Short Story Challenge Story #2

Short Story number two is written.

The focus of this story was a decision to do something foolish reversed by a chance conversation. The question was what is the real pivotal moment?

The protagonist is heading out the door, stoned and toting a six pack. Planning to make a 32 mile round trip to hang out with a friend, fully intending to drive impaired there and back. The phone rings and a state trooper on the other side of the line asks the protagonist not to drink and drive.

True story.

How does that moment occur? If it comes in dialogue, how is that dialogue delivered?

If the pivotal moment is, “I’m calling tonight to ask you not to drink and drive,” should that phrase be broken from its introductory clause “This is Officer Daniels,” with a dialogue tag, like so:

“This is Officer Daniels from the South Carolina State Highway Patrol,” said the voice. “I’m calling tonight to ask you not to drink and drive.”

Where does the tag belong?

“This is Officer Daniels,” said the voice. “From the South Carolina State Highway Patrol.”

Additional tension-building description here?

The voice was calm, confident, and familiar. Not in the I-think-I-know-this-person way, but in that internal way we have of recognizing sounds that are part of our history. Only the faintest glow of warmth to hint that I know.

Learning where to break the action for description and how to use that description to build tension should be basic story telling mechanics. Yet, I find it intuitive. Maybe it’s the result of reading so many scenes: my familiarity with the acceptable number of beats between words. I think it works this way, the way I wrote it, tell me what you think:

So it was cold outside and I had gloves on and my coat and I had to remove one glove to answer the phone.

“Hello?” I said. I blinked, pressed my other gloved hand to my eye, tried to focus.

“Hello? Miss Fanning?”

“Yes,” I said, “that’s me.”

“This is Officer Daniels from the South Carolina State Highway Patrol,” he said. His voice was clear and familiar. Not in the way that I knew him but that I understood somewhere inside of me that I knew Him.

“Hello,” I said again.

“I’m calling you tonight to ask you not to drink and drive.”

I stared at the six pack on the stove. I closed my eyes, mind swimming from the bong hits. “Excuse me?” I said.

“Just a courtesy call,” he said.

“Okay,” I said. I peeled off my coat, pinning the phone to my ear with my shoulder. I stuffed the gloves in the pocket and tossed it on the futon on the other side of the kitchen wall.

I stood in the kitchen, the glow of the stove’s hood light illuminating my intentions like a jack-o-lantern. The bottles made jagged tooth-like shapes on the ceramic counter tops.

“What else can I do for you, Officer Daniels?” I asked.

 

First Story Done

First story of 2013 done! Working title: “First Time”

I’m working on a series about the inhabitants of a resort town when a freak windstorm sweeps through on a Friday night. In this first story, two young lovers have planned to lose their virginity to one another in a sleeping bag. The romance is perfect in that high school way: an empty rental cabin, the dark tree-covered driveway, a patch of grass overlooking the valley, a bottle of wine. Then the clouds roll in and the wind picks up and the romance is spoiled.

In an effort to work toward capturing more exposition with fewer words, I’ve added a few details here that I think tell us a little about who these two are:

It was a rare Friday night that Winkie didn’t have to sit through one of Logan’s boring-ass basketball games. She’d told Mama she was going out with the girls but when Hannah parked her VW Bug at the quick mart, Winkie jumped into Tommy’s light blue GTO.

Once they arrive at the overlook:

Standing at the trunk, Winkie felt herself fit against Tommy, heard her heartbeat and felt a throb between her legs. She pulled him tighter but then he laughed off her hungry kiss.

“Relax, Winks,” he said, “We’ve got time.”

And, later:

“Your brother says some good wines have screw tops these days,” Tommy said.

The moment is here:

He rolled on top of her and held her face in his hands, his forearms on either side of her, the length of his body fitting neatly over the length of hers.

“You know I love you,” he said, a huskiness in his voice she hadn’t heard before.

“I know,” Winkie said. The wind took her voice, slipped between his kisses on her lips, her jaw, her neck.

Tommy took a deep breath. It was their first time. When he shoved himself inside of her she gasped.

Something broke. A loud crack, the splintering of something, a giving-in to the wind, then a branch ripped out of the giant tree behind them. It crashed onto the car a few feet away. The noise deafened them both.

Winkie squeezed her eyes shut. She felt him inside of her, felt him go soft. She opened her eyes. His face was lifted, his chin above her mouth. He stared at the GTO. Winkie was pinned. She couldn’t see what he saw, could only see the horror on his face. She twisted underneath him, arched her back, rolled her eyes up to her brow, and looked. She got an upside-down view of the GTO, bent and tortured under the branch.

Crushed.

Later, he stumbles out of the sleeping bag, naked, and approaches the car like a zombie. An unrelated memory comes to Winkie and she starts laughing. Her laughter, understandably, annoys Tommy. The exchange between them becomes distant until finally, he tells her he’s called her brother to come get them.

I’d like to add some details. I debated whether or not to explain why Winkie is called “Winkie” but haven’t figured out whether I want to do that here or not. We don’t know much about Tommy except he loves his car (but why?) and he looks up to Winkie’s brother (again, why?) and I’ve been asking whether the answers to those questions are important or not.

It’s a work in progress, but I’m pleased with it. I’ve put it aside as story #1 and am now moving on to #2.

Leave me your thoughts: Have you taken on the 13 Short Stories in 2013 Challenge? How’s it coming?

Lesson 1: Exposition

In the original challenge post I said I had three things to work in a self-diagnosis of my own short story woes. Those things were:

  1. choose the right moment for the story,
  2. embed enough information without killing the story with exposition, and
  3. come to a satisfying conclusion.

As part of my study, I picked up some work by my old fiction teacher, Brock Clarke. He probably doesn’t remember me and has no idea he has a fan (stalker) in Columbia and on Facebook and Life on Clemson Road and NAIWE and Wordsmith Studio and Columbia Writer’s Alliance. Oh well.

Anyway, his short story collection What We Won’t Do was available in the RCPL so I picked it up.

