Excerpt: Into the Caldera

Here’s another excerpt from my current novel, Into the Caldera. It’s a work-in-progress that I’m currently revising.

Jenn startled awake in ink-black darkness. She raised her hand to rub her aching head, but she couldn’t see it until she held it a few inches from her face, and even then, it didn’t feel like her hand. Her head throbbed in the worst way, a hammer came down with each heart beat smashing any coherent thoughts she had.

She didn’t know where she was. Her shoulder sat against something hard on her right side – a door? The space smelled like sour laundry that had been festooned with sweat and left to mold in a confined space. The distinct scent of worn shoes surrounded her. She fanned out her left arm and felt multiple pairs of shoes next to her – a closet? She reached up but felt nothing. Then, she sat up levered against her outstretched arms and felt the bottoms of shirts and pants hanging above her. The darkness bewildered her.

She struggled to clear the cobwebs from her mind as she sat there in some closet in some room somewhere. She remembered Nicole leaving. Two faces, men, no boys, hung in her memory. Their names lingered on her tongue, but she couldn’t recall them. The rest of the memory blurred into the dim lights and loud music like when she had spun around in her mother’s yard as a kid. She sat shrouded in silence.

She reached for her phone in her pocket, and that’s when she realized she wasn’t wearing her pants. A blanket covered her legs and she pushed it down feeling around for her pants, but all she found were more shoes scattered around her. She panicked and sat up all the way bumping into the door next to her as she leaned forward to grasp for her pants. Nothing.

Feeling her hands along the door, she found the edge and slid it open to more darkness. A very faint light from outside a window in the room provided the only ambient light, but she still could not determine where she was. She tensed as she scanned the darkness to determine if anyone else was present. She couldn’t tell.

She pushed herself up scraping the bottom of the clothes with her back as she stepped out of the closet. Putting one hand on the wall, she glided along the grainy surface until she found a light switch. The tentative overhead light had only one bulb, and it pulsed before it brightened the room entirely. Nevertheless, any amount of light hurt her eyes and she squeezed them shut. She finally forced them open onto the empty room.

The messy, sparsely-furnished room smelled musky, an odor that drowned out the sweat-stained clothes and sour, earthy shoes in the closet. The small bed sat unmade with a twist of sheets and blankets that exposed the top of the mattress. A dinky desk sat next to the bed piled high with books and papers in no particular order. The stained, worn carpet scratched her bare feet. It took a moment to focus her eyes on the floor beneath her.

Her bra lay tangled on the floor next to the bed and her pants, likewise turned inside out, were strewn beside it. She felt her chest beneath her shirt and her bare nipples poked through. A flash of embarrassment consumed her. She couldn’t remember anything except those two boyish faces that had greeted her after Nicole had left. Did she have sex with them? She feared the answer but couldn’t conceive one.

After she put on her bra and slid into her pants, she pulled out her phone and checked the time, her hands trembling as if she were wracked by fear. It was just after 6 AM, and from what she could tell, she was still in the SAE house; although the room did not look familiar. She found her shoes on the other side of the bed and slipped them on before she tentatively opened the door and gaped at the empty hallway.

She didn’t see anyone until she reached the front room. A couple slept intertwined on one of the sofas. The guy snored loudly, but the woman next to him slept so deeply that the guttural sound didn’t seem to bother her. Jenn paused at the edge of the room and rubbed her throbbing forehead. She could hardly think, but she needed to get back to her apartment.

When she pulled out her phone again, she winced at the brightness of the screen as she scrolled to find her Uber app. A few taps of the screen told her she had six minutes before her car would arrive, so she shuffled toward the kitchen to get some water to soothe her scratchy throat. Every cabinet she opened revealed more or less random things – an opened bag of chips, disposable plastic containers, an apron – but no cups.

Dirty plastic cups littered the countertops, but she wanted a clean one. Finally, she gave up and took one of the cheap cups from the counter and cleaned it hurriedly under lukewarm water from the faucet. Satisfied that she had cleaned it thoroughly, she filled it with cold water and took big gulps until she had drained it. The water felt good to her throat. She drank another cup full before she put it back in its spot on the counter.

Her app told her that her driver was three minutes away. As she walked by the couple of the sofa, the woman let out a moan or a sigh and it startled her. She stopped in her tracks, but the woman remained asleep. Jenn didn’t know why she cared if she woke the woman or not, but she quietly opened and shut the door as she slid out into the cool morning air. Her phone buzzed indicating that the Uber was approaching.

She walked to the curb. Cars littered either side of the wide street parked in silence waiting for their owners to wake up, likely hungover, and claim them for the ride home. As her Uber pulled over in front of the SAE house, she greeted the driver and took a seat in the back. She found that talking made her head hurt worse, so she kept her conversation to a minimum. She had never been so thankful to have a quiet driver. She sat back and closed her eyes. Her whole body ached, but sitting down made her aware that her thighs hurt. She felt an intense pain between her legs as if she had been rubbed raw. She put her hand there and quickly pulled it away.

