Grace of God – Chapter 2

I’m hard at work on my favorite part of writing, which is, oddly enough, just writing. I’ve taken the material I had already written for Grace of God and I’m doing a lot of revision based on my outline and my more fully-fleshed ideas about the novel. I’ve abandoned the original approach in the first chapter and broken it into two chapters. The man who saves Grace, John McDermott, gets his own introductory chapter because I want him to be the moral center of the story. He’s a more prominent character in the book now than I had originally intended. I think readers will be inherently interested in learning more about John and the impact he has on Grace throughout the novel. Let’s see how it unfolds. In the meantime, here’s the chapter where John is introduced.

John McDermott’s morning had begun like most of his mornings – sitting on the back porch drinking his coffee as he watched the sun rise above the trees on the far end of his pasture. This particular morning had missed its sunrise as had the previous three mornings. Heavy rains had pelted the great state of Alabama for more than three days straight. Just when he thought he’d get a break, another front would move in and drop buckets of rain on his cows and the overgrown pasture in which they roamed.

He’d gone out for his customary morning walk around the pasture to check on things and tidy up his farm despite the rain in each of the past three days, but he felt drained this morning and had stayed put on his porch having an extra cup of coffee or two. The unyielding rain had zapped his energy. His old bones ached. His cranky hip fussed at him when he stepped onto the short step leading into his house. Instead of walking the pasture, he’d taken a nap. The cows could wait. There was plenty to eat and drink.

In his youth, he would have trudged out into the rain and still finished all of his chores by the time his wife called him for lunch. He would have relished the challenge of man against nature, savored the grit of the mud on his shoes and clothes, but nature was slowly winning the battle bit by bit. His wife was gone now, and so was his youth.

By late morning, he had returned to his porch with another freshly-brewed cup of coffee still trying to shake off the remnants of his long nap. He glanced out into the relentless rain that hung over his property like a thin, white veil. Puddles formed all around his yard as the earth regurgitated the rain, too waterlogged to absorb much more. He shook his head in disbelief. He hadn’t seen a rain like this in all of his 65 years. Noah’s Ark came to mind, and he mused that he’d have to build an ark for his cows if this continued.

He didn’t recognize the distinct buzz of a low-flying airplane in the distance until he returned to his porch with his lunch. He sat the plate down on the small table next to his rocking chair and fingered the stale sandwich while he stood near the railing. He took one bite and chewed slowly before he acknowledged the sound growing in its urgency. He leaned over the railing and tried to peer into the sky, but the clouds and rain offered him no perspective to identify the source of the sound.

John’s farm stood in the path of a regular landing route at the Birmingham airport many miles to the south. He regularly saw airplanes high above his field pointing toward the big city’s airport. Generally, the planes were too high in the air to cause much of a ruckus. He really only noticed them when they punctured the bright blue sky with a metallic glint, but he rarely heard them because he lived far enough away from the airport.

By the time he recognized the noise as that of an airplane, he knew something was wrong. He was no pilot, and he had only flown on a plane twice in his life, but he knew the surrounding area well enough to know that the closeness of the noise was not normal. He also knew the sound of the engines suggested trouble. He’d worked on many farm machines in his life and he knew the sound of a struggling engine. This plane was in trouble.

Fed up with his inability to catch sight of the invisible plane from his porch, John donned a rain jacket and an old farmer’s hat and hurried down the porch steps into the pouring rain. He walked further into his backyard to get a better view of the surrounding area and peered into the sky. The rain felt like darts in his eyes, and he could see nothing above him, but the sound of the sputtering engines increased until a high whine rode the slight breeze.

He finally isolated the general direction of the noise and concentrated his search on the horizon above his pasture. For a brief moment, he thought he saw a dark object, like the Loch Ness Monster emerging from the deep, pierce the low-hanging clouds above his pasture, but it disappeared just as quickly as it had appeared. He walked toward the pasture aiming for the stand of trees on the far side. Several cows stared at him inquisitively, but he ignored them.

