“Be brave, and most importantly, be yourself”: A Sneak Peek of THE BRAVE by James Bird
Growing up isn’t easy for anyone. Some kids have a better starting-off point than others, some kids have a better area to be raised in, and some kids have access to things that will make them more likely to thrive in life. But ask anyone who remembers being a kid in middle school and they’ll all agree on one thing: Growing up isn’t easy.
My childhood was fun. I got to see so many different places and meet so many different people at each new city we arrived to. I had my brother and sister, I had a mom that loved me very much, and I always had shoes on my feet. It wasn’t until I was much older and gained a perspective of other people’s lives that I learned that those things were pretty much all I had. I didn’t really know I was so poor until I saw the ways other kids lived, and that they had so much more than my family.
It wasn’t until I was able to look back that I saw how difficult my childhood was. I saw so many new places because we were evicted so often. We had to bounce around from city to city so many times that I was not able to make any meaningful friendships. When I asked my mom how she did it, how she was able to raise three kids with no money, no home, and no help from anyone, she said “We’re Native American. Our people went through much worse than we did, and they survived, so I knew we would too.”
And we did survive. And when I wrote The Brave, I wanted to show readers how resilient some people can be if they refuse to never give up; even when giving up would be the easiest decision. My main character, Collin, isn’t a kid born into an easy life. He doesn’t have any friends besides his dog, and even his father makes it pretty clear his only son is a disappointment. It’s not because Collin is unlikeable or smells funny; it’s simply because his brain works a little differently than most people. He counts the letters of words spoken to him and it becomes so frustrating and annoying to people that everyone pretty much stops speaking to him…. Well, almost everyone. The bullies at school sure give him an earful.
The Brave begins after Collin gets into another fight at school and is sent to live with his Native American mother, who he’s never met, on a Ojibwe reservation in Minnesota. So yeah, Collin had a rough start. But what he soon realizes, and hopefully all the readers will realize, is that even though growing up isn’t be easy, if there are people around you who take the time to get to know you, who show kindness and see you for who you really are, growing up can be just one part of a huge, exciting adventure called life. It can be full of magic if you’re brave enough to try to get to know other people. Friendship, love, family, and overcoming your fears are key ingredients for making your life the best it can be.
I hope you’ll want to get to know Collin and see why my book is called The Brave. I welcome you into his story and I hope you two get to know each other well. Maybe he’ll teach you a thing or two and maybe you’ll teach him a few things, but no matter who teaches who, there’s strength in numbers and if you surround yourself with enough good people, then nothing will be able to stop you. I hope you all enjoy this book and I can’t wait to hear about how Brave you all become, because the truth is, even though life isn’t easy, it can be fun. It’s up to you. Be open to adventures, be smart, be brave, and most importantly, be yourself.
THE BRAVE by James Bird
We’re almost home, and my dad hasn’t said one word to me. That’s not too strange, though. We hardly ever talk. Sometimes we try, but neither of us has the patience it takes. And it’s not only because he gets super annoyed by hearing me tally up his letters. It’s mainly because we are so different from each other. He was an all-star athlete his entire life, but as he grew older and had a kid without planning to, reality kicked him in the head. He never married the head cheerleader. He never signed a multimillion-dollar deal to get drafted to the pros. He was never the smiling face on the box of cereal. He was just good enough to play in high school. A dreamer. That’s all. But dreams don’t pay the bills. And adults have to wake up and deal with things like that, or so I’m reminded every other day by him whenever I leave a light on or take a shower for too long. Reality is, he never made it.
But if you fail, you try again, so after he failed, he tried to reach stardom again, this time through me. His plan was to pass down his unfulfilled athletic dreams to his only son. So he enrolled me into as many junior football leagues as possible. I was supposed to be his shining star athlete. But sadly for him, I never quite caught on to sports. I tried to, for my dad, but I was awful. After football, we tried baseball, then basketball. He even signed me up for soccer once, but no matter the sport, I was like a fish out of water. He was forced to watch his dreams shatter all over again.
There’s another reason we don’t talk much. My dad drinks a lot. I guess that’s what happens when you have to work a nine-to-five job you hate just to put food on the table for a son you don’t necessarily like. And as hard as I tried to make him like me, it’s pretty hard making an alcoholic happy.
