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December 4, 2017 at 6:13 pm #346645
I would love to have some good feedback on my first chapter. It is only partial as the length was a little longer than the guidelines. Any feeback is greatly appreciated!
I inhale the aroma of warm cinnamon scones and freshly brewed espresso as I take a sip of my latte, thankful Donna added an extra shot for me today. I could hear her percolating all kinds of conspiracy theories from behind the counter as usual with Mr. Withers, a regular with a gray comb-over and thick glasses. He feeds her paranoia with a dose of his own and sometime during the exchange I decipher the words “civil war” and “Germany” in the same sentence. Ignoring the distractions, I pull out my laptop and plug in the charger without looking.
I position my fingers by memory as the letters faded years ago. A week of pounding the keys, and I remain stuck at the end of paragraph three. I take another sip, savoring the small dollop of whipped cream landing on my tongue. True I had been blocked before, but never with a deadline this close, and certainly not with a piece this important. I attempted the typical cures already, taking a walk, shopping for groceries, blasting Cold Play on max volume, and drinking more caffeine than I should, including the current latte. Still, the article remains incomplete.
The local Gazette has agreed to front page publication, all I have to do is finish it. Simple in theory, but difficult in execution. With my pen, I doodle circles across the top of my notes. I click the pen randomly at first, then to the tune of Happy Birthday, not that it’s my birthday or anyone else’s for that matter. I continue along so intently that I almost miss the lady taking the seat beside me.
She wedges her frail frame against the chair. Her long skirt, with tattered edges, flows in waves against the nervous shake of her leg. I watch her eyes. They are the color of coal and rest in sunken sockets above high cheekbones. The same ones overpowering the thin crease of her chapped lips. I breathe through my mouth, concerned about hygiene with the random patches of dirt and grime along her clothing and skin. My immediate assessment is she’s homeless. Sometimes those from the shelter downtown wander in, peddle for a bit of change, and walk away with a hot coffee and pennies in the bank. Most don’t stay, but she does, in a trance not even broken by the drop of a bag or the ringing cellphone nearby.
Instead, she continues to stare straight ahead, repetitively tapping her brittle nails against the faded wood. The monotony is unbearable, and I locate my earbuds and slip them in, shuffling to the next song in my playlist. I return my fingers to the keyboard, waiting for the creative juices to flow. I type out a few words, delete them, add several more, cut and paste, and basically end at the place I started. Again at a loss for words and now blocked by a pinch of curiosity, I glance in her direction. She turns her head, and our eyes meet.
Practicing good manners, I remove one of my headphones and attempt small talk.
She holds her mouth open revealing a few teeth in need of repair and keeps it there without making any noise for several seconds until she speaks.
“Do you believe in the Savior,” she shouts, the words resonating in a bizarre tone as her jaw snaps with each syllable like an alligator at dinnertime. It was like nothing I had ever heard, and I could feel the lines of my face draw tight.
I search for a response. “I’m not sure I follow. Are you asking me if I go to church because—”
“Do you believe in the Savior—show him you believe!” I lean back in my seat this time, away from her deep-set eyes moving closer and the eerie notion of the commanding question.
“Not to be rude, but I’m not interested in whatever this is.” I toss a couple of charity dollars onto her table, collect my laptop, and browse an empty seat in the distance.
She slides the chair out from under her with force, sending it slamming against the wall with a crashing thud. Her lips disappear as her slender face distorts, accentuated by growing tension. She pokes a long finger tipped with a dirty nail in my direction. I freeze, worried that any further movement will only cause more agitation. Soon enough she drops her fists in knots by her side and stomps out the door, almost knocking over a towering stranger in her path.
Settling in for the second time today, I smooth the wrinkle from my forehead. Days spent here often carry with them a few eccentric characters, but she is one of the strangest. I spread out my notes, and become distracted by the mysterious man placing an order with the cashier, the same one almost pummeled a few minutes ago. With his latte in hand, he passes a few patrons flipping the pages of the local news, and closes the distance to a seat next to mine. I place my fingers on the keys, only to be interrupted.
“What was that about?” He waves his hand towards the old-fashioned door.
“I have no idea. Homeless maybe, mentally unstable…definitely.” I shake my head, reliving the event.
“I’m Hudson Nash.” He offers his hand, a firm grip coated with skin smoother than expected, but not too smooth. Definitely a working man.
His eyes, clear blue as ice, lock for a moment and his lips take a brief pause.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
He laughs, “Sorry. Yeah, it’s always something. Since we’ve officially met, maybe we could share our coffee together. Sometimes it can be a little quiet in here.”
“Aren’t coffee shops supposed to be quiet?” I watch him fiddle with the cardboard wrapper of his cup.
