Behind the Story—Teacher's Crush
I always planned to write Jen's story as part of the Eureka in Love series. She is Kerri's best friend and was introduced through phone conversations during Chocolate Kisses. At the time, I didn't know where Jen's story would go. Perhaps that's why Lilly's story had the chance to catch my attention.
While writing Landscape Love, Jen made another cameo appearance. When I sat down to write Jen's story, I regretted the way her scenes came across in LL. She sounded so bitter and angry, but I still didn't know why.
I knew she was fresh out of college and ready to start her career as a teacher. The questions were still bountiful. Was she going to teach elementary, middle, or high school? If upper grades, what subject?
The biggest question was—why is she coming back to Eureka Springs when she swore she never would? And why doesn't she like her hometown?
And of course, I worried that her not liking Eureka Springs would be too close to the Forgetting You by Hillary Ann Sperry, one of the other authors in the series. I stuck with Lilly's story while I searched for answers.
About the time I decided Jen would be fighting her own feelings of self-worth or low self-esteem, I also attached the root of those problems to her family. But why? The answer came one Sunday while I was sitting in the women's meeting at church. Don't ask me what we were talking about that day, because I don't remember. However, at the beginning, a woman I have great respect for asked for a very particular prayer request.
She was leaving for the summer to help her mother clean her house and she asked that we pray for her sanity and sobriety. It was half jest, half serious. Her mom is a hoarder. After that, my ideas for Jen clicked into place and I zoned out for the rest of the meeting.
Jen's dad could be a hoarder. Goodness knows I've watched enough shows about hoarders that I could pull it off. Plus, I could ask Sylvia to help me with keeping things realistic. Sylvia left for several months and I started doing research and drafting.
Over the next few months, I poured myself into Jen. Although her youth experiences are different than mine were, her insecurities were all me. I understood her reasons for keeping people out of her heart. All the little self-motivating mantras she'd quote to herself are ones I've used many times. The fact she thinks she wants one thing, while really needing something completely different to make her feel whole is also an issue I've struggled with.
How do you connect with others and explain yourself to them when you don't understand it yourself?
Anyway, once I had the groundwork laid for who Jen was, and how she became that person, as well as who she wanted to be, the story fell into place relatively easily. That in itself was a huge blessing because I needed a good writing experience to get me going again.
Teacher's Crush came out the same year as The Hand of Atua in my sci-fi line. You'll hear all about that one next month, but for today, let's just say it had me tied in knots for years.
Back to Teacher's Crush. I found several fascinating blogs written by children of hoarders. They helped me dig into the emotional baggage that can accompany that kind of childhood experience. I read, I rewatched episodes of the show, and I let my imagination run while putting myself in that kind of situation.
Finally, I started thinking about all the social implications hoarders have to deal with. What options are available for help if they want it? What if they don't? Extreme hoarding can be very dangerous for those living in it. Is there any recourse for those who want to help their loved ones when they don't wish to change? I touch on some of this in the story without making the story a primer on hoarding.
Yeah, I'm pretty proud of that. In fact, I think I kept the emotions running strong in this one.
Here are three reviews from Amazon:
“An insanely good story that's not about rosy glasses but real life and what we deal with. Jen and Rob's characters were well depicted and characterized.”
“Jen spent her life running from the hoarder father who put her down, her former overweight body and image, and anyone who tries to love and get close to her. Rob fell for her the minute he saw, but she keeps pushing him away. And does he really want to start a romantic relationship when he could become her boss if the school hires her? I felt for Jen dealing with feelings of self-worth and trying to figure out what would make her happy while trying to take of her mentally ill father.”
“Jen is a deeply troubled woman trying to hide from everyone and everything. Problem is you cannot hide from yourself. She has developed some good and not so good coping skills that help out to some degree until she is faced with all the hurt and pain she suffered in her home town. Rob is a good guy who is genuinely interested in Jen. What transpires is a lot of family and friends drama, with everyone trying to juggle everything so nothing comes crashing down on anybody. Unique look at the life of a hoarder from the family’s perspective.”
Then of course, one of the best compliments came from a good friend who has read all of my books. I wish I'd kept it somewhere since it isn't posted. She said something to the affect that this was her favorite story so far because she could relate to Jen's emotional turmoil. Summer did not grow up with a hoarder, but she understood the feelings of low self-esteem and the need to pick herself up and find her own worth. I believe most of us can relate to that.
