Fiction Relay – Part 23

Fiction Relay – Part 22.

Fiction Relay Homepage.

Fiction Relay Summary.

—–

Ephraim sped to the back entrance to the old distillery, shifting Suzi in his arms as he fumbled with the lock. Inside, he made his way to the kitchen, where he attempted to pry her arms from around his neck. “Meghan? Meghan, it’s okay. We’re back at the cabin. You’re safe now.”

Suzi’s breathing calmed. She loosened her hold on Ephraim, unwrapped her legs from around his waist, and tested her feet on the floor. Her knees gave out. Ephraim caught her. He grabbed a blanket from the back of the sofa, wrapped it around her, pulled out a dining chair, and sat her down. Her eyes were glazed. She was in shock. He stepped back into the kitchen, returned with a tumbler filled with ice and a liberal amount of bourbon, and held it to her lips. She took a tentative sip, then grabbed the glass around his hands, and guzzled. The blanket slid off her shoulders, puddling around her waist. “Easy!” He pulled the glass back. Suzi swallowed, gasped, and blinked.

“Where…?” She looked around the room. Then she glanced down at her naked, blood-stained torso. Her gaze flew up to meet Ephraim’s. In her eyes he saw the traces of Meghan recede to the background. “How did I get here?”

“I brought you after you ported into my arms. Had you been in the cave?”

Suzi nodded. “Melissa was going to…!” She choked on the last word and reached for the bourbon. The ice clinked against the sides of the glass as she brought her shaking hand up and took a sip.

“Melissa was there? Is that her blood?”

Suzi shook her head and set down the glass. “Raj’s,” she whispered. “He strapped me to one of the tables, like… before….” Ephraim nodded, feeling Suzi’s dread. He remembered all too well what it felt like to be strapped to those tables. “But then he was going to… to….” Her eyes widened with fear, and she clutched the blanket back up around her nakedness. Ephraim suddenly understood that part of his vision: the lust in Raj’s mad eyes, the smirk on his face. Ephraim’s hands curled into fists. Anger simmered in his core. He didn’t know if he could handle hearing what Raj had done next, but he had to know whatever details Suzi could give him. Years of training in law enforcement kicked in. He kept his voice steady.

“Go on.”

“Then Melissa came,” Suzi said. “She killed him.”

Melissa killed Raj?” Ephraim repeated. “But Melissa loved….” No, that part of his vision made sense, too. He’d felt the overwhelming jealousy and rage. It must have come from Melissa. But Melissa also hated Suzi. “Did she free you from the straps?” he asked suspiciously. There was no way Suzi would have been able to port out of those special-made bindings.

“No. I did it myself. I didn’t think I’d be able to… and she had the knife raised, and I thought I’d be dead… and then suddenly I was able to draw energy from… from….” Her jaw dropped and she gasped. Her gaze became distant, deep in thought.

“You drew energy from where?” he prompted.

“I remember,” she breathed.

“What do you remember?”

“Everything!” Her eyes locked on Ephraim. “I have a daughter! Daniel and I have a daughter!”

Now it was Ephraim’s turn to be shocked. Suzi kept talking, explaining.

“Early-on, I’d figured out how to port out of the rooms.”

Ephraim nodded. Meghan could have escaped the orphanage long before she actually did. But she wouldn’t leave any of them behind. Instead, she’d stayed and would sneak out to comfort whoever had received the worst of that week’s “experiments.” That is, unless the victim-du-jour had been Meghan. They all knew that those times she’d had to suffer alone. Sometimes he could still hear the echoes of her heartbreaking sobs in his mind. He, Daniel, and Raj had all loved her for it. But over the years, while it had solidified his friendship with her, he’d always known there was something deeper, more powerful between her and Daniel. It had driven Raj insane. Raj had turned his attentions to Melissa.

But Ephraim had had no idea that Meghan and Daniel had created life.

“Do you remember the night we escaped?” Suzi asked.

“Yes…?” he thought back. “Raj and Melissa had torched the orphanage and killed everyone else. Daniel and I were stuck in the cave. I had a vision, and Daniel could see my thoughts,  so we knew Raj and Melissa were headed for us. We didn’t think we could make it out of our straps in time. Then you rushed in. I remember thinking it was strange that you hadn’t ported in. We told you to go. But you wouldn’t leave until we were both freed. And even then you wouldn’t port away to safety.”