“Yes, they are.” He shifts his head off to one side and then back. He shoves his hands into his pocket. “Guess I should confess I don’t end up inside many of them.”
I gulp the last bit of my latte. “So, what brings you in today?”
“I don’t know. Maybe something inside caught my attention.”
I roll my earring studs between my fingers, anything to create a distraction from the ball of nerves bouncing in my gut. My eyes travel anywhere and everywhere, but not to him.
“What are you working on?” he asks, gesturing towards my scattered notes.
“An article for the paper that I can’t seem to find the words for.”
“You’re a writer?”
“More like a rebel with a cause, but I do have a sheet of paper stamped with some credentials.” I flip over the notes, drawing them into a neater pile. “What about you?”
“Oh, one of those.”
“What does that mean?” He tilts his head to the side.
“Nothing bad. You guys seem to come in waves, that’s all.” I find myself examining his dirty-blonde locks, not the typical buzz cut.
“Part of the job. Though, mine is somewhat different. But enough about me, I’d like to get to know you more. Maybe we could go out for dinner?” He catches my eyes and warmth floods my cheeks. Embarrassed, I look away.
“My apologies, I didn’t mean to put you on the spot.”
“It’s ok. I—”
“I should’ve known. You probably have a boyfriend.” He slides his chair out and stands.
“No,” I say, louder than expected. “I mean, ok. Actually, no.”
I take a moment, close my eyes, and place my flatten palms on the table before I resume.
“I would like that, but I have a heavy workload today. Tomorrow maybe? If you’re still around.”
“No problem, I understand.” He rises. “Tomorrow it will be.” Taking his coffee in hand, he walks away, carrying my regrets with him.
I celebrate putting another three paragraphs on paper, if only to myself, while riding the metro back to the apartment. I spend the rest of the evening on domestic chores, laundry, dusting, and discarding the expired cheese with a fuzzy film of blue. Disgusting. I sweep the kitchen and mop my brain clean of jumbled thoughts. Wearing mismatched pajamas and holding a glass of wine, I grab the romance novel I picked up from the bookstore last week. If I were to be fantasizing about strange men tonight, it would be one from the pages of that book. Folding down the edge of page seventy-four, I watch the numbers on the clock tick close to eleven. Karaoke night at the local bar means my roommate Evie won’t be back until around midnight.
“I know who won’t be up at that hour,” I say, hauling the covers up to my neck and fluffing the pillows to perfection.
Evie yells from her bathroom, waking me up from a dead sleep. I leap forward and then fall back, holding my hand against my chest. “Have you seen my make-up bag, Dillyn? I can’t find it anywhere.”
“No, Evie,” I say, rolling my eyes.
She continues to mutter while her words become a scrambled whisper. I hear the clang and whack of items tossed around and then, “I found it.”
“I knew you would.” And on that note, I get up and find my way to the shower.
Without a minute to step into clothes, Evie is by my side.
“I thought we should go to the expo this weekend.” Her face is perfect, including the dark liner flawlessly positioned only on the outer corners, a beauty trick meant to enlarge her squinty green eyes.
“I don’t know. I didn’t finish the paper yet.”
“It’s not for lack of trying.” I fire back.
“I know Dillyn, but we need money. Freelance jobs pay, and bloggers love expos.”
“Can’t you just go?” I stuff the wad of clothes back in the drawer, good enough that it finally closes. Evie’s color-coded wardrobe doesn’t share this problem.
“We’re taken more seriously as a duo.” She crosses her arms over her chest. “What’s going on?”
“Tell me.” She persists.
“You know how much that piece means to me. I’m struggling to make it perfect.” I walk around her and reach for my bag, but Evie holds me back.
“I know it is Dillyn, even if no one else does, I do. It will come, don’t force it. Think of how many countless times you’ve pulled it off. And all the kids in good homes that have you to thank.” Wrapping her arms around me, she squeezes tight.
I return her embrace.
Stepping out together, Evie gives the knob a little shake to check the lock. I carefully avoid the cracked step I’ve managed to trip over for the past two days only to land on an abundance of greenery escaping from between the concrete slabs. Seriously, with all the taxes we pay they should either repair it or spray it with weed killer. I know not to expect much though. We’ve been living on the affordable side of the city for several years, and nothing that costs money happens over here. I occupy the next several minutes exchanging complaints with Evie about the constant lack of city maintenance as well as the strange encounter yesterday morning, neither of which seems to surprise her.
The walk to her car is as long as usual.
“We need a parking space with our next apartment. I can make it to the metro faster than this.”
“I’ll let you start taking the train,” Evie says, nudging me with her elbow as multiple sirens fill the background. “Do you hear that?”
