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Posts Tagged ‘teaser tuesday’

Today’s teaser is from a work in progress. I’m not yet sure what it’s all about, but at least some of it is about hunger. This is a chapter or so in, but I think you’ll figure fairly quickly who the players are. I used to be troubled by detailed food descriptions in books, but my friend Dana Fredsti has sufficiently brought to her point of view that I’m giving it a go.

***

When Willie finally returned with the bucket, Jing put water on to boil and made what she called soup, but was a nearer relation to tea: boiling water with a sprinkling of dried ginger, a shriveled clove of garlic, and salt. There was no shortage of salt. They were surrounded by it.

Always before there had been something to put into the soup-tea. Some rice or barley or even wheat. A few wilted leaves of greens. Something. Willie stared into his bowl of hot, fragrant water with a new look. An older look. He drank. In a moment, in a mouthful of salty water, he was grown up.

“Tomorrow, before you ask Kwok Menglu for work, I want you to go early to look for coal. Be careful of the trains, but get coal for Zhang Zoek, too. As much coal as you can pick up and bring home. Cold is coming.”

“It’s already cold,” Willie said.

“It’s coming worse. It always does. Do you remember winter before last, when the snow came in the gap of the roof?”

Willie frowned. He didn’t remember. He was still young.

“After you finish your soup, I want you to carry some coal to Zhang Zoek. Take some of ours and light her stove.”

Daydreaming of soup

A few swallows later, he set his bowl on the floor and went to the hearth to gather a handful of coals. While he was gone, Jing opened the battered crate that served as their linen cupboard. Much of what remained were things that had belonged to their mother, that they couldn’t yet bring themselves to sell. None of Jing’s clothes were nice enough to wear to the train depot. She wore the same things to the laundry every day. A plain gray shirt with stains from drops of bluing. A pair of blue trousers with a band of striped mattress ticking sewn on the bottoms to make them long enough. She had grown up but not out in the last four years. A patched wool jacket with the elbows gone threadbare enough to show the cotton wadding inside completed her winter wardrobe. In her own clothes, Jing would look exactly like what she was: desperate.

Among her mother’s clothing she found a plain cotton nightdress, a blue and white embroidered silk jacket that had only three repairs, a heavy quilted wool skirt that could have served as a bed cover on a very large bed, and a pair of her father’s boots. Too large but not by a great deal if she stuffed rags in the toes. The slippers she wore at the laundry would never carry her the distance to the train station.

Jing was trying it all on when Willie returned. His eyes opened wide and he cried out. Not bothering to shut the door, he ran to her and threw his arms around her waist.

“Granny was right! She said you were leaving!”

“No, I’m not leaving.”

“But you’re putting on clothes to go away.”

His fear frightened her, but she made herself push him away. She went to the open door and closed it, before turning back to try to calm him. He stood at the hearth, tears on his cheeks, his raw red hands hanging at his sides. Did Kwok Menglu already have him working in the bleach room?

“In the morning, I am walking to the train station, to ask about a job. A good job. Then I will come back. I’ll bring food,” Jing said. She hoped that was true. Any food would be a good omen.

“You’re not leaving?”

“I’m not leaving, Wei Lian. I’m only going to work the same way I go to work every morning.”

In that way, Jing talked him out of tears and under the quilt on the lone bed. With her mother’s soft voice she made sparkling stories about the food they would eat when she had a new job. Snowy mountain ranges of rice, pocked with carrots and onions, like boulders on a cliff face. Great vats of egg flower soup, the egg tendrils dancing like seaweed on the tide. Dumplings as plump as pillows, full of nose-tickling steam and cabbage like shredded silk scarves studded with jewels of fatty pork.

Her stomach protested the sumptuous but empty meal, but she went on talking until the fire died down and Willie slept.

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My novel Last Will comes out on April 24th, so in celebration of that, I’m posting an excerpt for Teaser Tuesday! There’s still time to enter to win a signed advance reader copy of the book, too. Visit me over on Facebook, where you can see the full array of things that will get you more chances to win. You can Like my author page on FB, follow my blog, follow me on Twitter, retweet the giveaway, and you can add the book to your to-read list on Goodreads. The contest ends at midnight, April 12th, and I plan to have the books in the mail by that Saturday.

***

While you were out ...

I met up with Mrs. Bryant in the front hall and waited for her to say, “Good afternoon, Mr. Raleigh.” Instead, she reached into her apron pocket, presented me with a handful of message slips, and said, “I need to speak with you, Mr. Raleigh.” Five minutes later, she was sitting on the other side of my grandfather’s desk, looking over the piles of phone messages at me.

“Mr. Raleigh and I had discussed me retiring. My health isn’t what it used to be, what with the arthritis,” she said. I accepted my defeat graciously.

