Kelly Jeanne Karl

Biography

Kelly came to writing later in life, after having spent sixteen years working in a corporate career. She has a deep interest in the impacts of trauma on the human experience and loves to explore this in her writing. She lives in London with her two cats and in her free time enjoys random walkabouts discovering neighbourhoods and exploring in nature. 

My cohort

Creative Writing & Publishing 2020

Synopsis

Minnesota, the collection, consists of three short stories which follow Ben through the decades, illustrating childhood trauma’s impact on his life and relationships. It showcases his awakening journey, the peaks and troughs, and lessons learned, whilst the messiness of healing transforms him. “Minnesota”, the first story in the collection, is where it all began. It is a pared and truncated version of the original. 

My genres

Life-writing, literary fiction, romance.

Minnesota

Short Story Extract

Ben was nine the summer they spent at Woman Lake. He, his mother and his little sister, Carrie, were traveling in their brown 1981 Cutlass Supreme. It was a long drive from Saint Cloud where they lived. During the long drive, Ben thought about Billy. Billy was his best friend who had moved in next door mid-way through the year, and Billy and Ben bonded immediately over their love for catching unsuspecting creatures in the yard. They kept them for a day or two and ended up letting them go because they were both too soft hearted to watch them suffer in a plastic bucket.

            Billy had an older brother named Jeff, who played football. Ben was relieved to be getting away from Jeff; but fretted that Billy would get closer to the other kids in the neighbourhood and not like him anymore by the time he got back.

            Billy had been acting strange towards Ben ever since that day six weeks ago when Jeff made him ‘suck it’. The boys were watching TV at Billy’s house after school. He couldn’t forget the horror as Jeff eyed them both up before he pushed Ben onto his knees and stuck it in his face. Billy watched with wide eyes, holding a bag of potato chips, and scarcely breathing as his brother shook his cock in his friend’s tearstained face.

            Jeff laughed and said, “Come on, don’t be a pussy! Do it like you like it!”

            Ben repeatedly tried to forget the salty taste and the way he gagged and had to try hard not to bite. He should have just bitten it, but he was too scared of what Jeff would do. He was most scared that he would tell everyone that Ben was a pussy.

            That memory, which made him bow his head and want to disappear, would pop into his mind out of nowhere and he would suck in his breath and try to shake it away. But it would rear up at unexpected times, like when he was watching TV, or just walking to class from the playground. Most of the car ride to Woman Lake he spent shoving that memory into his belly every other minute.

            Ben and Billy had never talked about it, but something shifted between them that day. Tears pricked behind Ben’s eyelids. He fought them off but was not able to shake the feeling of insecurity about Billy and his other friends giving him the silent treatment in the school playground next to the orange merry-go-round a few days later. Their small arms were flexed as they gripped the spinning apparatus while Ben approached, anxious because Billy hadn’t waited for him and was already playing with other kids.

            “It’s Friday! Italian dunkers for lunch!” Ben shouted after he had been standing there for a few moments, trying to get their attention. The spinning came to halt and the boys retreated, not acknowledging Ben.

            “Did you hear something?” Billy said to the yellow haired boy who was wearing a shirt that looked like the one that Charlie Brown always wore.

            “No. I didn’t hear anything. It must be the wind,” the boy answered. “Come on, let’s go! Italian Dunkers for lunch!”

            Just then, Carrie pelted Ben in the arm shouting, “Slug bug! What colour?”

            Ben rubbed his arm and glared at his little sister. Her curly blonde hair was in pigtails and she was wearing a pink tee-shirt printed with Sleeping Beauty. She laughed and hit him again, so he pinched her side and she shrieked,

            “Mom! Ben’s picking on me again!”

            Their mother turned on the radio and Blondie came on, although she had to fiddle with the dial to get it to play without too much static. Seventy miles later they pulled into the driveway of the lake home that their mother had inherited. Ben had only been there once before because his mother had rarely taken the kids to visit, especially after the divorce. Ben’s dad had been the one who had tried to get her to cultivate a relationship between her parents and the kids. But he was remarried now with a new family and Ben and Carrie didn’t see much of them.

            Tall pines lined the asphalt drive which wound through the woods for a quarter of a mile before ending in front of a large log cabin, circa 1934. It had an a-frame roof and shutters around the windows that were painted green, but in need of a few new coats. There was a fire pit to the left of the cabin and Ben remembered the raging inferno they had created the last time they were there. Carrie was probably too little to recall, but Ben remembered his grandfather burning masses of brush from a tree that had come down in a storm the previous year and had been drying in the shed until then. He told Ben he’d been saving it just for him. His grandfather put lighter fluid on it to make it roar, and then stoked it with cardboard from beer and soda pop cases. As the evening went on, the voracity of the flames died down, but the heat was still intense in the centre of the ring. They put empty cans into the coals and Ben was amazed to watch them turn brown, warp and wither into nothing. Then they dropped in glass bottles which didn’t seem to change at first, but Ben was excited remembering how the next morning, amongst the ashes which were still warm when he poked them with a stick, he found blobs of glass which no longer resembled bottles.

