Status: Looking for meaningful critique on the first draft of my book :)

Finding Strength (Working Title)

Chapter 3

Sarah woke up the next morning feeling excited to see Noah again. She changed outfits three times, trying not to seem like she was trying too hard but wanting to look cute. She settling on jeans, red Converse All-Stars, and a graphic sweatshirt that said “Namaste all day.” She made sure to pack lunch so that Noah wouldn’t feel obligated to share his lunch with her again. Pickings were slim in the O’Malley house, but she scrounged up an only slightly shriveled apple, almonds, yogurt, and a Little Debbie Cosmic Brownie.

Sarah waited for the bus, feeling somewhat chilly in the mid-fall air. She still dreaded the bus, but the thought of seeing Noah first thing gave her a sense of elation that made her forget her loneliness. She sat in her usual seat, willing the bus to get to school faster.

When Sarah arrived in English class, she saw Noah chatting with Ms. Griffith. He smiled and waved at her; she waved back and sat down in the back of the class, putting her backpack in the seat next to her for Noah. It was still ten minutes until the late bell, so the class was empty except for Sarah, Noah, and Ms. Griffith.

After a couple of minutes, Noah came and sat down next to Sarah.

“Ms. Griffith seems pretty chill,” Noah said. “We read The Odyssey at my old school in ninth grade, but she says we’re only working on it for about another week and not to worry about doing something else. English is fine; it’s just not my favorite subject.”

“Yeah, Ms. Griffith’s nice. I feel like she wants us to do more fun things than some of the other English teachers. She’s younger than most of the other English teachers; maybe that factors into her wanting us to actually like what we’re doing. I actually like English and writing. I haven’t really enjoyed the books we’ve read in high school that much, though. They all seem kind of the same.”

“So you’re a nerd in addition to being an old lady,” Noah teased. “Good. I like nerds. I’m a nerd, too, just not in English.”

Sarah felt herself blushing. She seemed to blush a lot around Noah.

“Hey, I am not a nerd! I just like writing and some reading. But like, interesting stuff. Not like whiny Holden Caulfield or The Chocolate War or Old Man and the Sea. Don’t get me wrong, those books are fine. I just wish we read a little more variety,” Sarah said.

“Yeah, Holden’s the worst. I mean, I know he’s having an existential crisis and all, but he’s kind of a dick. I’ve never felt like I had the right to treat other people like crap even though I’m going through stuff, you know?”

People had started to fill into the classroom as the five minute warning bell rang. Sarah felt her anxiety ramp up a little, but she focused on talking to Noah.

“Yeah, that’s a really good point,” Sarah replied, wondering how Noah had it so together. He had said foster care wasn’t bad for the most part, but there was clearly something up with his parents if he had to be in foster care in the first place. She wondered if they were alive. She briefly considered asking, but nixed the idea; she didn’t want to pry, and she especially didn’t want to get into her own family situation. So far the conversation kept steering away from her personal life, and that was fine with her. Talking about her mom’s dying and her dad’s alcoholism were two subjects that were constantly in the background of her mind, but she hated talking about them.

“His brother did die, though, so I kind of give Holden a little bit of a pass. I mean, it always seemed to me like his brother’s death affected him more than he let on,” Sarah added.

“Fair point. Fair point.”

So, what subjects do you nerd out to?” Sarah asked, changing the subject from death.

“Don’t make fun, but I really like music--minus the singing part. I’m a reallllly bad singer. I play guitar, though, which I’m pretty decent at. I’m taking music production right now and want to take some of the other electives they have here on the history of rock and stuff. That’s actually another reason I really wanted to come to Darryville. Springfield’s pretty bare bones in terms of electives. Which reminds me--I made you a mix CD of Noah and the Whale and some other bands that I like.”

“Who is the old one now?” Sarah teased, making the connection that Noah and her dad had the guitar in common; Sarah’s dad had also played guitar in his band. “Why didn’t you just share a Spotify playlist with me or something?”

“Yeah, yeah, you caught me,” Noah laughed. “I guess I’m old, too. I hope you actually have a CD player somewhere at home?”

“I do, in the living room. I’ll have to try and listen when my dad’s not home,” Sarah said, immediately realizing she was steering the conversation in the exact direction she didn’t want it to go in.