“First of all, you know I would never have left you,” she said. “But I couldn’t port then, and I knew I couldn’t, but I didn’t realize why until later. I was already pregnant.”

“You can’t port when you’re pregnant?”

“Apparently not. Meanwhile, after we’d escaped Kentucky, Raj and Melissa were still coming after us. You split off from us first, and later Daniel and I split up.”

Ephraim nodded. “Because we knew we’d be too easy to find as a group. And we agreed not to use our powers, because it would have made us that-much-easier for them to track.”

“Yes. I wound up having my daughter and raising her alone until she was eight. But by then, Raj had tracked me to Miami. So I did the only thing I could. I placed her for adoption. Then, at the last second, just before Raj captured me, I did a memory wipe.”

“On yourself?”

Suzi’s face contorted with pain. “Yes,” she breathed. Then she straightened her shoulders and set her jaw. “It was the only way I could protect her from Raj. He never knew of her existence. I’d forgotten about her… until tonight. There was something about that power I was able to draw-on… I wonder if — ?”

Ephraim interrupted with his own thought that had been bothering him. “What I never understood is why Raj and Melissa pursued us for so long.”

Suzi’s eyes dropped. “Because of the map. After I freed you two, I swiped it from the safe.”

You have the map? You have that map?”

Suzi nodded sheepishly.

“How did you get it out of the safe? That thing was locked! And why didn’t you tell me? Or Sam — does Sam know?”

“No. I didn’t want to compromise either of you. I’m the one who had to go back and take care of what the map leads to.”

“You don’t have to be so secretive. I know what it leads to, also. And you’re not doing it. I’ll take care of it.”

“No! I don’t want you getting hurt! You or Sam! Where is he, anyway?”

“He went to check on the cave, and — .”

“The cave? That’s where Melissa was! We have to go help him! He’s in danger!”

Ephraim exploded. “At this point, good! I can’t believe you’re sticking up for him, Suzi! You were always there for us. Always! I can’t believe Daniel left you, and then never came back. Especially in your condition! You should never have had to go through that alone! If I’d known you were pregnant, I’d have never left your side, even if it wasn’t my kid.”

“But he never did know,” she said quietly.

“Excuse me?”

“He never knew I was pregnant. Sam doesn’t know he’s a dad.”

—–

Okay, Hasty, your turn!

She may as well have been speaking Chinese

Last week I had my first, scheduled, online discussion with “Amy” from Rosetta Stone. When I finished, I wished I knew how to say “Oy vey!” in Mandarin.

A “scheduled online discussion” in Rosetta World means that for thirty minutes you get to talk to someone who is a native speaker of the language. I was excited, because I had a lot of questions about syntax, and I really needed some help. At the designated time I logged on with my pre-prepped microphone headset and waited. Soon Amy’s voice called out.

Nǐ hǎo, Dawn!”

Nǐ hǎo,” I responded. My stomach quivered a bit; I’m not comfortable wrapping my tongue around this language yet, and even the “hello” set me off. But this was all part of the famous Rosetta Stone process. I needed to do it, and I was ready to go with Amy, who is a native Mandarin-speaker.

What I didn’t realize is that it was the only language she would use in our chat.

I knew that she was going to stick to words I’d learned two lessons earlier. At the time, I’d been on Unit 1, Lesson 4. Amy was quizzing me on stuff from Unit 1, Lesson 2. Should have been a piece of cake. It was more like a piece of mud pie. I couldn’t even remember the word for “milk” (niú nǎi).  I felt like a clueless two year-old.

Except that a two-year old Chinese kid would know the word for milk.

I should be better at this, I screamed in my head. I’m a writer, for Pete’s sake! I have a better-than-average command of the English language! I manipulate words on a regular basis!

Making things worse, during the chat it became clear that Amy also had an excellent command of the English language. (And she pronounced my name as though she was American.) But she stuck to speaking in Mandarin. She’s probably supposed to do that, however on-the-verge-of-tears the Rosetta Stone customer is. Maybe it’s some Tiger-Teacher philosophy.

She was patient with me. “Tǐng hǎo!” she would encourage when I got things right… which was usually after she’d had to type the answer on the screen. A few times I broke down and had to use English to explain that I didn’t know something. Or that I didn’t understand what Amy was asking me to say, like when she asked if I had a cat, as she pointed to a photo of a cat. (It was only an “Oh, duh!” after I understood what she was asking. Then I couldn’t remember the word for “no,” which, it turns out, isn’t “no.” Because “no” means no, except in Mandarin.)