Just as he was about to give up and return to the damp confines of his porch, the rain let up, and while the clouds still hung low over his pasture, visibility improved enough for him to see the airplane descend just on the other side of the stand of trees. The plane wobbled side to side at first and then righted itself, but it continued to descend.

John stood still with his hand above his eyes to shield them from the gray glare of the daylight. The trees on the far edge of his pasture grasped for the plane as if they were pulling it to the ground. His heart rate increased and his stomach ached as he watched the plane try to reverse its descent. It continued to fall from the sky, banked left, and then dropped behind the scraggly pines. John’s breath hitched as he waited for the impact.

An fireball lit up behind the trees and the ground at John’s feet rumbled as if an earthquake were gaining momentum and rolling through the area. He staggered a bit as if the explosion threw shrapnel at him, but he was too far away to get hit by any debris, and beyond the initial fire, he couldn’t see much behind the trees.

He paused momentarily staring at the horizon in disbelief, but then, instinct kicked in and he turned back to his house. He moved as fast as his old legs would let him and bounded up the steps with his heavy boots thumping across the old wooden porch. The screen door protested when he swung it open and thumped loudly against the frame as the determined old man made a beeline for the phone hanging on his kitchen wall.

He mashed 9-1-1 on his phone and gave a vivid description of the crash and location to the dispatcher. He heaved a big sigh of relief when he hung up, but his heart still raced in his chest. He couldn’t believe what he had seen. He felt the need to do something, but he reasoned that no one could have possibly survived that explosion. A morbid curiosity overcame him.

Death was nothing new on the farm. He’d seen cows die during childbirth. He’d lost his wife to breast cancer a decade ago. He’d seen one of his farmhands get mangled to death in a piece of a equipment once – a sight that still gave him nightmares. Being an old man, he didn’t want to get too cozy with death, but he’d never seen something so dramatic as a plane crash, and he wondered what it must be like on the ground just beyond the trees.

Before he could think anymore about it, John zipped up his jacket and grabbed the keys to his rickety pickup. He made a quick transition through the gate to his pasture, but as he was returning to his truck after closing the gate behind him, it started to rain again. The whole world around him gave in to the sound of the rain pattering on the ground. The rest of the world huddled into itself as if it were waiting for the merciless rain to stop. Had he not seen the crash with his own eyes, he would be hard-pressed to believe that it had happened because the visible flames had rescinded behind the trees and the fog of the rain obscured the smoke rising from the crash site blending it into the dreary backdrop.

He pressed the gas pedal and maneuvered the truck over the terraced pasture. The bumpy ride made his back ache despite the deep, vinyl cushion of the bench seat in his truck. He drove as fast as he could without jarring himself from the driver’s seat. When he reached the trees and drove through the only gap large enough for his truck, he could see the smoke still swirling violently up from the remains of the plane that were strewn across the outer reaches of his pasture. He kept driving until the wreckage became more visible, and then he stopped at the nearest bits of twisted, charred metal.

John stepped out of his truck. The smell of jet fuel overwhelmed him. He instinctively pulled the lapel of his jacket up to shield his nose. Another smell greeted him, one that he could not quite place but it reminded him of the many cows he had found dead on the outer reaches of his pasture. The rain pelted him like it was warning him to stay away, but he persisted in walking toward the wreckage. On the far side of the scorched patch of earth, he could see the remains of the fuselage broken into three large pieces. The forward half had the nose wedged into the ground and was nothing but a black shell of its former self. He could not identify much beyond the outline of the front of the plane.

The tail section had broken into two pieces and remained remarkably intact. They were badly tattered and had some scorch marks and large pockmarks, but were identifiable. He hesitated to take more steps forward. Even from the distance, he could see the bodies through the opening of the tail section. He swallowed hard. A sickening feeling overcame him. Death on this scale exceeded his imagination. He moved forward anyway, his feet smacked the waterlogged earth beneath him.