“Or I supposed I could just use my CD drive in my laptop? That seems easier,” she followed up quickly. “So, what kind of music is Noah and the Whale?”

“They’re indie, which is a lot of what I like to listen to. You ever listen to any Indie?”

“Not really; I mostly listen to the radio and the old CDs at my house. Don’t judge me, but I really like Selena Gomez,” Sarah said.

“Of course you do. Basic white girl, huh?” Noah joked, reaching over to push Sarah’s arm playfully. “Maybe you’re not as old as I thought.”

“Hey! Her music is fantastic. Catchy, good beats, amazing lyrics. What more can you want?”

The bell rang, cutting off their conversation. Ms. Griffith asked the class to turn to book 9 and started asking for volunteers to read. As usual, Sarah kept her hand down, praying that enough of her classmates would volunteer and prevent her from being chosen to read. Noah raised his hand at one point. Of course he would, Sarah thought, feeling drawn to his uninhibited personality. Doesn’t know a soul other than me in this school, and he has no problem reading in front of the class.

Ms. Griffith kept the class busy until the bell rang, so Sarah didn’t have much of a chance to talk to Noah. As they were packing up, Noah handed her the CD.

“Just give them a listen when you get a chance. I promise I’ll try not to be offended if you don’t like my music taste,” Noah grinned.

“I’m sure I’ll like it! I mean, one of the bands named themselves after you, so your taste must be okay.”

“Right on,” Noah said, reminding Sarah of something her dad would say. “Wanna have lunch together again? I brought extra food. You still have first lunch today, right? This waterfall schedule thing is really confusing.”

“I do, but you know we have geometry together next, right?”

“Man, this schedule!”

“Yep, like I said, confusing. And I actually brought a lunch today, so you wouldn’t go hungry!”

“Well, how thoughtful of you,” Noah teased. “I do enjoy eating food a lot. Okay, so geometry is…”

“This way,” Sarah replied, pointing down west hallway. She started feeling anxious as they navigated through the masses of high schoolers, and by the time they had gotten to geometry she felt stressed out. She didn’t want to show Noah her anxiety, so she took a couple of deep breaths as they made their way to the back of the classroom.

“So, I’m assuming you don’t like crowds?” Noah asked, somewhat gently as they sat down.

“I guess I’m a bad actor, huh?” Sarah replied suddenly feeling self-conscious.

“Nah, my sister is really bad with crowds, too. I know how to pick up on the subtle hints. Sorry, I’m not trying to make you uncomfortable or anything.”

“No, it’s okay,” Sarah said, trying to act normally as her anxiety failed to abate. “You’re right. I really hate crowds. They make me freak out a little sometimes.”

“That sucks. I don’t suppose picturing people in their underwear does anything to help?” Noah asked, trying to lighten the mood.

Trying to make me less stressed, thought Sarah appreciatively.

“I’ll be honest, that is not something I’ve tried. Maybe I’ll try after class.” Sarah attempted to smile reassuringly at him, but felt like her smile wasn’t convincing.

There was an awkward pause, and then Noah said, “Hey, O’Malley, don’t stress. If you need to be inside yourself for a little while, that’s okay. My sister’s had anxiety for her whole life. I can’t personally relate, but I’ve seen what it does to her. You don’t have to worry about making me uncomfortable if you don’t want to talk nonstop. I tend to talk nonstop, but I really don’t mind the quiet, either. Well, you know, the quiet other than all of the other loud people around us.”

He nudged her arm playfully. She laughed a little and gave him a grateful smile.

She got out her notebook and looks sideways at Noah, who raised his eyebrows and smiled. He mimed zipping his lips, and she laughed again. She realized her anxiety had abated somewhat.

“Thanks for making me laugh. That really helps. Naomi used to make me laugh to help with my anxiety.”

“Sounds like you have a good friend there.”

“Yeah, I miss her. She and I were really close. And this girl Sydney, but we kind of grew apart,” Sarah said, feeling like she could share a little more of her life with Noah.

“Oh, Sydney still goes here, right? A girl named Sydney introduced herself to me in French yesterday.”