It was the longest half-hour of my life. I literally breathed a sigh of relief when she said our time was up. “Zài jiàn, Dawn.” Zài jiàn, Amy!

I’m still going forward with the course. I want to learn this language. Eventually, I’ll even schedule my next chat session. But am I looking forward to it?

Bù shì!

“The best part of your story hasn’t been written yet.”

I joined the Boulder Writers’ Workshop. It feels so good to be part of a writers’ group again! Last Saturday I attended my first session. It was a Literary Salon, hosted by memoir author Priscilla Stuckey (Kissed by a Fox,  © 2012). She read some beautiful passages from her book, and when she was done she answered questions.

Naturally, it being a writers’ group, the discussion turned to process.

She said that it took nine years (!) from inception to publication (she’s a professor of environmental humanities at Prescott College in Prescott, Arizona, and said she had to learn the creative process), but when she first started trying to query agents she wasn’t getting any bites. She took her story to an editor for help. The editor got back to her with, “The best part of your story hasn’t been written yet.”

Can you imagine being told something like that? After having worked soooo hard for soooo long… and thinking you were done…!?! Of course Priscilla was devastated, but when she calmed down and digested the editor’s words, she really went back and thought about her book. It was a series of nature experiences she’d had. But that was all. That’s when, she said, she went back and wrote the “thinking parts” of her book – the things that would ultimately weave and tie her real-life stories together. She attributes her ensuing ability to get an agent to the fact that she’d found a theme.

I thought about this, and at first I dismissed it. Fortunately, I thought, I’m a fiction writer, and fiction doesn’t have to have a theme. It’s not like I have to be out to convey some higher message through allegory or anything. Some writers do this, and it’s fine, but it’s not an absolute necessity. In fact, for thrillers, the main “theme” is the plot, itself, right? All I have to do is to tell a good story, and tell it well.

Or so I thought.

Then I thought about it some more. And I remembered something I’d read by one of the best-selling authors of all-time:

Mostly I don’t see stuff like that until the story’s done. Once it is, I’m able to kick back, read over what I’ve written, and look for underlying patterns. If I see some, (and I almost always do), I can work at bringing them out in a second, more fully realized, draft of the story. Two examples of the sort of work second drafts were made for are symbolism and theme….

But wait. Symbolism doesn’t have to be difficult and relentlessly brainy. Nor does it have to be consciously crafted as a kind of ornamental Turkish rug upon which the furniture of the story stands. If you can go along with the concept of the story as a pre-existing thing, a fossil in the ground, then symbolism must also be pre-existing, right? Just another bone (or set of them) in your new discovery. That’s if it’s there. If it isn’t, so what? You’ve still got the story itself, don’t you?

If it is there and if you notice it, I think you should bring it out as well as you can, polishing it until it shines and then cutting it the way a jeweler would cut a precious or semi-precious stone….

Does that make it necessary to the success of your story or novel? Indeed not, and it can actually hurt, especially if you get carried away. Symbolism exists to adorn and enrich, not to create a sense of artificial profundity. None of the bells and whistles are about story, all right? Only story is about story.  (Are you tired of hearing that yet? I hope not, ’cause I’m not even close to getting tired of saying it.)

Symbolism (and the other adornments, too) does serve a useful purpose, though — it’s more than just chrome on the grille. It can serve as a focusing device for both you and your reader, helping to create a more unified and pleasing work. I think that, when you read your manuscript over (and when you talk it over), you’ll see if symbolism, or the potential for it, exists. If it doesn’t, leave well enough alone. If it does, however, if it’s clearly a part of the fossil you’re working to unearth — go for it. Enhance it. You’re a monkey if you don’t.

[From On Writing: A memoir of the craft, by Stephen King, © 2000, pp. 197-200.]

I don’t have to have a theme. My stories are what they are, and they come out of my head in whatever way they choose to do so — and not for the primary purpose of having some hideously clunky message imposed upon them. But if one or two of them did have a message that was already there, I’d better make sure I find it. And to do that, I have to listen.

In first drafts I’m little more than a scribe, desperately trying to type as fast as the story wants to come out. But the next time around, I need to think and hear what it was that did come out. I have to make sure I’ve shown the tale for what it really is. After all, I don’t ever want to be told that I’m a monkey.

