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Arts and Culture

The Telling Room: 'Uprooted'

Courtesy the Telling Room

And on this Friday we continue our summer series featuring the work of young writers in partnership with the Telling Room in Portland. This week's entry is "Uprooted" by Grace Roberts, an excerpt from the 14-year-old Cape Elizabeth High School freshman's soon-to-be-released novel," Sleeping Through Thunder."

When I want my legs to move, they remain completely still. Everything inside of me says, "go forward," but the outside world tells me not to move. I glance up at the tiny island across from the mainland. To anyone who may cast eyes upon me, I look like a fool. But there are no criticizing eyes or dirty glares watching my movement; the only eyes watching me come from my own rippling reflection in the murky water.

From where I stand, the stream doesn't seem so wide. I can observe the intricate patterns of the trees on the other side, and I can hear their rustling leaves. When I gaze back at the water, the current seems to surge with ferocious intensity. My fingers dance lightly on my thigh, where I imagine my fear has gathered.

It's something of a game for me: to jump over the rushing water and challenge the gods of nature has always quickened my pulse. In fact, I can't remember a time that this soil didn't coat my bare toes, or when I didn't hear the echo of the rumbling current. Some part of the thrill has since become a part of me. My blood flows like the stream itself.

In my fourteen years on this planet, I've experienced the darkest types of fear. It wasn't until I was tossed into foster care that I found a way to control it. I suppose that's why I spend so much time at the stream; it's the only place I have power over my conscience. Out here, there's no chance of finding a monster under the bed or a ghost in the closet. I've grown to love the isolation, and the wildness. Here, I don't have to stand up a little straighter or watch my language.

I take a slow and shaky breath, preparing my lungs for the possible rush of water. A bird flies overhead. As its squawk reverberates through the clouds, I lean back on my heels and wait. I wait for the trees to hush and for the water to settle. The second my breath slices through the silence, I sprint forward and soar over the water, which taunts me from below. In the three heartbeats that pass above the waves, I feel free, until I crash down on the other side.

The palms of my hands dig deep into the dirt. Thorns plunge themselves into my sweatpants. I grapple at the ground and hobble to a standing position. Turning back to the mainland, I study the crevice I've just leapt. I press my lips together in a tight line, but there's no stopping the smile welling somewhere inside of me.

I listen to the water swell for a moment. There's an old root jutting out of the bank and into the stream, so I rest my bare foot on the splintering wood. Water rushes past my ankles as I walk cautiously across the root. I hop onto the bank and yank my rain boots out of the mud. I look at them, and notice their color. Hot pink bathed in brown. Exhaling, I decide that it's time, and I trudge up the small hill leading to the path home. It's paved, and the black tar is soothingly warm on the soles of my feet.


A shrug slips off my shoulders when I see the house ahead, knowing I can't go anywhere else. The smile inside of me has retreated. The cold mud has gone into my stomach. I hear the sliding glass door open quickly, and Cecelia appears on the back deck. She curses at me a few times, but I can't make out exactly what she's saying until I get closer.

"Utis!" she screams, glaring down at me. "Where have you been?"
I climb the deck steps before I respond and shake the last bits of mud from my boots. "I was at the stream," I reply flatly, which makes Cecelia scoff.  "All the dinner's in the trash," she grumbles at me. "If you want it, you'll have to dig it out."

By now, my feet are situated directly across from hers, and she's leaned down so close to my face that I can smell her breath. There's a sharp pang of alcohol, but no more than usual. I brush past her, and she stays in the same position until I'm completely inside.

The others are clearing the table, which is dangerously close to the door. My leg touches the corner, but I still manage to slide around it without any problem. The light fixture hanging from the ceiling swings back and forth silently, and I assume someone's head hit it. It's suspended by a busted chain and dangles at least six inches closer to the ground than it's supposed to, but I can't recall it ever being any other way.

I slip into the dimly lit dining room as quietly as possible, eyeing the others with a sort of uncertainty. They don't seem to notice my sudden presence, and they don't look up from their work when Cecelia slams the door shut. She puts her hands on her hips and begins her trek around the table. I feel her eyes burning into me, but I know better than to stop collecting silverware.

After a while, I feel her stare disperse, and my heartbeat settles a bit. I see her watching my foster brother now; he scrubs the table with a yellow-turned-brown sponge. "Do you think I'm going to spend the next week eating off a dirty table? Because at this rate, I think I might be." She runs a finger through the grime.

I wish I were courageous enough to snap that it'd be no different than any other day, but I've grown accustomed to holding my tongue. Here, I beat back the wild within me, because the wild in this house is not the kind you want to invite through the door. There's nowhere to escape Cecelia here should she do something extremely rash, but I don't have anything to hide. The wild is tucked away; only the stream has the power to pull it back out.

If I was afraid of my foster mother when I first arrived at her home, I've managed to eliminate the fear from my blood. Her words are always sharp, and they're usually encouraged by a lingering alcohol addiction. However, I've convinced myself that fear is only something if you make it something, so I simply decide that Cecelia isn't worth my emotions. As a result, everything gets locked up inside.

Although Cecelia's always had a dark side, it wasn't so obvious when our foster father, Robert, was alive. Since his recent passing, things have worsened, and the fridge's stock of alcohol has only increased. Robert was kind and down to earth; plus, he kept Cecelia away from her troublesome habits. All of their earned money went straight toward caring for us and securing our future.

Without him, the only thing we've got is a broken shell of a woman with smudged mascara and messy hair. She leans close to me when she's angry, so close that her wrinkles are as prominent as the sticks and roots in the stream. Today, the mud I've accidentally trailed into the house spurs her anger. Cecelia picks it up with her pointer finger and drags it across my cheek. I'm rooted to the ground, unable to pull myself from her; in the same way that the trees can't pull themselves from the stream. "Worthless piece of trash," she drawls, looking me up and down. "You belong on the street."

As she struts away to breathe down the backs of my foster siblings, I assure myself that although I belong somewhere else, it isn't on the street-it's at the stream. I have a place to belong, and I don't need anything else. I have a place to start fresh whenever I want. It is a place where something dangerous dwells, and something wildly free. And I believe that something is me.

Grace Roberts is a 14-year-old freshman at Cape Elizabeth High School.  Roberts worked with the Telling Room's Young Emerging Authors Fellowship program to plan, write, edit, and publish her book, "Sleeping Through Thunder." She is one of four students to have been selected for this competitive program, in which she spent this entire year writing her novel with the guidance of staff, peers, and her writing mentor, author Lily King. Grace will be appearing at Sherman's Bookstore on Exchange Street in Portland Tuesday, Aug. 19, at 7 p.m. with the program's three other young authors to read and sign copies of their books.