Introducing Betsy Newkirk

In this excerpt from one of my 2 WIP novels, we meet Betsy Newkirk as she drives her cousins to the trailhead for their weekend hike. I am posting this for two reasons. 1) For accountability. I can’t give up on a task I’ve made public. 2) For feedback. I’m hoping to receive constructive criticism and/or encouraging words if you like this and want to know more about Betsy.

“Betsy! Stop it! You’re going to get us all killed!” Ainslee clutched frantically for the oh-shit bar that wasn’t there. Her hands finally found purchase in the passenger seat door handle. While Ainslee pleaded for Betsy to slow down, Siobhan giggled with glee from the back seat and shouted “Faster, pussycat! Kill! Kill!” 

Betsy grinned as she feathered the clutch and hit the throttle just hard enough to keep all four tires spinning through the gravel of the forest access road. There are very few sensations better than executing a power slide through gravel. She risked a moment’s break in concentration to shoot a glance and a quip at Ainslee: “You’re all shook up, aren’t you, baby?”

The bassline to last year’s trashy-catchy song pulsed in rhythm to the melody of her car’s boxer engine in perfect juxtaposition with their trash-cinema quotes. Ainslee’s sincere terror and Siobhan’s thrill-seeker glee amplified the perfection of the moment. Betsy had been adventuring with her cousins Siobhan and Ainslee since before any of them could remember and she loved their reactions dearly. Today’s adventure was supposed to start at the trailhead for their weekend backpacking trip, but there was no way Betsy was going to let this smooth(ish) stretch of gravel road pass without at least a little bit of zoom. 

As the gravel road straightened out, what looked like a pitted moonscape unfolded before them. Potholes and craters ranging in size from tire-eating to car-eating spread across the entire surface of the road. With a basalt wall rising on the passenger side of the car and a quarter-mile plunge to the alpine lake below falling off the driver’s side of the road, there was nowhere to go but forward. Still travelling at highway speed on this forest service road, Betsy knew she didn’t have space to brake sufficiently before hitting the first crater, so she gunned it. 

This must have been how Thelma and Louise felt. Except the car didn’t launch at all. Instead, it seemed to skim across the tops of each crater and pothole. Betsy’s sunshine-orange Subaru cleared the terrible stretch of road with less jostle than it experienced on its daily commute over the frost heave damaged asphalt of her hometown.

Grinning widely, Betsy winked at Siobhan through the rear-view mirror. “Piece of cake!” 

That was a lie. The unexpected appearance of such rough road sandwiched between a rock wall and a deadly drop had terrified Betsy. Her heart rate had to be through the roof. But she was determined to play it off as all part of her expert driving. 

Ainslee’s expression was serious. “Come on, Betsy: you’re going to wreck your car. Would you please slow down?”

Siobhan agreed from the back seat. “Yeah, let’s take it easy now. I think we’re almost there anyway.”

Betsy pretended to be disappointed in her cousins’ desire to slow down, but she was happy to relent. It felt like they had just used up all of their luck for the day. “Alright, I’ll drive the rest of the way like an old lady.” 

Dropping into second gear, it felt like they were barely moving. Particularly in contrast to the frenetic pace they had maintained over the past several miles. With another half hour of slow motion driving ahead of her, Betsy’s mind began to wander to childhood memories, as she was wont to do whenever she was in the company of her cousins. 

#

Mrs. Augustine’s beet-red face looked ready to burst. Her stentorian bellow for attention rang throughout their third grade classroom. Her ham-sized fists beat down on the desk in front of her. It was Brian Worden’s desk. He broke into tears. He cried a lot, but anybody would have cried tears of terror with Mrs. Augustine bearing down on them. It was supposed to be silent reading time, but Corey had whispered a joke to Leonard who had passed it to Brian, who made the blunder of laughing out loud. 

Betsy must have looked guilty, for Mrs. Augustine called her out. “MISS NEWKIRK!”

“Yes, Ma’am?” (the only acceptable response)

“TO THE BOARD”

Third Grade Betsy’s face flushed hot. She knew what was next. She was going to have to read in front of the class. Out loud. And she still couldn’t reliably pronounce her R’s. And Mrs. Augustine, in her infinite cruelty, was going to make her repeat each mispronounced word until she said it correctly, or until she wilted in tears.

Mrs. Augustine pulled the dusty old reader from the bookshelf in the corner of the room. Betsy was certain she saw tarantulas and cobwebs fall from the cracked leather bindings. 

“Open to page thirty, Miss Newkirk”

The verse that Betsy was tasked to read leered at her from page thirty of the reader:

If you find your task is hard,

Try, try again;

Time will bring you your reward,

Try, try again;

All that other folks can do,

Why, with patience, should not you?

