Writer’s Bias

When you hear the word “bias,” it immediately conjures negative associations. The truth is that we are all inherently biased, colored by our own experiences and the limitations of our own consciousness. There’s no way to get around it. I often hear those with the best of intentions proclaim that they are unbiased, but anyone using a realistic lens on the world around them knows that such a perspective is patently impossible. Human beings are destined to be biased, and writers are certainly no different, nor should they be.

Great writers have an uncanny ability to hold up a mirror to the world around them and reflect it in a way that makes everyone take notice. When I think about the many great novels I have read, I see the bias that makes them great. The writer’s slanted point of view may make readers uncomfortable, but at the same time, it affords them the opportunity to see things from a different perspective. Take To Kill a Mockingbird or The Bell Jar, both great novels steeped in bias. In many ways, Harper Lee took the stereotypical Southern view of the world in the 1930s and put it on display in the most unflattering light for everyone to see. Her bias exposed injustice with a bent toward righting a wrong. Likewise, Plath’s only novel aimed a bright light on the sexist attitudes of the 1950s with caricatures straight out of the decade before Mad Men.

Certainly, no one would argue that these novels are biased and unfair, especially given the critical and commercial success they have achieved, but the kernel of that success lies in the writers’ bias. Their views of the world around them shaped their novels and produced great work in the process. As a writer, it’s important to understand your own biases and leverage them to create great work. The difference between a good writer’s bias and a poor one’s is that the perspective is subtle, like slowly boiling water – the reader doesn’t realize what’s happening until she’s thrust into the middle of the plot mesmerized by interesting characters. She may not even understand the bias until she’s finished reading if it’s really good.

As a literary writer, I often create characters who are greatly flawed and struggling with the world around them. These characters and their struggles reflect my own biases, but I hope these perspectives have an impact on my readers and make them think about a point of view that is different than their own. I don’t seek to convince or convert but to shine a light on other possibilities. My first novel, The Vanishing, tackles the uncomfortable topic of the right to die as the main character grapples with losing her husband to early-onset dementia. As someone who is firmly in the camp of a person’s right to die, I wrote the novel with that bias in mind. I don’t make any apologies or excuses even if the novel ends in an unexpected way, nor do I get preachy. I let the novel unfold as it does naturally, but my bias is always there.

I don’t see it as a bad thing, something to be fixed or corrected. I see it as my opportunity to leave an indelible mark on the history of the written word. Great novels are biased in one way or another. It’s impossible to avoid, but sometimes, the very nature of the writer’s bias shines a light on the world in a way that transcends a simple written passage resulting in work that truly has an impact on millions of readers much like Mockingbird and The Bell Jar did on generations of readers. In that way, the writer’s bias is truly remarkable and effective in creating a unique work for the world to enjoy, and that is not something we want to tamp down or sweep under the rug of political correctness.

Killing Thomas

Story ideas seem to bubble up all the time. I sketch them out in my notebook, and when time permits, I flesh out a chapter or two to get a feel for the voice of the story. If I like it, I keep going and turn it into a novel. If not, I just put it aside in case I can use all or part of it later. If the character captures my imagination, I know it’s worth turning into a novel. Needless to say, I have quite a few first chapters that are still lingering in my files. Here’s one I just fleshed out. The working title is Killing Thomas. Not everything is as it seems.

His eyes stared at me insistent in their surprise, pleading really. I watched as his pupils widened, suggesting he understood what we had come to. His mouth froze agape demonstrating his fleeting state of mind. His dark hair floated in his wake beneath the surface of the crystal blue, Caribbean lagoon. His hands grasped mine, not in the loving way that I had imagined in my heart of hearts but in a way that suggested resistance as people are prone to do when they are being murdered.

The last of his breaths bubbled to the surface after the thrashing of his feet subsided. He had caught me a good one in my right side after I had submerged him and he realized that I wasn’t being my usual kindred, playful self. Something had changed, and he had sensed it; although, he arrived at his conclusion too late to change his fate.

I let him float a minute, lifeless and still in shock, in the sparkling water. I wanted to look at him through clear eyes after my pulse had settled down. The thumping in my chest slowly receded like the gentle waves that lapped the lagoon. The fading sun licked my face as salty drops ran down the side of my head. Whether it was sweat or seawater, I wasn’t sure.

I looked at Thomas again. His beautiful eyes pleaded to the heavens to no avail. I gave him a grim smile and sucked in some of the humid air that had engulfed both of us just a short time earlier. That had been harder than I had expected. Sometimes, it’s hard to let go.

I turned and kicked the water to pull myself from its waist-high depth. I trudged to the shore and glanced back only once before I broke into a trot across the cool, white sand. It felt good to my feet like powdered sugar with just a little bit of grit. I couldn’t remember ever putting my feet in powdered sugar, but had I ever done it, that’s what it would have felt like.

I reached my moped still tilted away from the cracked road where we had left it an hour ago. An hour. I checked my watch. It had taken longer than I had expected. Courage in planning rarely translated into swift execution.

The moped puttered and whined as I crested the hill leading away from the lagoon. Soon someone would find the body. They’d call the police, and there’d be an investigation. I trusted my plan. Meredith had promised it’d work. I wasn’t sure I trusted Meredith, but I needed to be rid of Thomas.

Water streamed down and away from my legs as I picked up speed along the narrow road back to civilization. My swim trunks swished in the seat making me feel like I was still sitting in the warm water, and every hair on my bare body waved in the wind. I felt like I was in a vast wind tunnel being blown dry in the generous Caribbean sun. The smell of saltwater mixed with the musty odor of that lifejacket Thomas had worn still clung to my body. I wrinkled my nose in the wind as if I could flick the smell away.

The exasperated moped bounced along the dilapidated old road and jarred me for a moment. I almost lost control of the damned thing before a sharp curve, but I released the accelerator just a little and wobbled into the turn before I regained control. My teeth clanked together rattling my brain, another shock to my system. I felt stunned and disoriented. It had all happened so fast. I shook my head and throttled forward. I couldn’t get away fast enough.

The 15-minute drive from the remotest point of the island seemed to take forever as if the wheels of my little motorbike were trudging through molasses. My wrist ached from twisting the accelerator to its limit, but I didn’t care. I had to get away from Thomas. He had caused enough damage already.

I crested one last hill above the tiny Caribbean village and the glaring white walls of my hotel came into view. The hotel was the largest building by far in the village. It had once belonged to royalty on the island but had been converted to a hotel when the last push for independence sent the royal family scurrying to a more civilized country. I felt sorry for the family for a brief moment as I descended the hill into the main street of the village. Such a beautiful place, however remote, deserved to be enjoyed. I doubted they had ever returned once they left. Such a shame. Then, I remembered, that I could never return either. Once I stepped onto that boat to leave the island, I would never see this place again.

I zipped through the roundabout at the center of town narrowly missing a few circling cars that promptly honked at me. I ignored them and continued on my way toward the hotel. I couldn’t get there fast enough and the moped resisted the whole way as if it knew it had become an accessory to a crime.

Meredith sat on the stone bench under the canopy on the left side of the hotel entrance reading her book when I pulled the moped into a parking space near the front of the building. She didn’t even look up at me or acknowledge that I had arrived until I was standing over her. She looked so calm and normal as if I had just gone kayaking in the sea rather than drowning someone with my bare hands.

“Are you ready to go?” she asked when she looked up from her book.

“What do you think?” I asked. I tried to be emphatic and commanding, but my hands shook uncontrollably and my voice was just as shaky.

“You should change into some dry clothes. I put some in the bag for you.”

I looked at the two suitcases next to the bench and saw a white bag with the word “Hilton” on it. I grabbed the bag and walked quickly back into the hotel. I struggled to change clothes as fast as I could. I thought I heard sirens nearing the hotel, and my heart jumped in my chest. I almost fell face first into the toilet in the stall where I changed out of my swim trunks. I didn’t bother drying myself off because the wind had mostly taken care of that for me, but the dry clothes clung uncomfortably to my body as I pulled them on. I stepped back into my sandy shoes and left my trunks hanging on the back of the bathroom stall door. I had not been careful in my planning so another piece of evidence left behind didn’t matter. If I was lucky, I’d be long gone before the cops put the pieces together.

“Try to look calm,” Meredith admonished as I walked toward her. I hunched over slightly and glanced around hoping no one heard her. What a strange thing to say. It would surely raise suspicions, but no one was close enough to hear her.

“I am calm,” I whispered when I stood right over her. She looked up at me and shook her head. I faked a smile and she turned her attention to the dark, old man dressed in a hotel uniform. She asked for a taxi.

“Where are you going?” the old man asked. It almost seemed accusatory.

“To the dock.” Meredith replied.

The old man blew a whistle, and after a moment, an unassuming and unmarked vehicle ambled up the stone driveway and stopped before us. This painfully skinny black man slid out of the driver’s seat and said hello as he helped us load the luggage into his trunk. He smelled of coconuts and had an easy smile about him that made me relax for a moment. I had forgotten about Thomas by the time I sat down in the cushy backseat of the man’s car. He was chatty and Meredith was more than happy to oblige with idle conversation. I just stared out the half-open window enjoying the breeze that massaged my face.