As he moved closer, the sound of the rain and the pop of metal filled his ears. No cries for help and no sounds of struggle. Everyone had died. There were no survivors. John shook his head at all of the despair. Everyone single one of these families represented here would get bad news. They would live with the reality that their loved ones perished in a fiery crash in some god-forsaken field in the middle of nowhere. His nowhere.

He took another step toward the crash and hesitated. The jet fuel fumes and the odor of burned flesh pushed against him. He stood far enough away that he was unable to see the details in the fuselage, but as reluctance and curiosity battled in his mind, he knew that each step forward would lead him to things that he could never un-see. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath in spite of the odor. He exhaled quickly and then began walking to the broken tail section.

The smoke, although subdued by the pouring rain, grew thicker as he stepped toward the wreckage. The mangled metal and strewn-about remnants of the cabin littered his path forcing him to look at the ground carefully to avoid tripping or hurting himself. The earth squished beneath his feet. Each step sunk into the mud a few inches. This part of his field had always been swampy, but the relentless rain had made it even more so. He kept his eyes focused on the immediate area around him as if he were reluctant to look at the fuselage that smoldered and cracked a few hundred yards before him.

He saw something move, just a tiny flicker in his peripheral vision, but with all the death and devastation around him, his senses were attuned to any potential signs of life. He turned his head to confirm the movement. A streaked, pink object fluttered to his right. His heart stopped and he took a deep breath before he hurried toward the movement as quickly as his failing hip would allow. His heavy footsteps sent mud splattering all around him, and as his mind raced to make sense of what he saw, he cast a wave of mud upon the pink blanket as he came to an abrupt stop. For a very brief moment, he just stared at the ground before him, stunned. Unbelievable.

“Good God almighty!” he exclaimed. “You’re alive! Oh my God!”

A baby dressed in a yellow jumper and wrapped in a tattered pink blanket whimpered and whined as the rain came down upon it. Amazingly, it didn’t wail or scream. It simply acted as if it were suffering some discomfort. There were no apparent significant injuries to it other than a gash on its forehead, but even that gash seemed superficial.

John shook himself free from the shock and fell to his knees to examine the baby. He peeled away the soaked blanket. He couldn’t see any injuries. He carefully slid his hands under the baby and pulled it into his arms. Its jumper was soaked and he could feel it through the arms of his jacket. He pulled the baby close to him to give it some warmth. It whined and emitted a little cry as if he had awoken it from a deep sleep. He looked into its eyes, which were sea blue, and he thought it acknowledged him in some way. A spur of hope anchored in his chest in spite of the sharp pain in his hip as he pushed himself up and hurried back to his truck.

He grabbed on old blanket from behind the bench seat and swaddled the baby in it before he sat behind the wheel of his old truck. He looked out the windshield, dotted with drops and streaks of rain, at the wreckage. The stench of jet fuel permeated the air of his cab, and the rotting smell still punched his senses. Death and despair lingered in the air. He looked at the baby ensconced in the over-sized blanket. This little human had survived it all. It was a miracle, an impossibility that could only be explained by divine intervention. That much he was sure of. He had witnessed a miracle.

Man in a Box

Richard Taylor shrunk into himself when the cool breeze from the subway train whiffed across the platform. He had turned to face the oncoming train and its winking lights, waiting patiently for its arrival, only to be greeted by a stiff wind to the face. He grimaced and turned away until the train came to a stop in front of him. He stood three cars back from the front when the doors ambled open.

Another long day at the office left him on the evening train. Again. He stepped through the open doors dodging exiting passengers and looked left and then right. No seats were available. He had grown accustomed to getting a seat since he always took the late train home, but tonight, no seats were available. It irked him in a way that he could not understand as if something else that was rightfully his had been stolen from him. He ground his teeth together as he stiffened his jaw and grabbed the strap above his head to keep himself upright when the train lunged forward. He began the countdown to the stations he had to pass before he reached his destination. A sadness crept over him. It would be over an hour before he could collapse into his bed.