So, do you want to hear an excerpt from Teacher's Crush? There's a short section that takes place a few months earlier that I skipped, but this is most of chapter one.
As Jen approached Eureka Springs her stomach twisted, and she feared she’d be sick if she didn’t pull over. She saw the turn off for Lake Leatherwood.
Only good memories there.
By the time she pulled into the parking lot by the lake, she could breathe a little easier. She got out of the car and walked to the shore. The heat of summer wrapped around her, suffocating, just like the house she was headed to.
“God, how could you do this to me?” she whispered. There was no answer. There never had been. Not to a single one of her prayers over the years. She’d prayed for her mom to come home and for her father to love her like he had when she was little. Neither thing happened and now she was emotionally damaged. But she knew she didn’t have to be.
She sat on a rotting log, pulled out her cell phone, and hit the speed dial for her therapist. It rang several times before he answered.
“This is Dr. Turner.”
“Hi, this is Jen Carlson. You got a minute?”
“Ms. Carlson, you no longer have school insurance. I can’t help you anymore.” He sighed and she heard him move something on the other end of the line.
“I know, but I had to go home, and I…”
“You chose to go home.” He cut her off. “Remember words have meaning. Take responsibility for your actions, even in your word choices.”
“I didn’t have a choice.” Her voice sounded pouty even to her.
“You always have a choice. I’m sorry I can’t help you. Call back when you have insurance. I can recommend someone closer to your location. Goodbye, Ms. Carlson, and good luck.” He hung up.
“Aaahhh!” Jen yelled and shoved the phone in the pocket of her shorts. What she wanted was to throw it in the lake. “I didn’t have a choice!”
Why wouldn’t anyone believe her?
Tears threatened again. She thought she’d cried them all out when she called to give up the teaching position in Oklahoma. Then again when she packed everything into her car to return to Eureka Springs. It was all her father’s fault. His and her mother’s.
But it was Jen who had to fix things. Always had been. Always would be.
She took a deep breath, mentally pulled her protective walls closer and returned to the car.
“I can do this. I have to do this.”
* * *
The yard looked worse than she remembered from February. She had driven past on her way out of town, so she knew the kid’s plastic play gym, the four bikes stacked by the porch, and the three large blue water drums were new. Those additions, plus the old clutter, meant she barely fit her car in the drive. The passenger side wheels were in the thin two-foot strip of grass left clean beside a stand of trees separating her father’s house from the neighbor. The neighbor planted them six years ago to prevent Jack Carlson from taking over both yards with his junk collection.
“He’ll probably yell about the tires in the grass,” Jen mumbled, took a deep breath, and turned off the car. “You’re all he has. You can do this.”
She continued to pep talk her way past the broken down mowers, new car rims she hadn’t noticed from the road, old tires, more bikes, and black trash bags to the porch. Her dad had always had a hard time getting rid of things, but after her mother left years ago it got way out of hand. Jen tried to help, but nothing seemed to get through to him. He continued to keep everything that came his way.
She studied the lawn. Her dad hadn’t owned a working vehicle in at least a year. How did he get the new items to the house? Her blood simmered as the only possible explanation dawned on her. Other people were transporting it for him. How was she going to get him to stop if the town continued to enable him?
Jen pounded on the door, letting her irritation rattle the screen. “I should turn and drive away. Maybe I can get that job back.”
There was no sound from inside. She knocked again, not quite as harshly.
She pressed her face close to the door. Was that mumbling? What if he was hurt? Dr. Dahler said her father needed more care. He had high blood pressure, other heart issues, diabetes, and now he was forgetting things. However, there wasn’t a home care nurse left in Carroll County willing to check on him anymore. That’s why Jen had to return home. Like it or not, he was her father. She owed him.
Jen knocked again. “Jack?”
This time she heard movement on the other side of the door. She stepped back right before her father flung it open.
“Why didn’t you just come in?” Jack growled.
Her father hadn’t changed much since the last time she saw him, almost two years ago. His hair looked thinner and it was snow-white, but he still wore the same scowl. Blue eyes shot pinpricks of loathing straight down her neck.
I won’t let him get to me. She steeled herself and answered his question. “I don’t live here anymore. I thought knocking would be appropriate.” Jen kept her voice calm, but the old insecurities continued to skitter through her chest.
“I thought you’d given up on this town.” Her father didn’t move to let her in. Probably because there was nowhere for him to go in the cluttered space. “What do you want?”
Flies buzzed around the door, taking advantage of the chance to move indoors. Jen felt a shiver of remorse in spite of everything. She didn’t really hate him, or the town, but it was easier to tell herself she did than to feel like he didn’t want her.
