- This blog is closing
- The Great American Roadtrip 2010
- “The Death of Patsy McCoy” Now Available in ePub and Kindle Versions
- The Death of Patsy McCoy
- A New Beginning (a short story)
- “Remembering” (A Short Story)
- It’s Saturday Again? Where’d My Week Go?
- It’s Saturday Again! New Chapter up for “Light Always Changes”
- Announcing the Serialization of “Light Always Changes”
- Somebody Shove Me
I am serializing my short novel, Light Always Changes
This novel will be posted one chapter per week, but the book is finished and available to be ordered in print.
all she wants is to hide her scarred face
all he wants is to take the perfect portrait
There’s one desk left in the far right row, second desk from the back. She hangs her bag on the seatback, sits down, swings her hair over her cheek. She begins to doodle, tiny flowers and leaves along the very edge of the cover of her spiral notebook.
“Hi! Lydia, right?” She raises her head, but doesn’t look away from her flowers.
“You probably didn’t notice me, but I was in your last class. That’s how I know your name.” In her peripheral vision, she can see his hand come up toward her. She reaches up and hooks her hair behind her ear. Turns to face him.
“Hello,” she says, her voice as stretched and tight as the skin of her cheek.
“I’m Tanner,” he says, his smile unchanged.
sometimes the deepest secrets
are hidden behind the thinnest veils
I always hit this place.
UPDATE: Ignore this first part. I did, in fact, finish the novel, and it will be available soon. In the meantime, skip down to the new, updated chapter one.
I get thirty or forty thousand words into a new project, and I start going Yeah? Who cares? Cardboard people, made-up situations, who cares? Nobody cares. Throw this trash away and go get a job driving a truck. You’re not a writer.
My beta readers (widely read and astute) all tell me otherwise, but sometimes I need a new perspective. So please leave me a comment here and tell me whether you care about Lydia and Tanner, ok? Please?
With no further ado, then, the first chapter of Light Always Changes, currently sitting, stalled, at about 35,000 words:
She’s moved so many times that any fear or discomfort she may ever have felt at being in an unknown place is now completely overshadowed by the sadistic glee she takes in being the unknown person. She has no doubt at all that the grapevine is already on fire, but at least until the rumors spread, she can find the old satisfaction in watching them discover her.
If they approach her from the right, then they’ve already seen, and she sees all the same things she’s gotten so used to seeing in people’s faces. The pity, the pain, the oh-how-awful. All too often, the scorn, the disgust at being in the presence of one who is so far beneath them on the scale of humanity. Sometimes, and this has always perplexed her, the fear; the fear that perhaps it’s contagious, that simply being near her can cause your own face to shrivel and pucker, that you might wake up ugly tomorrow.
When they approach from the left, when they haven’t seen her yet, then she sees the other half of the classification going on. The lust in the faces of the boys, the cold sizing up of a threat in the girls. She can see them saying Tall, thinnish. Lithe, I guess they call that. Look at that hair, that body… and then she turns toward them, turns the right side of her face toward them, turns the scar toward them, and watches it all get realigned.
Uh, next? the boys’ faces say, looking away, looking around.
Oh, sorry, no threat at all, say the faces of the girls. I’d still kill for that body.
She sits on the far right side of the room, hoping there won’t be assigned seating, hoping if there is that she won’t have to sit on the left. It’s so much easier this way. It’s bad enough that there aren’t actual desks, just seats at ancient wooden tables, two seats each. At least the seats are only on one side, so there’s no one sitting there staring right at her.
She checks her class schedule again. The first check was just to get a room number, just to get her here. One thing at a time. History, it says. World history. There’s a stack of brand-shiny-new books on a table at the front of the room, and most of the kids in the class have already gone and claimed one. She gets up, walks quickly down the side of the room to the front, picks up a book. Turning away, back to her seat, she flips her head around a little too quickly, the well-practiced move swinging her hair across the side of her face. Her eyes on the floor, the book hugged against her, she moves swiftly back to her place and sits down.
The teacher’s as shiny and new as his fat textbooks, and since all the rest of the students are just as new to him, there’s no special attention paid to her. She hides herself once again in the rigid habits of her life, listening, reading, taking notes. Learning. No book yet has ever turned up its nose in scorn or fear, and she strokes her fingers across the sleek new pages. Settling. She’s settling in. The entertainment value of being the new kid is fading away, and now there’s only the same comfortable rut she’s known at so many schools.
