Writing: A Love Story

I’ve been catching up on old episodes of the Nerdist podcast, and I listened to an episode from May with Michael Fitzpatrick from the band Fitz and the Tantrums. I bought their album More Than Just a Dream earlier this summer, and it’s so great that I’m a little sad that I didn’t discover them earlier.

Fitz was talking to host Chris Hardwick about his long career in music. The band Fitz and the Tantrums has only been around a few years, but Fitz himself is in his early 40s and has been in the music industry for so many years. He talked about what it was like to finally be recognized for his music and how hard he and his band have had to work. He also talked about finding his voice. He’s been a singer and played instruments and been trained in so many styles of music that he wondered what his authentic voice was. When he moves between genres of music, how does he know what’s really his own voice? It seems like he’s finally figured that out with this current band, but it’s also interesting to note that all of those different styles and influences actually formed the voice that he’d been looking for the whole time.

His comments also reminded me of Glenn Miller. In the biopic The Glenn Miller Story (which I watched many times as a kid), Glenn Miller (played by the incomparable Jimmy Stewart) plays in a lot of bands that he eventually leaves because they don’t have the right “sound.” He walks out of a performance of “Moonlight Serenade” because he didn’t like the way the singer interpreted his music. When he finally finds the right musicians, he finds the right “sound,” and he makes the music he’s always dreamed of. But once more, it took all the experience of the “wrong” sound or the “wrong” voice to get him to the right one.

These past two days, I’ve met four classes full of students that I’ll be teaching this semester. Seventy-five students that I hope to steer towards being better writers and towards finding their own voices. I’m realizing that it might take a lot of “wrong” voices to get them there. How do I, as a writing instructor, dedicated to my craft and to the rules of my craft, encourage them, lead them without stifling their voices? How do I find a balance in correcting, teaching, encouraging? I’m going to have to teach them how to do the same thing that Fitz and Glenn Miller did: search for authenticity while learning from those who have gone before; take risks to learn about themselves while understanding they might crash and burn.

I’ve been thinking about my own writing process. Writing my thesis was one of the greatest things I’ve ever done, one of my proudest accomplishments to this day. It didn’t happen overnight, though. It took a lot of reading, researching, learning, scratching out, starting over, across many years of scholarship, to get to that level of writing. I read articles and critiques in an effort to sound more scholarly. I imitated, but I also became what I studied. By learning from others’ writing, I figured out how to become my own writer. I figured out how to love the research and the analysis and the thinking. And, hopefully, I learned how to teach some of that to other people, too.

This is the joy and the burden of teaching writing. Writing is forever a search for authenticity, a search for identity, a search for meaning. Writing is difficult and time-consuming and back-breaking. Writing is frustrating and demanding. But writing is also empowering and coercive. Writing demands reflection and empathy, a knowledge of self and others and the universe, a quest for truth and life and answers. Voice and craft can exist side-by-side without contradiction. This is the lesson that I ultimately want my students to learn.

Reflection on a Solitary Evening

I worked late this evening in White Hall, the lovely building on campus that houses the English, History, and Christian Studies departments. My last colleagues, April and Debbie, had left sometime before 6 p.m. I grabbed a quick dinner from the bagel shop across the street and ate while I finished a PowerPoint for my lecture tomorrow morning.

My to-do list seemed to be miles long, and I was feeling anxious about how to cram all the information I need to teach into the time allotted. Although this is my fourth year teaching, I’m teaching Composition & Literature for the first time this semester, at 8:00 in the morning, which is a daunting hour for even the most experienced instructor.

I was sitting at my desk, finishing my Diet Pepsi, listening to Moby, and tackling my to-do list when 7:30 rolled around, and I heard the familiar sounds of the campus security officer closing up the building. I’ve worked late enough times to know the routine: he would secure the downstairs, make his way upstairs to check all the office doors, and stop at my open door for a bit of small talk.

That’s exactly how it worked. I turned in my chair to face the door, and the officer–not the usual one I have encountered in previous semesters–stepped through my open door to say hello and run through the drill. “I’ve locked this side door and the one downstairs. Everything else is closed. Turn your light off and pull the door behind you.” He checked my door, which was already locked and ready to be closed up when I left.

I assured him that I would do that, and he turned to the door, noticing the name plate. “I noticed you’re not Tim Hendrix,” he stated. “May I ask who you are?” I told him my name, explained my many jobs on campus, and said, “I don’t get a name plate since I’m only adjunct. I have to share.”

