SMALL AS A MUSTARD SEED
As the daughter of a Korean war veteran, Ann Marie learns not to trust people, including her own parents.
While her father rages with post-traumatic stress disorder, confusing reality with soul-searing memories, her blindsided mother struggles to guard the family secrets.
The relationship with her sister, Jolene, is the only beacon of light and tenderness in Ann Marie’s life as their father’s mental illness leaves the girls in fear for their lives. The two sisters share a seemingly unbreakable bond until tragedy rips their dysfunctional family apart.
An emotional coming-of-age story, Small as a Mustard Seed, challenges us to hang onto hope even as our hearts break, to define love in new ways after the fallout, and to choose forgiveness for ourselves in the end.
An excellent choice for fans of powerful young-adult fiction from authors like Jay Asher, John Green, and Laurie Halse Anderson, Small as a Mustard Seed is “a real page turner, a gripping tale of a family blown apart by tragedy. Yet, ultimately, the novel is redeeming as well, told through the viewpoint of a heroine who will both break and mend your heart.”
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GRAND PRIZE WINNER
WRITER'S DIGEST BOOK AWARDS
FROM THE WEISMAN FUND
SILVER MEDAL AWARD
FOR LITERARY FICTION (MWSA)
"An intense and heartbreaking story of the fallout of war."
"A story that will run you through an emotional marathon at a sprinter’s pace . . . the most powerful novel I’ve read in many years . . . one of the most significant reading experiences I’ve ever had."
"Small as a Mustard Seed is a momentum building, emotional rollercoaster read. Shelli Johnson’s impressive ability to make her main character, Ann Marie, so credible led to my believing that I was reading an autobiography."
"A superbly crafted and reader engaging novel . . . a terrific read from first page to last."
"The language and tone rich with emotional weight . . . intensifies the heartbreaking events that occur."
“I ain’t afraid this time. I ain’t some kid don’t know shit from Shinola,” my father hollered as he stood in the driveway.
In the curve of his chest, pressed tight against the denim of his overalls, he clutched a black revolver. The other hand combed through the short dark hairs of his flattop. My father was six foot two, two hundred twenty pounds, and in the soft morning light, he cast a long shadow across the courtyard.
I squatted in the pasture, some hundred or so feet away, nudging the top of my head around one corner of the barn. I was ten that year, a slip of a girl, short for my age, brown-eyed and dark-haired. Storm clouds blackened the sky and a cool rain started to fall as I watched him crack open the gun’s chamber to check that it was loaded, smile ever so slightly, then snap it back closed.
Just a few minutes earlier, we’d all been in the kitchen except for my mother, who was humming softly through her closed bedroom door. My sister Jolene — thin, blonde, and eight years old — had been using a knife to scoop strawberry jelly from the jar. The dollop was too round, the knife too flat, and her movement too fast, so the jelly vaulted through the air and splattered against the floor. What should have been a simple mess to clean up was not. My father stared at the stain, his eyes glassing over. He pushed himself away from the table with a grunt and, favoring a right hip wounded during the war in Korea, stilted side-to-side toward the cupboard. He groped along the top shelf, behind a stack of dusty teacups, and pulled out the gun. He cut his eyes toward my sister and me, gun barrel pointing at the floor, his finger against the trigger.
Jolie’s face paled. The knife in her hand clattered to the table.
“Daddy?” I said.
“Goddamned Communists,” he answered.
I grabbed Jolie’s wrist, yanking her from the kitchen to the foyer, past shoes lined up in two neat rows and coats piled on hooks in the wall. Clothed only in pajamas and socks, we raced out the front door, sprinting toward the pasture where we hid at the edge of the barn. Breathing hard, Jolene huddled up behind me, her body shivering against mine. We watched our father limp toward us, the gun dipping toward his belly before he stuffed it into the pocket of his overalls.
“Goddamn, I ain’t kidding.” Softer, he added, “Edgecomb ain’t gonna bite it ’cause of me.”
Jolene slid her fingers against my waist and squeezed. “You got to hide. I’ll go to the woods. I’ll draw him out. It’s me he wants.”
“You’re crazy,” I shot back.
Something in the hay field, opposite where we were, caught my father’s attention, and as he stared in that direction, Jolene made an odd clucking sound and whispered, “It’s always me he wants. You just hide in the barn and don’t get caught.”
“I’m not gonna —” But I never finished. She hauled me backward in the muck, shoving me through the barn’s side door. The doorjamb framed her for a moment, and then she darted into the rain, slamming the door behind her and leaving me in darkness.
Before I could even get my bearings, the overhead lamps burned oblong patches across the dirt floor. Three or four of the horses nickered softly. I cowered next to the side door, cool air bleeding beneath its bottom edge. I had about eight feet of passageway before it widened into the vast, open expanse of the barn’s center. I couldn’t see my father, but I knew he must be near the light switch, some fifty feet from me.
“It ain’t feeding time,” he said to the horses. “You seen them two gooks? Both’d be good, but either one’ll do.” A minute later, his boots clopped across the sawdust. I heard him snap on the light in the feed room and yell, “Hah!”