The dock was three or four miles from our hotel, but somehow, I had lost myself in the smell of saltwater and the warm breeze that blew away my worries. It seemed to take only a minute or two to navigate the narrow, crowded streets leading to the dock, but I knew it took much longer. I had been here too many times before to believe otherwise. Nevertheless, the skinny man pulled our luggage from the giant maw of a trunk and sat them before us at the dock. Meredith paid him handsomely as usual and we turned and walked toward the boat waiting at the end of the pier without a word between us.

I looked back one last time before we stepped onto the boat as if I expected Thomas to be there. He wasn’t. For a moment I saw the look in his eyes as he took his last breath, and I must have winced because Meredith asked me if I was okay. I shook my head to say that I was, but the trembling had returned by the time I sat in my seat next to her. She looked at my hands and then back at my face. She said nothing as she turned toward the window.

The boat roared to life and pulled away from the dock. I looked down the long pier. No one ran toward the boat. My escape was almost complete. Thomas was no more, or so I hoped.

Origins – Chapter 1

For my next project, I’m going to switch genres and dabble with science fiction. This isn’t hardcore science fiction as I will focus more on the characters in the story and much less on the science; although, it will be informed by some research. Think of this as a literary expression with a scientific bent. Here’s the first chapter, which is clearly a draft, but I like to share excerpts here as a way to get feedback and engage the audience in the creation process. As always, feedback is appreciated.

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The angry, red light flashed in the semi-darkness of the cockpit. Jane, the captain of the crew of hardy astronauts, stared at it hopelessly without saying the obvious words that hung between her and her crew. Exhaustion seeped from their eyes. They had reached the point where all the other missions had failed – the same point where the crews had perished in a hail of fire and an obliterated spacecraft. They held their collective breaths waiting for the punch in the face that was sure to come.

The spaceship rumbled and vibrated as the ominous light flashed in a rhythm that mimicked a doomed countdown. Jane could hear it in her head – ten, nine, eight… She tensed up and her head pounded even harder. She had a headache, one that had settled in the back of her skull and had played havoc with her thoughts since they had broken away from earth’s atmosphere. At times, the dull ache lurked in the background, but at other moments, like the one she faced now, it roared in her brain like an angry beast. Every single thought she had funneled through the ache and lost bits of resolution as it appeared in her mind. She felt muddled and lethargic at best like a beast of burden saddled with too much cargo.

Sanjay, the least experienced of the crew who had volunteered for this last-gasp mission because the alternatives were just as awful as his impending fate, watched his captain for any signs of panic. She gave none. She retained her steely gaze and emotionless demeanor, a trait he found off-putting in a woman, but he cast his biases aside and sought comfort in her reaction to their dire situation. He knew the ship needed Jane’s leadership if they were going to survive the entry into Mars’ atmosphere and the hard landing to come. If they made it that far.

Jane had never led a mission to Mars, but she had led many missions into space including an ill-fated one to the moon that had narrowly averted complete disaster thanks to her quick thinking and impeccable calm in the face of certain death. She had been hailed a hero in the Western States of America. Little girls and boys had posters of her, adorned in her crisp astronaut garb, hanging in their bedrooms. She spoke at schools, graduations, and even conferences where hardened businesspeople were reduced to tears when she told the story of how she lost the only man she had ever loved on that doomed mission. She had received many medals and countless accolades for her heroics, and she continued to travel into space as if it were just another job. She could have retired a hero with her picture in the history books and endless articles written about her, but she wanted to push the frontiers of manned space travel.

“What’s going on?” a panicked voice broke into the silence. The four crew members pivoted toward the back of the cockpit and stared wordlessly at Ava Stuart. Jane scowled before she spoke as the ship rumbled and shook as if some giant had discovered it and was attempting to shake them out of it.

“Get back to your seat and strap in!” Jane yelled after a few seconds of blank stares.

“Are we going to make it?”

Sanjay started to express his doubts, but Jane cut him off, “We’ll be fine, but you cannot be out of your seat! It’s too dangerous! Go back now!” She whipped her arm back toward Ava and pointed to the passenger compartment for emphasis.

Ava flinched and stared Jane down for a brief moment. She thought about arguing but decided against it. She pushed herself back grasping the walls along the rattling spacecraft and disappearing from the crew’s sight. She muttered to herself, angry for letting Jane speak to her so harshly. “Bitch,” she thought.

Ava had fought hard to be part of this historic mission. Initially, she had been beaten out for the two civilian slots on the ship by her arrogant and insufferable colleague Mitchell Deerdorff, but Deerdorff couldn’t handle the training and preparation for the trip, so the slot fell the Ava. She knew she was a better linguist than Deerdorff, but she couldn’t help but feel like she had been slighted professionally. The situation cast her as an underdog and sharpened an edge in her that cut the wrong way with many of her shipmates.

For her part, Jane was dismayed that Ava would even consider questioning her authority or the crew’s competence. She had not liked the idea of including two civilians on this trip, but Ava and Wally were deemed necessary if this mission to Mars was to be successful, assuming they actually made it to the surface alive. Wally proved quiet and reserved, usually doing exactly as he was told out of fear of endangering the mission. Jane liked the control she had over him. Ava challenged her, pushed her, and Jane did not like it one bit.

“Maintain position!” Jane commanded.

“We should pull back, Jane! It’s too risky!” Olivia shouted through the din of the groaning ship.

“No! We can make it!” Jane replied forcefully. She glanced at her co-pilot for a moment before she returned her focus to the controls and the flashing red light. The light mesmerized her. She found an odd comfort in its rhythm despite the warning it conveyed. It was like the flicker of a lighthouse in a dense fog.

“Olivia’s right! It’s too dangerous!” Sanjay interjected. “What do you think Frederick?” Sanjay looked to his left at his always-somber colleague. Frederick blinked and stared back as if he had been awakened from a dream only to be plunged into a nightmare.

“We do as Jane says!” he yelled just as the ship throttled forward and shifted violently toward one side like the bottom had fallen out. Olivia yelped and grasped at the wall next to her even though she was securely strapped into her seat.

“Damn it, Jane, we’re not going to make it!” she yelled fueled by the anger of feeling helpless.

Jane turned to Olivia and sucked in air before she steadied herself. “Lieutenant Warner, calm down and focus! We can do this! Remember all the training we went through! Focus on your training! We can do this!”

The rattle and roar of the spaceship became louder and more pronounced as the ship hurtled toward Mars’ atmosphere. Sanjay glanced out the window of the craft and gulped. He had a sinking feeling that he had found his end either in the space above Mars or on its inhospitable surface. He had been prepared to die, but now that he was staring death in the face, he felt less sure. His resolve began to crumble, and he wanted to cry. He looked at Jane, her face placid yet pained. He wouldn’t cry in front of a woman.

“Frederick, give us some more thrust!” Jane commanded. Frederick looked at her as if he was translating her words into his own language, he was European, but English was his first of many languages. He blinked twice before he reached out to the controls and pushed a lever away from him. The ship shook and the entire crew could feel the momentum propel them forward with blunt force like a dull ax striking a firm young tree.

The darkness gave way to a glare outside the ship like a distant fire on the horizon. The colors both fascinated and horrified the astronauts as they looked on with great trepidation. Olivia’s hands shook noticeably as she monitored her bank of controls. Her voice began to waver when she spoke, so she kept her words clipped and efficient when she responded to Jane or the others as they prepared to cut through Mars’ atmosphere. She felt little hope that they would survive. The ship heaved under the stress like a hulking, beached whale taking its last few breaths. The warning light had been flashing since they reached the farthest edge of the red planet. Olivia felt her constricted heart beat in step with the pulse of the light. She feared she couldn’t breathe as panic rose from the darkness to pull her under.

Accepting her imminent death wasn’t something Olivia had thought much about when she had taken on this mission. She had wanted to be on one of Jane’s crews since the beginning of her career as an astronaut. Jane was her hero, someone she looked up to and admired, but she had only met the woman once in her entire time in the Western States space program. Her assignments were always small ones into the outer atmosphere of earth to collect samples and observe the tumultuous weather patterns that had erupted on the planet since the climate began shifting dramatically at the beginning of the century. She had only been to the moon once despite spending more than a decade in the space program. She had been a rookie astronaut when Jane led the doomed mission back from the moon. In Jane she saw the strong woman she wanted to be, and now she was the second in command on what was sure to be the last attempt at a manned mission to Mars.

Frederick looked out the window to his left. The glare from the atmosphere almost blinded him. He blinked repeatedly and thought of his wife and children left behind on earth. He had taken this assignment for them, to ensure his kids would have a future even if it was on a distant planet that seemed harsh and unkind. Earth had once been hospitable, but the changing climate had torn it apart in ways he could have never imagined when he himself was a child. Now his kids, like all other people on the planet, faced almost certain extinction as the havoc wrought by climate change had taken its toll on their home. He breathed in deeply and sighed to himself almost resigned to his fate. The spacecraft shook violently and he braced himself against his seat despite being strapped in tightly.

“Frederick, are the thrusters at full power?” Jane asked.

“Yes. They’re maxed out!” he yelled over the rising noise.

“Brace yourselves! We’re entering the atmosphere in ten, nine, eight…” Jane counted calmly.

The spacecraft shifted violently and for a brief moment Jane thought it had been broken in half. The glaring light that had been on the horizon engulfed the ship and blinded its occupants. The astronauts shielded their eyes with their arms in unison as if they were performing some morbid dance. Jane could hear Ava crying into the internal microphone that linked them all together.

