A Mentor and Her Muse by Susan Sage follows a frustrated writer and her ambitious teenage protégé on an illicit summer road trip fraught with tension. Here is an exclusive excerpt from the book:
I wouldn’t classify what I did as a crime, rather as a sort of vigilante justice. Some, I’m sure, will believe I should serve a prison sentence for what I did, while others will conclude that I was both her mentor and her friend. I admit that what I did almost a year ago was impulsive, but it is my hope, if not to convince you of the rightness of my actions, to at least make you see my side of what transpired. Perhaps in the light of my own analysis even I will have to eventually concede that what I did was unethical, and that even then I knew that I was crossing a line that should not have been crossed.
A couple years ago, I was in the early stages of planning what could be considered a kidnapping. Hardly more than a fantasy concocted on a tedious afternoon. My thoughts were fodder for a future book, or at the very least, a short story. Maybe it would turn into the flip-side of my first novel, Pauline’s Revenge, which was told from a kidnapped victim’s point of view. Little did the students or staff at Jefferson Middle & High School know it, but I was searching for the right student to mentor (or the perfect victim―it will be up to you to decide), not too young or too old―maybe going into ninth grade, which meant beginning to attend classes in the high school wing of the building. Someone sensitive, and perceptive, and most importantly, curious. Not necessarily an A student, but one with aptitude. If my choice were a girl, not one who wore heavy make-up, and certainly not yet into dating. Also, someone without too much attitude: spunky is one thing; hostile, yet another; and a reader, of course, or even better, a writer.
At first my list was so long, it seemed impossible to choose. Would it be Jackie DeLand, the underfed boy who smiled at me warily every morning before school? He always looked like he had a secret he wanted to reveal; at least it did before he fell asleep at a table before the first hour bell. Maybe someone else, a girl… Certainly not Lisa Peters—eleven going on seventeen. You know the type: short skirt, too-tight top, taller than the others. Friendless but friendly with adults; some might say provocative. She had a way of shaking her head and rolling her eyes that did more than simply suggest she’d seen it all. She really had seen it all. Sadly, her grades had slipped during the past year. There was Corey Banks. Sweet, with large, flying saucer-eyes, and the soles of his sneakers flapping away from the rest of the shoe… He always seemed like a clown in training. A nice kid, who would have been one of the smarter ones had he attended school more regularly. Others shunned him because he came to school dirty with hair uncombed. He didn’t know he was smart or potentially attractive. I brought him granola bars almost every morning.
Then there was Taezha Riverton. How could it be anyone but Taezha? I knew her to be one of the four Riverton sisters; they were all half-sisters—same mother, but each had a different father (or so I thought at the time). Taezha was the most intellectually curious. It was her second year at Jefferson; before that she’d attended a gifted program at a school on the other side of the city. She was an older sixth grader when I met her two years earlier: twelve going on thirteen (her mother hadn’t sent her to school until age six). Her eyes were such a deep brown that the pupils and corneas seemed one and the same—two deep wells her victims would fall into if they weren’t careful. Sometimes, depending on the lighting, there were gold flecks in them. Her skin was the lightest of all the sisters—a crème brulee or toffee. They all had similar wide-set eyes, but hers were the largest. They all wore their hair in long, black braids. Taezha’s braids were the thickest. All four laughed readily, breezily, but their spirits, in contrast to hers, were flimsy and lethargic. When I would see them all together it was obvious that they were in her shadow—a couple of them were deeply resentful and no doubt would be secretly overjoyed when she left home on the road trip with me.
It wasn’t her intelligence alone that was uncommon, for there were many bright students at Jefferson, and even a few this side of brilliant, like James or Montgomery. I’ve always respected a high I.Q., but never have I been fascinated by intelligence alone. Certainly her intellectual curiosity was appealing; I so enjoyed her keen sense of observation. As far as her looks, there were several girls more glamorous, more ‘standard definition’ pretty. She was all legs, had large feet, and a forehead that was a little too shiny. We both realized, without telling ourselves or each other at the time, that we needed each other as central players in our lives.
Tae gave me a knowing smile when we first met—one that I’ve seen cross her lips many times since. I think it’s because she could see the free-spirit within me, just as I noticed in spite of her adolescent, awkward grace—my mirror image! Our spirits danced, spun and leaped in recognition.
Finding a way to meet when not at school proved to be no easy task, not only due to the bias against fraternization between unrelated adults and children, but, unfortunately, due to race. I knew her mother would not only think, “What does this woman want from my daughter?” but, “What is this white woman up to?”
When one turns fifty, one more or less realizes how life has turned out, even though it is (hopefully) far from over. Chances are it’s turned out—so far—completely different than one’s wildest imaginings. Such high expectations and hopes I once had! I was going to be a highly acclaimed novelist and travel the world. It probably hadn’t helped that I’d published a novel at thirty-five, which sold reasonably well for about a year. That experience fooled me into thinking that my career was just taking off, and that I would be publishing a novel, if not annually, then every couple of years. I certainly didn’t lack ideas. What I did lack was the necessary discipline—especially whenever my routine was thrown off. It would take days or weeks to get back on track with a project. Something big and I’d be derailed for months. Big: like losing both my parents at the same time… Big: like beginning and ending six different relationships!
Often I have wondered how Taezha Riverton saw me at the time. Did she view her younger self as having been my captive? How does she view me now, years afterward? If she were to say “as an outlaw,” my hope is that she does so with a twinkle in her eyes and one of those wide Taezha grins.