She makes her way to second period, her head tilted to drape her hair across her cheek, her eyes on the floor. Twice, someone approaches to greet her. She raises her head a bit, she looks sideways at them until they’ve said their part and gotten to her turn, she looks full at them and watches their face change. She goes her way, undisturbed. Second period. Earth sciences. Who cares?
There’s one desk left in the far right row, second desk from the back. And they are desks this time. Perfect. She hangs her bag on the seatback, sits down, swings her hair over her cheek. She begins to doodle, tiny flowers and leaves along the very edge of the cover of her spiral notebook.
“Hi! Lydia, right?” She raises her head, but doesn’t look away from her flowers.
“You probably didn’t notice me, but I was in your last class. That’s how I know your name.” In her peripheral vision, she can see his hand come up toward her. She reaches up and hooks her hair behind her ear. Turns to face him.
“Hello,” she says, her voice as stretched and tight as the skin of her cheek.
“I’m Tanner,” he says, his smile unchanged. She hesitates, looks down at his hand, looks back to his eyes. His eyes are doing what people’s eyes do when they look at normal people, at real people. They shift from eye to eye, to her lips, to her hair, her cheekbones and ears, back to her eyes. His smile is unchanged. His hand is still stretched toward her, and in a moment of pure spite, she reaches out her own. When all else fails, present the Claw.
He takes her hand, shakes it a time or two, lets it slide from his grip, his fingertips grazing her horrid palm as normally as they would anyone else’s. He nods toward the front of the room and begins a list of the teacher’s main weirdnesses. Lydia’s not listening. She feels an odd urge to feel her cheek, to see if the scar’s still there. She looks back at his eyes, with some vague notion of checking to see if perhaps he’s blind, but even as she realizes how thoroughly he studied her face she sees that he’s still looking at her, still smiling.
“So where are you from, and what brings you to Backwater, USA?” he asks, and it’s so funny she feels an urge to smile. She looks back down at her paper, the urge safely resisted.
“LA,” she says, beginning another flower. “My dad… I don’t know, I guess he just got tired of the rush. Retired. That’s what he says, anyway.” Her dad’s terminally blasé, though, so it’s a little hard for her to believe. If the couch he was sprawled on caught fire, she’s pretty sure he’d finish his joint before he got up.
“What’s your dad do?” Tanner asks.
“Um, something in music studios. Mixing things? I don’t really know. He’s a little… different,” she tells the tip of her pencil. Why is this happening? Why is he still bugging her? She reaches up and hooks her hair behind her ear again, twists in her seat toward him, turning a little past him so he can’t possibly miss the scar. She’ll say something about the weather, or the trees outside the window, or something completely off the non-topic they’re on, to tell him that she’s not really listening to him, and she’ll let him see the full glory of her face, and he’ll leave her alone, but the bell rings before she can begin to speak and the teacher raps his desk as though he’s been waiting for it.
She turns to face the front again, pulling her hair from behind her ear, leaning forward.
Sidling through the lunch line, her hair carefully forward and her face closed up tight, she gets a turkey sub and milk. No chips, no pretzels, no mayonnaise or mustard. Salad with no dressing. Among the things that people will attack her with in the coming weeks, after they’ve moved beyond the shock of her face, will be the accusations of bulimia and anorexia, of compulsive dieting. The total lack of any symptoms to support these claims won’t stop them. She’s not dieting, she just doesn’t eat much. And she’s healthy, so shut up.
She makes her way to a table at the far end of the room. It’s mostly empty, and there’s a seat where she’ll have her right side to the wall, nothing there but a narrow aisle leading nowhere. She eats slowly, staring at nothing. Too early in the year to have any homework to do. Usually, by the end of lunchtime, she’ll have all the assignments from her morning classes finished, but right now there aren’t any.
“Lydia, hi! Mind if I sit here?” but he’s already sitting down across from her. Too late to tell him yes, she minds. Too late to tell him she can’t even remember his name. In one ear and out the other. Like she’d ever need to know it anyway. She stares past him down the long room to where heavy purple drapes hint at the presence of a stage. He’s talking about something in his last class, something he thought was funny. Maybe you had to be there. If she ignores him, maybe he’ll go away.
“So, history class,” he says, looking at her. “What did you think about the study-group thing?” He takes a prodigious bite of pizza. There’s an enormous black camera on the table beside his tray, a lens as big as a soup can, fifty little switches and knobs and dials. What did she think of the study-group thing? Stupid, that’s what. She shrugs, says nothing. Takes a tiny bite of her sandwich and a sip of milk. Window, where’s a window when you need one?