“Hang on! We will make it!” Jane yelled in her bravest voice. She didn’t believe it herself, but she had trained herself to stay outwardly positive no matter the situation. Her demeanor had saved her and most of her crew on that ill-fated trip to the moon. She had been hailed a hero after that mission, but she counted it as one of her greatest failures despite the fact that five of the six people on that disabled craft had miraculously made it back to the surface of the earth safely. Of course, the one who didn’t make it, Lieutenant Bradley Bell, had mattered most to her. She had never forgiven herself for not bringing Brad home. The look on his daughter’s face when she saw her at the hospital afterward would forever be seared in her memory. She had failed the ones she loved most, and to her that was unforgivable.

The roar around the spacecraft increased and the shaking intensified. Besides Ava’s wailing, the others remained quiet – at least on the comm system. Jane turned away from the light to glance at her crew. Olivia tilted her head down with her eyes closed as if in prayer. Frederick blinked into the light before them mesmerized by the glare and the imminent fate that awaited them. Sanjay stared back at her in his foreboding way. She had never liked Sanjay, but her commanders insisted that he be on the mission. He had received very high marks from all that had worked with him. He was considered one of the best by all the men he worked with, but Jane felt he had an issue with women. She sensed it in the way he took orders from her and the way every single request was taken as an affront to his manhood.

Sanjay acknowledged her with a slight nod. Tears puddled in his eyes. Jane was shocked by his display of emotion, something he’d shown no signs of in the years that she’d known and worked with him. He could be charming and engaging, but he was also arrogant and chauvinistic. She felt a perplexing kindred connection with him at that moment in spite of the things she knew he had said about her.

Nothing he had said was really new to her. She’d always been accused of being like a man. “Plain Jane” was the moniker that others, especially men, used behind her back. She knew this because she heard it in the whispers back at the base. Throughout her career, even after the heroic moon mission, many of her colleagues referred to her as Plain Jane as if it were a phrase that completely defined her. None of her male colleagues had to deal with such a dismissive attitude.

When she had first heard this encapsulation of who she was, she became enraged, but there was nothing she could do to stop it. She was who she was. She felt as feminine as any other woman, but she refused to kowtow to outdated expectations for her gender. It was 2099 for goodness’ sake. Hadn’t enough time passed to toss out preconceived notions about women? Hadn’t her gender achieved the pinnacle of success without having to apologize for their differences, without being compared to men?

Despite all the progress, her life was still defined by how others’ perceived her. She resented the Plain Jane nickname. She really hated it, but she resigned herself to ignore it and go about her business in the best way she knew how. Her father had always told her that doing would quiet her detractors more quickly than talking, and she had taken that to heart. “Doing” pervaded her entire career. Her approach, thanks to her beloved father, had driven her success, but the detractors still encircled her like a pack of hungry wolves. All of these thoughts throttled the dull ache in her head and she grimaced.

Sanjay turned away from her as if he was fed up with the battle that raged in the subconscious space between them or maybe he thought she had grimaced because of him. She stared at him for a brief moment before she turned her attention back to the flashing red light. She tried to focus on it hoping that it would distract her from her headache. She braced herself in her seat. The ship jarred left and she heard Wally cry out. The moment of truth had arrived. Either they would perish in the volatile atmosphere above Mars or they would plummet to the surface in a last-gasp effort to preserve the human race. There was no middle ground. The ship rocked and the roar of entry consumed them. Everything went black in a violent whiplash. The angry beast had swallowed them whole.

How I Write

I’ve been writing for a long time, but it was only within the last two years that I decided that I would seriously dedicate my time to finishing many of the stories that I had started and stopped over the years.  My ideas are a dime a dozen.  I have many of them written in my online notebook, in an offline notebook, and on many scraps of paper that I have scrounged from hotel rooms, conferences, and other miscellaneous places over the years when ideas sprung from my ever-wandering mind.  They often strike at the most unlikely moments like a bolt of lightning on a cloudless day.  Sure, some hit at the proverbial times, like in the shower or in the midst of a long run, but many make their presence known at 3 AM in a sudden spurt of wakefulness or in the middle of a terribly boring meeting at work.  All I can do is diligently write them down and see where the ideas take me.  Eventually.

Two years ago while in the midst of making yet another excuse for why I couldn’t write a novel (I don’t have time!  I’ve never done it before!) or turn any of my ideas into stories worth sharing, I decided to do something about it.  For someone who hates excuses more than anything, I sure did let myself get away with that for so long.  Finally, I put my foot down and made a commitment to write every day.  I decided to get up 30 minutes earlier every day during the week and dedicate an hour to just writing.  I didn’t put any pressure on myself to write some specifically; I just told myself to write, and I did.

So the habit began.  I get up at 4:30 AM every morning during the week.  I have breakfast while I check work email and read the news.  Then, I put away my work laptop, grab my trusty personal laptop, plop in my favorite chair, and start writing with a big cup of coffee on the table next to me.  While getting up at that hour may sound torturous, it’s actually a very nice routine that I find relaxing and often the most fulfilling part of my day.  The house is quiet.  I’m alone with nothing but my thoughts to guide me.  It’s easy to get lost in whatever world I’m creating and interact with the characters that come to life on the screen before me.  I’m a morning person by nature anyway, and this routine taps into one of the lucid periods of my day.

In the two years since I started this routine, I’ve completed three novels of at least 80 thousand words each, and I’m halfway through another one.  During this time, I’ve also done multiple edits on all of the novels based on feedback I’ve received from beta readers or editors who have looked at my work.  Most importantly, I am finally seeing those ideas of mine come to life.  It’s amazing to watch the stories transform from a few paragraphs to a hefty novel.  Oftentimes, the stories end up in totally different places than where I first imagined them, but that’s part of the magic of writing.  You just never know where you’re going to go.

Writers tend to divide themselves voluntarily into two semi-religious camps: (1) fly-by-the-seat-of-the-panters and (2) outliners.  I’m an outliner of sorts.  I take my idea and turn it into an outline by chapter where I map out the general arc of the story.  I also write character summaries that tell me everything I imagine a character to be down to her eye color and the dimple in his chin.  Once I have these things in place, I start painting in the color of the story.  While I may like to have such structure to guide me, I don’t let it dictate and control the story.  I’ll often go off on a tangent, decide I love that tangent, and alter the course of the story because of it.

My stories are also not immune to being influenced by current events.  The novel I’m drafting now, The Weight of Regret, was conceived to begin in a nursing home where a grandson found a long-lost grandfather as the story unfolded about a man who had abandoned his family decades earlier.  However, a recent news story about a man found in a ravine in Utah intrigued me enough to change the whole setting of the novel.  I think the story is better this way.  I’m not afraid to pivot if I can make the story better.

While I may do a lot of upfront work, I would be remiss if I pretended that I had everything mapped out from the beginning.  Writing is much like black magic.  You just don’t know where you’re going to end up.  A relatively minor character may take hold of my imagination and I may end up with a stronger protagonist in a seemingly secondary character.  That’s the joy of writing.  There are rules, but then, there aren’t any, so to speak.

One last thing that helped me get over the hump of writing a novel was letting go of perfection in the first draft.  I just pour out my mind on the page.  I let ‘er rip.  I don’t edit or judge as I’m writing in that first round.  That helps me get the foundation for a good story put down, and I rely on the multiple edits done after the first draft to craft the story.  It’s like a lump of clay.  You want to get the basic shape first; then, you nip and tuck until you have a beautiful vase.

How I write is kind of disciplined, but then, it’s not.  That’s the paradox of being a writer, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Long Winter

Here’s the first chapter from my novel, That Which Binds Us.  I’ve just finished the latest series of revisions and will begin querying agents soon for this novel.  Let me know what you think.

I knew my son was trouble from the moment he was conceived.  Unlike the pregnancies with my two older children, I fell ill almost from the point of conception with him, sicker than I had ever been in my life.  The misery refused to subside or at the very least it segued into a final trimester of extreme discomfort that tugged on every last fiber of my being and pushed me to my knees in fits of agony.  I wanted that child out of my womb in the worst way, but he denied me even that courtesy.  My due date came and went with no signs that he’d arrive anytime soon.  Finally, after a week of waiting for a natural end to my agony, my doctor forcibly removed him by C-section.  He had tormented me as long as he possibly could, a tendency that he never outgrew.

His birth offered little relief.  The effects of the C-section, my first and only one, left me doubled over in pain for a while afterward, and the phantom discomfort that remained tortured me for many months more.  Adding to my misery, he refused to sleep on anything resembling a regular schedule.  A fussy and impossibly implacable baby, he failed to sleep through a single night without waking up or needing an unreasonable amount of attention at odd hours until well past his fifth birthday.  He left me constantly fatigued, so I miserably vowed to never have another child.  And I didn’t.  He retained the title of my youngest child, the last of three.  I couldn’t fathom going through that again and surviving.  I doubted I’d survive him, but he had certainly destroyed any romantic notions I had held about cute and cuddly infants and the joys of motherhood.  With him joy dissipated somewhere along with the euphoria of discovering that I was pregnant for the third time.