“Well, Ms. Gambrell,”–so polite!–“you’ll be safe here. Stay as long as you need. You’re right at home.”

Indeed, I was. For nine years, there has been nothing in my life as unwavering as North Greenville, and White Hall in particular. I spent four years attending class in the now non-existent classroom 109. I’ve had many conversations–both serious and frivolous–on its rocking chairs and sofas, gracing its doorways, roaming its hall. When I began teaching English three years ago, one of the greatest joys in a semester full of joyous events was preparing for class in the early morning while drinking coffee and watching the sunrise over the mountains. In recent months, I have seen more sunsets than sunrises, on those late evenings like tonight when I have, unaccompanied, written pages of my thesis, read novels and theories, created quizzes and handouts, graded essays and journals.

In White Hall, I have shed tears of joy and of sadness. I have smiled, laughed, hugged.

I have taught. I have learned. I have loved and been loved.

“Stay as long as you need. You’re right at home.”

A Dialogue on Poetry between Emerson & Poe

For my grad school class on the American literary renaissance, I was assigned to imagine a dialogue between Ralph Waldo Emerson and another poet on the role of the poet. I had fun imagining what Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe would talk about, and I thought I’d share it here.

* * *

The setting: a darkened restaurant in Boston, circa 1845

The characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe

The scene: Waldo slowly drinks a cup of hot tea and munches on bland crackers while Edgar hurriedly downs cups of black coffee, frequently checking the time on his pocket watch. We join in the middle of a heated conversation.

* * *

POE: You have no idea what real poetry is, Waldo!

EMERSON: No idea, Edgar? Whose poetry is imprinted on a monument commemorating the birth of our nation at the Old North Bridge in Concord, within view of my grandfather’s house? Meanwhile, you were paid a mere pittance for that ghastly poem about a bird!

POE: [swigging from his coffee mug, only to realize it is empty before slamming it on the table] “The Raven” is a brilliant poem! Perhaps I have yet to make much money off my work, but at least I have realized the process involved in writing a great poem.

EMERSON: Process? Poetry isn’t about process. Poetry isn’t about rhyme or meter! A poet should convey truth to the masses. A poet should find in Nature all of the experiences of humanity, and his poetry should reveal our shared connection with the divine. The content matters far more than the form of a poem.

POE: The content does not matter at all if the form—the rhyme, rhythm, meter, every word contained therein—is not worthy to convey such truth. And as for your “Nature.” Waldo, nature is not perfect and divine.

EMERSON: A true poet would disagree with you, Edgar.

POE: Oh, really? What, then, would a “true poet” find perfect and divine about a young boy, orphaned and unloved? About a young wife withering away from a heinous disease? Where is the perfection in that, Waldo?

EMERSON: [sitting thoughtfully] “Everything in nature answers to a moral power,” Edgar (214). This darkness you’ve experienced is because you haven’t really understood poetry yet.

POE: I understand, Waldo, that a talented poet realizes that darkness and melancholia can evoke that which is truly beautiful. I’m not lacking an understanding of poetry. I have, in fact, transcended to the level of finally portraying a true picture of humanity.

EMERSON: By inviting a bird of death into your chamber?

POE: I didn’t invite him in. He invited himself into the chamber of my narrator. Besides, is a raven not part of nature?

EMERSON: Perhaps in its natural state, but inside a darkened room is decidedly unnatural. [Waldo patiently sips his tea.]

POE: Contrary to what you Frogpondians espouse, a poet need not always seek to reveal nature. Through a properly constructed plot, rendered in an acceptable length, a raven able to speak only one word may be both terrifying and beautiful.

EMERSON: [thoughtfully] It seems we agree on one thing at least, Edgar.

POE: [sneering] What is that, Waldo?

EMERSON: Poetry should be beautiful. A poet should convey beauty to the world.

POE: Perhaps so. But how would you define beauty?

Edgar tosses a coin onto the tabletop, sweeps his jacket off the back of his chair, and strides toward the door without a second glance at Emerson, who turns toward the fireplace and continues sipping his tea.

On Breakfast Cereal

I just downloaded the new Word for Mac, and I opened up some old documents to test the program out. In doing so, I found this memoir that I wrote three years ago though I never posted it anywhere. It made me laugh, so I thought I would share.

