up the real issue. “I’m obligated to make sure you’re giving time to the theory of intelligent design.”

“Emily?” Harris says. He has a gruff voice. Thirty-five years teaching and coaching in a public school will do that to a person, I guess. “What do you think?”

Loaded question, Harris. I don’t think he wants to throw me under the bus, but this is his career here. “Um…” I say, “I don’t know. I don’t want to rock any boats.”

In the cage, the brown mouse digs deeper into his sawdust mountain in the corner. I’m jealous that he has a hiding place, even if he is going to be meeting Harris’s classroom snake Boris eventually.

Harris begins pulling together papers from neat piles on his desk—syllabus, reading list, AP prep info. First day of school, he’s ready to go. “I don’t want to rock any boats either. Mrs. Ferris…”

“Samstone,” my Mom corrects him.

He doesn’t know her last name is different than mine. But he continues smoothly. “Mrs. Samstone, AP courses are based on a national curriculum and taken for college credit. What’s more, this is a public school. I can only diverge from the syllabus so much when it comes to accommodating a specific religious belief.”

“It’s not specific,” said Mom. It’s her passionate voice: soft, but urgent. “All the Old Testament religions have their root in Genesis. And it’s a beautiful theory, one that hundreds of reputable scientists support.”

My sweaty, nervous feeling gets worse. Harris is an outspoken atheist. When I was in Bio 1, he spent a good ten minutes harping on how “hundreds” of “crackpot outlier scientists” supporting something was “in no way a substitute” for the “complete acceptance as fact by the sum and total of the entire sane scientific community.” End of lecture. I stare back down at my lap, tracing the lines on my gray corduroys up and down, up and down.

But Harris is unperturbed. “Still, I really do have to try and teach this course without bringing any religious precepts into the curriculum.” His voice is calm, his words rote. “However, individual students can absolutely be accommodated, whether it’s excused absences on religious holidays, or maybe an independent study.” He hands her a packet of papers.

Mom hesitates, then takes the stack. “I suppose that makes sense… Emily, what do you think about an independent study project? About intelligent design?”

I will do anything to end this conversation. “That seems to be a reasonable compromise,” I say to the floor.

The metal chair legs squeak against the linoleum as Mom turns back to Harris. “And you’d be supervising her on this? I’m not familiar with the process.”

“Absolutely,” he says. It might just be me, but I think I detect a very, very thin layer of irony.

“Well… all right,” said Mom. My shoulders relax. “But even if it’s not given equal time, I’d appreciate it on a personal level if you at least gave students resources about where to find theories aside from evolution, so they can decide their beliefs for themselves.”

“Please don’t worry,” said Harris. “Intelligent design will absolutely be mentioned in the first unit alongside evolution, even if we aren’t able to spend much time on it.”

I bet it will. Yep, definitely some irony in his voice there.

“I appreciate that,” says Mom. She claps her hands against her lap, then stands up. “Thank you for meeting, Mr. Harris. I do have reservations about the course, but I have to say I’m very happy Emily has you for class again. I already hear so much about you, and the team.”

“Well, that’s very nice to say,” says Harris. “We’re lucky to have her.”

“And I do love all these plants in your classroom,” she adds.

Please, please just let’s all go to our separate environments where we belong. “Have a good day, Mom,” I tell her.

“You’ll be home after school?” she asks.

“Is it okay if I help out with cross country practice?” I ask, sinking lower into my chair.

“Okay. Home by dinner.” She kisses me on the forehead, and then walks out of the classroom. “Have a great first day.”

There’s a very long silence when she leaves. Then the first bell of the day goes off. I jump.

“So, independent study, huh?” says Harris.

“Sorry,” I say in a rush. “You don’t even have to look at it, I don’t want to make extra work for you. I’ll just, I’ll write something up, and…”

“Emily,” he says. “Calm down.”

I shut my mouth.

“I’m not going to hold you to this independent study thing unless you buy into it. So you’ll do my curriculum. And you’ll do whatever research outside of class that personally satisfies you and that keeps your mother out of my hair.” He stares me down. “And I’ll sign off on it. That work for you?”