Over twenty years later he sat across from me with a dour look on his face periodically staring down at his fidgeting hands, one of several nervous habits that he had developed over an angst-filled childhood.  All grown up, at least in a chronological sense, he said few words and maintained a distant, cold demeanor, even to his own mother.  I had never imagined I’d be in a place like that with him.  Never.  The reality tore at my heart and made me want to cry, but I had to be strong for him.  He needed me, just like he had needed me all those years ago as a fussy baby.  I was all he had left.

“Where’s everyone else?” he asked refusing to look me in the eye.  He rarely looked people in the eye when he spoke to them.  Confidence had always betrayed him.

I froze for an instant.  I knew he would ask about them, but I had never really prepared an answer.  “They couldn’t make it today,” I lied.  I immediately hated myself for lying to my son, but the truth was so painful that I couldn’t even utter it.  My heart ached as I watched him absorb my response.  He didn’t flinch, but he blinked fast like he was trying to fight back tears.  He had been an emotional child, more so than even his sister who choreographed histrionics to great effect.

“They’re not coming to see me are they?”

“They will.  Just not today.  This is hard on them too, you know.”  Another lie.  I couldn’t tell him the truth in his fragile state.  Neither of us needed to hear the agonizing truth out loud.

He finally looked up at me.  His face, freshly shaved and smooth, betrayed his intense yet shaky disposition.  His youth shocked me momentarily.  He barely looked twenty years old despite what the calendar said.  He should have had his whole wonderful life ahead of him, but he didn’t.  Not anymore.  Ferocity glowed in his eyes when he said with uncharacteristic certainty, “I know they’re not coming.  They’ve never believed me.  You’re the only one who’s ever believed me.  Besides, they’ve never visited me before.  Why would they come now?”

At once I understood how alone in the world he felt.  My heart ached more, if that were possible, and I wanted to reach out and hug him close just like when he was a little boy, but I couldn’t.  Those sleepless nights flashed in my memory.  At once he morphed into that little five-year-old, small and fragile.  I lay next to him hugging his tiny body close to mine trying to rock him to sleep.  The pain of exhaustion from sleep deprivation filled every crack and crevice in my body.  I repressed the urge to lash out against him and tell him to let me sleep, but in those few lucid moments, when I looked at him lying against me, sleeping fitfully yet hugging me close, I felt a love that was immeasurable and inconceivable.  That love trumped everything else.  I loved my son no matter what, and I would always take care of him.  Always.  No matter what.

He fell silent again.  He’d never been much for words, a predisposition that revealed itself very early in his life.  He celebrated his fourth birthday before I coaxed full sentences out him.  Our innate connection blossomed and thrived, but few others grew beyond mere coexistence.  Even his father failed to build that paternal bond with him as a kid, but my husband neglected our youngest son for reasons beyond his Tommy’s control.  The difficulty of his birth and childhood certainly furthered my husband’s discontent, but it only amplified the awful truth.  My husband never wanted Tommy.  Nevertheless, I kept searching for answers in the past, and I wondered what went wrong.  How did this happen?  I shook the thoughts from my head.  Turning to the past proved as vain as predicting the future.

“How are they treating you?” I asked.

He looked irritated by my question.  He furrowed his brow and tightened his lips into a straight line across his face.  His lips were so pale that they blended into the skin on his face.  A sigh escaped before he responded to me.  “Okay, I guess.  They keep me separated from the others.”

“That’s good.”

“Why?”

“You don’t want to get hurt.”

“There’s no one to talk to.  I’m alone.  Even the guards don’t talk to me.”

“I know, but…” I began.  My logic implicated certain things that I refused to consider, so I changed my response. “…it’s a tough place.  I’m not sure you’d want to talk to anyone anyway.”

“What if I’m here forever?  Is this all I have to look forward to?”  He looked frightened and desperate as he said it.  I wanted to reach out and hug him close just like I did when he was frightened by thunderstorms as a toddler.  I thought of how tiny he used to be, how he used to fit perfectly in my arms and I would roll him up into a ball with lanky arms and legs protruding in all directions and kiss him until he laughed.  I’d tickle him too.  He’d run from me and I would chase him around the house laughing and shrieking like we’d been made for exactly that.  The joy and innocence of those fond memories forever faded into a past that seemed so inexplicable at that very moment, so ephemeral, as if they never happened.

“You won’t be here forever.”

“How do you know?” he said.  Exasperation and frustration seeped from his words.

“Did you do it?”

“No!” He said emphatically.  He sat up ramrod straight in his chair and stared directly into my eyes for the first time.  I saw something frightening in his penetrating stare.  He didn’t blink or falter or give any signs that indicated that he was lying.  I believed him.  I had to believe him.  I looked away briefly, relieving the tension of the moment, but I could feel his intense stare on my neck.  I imagined it burned me, an injury on top of all injuries.

“Then, you won’t be here forever.”  I turned back to face him and tried to sound as self-assured as possible for his sake.  Inside, I trembled with fear because I just didn’t know.  I could only hope.  That’s all I had.  His whole life rested on my hope.

I looked at the clock on the wall behind him.  “Our time is almost up.”

His mood noticeably shifted from detached to gloomy.  I could see the fear building in his eyes washing away the brief intensity he had just displayed.  I’d seen that fear before, more than once.  When he was nine, he broke his dad’s beloved recliner playing with the lever repeatedly until the stress of the persistent back-and-forth wore on its aging mechanical parts and the back just flopped into the down position permanently.  The old, ugly chair had unnaturally possessed my husband since before we were married.  I secretly cheered its ignominious death, but my son became inconsolable once he realized what he had done.  His father had warned him several times to leave it alone, and my son had ignored him.  I tried my best to assure him that his father would be fine once he got over the initial anger, but Tommy ran to his room and hid there waiting fearfully for his father to return home from work.

I couldn’t get him to come out of his room.  He’d talk to me from behind his bedroom door, which he cracked open only enough to allow my voice to pass through, but he had the look in his eyes of a trapped animal left for a certain death.  I’m sure if he could have gnawed his way out of the situation, he would have.  When my husband finally came home, the sight of his favorite chair limply askew in the den incensed him to the point of irrationality.  I tried to calm him down and lay the blame at the fact that the chair had outlived its useful life, but my husband, always in pursuit of reasons to punish Tommy for being born, remained angry beyond reason.  He stormed Tommy’s room and gave him a beating that still makes me cringe to this day.  All of that over a damn chair.  I hated that man for his ridiculous emotions, but the chair fiasco would pale in comparison to what he did to Tommy later.

I looked away from my son for a moment trying to shake the ugly memory from my mind.  His father was so brutal to him.  My husband never treated our other children that way, and Tommy noticed it, knew it to be true.  Maybe that was what put him on the wrong path.  Maybe my husband’s neglect and abuse led him astray because he so desperately sought the attention that every son should get from his father.

I’d been silent for longer than usual, and Tommy looked at me expectantly, wondering what I would say next to make him feel better or wondering why I hadn’t said anything at all.

“Mom, are you okay?” he asked.  His question didn’t bear a trace of curiosity but conveyed a need for reassurance.

A grim look formed on my face.  “Yes, I’m fine.  I just wish you weren’t here.  I wish I could take you home with me.”  My eyes suddenly swelled with tears, but I willed them to stay put.  I didn’t want Tommy to see me cry yet again.  He needed me to be strong, determined, not awash in emotion.

“Me, too.  I’m scared, Mom.”

“I know, honey.  I know.  I’m going to talk to Mr. Lawson tomorrow and see what he plans to do for an appeal.  He told me that he would appeal when we were leaving the courtroom the other day, but he didn’t say much more than that.”

“Does he think I will get out of here?”

“He didn’t say, but he’s a good lawyer.  If anyone can get you out of here, he can.”  I tried to sound hopeful, but my knees wobbled on shaky ground.  I really didn’t know Mr. Lawson too well, certainly not well enough to discern if he were a good lawyer or not.  I had picked him out of a long list of lawyers I had found online and called him on a whim.  He sounded sure of himself and willing to take on Tommy’s case, so I went with him.  He’d been nothing but professional and fearless since he began defending Tommy.  Nothing had deterred him, not even the publicity and the public outrage had cowed him away from defending my son.  He was the only one other than me that believed that Tommy was innocent.  I desperately needed someone else to believe in us even if I had to pay for that privilege.

Tommy frowned at me as unconvinced as the judge who presided over his trial.  More words pressed against his lips, but he refused to let them loose.  His fingernails were chewed close to the quick, and the edges of some of his fingers were blood red from where he had pulled the skin away.  The sight made me wince in pain.  He’d always messed with his nails.  I used to get after him when he was a kid about chewing his nails.  He could just never shake that disgusting, nervous habit.

“Please leave your nails alone, Tommy,” I said shaking my head at him.  I looked down knowingly at his hands.

He met my disapproving expression and clasped his hands together trying to hide the evidence.  “I can’t help it,” he said in a whiny voice just like when he was a young boy.  For a moment, I imagined he was nine again.  He wasn’t like most nine-year-olds.  He loved his mother more than most boys his age.  He wanted to be with me rather than run outside and play with the neighborhood kids.  We’d sit on the couch and watch my favorite shows together and he’d cuddle up next to me.  I would hold his warm little body next to mine and feel the love emanate from him.  He’d fall asleep on me and I’d just sit and watch him sleep.  I had wanted him to be like that forever.  He was my baby.  My last chance to be a mother who was needed.