Sarah felt a pang of jealousy. Syd used to be quiet like Sarah, but she had gotten prettier in middle school and had gained a lot of confidence. That had been around the time that she had stopped hanging out with Sarah and Naomi as much. Naomi hadn’t cared; she was blessed with indestructible self confidence, Sarah had always thought. The great thing about Naomi was that she never flaunted her self-confidence, and she never expected Sarah to be someone that she wasn’t. Naomi had said that Syd was just playing the popular game, trying to get friends to help her own insecurities. While Sarah knew she was right, she couldn’t stop feeling hurt that her best friend since first grade had ditched her. And then Naomi had moved, and her mother had died, and things had gotten really bad.

Sarah tried to get out of her head and back into the present. Noah meeting Sydney doesn’t necessarily mean anything, Sarah thought, trying to reassure herself.

“She does. Syd’s cool; we just don’t have a lot in common these days,” Sarah said, feeling like she needed to explain the reason she and Sydney didn’t talk anymore.

“Yeah, she seems fine. Definitely not nearly as cool as you, though,” replied Noah, possible picking up on Sarah’s hesitancy.

Hearing Noah say she was cooler than Sydney made Sarah feel really good again.

The bell rang, and Sarah and Noah said their goodbyes and agreed to meet at lunch. History dragged on as Sarah waited impatiently for lunch to begin. Mr. Daniels was usually a decently interesting teacher, but Sarah could not make herself focus on his lecture on the Antebellum era.

The lunch bell finally rang, and Sarah gathered her things quickly. She dodged past people in the hallway to get to lunch. When she entered the cafeteria, Noah was waiting at the doorway.

“Hey, Sarah!” he waved. “So, I have some bad news. My guidance counselor wants to meet and talk about my schedule with me right now. You know, make sure I’m okay with all of my classes and stuff. I got a note last period about the meeting.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” Sarah said, internally deflating. “I might just go to the library and get a start on some of my homework, anyway.”

“This is super annoying, sorry. Hey, I was thinking maybe I could get your number so I can text you in case something like this happens again.”

Sarah beamed; she couldn’t help herself.

“Do you expect this old lady to have a cell phone?” she asked.

She paused for a beat.

“No, really, that’s a great idea, and I do have a phone. Want me to put my number in yours?”

“Phew, I thought you were serious for a second. Here you go,” he said, passing his phone to her.

She entered her number after typing “Sarah O’Malley” with a smiley emoji at the end of her name.

“Cool, thanks, I’ll text you so you have my number, too,” Noah said, turning to go out the doorway.
“Gotta go, see you later!”

“See ya!” Sarah replied.

She waited for him to turn the corner and then slowly walked out of the cafe, dodging a group of people coming in the doorway. Even though she had told him she was going to the library, she still felt embarrassed having him see her walking by herself. She considered going to the cafe to eat first, but she didn’t have much of an appetite.

Sarah settled into the library, feeling disappointed that she wasn’t hanging out with Noah. She liked the library, though; it was quiet enough without being silent, and there were quotes and book displays that made the room feel warm. Sarah settled into her usual corner, saying hi to the librarian, Ms. Tolman, on the way in.

“Hi, Sarah,” Ms. Tolman said cheerfully. “How are you today?”

“I’m doing pretty good,” Sarah replied.

Ms. Tolman was always friendly without being overbearing, and Sarah liked her. They sometimes talked about new books in the library and other various things relating to school, which helped Sarah not feel as lonely, if only temporarily. She knew Ms. Griffith, her English teacher, and Ms. Tolman were friends, and they reminded her of each other a lot: they were both young and full of energy with bright personalities. Plus, they seemed to genuinely like kids. Sarah had taken classes with a few teachers throughout the years that made her wonder why they worked with kids--they seemed to hate kids.

“Ms. Griffith says your class is working on The Odyssey right now; what do you think about it?” Ms. Tolman asked.

“It’s pretty good. I didn’t really enjoy the books we read freshman year, but so far I’ve liked The Odyssey and the short stories.”

“That’s great to hear! I think you’ll like the reading project she’s doing next. We’ve been working on it together, and I think it’s a fun project. I’m not allowed to tell you details, yet, though,” Ms. Tolman said, winking.

“That’s cool. Any good new books?”

“Oh, yes! I just got some in last week. Want to take a look at them?”

Sarah followed Ms. Tolman to the new books and ended up checking two out of the library. She liked reading when it wasn’t for school, and Ms. Tolman had learned her book tastes pretty quickly freshman year. Books felt like armor to Sarah: she could quiet the anxiety inside her when she escaped into whatever story she was reading, and she didn’t feel so intimidated by the people around her.