I nod, daring to look at him. “Thank you, Harris.”

“Don’t thank me yet,” he says. “I’m not getting fired over this. You’re coming to practice?”

I nod.

“You gonna run at all this year, or just manage?”

“I think I will most likely be staying on the managerial side of things,” I tell him. The team is going to be good this year. My brain will be more useful to them than my legs.

Harris gives me a long look, but then shrugs. He’s not one to force a point. “We’ve got a senior woman who just transferred over from Rhizenstein,” he says, straightening his papers.

“Rhizenstein?” That’s where Mom and I lived before we moved out here.

“Yeah. Sophie Williams.” He glances at his email. “Sorry, Tuzarova-Williams. Real track star, but never run cross country. From talking to her dad I get the impression she’s a little undercoached.”

I smile. “Is she going to join the team?”

“Yeah. I want you to be her dyad. Take her under your wing.”

Immediately, the idea of taking someone “under my wing” has me sweating again. “What do you mean?”

“You know this sport, you know how to pace yourself. She could be near Kari’s time by the end of the season. Maybe get close to Christa’s with a little discipline.”

I don’t have time respond before the door swings open, slamming against the opposite wall. “Harris!” yells Jon, his voice cracking with first-day-of-school excitement. Jon is this year’s male captain of the cross-country team, one of Harris’s favorites because of his fast 5K time (personal record: 15:46) and environmentalist leanings. He’s one of my favorites, too.

Right behind him come his ever-present companions, Derrick (PR: 16:31) and Rhys (PR: 16:01). Derrick, spots me and lunges toward me, giving me a terrifying hug. I squeak, and pat his back. “Hi, Derrick.”

“Hey Emily!” he says, before leaving just as quickly as he came to throw his arms around Harris in a similarly enthusiastic manner. Rhys gives me a quick nod. I wave, awkwardly, and then start rifling through my backpack like I’m looking for something. I’m not. Rhys just makes me nervous. He’s the only person on the team who talks less than me.

“I knew this year was going to be rough,” says Harris when Derrick lets him go. “The Two Stooges and Rhys, all in my homeroom.”

“You taking AP Bio, Emily?” Jon asks. I nod. He’s leaning against Harris’s desk like he owns the place. He’s in this classroom all the time. All the cross country kids trickle in and out during the day, showing up if they have lunch or study hall. Harris pretty much lets them do what they want as long as they sit in the back at his lab tables and don’t disrupt whatever class he’s teaching.

“Harris, what are we doing at practice?” says Derrick, who has already seized one of the white mice out of the terrarium and placed it on his shoulder.

“Five one-mile repeats, and put my snake food back, please.”

“Five? I’m gonna die.” Derrick returns the mouse and slings his backpack onto the floor. Derrick drives Harris nuts because if he applied himself even a tiny bit, he would probably be faster than Jon. But he’s too busy being “a real P in the A,” to use Harris’s technical term. Harris has a lot of technical terms.

“Should have shown up to preseason,” says Harris. “Not my problem.”

A few other seniors begin to trickle in. I gather up my backpack, violin case, and new, enormous Bio textbook. All the trappings of a nerdy tryhard on the first day of junior year, the year that college admissions officers look at with an especially critical eye, according to all the sources (aka my step-uncle Peter, the college counselor Mrs. Keynes, my SAT prep book, etc.) “I’ll see you in class and practice,” I say to Harris in a low voice.

He nods. “Thanks, Emily. And if you want any research sources for your independent study, you’ve always got full access to my bookshelf.”

Harris’s bookshelf at the back of the room is overstuffed, filled with nature guides and out-of-print lab manuals and books by all the great evolutionary theorists going back to Darwin. I’m not going to find anything Mom likes in there, and he knows it. But he also knows that when I show up for my lunch periods, I’m usually back there, in the armchair with the ripped upholstery, devouring yet another book.

The bell rings again. I leave my favorite classroom until lunch.

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