After Mrs. Bryant’s resignation, I called the office of the Chairman of Raleigh Industries, and his assistant said she would call the assistant of the VP of Human Resources, who would hire me an assistant, who perhaps would kill the rat that ate the grain that sat in the house that Jack built. Mr. Tveite was right. I needed help.

I hoped, too, that replacing Mrs. Bryant could be accomplished from a distance, but my grandfather had always managed his own household staff. The next day, Mrs. Bryant presented me with her replacements. She asked me into the kitchen and forced me to engage in a farce of an interview, as though my opinion could be of any value. I wasn’t surprised that one of her prospective hires was her daughter, Mary Beth Trentam, who seemed embarrassed to shake my hand. Nepotism I had expected, but I was dismayed when she re-introduced the other applicant saying, “And you’ve met Mary Beth’s niece, Meda Amos. She’s been helping out temporarily.”

We didn’t shake hands.

Once we were seated at the kitchen table, Mrs. Bryant began by explaining, “Mary Beth’s been working in retail, but she’s really been looking for something more stable.”

“And I’ve come in a few times as temp help for Mother over the years,” Mrs. Trentam said. She was a younger version of her mother, well-built and just starting to go a little thick around the waist. Her hair wasn’t grey yet, but it gave away her age all the same. It was styled with such exacting detail that she must have worn the same hairstyle for the last fifteen years. That or it was a wig.

In a tone of mournful confidence, Mrs. Bryant said, “Meda’s been out of work for about two months now. On welfare. I used to have full-time help, but she quit this August and I never hired anyone to replace her. It’s better to have two people steady. It’s a big house.”

I considered all of it unnecessary information. My personal policy toward most of humanity resembles the Army’s policy regarding homosexuals. I won’t ask; please, don’t tell me.

“I’m sure you know best, Mrs. Bryant,” I caught myself saying, for the third or fourth time in ten minutes. Meda sat to my right at the kitchen table, pretending to sip her coffee, although I could see the level in the cup hadn’t gone down at all. Her serenity had a small chink in it.

If the lovely, shy creature tucked under God’s arm in the Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco of Creation was intended to be Eve, she was nothing but a pale ghost of her Talmudic precursor. Meda was the darkly illuminated incarnation of Lillith, one of Adam’s earlier wives, whom he repudiated for wanting to be on top during sex. As though she could read my mind, Meda glanced at me before I could look away. Her eyes were blacker than my coffee and just as liquid.

Based on my inability to look at her with anything like indifference, I knew it was a horrible idea to have her working in the house full time, but I agreed to it. I also agreed to the salaries Mrs. Bryant suggested. I would have agreed to almost anything to bring the interview to an end.

“You’ll need to get the information to give the accountant for taxes,” Mrs. Bryant said. “Or I could call the accountant.” She was thinking of unanswered phone messages when she stressed the matter of paperwork. I couldn’t be trusted.

Once they were gone for the day I wandered around the house, feeling like a time traveler. In my grandmother’s sitting room, the same lace curtains hung against walls not papered, but hand-painted in complimentary stripes. The furniture was all upholstered in the same shades of blue. I half expected to find her at the piano, absently picking out a song with one or two fingers. I wasn’t afraid of ghosts; as far as I knew, I was the only person who ever died in the house.

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I’m in the midst of working on a revision of Thirteen for an agent, which has left me with a few blanks that need filling in. This is a scene I wrote over the weekend to try to fill one of those gaps.

***

I closed the door in Renee’s face, but she opened it back up. We glared at each until she said, “You’re a coward, Wavy Quinn.”

In sixth grade I was too old to fall for that trick. I was still too old. I flipped her off and reached for the door knob, but Renee held her ground.

“You say you’re done with Kellen, but then you’re not even brave enough to go on a date with anyone else. And you can pretend that you’re not ready or whatever, but the truth is, you’re not brave enough.” She said it all in a low voice, so I knew Joshua was still in the front room, waiting for me to go on a date I was sure I’d never agreed to.

“Pot calling kettle,” I said.

“That is such bullshit. Show me one time I was a coward about love.”

She thought she was bulletproof. She thought recklessness was the same thing as bravery. I stepped past her into the hall and walked toward the kitchen. Renee came after me.

In the front room, we passed Joshua, who looked confused. Not a Kellen kind of confused, where he was always worried he’d misunderstood or done or said something wrong. A pretty college boy kind of confused, where he thought someone else had made a mistake.

I stopped in front of the fridge and Renee was under such a head of steam that she bumped into my back when I did.

“You can’t just walk away from this. You can’t spend your whole life pining for someone who doesn’t even want you.”

I ignored that. It wasn’t anything I could bear to think about.

The napkin with Darrin’s phone number was right where Renee had put it. At the party, she took it from him with a smile and said, “Yeah, I’d love to go out.” Two weeks later it was still stuck to the fridge. She hadn’t called him. He wasn’t her type. He was a custodian and he wasn’t pretty. Not like Joshua. The other reason he wasn’t her type: he was too nice. Not enough drama. Not enough heartbreak.