I the first two stories I learned a couple of good short cuts on the exposition problem.

For example, Clarke uses the main character’s profession as a florist to tell us a number of things about her. First, she is empathetic with other living creatures. To care for plants, one must be, yes? Her identity is “florist” and she describes it this way:

“Among florists there is no honor, no lack of honor either, nor a fondness for community, rivalry, or the what-alls of advertising. There is no consensus in sexual preference. There is no celebration of sexual difference. There is no sex.” (p.6)

This passage juxtaposes our florist with the people she’s spending time with, the cripples at the Veterans’ hospital who grouse and complain and compete over everything. She pretends to not understand their tendency towards these behaviors.

Clarke never tells us how she became a florist, he doesn’t even tell us her name. She says, “I am a florist accused of moral contamination,” and we learn she is at the VA to serve community service after a drunk driving wreck.

She tells her husband, “The judge said I needed to learn something about hurt. He also said I was developing into a bad woman.” To which her husband, who woke up the day after his thirtieth birthday and became self-righteously sober, responds, “well…that’s true.” (p.6)

We learn that after his redemption, he started killing her plants.

It’s a four page story. It’s intricate and complex. It’s the single few slivers of the woman, her husband, the plants, and the VA. It’s enough to describe a crucial intersection in life: where we decide to stay or decide to change. She says,

“I keep buying houseplants and leaving them unattended. Bobby Candace keeps killing them. I keep buying more plants. He used to not kill them. I keep hoping he’ll remember why.” (p.7)

It’s not an epic, life changing, all engrossing, love story. It’s a sad beginning-of-the-end incident told in four pages. It’s succinct and rich and beautiful. (I’m going to write about juxtaposition using this story later. Stay tuned.)

I need to learn to get the necessary history in without killing the reader with exposition. I need a few clever lines. In Run or Bleed, I have a woman who wants to be pregnant but isn’t. Her husband seems indifferent to the condition. I had written:

Michael’s responsiveness had been limited to Amy’s stress and disappointment. For a long time the two of them had divided tasks among them. He took out the trash and mowed the lawn. She emptied the dishwasher and did the grocery shopping. Expanding their family had become hers to manage. He participated willingly but frequently responded to discussions about it with mild disinterest.

Once when they’d lost their cat Amy had papered the neighborhood with fliers and worried desperately about how to retrieve the animal. Michael had said, “good riddance.”

Admittedly, Anna Belle’s future did not seem bleak without a sibling. Two of them working and providing a life for Anna Belle meant lavish vacations and horseback riding lessons and rooms filled with toys.

“Hell,” Michael would say when his mother or sisters asked him about Anna Belle being an only child, “she’ll have way more if she doesn’t have to share.”

Amy would smile and agree. Amy imagined Anna Belle old enough to run with her, half marathon training, cross country meets and finish line photos. They would be each other’s playmate.

“Don’t all kids with siblings wish they were onlies?” Michael would say.

“And don’t all only children wish they had siblings?” Amy would say. Then they wouldn’t say anything else and she would go on managing the family expansion chore and he would file the conversation away with the lost cat.

Following Brock Clarke’s lead, minimal discussion, just the telling pieces, I edited it to this:

Working on pregnancy was Amy’s chore. Michael took out the trash and mowed the lawn. She emptied the dishwasher and did the grocery shopping. Once when they’d lost their cat Amy had papered the neighborhood with fliers. Michael had said, “good riddance.”

When his mother or sisters asked him about Anna Belle being an only child, Michael would say, “she’ll have way more if she doesn’t have to share. Don’t all kids with siblings wish they were onlies?”

Then he would file the conversation away with the lost cat.

The only problem I see is Michael seems like kind of a dick. But I think, to tell the story, I may have to let him be that way. If she loves him, he must have something redeeming. As with Clarke’s nurse and her newly-sober husband, his redemption is the thing that changed him. For my Amy, though, she can’t get Michael to care about pregnancy any more than he cared about the cat. That may be a pretty important detail.

I’m working on paring down exposition for the next little bit as I try to edit my two finished (submitted) stories into print.

What are you working on in this month’s effort for the 2013 Short Story Challenge?

2013 Short Story Challenge

Here’s the challenge:While other people are working

13 short stories in 2013

You can call it one-per-month with an extra if you want. I’ll probably pace myself that way. But the rule is a new short story counts toward the 13 but a revision of anything written before 2013 doesn’t.

(This rule is for me since I have four unfinished stories that need work.)

Can’t recycle ‘em. Gotta start fresh.

Who’s in?

I’ll post links to your stories on the monthly 2013 Short Story Challenge Check Up entry on THIS BLOG.

Facebook-wall-post-me a link to your story and I’ll add it. Or put your link in a comment below or over on Life on Clemson Road.

If we’re serious about getting better at something, we need a plan to study and practice that something. Someday I’ll tell you how I learned football and became a better cook.

Here are some books I requested from the Richland County Public Library to start my short story study:

Homeland and Other Stories, Barbara Kingsolver

What We Won’t Do, Brock Clarke

Carrying the Torch, Brock Clarke

Rock Springs, Richard Ford

The Granta Book of the American Short Story, Richard Ford

The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012, edited by Dave Eggers

Have You Seen?

The third time the driver saw the billboard she read the name. Racing 70 miles an hour southbound on I-85 made it difficult to get more than one detail from the billboard on a single pass.

The first pass she registered the plea for help. “MISSING PERSON!” in enormous red letters. Almost by accident, because she glanced that way, the words got the driver’s attention.

Without meaning to, the very next day, racing 70-miles-an-hour southbound, she focused on the woman’s picture. An almond-shaped head with short hair, the kind of cut in fashion in the late 80’s but now unmistakably mom hair. A little too poofy with some feathery waves, short on the sides over the ears and longer, mullet-ish, in the back. Round eyes and a narrow nose.

The third time she read the name. Margaret Allen Ragland. She was probably one of those Southern women who had turned her maiden name into her middle name. The driver wondered absently about the woman on the billboard. She didn’t slow down, she didn’t consider stopping, she didn’t wonder if she knew the woman. She knew she didn’t. She didn’t know anybody named Margaret. Or Meg.