The crowd on the evening train bewildered him. Was it Friday night by chance? Had he lost track of the days? He put his bag down and secured it between his tired legs before he pulled out his phone to check the date. No, it was Tuesday. Only Tuesday? It felt like he had worked a week already. He expelled a sigh and shook his head. Why the crowd?

His shoulder refused to flex with the movement of the train sending a shock of pain down his back. He took a deep breath trying to will away the ache. He felt weary, but he seemed to always feel that way. Life sat on him like an arrogant bully that refused to move onto the next victim. He just wanted to sit down to rest, to share the burden of the long day with the hard plastic seat on the train.

The train came to a stop at the next station, and he glanced down to his feet to check his bag, but he couldn’t see it over his belly. He bent a little to catch a glimpse of the black bag and then stood straight up to placate his fussy back. When did his gut get so big that he couldn’t see his feet?  Another sigh. Another mark in the loss column.

The train rattled back to life and jerked forward. The glare of the fluorescent lights in the subway car made everything look sickly. He could only imagine how old he looked under the lights. He felt as old as he looked. He glanced up and down the car, but no seats had become available. His back whined in protest.

For the first time, he noticed a young couple sitting across from him. They appeared to be twenty-somethings, if that, likely college kids. They had their arms looped over each other, and the girl had one of her legs wrapped across the boy’s lap. They kissed and smiled, oblivious to everyone around them. The boy pulled at the girls hips to mimic a pulsing motion as if he intended to have sex with her right there. Richard gave them a knowing glance but it segued into a smirk. They were too young to comprehend what lie ahead for them, a morbid reality that would take a decade hence to even begin to sink into their youthful minds.

Richard thought of his carefree college days. Hookups, drinking, and an endless string of entertaining parties. No responsibilities. No house in the distant suburbs. No kids. The weekends were his, not an endless foray of errands, kid activities, and fitful naps. He missed those days. He didn’t realize how exciting his life was then. He felt a fondness that only time can render wonderful.

He turned away from the fawning couple, mostly to adjust his cranky back. He didn’t need to be reminded of his youth from the distant past. He wanted to read the report he had brought from the office. He liked to work on the train to cut down on the time he had to spend working on the weekend, but he couldn’t balance the big binder in one hand while he held himself upright by the strap. That required a level of coordination he no longer possessed.

Instead, he shifted his attention to his right and observed a couple with two young kids sitting in their laps. The couple looked to be thirty-something, definitely in a different stage of their lives than the frisky couple across from him. One of the kids was just a baby, maybe one year old, and the other one looked only a couple of years beyond that. The couple cooed and fretted over their young children, looking tired but glowingly happy. The man had one arm draped across the woman’s shoulder and held her close, a fleeting intimacy common in the early stages of parenthood.

Richard thought of his kids when they were that young. Now, they were petulant, disinterested teenagers who only called on him when they needed money or keys to the car. He thought of how close he and his wife were when the kids were young, and how she had become more of a stranger in the intervening years. In truth, he felt like an interloper in his own home, the one he paid for with the countless hours at the office.

He shuddered. The truth was sometimes too scary to acknowledge. It was best to live in fuzzy shroud of a lie than come to terms with reality. He shifted in place and averted his eyes from the young parents.

A loud hacking cough percolated above the rattle of the train. Exasperated lungs wheezed, and Richard held his breath hoping that the germs being emitted didn’t make their way to him. He couldn’t afford to be sick. He had to be at work every day this week like he had been for much of the past 35 years save for the annual merciful vacation.

He glanced back over his right shoulder and caught sight of the old man causing the ruckus. The old man wheezed a little more before he settled back in his seat. The seat almost swallowed his frail frame. The old man closed his eyes and continued to doze as if the cough were merely the physical manifestation of a bad dream. His head lilted to the side and hung at an angle that made Richard ache for him.