Sarah spent the rest of lunchtime reading instead of doing homework. The rest of her day was uneventful, but she started to feel anxious about not getting a text from Noah.

When the bell rang to signal the end of the day, she felt her pocket vibrating. Smiling, she pulled out her phone.

Hey sarah, it’s noah! how was the rest of your day?

Hey! oh, you know, super interesting, I made a clay pot and we finished citizen kane in film class,
Sarah replied.

Noah texted:

I actually liked that movie even though it’s an old one
Who knew a sled could mean so much to someone

That’s the idea, right? Kane just realllllllly likes sleds,
Sarah joked.

Noah replied, Right, he’s totally not pining for his lost childhood and innocence :)

I did like the movie, I’m just ready to get to the part of the class where we’re not watching only black and white movies,
Sarah wrote.

Don’t wish your life away, o’malley :)
Don’t be like kane

True :),
Sarah texted back.

She grinned at Noah’s ability to be witty even via text. She felt the familiar crush feeling again as she stepped onto the bus.

Noah texted, So, any plans for after school? I would invite you to hang out, buuuuut i start my new job today

Very adult of you! Where are you working?
Sarah asked.

Noah replied, That independent music store on broadway near the train station, they sell records and cds and guitars and stuff, right up my alley
It’s called Rock n’ Rail, you know, because it’s by the train?
Get it?

Mmmmm, not seeing a connection :)
Sarah wrote back.

Sarah wondered if she was sending too many smiley faces. She second guessed herself a lot with Noah, hoping she didn’t say (or text) anything to make him think she was weird.

She continued:

But seriously, that’s super cool

Yeah, you’ll have to visit me sometime :) [/] texted Noah.

Sarah felt reassured by Noah’s reciprocal smileys.

Yeah, definitely!

Sarah paused and then typed:
I’ve been planning to get a job, it’s just hard because I can’t drive yet and getting rides can be hard

She didn’t want to mention that she only had one parent and that he often wasn’t in a state to drive her. She continued:

Maybe you can teach me your city bus skills

Noah texted, I can do my best, but remember, o’malley, i did get on the wrong one the other day

Sarah grinned again and wrote back, Right.

Alright, gotta go in the store now, maybe we’ll chat later!
Noah wrote.

Sarah replied, Okay, good luck!

Sarah daydreamed about Noah for the rest of the bus ride. When she got to her stop, she felt a pang of anxiety, wondering if her dad was drunk already. But she needn’t have worried; when she opened the door to her house, she could tell she was alone.

Good; he’s at work, Sarah thought.

She went to the refrigerator, and was happy to find it stocked with food. There was a note on the kitchen table along with money:

Hey kiddo,
Wanted to give you some allowance money while I remembered. I was hoping we could grill burgers tonight while the weather is still warm. I’ll be home around 5.

Sarah knew she should do some homework, but she decided she would write a letter to Naomi first. She sat down in her room and wrote:

Hey Nay,
How are things in New York? Sorry I haven’t been as good at sending letters lately. I’ve had a lot on my mind, not that that’s an excuse.

Sarah paused. Naomi had been really good about writing letters, but Sarah had found it harder and harder to reciprocate, feeling like her life was so boring and uneventful compared to Naomi’s. Naomi had even invited her to New York over the summer, but Sarah’s dad had stayed consistently drunk, and Sarah never got the courage to ask if she could go. Sarah had also briefly thought about inviting Naomi to stay with her, but she feared Naomi seeing her dad in such a worse state.

She continued:

Sophomore year is okay so far. Classes are meh, but I like pottery and chorus. I miss belting out songs with you!! You’re still taking chorus, right? How’s soccer going? Any recent boy gossip?
So, speaking of boys, I just met one--you would be proud of me, I actually talked to him! Okay, he talked to me first, but still. He seems really cool. He just moved here from Springfield, and I’m just getting to know him. It may not go anywhere, but I know you’re always telling me to put myself out there more, so it’s a start, right? Also, he’s really cute. Like, make my heart do butterflies cute.
Dad’s doing okay. He still really struggles some days, but the past couple of days have been good.
Sarah felt tears welling up in her eyes, thinking about her mom. Naomi was the only person she could share her feelings with, although she usually wrote a watered down version so that she didn’t make Naomi worry too much about her.

