| Catapult Alumni
Fiction Excerpt from ‘Privately’
This novel excerpt was written by Claudia Hinz in Lynn Steger Strong’s 12-Month Novel Generator.
It is 2006 and the U.S.’s global war on terror has expanded throughout the Middle East, requiring a national draft. When Tenley Ward’s son draws a low lottery number, she does what she’s always done: she mobilizes fellow mothers in Dallas, Texas. Her organization, MOMS (Mother Opposing More Senselessness), are known as the bake sale mamas, well-heeled Highland Park PTA members, and formerly high-powered career women, now united to keep their sons out of the forever wars.
As the clock ticks down to her son being called up, Tenley is increasingly torn between her duties on the home front–three younger children and husband who’s frustrated by her absence–and the need to propel MOMS into a national spotlight. What MOMS needs is a new face for the movement: a telegenic combat veteran who’s been to war and can make a convincing case against the draft, galvanizing Americans everywhere. Enter Lance Corporal Leland Marks, nickname Privately, a wounded Marine who fought in Fallujah. He is drawn to the message of the anti-draft movement and especially its charismatic leader. As he becomes involved in MOMS, his connection with Tenley deepens. He is young enough to be her son, but Tenley can’t deny the fireworks between them. Over the course of three tumultuous days of television interviews and violent protests around the President’s arrival in Dallas, Privately and Tenley are caught up in decisions that will challenge their ability to protect the ones they love, including each other.
“Ladies, we’re live in two minutes.”
Tenley ran her tongue over her teeth to check for lipstick. She snuck a look at the network correspondent who was flipping through her notes, silently mouthing her prepared questions. Tenley knew exactly how this would go: a few softball questions, followed by the cost of the Jumbotron, ending with the personal angle, a tug on the heartstrings of millions of viewers. Tenley could see it now, the text that would unspool on the bottom of the screen: Bake sale mama fights to keep her son out of the wars.
The TV crew had centered Tenley’s Louis IV chairs in her sitting room in front of the mantle with her children’s matching stockings and the two ten-foot-tall Christmas trees. The real Christmas tree was in the family room, saggy with homemade ornaments, battered clay gingerbread men and paper stars still shedding sparkles everywhere.
The network reporter, Debra Mace, was a youngish brunette with an accent from back east. She struck Tenley as a little snooty with her pearls and her preppy Talbots vibe, and the way she over articulated every consonant, as if she was the only one in the room speaking English correctly. Tenley had watched her on TV. In person, Debra was thicker and less perky.
Tenley and Debra sat knee to knee, close enough that Tenley could see where Debra’s mask of heavy foundation ended at her jawline. Tenley crossed her knees and angled her legs away from the camera. She had chosen a simple wrap dress ( not designer) in solid blue, nothing that screamed Highland Park money, but was flattering and hit right at the knee when seated. She’d decided against her gold cross and chosen a simple silver chain and small hoop earrings. At the last moment, she hired the makeup artist from her old TV station. The result was that Tenley looked surprisingly refreshed, and her makeup was blended perfectly at her jaw.
The camera man counted them down. He pointed to Debra and the camera light flashed to indicate they were live.
“So,” Debra said after a brief introduction. “You started off as bake sale moms. Does it bother you that the nickname’s stuck?”
Tenley forced a small laugh. “Not at all. Our organization is actually called MOMS, Mothers Opposing More Senselessness, but I’m proud of our grassroots origins. They always say, if you want something done, give the job to a busy mom.” She paused to smile. “Most of us have been active in our children’s schools, PTA, fundraising, volunteering, you name it. And now, I’m working alongside the most capable women to organize against the draft.”
“From school bake sales to the anti-war movement!” An awkward silence followed, in which Tenley wasn’t sure if she was supposed to say thank you. “How is MOMS’s message different from that of the youth movement? I’m sure you’re watching the draft card burnings and protests on college campuses.”
Tenley nodded somberly. “MOMS is focused on the facts. Americans need to be informed about what this draft means to each and every American, and that means putting a spotlight on the wars we’re fighting against terrorism throughout the Middle East.”
“Which brings me to your Jumbotron.” Here, Tenley knew the network control room in New York would cut to video of the Jumbotron opposite the Selective Service Office’s electronic board. It was looking at the government’s sign and seeing the countdown until the first draftees were called up on April 1, that made her realize that MOMS needed their own sign. A bigger one. One that showed the numbers ticking up. Every day, a higher death toll.
Debra asked about the sources MOMS used for data about military deaths. “Why is it important for you to broadcast the death toll at this busy intersection in Dallas?”
“We want people to remember Americans’ lives are at stake. It’s one thing to talk about the global wars on terror requiring more troops to attack the latest cells of Al-Qaeda or ISIS. But we can’t afford to take our eyes off the fact that our men are being killed. Every day.”
She had leaned in confidently. But the truth was the death toll wasn’t accurate. It didn’t reflect the suicides, the men who made it home but then took their own lives. She needed the data to be incontrovertible, but the toll extended so far beyond those killed in action. What about veterans with life-changing injuries? What about those incapacitated by PTSD and depression? Even if, by some miracle, her son Chance made it home in one piece, he could be facing a lifetime of psychological trauma. He would never be the same
“And the cost of the Jumbotron?” Debra glanced at the notepad in her lap. “We’re talking a lot of money to keep it running every day.”
“It’s expensive, but critical. We plan to fund Jumbotrons across the state, and ultimately, through MOMS chapters across the country, so Americans can’t look away from the death toll. We must stop this draft before a single man is called up.”
“And finally . . . ” Even if Tenley hadn’t been expecting the question, Debra’s pained expression cued the drama. “This movement strikes close to home. Your own son Chance is nineteen. I understand he drew a low number in the draft lottery?”
Tenley took a deep breath, held it, and slowly exhaled. She focused her attention on a stray thread on Debra’s skirt and waited a beat. Female viewers would be moved by a devoted mother reflecting on her towheaded toddler, now a college freshman who could be sent into battle in less than three months.
Tenley looked up at Debra. Did she have children?
“Yes, it does hit close to home, Debra. For me, and tens of thousands of mothers across the country. It’s not just about my son. It’s about senseless, unwinnable wars. The onus is on all of us to protest and demand an end to the draft.”
There was a sudden noise in the kitchen, and Tenley’s ears perked. It was the twins coming in the back door with the nanny. Tenley could hear the whispering, the thud of a chair as JP banged his way to the fridge for a juice box. In an hour, the boys had playdates at opposite ends of town. She and the nanny would both need to drive. Harrison could pick up the boys on his way home from work. Debra’s eyes widened, alarm spreading like a flush across her face. She leaned in to prompt Tenley. Tenley smiled; she was in complete control. Leave it to a mama of four to mentally multitask, even on live TV.
“If we don’t act now,” she resumed, “in ten to fifteen years, we will be grieving even more sons, husbands, and brothers who have been killed in these forever wars.”
There was crashing in the kitchen. She pursed her lips and nodded while Debra thanked her for her time and wished her luck. The green light on the camera went off just as JP barreled into the room, clutching a juice box and spraying grape juice everywhere. Thirteen more years before he left for college, Tenley thought, grabbing the juice and plugging the straw to stop the spray. Only thirteen more years. Now that felt like forever.