“Another teacher did the same thing last year,” says Tanner, his mouth still not quite empty. “‘Pick your own study groups,’ like there’s any way at all that can be fair. All the ‘in’ crowd together, all the geeks together, all the thisses and thats, they just match up in these so-called study groups the same way they match up in everyth–”
“What is this?” she asks him. He stops, looking confused. She hooks her hair behind her ear.
“What is what?” he asks.
“This. This whole thing. What is this? Is this some locker-room bet? ‘I bet I can unfreeze the bookworm! Look at me! Look what a stud I am!’ Is it some sort of pity crush? You think because of my face I’ll never get a date, so you’re going to come sweeping in to save me, to keep me from killing myself in despair? Maybe you’re just so totally lacking in confidence that you’ve been waiting for a really ugly one to come along so you’d have no competition,” she says, beginning to gather her things together.
“Well, guess what? I don’t need your pity, I don’t want to help you overcome your own inadequacies, and I’ve already seen the let’s-thaw-the-bookworm movie. You turn on your studly charm, and she lets her hair down, and there’s this lusty sexpot underneath it all. Wrong. This is me. What you see is what you don’t get, acid-scarred face and bookworm life and all.” She stands up.
“I don’t need you, Tanner. Leave me alone.” She turns and strides away, her hair behind her ear and her head high.
Tanner sits stunned, watching her walk away, an angry cat stalking through the narrow space along the wall. Her bones and flesh and steps and movements all are so nearly perfect that his eyes hurt suddenly, and he picks up his Nikon, but he only cradles it like a lover, down near his lap, his palms and fingertips falling into place by perfect habit. He’s as certain he could never explain why he was taking pictures of her walking away from him as he is that he’d never be able to look away from her till she’s gone, and he tries neither, just watching her walk with the same pressure behind his eyes that he feels watching gulls fly and waves break and the shivery orange sun crumble to pieces in the hazy air above the edge of the ocean.
He wasn’t hitting on her. He certainly wasn’t feeling any pity for her. Was he hitting on her? The scar’s just a part of her, no more pitiful than his own dark mole, or the crookedness of a face, or the way someone’s eyebrow cocks up different than the other. He may have been hitting on her.
He’s forgotten again. It’s so easy to do. He sees things so differently than anyone else. He looks at each person as though they’re the only one, as though there is nothing and no one in the universe except that one face, that one chance, that one snap of God’s fingers between the passage of instants. He looked at her, and he saw her, and the scar was just part of it, just another truth to be told in the portrait he was already framing and lighting in that moment. He wasn’t hitting on her.
But she was so still, so stable, so unmoving within her self. He saw none of the pretenses and fictions people put in their eyes, in the set of their lips, in the movements of their skin. She was so starkly herself, and there was so much beauty in that starkness. Was he hitting on her?
On sheer autopilot, he runs through the settings on the camera, checking the ISO, the white balance, the aperture, but he changes nothing. It’s just habit, just being ready. He checks these things by instinct, every few minutes. Light always changes. He slings the camera on his shoulder. Gathers his things together. Stands up.
He may have been hitting on her.
I’m “on” again in my on-again-off-again project of transcribing my poetry to computer.
There seems to be an aging process poetry goes through (fiction, also, truth be told) that means the further past it in time you get, the less valuable it becomes, but as I go through the notebooks that are glaciered into the corners of my office like time’s own detritus, I find one that I still want to read.
So, with that in mind, here’s an untitled poem from eons ago (to give you an idea how many eons, this is from the year that I was dating the girl who is now my wife, and our oldest is now beginning to lean on thirty):
Technorati Tags: poetry
One or the other of you may be wondering what happened to the last novel I excerpted here, Blood Bonds. It’s on the back burner, that’s what happened to it. There are some thorny issues going on in the realms of character motivation and development, and I shoved it to the back to simmer for a while.
While it was simmering, I wrote this. A Place to Die is not a warm, cuddly book. It is the first book I’ve written that I intended to be specifically “Christian fiction,” although I may not have made the grade. It may be too dark and edgy. Read it and decide, but be warned: the message of this book is aggressively Christian.
A Place to Die
Who are you, that you should forget the Lord your maker, who has stretched forth the heavens, and laid the foundations of the Earth?
All day long the thought of death has taunted him. It was there in the morning, fleeing swiftly from his muggy dreams to squat malignantly in the shrill sound of his alarm. It followed him to the bathroom, staring from the mirror as he stood motionless, waiting for his toothbrush and comb to wake him up. In the kitchen, at the bus stop, on the sidewalk, all day long in the unending toil of his mindless job, it hovered there next to his ear, whispering its evil little mantras and chants. The time has come. Today’s the day. There’s no point. Give it up. She’s gone forever. There’s nothing left. This is it. This is all. There’s nothing more. Forever and ever and ever.