My older kids stopped cuddling with me by the time they were five or six years old.  After my daughter grew out of it, I wanted another baby just so I could hold it in my arms and feel needed again.  My husband and I never planned on having a third child, but my carelessness led to a surprise one morning that confirmed we’d be welcoming another baby to our family.  While I was excited, my husband was not.  He lamented the thought of going through bottles and diapers again and questioned whether or not we should go through with the pregnancy.  I would not entertain any such options and told him we were having the baby whether he wanted it or not.  Despite the sickness and the endless sleep deprivation, I cherished my youngest child.

“Time’s up,” a guard said walking up behind Tommy.  I didn’t see him there at first and his deep voice startled me.  Tommy clinched at the table in front of him and looked at me fearfully.  His eyes welled quickly and the tears rolled down his cheeks.

“Mommy, please get me out of here,” he said frantically.  His chest heaved heavy breaths and the panic made his body tense up.  The guard tried unsuccessfully to pull him away, so another guard came around the partition to help get Tommy back to his cell.  Most of the time, he went away with the guard without incident, but occasionally, he’d have these emotional breakdowns.  I could never predict when they’d happen, but they always surprised me and left me on edge.  Images of him as a petulant nine-year-old temporarily juxtaposed with the grown man who flailed before me in drab prison clothes.  My heart wrenched.

“Don’t leave me, mommy!” Tommy screamed as they dragged him away.  He was cuffed and chained, so his efforts were futile, but I could see the tension in the chains and the fear in his body.  He wanted to fight and get away, and in my deepest heart, I wanted him to get away and come back to me.  I wanted him to be that little nine-year-old boy that loved to cuddle with his mother again.  I wanted to hold him close to me and take him back home where he belonged, but instead, I sat there in front of an empty booth with smudged glass perforated by tiny concentric circles holding my face in my hands and crying silently.  I cried for Tommy and the injustice of it all.  I couldn’t let this happen to my son.

I finally gathered myself enough to get up from my seat and leave the room, but the image of Tommy crying for me as he was dragged away haunted me.  The raw and uninhibited fear in his voice rattled in my head.  He didn’t belong there.  He was not a hardened criminal.  If the other inmates ever got around him, they would surely hurt him.  The thought scared me.  I hoped the guards protected him.  Mr. Lawson had assured me that they would keep him isolated from the others given the nature and notoriety of his case.  I had to believe him.

Tommy’s reaction reminded me of Jillian.  I didn’t want to think of her, but I did.  Tommy had that same look when Warren accused him of hurting Jillian.  Tommy swore he didn’t, and I believed him, but Warren just couldn’t let it go.  He insisted that Tommy was lying.  Warren had always been jealous of Tommy because I gave Tommy so much attention, but Tommy was the baby in our family, and unlike Warren, Tommy was frail and small.  Warren could be intimidating like his father, and he used that advantage to scare Tommy.  I’d never forgiven him for the way he treated Tommy after Jillian’s baseless accusations.  You couldn’t believe everything a little girl said.  They made up stuff and lied.  Little girls could be just as manipulative as grown women.

I didn’t want to think about Warren.  It angered me that he hadn’t supported his brother at all.  He hadn’t called me to check on him or even make any overtures that he cared in the least.  I didn’t know if he had reached out to my husband, but I doubted it.  Frank would have told me.  He would have made it a point to tell me just so he could hurt me more.  He would have used Warren as a dagger to thrust into my broken heart.  Never mind that he had abandoned his youngest son when he needed him most.  It was all about who was right and who was wrong with Frank.  I wondered if our marriage had always been a sham.  It pained me to think that I gave the best years of my life to that man.

I trudged out to my car beyond the pale steel fence topped with razor wire that engulfed the ugly low-slung buildings on the prison grounds.  I shuddered as I fought the cold wind and sat down on my icy seats.  The gray skies promised more snow as the wind whistled around my car.  The engine rattled to life fighting the cold itself as it mustered the energy to pull out of the parking spot.  With Tommy locked away, despair lingered over me like the clouds that blanketed the sky, and the seemingly endless, godforsaken winter drained every last ounce of hope that I had.

I pulled out of the parking lot and headed down the road to the Interstate, but I watched the garish, angry prison with its barbed wire and high chain-linked fence get smaller and smaller in my rearview mirror.  The distance that grew between me and my son made my heart ache.  Leaving him there seemed so wrong, yet I could do nothing to help him at that moment.  He was at the mercy of the system until Mr. Lawson could make his appeal and hopefully the truth would prevail and he would be free again.  The truth would prevail.  It had to.  My son was just a young man who had been wrongly accused.  I couldn’t let this happen to him.  I wanted my son back home with me.

As I turned onto the Interstate on-ramp, it started to snow again.  My wipers groaned and scraped away the snow that clung to the remnants of the ice from earlier in the morning.  The wipers didn’t help my view as the dirt and grime from the road simply smeared across the windshield.  I pulled the lever for my wiper fluid and nothing came out.  I could barely see, but I moved forward anyway peering through the small clean spot near my line of sight.  Once my car heated up, I was able to get the ice off my windshield, but the snow came down harder, and I wondered out loud when the long, awful winter would end.

Into the Darkness

Below is the first chapter in my fourth novel, The Weight of Regret.  I’m about halfway through the book at the moment.  The story revolves around a man who finds his life hanging in the balance after an accident, and believing he has little time left, he pens letters to the family that he abandoned long ago hoping to bridge the gap of the decades since he disappeared.

 

John Lambert turned onto the long stretch of remote highway that circumnavigated the canyons of northern Arizona.  The lights of the nearest town had long faded and the pitch black darkness swallowed his truck whole.  He drove through the belly of the whale alone.  He had seen few cars once he made the turn off the main artery that led north from Interstate 40, but he liked the isolation, he thrived on it.  In fact, he had spent the last thirty years living in the canyons mostly in an old camper that he often towed behind his truck.  He looked into his side mirror and searched for the camper in the faint glow of his tail lights.  At first, his heart raced at the empty space behind his truck, but then, he remembered that he had left his camper behind when he ventured into Red Lake.  He exhaled relief at the thought of his camper parked among the boulders deep in a canyon.

He had just turned sixty, and he chuckled to himself at how bad his memory had become.  He couldn’t remember what he did just a few hours ago or what he intended to do in the next moment.  He looked over at the yellow note pad jammed against the window on his dashboard.  An old pen clung to the side of the pad, and the edges of the remaining pages were bent and worn.  The corners of the pages that hung over the edge of the dashboard flapped lightly in the breeze from the vent on his console.  He could hear the heater running low in the silence of his cab.  He might not have good memory, but his hearing still worked fine.  Besides, he had the note pad to remind him of things.

He flipped on the interior light switch and grabbed the pad.  Another sigh of relief.  He had scratched through a meager grocery list and the words “propane” and “gas” on the top page of the pad.  He remembered putting the propane tanks in the back of his truck with the full gas cans.  He had secured them with elastic bands so that they wouldn’t tip over and spill once he turned off the paved road and headed into the desert along the bumpy trail toward his camper.  He pushed the note pad back into its spot above his center console.  If only he could forget his old life as easily as he forgot the day’s chores.  Things would be easier then.

John rubbed his eyes and wished away the burden of the day.  The heater emitted a musty smell that comforted him like the smell from an old wood stove.  A tiredness, so common in recent years, rushed over him, and although his camper was just a little more than thirty miles ahead, he suddenly felt he couldn’t make it.  His eyelids grew heavy and his head bobbled in an instant.  He shook his head to wake himself up, but the fog of exhaustion still hung over him like a heavy blanket.  He thought about the sleeping bag in the back of his truck.  He could pull over to the side of the road and climb into the back of his covered truck bed and sleep for a while.  That would be safer than continuing down the long, dark road.  Danger lurked on either side among the steep canyons that twisted and squeezed the narrow two-lane road.  One haphazard turn of the wheel would send him careening down the face of an embankment to an almost certain death, especially with so much fuel in the back of his truck.

His head bobbed again and he shook himself to wake up.  He felt down toward the cup holder between his seats and pulled the coffee tumbler to his mouth.  He regretted drinking it the moment it hit his lips.  Cold coffee.  He wanted to spit it out, but he swallowed it anyway and pushed the cup back into the holder in disgust.  The unsettling taste of old, cold coffee woke him up, at least temporarily.  His stomach lurched.  He hated cold coffee.  He’d brew some more when he got back to his camper.  It really didn’t help him stay awake anyway, but he loved the comfort of a nice, hot cup, one of the few luxuries he afforded himself in his spartan life.

The radio signal had faded not long after he left the glow of Red Lake.  He scanned through the channels again hoping to find something, anything, to distract himself from his exhausted state.  He lowered the driver’s window slightly.  The wind rustled loudly through the crack in his window, and the cold air slapped his worn face.  His unwieldy gray hair danced in the onslaught of the wind.  He turned up the heater to counter the cold air, but his face remained chilly.  He couldn’t leave the window down for the rest of the drive, but at least it would keep him awake for the time being.

Between the wind and the heater, John’s thoughts rattled around in his head as he sped down the lonesome highway toward his camper hidden deep in the canyons.  He kept focused on the warmth and comfort of his camper and how good it would feel to lie down in his bed for the night.  As usual, he had nowhere to go and no one to go to, so he could sleep as long as he wanted.  He decided that he would sleep all day tomorrow.  Why not?  He had replenished his supplies and his current spot in the desert had been a godsend.  He’d seen no one in the entire three months he’d been parked there.  No nosy hikers and certainly no tourists.  Tourists didn’t venture that far into the desert, especially during the winter.  There had been no one to ask questions.