With my heart like a jackhammer in my chest, I threw my shoulder against the side door only to find Jolene had latched it from the outside. In the feed room, my father tossed bags of corn and bales of hay out of his way. He said, “It ain’t right, them gooks shooting Edgecomb like that.”
I gulped a deep breath and crawled to the nearest stall. Our old buckskin mare, her tan coat flaked with dried mud, stared at me. I spotted the darkest corner, ripped a square of hay from the feed bin, and hunkered down so low that my behind smacked into sawdust and manure. I covered myself with the hay as best I could. In the feed room, my father sideswiped a plastic bucket full of grooming tools, their metal edges scraping across the concrete floor.
A point in the center of my head throbbed. My knees ached. I squeezed my eyes shut and pressed my spine harder against the plank-board wall. Head bowed, fingers steepled between where my breasts would someday be, I prayed two things with soft words that swirled feathery puffs of air against my knuckles: first, that he wouldn’t see me tucked in the corner of this tiny stall, and second, that if he did, he would get whatever he was going to do over with quick.
Back in the main part of the barn, my father jerked the light switch a half-dozen times. He yelled, “You in here, you Communist?”
My slow, deliberate breathing was enormously loud. I clamped my lips together, but that just made my lungs burn and my face prickle. I remember how everything seemed so thunderous while I flattened myself into the corner, trying hard to be small and quiet. I listened to my father’s boots thump across the floor and then stop at the first stall in the line. He worked the latch back and forth, the door rumbling open on its track. Wind blew through the cracks, carrying my father’s scent, something strong and thick like burning paper, like wet leaves smoldering in the fall. It was an odor I would come to know later as the stench of his sickness. Above me in the hayloft, a lone cricket chirped, and I thought I’d go out of my head with that sound, a noise so normal in a place where I’d bitten through my bottom lip and blood seeped along my chin, in a place where my bladder had let go and I crouched in a puddle of my own urine.
“You in there?” my father growled. “Come on out and make it easy on yourself.”
Hay rustled, hooves stomped, water rushed from an upturned bucket, and then, “Goddammit.” The hinges squawked, and my father slammed the latch closed. There was no way out of this stall, no way to make myself smaller, and he was closing and latching, moving on down the line to where I hid, only three stalls away.
My hands bled. Brittle hay, splintered boards, and rusted nails not quite hammered in had sliced into them. I hung so intensely on every sound my father made that I hadn’t felt the sting as the skin opened. Only the drip of blood, liquid sliding across my skin, forced me to tilt my head down, and as I did so, some of the hay tumbled to the floor. Rain pounded against the roof, wind rocked the eaves, and my father swung back the door to the stall where I hid.
He stared at the horse, which stood stiff-legged in the middle of the stall, her body at an angle. Between the horse’s legs, I could see him clearly — eyes so exhausted that the skin underneath hung in black pouches, rain droplets beaded in the stubble on his face, faint yellow patches on his long-sleeved shirt where sweat from his armpits had stained the white cotton weave — but he seemed oblivious to me in the back corner to his left. It was a side effect of medication, I understood years later, that kept him from seeing me right away. It was simply dim light bulbs and the damaging of his optic nerve; it was not God, as I thought back then, answering my prayer.
My throat scratched. Sweat bumped down my back and pooled in the elastic of my underwear. I took itty-bitty sips of air. The stink of him made my lips pucker, made my throat want to wretch and gag. My father’s eyes traced the line of the mare’s front leg to the floor. He stepped forward, sawdust puffing under his boot. His cheeks caved inward, his knees bent, and his fingers brushed against the horse’s hoof. “Well, shit in a poke!” he said.
He plucked something round between his thumb and index finger, stood up, and boosted it toward the light. He squinted then brought it close to his nose and sniffed. All of a sudden, his shoulders eased and his face relaxed. The look of concentration, that something hard and chiseled, vanished. He grinned into the blank air.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said to the horse. “You shitting nickels there, Roxie?”
He knelt down again, rainwater dripping from his hair, and combed his fingers through the sawdust. His smile broadened. “You shitting a few nickels. Here’s a penny and a quarter.”
A shiver ripped through me. I knew that next to my hip, beside the hole in the pocket of my pajamas, there would be a small pool of lunch money. Outside, the back door of the house swung open, and my mother shouted about breakfast. She hollered twice before I heard the screen door slam against its frame.
“Where you at?” my father said in a rough voice that sliced through me like a blade.
Air gushed from my mouth as I understood there was no longer a point to hiding. I eked out the word, “Here.”
Coins sailed out of his hands, falling to the ground with soft whispery plops. He rushed at me with arms outstretched, fingers stiff like claws. Red spattered his cheeks. The spooked mare snorted and reared back. He gripped my upper arm so tightly that in a little while, I would have purplish bruises in the size and shape of his fingers. He hauled me past the horse, and I got a sight of his revolver half-buried in the sawdust. He shoved me into the light. Standing in the doorway of the stall, I watched his face slacken. “Why, you’re just some little girl.”