Meg.

In her younger days Meg had been a karaoke super star. She had belted Tanya Tucker after four bourbon and diets. She had smoked long, thin menthol cigarettes and danced with abandon, shoving her ass out and rocking her hips back and forth. Her lips clung to the cigarette and she clapped her hands off rhythm.

Sweet Home Alabama had been played at her wedding reception. She hadn’t smoked then. Her mama wouldn’t let her. So she snuck behind the building with her best friend and took drags off the cigarette Stacey held to her lips. Then she laughed, choked on the smoke, said, “I love you, girl!” and ran back into the party.

Meg hadn’t meant to marry Whittaker Ragland. His buddies called him Whit but she had always called him “Mick” since that’s what it had sounded like he said when they met in that bar in Tulsa. Mick didn’t mind, he thought it was cute that the pixie Meg had a special name for him. He loved her instantly even if she did drink more than a woman should.

Meg’s mama told her the same thing. “Ladies don’t get sauced, Meg,” she would say. “Ladies don’t slurp the rims of their cocktail glasses, Meg.”

Meg cowered behind her eyelashes, ducked her head, turned away from her mama. The perfect southern gentleman, Whittaker Ragland made up for the un-ladylike parts of Meg. Meg’s mama loved him, even if he was too good for Meg. Maybe because he was too good for Meg.

“Don’t mess this up, young lady,” Meg’s mama would say to the 20-year-old Meg. “Men like Whitt are few and far between.”

“His name is Mick,” Meg would say, mostly under her breath or into the rim of her cocktail glass.

The third time the driver passed the billboard she read the name: Margaret Allen Ragland. She didn’t know anyone named Margaret. Or Maggie.

Maggie.

After giving birth to her third boy she had sighed heavily, taken the baby from the doctor and passed him right to her husband who appeared happy to have another one. But Maggie was mad. That moment, that hard labor, that fear when the baby hadn’t cried right away, the three weeks of bed rest leading up to it, being such a pain-in-the-ass pregnancy that she’d sworn she wouldn’t do it again. The weight from the second one wasn’t even gone yet when she’d gotten pregnant with the third. All that and another damned boy.

Maggie tried desperately to recover from that initial anger. But when the baby wouldn’t nurse it just got worse. She combed her hair and stared down at the baby in his bouncy chair, his elder brother sitting indian-style beside him, stacking blocks and gnawing on them now and then. The eldest boy sat on the bed above his brothers, hands furiously snapping the buttons on a video game paddle.

Maggie sighed. Brushed her long chestnut hair. Tried singing to herself. Couldn’t hear her own voice over the noise of the TV, the children, the heartache of those three damned boys. Grabbed a pair of scissors off the vanity and cut one long lock clean off.

 

The third time she passed the billboard, the driver read the name: Margaret Allen Ragland. She didn’t know anyone named Margaret Allen.

Mary Margaret.

The Allen family had established three Pumpers Gas Stations in town. It was a good, honest living and they finally had enough money to fund dance classes. So the second daughter, Mary Margaret, enrolled in ballet. The eldest was too old to begin, it was a lost cause her mother was told. Mary Margaret, though, was just four and her legs were already long and shapely, her frame already wispy and lithe like a good dancer’s should be. Miss Suzanne stared with disdain at the elder sister and then gently nudged Mary Margaret into the room with the long mirrored walls.

Mrs. Allen took her older daughter’s hand and led her from the studio. They went for ice cream, sat on the bench outside of the small hut that served the pink bubble gum flavor Mary Margaret liked so much. But Mrs. Allen and the older sister got butterscotch and peppermint ice creams. They sat and ate quietly, secretly, while Mary Margaret danced.

Mrs. Allen imagined the look on her husband’s face when Mary Margaret wore her first tutu in her first dance recital. She imagined how proud he would be of her beautiful face framed with flowers, her hair swept into a severe bun, her lips painted red so they would show on stage. Mrs. Allen imagined him handing her cash for the costume deposits, $20 more than was due, so she could buy the oldest girl a circe, too. Mrs. Allen imagined the secrets that would come while Mary Margaret danced and she and Mary Margaret’s sister consoled themselves and each other for being unbeloved.

 

The third time the driver read the name, Margaret Allen Ragland, and imagined the life that woman must have led. Her hands gripped the steering wheel and she glanced into the back seat through the rearview mirror.

Her own small child played happily in her car seat with a stuffed pink snake named Finley.

I-85 stretched before her.

Meg had disappeared on a Tuesday. Things hadn’t been right with Mick for a long time. She had decided to leave. Her old boyfriend lived in Houston and they had reconnected on Facebook and she was going to him. She would leave Whittaker Ragland’s BMW in the GSP parking deck and board a plane with no intention of coming home. She would find Tommy who had kissed her with so much passion in the grass on her daddy’s front lawn all those years ago.

She would live in Houston. Texas! She hadn’t been to Texas since she was a little girl. It was a big place, she knew. She couldn’t wait. Tommy had assured her he would take care of her. Love her. Again. She couldn’t wait.

On Tuesday night Mick had choir practice at Rock Springs Baptist Church, that mammoth building that looked like a Civic Center. When he’d left she carried a small suitcase out to the BMW, lifting the garage door with the button on the wall. She hadn’t left a note or anything. She just left.

It wouldn’t have been hard to find her. Once they found the BMW, they knew she had boarded a plane. And her name was on the passenger list, a flight headed to Houston.

The flight arrived. She had arrived. Then what?

The short hair and flowered shirt she wore, that vacation smile, her eyes a little paler than the rest of her face like she had a sunglasses tan but had removed them for her photo to be snapped. The shell necklace, the kind of thing one only wears on a cruise or at the beach. That enormous picture of a happier time and those huge words “Have you seen?”