Back in 1980 when he first started roaming the remote stretches of northern Arizona, few hikers or tourists showed up around his many campsites.  It was easier to disappear then because there was no Internet or intense media circus that would flush out a man trying to leave his life behind.  At this point, no one would ever recognize him, not even his own family.  Thirty years would do that to a man, to any man regardless of his situation.  He’d spent more than half his life running away, and on some level that troubled him despite his seemingly unbridled freedom.  He had broken free of one thing only to fall into the prison of another.  He appreciated the cruel irony of it all even if it cut him deeply.  Regardless, he’d gotten bolder in the last few years often venturing out to towns like Red Lake and walking freely among the residents in the light of day.  He no longer cowed under the dire threat of being discovered.  He felt truly free on some level, but that freedom still cost him dearly.

Inevitably, when he was tired, his mind wandered lazily to things past.  He hated when it happened and had tried for years to stop it, but the vacant years of his freedom left nothing to dwell on except the extreme loneliness that had filled his days.  He thought of Brenda.  He wondered how she was doing now and if she too had succumbed to age as he had.  He knew she had, but he couldn’t imagine her as an old woman.  He hadn’t seen her in almost thirty years.  Well, he hadn’t really seen her in thirty-three years since that morning he walked out of their house for the last time.  He still remembered her as a beautiful, young twenty-something, a wife and mother with her whole life ahead of her.  He hoped her life had turned out okay even if he wasn’t a part of it.

Ahead in the distance, a faint light grew stronger and momentarily brightened around the whipsawing curves in the canyon road.  An approaching car.  John felt relieved to see another soul in this vast open area, but at the same time, he registered some concern.  He’d never seen someone so close to his campsite.  The lights grew brighter until the car entered the brief straightaway ahead of him and zipped past him without any acknowledgment that they shared this lonely stretch of road.  John exhaled after he realized he was holding his breath.  He still did that after all these years when someone was perilously close to his campsite.  No one looked for him anymore he told himself.  He had no reason to worry he thought, but old habits died hard.  Like a wild deer, he stood ready to bolt at the slightest sign of a stalker.

His concerns dissipated further when he realized that he had miscalculated where he was.  He still had several more miles to go before he reached his campsite.  The trail that led to his camper hid behind a series of rock formations that sloped downward along the side of the road like a giant arrow pointing the way to go, but anyone unfamiliar with the area would be hard-pressed to find the trail, much less follow it to the camper secured behind several large rocks in the canyon.  It had been the perfect hiding spot the past few months, even for a man who really didn’t have to hide anymore.  He knew this, but he kept up the charade anyway.  It justified his loneliness, ensured that he paid the price that he knew he owed.

Exhausted and frustrated that he still had a ways to go, John shook his head again hoping to thwart the heavy eyelids that narrowed his line of sight.  His head bobbed and he felt the truck drift to the side of the road.  His heart jumped and he jolted upright in this seat fearful of what had just happened.  Another second or two longer and he would have careened off the shoulder and into the canyon below.  He slapped both sides of his face to keep himself awake, but the sting did little to ward off the sleep demons.  He kept his eyes drowsily focused on the area illuminated by his headlights, which were turned to their brightest setting.

In an instant, he saw it ahead of him, something that he couldn’t quite make out but that stood firmly in the road just beyond the periphery of his headlights.  Was it a person or an animal of some kind?  He couldn’t quite tell, but he reacted immediately jerking the truck’s wheel to the right to avoid that which threatened to impale his vehicle.  The moment he twisted the wheel, the truck left the smooth asphalt and rattled along the rocky edge of the road and bumped up and down with such force that John lost his grip on the steering wheel.  The truck seemed to drive itself in that moment before it plunged off the side of the road.  His reaction time slowed by fatigue, he tried to grab the wheel one last time before his truck lost its traction and became airborne.  John felt his stomach heave as the truck dove into the rocky canyon below the road.

In the few seconds that it took for John to lose control of his truck and plunge into the darkness, time stood still for him.  For a brief moment, he had escaped his body and looked down from above as he struggled with the truck and lost control.  He watched as he plunged down into the canyon.  He screamed, but the sound was lost and dissipated quickly in the dark desert sky.  He gripped the steering wheel fiercely and braced himself for impact as if he could somehow regain control of the truck once it hit the rocks below and drive away, scared but unharmed.  The fall took an eternity in his mind.  He thought the impact would be immediate and definite, but the quiet plunge into darkness lasted long enough to make him believe that he was dreaming.

His life hung in the balance.  The truck’s headlights, at once illuminating nothing but darkness in the space ahead of him, shone a harsh light on boulders that suddenly appeared before him.  His head jerked to the side and he squeezed his eyes shut.  The brutal impact thudded against him with such force that all consciousness left him.  His sense of being out of his body faded quickly and he thought or felt nothing as if his mind had been instantly erased or extinguished.

The nose of the truck struck the boulder below the road with such force that it bent in half twisting itself like a soda can against the immovable mass of the rock.  The truck bed flayed upward losing its cover and the contents that had been secured against all but the most unexpected forces.  The propane tanks and gas cans catapulted from the truck and plunged further down the craggy embankment.  Each tank rattled and rolled furiously down the hill and exploded as the heat and friction of the fall ignited the fuel inside.  The explosions echoed through the canyon briefly illuminating the grim rock face before the darkness swallowed them whole again.

The brutality of the impact left the truck bent end upon end between two large boulders.  The position made it impossible to open the doors, but it ensured that the truck would not fall further into the vast darkness below, at least not immediately.  The desert night at once interrupted by the sound of the crash fell still again, a quiet solitude that belied the trauma that had unfolded in a matter of seconds.  A fragile life hung in the balance in the vast canyon, but the noisy storm passed quickly.

John Lambert came to a rest in the most violent of ways.  He had removed his hands from the steering wheel before the moment of impact to cover his face, but the force did not spare him.  The steering wheel jammed his chest on impact and his arms and head slammed against the windshield before it shattered and glass rained down upon him.  His legs bent unnaturally as the metal of his truck bowed to the pressure of the impact.  The force crushed the bones in his legs and wedged them into a fixed position fused with the mangled metal.  He came to a rest almost upside down like he had leaned back too far in a reclining chair and it had tilted over.  His relaxed position betrayed the gravity of his situation.

Only a few seconds passed from the point that John jerked the wheel of his truck to the right to the point he came to a rest wedged between two boulders.  In that short frame, the cacophony of the crash assailed the solitude of the desert night, but just as quickly, the deafening silence returned and the desert resumed its nightly routine breathing easily as if its nap had never been interrupted.  A passer-by would be hard-pressed to discover any evidence of a crash save for some faint tire marks on the road and tracks on the rocky shoulder that promptly disappeared over the edge of the canyon.  Such marks were not uncommon as many a driver had veered off the edge only to recover and continue the journey frightened but unscathed.  Not so for John.

The once warm air of the truck cab quickly gave way to the cold desert air.  It wrapped itself around him adding insult to his injuries.  John still wore the coat he had put on before he’d left his camper earlier in the evening.  He had anticipated the cold.  A handful of decades living in the desert had taught him to always be prepared, but nothing prepared him for being trapped in a canyon with his life hanging in the balance. 

Moments passed and John lay in the mangled remains of his truck unconscious and unaware of the threat to his survival.  His ragged, shallow breathing provided the only sign that he had survived the crash.  The notepad that had been firmly ensconced on his dashboard sat on his stomach with the pen still clipped to its side like he had fallen asleep while writing something.  A blanket that he had stuffed behind his seat in case he ended up stranded in cold clung to the edge of his broken passenger window dangling over the edge of the rocks that cradled his truck.  Its threads stretched from the pull of gravity as it clung to the jagged glass that remained of the window.  The coffee tumbler freed of its awful, cold contents sat on its side against the remaining corner of glass in the passenger window, its lid missing.  The rush of the cold air and quiet abandonment of the desert consumed the gaping hole in the twisted truck as John lay there unaware that he clung to life as the clock ticked away.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he stirred.  At first, his face twitched, and then, his fingers moved almost imperceptibly.  He opened his eyes slowly as if from a dream.  A bolt of pain shot through his neck and down into his arms and belly, but no signals arrived from his legs.  A coppery taste filled his mouth and his nose felt blocked like he had bad congestion from a cold.  He strained to interpret what he saw ever so faintly in the darkness.  His pupils widened and the dim light from the waxing moon brightened.  He turned his head slowly to survey the situation, but it took him a few moments to realize what had happened.

He moved slowly like an elderly man beset by arthritis, but eventually he found his position and understood his state of being.  He couldn’t sit up completely.  He could only lean up for a moment before pain and gravity got the best of him.  His hands grasped for his legs.  He couldn’t feel them at all, and he couldn’t touch them with his hands because the metal of the truck was bent and clamped down upon them like the jaws of some mechanical shark.  He felt a tingle, no a burning sensation, at the base of his spine.  It felt like the entire weight of the truck was pinning him down at his waist.  He exhaled and coughed a phlegm-filled cough. 