The old man was unshaven and unkempt. Richard couldn’t be sure he had even bathed in the space of a few days, but it was hard to pick up any odor beyond the usual urine smell that permeated the gritty subway car.

He watched the old man fritter in his sleep like an old dog curled on the floor and dreaming of better, no, younger days. Richard slumped in his stance. That old man could be him one day soon. He could spend 40 years working himself to death and end up alone on the subway sleeping among prying strangers who wished he’d stop spreading his germs to them.

Many stops had passed, but he still had many more to go. At the next stop, a bunch of the passengers disembarked the subway car and only a few replaced them. Several seats opened at once, and Richard toddled over to the closest one and slumped down. The force of his weight fell into the seat sending a pulse up his spine. The seat swallowed him whole just like the old man who slept across from him.

Even with all of the people gone, Richard felt confined, restrained, and trapped in a subway car going nowhere. That’s what home was, wasn’t it? Nowhere? He didn’t feel like he belonged there any more than he did at the office. He toiled away at the office every day in some nondescript tower downtown passing through the halls and elevator shafts like some faceless, nameless drone destined to work himself to death. No matter where he was the walls closed in on him, crushed his spirit. Point A to Point B and back. Repeat.

His mind drifted away from the over-lit subway car to the station near his office. What if he didn’t get on the train one day? What if, instead, he simply stepped in front of the oncoming train and let it put an end to his misery? These thoughts appealed to him in a way that he couldn’t explain. There were too many things he couldn’t explain, and he’d lost the desire to do so. He simply couldn’t see a reason to care anymore.

He imagined his death, a fiery grind of metal and flesh that pounded the life out of him. He felt satisfaction in that imaginary moment as if it were better than his dreadful existence of monotony and half-awake dreariness. How would his wife and kids react? Would they care? He wasn’t so sure. Either way, his existence on this planet would be a mere blip in he course of human history no more recognizable than the billions of other blips before him.

His imagination drifted to his funeral. He could see his church, morbid and dreary as always, with his casket holding court at the front. He walked slowly up the aisle to the casket as a ghost haunting his own wake. He stared into the coffin at himself in his final repose. He sighed.

He would always be a man in a box. Even in death.

Speed

My car casts a long shadow on the empty road ahead of me as I sit perched atop a small rise in the roadway basking in the setting sun. It’s summer, so the days are long, and the heat radiates from the road like a slow-cook oven. The smell of rubber permeates the air. I can smell it through my whining air-conditioning vents. My stop was abrupt and jarring but certain.

I tap the accelerator and the engine growls in response. The power brings a smile to my face as I peer out to the long stretch of blacktop before me. There’s a long straight-away, and then, the road snakes around another hilltop and comes briefly back into view before it lunges into the sun-beaten terrain for good. I haven’t seen another car in what feels like an hour. I have the road to myself. Good.

I pump the clutch and pop the car into first gear, and as I let out the clutch, gravel spins beneath my tires and rattles against the frame of my car. The rear end slashes sideways as I jerk the car into the road. The tires catch the blacktop and I gain speed rapidly. The engine groans until I shift gears all the way up to sixth. The speedometer reads 80 mph, 90 mph, and then sails north of 100 mph.

The straight-away disappears beneath my tires quickly, and I bound into the first bend in the road. Gravity tugs at me as I lean into the curve. My car hugs the road like a go-kart. I own the road. The next curve comes quickly and I shift in the other direction, again hugging the curve and fighting the forces that threaten to pull me off the road.

After a few zig-zags, I’m back on a long, straight road just on the other side of the hill I just circumnavigated. I push the gas against the floor. The engine roars in response as the car impossibly gains more speed. Should anything roll or step into my path at this moment, my car would be obliterated. The speed is intoxicating, a dangerous drug that could kill, but I don’t care.