Women didn’t just walk away from their husbands. Not the Ragland family, kind, church-going people who had only ever helped everyone they had ever known. Meg may have been the only person who called him Mick, but they all knew who he was. He was a keeper, a catch, a good man, a pillar in the community.

Certainly not, the driver thought to herself. She shook her head slowly. Certainly Meg hadn’t just left.

Maggie may have.

Maggie had been so pissed at her boys and so pissed at her husband for only giving her boys, she may have left. She may have waited for someone to find her attractive, with her baby lumps and mommy folds, maybe she had needed that. Maybe Maggie was vain.

The boys worshipped her. Even the youngest, whom she despised, worshipped her. They thought she was a goddess when she cut their sandwiches into circles, when she made faces with grapes for eyes and French fries for hair. They thought she had the most beautiful voice when she sang Kelly Clarkson songs. They thought she was an artist when she colored pictures of puppies and Spiderman and kept the brown and red crayons in the lines.

The boys crawled into her lap and nuzzled her neck. They stroked her arm, the soft pale hair and the tiny brown freckles. The boys lined up to show her their teeth, brushed clean. They hugged her neck tight when she put them to bed.  They fought, boys did, and they came home dirty and smelly.

They played sports in the house, knocking over her nice things and breaking them until she didn’t have any more nice things. They dripped popsicles on the furniture and carpet until everything was always dirty.

Her husband worshipped her, too. He told her she was beautiful while squeezing her tits in his palms. He pressed himself hard against her, kissed the back of her neck under her hair and then without it after she’d chopped it off.

The boys shouted and carried on to be louder than the TV and her husband turned the TV up louder so he could hear it. He put his hand behind his ear as she yelled to him across the living room but he didn’t tell the boys to hush and he didn’t turn the TV down.

And Maggie couldn’t hear the sound of her own voice. She stopped thinking she needed to be loved. By the time the third one could talk she had gotten over wanting to be loved. Love was slobbery and noisy and sticky. She needed to be heard. Maggie was desperate.

Maggie would have left, the driver decided firmly. All she would have needed is a place to go.

 

But Mary Margaret was killed.

Glancing into her blind spot, the driver moved the CRV toward the right lane in anticipation of the exit ramp. Headed home, she and the precious cargo in the back seat who was now singing hilariously to the Lady Gaga song on the radio.

Mary Margaret was good at everything she did. The apple of her father’s eye. Worshipped and adored by her friends, classmates, teachers, and teammates. She had danced and played volleyball, and taken a scholarship to college. She had been president of her sorority and courted by the most handsome boy on campus. She had married in the event of the season in Athens and wore red and yellow flowers in her hair. And then she had been murdered.

How did they even get that picture of her? That one on the billboard? It was ten years older than Mary Margaret had been when she went hiking alone and disappeared. They all knew she was dead. Georgia police had long since stopped looking for her. Her family hadn’t given up. Her older sister, the one who liked peppermint ice cream, convinced herself that Mary Margaret would return. Her father, wheelchair bound since a stroke on the day the Georgia police called, had kept praying for her.

But her mother, the one who had stolen from her father, skimming off the top every time he paid for something for Mary Margaret, her mother who had tried to give the elder sister something that Mary Margaret didn’t have, her mother was glad she was dead.

Her sister had married Mary Margaret’s husband, who killed himself shortly thereafter without leaving a note. Then her sister had paid for the billboard.

The third time she drove by she read the name: Margaret Allen Ragland and she wondered who that woman had been. She wondered if that had been her, would she recognize herself? Or would she be standing below that sign, staring up at those enormous words: “Have you seen?” and thinking, “no, no I haven’t.”

Or driving by, at 70 miles an hour, thinking what a terrible, desperate place to be. Wherever that place was.

 

Two Trunks — Revised submission to The Baltimore Review

The heat alone kept the one elephant from mounting the other. He moved around her, beside her, in front of her. Exposed. Interested. But seemed to decide against it. Tracey Parker-Wright muttered a grateful prayer and herded the children, 17 kindergartners, away from the elephant exhibit towards the noisier monkeys.

In her peripheral view she saw the male elephant, that pornographic pachyderm, wink at her.

It was too hot for the Zoo. Tracey had already sweated through her white button-down; it clung to her back and sides, showing her bra straps through the cotton. Huge rings soaked the material under her armpits, and she could smell herself as she waved the children toward the monkeys.

Three boys climbed up to a rail on the fence to get a better look. The animals improved their crying and chattering. The boys imitated them, glee animating their faces, their noises childish and primal.

Tracey glanced back toward the elephants. A curve in the sidewalk hid them from view, but she could see people emerging from the exhibit area laughing, shaking their heads, talking about it.

She could smell the elephant manure and moved a little closer to the monkeys. Theirs was a hairy, breezy smell. It blew in waves as the primates swung through the cage. The elephant stench just sat in a thick cloud of disgust and desperation.

The Zoo trip had been Claudia’s idea. Tracey looked at her teaching assistant, a college senior, pretty and thin in that 22-year-old-way: unnoticed, unintentional. No sweat stains under her arms, barely a trickle on her forehead. She glistened, as Tracey’s Mama would say, as southern ladies do. Tracey sweat.

Nothing pretty about sweat. It slickened her thighs, saturated her clothes, matted her hair. She knew just before she did it that pushing her hand through her bangs would glue a large chunk back on top of her head. The discolored ends of stray locks, wet from being close to skin, stuck to the top dry locks where her roots were showing. She wished the whole mess was long enough to twist into a bun.

Another thing Mama would say, “you’re too old for long hair, Tracey,” and exhale a long, smoky breath. “You’re much prettier with yours short.”

Cigarette smoke might beat back that elephant stench, if it were allowed next to such sensitive creatures as caged elephants and wild children. But seven years ago the City had passed the no-smoking ordinance in an attempt to save them all from one another.

Tracey, ducking from the cigarette smoke would say, “you really need to quit, Mama.”

“Why? Because the City of Greenville doesn’t want my kind in their restaurants? Old hypocrites.”

“No, Mama, because it’s killing you.”