            Ben and Carrie hopped out of the car as soon as their mother cut the engine and ran down to the lake. She called after them to be careful, but they barely heard her. The beach at their stretch of lakeshore was not sandy like it was just a short distance down the way. There was a mix of different sized rocks at the threshold where water met land, and the ones under the surface of the water were slippery.

            The sun was low on the opposite side of the lake, making the clouds on the horizon turn a dark shade of pink, and there were fishing boats dotting the surface. What had previously been a calm evening, with only the sound of softly spoken voices carrying across the lake and the slosh of water lapping against the sides of boats, was overwhelmed by the voices of two children hollering as they leapt across the sparse lawn and over the rocks into the water.


The summer was hot. Some days the pine needles and birch leaves would crunch, and dust would fly up around Ben’s feet as he looked for fort building materials. Other days, they were matted down and had an earthy smell. When Ben wasn’t scouring every inch of the dense woodland between their cabin and the neighbour’s, he was splashing around on the shore and building contraptions to catch frogs. Carrie spent most of her time trying to get Ben to play with her. But the only time he enjoyed playing with Carrie was when they built forts together.

            One morning when Ben walked his careful step through the woods, he noticed a section of brush that was more densely packed than the rest. Within the dense patch, there was a spot that was thinner than the rest that looked like a portal. He crouched down to crawl through and once on the other side, he stood and brushed some twigs off his knees and noted the indents and redness that crawling among them had made. He looked up and gaped as he saw what appeared to be a fort created by nature herself.

            The space he was standing in was a small clearing approximately four feet in diameter. The brush around the clearing was thickest on the side where he had burrowed through but the remainder, although not as thick as the rest, made it feel like a secret space that was especially put there for him to find. There were two spots where the brush was thinner, and when Ben examined them further, he found that they were, although a bit overgrown, corridors that lead several feet back to two additional, although less defined, clearings.

            He paced back and forth on the ground of the main space, which was so bare it was simply hard dirt with a slight sheen to it, and some cracks laced with ant hills. He started to assemble in his mind the work he needed to do to get the place polished up.

            He could hear Carrie on the edge of the woods calling him, and at first, he ignored her. She was persistent and eventually found her way through the thick wall and into his exciting new space.

            “Ooh,” she said. “It’s neat in here! We could build a fort!”

            “It already is a fort,” he said. “But it needs some work.”

            He dismissed her and started stomping down the thorny weeds that obscured the pathways leading to one of the rooms. The weeds continued to pop back up and after giving it a couple more attempts, he went to the shed and retrieved his grandmother’s garden gloves and rose pruners. The gloves had been white with pink roses but now were dingy brown and slightly hard.

            After clearing the pathway to the first room, he decided it would be cool if there was a shelter to sleep in. He remembered from school how the Indians had made teepees from wooden poles and animal hides. He thought, maybe, he could make something similar from branches and one of the old musty bedspreads, that were plentiful in the linen closet in the cabin. But after further consideration, he realized it wouldn’t be a good solution for rainy days. So, he decided to make the shelter entirely out of sticks and build an a-frame roof that he could bind together using the garden wire he saw next to the gloves and pruners in the shed. A couple of layers on top of each other might keep at least light rain at bay.

            Back in the woods, he went about gathering a variety of different size branches and collected them in an old red plastic sled. The sled was strung with some yellow rope that was fraying in places but would work fine for his needs. Once he filled the sled with as many sticks as would fit without falling off, he shimmied through the hole into the fort and pulled the sled and branches in behind him. He was surprised to find Carrie there, with a beach pail she had filled with rocks of varying sizes, and he saw she had already gathered several piles of rocks which she had begun to use to line the edge of the main clearing.

            “Wow,” he said. “Great idea.”

            “I’m making it look prettier,” she said.

            They worked silently together for several hours and Carrie continued to add little touches. After distributing the rocks around the circumference of the large clearing, she then placed sticks, alternating short and long, and bits of moss, along the sides of the corridor that lead to the ‘room’ where Ben was working.

            Meanwhile, Ben had managed to bind sticks into two planes that he was about to prop up to create the shelter. His hands were streaked with dried blood and his fingers were worn from working repetitively with the wire, and he took a moment to try to rub some of the dried blood off. He had learned not to lick it off as he couldn’t stand the rusty taste of blood on his tongue.

            He decided to wash them off in the lake and when he went to exit the fort, Carrie was deep in concentration on her sticks and moss. A chipmunk was crouching three feet away, watching her intently with shiny black eyes. She had a special way of connecting with nature that even Ben at his young age was aware of. He was even slightly jealous of how animals and birds would hover near her as if they could sense that she was the most gentile of souls and they didn’t seem bothered by her exuberance.This was the first time Ben had seen her so focused and thoughtful, and he suddenly saw her in a different light. It seemed strange that this was the annoying little girl who had bugged him all summer.