More curves lie ahead and I grip the steering wheel tightly in anticipation of not slowing down. The bend comes rapidly, and I can feel the muscles in my arms tense as I spin the wheel to keep the car on the road. The taut steering feels good in my hands. I feel as close to the road as I could be without actually lying on the pavement. The turns are violent but sure-handed. I can’t get the wicked smile off my face.

I shoot out of the knots in the road like a rocket and bolt down another straight-arrow stretch that rumbles across the barren, grassy plain. For miles around me, I see nothing but small hills covered with burnt, gold grass heaving in the late afternoon sun. The hills project long shadows that offer some respite from the heat and momentary pockets of darkness that disorient my vision as I whisk around the curves.

The engine roars like a lion, a king of the asphalt jungle. As I race to one horizon, the sun races to the other. Finally, the shadows get so long that darkness begins to fall. Even my high-beam headlights struggle to give me the foresight to keep up the speed. I slow down, give into the night. My engine begins to purr, content or disappointed, I’m not sure. Up ahead, the bright lights of a city await. The freedom of the vast, vacant plain lies behind me, but the speed siren calls. I promise her I will be back. I most certainly will.

The Stories We Write

I read a lot of fiction, but I also read many news stories everyday. My very first novel was inspired by a heartbreaking news story about a woman dealing with her husband’s early-onset dementia. When I look at my list of novel ideas, I see many links to news stories that inspired the idea. Real life is rich with story opportunities.

That has never been truer than this past weekend when I was in St. Louis for a marathon. I spent two days traversing the city on foot and in Ubers taking in the sights. As I was winding down on Saturday night in preparation for the marathon on Sunday morning, I decided to take an Uber to dinner a short distance across town.

The restaurant was only a few miles away, but the route seemed rather circuitous as my driver fiddled with his navigation system to get a bead on the location. We exited Interstate 40 after a brief rush down the freeway and ambled over to a side road that ran parallel to the freeway for a bit. I looked at the road ahead and noticed two cars in front of us – one directly in front of us and another to our right. We were in the middle lane of a three-lane street and we drove about 2-3 car lengths behind the cars.

As we were moving up the street, I looked at the car on the right and saw a young man climb out of the window on the opposite side of the car and sit on the frame like some joy-riding teenager on Spring Break. At first, I smiled because I remember being that young and careless, but then, the young man pulled out a gun and started firing at the car directly in front of us. By this time, we had closed the gap between us and the two cars so that we were no more than a car length away. He took two shots before he hurriedly jumped back in the car window.

The car in front of us swerved into the far left lane and gunned it up to the red light at the intersection ahead of us. The car on the right sped up as well but went into right turn lane up ahead. Both were stopped at the traffic light. At least the gun-wielding car was obeying traffic laws.

My Uber driver, startled and shocked, quickly pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. His quick thinking kept us well back from the battling cars, but there were several other cars wedged between the two vehicles at the stop light. We watched, still stunned by what had just happened. The light turned green, and the cars sped off in opposite directions with no further incidents as far as I could tell. My driver took a deep breath and we continued on our way to the restaurant, both of us a little shaken.

Road-rage, drive-bys, and other incidents are common in the news. I could pick any random day and Google such incidents and find many hits, but it’s one thing to read about something like this and a totally different thing to experience it first hand. I’d rather read about it.

As I was eating my dinner and thinking about what had happened, the thing that struck me most about the incident was the apparent age of the perpetrator. He couldn’t have been more than 17 years old. I did a lot of stupid things when I was a teenager, but none of them involved a gun, much less shooting at someone. I wondered what circumstances compelled him to behave the way he did, which got the writer in me conjuring up many possibilities. There’s a story there. I know it. Life often presents the best material for the stories we write.