Or that the best part of my story hasn’t been written yet.

Writing, and other forms of communication

Crickets since last week with the agent. 😦

I haven’t done too well with my writing either. 😦 😦  That’s not to say I haven’t been working with words, although perhaps not in the way that would seem obvious for a writer.

One of my personal goals for 2013 is to learn a new language. It was my Christmas present to myself: the Rosetta Stone set – the big one, all five levels, with speech, reading, writing, the whole shebang. Because being able to communicate in two languages is akin to having both a FB page and a Twitter account. Speech is the original social media.

I wrestled over which language I actually wanted to take. There were two. Spanish was a heavyweight contender. After all, I live in a state with a strong Hispanic presence, and I adore the cultural vibe of the American southwest – everything from rustico furniture to Latin jazz to the colors of the painted desert. Plus, I minored in French back in college. Not that I’m exceedingly fluent in it today, but I could probably hack my way around Paris in Franglais. (Okay, maybe Montreal.) I figured the French background would be a decent segue into a sister-language. (Spanglish?)

But in the end, me being me, the other language won. I’m taking Mandarin.

You can’t get much different from Western-culture speaking and writing than a Far-East language that has it’s own syntax and writing system. I’m becoming acutely-more aware of this as the lessons progress and I’m still lost. The way Rosetta Stone works, you get a happy-sound when you answer correctly, and a disappointed-sound when you guess wrong. It really is an actual disappointed-sound, like the program is tsk-tsking you. (No! I didn’t mean to guess wrong! I didn’t mean to let you down, Rosetta Stone!) If you don’t do well enough on a section, you have the option to do it over to improve. I like the do-over feature. We’re friends now.

I think if I’d realized how different Mandarin was from English I might have been too intimidated to try. But I’ve already started. (And I’m getting addicted to the happy-sound.) It fits me, though. I’ve had a fascination with the Chinese culture for years. One of my series — the one I’m pitching — spends its first half in the wilds of northwestern Yunnan. This is a province on the edge of the Himalayas that contains the Three Rivers Parallel Region, where the Yangtze, Lancang, and Nujiang (three of the world’s largest rivers) flow very close to each other. It is one of the most bio-diverse regions of the world. Researching it made me want to visit. I would love to tour the temples and historic districts of Lijiang and Dali before heading off to photograph the mystical landscape that was the basis for James Hilton’s Shangri-La. (Of course, I didn’t plan for the story to be set in China; it’s just how it came out of me. You know how the muse works! 😉 )

The other thing that tipped the scales for me is that I recently discovered that I have a local venue in which to practice Mandarin.

I’ve started treating myself to monthly massage sessions at the nearby mall. However, in addition to the masseurs’ magical knowledge of acupressure, these guys are all Chinese! It was like a sign: my fascination combined with a real-world place to practice my skills. I’m about a week into the lessons. I’m pretty bad at it so far. I mean, I can usually score in the upper-90s on the quiz-type sections, but I have no idea how to really say anything. The guys at the mall wouldn’t understand me. Yet. And my vocabulary is super-limited. I could maybe say “The little boys are drinking juice.” (And then they’d know I was certifiable.)

Anyway, at the rate I’m going I should finish in about six months. We’ll see. Zài jiàn! 🙂

Fiction Relay – Part 16

For those of you not caught up: Part 15, here on Ted’s blog, or try the comprehensive Fiction Relay Summary on TRG’s blog, or the Fiction Relay Home Page (also on TRG’s blog).

——-

Evening breezes undulated the bluegrass and carried with it the earthy scents of late spring mixed with the faint odor of manure from the racing stables a mile down the lane. The long, winding lane. The lane that was lined by towering oak, maple, and elm trees which gave way to an unruly, overgrown understory which, this time of year, was anchored by a riot of orange day lilies that stretched, unchecked, all along the drainage ditches. If one was driving, the effect was of passing between hundred-foot-high walls of green that had been up-lit with rows of fire. The startling, wild beauty made it easy to become distracted.

And lost.

Thousands of meandering roads just like this one snaked and twisted throughout the state. They were all equally confusing to navigate unless you were as intimately familiar with them as your own spit. It was the one thought that had kept Meagan’s fear in-check — mostly — in the time she’d been holed-up here. The thought that made her stomach tighten and quiver with anticipation, however, was the knowledge that he was coming. Tonight.