She couldn’t remember what had happened. Once again the images of the two boys popped in her head. What were their names? Scott and…Marc? A chill rappelled down her spine and a tightness squeezed her chest making her head throb even more. Something had gone terribly wrong. She felt like she had just walked into a dark alley with shadowy figures lurking around her. She closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead as a panic consumed her.

Chicago

As changes go, nothing can be more dramatic than moving from the relative benign winters of the mid-South to the freezing confines of the upper Midwest or from a divided, backward city to a divided, progressive one.

Three days before my 30th birthday, I packed up my car with enough clothes and personal items to last me the few days it would take for the movers to arrive at my new apartment in the northwest suburbs outside Chicago. May sat dutifully in the passenger seat shivering nervously as high-strung terriers are prone to do when something out of the ordinary happens. I tried to calm her down by petting her, but it only made her whimper as if she were somehow protesting leaving our lives behind.

She stood up against the passenger window as I drove toward the Interstate, her skinny, bowed legs shaking, but she eventually lost interest and curled up in the seat for a nap. I watched the meager Memphis skyline fade from view as I headed north on I-55, thankful to be getting out of town.

Unsurprisingly, the weather changed dramatically as I made my way north. Many miles outside St. Louis, I stopped to give May a walk break and the bone-chilling, gusty winds almost knocked her over as rumbling freight trucks shivered through the gas station parking lot. We sprinted back to the car and I powered through the rest of the eight-hour drive, arriving in Chicago just before sunset. It felt strange driving into Palatine, Illinois, much more than a stone’s throw from downtown Chicago. Nothing looked familiar or welcoming on that bitter cold day, but it would be my home for the next three years.

As if on cue, the snow started soon after I arrived, and it kept snowing the whole month of December setting an accumulation record for the city before I bid farewell to the year 2000. Snow in the North is nothing like snow in the South. The world doesn’t come to a complete standstill. Life goes on. I bought a snow shovel to keep in my car so that I could dig my car out of the parking lot at my apartment and at work. I dutifully trudged back and forth like I was a winter pro, but I wasn’t. Not by a long shot.

I didn’t know a single person in Chicago other than a former coworker whom I had only worked with sporadically when I was in Memphis. I liked the anonymity that a big metropolitan area afforded, but it was incredibly lonely, too. Nevertheless, I was determined to make it work. I reached out to my former coworker and started hanging out with him regularly. I joined a group called Highlife Adventures, a social club for singles that organized fun events, and my calendar went from mostly work meetings to a slew of evening and weekend excursions. Suddenly, the big city didn’t seem so vast and empty anymore. I was having some of the most fun of my entire adult life.

Despite all the fun, I found that I missed the travel of my prior life much like a former addict pines for the high points of his addiction. I longed for the excitement of new places to explore. My new life felt mundane, especially in those stark moments when it was just me and May in my apartment watching yet another snow storm blow through the area.

It was during those lonely moments that I reconnected with Dad. Since I had moved away to college and then to Memphis, our conversations were few and far between. Dad never liked to talk on the phone, so calling him was an exercise in futility. When he was working, he’d usually be taking a nap if he was home. Otherwise, his early morning schedule made it difficult to find a time to call him even though I was just one time zone away.

That all changed when he retired. Mom still worked, and Dad sat at home on most days watching a litany of brain-decaying TV shows like Jerry Springer in between his many naps. Like me, he felt lonely, so much so that he decided that talking to his son on the phone wasn’t so bad after all. I called him on most days, usually at the same time before work. He went to bed too early to ever get him on the phone after I left work.

Most of the time we talked about nothing or something, whichever struck our fancy. During baseball season, the Braves were a prominent discussion point. Many times Dad would relay the latest sad hilarity from Jerry Springer, which made him laugh to no end. Dad always enjoyed a good laugh.

I came to depend on Dad being there when I dialed his number. I looked forward to hearing his raspy voice, scratched by countless decades of smoking, on the other end of the line. When I had a bad day, I called Dad. When something great happened, I called Dad. We talked more in those years than we had talked the prior decade. Neither of us were great conversationalists, but put us together and we were positively chatty.

Dad and I had had our disagreements over the years as most fathers and teenage sons have in that formative stage of life, but having reached a different point in my life, I started to understand things differently. Once I shed my proclivity to be critical and focused on the things that mattered, I understood him better and I certainly developed a greater appreciation for him and all that he had done for me. Of course, I had always loved my dad; there had never been any doubt, but to understand him, that was different. Making the effort took more maturity than I had ever possessed, but those Chicago years afforded me the opportunity to close that gap despite the miles between us.

Dad anchored me in who I was, which was him in a younger man’s skin. We both had our crutches, but in those commonalities, I found more than I had ever hoped for. The countless struggles over the years had soured me, turned me inside out and made me cold and indifferent. Despite all of my good fortune, a simmering dissatisfaction lingered that I could just not shake. Like everyone else around us, neither of us were perfect by any stretch, and while I had resented his imperfections for many years, I realized they were my own, and I came to accept them, and I loved him more because of them.