I miss Mom a lot still. I’ve thought about talking to someone, like you suggested; it’s just really hard. School kind of stinks without you, and Syd and I are still acting like we never knew each other---a.k.a., she still mostly ignores me. We’re not in any classes together, which is so weird, but honestly, it makes it easier. Have you talked to her at all?

I’m thinking of getting a job. It would be kind of nice to have some extra spending money, and it’s not like I’m doing much else with my time these days.

Miss you so much. Love ya,

The letter was short, but it was more than Sarah had been able to write down in awhile. Naomi always had such great stories to tell in her letters; she went through boys like she went through pairs of socks, and Sarah enjoyed living vicariously through Naomi’s life.

She addressed and stamped the letter and took it out to the mailbox, then settled into doing homework until her dad got home.

“Hey, Sarah,” Sarah’s dad said as he walked in the door. “Good day at school?”

“Yeah, it was,” Sarah replied. “How was work?”

“Busy but good,” Sarah’s dad said, smelling like motor oil from his shop.

Sarah always liked that smell because it reminded her of spending time in O’Malley’s Auto as a kid. Her mom had been a nurse and had to work overnights sometimes, and so Sarah’s dad would bring her into the shop whenever Mrs. Collins wasn’t available to watch her; he had even made a play space out of the extra office room full of toys and books to keep Sarah occupied. There were big glass windows in the office, so he could keep an eye on Sarah while working on cars. Sarah’s dad used to employ a couple of part-time helpers, but he had cut back to save money when medical bills were piling up during her mother’s illness. He had told Sarah that he meant to hire more people, but she feared that he was using the extra shop money for alcohol. Plus, having employees meant he was tied to going to work and not taking days to drink instead.

“I’m going to take a quick shower, then wanna have dinner?”

“Sounds good, Dad,” Sarah replied.

Sarah and her dad had another night where things felt semi-normal again. The two of them never talked a lot, but neither minded; like Sarah, her dad wasn’t much of a talker. Sarah finished her homework early and even participated in a couple of Jeopardy rounds with her dad, animatedly telling Trebek he was being condescending to one contestant.

“Got any plans for the weekend?” Sarah’s dad asked her as she was getting ready to head to bed.

“Nothing yet,” Sarah said, trying not to get her hopes up that Noah would ask her to hang out.

“Do you want to go see a movie or something?”

“Yeah, sure, Dad!” Sarah replied happily. It had been awhile since she and her dad had done anything together.

“Let’s do Saturday night, then. I need to go into the shop for a few hours on Saturday to catch up on some paperwork, but I should be done before too late.”

“Okay. Hey, Dad, I’ve been meaning to ask: do you think I could try to get a job? I know it’s kind of hard for you to give me a ride sometimes, but I thought maybe I could work somewhere that the city bus goes to, and then I could have some extra spending money.”

Sarah’s dad thought for a minute, then said, “I think you’re probably old enough for a job. Sorry I haven’t been giving you spending money consistently; just remind me if I forget.”

Sarah didn’t feel like addressing the fact that the reason she didn’t usually ask her dad for money was because he had usually been angry drunk or passed out in the evenings more nights than not since her mom died.

Sarah said goodnight to her dad and went to get ready for bed. Her phone vibrated while she was brushing her teeth:

Hey, o’malley! Dude, i’m diggin this job so far, just got home

Hey! It’s pretty late! [/] Sarah replied, climbing into bed. Will you always work this late?

Nah, i had job training and then the owner asked me if i wanted to stick around until closing, he got us fast food and everything for dinner
He’s this old hippie dude, but he’s super chill
We already worked out my schedule, and he pretty much says I can work when i want, benefits of having an old stoner dude as your boss

That’s awesome! I’m glad you like it so far,
Sarah texted back.

Yeah, i may still need to do my geometry homework, but it’s not that bad, right? Noah asked.

It only took me about 20 minutes, and I’m not even that good at geometry

I dunno, you seem like you know your shapes, o’malley :)
Do anything fun this evening?

Yeah, my dad and I had a riveting Jeopardy watching session :)
Sarah replied.

Jeopardy, huh? This is really contributing to that nerd image ya got going, Noah teased.

