Colleen Houck

“I took hold of that scourge -filled ship and crushed it between my limbs, hurtling it into the second sun, the red one that gave me strength. But I was too late." Terraformer

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  • Tiger’s Curse Uncut Kelsey Chapter

    January 31, 2014




    The Uncut Kelsey Chapter From the Self-Published Version of Tiger’s Curse




    Chapter 1



    I was standing on a precipice. Technically, I was just standing in line, but it felt like a precipice. Childhood, high school, and the illusion that I was not responsible for myself were behind me. Ahead of me loomed the future. I was fairly certain it included more education, a variety of summer jobs to help pay tuition, and the probability of a lonely adulthood.

    The line moved. I’d been waiting for what seemed like hours to be interviewed to become a temp for hire. When it was finally my turn, I approached the desk of a bored, tired woman who was on the phone. She gestured me closer and indicated that I should sit down. After she hung up, she mechanically began the intake process.

    “Name, please.”

    “Kelsey. Kelsey Hayes.”


    “Seventeen, but for all intents and purposes, eighteen. My birthday’s coming soon.”

    She stamped a few forms. “Are you a high school graduate?”

    “Yes. I graduated just a couple of weeks ago.”


    “458 Pine Street, Dallas, Oregon 97338.”

    Dallas is a small town near Salem. Not the Salem with the witches—that one is on the other side of the country—and obviously not the Dallas in Texas, either. Lots of people get those confused.

    “Parents’ names?”

    “Madison and Joshua Hayes, but my guardians are Sarah and Michael Neilson.”


    “Yes. My parents are…deceased. They died in a car accident when I was a freshman.”

    She bent over some paperwork and scribbled for a long time. I grimaced, wondering what she could be writing that was taking so long. As I listened to her pen scratch, my thoughts drifted to my parents.

    I grew up the only child of some great parents, the kind of parents who attended PTA meetings and encouraged you to be something when you grew up. My mother was a smart, plump, and pretty housewife who sold Mary-Kay for kicks. She worked as a nurse in a geriatric facility for several years, but she chose to be a stay-at-home mom when I was born. My dad was an average-looking guy, a typical backyard grilling kind of dad. He was a math teacher and, because of his love for everything numerical, I ended up liking math too.

    “Any college training?”

    “Not yet, but I plan on attending Chemeketa this fall.”


    “Math and literature.”

    “Do you like animals?”

    “Sure. Umm, I know how to feed them.” Is anyone lamer than me? Way to talk myself out of getting hired. I cleared my throat. “I mean, sure, I love animals.”

    The lady didn’t really seem to care what my response was anyway, and she handed me a referral for a job that would last two weeks.

    It was for the circus, not a big one like the Ringling Brothers, but a small family-run circus. I’d heard that there was one in town performing out at the fairgrounds. I remembered getting a coupon for it at the grocery store and I’d even considered offering to take my foster parents’ kids, Rebecca and Samuel, so that their parents could have some time to themselves. But then I lost the coupon and forgot all about it.

    I picked up the job announcement and read the description. It said:







    Note: Because performances happen twice on

    Saturdays and Sundays and because animals

     need to be cared for 24/7, room and board

    will be provided for the two weeks only.

    “I wonder what kind of animals they have there. I’d hate to take care of the elephant droppings.” I giggled quietly at my own joke, but the lady wasn’t paying attention. I told her that I would do it, and she gave me a card with an address. She said she’d call them and tell them that I would be there tomorrow morning by 6:00 a.m.

    I grimaced. “They need me there at 6:00 in the morning?” The worker just gave me a look and indicated that I should step to the side so she could help the next person. When I walked out of the building, I saw a sign advertising the Salem mall. Feeling proud of myself for landing a job so quickly and deciding I needed a reward, I treated myself to window-shopping at the mall. As I wandered the shops, I thought about the next stage of my life—Adulthood.

    Many of the graduating seniors I knew got to enjoy their summer, prolonging the precious time that came between being responsible for nothing and being responsible for everything. Some of them were even going on extended vacations that had been graduation gifts. Me? I got to work. I didn’t mind really. “Hard work keeps you grounded,” Dad always used to say.

    I walked into a bookstore, pulled out a few of my old favorites, and thumbed through the pages. My dad, mom, and I all loved reading. Dad read mostly military intrigue books, but he also liked historical ones, especially the biographies of early American patriots like George Washington and John Adams. Mom loved romances. In the evenings, we would all sit down in our library and read companionably—Mom always with a blanket and a pillow on her lap to prop up the book, a habit I picked up from her.

    My parents made themselves a small, cozy library in their house long before I was born. It was our favorite place and I could still see it in my mind. It had a nice fireplace, two huge recliners, and a colorful, braided rug on the floor. Shelves covered every wall, except the one with the fireplace, and the room was stacked from floor to ceiling with books.

    When I was little, my mom and dad read to me while I sat on their laps. The Dr. Seuss books were my favorite as a child; I loved the creative whimsy of them. When I started to enjoy reading on my own, they bought another small recliner just for me. I still owned the worn out copies of the first books I ever read—the Black Stallion books, the Big Red series, and the Little House on the Prairie collection. Reading was very important to my family and even now I can almost sense them near me when I pick up a book.