“That ain’t what’s killin me, Tracey,” she said.

But Tracey couldn’t respond to that. So she just left it alone.

The reptile house was next. Tracey followed the most eager boys toward it.

Cortnee, Tracey’s best friend and hair dresser, agreed with Tracey’s mother about older women and long hair. She wore her own in a sharp, short pixie without the wisps a smaller girl could pull off. Cortnee had married at 17 and now she and Paul were divorcing.

“I know what went wrong,” she said. “I got fat.”

“Stop it,” Tracey said, “you’re not fat.”

“Please, honey, I can’t remember the last time I felt anything but enormous.”

Cortnee had kept the weight form her third baby and added a few more pounds in the form of cupcakes, vanilla lattes, and bourbon and gingers. But Tracey didn’t consider Cortnee fat. Fat meant two seats on the airplane, electronic chairs to move around the grocery store, knees hidden with rolls of skin.

“She’s a big girl,” Mama would say.

Cortnee was probably a size fourteen, maybe sixteen. She had some bulges on her back and some jiggle on her arms, but she was just big, not fat.

In the reptile house, the boys pressed their faces against the glass behind which a long, yellow python curled, still, as if sleeping. But its black eyes, opened, focused on Tracey, and its tongue flickered between its lips. Fast, at first, barely there, then slowly. Deliberately.

The rest of the group surged into the reptile house with Claudia bringing up the rear. She shot a look at Tracey that said, “isn’t this fun?” Tracey remembered what it was like to love other people’s children that much. She only taught because Oliver said they needed the money.

Tracey and Oliver met in college when he introduced himself as “the other Wright brother.” His twin, Sean, originally talked to her in a class they shared and the first time they went out Oliver had told her he was Sean in case he didn’t really like her. She had to be told how inappropriate that had been and everyone to whom she told the story informed her accordingly. But at the time it hadn’t occurred to Tracey to mind. She liked him, whatever his name was, and she felt grateful he liked her, too. He’d said it before he kissed her goodnight.

“I want to kiss you,” he’d said, looking bashfully away and shoving his hands in his coat pockets.

Tracey shivered a little, with anticipation, with February. She looked up the stairs to the sorority house, to the door, and back at Oliver-whom-she-thought-was-Sean expectantly.

“Okay,” she said, hoping it sounded encouraging.

“I hope what I’m about to say won’t take that chance from me,” he said.

Tracey heard the disclaimer too late, the wine from dinner had dulled her a little and she just smiled as if he had commented on the coolness of the night or the smell of snow in the Texas air.

“I’m the other Wright brother,” her future husband said.

“Okay,” Tracey said.

Then he kissed her and she forgot that she had thought he was Sean, it didn’t seem necessary to care. The edge of his tongue slid across her lips and into her mouth with a quick and urgent, but not unpleasant, pressure. Deliberate.

“Mrs. Wright, look!” a little boy shouted anxiously. The memory of that first kiss, coming unbidden at the site of the snake, made Tracey blush. But children don’t notice such things. The boy who had shouted, and two of his friends, tugged on Tracey’s black skirt.

It was a stupid thing to wear to a zoo, a skirt. But it flared generously and offered a breeze between her legs which were now slick with sweat and sliding against one another as she followed the boys’ tugging toward the other large glass box. This one housed a rattlesnake. It beat its tail furiously, the rattle noisy despite the glass cage’s effect on muffling it.

“Can he get us?” a little girl asked.

“No,” Claudia assured them when Tracey didn’t speak up. “It’s behind glass.”

Tracey stared at the rattlesnake, shielded as she was, but angry at being so. What did she expect? What sort of ideas did she have beyond the cage? Did she have somewhere else to be?

She heard Claudia saying, “come on, children, lots to see. I think the lions are next!” A loud cheer came out of the eager boys and the girls fluttered a little in their wake.

Claudia touched Tracey on the arm, “are you okay?”

Tracey smiled, “yes, of course.” And then, “It’s just hot.”

Claudia laughed, “yes, it is.” She glanced for a minute at Tracey’s black skirt and then turned and left the reptile house. Claudia’s own khaki capris were much more practical zoo attire.

“What kind of a lady wears such things?” Mama would say. “She looks like a boy.”

When they left Texas after graduation to move back to Greenville Tracey had told Oliver it was because her mother was old and alone and needed Tracey nearby. Truthfully she had missed Greenville every day she had been away. She had missed Cortnee, who, by that time, had her second child and her beautician’s license.

Oliver didn’t argue with Greenville. He could make a good living there and afford a bigger house, better schools for his kids, and maybe even an elected office. And he loved Tracey, he really did, she knew that when they came to Greenville. She knew it when they had their first son, Ollie, and when they had their second one, Adam.

But when she miscarried their baby girl at 22 weeks, Tracey felt Oliver’s love shift away from her without a word. She didn’t know Oliver had decided they would not have any more children. When the doctor cleared her to start trying again, she bought new red lingerie. She had been running and boot-camping, and she was fit, strong, slim. She felt young and sexy in that red satin nightie.

Oliver had smiled and said, “I’m sorry, babe, not tonight, okay?” He had turned his back, rolled over to sleep, and she had extinguished the light, and cried alone right next to him.

Cortnee assured her that it wasn’t a sign. Her own husband had sex with her the night before he asked for a divorce. “Some men,” she said, “are sexual. Some men are not.”

Tracey wanted that, the night-before-divorce-one-last-time-sex. Maybe in the laundry room, or on the side of the house. Goodbye sex in the driveway like when she was a teenager, the porch light forcing her to squint, leaned up against her boyfriend’s car with her leg wrapped around his waist, his shoulder in her mouth.

The reptile house was dark and cool. Tracey blinked as the group emerged into the shade of several trees. She trailed behind, watching Claudia herd the children towards the lion enclosure.

A faux rock tunnel stood over the sidewalk, a giant plexiglass wall stretching from ceiling to ground on one side. Beyond the plexiglass long grass bent idly seeking a breeze and boulders stacked into stage-like formations at the center of the enclosure.