In the silent apartment, he nukes a tray of something he couldn’t name if you put a gun to his head. Lets it cool completely in the microwave while he watches nothing on the wall. Throws it away. Turns the TV on and cycles through all the channels he has, his eyes wandering the screen like an alien’s might. There’s a razor blade in the medicine cabinet. He turns the TV off. There’s drain cleaner under the sink. There’s a cliff down by the water. There’s a tide coming in to get him every few hours. He could go stand on the sand and wait.
Turns on the shower and watches it run. Turns it off.
Death. So easy. Why not? Why? There is no reason one way or the other.
There are no reasons at all anymore.
The phone rings. He watches the wall and waits.
“Matt? … Matt, it’s your mother. Pick up, ok? … Ok, listen, Matt, I know this is tough, but come on, you can’t just drop off the face of the Earth, ok? You know she wouldn’t want that. Matt, pick up… Ok, I’m coming over. I know you’re there. I’m coming over. Just wait for me, ok? Matt? … Wait for me, ok?”
He watches the wall and waits.
He’s no longer sure exactly what he’s waiting for. He spent so long waiting for her, and then he found her, and now she’s gone, and now he’ll wait again. There’s a razor blade in the medicine cabinet. There’s drain cleaner under the sink. This is it. This is all. There’s nothing more. Forever and ever and ever.
When the knock comes, he’s standing in the bathroom, turning the razor blade over and over in his hands. She rattles the knob, knocks again, calls out his name. He stands and waits for nothing.
Long after she’s gone quiet, he slips back down the short hall to the dark living room, the blade gone, somewhere, somehow. He can see her car sitting on the street below his window. For no reason he can think of, he tiptoes to the door, lays his ear against it. Oh, no. Not again. Not still.
“Oh, Lord God,” she’s whispering, “please help my son. He’s so lost and alone,” and now his tears come. He can see quite clearly, through the wooden door, that she’s standing with her forehead pressed against the other side, between her hands. He places his hands over hers, through the door, two inches away, a million miles away. He stands with his hands against hers, his head bowed over hers, and cries silently until he realizes she’s gone.
There’s a razor blade in the medicine cabinet. There’s drain cleaner under the sink. This is it. This is all. There’s nothing more. Forever and ever and ever.
“Jobs don’t matter,” she says, her eyes damp in the light of the candles. “Honey, jobs are just jobs. You’ll get another. Don’t let it ruin things.” Her hands cross the table as though they’re on their own, seeking his.
Not fired, Simpson. It just isn’t…
“Allison,” he says, reaching for her across the table, through the drifting tendrils. “I’ll always love you!” he shouts, struggling now, fighting the seaweed and the seat belt and the sheets and sitting bolt upright in dark screaming silence.
After a long time, he throws the blankets off and sits on the edge of the bed. This is pointless. There’s a razor blade in the bathroom. This can’t go on. His mother prays against his front door and his dead fiancée haunts his nights and his own death stalks his days and he surges to his feet and into the bathroom and slams open the cabinet door and stands stonestill.
That’s no reason.
Shut up, but he closes the cabinet door and slides slowly down the wall to huddle on the floor.
His entire reason for life, his reason for living, his goal and his goad, his other half, finally found and lost so quickly. Five years to find her, five months to know her, five seconds to lose her. Five weeks now to miss her. Five weeks down, eternity to go.
One day. One day took both his job and his life, and now he only waits for the strength to give up and lie down. He watches nothing on the wall as the gloom slowly lightens around him. His alarm goes off, alone, down the hall, and he ignores it until it gives up.
Mid-morning, late, too late to keep the drudge job that was what he could find, he rises. The mirror mocks him, and he opens the door to silence it. He stares a long time at the waiting blade. There’s drain cleaner under the sink in the kitchen. There’s a tide, coming in to find him, circling now around his ankles and pulling, pulling hard. Back in his bedroom, he dresses slowly and packs quickly. One last look around the living room.
He leaves the door unlocked. There’s nothing there. Nothing to come back to. No intent to come back.
The “new” car’s a wreck, but it runs. With everything gone to pay for the ring she wore for an hour, he had nothing left. The ring’s gone, too. By the time they could get her out of the car, it was gone.
One duffel bag in the seat next to him and no backward glance and he drives away.