Nowadays, our only quality time is when we watch a football game on TV together. It’s a win-win for both of us. We don’t have to say a word to each other. He’s on the couch, rooting for his team, getting wasted . . . and I sit there smiling, just waiting for the game to end or for him to pass out. That’s our relationship in a nutshell.
Still, deep down, I suppose we both love each other, even if we don’t really know each other. Without him, I’d have nowhere to live and nothing to eat. And without me, he’d have no one to put a blanket over him when he’s snoring on the couch. I guess that’s love. Or at least, that’s our version of it.
“It won’t be so bad,” he says, but keeps his eyes fixed to the road as he turns the old pickup truck onto our street.
“Thirteen . . . How would you know?” I ask.
“I’m being optimistic. Look at this as a fresh start. Somewhere new. You might even make some friends in Duluth.”
He glares at me. “Where the hell is Duluth?” I ask.
“Minnesota. It’s where your mother lives.”
“Thirty-two. I have to move to Minnesota because people can’t deal with me here? Am I that much of a problem? I’m being exiled from Huntington Beach? They’re just numbers, Dad!”
“I know it looks that way to you, but that’s not the whole story,” he says as he pulls the pickup into our driveway.
“Forty-eight. It looks like the school wants me to stay home, but you don’t want me there either. So you’re shipping me off to live with someone I don’t even know.”
“She’s your mother,” he repeats.
“Fourteen. But I don’t know anything about her. You refuse to even mention her, and now you want me to live with her?”
He stops the truck inches before colliding with our garage door and puts the gear in park. I reach for the handle, but my dad grabs my arm. He never touches me. This is twice in one day. This is serious. “I lost my job, kiddo.”
“Fifteen. What? I mean how?” I ask. “When? Why?”
“A month and a half ago.”
“Seventeen. But you’ve been getting dressed and . . . Where have you been going every day?”
“You have enough problems to deal with. I didn’t want to pile more onto your plate. And I’ve been searching for something new, but things aren’t looking so good . . . I’m selling the house. Like I said, a fresh start wouldn’t be so bad.”
I hold the young numbers in my head and try to kill them before they bloom. I know they won’t die, but I promised myself I would never stop trying.
“One hundred and seventy-six.”
“That many, huh?” he asks.
“Eleven. Yeah. That many. You know I’m not going anywhere without Seven, right?”
“Don’t worry. Your dog’s going with you,” he says, knowing it would be a deal-breaker if she weren’t.
I’m not sure what else to say, so I pull my arm away from him and get out of the truck. I head toward the side of our house and pull the string that unlatches the wooden door on the fence. As soon as it swings open, the only soul who loves me as I am jumps up and nearly knocks me off my feet.
“Hey, Seven!” I shout, and run deeper into the backyard.
She gives chase. One of my many childhood doctors suggested to my dad that I needed a companion who would never judge me. So he bought me a black Labrador puppy. Apparently, animals are far more understanding than we humans are.
Her real name is Numbers. I gave her that name so that word would no longer have a negative effect on me, but every time my dad called for Numbers, I would blurt out “Seven,” for obvious reasons. So now she answers to both names.
Seven and I do everything together. We are inseparable. I would die for her, and she would die for me. She’s not only my “therapeutic companion,” or my pet, or even my best friend. She is my solid. She is the only solid in my ever-changing life right now.
I pick up one of her slobbered-on tennis balls and toss it across the yard.
“Good girl!” I shout as she chases it down.
She returns and drops the ball at my feet. So I pick it up again and hold it above my head. She barks and bobbles her head, waiting for me to launch it into the air. I wish I got this excited about something.
For selfish reasons, I hold the ball longer than I should. I don’t count the letters in each of her barks. I like to think even if I somehow could count them, I wouldn’t. I’m just a normal boy with a normal dog doing normal things whenever she’s around.
But . . . all that changed today. I wish my life were more like hers. She sees something, and she goes and gets it. She keeps it simple. I don’t judge her by how fast she runs or by the way she picks it up. As long as she’s happy, I’m happy. So why do people care about what I do after they talk? I count. So what?
I throw the ball again and focus on the distance it travels. I’ll be traveling a huge distance soon. But unlike the tennis ball, I won’t be coming back.