“Yeah, I wonder what’s going on?” Goosebumps travel across my skin with a chill that arises in spite of the warm air outside. “Calm down, it’s just sirens,” I tell myself.
“They had a protest downtown this morning. Maybe it got out of hand.” I see her stare off into the distance, watching for any sign of danger. She sees nothing, and nothing is always a good sign. “Maybe we should walk faster.”
We continue making our way down Lucas St., sharing a laugh over a guy passing out drunk in the middle of his Celine Dion performance last night. Evie says the lack of oxygen at the peak of a high note is what did him in.
“You have to go with me next time.”
“I can’t stay up that late. You could record the funny ones for me?”
“Nope. You’ll miss it if you don’t come.”
“I’ll know all about it because you’ll tell me like you always do.”
Passing Dimitri’s Bar and Grill, I hold my breath to block the smell of souring food and whiskey from the reeking trash outside. A loud bang near the dumpster spooks us. Evie gasps, and I throw an arm in front of her. Soon enough our fears are squelched when from under rustling bags a calico cat appears with a leftover hotdog in its mouth.
“I almost had a heart attack,” she says, now holding her chest. I shake my head, ignore her dramatics and continue forward around the corner to the parking garage.
Evie’s car is compact, and only by a few feet surpasses a smart car. The size pays off when she has to parallel park downtown, a performance that she will miss today because of barricaded roads, guarded by soldiers holding guns and wearing helmets. Strange ones that are raised mostly over the ears as if there’s a pair of headphones buried underneath. They quickly wave all the cars traveling in the same direction into a complete u-turn, including us.
“I hope the protest didn’t end in a terrorist attack,” Evie says, spinning the steering wheel around with one hand and tapping the detour route button on the GPS with her other hand. “We’ll just take Jefferson Street. Problem solved.”
But that path is not any different. A duplicate of the same soldiers and the same blockade. This time she’s able to ask if there’s any street not blocked to get the answer “no” and “return home and turn on the radio.” I quickly scan the stations until I find one that sounds like the news and not local jams.
“The mayor has placed the city under a mandatory curfew. Return to your homes and lock your doors. This is not a drill. I repeat, for your safety, return to your home immediately and await further instructions”. The message repeats in a monotone cycle, a sound not worthy of the severe warning relayed.
“Speed up Evie.” And she does, flooring it all the way back to the parking garage. We don’t notice anything unusual, but we decide to pace quicker than average just in case. At the half-way point it starts, all the dogs in the neighborhood bark in unison, sounding off in vicious howls. My composure fails at the lack of coincidence, especially given the recent radio broadcast. Apprehensions are well placed as a sudden explosion booms without warning, shaking the ground under my feet, and sending numbing vibrations through my ears. I press my palms against them and jerk my head skyward to see a massive ball of flames ballooning higher and higher.
December 4, 2017 at 6:42 pm #655120
You captivated me with this, Crystale. I definitely want to know what is going on. There were a few phrases in the first section that I didn’t understand, and I expected to meet the crazy woman and the military man in the second section. Questions abound. Surely that’s a sign of a good story? I’d like to read more. Any chance of another excerpt, or are you afraid of posting too much? This section of the site is protected but it’s always better not to divulge too much. Good luck!
December 4, 2017 at 8:47 pm #655121
I would love too! Thanks for the critique. Would you mind letting me know which phrases so I can fix them. This is the rest of the first chapter:)
I watch Evie’s mouth drop when a giant cloud of fire converts into a blooming mushroom of rolling black smoke. The dark cloud spews burning ash back to the ground, and I continue to stare. Uncontrollable tremors rock my body, emerging from either shaky ground or fear, I can’t tell. Evie grabs my hand and squeezes tight. My chestnut brown eyes remain plastered to the remnants, hypnotized by dancing smoke until Evie yanks my hand, snapping both my wrist and my attention.
“Over there!” Evie screams, pointing at something behind me. I spin around to see a teenager, his pants sagging six-inches too low and his hat turned backwards, dragging a woman in hospital scrubs from her car as his balled fist finds landing across her jaw. One is not enough, and he continues to deliver savage blows in rapid succession. Briefly scanning my eyes into the distant horizon, I observe more widespread violence, shattering glass, popping gunfire, and swinging knives, as puddles of red color the street. To our right side, arrives a stocky brute holding a hatchet high in the air. Through a mop of dark hair, he narrows his eyes into laser beams, locking our position and taking aim. Horror rushes cold through my veins, freezing me in my tracks.
“Run—” Evie’s command frees me, and we both speed in the direction of the apartment with all our might.
“What the hell is that?” I shout to Evie in between broken breaths of panic.