Afterlife

Victor Shelley paced back and forth near the back door of the coroner’s lab. Anxiety rattled his nerves as he waited for the coroner to meet him. They’d been friends since undergrad, had spent much of their time in medical school together, and moved to the same city to start their careers. Their families knew each other well. Their wives had gone on girls’ nights out frequently back when life was normal. Their kids grew up together before they moved on with their own lives. None of their kids were ever as close as the fathers were. Some bonds could not be replicated. Or broken.

While Mark Radtke had become a coroner, Vic had become a neurologist. Both had become famous for different reasons. Both were very good at their professions, but none of that mattered now. Too much had happened. The tragedy of life had taken hold and made surreptitious actions necessary. Vic held onto hope with a tinge of regret. He never wanted to endanger his good friend’s career. He never wanted to ask something of someone that he wouldn’t do himself, but he kept telling himself that he’d do this for Mark. Of course, he would.

Behind the gray, steel double doors that opened outward into the smelly alley, Vic heard the faint click of leather on linoleum. The click grew louder as the footsteps marched to the door. Vic took a deep breath and inhaled the stench of the dumpster near him. Last night’s rain had failed to erase the stench of garbage and urine that permeated the gritty back street. He grimaced and quickly pushed the air from his nostrils. He turned to face the door just as the metal handle clanked and Mark pushed his way outside. Mark leaned his back against the door on the right and kept half of his body obscured against the other door that remained closed.

Mark wore his scrubs with fresh blood adorning the front of the pale blue cloth. Vic winced because he knew the blood belonged to his wife. He sucked in his emotions and maintained the demeanor of a just-the-facts scientist.

A surgical mask dangled in front of Mark’s neck. He looked concerned and worried when he saw his friend.

“Are you okay?” Mark asked.

“As good as can be expected.”

Mark tried to smile but failed. It looked more like an expression of pain rather than the happiness of seeing his friend.

“Thank you for doing this,” Vic said. He trained his gaze beyond Mark to the brick wall behind him.

A frown came over Mark’s face. He hesitated to move, but then, he bent down and grabbed something behind the closed door but held it close to his right leg, which was still obscured by the door.

“I know this is hard, and I’m not going to pretend to understand how you feel right now, but Sheila’s gone, Vic. Why can’t you let her rest in peace?”

“You’re right. You don’t understand. I don’t expect you to understand. This is between me and her. This is what she wanted.”

“What she wanted or what you want?”

“Mark, just give it to me. I’m forever grateful for what you’re doing. I don’t want to argue with you.”

“I could lose my license over this.”

“Why’d you do it then?”

“Technically, I haven’t done anything yet.” He looked down at the object in his right hand. Vic still couldn’t see it. “You can walk away and I’ll pretend this never happened. We can donate her organs to scientific research. She’d be pleased to know that she contributed to the progress of medical science. I know Sheila. She’d be thrilled.”

“No.” Vic shook his head emphatically and extended his hand. “Please give me the cooler.”

Mark sighed. A look of sympathy trickled down his face. He looked down at his right hand and hesitated a bit before he lifted it up and out toward Vic. He maintained a firm grip on the handle as Vic put his hands on the cooler.

“May God forgive us,” Mark said.

“There is no God, Mark. No fucking god would have allowed Sheila to suffer like she did.”

“Vic, I know you’re grieving -”

“You don’t know! Cynthia is at home right now. You have your wife. I don’t have Sheila.”

“Vic-”

“I have to go. I don’t have much time. Thank you.”

Before Mark could utter another word, Vic turned away and hurried up the alley to the plain white van idling for him. Dr. Chen waited for him patiently in the back ready to start work immediately.

Vic’s heart thumped in his chest as he stomped through the errant puddles in the the narrow alley. A sudden wave of emotion came over him and his eyes teared up. Just a few hours ago, he had held Sheila’s hand as she struggled to breathe.

“It’s almost time,” she said. Her words were slowed by her gasps for breath.