    I left the bookstore, wandered to the food court, and stood off to the side while I considered my options. In middle school and as a freshman, I was chubby. I blamed it on Mom because she believed that showing your love meant homemade cookies.

    My favorites were chocolate-chocolate chip with peanut butter filling and pumpkin chocolate chip. But after Mom died, cookies weren’t the same; plus, my foster parents were health nuts. Who makes and eats tofu turkeys for Thanksgiving? Really? Because of that, I lost all my chubby qualities. I caught my reflection in the front glass of a store.  I was actually on the skinny side now. Instead of cookies, comfort now meant wearing T-shirts, jeans, and tennis shoes.

    I decided not to get anything to eat because I wanted to see a movie later, and I knew I’d get some popcorn.  I passed a large family eating together. The little brother was secretly dumping salt all over his sister’s French fries. I really missed out not having a sibling. It would have been fun to have a little brother or sister, but one of the lessons my parents taught me was that we should be grateful for the things that we get.

    When they found out that they were pregnant with me, they were thrilled. I came along so late in their lives that they’d already accepted the idea that they might not ever have children. Going through that experience changed their view of life. So, as I was growing up, they taught me that bad things could happen to good people and that the key to happiness was to try to make the best of, and be thankful for, the hand we’re dealt. They decided that they could still be content and happy without children. And they were happy together. They had totally given up on kids, stopped the fertility treatments, and were enjoying their life together when POW, there I was, a fantastic surprise for some really wonderful people.

    Mom always said, “When life gives you lemons make some lemon meringue pie!” Yes, they were corny, but I loved that about them. Maybe that was the reason I loved lemon meringue pie—my favorite at Thanksgiving. They said that each time they tried to get pregnant and failed, they cried, dried their eyes, and then got up again the next month to go back to the doctor.

    That experience modified their perceptions. It was life changing. Their example must have influenced me a great deal because, when they died, I cried, dried my eyes, did all the hard things that had to be done for a couple of weeks, and then I got up and went back to school. Moving on was really hard at first. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen to me. I was scared and really angry with my parents for leaving me like that. Eventually, I figured out that I had two fabulous parents who really loved me. Lots of people in this world never got that. I told myself I was lucky.

    Counselors at school said that I didn’t mourn or grieve enough. They worried that I was so attached to my parents that I wasn’t forming bonds with other people. Maybe they were right. I cared for other people, and I thought I was an affectionate person, but I shied away from deeper relationships. I never had a high school boyfriend, for example.

    I walked into one of the big department stores. They had the makeup displayed in front. A woman rushed over as I looked into one of their big mirrors and I politely deflected the attention of the exuberant employee while adjusting my ponytail.

    I was average in many ways. I didn’t do anything to stand out in school, and you had to if you sought high school popularity. I didn’t join any clubs or get placed in Honors. I didn’t really concern myself with current makeup, hairstyles, or clothes.

    I studied my face in the mirror, patted my light golden-brown hair and sighed at my pale complexion. I used to be blonde when I was younger. Incidentally, I think blondes do have more fun.  But, since I’ve lived in the Northwest, my hair never sees the sun, and blonde highlights never happen anymore, at least not naturally. The natural wave in my hair takes hard work to keep straight, and since it’s down past my shoulders and thick, most of the time I don’t bother. I just tie it back in a braid or a ponytail.

    The only obvious “girly” thing in my bathroom was a basket full of different colored hair ribbons. When I was younger, Mom liked to brush out my hair and braid ribbons through it while we talked. Now, whenever I wore my hair in a braid or a ponytail, I always tied on a ribbon in memory of her. When I got dressed up, I straightened my hair and did my makeup, and when I did, I thought I looked nice. My senior pictures, for example, were cute, probably thanks to touch-ups, but I much preferred to just wear some lip gloss and have my hair out of the way.

    I swept a finger over my eyelid. Boring brown was the official paint-swatch color of my eyes. They were so brown that they were almost black, and it was hard to tell the pupil from the iris. My eyelashes were long though. My foster mom had a thing where arched brows “define your face,” so since the time I started  living with her, my eyebrows have always been nicely shaped.

    The only other redeeming quality on my face was my smile. My parents paid dearly for it, and so did I, with three years of metal braces. People have said that I have a wide smile. I didn’t really know what that meant. It probably meant that my mouth was too big for my face.

    Hair fixed, I wandered through the clothing area and looked through a couple of racks. A group of teenage girls was standing by the dressing rooms admiring each other as they tried on clothes. I didn’t really go in for the high school glam stuff. I never understood why girls subjected themselves to high heels and tight, uncomfortable clothes in high school. I mean, who were they trying to impress anyway? The boys were short and immature, and the stairs were hard to navigate with flirty shoes, so why bother?

    Once, I tried to tell one of the girls I often partnered with in science lab that she was crazy to wear heels to school. I even asked if she was scared that she might fall down and break an ankle or something. The inevitable giggle whisper fest occurred between her and her friends. After that incident, it just didn’t seem worth it or important enough to me to try to befriend anyone in high school. It was hard to relate to other people my age anyway. Their heads were always full of such trivial things, and it was really hard work to find something in common to talk about.