Duluth, Minnesota . . . It sounds like a whole new planet. California is my earth. It’s the only world I’ve ever known. I need to find out about this new place I’m about to live in. All I know about Minnesota is what everyone knows about it: that it gets really cold there. So cold that when it rains, the water actually freezes on the way down.
I’ve never actually seen snow before. I mean, I’ve seen it plenty of times in movies, but everybody knows that movies make everything ten times bigger and more exciting than they actually are. Maybe snow is boring. Still, I’ll need a warmer jacket for Duluth. And besides the town, you know what else I need to find out about? My mom.
Is she nice? For as long as I can remember, my dad refused to speak about her. He said, “Let the past be the past.” It’s kind of his mantra for everything in life. All I was able to get out of him was that my mom was a twenty-five-year-old Native American girl he met at a rock concert thirteen years ago. And after he knocked her up and I was born, his parents agreed to raise me. He told me it was because my mom already had enough on her plate. This made me feel wary around every plate of food growing up. Like the side of mashed potatoes was more important than me.
That would make her thirty-eight now. As much as I hate numbers, this condition does make me rather good at math. At the time they met, my dad was twenty-six. Which makes him thirty-nine, although he looks much older. Maybe it’s the stress of having me for a son, but his face looks like he’s pushing fifty. Or maybe it’s the drinking. His nose is constantly red, and his cheeks are always swollen. Once, a few years back when he was asleep on the couch, I took a marker and tried to blend in the rest of his face, making every inch of him red. He didn’t notice until the next morning. I was not allowed to draw for two weeks after that . . . And it took a whole month for him to give me my red marker back.
Not all his nights of drinking were bad, though. One time, he actually let a few details about my mom slip out. He mentioned that my mom was very pretty and very funny, but back then, their worlds were just too different to merge their hearts together. My dad came from a wealthy family. They weren’t too pleased to hear about their only son getting mixed up with a girl from the other side of the tracks. They nearly cut him off financially when they found out he got her pregnant. But their tune changed when they found out the baby was going to be a boy. I was the only way to keep their last name alive. So they made my dad a deal he couldn’t refuse. He was to have a son and bring him back to California so they could raise me, completely shutting out my mom’s side. They argued that he was too young to be a father and that she was way too poor to raise a child. They told her they could give me a better life. A life full of opportunities and promise. I guess my mom agreed, because that’s exactly what happened. Little did they know I’d come with so much baggage. And that’s pretty much all I got out of him that night before he passed out.
But when I asked him about it the next day, he didn’t know what I was talking about and refused to admit saying all of that. Truth is, I don’t think they were in love. And if love didn’t make me, how could either of them actually love me? My dad kept me so he could keep his parents happy, and my mom, well, I don’t know why she gave me up. I guess I’ll find out soon enough.
My grandparents kept their word about raising me for the first six years of my life, but after a dozen failed attempts by a bunch of speech therapists and doctors, they handed me back to my dad and told him it was high time he grew up and faced reality. They thought raising a kid might steer him away from the bottle. They were wrong. I think they just wanted to retire, far away from the responsibility of a kid like me and an adult like my dad. So they moved to the Florida coast. I haven’t stayed in contact with them too much beyond postcards sent on my birthday and Christmas.
I can’t believe my dad tracked down my mother just to hand me off. I’m like a hot potato: No one keeps me for too long. I wonder how he asked her to take me? Did he beg? I bet she regrets answering the phone. Did he even tell her about my counting problem?
Seven barks, reminding me to live in the moment. She’s right. She’s always right. I wrestle the ball out of her mouth and throw it again.
“Collin!” my dad shouts from the sliding glass door at the side of our house.
“Come inside. We need to . . . go over the plan.”
Before I can respond, he shuts the door, so he doesn’t hear how many letters were in his last sentence. This is a technique he adopted early on. I guess it makes him feel a little better. Out of sight, out of mind.
“Thirty-one,” I say anyway
James Bird is a screenwriter and director at the independent film company, Zombot Pictures; his films include We Are Boats and Honeyglue. A California native of Ojibwe descent, he now lives in Swampscott, Massachusetts with his wife, the author and actor Adriana Mather, and their son. The Brave is his debut novel.