* * *

With my chin propped on my right fist, I stared at the ingredients list of the carton of soy milk in front of me. Low calories, low fat, low carbs. A little fiber. Lots of protein and calcium. Plenty of riboflavin, whatever that is. Maybe it’s a B vitamin. I made a mental note to look that up later.

I untwisted the cap and poured a small amount into my glass. I stared at the white liquid for a few seconds, then drank it. Swallowing, I set the glass down. Then I returned my soy milk to the refrigerator, reached for the fat-free peach-flavored yogurt, and finished eating breakfast.


The next morning, I found myself staring at the soy milk carton again. This time, however, the milk was joined by a box of healthy, grown-up cereal, a spoon, and a bowl that once belonged to my grandmother. Using a white plastic measuring cup, I measured out three-quarters of a cup of cereal and dumped it into the bowl. Once I started pouring the milk over the cereal, I began to question myself. How much should I pour? When should I stop? Should I pour just enough to wet the cereal, or should the cereal be completely covered?

Finally, I stopped, realizing the amount of milk really didn’t matter. I slid the spoon into the bowl and pushed the cereal around, enjoying the sound of  the flakes hitting against the spoon. As I put the first spoonful of cereal and milk into my mouth, I realized that I was experiencing this for the first time in my life. At twenty-two years old, I had never eaten a bowl of cereal and milk.

As a baby, I had been diagnosed with a milk allergy, so I avoided most dairy products as a child. Eventually, I was able to eat cheese and ice cream, but I never liked the taste of milk. As a secondary result, I rarely ate cereal, save the occasional bowl of dry Froot Loops, which I sorted by color. First, I ate pink, then orange, then green, and finally purple and blue together because they’re my favorite colors. But I never drank milk.

Until now. A few weeks before, I’d been diagnosed with diabetes. In addition to insulin and other medication, my doctor put me on a 1,500-calorie diet. I had to have a certain amount of dairy products per day, and the dietician suggested I try soy milk, which, combined with grown-up, healthy cereal instead of my beloved Froot Loops, became just one example of the dietary changes diabetes had forced upon me.

So I sat at my kitchen table, eating cereal and milk for the first time and wondering whether I actually liked what I was eating. The cereal tasted good, but wet? And combined with milk? I started thinking absurdly. Who was the first person to pour milk on cereal? And how many other Americans were eating the same breakfast at that moment?

I finally finished the cereal, then looked into the bowl at all the milk left. Should I drink it? I imagined myself tilting the bowl into my mouth and slurping, but that didn’t appeal to me. Neither did drinking it with a spoon. So I ended up pouring the milk down the drain. After putting the cereal and milk away, I realized that, although this could be some sort of rite-of-passage in my life, I still had no idea how I felt about cereal and milk.

I vowed to try again the next week . . . after I got tired of yogurt.

* * *

For the record, I was right. Riboflavin is vitamin B2.

Also, I still don’t like cereal and milk. I tried it a few more times after that first one, but I’m not a fan. Give me cereal bars, low-sugar oatmeal, cinnamon rolls, omelets, almost any breakfast food, but not cereal and milk.

Another note: although it sounds made-up, I really did measure out the cereal. During those first few months, I counted every bite that I put in my mouth, exerting superb amounts of control over the food I ate. I was afraid of eating one flake too many. 🙂

Wrinkles in Time

Yesterday afternoon, while editing a paper in the writing center, I had an inexplicably strong desire to go out to dinner with my parents to a restaurant called Crossroads back home. The weird thing is that I haven’t been to the restaurant in probably 15 years; the restaurant has changed ownership numerous times, and my family got out of the habit of going after it kept closing and re-opening.

But in a flash, I imagined myself as a little girl: shoulder-length, pale blond hair; wearing jean shorts and a t-shirt; swinging my legs against the wooden chair rails. My family sat around a square, wooden table, plates and cups in front of us, and tables stretching out across the restaurant. I remembered the decor of the restaurant: trees and deer painted on old saws, specifically. Kind of weird out of context, but totally appropriate there.

In that moment, I wondered if time travel wasn’t just a little bit possible. Maybe time truly isn’t linear; maybe time folds back over itself, and our memories are just ghosts of ourselves existing simultaneously in another dimension. Maybe while 25-year-old me sat in the writing center on a September afternoon, marking up a PTRW book review, six-year-old me was eating dinner with her parents and brother and swinging her legs against her chair while eating fried shrimp and French fries.