Some unknown time later, some passage of miles that he can’t remember at all, low on gas, he stops. While the pump works, he stares mindlessly at nothing, thinking nothing. There’s a small plastic cross on the car in front of his, and he turns away. You had your chance, God. You could have saved her. You could have kept us out of the river. You could have kept me from gazing at her when I should have been–
You had your chance. Now leave me alone. He turns his back. Dim thoughts from childhood. Nineveh. Something about Nineveh. Something about running, and asses, and talking, but he turns his back. Absalom and his talking donkey, on the way to Nineveh.
His cell phone rings, and he turns it off without looking at it. Tank filled, junk food bought, he parks the car at the edge of the lot and starts up the ragged gravel slope behind the building. Five minutes up the slope, he stops and looks around. Phone still turned off, he smashes it carefully and buries the pieces, starts back down.
Not Absalom. Balaam. Balaam and his donkey. Not Nineveh, either, that was someone else. Not that it matters. Not that he gives a flying fig. God had his chance, and if that car’s still there, he’ll rip that plastic cross sticker off the back and smash that, too, bury it by his phone, but it’s gone, and he heads east into the desert.
His first night out, confused and lonely, he spends in huddled misery, the only car parked at an isolated rest area. The desert, so hot and angry all day, inverts itself at night. The heat becomes cold, seeping in through the inadequate seals of the car doors. The shadows become highlights, the harsh light of the full moon giving them mass, stretching out toward him, grasping toward him. When he gets too cold to sleep, he runs the car engine, but the noise keeps him awake. When he’s warmed up, he turns it off, but the echoing silence returns to claim him, and he can’t sleep. When he sleeps, evil stalks him, shaking him awake.
The fifth or fiftieth time he he shambles and gasps toward waking, there’s a dim purple light in the sky ahead, and he gives up completely on the hope of rest, pulling back onto the road. He drives toward the sunrise, his mind a blank. A cipher, that teacher his junior year in high school would have said. A cipher. He turns an aborted reach for his phone into a vigorous scratching of his head. He needs a shower.
No phone, no internet. No definitions. He’s a cipher.
As he drives, his mind reaches constantly for things to do, for things to think, for some respite from the idle drone of driving, and every single thing it finds is pain. He hates the desert, seeing it only as something to be gotten across, but she would have been stopping at every high point to try to capture all the images she claimed she saw in what was, to him, only rock and sand. When he drives those thoughts away, when he turns his mind inward away from the dull moonscape, he finds her haunting his left-over dreams from the ragged night. Seaweed seems to have become their theme, although there was no seaweed in the river. No, not the river, either. Something else. Traffic.
He’ll think about traffic. He’ll play that license plate game, the one where you have to get the whole alphabet, but there’s not enough traffic and no competition, and all he can think of is her frightening agility at finding the letters she needed when they played it with signs, driving up the coast toward Oregon. He turns on the radio.
Stopping near noon for gas, he sees a hitchhiker seated patiently on a guard rail by the ramp back up to the freeway, beyond the intersection. He’ll pick him up. If he’s still there when he gets back on the road, he’ll pick him up. He fills the tank, hits the ATM for all it will give him in one day, goes into the store. Picking junk food and drinks, he thinks of his passenger and tries to get a wider selection than he normally would. He clears the seat, tossing trash into the back. He should clean the car out, but he’s in a hurry so the guy will still be there.
Too far back to make the turn, he sits trapped by a red light, watching the hitchhiker. Clean, young, well-shaven, well-scrubbed. A cardboard sign that says “Grandma’s.” Army-green duffel bag, a big one.
The light changes. Matt carefully drives past the hitchhiker, not looking, accelerating, turning his head away to check traffic as he merges.
Not Balaam and his donkey, and not the Nineveh guy, either. Those guys were running from something.
Three days. Iowa, some nameless town in Iowa. He fills the tank, checks his balance at the ATM. Thirty-two something, plus seventeen dollars in cash. He spends a careful hour in a grocery store, adding things up, and when he checks out, it comes to $33.79. He empties his account, pays the rest in cash. In the parking lot, he bends his bank card in half, folding back and forth till it finally tears most of the way across. There’s a dumpster by the side of the building.
He sits in his car and slowly eats pepperoni and string cheese and drinks a Red Bull, staring across the street at the peeling white paint of a tiny Baptist church. He can still feel his mother, still leaning against his door, still praying, his father at home, pacing up and down the hall with that half-prayer, half-mumble that he has. The can follows the bank card, and he goes next door to the coin-op laundry.