            When they finished the fort the next afternoon, they played Go Fish. They sat on the branch in the main space and Carrie wiggled away, excited to have Ben’s full attention. She told him about her friends she missed back in St Cloud, and how Celia’s dad bought her a dog for her birthday and that she hoped that their mom would let them get a dog too, but she knew that Ben was allergic and that she forgave him but hoped that one day they could still get a dog. She talked about how she was planning to dress up as a fairy for Halloween, and that their mom was going to do her hair, and she was going to be the most beautiful but also the most kind fairy ever, and she wanted to know what Ben was going to go as, and said that he should go as Batman because he was always so grumpy and quiet lately and it must be because he had a lot of important things on his mind, like saving the world… Ben humoured her for a while, but he was already thinking about the next fort. It turned out that all the fun was in creating and once it was finished, he was antsy to begin anew.

            The day it happened it was still, and there was a scent of algae in the air. Ben sat on a rock with his feet in the water and stuck his fingers a couple of inches into the sand. The water was cold, and the sand felt gritty for a layer before becoming soft muck. His fingers were coated with a sheen of black when he pulled them out.

            Just then Carrie came running down the hill shrieking, “Ben! Mom said it’s time for lunch in fifteen minutes!”

            They were going to town after lunch, which would inevitably be peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on Wonder Bread and little bags of Cheetos, just like it was most other days. He would eat, not because he was hungry, but because he knew that his mom wouldn’t take them to town until they did. The local gas station and bait shop was his favourite place to visit, with the tanks of different sorts of fish, and all the colourful fishing lures. He especially loved the jelly-like worms in different colours with glitter in them. They were fun to touch and he loved how some of them were slightly sticky and squishy and some of them were shiny and hard.

            He remembered watching particles in the tank water illuminated by the sunshine coming in through the store window, and the crack the porcelain ‘haunted house’, resting on the almost glowing green rocks at the bottom of the tank. The fish in that tank were tiny and although the crack was not part of the design, the fish were using it as if it were so. Of course, they didn’t know the difference, he thought. They didn’t even know they were in a tank.

            Ben put his nose against the glass and noticed that everything looked bigger like that. He looked towards the top of the water and from his vantage point he observed the ripples caused from the vent in the ceiling, which was blowing cold air down. The ripples looked magical as they stirred the surface and they looked smooth and big from below but were small and jagged from the top. The fish were oblivious to the ripples, just like they were to being in a tank, and Ben wondered if they felt pain when they were put onto a fishing hook to be used as bait. The only way to get out of the tank and into the real lake required them to die, unless they somehow were able to get unhooked and live happily ever after in the lake. Ben hoped that happened to some of them. He imagined a small school of bait fish, hiding out under rocks to avoid being eaten by the larger fish that they had originally been meant to be food for.

            Carrie informed Ben that they still had fifteen minutes to play before lunch, but he was feeling that nagging in his belly and it was consuming all his focus.

            “Let’s play hide and seek,” Carrie said.

            “No,” said Ben.

            “Bet you can’t catch me,” she said, and took off running along the shore and into the woods. When he didn’t chase after her, she came back and started walking circles around him and wiping out the patterns he was drawing in the sand with a branch. Rather than heading up the hill to the cabin for lunch, he went into the woods and began to climb a tree. Carrie ran after him.

            “Leave me alone, Carrie,” he said.

            “But Ben, come on! Let’s play hide and seek!” she said.

            “No. Go up for lunch. Tell Mom I’ll be there in a bit.”

            The panicky feeling crept into his chest and his breath quickened. He stuffed it down and kept climbing.

            “I’m gonna catch up with you. You can’t get away from me!”

            “Knock it off, Carrie. You’re too small. Just leave me alone and go get lunch.”

            The tree was shaking as Ben ascended higher and he was approximately twelve feet up and was losing his battle against the visceral memory when he heard her shriek, and a crack as she fell to the ground. His breath stopped and his heart pounded. He froze for a few moments, praying to God what he thought had happened hadn’t just happened and he panicked when he didn’t hear her crying. He scrambled down and found her lying still in a twisted position, her head facing up and a pool of blood forming underneath it before soaking into the ground. Ben’s heart fluttered and his pulse was loud in his ears. He stood at the bottom of the tree, staring, shaking his head, and fighting the urge to run deeper into the woods. She should have known better than to follow him up the tree. He had told her before that she needed to take her time and be careful where she put her feet. She should have known not to be so careless. How could this be happening? It couldn’t be. She would start to move soon. She would be okay. But he continued to watch her still body in horror and tears leaked silently down his face before his chest shook and he started screaming, “Mom! Mom! Mommeee!”

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