Maybe if I’d closed my eyes and fallen into the memory, I would have been six years old again. As long as I could have just as easily returned to 25, I would have enjoyed that bit of time travel. I remember the excitement of being six years old, when I would jump up and down and cheer because my parents agreed we could go to Crossroads for shrimp night instead of cooking dinner at home. Sometimes, 25-year-old Haley doesn’t get as excited about life’s little adventures as six-year-old Haley did.

Even if I didn’t actually time travel, that one memory has left my homesick since yesterday afternoon. I can’t explain why that memory came to me; nothing in a paper about The Gospel of Judas should have made me think of eating fried shrimp with my family as a little girl. Nonetheless, I’m grateful that even the most mundane memories are still vivid enough to insert themselves into my life at random moments. And maybe next time I visit my parents, I’ll take them out to dinner and get really excited about it.

Playing with the Boys

This is the second assignment that I turned in for my fiction writing class. I met with my writing professor Friday afternoon to discuss this piece. She liked it–at least the characters. She gave me some very helpful suggestions on how to make it better and expand it. She also wants me to finish it…I started it in high school as a novel, and Leslie (my professor) thinks I should keep going. In fact, she wants me to work on an outline of where the story is going so we can discuss it next week. (I earned extra work from my professor–that’s a good sign, right?)

* * *

Petey Marshall crouched behind home plate, twisting her feet to grind her cleats further into the red clay. By this last inning of the baseball game, dirt streaked the denim shorts and yellow t-shirt that she wore. A fine layer of the same dust coated her arms and legs, and her face was already warm and pink from the morning sun. She reached her right hand up to pull her blond ponytail through the straps of the catcher’s mask, the only piece of equipment she donned besides her glove and cleats. She’d only conceded on wearing the mask because the boys wouldn’t let her play otherwise.

Petey fixed her gaze on the pitcher. Throwing her fingers into the dirt, she signaled for a curveball. Their team only needed one out, and Jake, the batter, who was playing with them for the first time, wasn’t yet familiar with Cody’s pitches. Yes, the curveball might work.

Cody nodded almost imperceptibly and scraped his foot along the rubber on the pitcher’s mound. Petey grinned, anticipating the third strike that would result in a win for her side. She positioned her glove behind the plate, Cody wound up and released the pitch, and Jake swung . . . and connected, sending the baseball flying toward right field.

Jake chucked the bat to the side and sprinted toward first base, while Petey leaped up and ripped off her mask.

“Evan, get the ball! What are you waiting for?” she bellowed toward her cousin, who had been playing a shallow right field. How many times had she warned him about that? He was now running toward the back wall after the baseball, and Jake was halfway to second base.

Petey watched as Justin, who had been poised to run on second base, darted past her and crossed home plate. If Jake scored, the game would be tied. Petey felt the competitive tension rise within her. “Come on, Evan!”

Evan finally caught up to the ball. He threw it to his brother Ethan, the second baseman, who twisted around to find Petey, positioned on the baseline halfway between third and home. Jake had just rounded third base, and then Petey had the ball in her glove. She wrapped her right hand securely around the ball and lunged toward Jake. Surprise flickered across his face as he pulled back, trying to return to third base. Petey launched herself at him, pushing the baseball into his back as they both fell into the dirt, landing just a few feet shy of third base.

“Out!” cried Ian, the third baseman.

Petey heard Ethan yell a triumphant “Yes!” as he ran toward them. Petey smiled serenely before finally dropping the baseball still clutched tightly in her hand. Ethan appeared in her view, stretching a hand down to Petey. She grasped his hand and scrambled up.

Petey turned and looked down at Jake, who was kneeling on the ground examining his left elbow, which was covered in dirt and blood. “Oh, dude, are you okay?” Petey asked.

Jake grinned wryly and stood up. “Yeah, I’m fine,” he replied, brushing dirt off the knees of his battered blue jeans. “But when we skidded to a stop, my elbow hit the ground first.”

“Justin, go grab my first aid kit, will you?” Petey demanded as she leaned closer to examine Jake’s scraped elbow. She tossed her glove to the ground, then stepped closer to Jake, placing her hands lightly on his left arm, examining the scrape.

“She has a first aid kit?” Jake asked.

Ethan shrugged. “You get used to it. She breaks us, then patches us up again. She’s sadistic that way.”