His back against the washer, he drifts again into that last dinner. So carefully planned for so long, every dollar he had, almost. The ring, the food, the white wine the manager had assured him was “nice, but not expensive.” He’d had to take his word for it. He’d planned that night for weeks. For months. For all of the nearly three months it took him to pay for the ring, in fact. He’d known the moment he saw her. He’d rented a tux. The manager had told him the table would be near the back, but quiet. Then, that afternoon, hours to go…
Not fired, Simpson, it just isn’t working out for us.
He hadn’t wanted to ask her after all, after that, but the place… the tux… the wine… She needed an explanation, and in the end, he broke down and told her. He nearly broke down, telling her.
“Jobs don’t matter,” she said. “You’ll find another. Don’t let that wreck things. Don’t let that wreck this. Matt, I love you. It doesn’t matter.”
He just stared into the dark alcove beside them. Nothing so movie-cliché as a steel door with a small round window, just a discreet little alcove where waiters and waitresses and busboys appear and disappear like magic.
“Give it to me,” she says. He shakes his head, not looking at her.
“I can’t. Ok? I can’t. It isn’t right.”
“Why not?” she asks, her face beginning to draw together in that dangerous way she has, her voice edging toward stubborn. “Was it right this morning? Were we right for each other this afternoon? Did something happen that changes anything?”
When he tries to answer, she cuts him off. “Give it to me. Don’t wreck this. I only get this night once, Matt. Don’t wreck this.” Unable to meet her eyes, he watches her lips move, watches her brows go straight and hard, watches her ear begin to jump a little, and then somehow, he’s trapped in her eyes again and just like that, she’s right. Nothing’s changed. Nothing’s different. He brings the tiny white box out of his pocket and slides the ring through his tears and onto her finger. It’s too big. He had to guess her size, and it’s a little too big, and they laugh as though they’re laughing at that. They’re only laughing to center themselves, to regain themselves.
In the car, driving home, by the river, the lights along the river, looming and flashing and fading, looming and flashing and fading, seem to hypnotize her, and she holds her hand up, the ring flashing like a tiny rainbow echo, and she giggles. Too much wine for her, he knows, and she giggles, and he’s watching her, and trying not to giggle, and she giggles, and he’s watching her…
The washer behind him has gone silent. The clock on the wall ticks. The paint peels on the church across the street. Somewhere, seaweed waves in a silent river.
You can download the rest of this book, as well as read significantly more of it, at Smashwords.
My first Smashwords upload is ready, and I have no idea what it looks like!
I need your help.
I have uploaded my first Smashwords book, a novella titled The Dinosaur and the Dragon Lady. This is entirely new for me, and I need to see how well the conversion turned out. If you have an e-reader, either hardware or software, please take the time to download the appropriate version of this book and let me know if anything is wonky. You can set your own price on it, which I realize is going to mean most downloads will ne free, but I can live with that.
This novella is available as a PDF, RTF, or plain text, as well as in ePub and formats for the Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader, and Palm devices. It can also be read online, but what I really need to know is how it looks on the hardware devices. If this worked, I have several others I’d like to get posted as well.
Of course, if you want to actually take the time to read it and post a review, that’d be good, too! I think you’ll like it.
An excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Blood Bonds
(c) 2009 Levi Montgomery
Lucy wanders alone down the midway, watching the ground slide past her feet with the sound of a thousand people walking on sawdust. Candy wrappers and torn ticket stubs and bits of random trash litter the ground, drifting like windblown snow in the untracked corners and the narrow spaces between game booths. The people around her fade away like a driving rain when you’ve grown used to it, their shouts and voices and footsteps and rustlings becoming merely an insistent whisper of questions. “Why are you here? Why did you come? Why do you do this?”
Every year, she says that was the last time. Every year, she changes her mind. Every year, she decides to give the county fair one more try, and every year, she’s disappointed again. Fifteen next month, you’d think she would have learned by now.
There is absolutely nothing here for her. People are fine, in small groups, but this is just a crowd. The rides are either boring or scary or both, and she wants neither. The games are all rigged. The cows and rabbits and horses and the guy selling cowboy hats and the woman with the hand-painted saw blades you’re supposed to hang on the wall are all the same things from last year. There’s some big storage place somewhere, some giant version of the shed in the back yard, and they just roll this whole thing in there and leave it for fifty-one weeks. Then they drag it out again to fool the unwary who didn’t learn their lesson last year.
She stops and digs her foot down into the dirty sawdust put down to protect the grass, trying to see how deep it is. Like she didn’t do this last year. Like it’ll be any different this year. Just deep enough she can bury her shoe, that’s how deep it is. A shadow crosses her foot, and she looks up.