The children stepped up to the plexiglass and pressed their hands, noses, and foreheads against it. Two of the wilder boys smacked it. Claudia told them to quit. Tracey hung toward the back, looking over the children’s heads into the habitat. Shades of brown and tan and pale green and grey blurred together as she let her eyes lose focus.

After that initial rejection it took her a week to try again. Her feelings had been hurt but she decided she had simply picked the wrong color. So she hung the red negligée in her closet next to the white one she’d worn on her wedding night and the blue one she’d bought at the real Frederick’s of Hollywood in California.

She bought a hot-pink teddy with satin bows on the shoulder straps and snaps in the crotch. She went for a Brazilian wax and sent the boys to stay with her mother. She poured gobs of honey-scented lotion into her hands and rubbed it all over, massaging her breasts and thighs and hips and imagining their lovemaking. She fastened herself into the teddy and waited.

Oliver called once, text messaged her after that, and came home from an unplanned business dinner well after one a.m. He smelled like whiskey and cigarette smoke but she smiled anyway and invited him into the bed, where she had been reading with her glasses on, the teddy still in place.

He had looked at her, said, “wow.” And then walked into the bathroom and ran the shower.

He would wash the stench of separateness and other lives away. She would turn off the lamp, light a few candles, and put her glasses and book into the nightstand drawer. The shower cut off. She waited.

The pleasant honey candle warmth faded away. Tracey found herself sweating standing in a thick cloud of disappointment and desperation. Too hot. Too smelly. Staring at that elephant, his enormous penis hanging out, she counted up the months.

“Mrs. Wright,” Bobby Jameson said, “why does he have two trunks?”

Claudia bit back giggles and pointed out the baby elephant hiding in the corner.  But Tracey flushed, felt herself get warmer than the weather and said, “let’s all go see the monkeys!” The eager boys cheered, grabbed Bobby, and raced up the sidewalk to the monkey cages.

If the pink teddy hadn’t been another failure. If he hadn’t smiled drunkenly and said, “some other time.” Maybe then she would have tried again. But she didn’t. She waited for him to try. And he didn’t.

And now it had been over a year.

She watched over the children’s heads as the lions paced in their exhibit. The plexiglass shook, emitted wavy, warped sounds as the children elbowed one another out of the way and pressed themselves against it to get a better look. The enclosure side of the glass bore long streaks where the cats had licked the glass or sneezed on it and with enormous paws wiped the streaks away.

The female lion stalked back and forth along the far fence. The male lay down and rubbed himself into the tall grass, scratching his back, his mane. His legs fell open, his belly and genitals exposed. Tracey flushed again and looked away.

The group had only just entered the zoo. The class would take another hour to complete all of the exhibits. Tracey watched Claudia who was holding up her phone. The device emitted sounds like a camera lens closing as Claudia snapped pictures, posing each child with a buddy in front of the plexiglass.

She said, “smile!” and “that was a good one!”

Tracey looked past the group to the female lion, the one stalking the fence. She seemed to know something important lay on the other side though her mate lay behind her.

Tracey focused on her shoulders, bony blades lifting in turn, step after step. The lioness shook her head, though she had no mane to shiver around her ears or face. Tracey shook her own head, slightly at first and then with the quick jerk of tossing off a fly. The thick mat of pushed-back-bangs fell into her face and then flipped away.

The lioness’s tail flopped against her rear-end. Her hips bobbed up and down in opposite rhythm of her shoulders. Tracey smoothed her skirt, hands on either side of her hips, pushing the material away, swaying a little to push a breeze underneath it. Her thighs felt slick.

The lion crushed the grass under each step, pushed those long, limp blades aside as she moved through them. Her tongue wiped across her face, her eyes locked on whatever she envisioned to be on the other side.

Tracey listened. Beyond the echoy noise of the children, the click of the camera lens, and the warble of the plexiglass, she heard the grass swishing under the lioness’s feet. Maybe asking questions the lioness didn’t have answers to. Maybe wanting the lioness to be more than she was. Maybe less. Tracey watched.

The lioness stalked the wall, up and back, up and back. Then she stopped, turned, glanced at her mate and then stared past him. At Tracey. Trapped.

 

The Winning Entry

Here’s the first page excerpt I revised after the Fantastic Books Publishing event critique.

Wednesday

Tony is dead. He killed himself Monday night.

I took my window seat. Twelve hours and thirty-two minutes since I was told, forty-five minutes since I’d had a cigarette, and barely fifteen seconds since I’d thought about it. When they paased out drinks it would be thirteen hours and seven minutes since I was told. When I asked the guy on the aisle if I could borrow his magazine, it would be fourteen hours and nine minutes.

We were going to Virginia, the guy on the aisle and me, and there was nothing I could do to stop that now. But we weren’t in this thing together. He couldn’t even hear the mantra.

Tony is dead. He killed himself Monday night.

Half of my life is in Virginia. Two parents. One ex-girlfriend. Four best friends who would do anything for me. Well, three now. Tony is dead.

It’s February and it’s too soon to be going back to Virginia. It’s the time of year they usually tell me they’re coming to me. If I asked they would be on a plane in minutes to be with me. At least that’s what they say. But none of them have ever been toSan Francisco. We still call Virginia home. Say things like, “when will you be home again?” But the loft apartment on West Hartford is my home and I know that, even if they don’t. .

Wednesday morning at 9:52 a.m. Pacific time, I asked the flight attendant for a beer. She scowled at me, made change from my ten-dollar bill and handed me a Heineken. But the beer only made me want to smoke.

Tony is dead.

The book is called A Moment When the World is Silent and the pitch goes like this:

Brian Listo wants to forget Virginia, even as he returns to bury his best friend. Can he escape before the love of his life forces him to admit the life he has been living is a lie?