“Shut up, Ethan,” Petey muttered.

Justin jogged back to the group, the first aid kit already open. Accustomed to this procedure, Justin had several alcohol swabs in hand.

Petey wiped her hands on a towl from the first aid kit, and then tugged on a pair of rubber gloves. She then took the swabs from Justin and looked up at Jake. “Is this okay? It’s probably gonna hurt worse than when I collided with you.”

Jake held Petey’s gaze. “I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

Petey began cleaning dirt out of the scrape. Jake winced, but didn’t pull away, and soon, his elbow was wrapped in gauze and tape.

“There you go.” Petey stepped back and replaced the unused supplies in the first aid kit. “Make sure you clean it out again when you get home, but it should be fine. Trust me. Happens all the time.”

“So what are you? Florence Nightingale during the week and Johnny Bench on the weekends?” Jake asked as the few remaining players turned back toward the dugout.

Petey swung the first aid kit from her fingertips as she walked into the dugout. “Not quite. I am in nursing school though.” After Petey plopped down onto the warped bench, she uncapped a bottle of water, poured it over a clean white towel, and gingerly wiped the dust off her sunburned face. The bench groaned and shifted as someone sat down beside her. Petey opened her eyes, expecting to find Ethan. Instead, Jake had joined her.

“I had a lot of fun today,” he remarked. “I’m glad Ethan invited me. Even if you did attack me.”

“Hey, I really wanted to win.”

“You’re such a good sport,” Jake teased.

“Of course I am.” Petey grinned. “Unless I lose. Then you’re just going down, Jake.”

“I’ll be sure to keep that in mind for next time.”

Petey focused on the red dirt that she was rubbing off her forearm before speaking. “Does that mean you’ll be back to play next week?”

“Yeah, I think so.” He paused. “I mean, if that’s okay. It seems you’re sort of the team captain here, so maybe I should have asked you first,” he teased.

“Yeah, I am sort of the team captain, and I don’t mind if you come back.”

“Good. That settles it.” He clapped his hands against his knees before standing. “I guess I’ll be going then. And I’ll see you next week.”

“Okay. Bye, Jake. Oh . . . and it was nice to meet you.”

He turned back to gaze at her and smiled. “It was nice to meet you, as well. Even if you did injure me on our first day as friends.”

Petey blushed. “I am sorry about that. But I had to make a first impression somehow, right?”

“Right. Bye, Petey.”

“Bye,” she called as he walked out of the dugout.

Petey turned to pack her equipment back into her duffel bag and didn’t notice as Jake stopped to whisper to Evan, “So is there any chance that Petey is single?”

“Dude, seriously? Yes, she is.” He clapped a hand around Jake’s shoulder.

Jake chuckled and walked to the chain link fence around the dugout. “Hey, Petey?”

Petey turned around. “Yeah, Jake?”

“The Greenville Drive have a home game tonight. Any chance you can stand some more baseball today? Do you want to go with me?”

Petey walked to the fence and stared at Jake. The last time she’d been to a Drive game had been with her ex-boyfriend Mike. She pushed away the thought and glanced at Ethan, who was nodding his head, encouraging her. “Yeah, I think I could do that.”

“Perfect. The game starts at seven. Why don’t I pick you up around six?”

“Sure.” She quickly gave him direction to her house, and then bit her lip before hesitantly asking. “Jake, is this a date?”

He smiled, wrapped his fingers in the chain link fence and leaned closer to her. “Yes, it is. Is that okay?”

“Yeah. I just wanted to be sure.”

Jake stepped back from the fence. “I’ll see you tonight, Petey.”

“Okay,” she replied and watched him walk to his car. He just asked me out, she thought. I was not expecting that. He’s really cute, though. She smiled to herself and turned back to the dugout. Ethan and Evan were the only two guys left in the dugout.

Ethan wrapped his arm around Petey’s shoulder and pulled her close. “So, Petey, is that the first time you’ve injured someone and gotten a date out of it?”

Petey place her hands against his chest and shoved, and Ethan stumbled backward into the dugout bench, laughing. When she sat down beside him and leaned back against the fence, closing her eyes, Ethan continued. “Have a good time tonight, Petey. I’ve known Jake for awhile now. You’ll have fun.”

“Thanks, Ethan.” As he stood up, she opened her eyes and grabbed the edge of his t-shirt. “Hey, did you invite him here because you’re matchmaking?” She narrowed her eyes at him, knowing what he and his twin brother were capable of.