“I don’t know. Just run!” Her arms pump back and forth like pistons as her eyes flood with panic.
“Watch out!” From the alley to our right advances more renegades, a varying composite of people from young to old, soccer moms to hippies, and rich to poor. The only symbol of their union lays in an infinity symbol painted across the front of white robes. They repeatedly chant, “We are the Denomination of the Savior. Rid the land of transgressors. Show him you believe!” The mantra repeats, a broken record with no end, and their intentions appear anything but civil.
“I’m trying,” she says, whipping a glance over her shoulder at the ear popping shriek released as the man holding the hatchet removes a bystander from his path. It doesn’t hinder any distance gained. Dread dissolves into vigilance. I have to be strong; Evie has to be strong. Otherwise death was certain, and the bodies falling to the street proof enough.
My legs wobble like jello, my muscles cramp, but I don’t stop. I run. Full force we both do, but he’s still gaining along with the parading sociopaths at a close second. Dammit.
“We’re not going to make it.” My eyes survey for an escape.
“I know—” Evie kicks off her heels, and they go flying in the air, leaving her bare feet slapping against the asphalt.
I know she knows—I know—but we’re running out of options. Without warning, a woman, clutching a butcher knife, bolts from one of the house doors, her locks still hugging large rollers. Clenching her teeth, she barrels forward into the side of the hatchet man, sending him careening onto the ground. She collapses on top and plunges her weapon deep into his chest. I lose my breath. A man with a smirk across his freckled face descends from the steps of her home wearing a white robe. I can’t control my pounding heart, or halt the panic pumping through my blood. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die. Please, I can’t die.
A Humvee stops in our path, forcing us into a sudden halt. Two men wearing the same funny helmets leap out, the first scooping Evie over his shoulder.
“Wait, where’s he taking her?”
“Let’s go ma’am.”
He responds by dragging my body in the same direction as Evie.
“Let me go!” I fight back, yanking my arm from his grip. In a flash, he lifts, turns, and tosses my body over his shoulder. I kick and scream, ramming my fist into the firm muscles of his back. His grip only strengthens.
“Dil—lyn,” Evie says in a slow drag as her head flops over the masked stranger’s back. I use every ounce of strength to fight back until I feel a single, sharp poke in the buttocks, followed by weary eyes and blurred vision.
“It’s done. Mission complete, we have them.”
December 5, 2017 at 12:30 am #655122
This reads very nicely. I got a good sense of the narrator and some of the internal monologue is great. Some lovely descriptions too. I can see some bits you might what to sharpen or expand. Obviously just my two cents–hope some is useful though.
There’s some grammar and phrasing that could be improved (I particularly see some comma splices and at least one slip from present tense into past). Let me know if you want me to point those out but I imagine you may spot them on editing anyway.
I’d see if there’s anything you can live without in your descriptions. Examples I saw of things that I personally would cut: “all kinds of conspiracy theories from behind the counter [as usual]”, “Ignoring the distractions, I pull out my laptop [and plug in the charger without looking].” “and drinking more caffeine than I should[, including the current latte]”. The first example would be nicer if we just see that image on face value (I think, anyway), the second feels a little fussy and the third is a given. A few snips and that first section will be pretty solid.
Careful that your descriptions are limited to what your PoV character is experiencing. From my mental picture of the scene Dillyn would have to see through the table to spot the details of the woman’s skirt, as the woman was almost sat down when she noticed her. Later on, Dillyn describes her own eye colour, which gave me a slight out-of-body experience.
One thing I think could you work into a little more is the Dillyn/Hudson meeting. I was a bit confused during the intro to Hudson, I tried to backtrack to see when he was almost pummelled and couldn’t work that out. Was the cashier Donna? If so, I think use the name again. The dialogue between the Dillyn and Hudson doesn’t feel completely natural just yet. For a start, I think they’d stick to first names here. He seems to start off shy, but then he pulls the line about coming in because he saw her which sounds quite cocky… I found it hard to get a clear mental picture of him. Some ambiguity to his character is fine, but I’d like something more definite to latch on to on first acquaintance.
Finally, I think the final scene of the chapter is coming along well, but it feels a bit brief at the moment. I feel there’s more to build in that part of the story, especially when it comes to following the rising sense of unease and escalation of the chaos. I definitely could have felt more immersed in the car-based sequence. Also, I would personally stop short of showing the robed figures and perhaps have someone only briefly mention the Saviour at that point. Just my opinion, but I think that could be creepier and set up a nice mystery to build as you go. 🙂
December 5, 2017 at 1:20 am #655123
Thanks so much for an excellent critique! It gives me a great starting point to revise. Sometimes you get so immersed in your own story it’s hard to see objectively:)
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