    I left the department store, walked down to the movie theater, and considered my film choices. I felt a little bit guilty staying out all day, but, I rationalized, this was probably my last carefree summer day as a teenager, at least it felt that way. The pressures of adulthood loomed on the near horizon.

    I returned to my foster parents’ house late, having gone to see a double feature. When I got home, I silently crept through the house—my foster family usually went to bed very early—and checked the microwave to see what they had left me for dinner. It was Brussels sprouts casserole. Nasty! I ate a few bites out of politeness and then scraped the rest of my plate in the trash. Shuffling over to the kitchen sink, I rinsed my plate and then placed it in the dishwasher. I also wrote a note to my foster mom thanking her for letting me borrow her car all day and stuck it to the fridge with a magnet.

    Living in a foster home was okay for the most part, at least in my case. My foster parents, Sarah and Michael, were a nice couple who watched out for me, and they liked me. I helped babysit their kids and never got into trouble. I had only a few weeks until I turned eighteen, and then, according to the state, I was on my own. Not that they would have kicked me out. On the contrary, I thought they would have liked me to stay, but I didn’t want them to feel like they had to keep me around. They had their own family to care for, and I didn’t want to be a nuisance.

    Normally, in my type of situation, the ideal thing to do would be to place a minor with their relatives, but, because my parents had me late in life and because they were the youngest in their families, my aunts and uncles were too old to care for a teenager on a permanent basis. They visited me as often as possible, but they all lived in other states and had their own lives to worry about. That, plus the fact that I wanted to stay in Oregon, brought about my introduction into the foster care system.

    Quietly, I climbed the stairs to my bedroom. My room was small and cozy, with just a simple bed, a mirrored dresser, a desk for my computer and homework, a closet, and a laundry basket. Most of my personal things were in storage. All the furniture in the room belonged to my foster parents. The only items in my room that truly belonged to me were my clothes, my books, and my blanket.

    My grandmother made that blanket, my precious quilt, for me when I was little. I wrapped it around me and propped myself up against the headboard. Fingering a tattered pink scrap arranged to look like a flower, I thought about her.

    When I was very small, my mother took me with her as she helped Grandma work on a quilt. Grandma would invite over all her friends, and the quilt would be set up on four wooden supports. The material was tacked onto 2 x 4 boards, which were held together with C clamps. As the ladies chatted and sewed, I would lie under the quilt, finger a stolen thimble, and daydream as I listened to the women’s chatter. I used to lay there for hours, watching the needles as they weaved in and out of the fabric.

    I traced a butterfly on my worn-out, old, raggedy-at-the-corners quilt.  Every time I slept over at her house, her pet parakeets cheerfully sang me awake, we’d work in her flower garden together and she’d make me the best biscuits and gravy. Any meager skills I might have in sewing, embroidering, cooking, and coloring in a coloring book the fancy way all came from her patient teaching. She had a stroke and passed away a couple of years before my parents did.

    My clothes hung neatly in a small closet, arranged according to color, and my shoes were lined up on the floor, a sign of my slight tendency towards OCD. My drawers were meticulously tidy. My socks were all rolled in balls, arranged from the front of the drawer to the back—white socks on the right, black in the middle, and colored on the left. I didn’t really know why they went that way. They just did.

    After they died, most of my mom and dad’s possessions were sold, and the money was put into an account for me. There were a couple of keepsakes stored away for me, but I didn’t want to crowd my foster parents’ home, so I just left them in boxes. I did, however, keep a couple of pictures of my family, my grandma’s quilt, a couple of paperback books, and my journal around.

    I kept only two pictures out. One picture was of the three of us, me, mom, and dad, at a New Year’s celebration. I had just turned twelve. Mom wore a sparkling blue dress and dad a black suit with a blue tie to match it. I had on a pink dress that mom helped me pick out, especially for my first New Year’s Eve dance. They had been chaperones for it, which might have bothered most kids, but it didn’t bother me. I even danced with my dad.

    The other picture I always kept near was a candid shot of my parents at their wedding. There was a beautiful water fountain in the background, and they looked so young and happy, smiling into each other’s eyes as they stood facing one another. I wanted that for myself someday. I wanted someone to look at me like that.

    I changed into my pajamas, brushed my teeth, and washed my face. Then, crawling under my warm covers, I set my alarm for, ugh, 4:30 a.m. Placing my hands behind my head, I stared at the ceiling. My stomach growled. Flopping over on my stomach and stuffing my pillow under my cheek, I drifted off thinking about mom’s cookies.

    This entry was posted in Bonus Material, Tiger's Curse.

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    Author Bio
    Colleen Houck

    New York Times Bestselling author Colleen Houck is a lifelong reader whose literary interests include action, adventure, paranormal, science fiction, and romance. When she's not busy writing, she likes to spend time chatting on the phone with one of her six siblings, watching plays, and shopping online. Colleen has lived in Arizona, Idaho, Utah, California, and North Carolina and is now permanently settled in Salem, Oregon with her husband and a huge assortment of plush tigers.