Ethan pulled away from her grasp. “Perhaps.” He picked up his bag from the floor and followed Evan out of the dugout and to their truck.

Petey watched her cousins drive away, then turned back to gaze across the baseball field. The tall grass in the outfield waved gently in the wind, and the sun shone brightly on the red infield. Her gaze moved over to third base, and she replayed the last few moments of the game in her mind.

I tagged him out, made his team lose, and injured him, and he stil asked me out, she thought. “He likes me,” she murmured quietly and gazed out over the field once more.

Meet Virginia

This is the third assignment I’ll be turning in for my fiction writing class. It’s my favorite so far and the longest. Enjoy!

* * *

The sun slipped beneath the horizon, and twilight arrived in the garden outside the one-story house where seven-year-old Nathan Clarke and his mother, Camille, lived. On this autumn evening in late October, a few remaining dying leaves clung to the tree branches, and fallen leaves coated the ground. A stiff wind blew suddenly, ruffling the blossoms of the carnations and mums. One dark red leaf swirled down, landing directly on the pointed tip of a garden gnome statue. The leaf balanced precariously for a moment before continuing its journey to the ground.

Suddenly, the sound of tiny feet walking through the leaves could be heard in the once-quiet garden. Occasionally, the rhythmic shuffling was broken by a crisp sound, as if the owner of those feet were taking particular care to step on a delightfully crunchy leaf. As yet another breeze stirred up the leaves, a whisper, carried with the wind, floated through the garden. “Awake, magical creatures of the night!” the voice quietly called out.

These words brought life into the garden. The gnomes, who kept silent watch during the daytime, suddenly awoke. Smoke curled up from Belvedere’s pipe as he sat atop a mushroom-shaped stool in a bed of foliage. A few feet down the garden path, another gnome, Jehosophat, bent his head to dig through the brown sack he held in his left hand. Each night, Jehosophat collected objects from the flower beds in the garden. His sack was full of buttons, coins, bits of fabric, and other treasures, mostly items that fell out of Nathan Clarke’s pockets when he was playing during the day.

A third gnome appeared from behind an oak tree, carrying a large black book. Here was Brimley, the one who had called the other gnomes to life, the first to awaken every night, the gnome who enjoyed stepping on crunch leaves. During the day, Brimley sat beside the wooden swing where Nathan Clarke loved to play. Each evening when the sky grew dark, however, these magical gnomes came to life and roamed around the garden, finding adventures and treasures, quoting poetry, and occasionally making mischief. The gnomes developed a routine each night that had never been discovered by Nathan Clarke and his mother.

On this particular evening, things began normally. After Brimley had spoken the words to awake his fellow gnomes, he skipped down the little stone path towards Belvedere, who had a hard time waking each night.

“Wake up, Belvie! Darkness has returned to our fair garden. Now hop off your toadstool, and let’s gather the others!” Brimley scurried along the path, reaching out a hand to assist Belvedere, whose short, little legs made it difficult to leap from the mushroom. Once Belvedere had hopped to the ground, the two gnomes hurried to Jehosophat, who was still plundering through his sack.

Brimley opened his mouth to speak again, but his words were halted when a window near the corner of the house slid open. Out rolled Bernard, a tiny gnome no taller than two inches. He rolled off the window sill into a pile of leaves, then leaped up and started running quickly towards the three larger gnomes.

“Jumpin’ Jehosophat!” he cried. “What have you got there?”

Jehosophat finally pulled his head out of the bag. His hand followed, clutching a gold arcade token. “Look at this coin I found after you left last night, Bernard!”

Jehosophat handed his little friend the token. Bernard grasped it, but it was too heavy and fell to the ground, pulling the tiny gnome down with it.

Jehosophat gasped. “Oh, I’m sorry, Bernard! Here, let me help you up.” The taller gnome lifted the token and Bernard from the ground. He perched Bernard on his shoulder and held up the token for the smaller gnome to investigate.

“Beautiful! Have you found anything else, Josie?” Bernard asked eagerly.

“Yes. Have a look at this!” Jehosophat reached into his bag once more, as Bernard held onto the larger gnome’s ear to keep from sliding off his shoulder. When Jehosophat pulled out his hand, he was clutching a small brown button, just like the ones the three larger gnomes wore on their clothing.