The critique read like this:

A Moment When the World is Silent by Kasie Whitener Critique by Penny Grubb and Danuta Reah PART TWO (OF TWO) – to see part one, scroll back up the time line. …

Good opening and very effective catalogue of seconds, minutes and hours…. You need to establish the sex of your character in these opening stages. If readers picture one thing, and get it wrong, it can stop them from reading further. This is well written.
There were some comments and other discussion, but this is the gist of it.
Let me know what you think!

Seduction of an Innocent

Forget everything you know about vampires. I know all the vampire books tell you that. They all claim to have the real story. So that’s fine. Read their stories. I don’t claim mine is real. I’d hardly believe it myself if I hadn’t lived it. If I hadn’t been it. But I was. I am still.

She’s not. She’s dead. They’re all dead now. Except me.

So it’s Thursday and I’m where I always am on Thursday. I’m behind the bar. Because despite what other books say about vampires, we do need money. If we don’t want to live like homeless cannibals we need to pay our bills.

I work dollar-bottle night and make a pretty good dime doing it. It’s easier, too, since it starts at happy hour and is usually into the hot-mess of drunken idiots by about 10 p.m. I am usually off by 11 and free to wander out to the beach, which is where I prefer to be. The wind out there and the smell of the saltwater keep the other obnoxious fumes (perfume, sweat, stale beer, blood) at bay.

I can usually stay out there for a few hours before heading home and going to bed because we do sleep. Not in coffins. But we sleep. How long would eternity be if we were awake for every minute? Seriously.

Gretchen, who works with me on Thursdays, asks me for a cigarette and I give it to her. Because, despite what other books tell you, vampires breathe and sometimes we do it through thin paper-wrapped tobacco sticks that burn. I light one, too, and snap the tops of two more bottles and pass them over the bar to a girl who barely looks old enough to drive let alone drink.

That girl smiles at me below lowered lashes and glances back at me when she walks away. I stare back in what she probably thinks is a meaningful way. My eyes are blue. Not all of our eyes are blue. Some are green, some are brown. But my eyes gave me my name. Or, better, he gave me my name because of my eyes.

Around midnight that too-young girl and I are stretched out on the beach in a makeshift seduction. How we got there doesn’t really matter. It’s always the same. She’s drunk. She’s wearing very short shorts, tiny diamond earrings, and desperation.

I kiss her because unlike what other vampire books tell you about how hard it is to be that close, it’s really not that hard. I’m a gentle lover and I kiss her softly, teasing her lips, her jaw, her neck. I peal the strap of her bra down over her shoulder. I touch her. Everywhere. She moans and drops her head back. Her throat is exposed. I bite her. Because of all the things the vampire books tell you, that part is true.

All right. Are we sick of vampires yet? Is this different enough that you’d want to read more? Or is it same-old same-old vampire nonsense?

Working Title: Run or Bleed

Revised and added to ….

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When her period started that morning Amy finally let the tears fall. She sat on the commode staring at the sticky crimson blotch on the pink cotton stretched between her knees. Her vision blurred and then the tears dripped, slowly, one after the next, over her lashes and down her cheeks. She didn’t bother to wipe them away. She just cussed at the evidence of her body’s betrayal, spitting the word out as her nostrils filled and she choked. A tide of tears spilled out. Elbows on her knees, face in her hands, she let the tears pour and the strangled gasps shake her frame.

Amy could count the number of times she had cried in the last three years. The anniversary of her grandmother’s death fell on Mother’s Day last year and she’d taken flowers to Nana’s grave. Another time she clicked on a must-see link in an email and watched a soldier return from war to surprise her daughter at school in a YouTube clip.

She had once spanked Anna Belle for running away from her in a parking lot then stood beside the car crying afterward. Some unexpected strength took up residence inside her the day Anna Belle was born. Amy became Mommy and crying only distracted from her primary job of caring for, comforting, and encouraging Anna Belle. Amy had quickly swallowed the parking lot tears and hadn’t spanked AB since.

Now here she was. The fourth time she had cried in three years. Sobbing over a smear in her panties. The toilet shifted a little, tilting slightly under her weight. Damn thing had been wobbly since they bought the house five years ago. She cussed again and sobbed harder, her throat thickening with grief. Now she had to keep running. Now she had to keep dieting. Now she had to keep trying to lose weight. She took a deep breath, trying to force the sobs to cease. Amy thought, “I’d just like to have one goddamned donut,” and let a small laugh escape.

Tuesdays are not the days for such complaints. Too many things queued up between her and where she needed to be to really feel sorry for herself. A run, then the morning rush to get Anna Belle ready for daycare and herself ready for work. Then a long commute to the other side of town, a hug goodbye, if she was lucky, then Anna Belle would run off to play and she would trudge back to the car and ride the quarter mile to her office. A cube, some coworkers chatting about reality TV, fluorescent lights that would wash out her complexion, pithy phrases on motivational posters hanging framed on the walls. Amy wanted to cry a little while longer just thinking about another joyless day.

Yesterday her running partner, Jamie, had announced she and Rick were expecting their second. “I’m sorry, Amy,” she’d said, rising up out of a hamstring stretch.

“What for?” Amy had forced a laugh, “babies are good things.”

“I have to quit running,” Jamie said.

“Oh.”

“I know we’d planned to run Paris Mountain,” Jamie said.

“It’s okay,” Amy said quickly, “I can still do the half. I’m happy for you, really.”

Today the conversation came back to her in the stillness of the predawn darkness and Amy snorted. Why had Jamie apologized for being pregnant? Oh, right, Amy thought, because I’m not. That had the desired effect: a new stream of tears coursed down her cheeks.

Amy cried until she felt silly and then she stretched some toilet paper across her lap, tore it from the roll, folded it and blew her nose.  Every month was like this one: the defeat repeatedly evidenced in her panties. Bad timing. Missed connections. Interrupted intentions. Failure.

Wadding up the tissue, she dropped it into the trashcan at her side. Then she cleaned herself up, stood, and left the bathroom. The mantra was already playing: It wasn’t that they couldn’t get pregnant. She knew that. Anna Belle was proof they could. It wasn’t that they wouldn’t get pregnant. They just hadn’t.

