Monday, October 11, 2010

Excerpt: A Whisper to a Scream by Karen Wojcik Berner

Have you ever wanted something so badly it hurt?

Ovulation detectors. Hormone surges. Anxiety-ridden dreams. This is the world in which Annie Jacobs is thrust when she and her husband John receive a diagnosis of unexplained infertility. A 37-year old PR executive, Annie has wanted to be a mother since she first cuddled her Baby Tenderlove at age five. She is dreading another Christmas of relatives asking when they will be hearing the pitter patter of little feet, and Uncle Joe slapping John on the back, telling him to relax and take a cruise. Lots of people get pregnant on vacation, you know.

Across town, stay-at-home mom of two, Sarah Anderson, attempts grocery shopping with a toddler intent on hurling items from the cart at passersby. She notices a box of rice heading straight for a pink-babushkaed head. Leaping across the aisle, Sarah grabs it, saving the woman from certain doom, or at least a minor head injury. Little Alex screams at being thwarted. The unknowing octogenarian shakes her head and admonishes Sarah for not knowing how to keep her child quiet in public.

A Whisper to a Scream is the story of two women on opposite ends of the child-bearing spectrum who come to realize the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side of the fence. A vivid portrayal of contemporary marriage and its problems, the novel speaks to a longing in all of us, a yearning that might start as a vague notion, but eventually grows into an unbearable, vociferous cry.

I'm so excited to be presenting you with this excerpt today from such a compelling piece of women's fiction.

From A Whisper to a Scream:


John and Annie walked up the steps to the house in which he and his sisters grew up, “Excessive Estrogen Manor.” It was a three-bedroom, two-bath raised ranch, meticulously manicured on the outside. A goose statue sat to the left of the stairs next to a flower pot that always contained some sort of pink flower, except for last fall, when June had to settle for a very light purple mum.

Everyone would be here today. John’s sister, Joy, had married Geoff, who wished his name were spelled “J-e-f-f” like most normal men, but, since he was stuck with it and with all of the associations with the toy store mascot giraffe, Geoff was hell bent on naming his children distinctive, but not goofy, names. His efforts at originality were thwarted, however, when he learned through Joy that there were three Caitlyns and four Sophies in the twins’ Mini-Gym class at the Park District.

John’s other sister, Julie, wed the ass-in-law. John had called him thus almost since their first meeting and, consequently, could never remember his real first name. Annie reminded him it was Ralph each time before they saw Julie. Julie and ass-in-law begot three children: Boston, Madison and Austin, all of whom were named for the cities they were conceived in. Annie wished them no more children, not from any jealousy, but because she could not stand her future niece or nephew to be called Downer’s Grove, their current place of residence.

“Hello, John, darling.” June gave him a kiss on the cheek, then wiped away the bubble-gum-colored lipstick off of his face with her handkerchief. Annie slid in behind John just in case June temporarily lost her mind and tried to kiss her too. Of course, that would be ridiculous. In all their fifteen years of marriage, June never kissed her. Not even the social “welcome to my house” peck on the check most people offered, sometimes even to strangers. The only time Annie and June had physical contact was on Annie’s wedding day, when the photographer forced June to put her arm around Annie for the family photo. To this day, that picture still makes Annie a bit queasy.

“Oh, hi, um, Annie.” June gestured for Annie to come in.

“Hi, June. How are you?”

“Fine, thank you. John, I’ve got to show you my new toy. It’s in the basement.” June took her son by the arm, escorting him downstairs and leaving Annie in the foyer, green bean casserole still in her arms.

The house was unusually quiet. Annie supposed everyone was in the basement. She walked into the kitchen, which was painted a light blue and had mauve hearts on the boarder above the oak cabinets. A huge hen with two fake eggs sat in the middle of the kitchen table. Various other fowl were strewn about. The curtains were blue gingham checks with small pink hearts to echo the boarder.

Annie put her dish into the refrigerator, which was covered with grandchildren photos. The twins smiling on their tricycles. Austin suited up for the Naperville Youth Football League. Boston dressed like a snowball from last year’s Christmas pageant. Madison, red and wrinkly, in her newborn picture. Annie liked the kids. They provided a welcome distraction from their mothers’ insipid conversation. There was one photo she had never noticed before, in the upper left-hand corner of the freezer. Who was that? He looked familiar. Light brown hair. About eight years old. Is that John? Then she paused, trying to guess if any of John’s siblings were also there as children, but all of the other photos were current. That must be the spot June was saving for their child some day.

Annie walked down the hall and descended the basement stairs. The room ran across the entire footprint of the house and was recently remodeled to accommodate entertaining June Jacobs’ grandchildren. It was stuffed with Tinker Toys, Legos, Barbies, Barney, Ping-Pong and pool tables, pint-sized kitchen equipment and a playhouse. There was also a small kitchenette and college-sized fridge stocked with soft drinks and those juices in the funny silver pouches with their own straws. Shelves housed about thirty board games, running the gamut from Candyland for Caitlyn and Sophie to Risk for Austin.

John felt a kinship with Austin, the only boy among the cousins, and made sure to play a video game or toss around a baseball with him every time they saw each other. Annie was certain a trip to Home Depot was next on the list.
As soon as she stepped on the bottom stair, Annie could see June’s new toy – a 50-inch television. A video game unit was hooked up to it, Annie saw, because Austin was playing Super Mario. Mario’s nose was as large as Annie’s head. He reminded her of Peter Luger, her first supervisor at Jones and MacGregor, back when she was an intern. He looked almost exactly like Mario, complete with enormous nose and goofy little black mustache. Luger had constantly harped at Annie to find new, fresh angles for their clients. He was convinced that since she was young, Annie would be able to plug him into the youth market.