Denny Martin stands there, alone, and she looks instinctively past him for Dave Laufer. He’s nowhere in sight, and that’s so weird she almost shivers a little. Dave and Denny are like twins. Conjoined twins, joined at the hip in some tragic post-birth mixup at the hospital. Some of the snottier girls at school say they’re gay, but she knows better. She’s seen the way they look at girls. Even her, sometimes. Especially Denny.
“So how come you don’t have a big bag full of stuffed animals?” he asks her, as she’s opening her mouth to greet him.
Because I think the prizes are stupid and the games are rigged. Because I don’t have a boyfriend to try to win them for me. Because I don’t have any money, and I only came to look at the cows and rabbits and the guy selling cowboy hats. “Mmm, uh…” is all she can manage, looking down again. She shrugs.
“You don’t even have a bracelet,” he says. “Are you paying for the rides separately? That gets expensive.”
No, I’m just not going on rides. The bracelets are eight bucks. That’s not expensive? She shrugs again, not looking up. There’s sawdust on her shoe, and she taps it against the other one, looking off down the fairway so he won’t see it.
A bolder girl would look up and grin at him, and that grin would say everything she needs to say. Buy me a bracelet. Win me a teddy bear. Hook your fingers oh-so-casually through mine and buy me kielbasa on a stick and elephant ears, and let’s pretend we’re boyfriend and girlfriend. A bolder girl would look up. She’s known for years now that he wants all those things as badly as she does, and she can’t do a thing about it.
She shakes her head a little, not knowing why, and manages one quick squinted look at his eyes, but the sudden weakness in her forces her gaze down again.
Watching her face, watching her eyes watch her toes, he thinks of asking her to come on some rides with him, but he lets the thought die alone. Dave hasn’t talked about her since that day two years ago, when they swore the blood brothers oath, but he’s felt this odd hands-off taboo ever since.
“Well… have fun, ok?” he says, and she nods her head a little, looking down at her toes.
As soon as he turns away, she can raise her eyes, cautiously, watching his rear view as he moves away toward the rides. Come back and ask me, Denny, she shouts after him, but it’s only in her mind, and she buries a gum wrapper in the sawdust as he walks away.
Kielbasa on a stick. She can afford that, barely, and it’ll feel like fair food, sort of, and she turns the other way, toward the food stands. If you walk between the two rows of back-to-back tents along the commercial display, you have to dodge past piles of boxes and empty hand carts and step over the stakes and ropes, but at least you don’t have to look at people.
Six inches of kielbasa impaled on a wooden skewer and covered with sticky barbecue sauce, and a can of Coke from a cooler with no ice in it. Lunch exhausts what’s left of her allowance, and she sits in a corner of the noisy table area, wondering why she does this and watching the crowd go by. Chests and stomachs and legs, swinging arms and strollers. If you look higher than their shoulders, then you might have to see their faces.
A girl from school and a boy she doesn’t know sit down at the table next to hers with an armload of food that would feed a horse, hamburgers and Cokes and a block of curly fries the size of a loaf of bread. She turns her back and nibbles her kielbasa even more slowly. If she can make it last longer than their pile of food, then she wins, and she closes her eyes to make time slow down.
The bench shakes suddenly, and she looks up, startled. Dave Laufer. It’s so odd to see either of them without the other, and now she’s seen each of them alone in one day. Maybe they’re fighting. Maybe it’s some odd male-bonding ritual.
He landed straddled on the bench with such force that it’s still shaking as she turns her gaze away to the tent pole in front of her. All that silent shouting, and he’s the one that shows up?
“Hey! What are you doing?”
What’s it look like? Eating my last two dollars. Three, counting the Coke, but she can’t say anything. She shrugs her shoulders, picking up the Coke can from the bench beside her.
“That’s not your lunch is it? ’Cause I was thinking, I could buy you some of those curly fries?” and she chokes on her Coke, barely not spewing it out all over the pole. She stares at her shoes. Buy me a bracelet. Win me a teddy bear. You’re not the right one, but can we pretend?
“Hey! Where’s your wrist band? You didn’t get a wrist band? You can’t pay for rides one at a time, you know. You go on like six rides, and you’re losing money after that.” She doesn’t look at him, but she can feel his eyes on her.
“I, uh, don’t really ride the rides much,” she manages, talking only to the tent pole, and then she gropes for her straw again, watching her toes squirm inside her shoes.
“Well, come on! Let’s go fix that. It’s only like two o’clock, lots of time left. Come on!’ and he’s got her elbow, tugging her to her feet. She walks away with him, glad she has the can to occupy her hands. You’re the wrong one, but you might be a step closer.