“I know,” Vic replied. He tried to be strong for her, but the fear of loss threatened to overwhelm him. He took one ragged breath to suppress a sob. He blinked to hold back the tears.

Sheila sighed heavily. “It’s okay if it doesn’t work,” she said after a pause. Another few breaths followed. “I know you’ve done your best.”

“It will work. It has to. I can’t lose you. Not now. We’re supposed to grow old together.”

Sheila smiled faintly, but the pain broke through and shattered the beauty of what had once been the most wonderful smile Vic had ever seen. She pulled her hand from his and raised her shaky arm to touch his chest near his heart.

“I’ll always be here.” She pressed on his chest lightly before her arm fell back to the bed. She tried to smile again, but the pain overwhelmed her. Vic took her hand again and squeezed it to his lips.

“I love you,” he said. The tears spilled over, but he didn’t care. He couldn’t hold them back any longer. He couldn’t pretend to be strong in the face of his wife’s imminent death.

“I love you,” she replied.

Vic reached the back of the van. Dr. Chen had already opened the doors and stepped just beyond the bumper to grab the cooler from him.

“Let’s get her hooked up,” Vic ordered. His confident, almost arrogant, demeanor returned.

“Yes, sir.”

“How much time do we have?”

“About 30 minutes.”

“Let’s hope traffic cooperates.”

Vic shut the back doors on Chen as he began working diligently among the myriad machines that lined the back wall of the van. He hurried around the driver’s side and hopped into the seat. He could see Chen through the sliding glass window peering into the back of the van, but he said nothing. Instead, he concentrated on merging into the flow of traffic on the street perpendicular to the alley.

Whatever happened from that moment forward would either validate his life’s work or end his career and possibly land him in prison, but to him there was no other choice.

Visual Anchor

While I’m hard at work doing a major re-write on one of my earlier novels, I’m still moving forward with the planning and preparation for my newest project. I’ve completed the outline. I had already written a couple of chapters a while back as I fleshed out the story idea, so I’m ready to roll. Since I only have an hour a day to write, I have to manage my time carefully to actually get things done, but I also have to anchor myself properly on the story if I’m going to write effectively. It’s hard working on two stories simultaneously because it means I have to assume one character’s mindset on one day and another’s mindset on another day. It can get very confusing.

Additionally, it’s easy to get lost in a story when you’re working on it over the course of many months a little bit at a time. Sometimes, when I read my rough drafts, I find inconsistencies that make no sense whatsoever. I can easily fix them during the editing process, but it’s better if I don’t make those mistakes in the first place. That’s why outlining and character synopses are so important to my process. If I were a full-time writer, it would be less of an issue since I’d be working on it for hours a day every day, but as it stands now, I need these guideposts to keep me on point in my novels.

Normally, I keep all of this information in my Scrivener application, which is what I use to compose my novels. This approach works well, but for my latest project, I’ve added a new element – the whiteboard. I bought a large whiteboard and hung it on my office wall across from my usual writing spot. On the board, I’ve listed my main characters and planned chapters. The board doesn’t have the exhaustive details that I have in Scrivener, but it gives me some visual cues as I write so that I can look up at any point and see where I am and where I’m going. Here’s how it looks right now:

Whiteboard

The great thing about the whiteboard is that I can sit back and think about the whole of the story and make changes when ideas come to me or make notes as I’m working through the story. It helps having this visual anchor right in front of me every morning. I get a real sense of what I’m trying to do. On more than one occasion, I’ve come up with ideas for the story and I’ve scribbled them down on the whiteboard to remind myself of the changes so that I could update Scrivener. This may be the first time I’m using the whiteboard, but I can already see the benefits.

After weeks of planning and plotting (pun intended), I’m finally ready to start writing in earnest this week. I hope the whiteboard helps me keep my focus especially since I’ll continue editing my other story on alternate days and won’t have the single-track focus as I normally do when I write. We’ll see how it goes. Wish me luck.