Only keep this rule in view;

TRY, TRY AGAIN.

There was no way Betsy was going to make it through this verse. Her quick scan revealed fourteen different opportunities for failure and humiliation. Even after losing all of her second grade recess times to visits with the school’s speech therapist, Betsy’s R’s still had a way of betraying her two out of every three tries. Or, more accurately, two out of evewy three twies. This wouldn’t do, at all. 

Her first instinct was to bolt for the door. Betsy ruled that out, as she’d tried that last month. The consequences for fleeing had been even more mortifying than humiliating herself in front of her classmates.

She couldn’t run. She couldn’t fight, either. While Mrs. Augustine may have been ancient, she was a powerful old battle axe. 

What started as fear grew into anger. Betsy could feel her heart beat faster and her already red face grow hotter still. Standing in front of her classmates, Betsy resolved that she would not show weakness. She would fight what way she could. Taking a deep breath, Betsy bellowed her own version of the verse from the top of her lungs:

IF YOU FIND THIS TASK IS TOUGH,

HUFF, HUFF AND PUFF

TIME WILL GIVE YOU SOME GOOD STUFF,

HUFF, HUFF AND PUFF

ALL THAT OTHER PEOPLE DO,

WHY, WITH REEFER, SHOULD NOT YOU?

ONLY KEEP THIS JOINT IN VIEW;

HUFF, HUFF AND PUFF!

Betsy pantomimed a smoking motion. Her gamble in using a singular R word had paid off. She’d said it correctly. Her momentary elation of triumph melted quickly to dread.

Betsy braced for impact. She was certain she was doomed. She’d learned enough about reefers from the older kids on her school bus to know that it was both cool and funny to talk about it. She’d learned enough about school to know that older kids and teachers definitely disagreed about what was cool and funny. Her classmates sat in stunned silence. Brian looked like he was going to start crying again. Leonard turned to their teacher and asked, “Mrs. Augustine, what’s reefer?”

Mrs. Augustine, the towering tyrant of third grade, fixed Betsy with a piercing glare. Betsy was done for, she just knew it. And then the most wonderful thing happened. Mrs. Augustine’s eyes began to twinkle. The twinkle spread to her ruddy cheeks, which tugged the wrinkles around her mouth into an impish grin. And then Mrs. Augustine began to laugh. An out-loud, I shouldn’t be laughing at this kind of laugh. A stop it, I’m going to pee my pants kind of laugh. A contagious, the rest of us don’t know why we’re laughing kind of laugh. Soon, all of the third graders were laughing and it felt good.

By the time the class had regained its composure, it was time to leave for recess. Mrs. Augustine dispensed with the usual regimented dismissal protocol and told the class to “get outside and run these giggles out of you” before turning to Betsy and saying “Miss Newkirk, I’d like to speak with you.”

Betsy waited with bated breath. Had the spell already broken? Had Mrs. Augustine feigned good humor just to get her victim alone?

Mrs. Augustine patted the chair next to the teacher’s desk. “Come, sit.”

Betsy complied.

“I want you to know, Miss Newkirk, that I see you.”

Betsy was perplexed, but pretended to follow along.

“I see what you did today and I want you to know that I am so very proud of you.”

Betsy waited for the other shoe to drop.

“I want you to remember this day, Miss Newkirk. This is the day you discovered who you are. You see, everybody feels afraid. In fact, most people feel afraid most of the time, if they were ever to be truly honest with themselves. The sad fact is, most people try to hide from their fear, or they try to run away.”

Betsy could tell that Mrs. Augustine knew she was thinking of the time she had fled the classroom.

“What you did today took courage and it took talent. You showed quite a bit of chutzpah today, young lady.”

Betsy had no idea what chutzpah was, but it sounded like something she should be proud to have.

“Ask the question, Miss Newkirk.”

This was getting eerie. It was as if Mrs. Augustine was reading her mind.

“What’s chutzpah?”

Mrs. Augustine’s eyes twinkled once again. “It means, my dear, that you’re full of piss and vinegar.”

Betsy’s mind whirled. Her authoritarian third grade teacher was being nice. And swearing. And being nice!

Mrs. Augustine chuckled. “I don’t expect you’ve heard that one yet either. Miss Newkirk, I want you to know that I see you. And I admire you. Today you faced fear and failure head on, and you charged right through it. At the other end you found triumph. That’s the lesson I want you to remember. Never flee from fear. Always forward.”

Betsy felt a lump begin to form in her esophagus. It felt almost like she wanted to cry, but she wasn’t sad or scared. She felt taller. And determined. And grateful. She wasn’t at all embarrassed about the rebel tears that overflowed her eyes and ran down her cheeks.

“Now get outside and run the wiggle out of you. And Miss Newkirk: we will have no more talk of reefers.”

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