He fell back into his reclining position and rubbed his face with his hands.  His fingers found the multiple lacerations on his forehead.  None of them seemed more than superficial, but they provided more than their fair share of the pain he felt at that moment.  His heart sank and the pit in his stomach ached as he realized the dire circumstances that governed him.  Hopelessness had found him once again, and he could not run away this time.  He struggled to feel his toes, even imagined that he felt them, but he knew in the deepest trenches of his mind that they were all but severed from his body.  He felt his life dripping away slowly like water slowly leaking from a bucket that was already only half full.

John Lambert started to cry, not from the pain of his injuries but from the searing fate that stared him in the eyes.  He spat blood from his mouth and wailed out loud in the endless darkness.  He body heaved and pain shot up his spine and out through his hands and head, but he didn’t care.  His life depended on the alertness of strangers in the middle of a desolate area far removed from frequent traffic.  He knew his truck wasn’t visible from the road.  He’d traversed this very spot along the road to his camper many times over the past few months, and he knew the edge of the cliff above was very steep.  Even a person on foot would have to lean over the edge of the cliff and strain to see his truck wedged below.  For all practical purposes, he had received a death sentence.  This was how it would end, and John cried at the injustice of it all in spite of all the pain and misery he had caused in the lives of those he had cared about most.

He had no idea how long it took him to grieve, but at some point he realized that he had to make the most of the fleeting moments that remained.  He wiped the tears from his eyes and what he thought was blood from his face and tried to assess his situation as clear-eyed as he could.  He ignored the unbearable pain that wracked his body.  He would be free from it soon.  Oddly, he felt a certain freedom knowing how he would meet his end, a freedom he had experienced in another form over thirty years ago when he left his former life behind and began the self exile that ultimately brought him to this place trapped into the mangled remains of his life.

He felt something lightly pressing against his stomach and he patted his hand down his chest until he grasped the notepad.  He sighed in relief as an idea came to him instantly.  He gripped the pad harder like it would save him, a life raft in a tumultuous sea.  It would save him he thought, but hours would pass before any daylight arrived and he worried that he wouldn’t last that long.  He tried to lean up toward the steering wheel above him, but the pain pushed him back down into his repose.  He tried again.  And again.  He screamed as the pain became too much.  The darkness quickly swallowed his anguish to no avail.

A sudden thought pulsed through his mind, and he reached out to the door of his glove compartment.  It too stood just beyond his fingertips, but it seemed more accessible than the steering wheel because it was almost level with him in the contorted truck cabin.  He leaned up a little and shifted to his right to pop the knob of the door latch.  Nothing.  He pushed it again and the left side of the door cracked open slightly, but the other side was jambed.  He fell back into his position and exhaled.  He caught his breath and made one more surge toward the glove compartment.  He crammed his fingers into the slight opening and pulled with the weight of his body falling backward.  The flimsy door popped open and some contents from the glove compartment fell to the floor and rattled around in the truck.  John hoped that the flashlight had stayed put.  He leaned up again and felt around the glove compartment in the dark.  His fingers searched frantically as his strength started fading.  Finally, he felt the cold metal cylinder that he so desperately wanted.  He grabbed it and held on tightly as his strength finally failed him and he fell back into his reclining position.

He lay in the cold darkness breathing heavily like he had just run a fast mile.  He had the notepad and the flashlight firmly in his grasp, the two remaining physical things that had any meaning to him in his awful situation.  He couldn’t remember the last time he had changed the batteries in the flashlight.  Months ago he had had a flat tire and had used the flashlight while he changed the tire, but he couldn’t remember if he had used it lately.  He felt along the grip of the flashlight for the switch and promptly pushed the button.  Light flooded the cabin, and relief rushed over him.  He had never felt so happy to see light, a strong, bright beam at that.

He shined the flashlight around the cab to orient himself to his surroundings.  The light gave him power, the power to understand where he was and what had happened to him.  He looked first to his legs, and he immediately saw the reason for his lack of feeling.  His legs were trapped between the floorboard and the dashboard, both of which had been twisted upward as the truck bent between the boulders.  His contorted legs were completely hidden in the twisted metal, but John knew that they were a lost cause.  He’d no longer be able to run the desert trails in the mornings just before sunrise.  His legs had taken him far over the years.  They’d relieved him from a life he’d never wanted.  He grimaced at the unnatural angle of his legs, but he felt no pain there.

He surveyed the rest of the cab in the small beam of light.  The shattered windshield and the scattered contents of his truck gleamed in the light.  He saw the coffee tumbler on his passenger window below him and smiled because he wished he had some hot coffee to ward off the cold that had quickly consumed him.  One last cup of hot coffee would be a fitting end.  He noticed the blanket hanging by its edge on the craggy glass next to the coffee cup.  He’d need that blanket if he wanted to survive the cold, but it sat hopelessly out of his reach.

His attention returned to the notepad.  He knew what he had to do.  His time was short, and he needed to say some things that hadn’t been said.  He needed to explain himself before others explained him.  They wouldn’t understand.  He knew that the past thirty years had left a gap of sorts in the lives of those few he truly cared about, and he felt that he owed them an explanation after all this time.  Such explanations would neatly tie up the loose ends that he had let flail in the wind for so long.  At least, he hoped he could tie them up.

Despite his injuries and the pain that shook his body, John Lambert put the flashlight on his chest and used his chin to steady it.  He picked up the notepad and unclipped the pen from its side.  He turned to the first clean page and began to write shakily and pour his heart out one last time.  He wrote to Brenda, John Jr., Thomas, and Jenny.  He wrote to them all as if his life depended on it, and in many ways it did.

Lights

The following is one of my short stories.  What do you think?

The waves crashed relentlessly over Teddy Knox as he lay in the water semi-conscious.  He sputtered and spat the water from his mouth, but his nose and throat burned, and he gasped for breath.  His body and limbs were motionless, frozen, and immobile.  He tried to turn his head from the onslaught of the waves, but his neck muscles refused to cooperate.  He felt like his mind had been disconnected from his body or that he occupied a foreign body over which he had no control.  Fear rose in his stomach and crashed into his mind in a wild-eyed panic.  His eyes he could control.  He winced as the next wave crashed upon him.

The wave struck him on his right shoulder and pushed him under violently.  He felt like a giant hand had grabbed him from under the surface and pulled him down by his shoulders.  He flipped head over heels and sunk like an anchor on one of those big cruise ships that he and his wife used to ride into the warm Caribbean waters.  He opened his eyes as he sunk slowly in the deep water.  He realized that he couldn’t breathe, but the panic had been washed away by that last wave.  An eerie calm consumed him, an indescribable peace.

Teddy floated upright as if he was standing in the water about to walk through it like he would on solid ground, but the current gently turned him around.  He didn’t resist.  He just watched as the view around him slowly changed from the opaque darkness to a brighter yet muddled shade.  He had almost rotated a full circle in the water when the current stalled and held him into place.  He looked ahead and could see a faint light in the murky water.  He instantly desired it, wanted to swim to it.

He struggled to tell his body to move.  His desire flowed from his mind to his limbs, but no movement occurred at first.  His fingers twitched.  His arms pushed slightly against the water that weighed on him.  His toes and legs likewise had a twinge of movement until a burst of motion exploded from him and propelled him toward the light.  He didn’t want this to be the end.  He desired to live.  He swam desperately to the light as fast as he could, but he was surprised by the sudden swift movement of his body.  He hadn’t felt this young and agile in ages.  He didn’t question the source of his energy.  He just swam to the light as he could.

Teddy bolted upright in the bed heaving and gasping for breath.  The tubes and lines connected to him strained against him as he bucked up and rattled the bed, his body bent as if his arms and legs were tied down.  An alarm wailed.  In an instant, nurses and doctors burst into the room and quickly began assessing the situation.  The cacophony of noises surged and receded like the many waves that had assailed Teddy’s body.  A nurse injected a drug into his IV and Teddy slowly ceased his fight against the machines, still asleep and seemingly unaware that he had caused such a ruckus.

The tension in the hospital room gradually eased.  Doctors chatted and discussed his condition writing in the chart that hung from his bed.  One doctor gave orders and the nurses scattered in response.  They had to be ready for the inevitable.  It would surely come.  Eventually, only a single nurse remained as Teddy returned to his usual calm, sedate state.  As she walked out of the room and left him alone in the glare of the dim light above his bed, he lay there as if nothing had happened, as if he had not had another dream or had not teetered on the edge of life once again.  It was only a matter of time.

“Teddy,” a disembodied voice called in the darkness.  “Can you hear me?”  He couldn’t see her face, but he knew his wife was calling him.  He’d recognize Doris’ voice anywhere.  He’d known her for most of his life and had been married to her for almost six decades.  He wanted to respond, but sleep over-powered him, and when he was conscious, his groggy state left him slow and unable to form words as quickly as he used to.

“He’s been in and out.  Let’s see if he wakes up while you’re here,” Doris said to someone else who was obviously in the room.  “I’m so glad you could make it.  I don’t know how much longer he will be with us.”

“I know.  That’s why we came,” another voice said morosely.  Teddy struggled to place it until he realized the voice belonged to his youngest grandson.

“When are you due?” Doris asked.

“Next month on the fifth,” a woman responded.  Teddy didn’t recognize her voice.