When Brimley spotted the button that Bernard was examining, he gasped. “Are any of you missing a button?”

All of the gnomes, including Bernard, who didn’t even wear buttons, looked down at their tunics. Then they looked back at Brimley.

“If none of you is missing a button, then where did it come from?” asked Belvedere.

Silence fell as the gnomes comtemplated this question. Finally, Brimley spoke the inevitable conclusion: “There must be another gnome!”

“Another one?” Belvedere lamented. “We don’t need anyone else!”

“Relax, Belvie,” Brimley soothed. “You were new once, remember? We must find him and welcome him!” Brimley, as the first gnome to arrive in Nathan Clarke’s garden, felt that it was his duty to greet each gnome that appeared in the garden. “Let the search begin!”

“Oh, goody!” Bernard began hopping up and down on Jehosophat’s shoulder. “This is the first time I’ve gotten to greet a new gnome!”

“That’s the spirit!” Brimley stated, pumping his small fist in the air. “We know he isn’t in the front garden, so let’s start on the side. This way, everyone!” Brimley pushed past Belvedere and marched resolutely down the path toward the side of the house. Belvedere and Jehosophat, with Bernard riding on his shoulder, followed.

Before Brimley had led the group of gnomes very far, however, he was horrified to hear a moan and the grating sound of wood moving against wood. He swiveled around, colliding with Belvedere, and fervently murmured, “What was that?”

Bernard and Jehosophat stopped their quiet conversation and listened intently, as well. Brimley scanned the garden and the small house before resting his gaze upon the window from which Bernard had emerged. Horrified, he watched as Nathan Clarke’s small hands slowly worked the window up. “Quickly! Stiffen!” Brimley ordered.

The gnomes aligned themselves next to the cement spacers on the garden path and mimicked their daytime postures. Brimley held his breathe as Nathan Clarke finally opened the window wide enough to stick his head through. The young boy rested his chin on the window sill and dangled his arms against the side of the house as he stared wistfully out into the garden. When he spotted the gnomes, he jerked his head upward, banging it against the window. “Ouch!”

“Nathan?” his mother’s voice inquired from within the house. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, Mom!” Nathan pulled his head back inside. “I just hit my head on the window!” The boy paused, glancing back at the gnomes. “Can I go play outside?”

Through the window, Brimley could see that Camille Clarke had appeared in her son’s doorway. “Just for a few minutes, and you must stay in the garden,” she instructed. “And be sure to come back inside when I call you.”

“I will, Mom,” Nathan said as he dashed past his mother towards the front door of the house.

Brimley heard the hardwood floors creaking as Camille crossed the bedroom. Placing her hands on the window, she forced it closed without even glancing outside. Brimley shuddered. Their secret was safe from Camille, but Nathan Clarke was, at that moment, swinging open the front door of the house and stepping onto the front porch.

Brimley trembled, nearly losing his grip on the poetry book tucked beneath his left arm, and watched the boy bound down the front steps. Nathan Clarke slowed his steps as he approached the group, and when he reached them, he settled down onto one of the stones and curled his legs beneath him.

Brimley tried to maintain a vacant stare, but Nathan Clarke focused his penetrating, intelligent eyes on the gnome, and Brimley reluctantly turned his eyes to meet the boy’s gaze. Unsurprised, Nathan Clarke grinned and reached out to inspect Brimley’s book.

“What are you reading?” he asked quietly.

“It’s poetry, kid,” Belvedere responded before Brimley could speak. “You read poetry?”

Nathan Clarke slowly shook his head. “No. My mom does, though.” Closing the tiny book and handing it back to Brimley, he continued. “I didn’t know all of you were alive.”

“What do you mean, ‘all of you’?” Brimley asked hesitantly. “Did you know some of us were alive?”

“Of course. Bernard leaves the window open when he leaves. I’ve seen him come back when he things I’m asleep.”

Belvedere glared at the tiny gnome who huddled behind Jehosophat’s ear. “You should have been more careful,” he muttered.

“I’m sorry,” Bernard whimpered. “He’s just a kid! I didn’t think he’d notice!”

“No, no, it’s okay.” Nathan Clarke plucked Bernard off Jehosophat’s shoulder and held him up to his face to quietly reassure him. “I won’t tell anyone. Even my mom. I promise!”