Tendrils of her long brown hair caught in a draft as she sat on the back stoop of the abandoned distillery that had become her home… for lack of a better word. On the outside it was little more than stones and aged wood set into the side of a hill: a dilapidated old-timer’s still. Copper tanks with lichened patina peeked through a window in a barn that was set farther back into the same hill. But inside the hill, sleek stainless steel appliances, quartz counter-tops, slate flooring, Italian-leather upholstery, and state-of-the-art technology belied the shabby exterior. In the evenings, though, Meagan preferred the creaky old porch swing for a chance to watch the sun set behind the rolling green hills and to commune with the sounds of nature.

“Can I get you a drink?” Ephraim called from inside.

Meagan chuckled. “I’m ahead of you,” she replied, sipping the Buffalo Trace/Sprite Zero in the lowball in her hand. An abundance of good bourbon was one of the perks of Kentucky-living that she’d never been able to fully appreciate in her youth, something she’d remedied in the six months she’d been back. It blunted the edges of her tension and kept the dreams at bay — the nightmares and the other ones. They were unnatural and all-too real. The first kind made her panic and frequently writhe in pain. She’d wake to the sounds of her own shrieks, clutching her body for cuts and bruises she was sure she’d incurred, and terrified that Raj was in the room. The second kind caused her another kind of pain, one that couldn’t be soothed and wouldn’t abate until she saw him again. And that would be tonight.

She was no longer going by Suzi; there was no point to the facade. Shortly after she and Daniel had met-up with Ephraim, the three of them had agreed it was time to go on the offensive, and that it would be best for all of them to split up to cover more ground. Since Raj had proven that he was actively after Meagan, she’d had to go into hiding. Ephraim had pulled strings with some “connections” and had secured her, complete with 24/7 bodyguards, at this base in the heart of the Bluegrass State. It was the last place they hoped either Raj or Melissa would find her. From here, she’d been able revisit the orphanage. Or what remained of it, anyway.  It was now a blackened ruin that was unrecognizable as a place that had once housed dozens of children at at time. A place where she and four other children had been singled out for their “potentials.” A place where friends had turned into mortal enemies.

She noted, though, that at least the cave on the riverbank at the property’s back end was intact.

Ephraim had taken the flash drive and was using the evidence on it to create an airtight case against Raj. He was still holding his full time job with the police department, but when his schedule permitted, he’d been flying down to Florida to work on angles there, including verifying Meagan’s evidence. Ephraim also came to Kentucky frequently to check on Meagan and exchange any information he’d uncovered.

But she hadn’t seen Daniel.

Daniel — she had no idea if he was still going by “Sam” — had tracked a mysterious lead to the Pacific Northwest. She had no idea what it was about, and Ephraim claimed to have no idea either. He said they just had to trust Daniel. Meagan did trust him, both of them, with her life. But she wasn’t sure why they were keeping something from her. She didn’t dwell too long on this doubt, though, since she was keeping a secret of her own.

When she and Daniel had retrieved her duffel-like bag from her apartment, she’d let him and Ephraim think that the only thing of importance about it had been the flash drive inside. What she didn’t tell them was that the bag, itself, was important… in a potentially catastrophic, earth-shattering way. Once she’d been alone, Meagan had taken a knife to the leather bag, slicing it open and removing the fabric lining to reveal the old map that was imprinted on the leather underneath. The map was now folded beneath an innocuous stack of blue jeans and sweaters in the safe house’s closet. So far, thanks to her diligent and ever-present bodyguards, she’d only had a chance to verify that the map began at the entrance to the cave at the back of the orphanage’s property.

A voice called, pulling her from reverie. As she looked away from the setting sun, she saw the silhouette of an approaching male. A baseball cap was pulled down, hiding his eyes, and a royal blue UK t-shirt stretched across his muscular chest. Meagan’s stomach flipped, and as she watched him stride through the yard, she smiled.

——-

* Note to TRG and any of our readers who might not know (as I didn’t, before having lived there): UK, here, refers to the University of Kentucky, not the United Kingdom.  UK apparel is exceedingly common in the Bluegrass State. It is probably visible on fifty percent of the population at any given time. (This is due to the lack of any major, professional sports teams. And maybe also because royal blue looks good on everyone.)

Over to you, Hasty Words….