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.