“Teddy’s mother was born on May 5th.  It would be wonderful if one of his great grandchildren shared his mother’s birthday.  He loved that woman more than he loves me.”

“Granny, I doubt that.  Papa loves you very much,” his grandson replied.

“Maybe so, but you weren’t around when old Maribel was alive.  She had a hold on your grandfather than I just never understood.  I never saw him cry until his mother died.”

Teddy awoke to a completely dark room.  Even the dim light over his bed had been switched off, which he found strange.  The nurses always kept some light on, and at the very least, the glare from the displays on the machines near his bed would provide some light, however faint.

He twitched his arm and moved his head slightly side to side.  He didn’t feel the weight of the tubes or IV on him.  He felt down his right arm with his left hand.  Nothing.  He stroked his face.  Nothing.  He felt surprising energized and alert, so he swung his legs over to the side of his bed and touched his toes onto the floor.

He wasn’t in the hospital anymore.  An unfamiliar carpet tickled his toes as he pressed his feet to the floor.  He stood up in the inky blackness that surrounded him.  He had no idea where he was, but he took a tentative step away from the bed toward something, anything.  He crept slowly forward with his arms in front of him until he came to a wall.  He felt the smooth surface of the wall rubbing it slightly with his fingers as if he were petting his old dog, Bronco.  The texture felt fine and reassuring to his touch.  Every nerve in his fingers fired precisely.  He could see nothing at all, not even his own hands, but his sense of touch was intense.  He imagined what the wall before him looked like in the light of day.

Teddy felt along the wall and moved to his right slowly hoping to find a light switch or a door that would relieve him of the darkness.  He couldn’t find a switch, but his leg scraped against something.  He reached down and found a door knob and instinctively opened it.

The room behind the door was equally dark save for a burning strip of light straight in front of him.  It took a moment for him to realize what he was looking at, but then, it struck him.  The light peeked under another door across the room he had entered.  He couldn’t see anything in the new room other than the glare of the light under the door.  The light illuminated very little in the room itself as if its entire energy was absorbed by the darkness of the room.

Teddy took a tentative step toward the light with his arms outstretched to sense what was in front of him.  Another step gave him more confidence and he closed the gap between him and the light rather quickly.  He felt for a door knob, but there was not one.  Perplexed, he felt along the edges of the door until he found a finger-sized groove, a divot in the side of the door.  Instinctively, he dug his fingers into the divot and pulled.  The door opened and the brightest light he had ever seen instantly blinded him.

The shrill beep of the machine beside Teddy’s bed startled Doris awake.  She had been dozing in the chair near his bed when the machine burst to life.  Before she could pinpoint the machine that had gone off, a nurse hurried into the room and scanned the multiple displays that crowned the bed.  The nurse impressed Doris with her expert calm and ready assessment of the situation.  She adjusted some fluid on the IV connected to Teddy’s arm and the drip increased just a little.  She flicked several buttons on the machine and it fell silent again.  In her mind, Doris still heard the machine’s loud beep, an audio artifact or ghost that lingered for a few seconds longer than it did in reality.

“Is he okay?” Doris asked.  Her forehead wrinkled in concern.

“As good as can be expected, Ms. Knox,” the nurse replied.

“How much longer?”

“No one knows for sure.  We just have to make him comfortable and let nature take its course.”

Doris slumped back in her chair sullen and defeated.  After all this time, she had accepted what was coming, but it still wasn’t easy.  She couldn’t remember life without Teddy, but she knew that any day now he would no longer be in her life.  The inevitable pressed its incredible weight on her as she struggled to make it day to day.

The nurse continued fiddling with the machines but kept an eye on Doris.  She could feel the grief emanating from her.  “I’m very sorry,” she said turning to face Doris.  She looked at Doris’ sad face momentarily and then looked away as if staring too long was considered impolite.

Doris mustered a weak smile.  “Thank you.  I appreciate all you’re doing.”

“It’s my job.”  The nurse reached for Doris’ hand and gave it a light squeeze.  She let go of her hand and smiled at Doris but said nothing more before she turned her attention to Teddy again.  She checked the IV one more time and then left the room.  Doris leaned back into her chair staring at her husband.  She had to concentrate on his chest to confirm that he was still breathing.

Teddy stood on the edge of a dark pool.  He only knew it was a pool because he could taste the chlorine in the air and he could faintly see the ripple of the water in the dim light around him.  He had no idea where he was, but the air was warm and humid.  He stood tall and strong and felt a rush of energy that he had not felt in many years.  He realized he was naked, but it didn’t embarrass or shame him.  He felt alive and invigorated, but he was still confused.

He rubbed his right arm with his left hand, and although he couldn’t see very well in the dim light, he could tell his skin was taught and smooth like it had been when he was a young man.  This surprised him and he rubbed his chest and then his legs finding the same even skin and taught muscles that had marked his youth.  Gone was the sagging and pockmarked skin of his elder years.  At once he realized he was dreaming.  He knew there were no miracles for a man his age, only memories of times long past.

He shook his head trying to wake himself, but then he stopped abruptly.  Why did he want this dream to end?  Why did he want to lose how he felt right now?  He relaxed and decided to enjoy the dream as much as he could.  It could be his last and why not remember how he had once been a young man, a very capable swimmer with a svelte body capable of covering long distances in the water quickly.  It was what he loved to do and he wanted to enjoy it even if it was all in his head.

He dipped his foot into the pool.  The water felt warm and comforting, warmer than he usually liked it, but something pulled him into the water and he dove off the edge head first.  Teddy sliced the water with his arms and bowed up until he was parallel with the bottom of the pool.  He couldn’t actually see the bottom, but his instincts told him he had leveled out.  The water, like space above it, was dimly lit, but Teddy didn’t care.  He felt great as the warm water enveloped him.  It caressed every inch of his body making him feel decades younger.  He didn’t want to let the feeling go, so he swam forward in slow arching strokes forcing the water to massage him as he moved.

Teddy rose to the surface and rolled over making lazy back strokes to keep moving.  He closed his eyes and breathed in the air around him.  Aside from the chlorine, the air was pleasant and chilled slightly against his wet skin.  He kept rotating his arms and kicking his feet slowly to stay afloat.  He soaked it all in and remained in a relaxed repose for quite a while before he decided to dive under again.

He sucked in a huge breath, flipped over, and dove harder into the deep water.  He wanted to touch the bottom like the game he used to play as a young man where he’d dive into the pool fast and furious to touch the bottom and bob up again.  Sometimes, he’d retrieve something from the bottom, but other times he simply tapped it with his fingers to get a sense of accomplishment.

He pulled himself deeper with his arms, but the bottom seemed elusive in the deep pool.  At first, he maintained his determination, a macho bravado that he’d displayed regularly in his youth, but after many strokes, he became concerned and stopped, suspended in the dim pool.  He squinted into the water below him, but he could not see the end of the pool.  He looked around holding onto his last breath.  He kicked and started to ascend back to the surface when he saw a faint light off to his right.  He stared at it trying to make sense of it, but he needed to breathe.  He shot upward in a burst of movement and broke the surface of the water gasping mightily for air.

Teddy rubbed his face and shook the water from his hair as he regained his breath.  His body slowly calmed down as he thought about what he had seen.  He looked to his right again, but he couldn’t see the light from the surface.  In fact, the pool was just as dim as before as if there were no lights to be seen, but he was sure he had seen a light.  He paddled upright to stay afloat, perplexed yet determined.  He had to reach the light.  Its allure pulled at him in a way he couldn’t explain.  He took several deep breaths before he sucked in as much air as possible and dove beneath the surface again.

At first, when he broke the surface, he didn’t see any light, but as he traveled deeper, he could see it faintly before him.  He swam harder consciously measuring how much breath he had left versus the distance that separated him from the light.  As he got closer, the light shone brighter almost like it was pulling him toward it.  He felt a strange gravitational pull from the light.  He kicked harder and cut his arms through the water like he did when he swam the 400 competitively.

As he got closer the whole pool brightened.  The dim water receded like he had traveled a great distance.  The warmth of the water increased and he felt sleepy and dazed.  He stopped swimming, but his body still moved toward the light.  The gravity of the light pulled him along.  He started to resist, but the warmth and pleasure of the pool subdued him.  He relaxed and gave into the lure of the light.

A darkness suddenly settled on Teddy once again, but he still felt comfortable and invigorated.  His mind stuttered as he struggled to understand where he was.  He could feel himself sliding backwards slowly as if he was being pulled in his gurney down a dark hallway.  He fell in and out of consciousness, but he remained aware of his slow, backward movement.  He was instantly too tired to make sense of it.  The swim to the light had drained him.

The darkness suddenly ended and he thrust from the water like a dolphin.  The stark contrast shocked him and he yelled.  Suddenly, he was back in the water again and he stopped screaming.  The warmer water comforted him, and he relaxed.  He couldn’t see anything as his vision was blurry, but he could feel the warmth of a blanket around him and could hear the mutter of indistinct voices.  He felt another body next to his and the sing-song voice of the woman mesmerized him.  He thought of Doris, but this woman spoke a strange language that he didn’t understand, yet the rhythm sounded familiar to him.  He longed to see this woman, to draw the lines of her face, but his eyes failed him.  He could only listen and imagine who she was.  He fell asleep against her, comforted by her magical voice.  A light shined bright in his heart as he drifted off to sleep and forgot everything about the life he had left behind.