She pushed the thoughts away. “Dr. Dahler said someone had to stay with you. Make sure you take your meds.”
“I don’t need no babysitter!” He jabbed a finger in her direction. “You lost that job didn’t you.”
“No, Jack.” Jen sighed. “I gave it up for you.”
“Why would you do that?” He turned and shuffled away from the door, leaving room for her to squeeze in. “And you know I hate it when you call me Jack.”
“Sorry, it won’t happen again.” Jen followed, the house and it’s clutter closing her in and cutting her off from reality.
To say every surface had been covered by knick-knacks, shopping bags, magazines, books, clothing, you name it, would be an understatement. It would imply there were surfaces left to be seen. Jack had long since buried all the tables, counters and ninety-five percent of the floor under piles of stuff. Pathways had been carved through the rooms like an underground warren.
“Well, come on.” Jack made his way down a trail toward the bedrooms. “I didn’t think I’d ever see you again. Thought you’d run off like your mother, so I’ve put some of my stuff in your room.”
“Okay. Can we move it out?” His comment about her mother barely registered as dread pooled in her gut. What constituted ‘some’ stuff?
“Don’t be stupid. Who knows how long you’ll be here.”
It had been less than five minutes and he’d already called her stupid. The familiar sense of worthlessness poked its head out of the box she’d shoved it in. Jen concentrated on breathing slow and steady.
I’m not stupid. I’m smart, capable. I’m choosing to take care of him because I’m a good person.
Her thought process helped, but she knew staying with her father could push her to the breaking point again. Maybe her goal should change. Instead of trying to live close and take care of him, perhaps she could get him to clear out the house so home care would come back. Then she could leave again for her emotional safety.
“Don’t worry, I won’t stay long.” The smell of something dead almost took her breath away. “What is that?”
“What?” Her dad didn’t even pause. “If you’re not staying long why are you here instead of with that uppity friend of yours.”
“Kerri isn’t uppity.” Jen covered her nose and hurried past the pile of boxes where the odor seemed to originate.
“She’s too good to come around here, ain’t she.” It wasn’t a question.
“Well, there’s nowhere for her to sit.” She stood in front of her old room. “Is there?”
“Don’t get smart with me.” Jack waved at the open door.
Jen hadn’t lived at home for four years. That’s all it had taken for her father to fill her bedroom with more junk he didn’t need.
“Dad, I’ll have to move some of these boxes so…”
“You won’t touch anything.” Jack shook his head. “These are my things, and I won’t have you poking around.”
“But I need room for my clothes. A path to the bed.” She shivered as she considered what critters might currently reside in the room, alive and dead, lost in the layers of junk.
“Stack them up, but don’t take them out. I won’t know where anything is.”
“Do you know what’s in here now?” Jen wrinkled her nose in disgust. One of the boxes to her left had collapsed under the weight of the things above. Most had black mold crawling up at least one side. There was no way he had a clue about their contents.
“You can walk right out that door.” He pointed to the front of the house.
She should. She wanted to.
Don’t let him bully you. Be strong.
“I won’t take anything out.” Jen gritted her teeth.
“That’s better. I’ll be in my room. Don’t bother me.” Jack turned and left without another word.
“Why would I do that?” she muttered under her breath, then got to work.
She cleared a path to the bed by stacking things higher on the sides. Pretty soon her arms itched from the boxes, and she needed to sneeze from the dust in the air. The precarious wall of junk looked like it would tumble any minute, but there wasn’t much she could do about it. Not until she got a job and found her own place.
Ug! She was still thinking plan A. Get a job, get an apartment, take care of dad from a distance. Truth was, she might have to put plan A into motion to get to plan B. Get the house cleaned out so home health care would come back. Then she could leave Eureka Springs and get back to her real-life once and for all.
What do you think? This book is available in print, kindle unlimited, and on audiobook. In fact, I have several free codes for audible that I'd love to give away. Simply email me at email@example.com
That wraps things up for today. I'm super excited to share the next podcast with you. I'll be interviewing Johan Twiss, author of the I Am Sleepless Series. The final book, Dark Throne came out this month and Johan has agreed to call in and talk about his books and this series in particular. You will not want to miss it. Johan not only writes, but records all of his audiobooks as well.
So, tune in next time to meet Johan!
Have a great week, and remember to give those around you the benefit of the doubt because we have more in common than we ever care to see.