Sarah replied:

Um, Jeopardy is awesome. And I occasionally know the answers, which makes me feel pretty smart
I’m nowhere near as good as my dad, though

Sarah felt okay sharing this part of her life with Noah.

It’s cool you guys do that together, your dad must be a smart guy, Noah wrote.

He is, although he jokes he’s only good at useless trivia and not things that do him any good in the real world

What does your dad do?
asked Noah.

Sarah wrote back, He’s a mechanic, he owns his own shop
He actually used to play guitar, though, and sing in a band. He was pretty good back in the day

Man, i’d love to meet him sometime and pick his brain about music stuff

Sarah didn’t know how to reply to Noah’s message without shooting down the idea, so instead she asked, What do your foster parents do?

John works from home, i think he does computer science stuff or something, and debbie’s a nurse

Sarah considered mentioning her mom had been a nurse, but she didn’t want to open up the subject. Instead she wrote:

That’s cool. How’s living with them? It must be weird to have to settle into a new family’s house

Noah texted, It is a little, although they’re really nice and are good at giving me my space
They’re really supportive of me working at rock n’ rail, and they’re taking me to visit my sister on saturday

Sarah hesitated, the asked, Do you miss her?

Noah texted back:

Yeah, i do. i worry about her being without me at the shithole
It’s not like actively dangerous or anything, you just feel really neglected there all the time
Like, all they would feed us was pretty much cereal, bologna sandwiches, and spaghetti. i actually missed eating vegetables. i’m pretty sure nobody our age is supposed to want to eat vegetables
And they had designated spaces we were allowed to be, which were basically just our bedrooms, the bathroom, and the kitchen, we were never allowed in the living room because it was “their space”
There are two other boys there, too, and there are only two rooms for all of us, so it just felt cramped, ya know? We had bunk beds
And the other kids were younger, so we would argue about what to watch on the one old tv they had for us in one of the bedrooms, and it was always hard to concentrate on homework with the other kids around
It bothers shannon more than it bothers me, she really likes her alone time. i tried to help the young uns with homework and make them feel better when they would cry or be scared, they got sad a lot

Sarah was amazed with how forthcoming Noah was after she had asked him just one question. She tried to picture telling someone she barely knew that much about herself without worrying about what they would think, but the thought was almost paralyzingly scary to her. Still, she admired Noah’s openness.

That’s really cool that you did that for them. I’m sure you had your own feelings in all of that, too, Sarah replied.

Yeah, i did, but i always tried to look on the bright side. plus, it felt more important to be strong for them and my sister so that they had someone to turn to

Sarah wondered how Noah could be so brave. She was still trying to figure out some flaw he had, something that didn’t make him seem perfect to her. He was cool without being cocky or seeming to care what other people thought of him, friendly, cute, and athletic. Sarah felt the familiar stab of self-doubt stir within her: how would he stay interested in someone like her?

Well, Whale, I think that’s pretty brave of you.

Aw, you’re making me blush!
Noah replied. Well, now that i’ve kept you awake past your old lady bedtime, i should probably get to that homework. I just wanted to say hi, i’ve been thinking about you, o’malley

Sarah’s spirits soared. She had been getting sleepy, but she suddenly felt wide awake. She replied:

Yeah? Hopefully good thoughts only :)

Oh, definitely good thoughts,
Noah texted. We don’t have english or geometry tomorrow with the schedule, right? Want to eat lunch together?

Yeah, the schedule drops two classes each day, and yes I would like to eat lunch together,
Sarah said. Sweet dreams.

Sweet dreams to you too, o’malley

Sarah stayed awake long into the night, thinking about Noah.
♠ ♠ ♠
Chapters 1 and 2 synopsis:

Sarah's mother died of cancer two years ago, and her dad sometimes drinks too much. The reader is introduced to Sarah hiding in her closet because her dad is drunk and tearing around the house. She is feeling panicked, a feeling that has plagued her since her mom died. She falls asleep in the closet.

The next day at school, Sarah meets Noah, a new kid. They quickly strike up a rapport, and Noah tells Sarah about how he is in foster care. He tells her about his sister, who is currently in another foster home back in Springfield, the city he grew up in. They flirt a little, and Sarah quickly knows she likes him.

I am looking for in-depth critiquing on the story--sentence structure, plot flow, etc. Any and all advice is welcome!