I nodded, my head making a big, wobbly gesture.
He knelt and brought his face within inches of mine, close enough for me to count the pockmarks where acne had scarred him as a teenager. “Well, where’s the rest of them?”
“I don’t know,” I screeched in a high voice, my mouth gone dry. Right then, I thought he’d been asking about Jolene.
He breathed the smell of eggs and bacon over me. “You hiding their weapons?”
Four years earlier, when President Kennedy committed America to Vietnam, my father began muttering about gooks and Communism and war. He would read the newspaper at breakfast then crumple the pages and stuff them in the trash, mumbling all the while about the government sending boys to meaningless deaths. “They’re just kids! Kids!” he’d say. He watched television, punctuating the reports every so often with, “Goddamned gooks!” Sometimes when the phone rang, he would startle, ducking low to the ground and clutching his hands to his head.
I didn’t understand his words and his oddities had never harmed me, so it didn’t occur to me until right then in that stall, his eyes so intent on an answer, his fingers ready to hurt me more, that he believed I was the enemy. My head shook side-to-side, wet hair slapping against my cheeks. “Huh-huh. No, Daddy.”
“We’ll just see.” He scanned the stall and, within seconds, saw the butt of the gun. He faced me again, his grip tightening. He shook me back and forth, saying, “All you gooks are liars, too.” He leaned over and snatched the revolver. He slid it under my nose. “What’s this then?”
My legs wobbled. I stumbled over words while I searched his hard face for something soft and familiar.
“Speak up!” he yelled.
“Yours,” I barked. “It’s yours.”
“It’s your gun, Daddy.”
He waggled the barrel back and forth, saying, “Soldiers don’t carry guns like this.”
My hands started to tremble. “You got it from the cupboard in the house.”
“What house? There’s no houses, just goddamn shacks.”
My body felt cold, clammy. “Daddy, please, it’s your gun. You brought it in here.”
He narrowed his eyes. “How come you keep calling me, ‘Daddy’? I ain’t nobody’s daddy.”
Low in my belly, something tightened into a hard little ball. My arms hung limp at my sides. My vision seemed hazy, dark around the edges. My father let go of me and wrapped his fingers around the butt of the gun, easing one alongside the trigger. He raised it from his chest to his head.
Back in August, the television flickered images of a bunch of Marines hoisting their Zippo lighters to thatched roofs in the village of Cam Ne. The next day my father gutshot a gopher. He watched with satisfaction on his face as it writhed, spewing blood and mucus, before it died on the warm, soft ground near my feet.
“That’s what dead is,” he said flatly. “Now you seen what dead is.”
Then with the toe of his boot, he’d kicked its limp body into the garden.
In the barn, he thumbed back the hammer. Quietly, he said, “Sing me a song, angel, or I’ll pull the trigger.”
Thinking he was talking to someone else, I glanced around, catching sight of the sloping backs of horses, the matted fur of my tabby cat, and a dark round circle in the dirt where the rain had seeped through the roof. When my eyes finally fell on him again, he pressed the barrel more tightly against his temple and said, “Now. A song. Any song.”
My gut convulsed, my stomach lurched, and a wicked taste filled my mouth. I staggered backward, tripping over my own feet and landing on my behind. My father’s eyelids slid to half-staff. He bowed his head like a parishioner awaiting absolution, and one quick, clear thought flashed through my mind: If I don’t pick the right one, it’ll be me who kills him.
I warbled a melody, the same one my mother sang to lull me to sleep. In some places, the pitch went high and tinny; in others, the words broke. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Oh, this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine.”
After I finished, my voice drying up and only the sound of rain and hooves between us, he said, “I ain’t got any light left in me. Everything in there’s dark and sour.” He lowered the gun to his lap, eased the hammer down, and let the revolver slide back into the sawdust. The lines of his face had gone slack. “My girl, Adele, used to sing me that song. Back when she sung it, though, I tried to believe her.”
My chest felt like all the air had been squeezed from it, my breaths coming in short, choppy gulps. My insides felt constricted and hot, like an explosion just about to happen. My father stared at his palms then flipped his hands over and glared at the veins, branching like blue, tangled ropes. He fingered a mole on his left wrist, bulging with black hairs. He looked around the stall, lips pursed as he lighted upon sawdust in the shape of my rump, manure mashed down, blood droplets and hay scattered across the floor. He followed a glittering trail of lunch money from the corner where I had been to the ground beside his hip. He stared at the gun and in a faraway voice said, “Huh.” He might’ve added, “How’d that get there?” for all the confusion that arranged itself on his face. He laid eyes on me and said, “Ann Marie? What happened?”
I didn’t answer. I pulled my knees to my chest and curled my toes into the dirt. My father rocked forward, and out of pure reflex, my arms flailed, grasping at the ground behind me, and my legs kicked, feet shoving me across the floor. I scampered away from him, and the look on his face changed from confusion to fear. He thrust his palm into the air between us, fingers splayed like a stop sign, and soothed, “Shhhh. Shhhh. Go in the house now. Please, just go.”