He takes her back to the front gate, where he buys her an all-you-can-ride wrist band in neon purple. They walk the length of the midway, where anything that remotely resembles throwing a baseball falls prey to his pitching skills, and she lets him talk her onto the Ferris wheel, but that’s all. He’s not giving up, he assures her, but he needs food to argue on, and they retreat to the food stands again, three of them now, Dave, Lucy, and a big green bear with a goofy grin.
The bear’s not eating anything, but Lucy and Dave claim one end of a bench and start in on a pair of steak sandwiches and a big block of curly fries. With drinks and assorted extras, they have enough food between them to feed a small army for a week. Well, a very small army, perhaps, but still, it’s more fair food than she’s ever eaten in any one year.
The passing stream of people holds not just her friends, but his as well, people stopping to greet them and ask if they’ve ridden this ride or that, or did they see the giant pig, and how stupid are those hand-painted saw blades? If she ignores the crowd and pretends she’s in the lunchroom at school, it’s ok. She can see the people as though they’re people, not as units in some zombie locust horde, intent on devouring this entire event. She can sip at her soda straw and smile and greet the girls from school, and not quite look at the boys, and sometimes, she can catch a look in an eye that she’s never seen before, as one girl or another notes the closeness of his hand to hers, on the table between them.
In a still moment with none of their friends around, a sparrow comes hopping alone and intent along the narrow aisle between the row of awning posts and the parking-lot fence. Eyes on the ground, he searches for crumbs among the straggly weeds there, and Lucy gropes along the table’s edge for French-fry remnants to toss him. His bonanza instantly noticed by all his buddies, he’s joined by a dozen more, flitting through the chain-link fence when she reaches for more crumbs, swooping back in when they hit the ground.
Dave joins her, tossing bits of bread and broken chips, and when she reaches blindly to the table, watching the birds and groping for more, her fingers are met by his and the whole world crunches to a stop around her. Unable to look up for a long second, she watches the birds. When she does finally look up at him, she still can’t quite reach his eyes. Her gaze stops at his chin, watching the movements there.
There is absolutely nothing in the mundane feel of his fingertips tangled in hers to account for the sudden stillness in her. Perhaps he’s not the wrong one after all. She draws her fingers away from his, taking refuge in the need of another sip of Coke, and now she can get her eyes all the way up to his. Brown. Why didn’t she know that? Why has she never noticed that? Why has she never seen the way his hair shifts in the soft breeze like that? When did his chin acquire that tiny little juttedness, that firm masculinity?
“Maybe when school starts,” he says, looking down, looking for more to toss to the birds, “maybe we can, uh…” She waits, but there doesn’t seem to be any more. She looks past him to where Denny’s turning away, turning to the line at an ice-cream place.
“Spend some time together,” he whispers finally, but she doesn’t answer. Maybe you’re the wrong one. Maybe you’re not. Maybe you’re just one step closer. Take me on more rides, and let’s find out. Dangle your fingers ever so casually through mine, and let’s see if you’re the one or not.
Except for the mindless crush of the rides and the casual push of the crowd, they spend the rest of the day without touching one another, her fingers trembling off and on all afternoon from that one throbbing moment of tangle. Waiting in the dark outside the front gate for her mother’s car, she finds all of her fingers gathered up again into that mundane stillness. His eyes are even darker now than normal, hidden in the deep shadows of the street lights. Puddling into her own stillness, she looks up at him, at where eyes would be if he had any.
Kiss me. Don’t kiss me kiss me, just kiss me a little, just kiss me a sweet soft first kiss, but when he leans toward her a tiny spanless way, she shifts her weight backward, away from him, and he recedes like an ebbing tide, like a sigh, like regret, and she breathes again.
“School’s in, what, three weeks?” he asks her. They haven’t touched that since he first dropped it, there in the shade of the awnings, in the smell of grease and barbecue sauce and smoke, in the sight of the birds. We should spend some time together, he said to her, and they haven’t said anything about it since.
“Five,” she says, “almost five,” slipping her fingers from his. Take them back. Link them through yours and let my mother see. She steps a tiny inch away from him. Her mother can’t see them like this.
He can’t seem to decide where to put his hands now, dangling alone there in the dark beside him, flitting and hovering like the birds at lunch time. They settle finally in the edges of his pockets, birds landing so neatly in the diamonds of the chain link. She watches the skin wrinkle across his knuckles, tiny canyons of shadow. There seems to be nothing at all left to say, perhaps ever, and she says none of it.
He looks past her, across her shoulder, and a tiny, reluctant movement of his head tells her that her mother is here.