“I believe him, friends,” Jehosophat continued. “Hey, maybe he can help us find . . . “

“Wait a second,” Belvedere interrupted gruffly. “How do we know he can be trusted?”

“You’re always so suspicious, Belvie. Bernard’s been sneaking out for months now! If Nathan Clarke were going to tell someone our secret, don’t you think he would have done so already?” Jehosophat gestured toward the boy, shaking his treasure bag in the process.

Nathan Clarke nodded emphatically, while Belvedere merely gave a “harrumph” and puffed his pipe.

“What is it you’re trying to find?” Nathan asked. “Maybe I can help.”

Bernard trotted over to where Jehosophat stood and tugged on the edge of the larger gnome’s tunic. “Show him the button, Josie.”

Jehosophat set his sack on the ground and held out his left fist, which still held the button. “We found this. It’s just like ours, but none of us have lost any. We think a new gnome has arrived in your garden. Do you know?”

“Of course,” Nathan Clarke responded. “I always help Mom pick out the gnomes. I helped name all of you, you know.” The boy gestured to the gnomes surrounding him. “We put the new gnome next to the little pool beside the house yesterday.”

Belvedere grunted. “Only been here one day, and he’s already lost a button?”

Brimley ignored Belvedere’s grumblings and turned to Nathan Clarke. “Can you show us?”

Brimley nodded emphatically, and the gnomes all quietly shuffled through the foliage beside the path where the boy walked. Their alert gazes scanned the house and garden for any sign of Camille Clarke, and all were prepared to dive into the bushes in case she appeared. The little company safely crossed the small, wooden bridge connecting the side garden to the one in front, and even Belvedere seemed to relax knowing they were no longer in direct view of the front porch.

Nathan Clarke marched over to the reflecting pool in the center of the side garden and knelt down beside it. “The gnome sat right here earlier today. I wonder where it is now?”

Brimley walked to the edge of the pond and peered down at his reflection and the leaves scattered across the surface of the water. “If I were a gnome in this part of the garden,” he speculated, “where would I go at night?” Brimley glanced around and spotted a cement bench nearby. He had taken one step in that direction when Camile’s voice rang through the garden.

“Nathan! Time to come in! Nathan!”

The boy gasped and jumped up. “I better go, guys. Good luck finding the new gnome!”

Brimley called out before Nathan had reached the bridge. “Nathan Clarke!”

The child turned. “Yes?”

“You mustn’t tell your mother, all right? Keep this a secret!”

He nodded solemnly. “I’ll keep it a secret. I promise. Can I come see you again tomorrow night?”

Brimley glanced at the others. Jehosophat and Bernard nodded emphatically, but Belvedere merely grunted and shrugged his concession. “Of course you can.”

Nathan Clarke grinned. “Good night, then!” He ran around the stone path back to the porch, and the gnomes were once again alone in the garden.

Brimley turned to the others. “Let’s go check that bench.” As Brimley led the way, he suddenly heard the faint sound of a flute playing. When he neared the bench, the music grew slightly louder, and Brimley spotted tiny feet clad in brown leather slipper sticking out from beneath it.

“I knew you’d find me eventually,” a mellifluous voice floated out.

The unexpectedly soft voice surprised Brimley, who came to a sudden stop a few feet away from the bench.

“You knew we were here?” he questioned.

“Of course. I saw you pillaging last night in the front garden.”

“We weren’t pillaging,” Jehosophat stated defensively. “Just searching for lost treasures.”

The gnome chuckled. “Whatever. I watched you from far away. I even saw you find my button and knew you would eventually figure out I was here.”

Brimley shook his head. “Okay, then. Will you at least come out, so we can introduce ourselves properly?”

The feet disappeared as the gnome pulled them back in before emerging from the bench on hands and knees. When the gnome stood, Brimley stared in shocked silence. The clothing and hat were the usual garb of a garden gnome, but instead of the traditional dark blues, reds, and greens, this gnome wore chocolate brown pants and a lavender tunic, which was missing one button. A light pink, pointed hat sat atop a mass of blonde curls, and the gnome’s blue eyes sparkled. Held tightly in the gnome’s right hand was a small, silver flute.

Brimley and Bernard could only gape at the new arrival. Jehosophat dropped his bad with a loud clunk, and the hand that clutched Belvedere’s pipe fell limply at his side.

“But you’re, you’re . . . ” Brimley stuttered.

She smirked. “Hi, boys. My name is Virginia.”