She dressed. Snug purple sports bra, slim black spandex pants, Lycra-cotton blend socks, running shoes, a sweat-wicking top she’d purchased with a race entry, her baseball cap.

Michael slept heavily, snuggled deep in the blankets of their bed. The shape of his body beneath the blankets had grown bigger in the last year. She hadn’t minded his extra weight. Hadn’t said anything to him about his portion sizes. Hadn’t asked him to stop drinking or try exercising once or twice a week.

She pulled her reflective vest off the doorknob and slipped out of the bedroom. Amy closed the door behind her and gently released the doorknob into the latch.

In the kitchen, she removed and trashed the old coffee filter, replaced it, poured a pot of water into the tank, and set the timer to begin brewing about the same time Michael would get out of the shower. Darkness held on a little longer in the mornings this time of year and when she extinguished the kitchen light the entire house was black.

Her running shoes emitted prickled squeaks, leather shifting against itself and straining against the laces. Amy tip-toed down the hall, flipped the bright light on, and crept into Anna Belle’s room.

The little girl’s face turned from the light and relaxed in a deep state of unconsciousness. Her cheeks shone, oily from sleep and sweat. Some of her soft hair glued to her forehead where she’d pushed it from her eyes. Long, soft curls streamed out around her head. Tiny lips hung open, puffy and dry.

Amy leaned over the toddler bed to get a better look, replaced a stuffed bear Anna Belle had tossed aside, gently tucked the soft blankets a little closer to Anna Belle’s chin. Amy let her breath out slowly, pursing her lips to blow gently at Anna Belle. The girl’s face twitched in response, she turned her head away, squeezed her eyes tighter and licked her lips. Then she snuggled deeper into her pillow, and Amy smiled and snuck out of the room. She flipped the hallway light off as she left.

When Anna Belle was born, Amy had entertained fantasies of staying home. They could go to the zoo and have mommy and me playdates with homeschool moms. They could snuggle and read books and listen to classical music. They could take walks in the neighborhood and swim in the community pool while everyone else attended school and work.

It just couldn’t happen, Michael told her. They had agreed to certain financial goals and they were on pace to meet them. Their family required her income. Think of the things Anna Belle would have, her friends told her, because you work.

Amy remembered the phrases she’d used, “someone else raising my kid,” and “missing out on so much of her life,” as she begged Michael to help her find a way to make it work. He’d refused. There was no way, he said.

How had her position so dramatically changed?

Their home matched the others on the street, a carefully planned subdivision of single story patio homes mostly suited for the very old or the very young. She would normally wait for Jamie, or find Jamie standing at the end of her driveway. But not today.

Amy pressed play on her iPod and go on her GPS watch. She set out at a light jog toward the top of the neighborhood where she would follow a long route toward town. Before the McDonald’s she would double back, winding her way past the car dealerships and grocery store, before re-entering her small subdivision, running past her home, deep into the neighborhood, and finally back into her own driveway. Seven miles total. A good hour-and-a-quarter run before the sun really stretched its light over the sky. Week two of official half marathon training. Solo.

Amy had worked hard for her PR in the ½ marathon at Phoenix. She had painstakingly mapped out routes, added mileage, soaked herself in ice baths and rubbed her thighs with E-Z glide. She had counted the days, hours, minutes to race day. She had run tempo runs, hill sprints, and easy jogs to condition herself. She had devoured every issue of Runner’s World magazine. Two summers earlier she’d barely opened What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

The pace felt good and within a few minutes Amy was thinking about earlier with embarrassment. How silly she was to cry over her period. It had been coming for twenty five years without fail. Except for that brief eight months when she’d been pregnant with Anna Belle, she had never missed a month. She should be used to it. And anyway, pregnancy right now would mean a summer of being fat and uncomfortable. Better to wait for the fall.

The sadness ebbed while she ran, talking herself through the moment with each step. Yesterday, day 29, she’d felt her breasts were full and sore. She’d had trouble concentrating and took too long on silly tasks like plucking her eyebrows and re-ordering her key ring so all the barcode tags faced the same direction. She knew when she got intent on something like that and lost track of time she was PMSing. The symptoms were there.

Not like last month. Last month she had been a week late. Dizzy, nauseous, swollen breasts tender to the touch, sensitive to the smell of the morning coffee. She’d gagged when she set the pot one morning. Last month she was convinced. And then. Then the crimson in her panties.

They’d had trouble getting pregnant with Anna Belle, too. So she had not been worried after two years. But this was stretching into three years and Amy was older now and she was starting to think something might be wrong.

Michael’s concern had been limited to Amy’s stress and disappointment. For a long time the two of them had divided tasks among them. He took out the trash and mowed the lawn. She emptied the dishwasher and did the grocery shopping. Expanding their family had become hers to manage. He participated willingly but frequently responded to discussions about it with mild disinterest.

Once when they’d lost their cat Amy had papered the neighborhood with fliers and worried desperately about how to retrieve the animal. Michael had said, “good riddance.”

Anna Belle couldn’t participate in the worry, either. She had friends with sisters and dolls with sisters but it never occurred to her to ask if she might ever have a sister, too. Amy sometimes thought Anna Belle better suited to only-child status. And despite the heartbreak of having to lose her parents eventually, which Amy assumed could be softened by her life mate whomever that turned out to be, Anna Belle’s future did not seem bleak without a sibling.

“Hell,” Michael would say when his mother or sisters asked him about Anna Belle being an only child, “she’ll have way more if she doesn’t have to share.”

Amy would smile and agree. Two of them working and providing a life for Anna Belle meant lavish vacations and horseback riding lessons and rooms filled with toys. Amy imagined Anna Belle old enough to run with her, half marathon training, cross country meets and finish line photos. They would be each other’s playmate.

“Don’t all kids with siblings wish they were onlies?” Michael would say.

“And don’t all only children wish they had siblings?” Amy would say. Then they wouldn’t say anything else and she would go on managing the family expansion chore and he would file the conversation away with the lost cat.

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So what do you think? Do you care about Amy? Is it boring?