After a particularly long meeting with Peter harping on the aforementioned point, Annie snapped. She made an eight-by-ten copy of a Super Mario advertisement from the newspaper. She whited out the copy and replaced it with “Please replace my pacemaker wiring with plugs into the youth market.” Annie received applause when she entered the lunchroom, but Peter was not amused. He complained to Harry Jones, who saw the prank as just the spark he was looking for and took Annie under his wing.
John was explaining how to use the new television’s remote control to June. The sisters saw Annie come down the stairs.

“Hi. We thought you might be ill.” Julie hit Joy on the arm. She turned around.

“Oh no. I was just putting the green bean casserole in the refrigerator.”

Julie and Joy shot each other knowing looks.

“Hello, Joy. How are you?”

“I’m exhausted. The girls were up at two this morning. Sophie had a nightmare, and, of course, woke up Caitlyn too. By the time I got them back down, it was about three. Then I couldn’t fall back to sleep. You know how that goes.”

Julie nodded. They both looked at Annie.

“I can only imagine.”

The sisters looked around the room.

“Excuse me, will you? I need to ask John something.” Annie made her way across the basement, giving kisses to the kids along the way.

“How is it going?” She finally reached her husband.

“Oh, this remote is a bit much for Mom.”

“I’m no good with electronics. I don’t even use the dishwasher much unless you kids are here,” June said.

“Some remotes are more complicated than necessary,” Annie said. She sensed she was intruding.

“Hi, Auntie Annie.” It was Boston, the former snowball.

“Hi, sweetie. What are you up to?”

“Would you play restaurant with me?”

“I’d love to.”

After a dessert of June’s famous apple pie, which won first place in the church bake-off in 1980, the adults sat sipping coffee and, in Annie’s case, tea. The kids went downstairs to play.

“What do you think? This is as good a time as any,” John whispered to Annie.

She squeezed his hand under the table. “You do the talking.”

“Excuse me, everyone. Annie and I have something we would like to share with you.”

June put her hand to her mouth and let out a little “oh.” The rest looked up. Annie knew what they were thinking. Her stomach ached.

“Annie and I are...”

“Oh, thank God!” June looked upward and crossed herself.

“No, Mom. We are not pregnant.”

Signs of disappointment rippled around the table. No one but June dared to speak.


“We’re not pregnant. That is what we need to talk to you about. Annie and I have been seeing a fertility specialist.”

“Oh, sweet Jesus! Not my son!”

“Mom, try to relax.”

Annie shifted from side to side in her chair, wishing she was anywhere but here right now.

“We have been diagnosed as having unexplained infertility.” They all looked at John as though he just spoke in Greek. “You might not be familiar with this since obviously none of you have dealt with this before. We have been trying to conceive for more than two years. When that did not happen, Annie suggested we see a specialist. For the last several months, we have gone through several series of tests.” John bit his lip. “Unfortunately, the doctor has found nothing, no reason why we cannot have a baby.”

June sat at the head of the table, staring at John and Annie, shell-shocked.

“D...D...Does this mean you will never have children?”

“Not necessarily,” said John. “Annie and I are trying to figure out what our course of action will be. Probably some form of’s called Assisted Reproductive Technologies, like insemination or in vitro fertilization. We aren't sure yet, but we wanted you to know because you are our family, and we would like your support.”

“Oh, dear God. It’s really that bad?”

“Yes, Mom. It is.”

“And you both tested normal still?” June looked at Annie, who raised her head for the first time since John started talking.

“Yes, June.”

“I’d be happy to donate some, um, you know, to help you out,” Ralph said. Julie punched his arm.

“Of all things, Ralph! I’m sure John’s sperm is more than healthy enough for Annie.” June was getting red. All this talk; she was not used to such things.

Annie shot Ralph a look that said if you utter a single word I will personally beat the living crap out of you.

“Would anyone like more coffee? I’ll go make another pot.” Ralph excused himself and went into the kitchen.

They all got up from the table. June immediately went to John, hugging him and patting his head like he was a wounded puppy. Julie went into the kitchen to help her husband. Geoff went to check on the kids.

Joy came over to Annie. “I am very sorry you are going through this. If you need anything, please give me a call.”

Annie searched Joy’s face for any sign of sarcasm, superiority or delight. All she saw was something she had never seen Joy exhibit before -- concern. “Thank you, Joy. I appreciate that.”

There must be a full moon tonight.

Karen Wojcik Berner has been a writer/editor for 25 years, ten of which were spent in editing trade publications. A two-time Folio Magazine Ozzie Award for Excellence in Magazine Editorial and Design winner, her work also has appeared in The Chicago Tribune and countless regional newspapers. Her blog, Bibliophilic Blather, features "Editing for Grammarphobes" every Monday and Wednesday, plus "Flash Fiction Fridays," which showcases authors of various genres writing stories incorporating monthly themes in 500 words or less. A Whisper to a Scream is her first novel.

To purchase A Whisper to a Scream for Kindle, CLICK HERE.

And I highly recommend Karen's blog, Bibliophilic Blather.

Finally, you can learn more about Karen and her writing at her website, Karen Wojcik Berner.


Karen Wojcik Berner said...

Thank you so much for featuring "A Whisper to a Scream" today, Karen.

Karen Cantwell said...

I'm so glad to have you! And thank you for allowing me to post a part of your book. I know the readers here will enjoy it. :-)