I jerked the napkin off the fridge, sending the magnet flying. When I pinned the napkin to Renee’s chest with my forefinger, she made a surprised little O with her mouth.

“Coward,” I said.

She smirked.

“Fine. You go out with Joshua and I’ll call Darrin. Deal?”

“Deal.”

“And you have to try, Wavy. You can’t just sit there like stone until he gives up. You have to try like it’s a real date or it doesn’t count.” Renee knew me.

I passed Joshua on the way back to my room to get my purse.

“Is there a problem?” he said.

I didn’t bother to answer. He was the problem. I’d be done with him soon enough. I came back with my purse and stood in front of him. He was going to have take me as I was, in the clothes I wore to work and with my hair a little greasy.

“Ready,” I said.

We walked out past Renee, who gave me a suspicious look. She could suspect whatever she wanted, as long as she kept her half of the deal.

 

***

While Joshua drove, I looked at him out of the corner of my eye. Renee said he was “gorgeous.” She talked about him like he was a statue. David standing naked in a museum in Italy. I thought he was boring. Like a mannequin in a store. Better to look at a blank wall than to look at him. I also didn’t understand why he didn’t shave. Everything else about him was neat — hair, hands, clothes–and then the whiskers.

He took me to a nice restaurant, I guess because that’s what people do on dates. I’d taken Kellen to a restaurant before, but it was how I knew we were here on the strength of Joshua’s ego. I never would have agreed to go out to eat with someone who was basically a stranger. Never.

But there I was, sitting across from him, with a menu open, watching him talk. That was how it felt, too. A silent movie, his mouth opening and closing, his teeth neat and white, but no sound coming out. I could only focus on some of the things he said. The rest of me was too busy cataloging the ways in which he wasn’t Kellen.

“So, what are you thinking of having?” Joshua said.

“I’m not that hungry.”

He laughed. “Girls always say that.”

I could imagine Renee saying that. On dates, she ordered salads and then came home starving and ate a whole pizza by herself.

At least I liked the restaurant. Aunt Brenda had taken me there before. They had good teriyaki chicken with ginger and pineapple, and they put your leftovers in nice to-go containers. Not crappy Styrofoam boxes. They made it pretty when you took it away.

After I closed my menu the waiter came. I gave him my big smile, to make him pay attention, so that he would look at my menu when I tapped it. You really don’t have to talk much in everyday life. If you’re careful, if you learn the tricks to make people watch. That way you can save your words for important things. Sometimes just “yes” or “no.” Or “ranch” when the waiter wants to know what dressing I want on my salad. Which I didn’t want. I shook my head.

“No dressing?” the waiter said.

Then Joshua ordered and the waiter left us alone.

“So, Wavy,” Joshua said. His teeth really were perfect. He probably had braces when he was younger. “I think your name is so cool. Kind of hippy, but not like Moon Unit or something like that.”

It was a good thing I didn’t talk much, because what was I supposed to say to that? I’m glad you like my name. The man I love gave it to me. That probably wasn’t good date conversation. That was just me being impossible. Aunt Brenda said that about me. So did Renee some days. You’re impossible! I agreed. Most days I was impossible. Like a unicorn.

 

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In honor of Shrove Tuesday, a snippet from a book I’m working on about missionaries in Congo. I know, it perhaps seems mighty odd for me to be writing about missionaries, but I grew up in a church that regularly hosted missionaries, and I always found their stories to be a compelling mix of higher callings and simple humanity.

***

They rode in silence, everyone praying the same desperate thing inside their heads. Two hours before, they had prayed together. Big, noble, fearless prayers. Oh, heavenly father, please look after our hosts in this time of unrest. Please, oh Lord, protect the wonderful people of The Republic of Congo.

That was before they bribed their way through the first checkpoint on the way to Brazzaville. The checkpoint was clearly unofficial, even if the men who waved the Land Rovers to a halt wore uniforms. Everyone had been ordered out of the Rovers in the narrow, shady road. The men in uniforms lined the passengers up while they “inspected” the vehicles. Over the rapid-fire exchanges in French and Congolese, Angie’s father said, “Don’t worry. They’re not going to hurt us.”

Unofficial Checkpoint

The soldiers laughed at that and said, “Rich pig. Dollars. Donnez la monnaie.”

It didn’t cost a great deal, less than twenty dollars, and they were on their way again, rattling along the road cut into the forest.

“We just have to stay calm,” Mr. Veatch said. “They’re not going to hurt Americans.”

“Of course not,” said Nina, Angie’s mother.

Of course not, but after that they prayed in silence, something along the lines of “Please, get us out of here. Please, get us to Brazzaville and back to the U.S.”

Angie’s prayer was a little less polite. Less prayer than mantra. Screw good works. I want to go home.

It was all different from the six years they’d spent in Haiti. Yes, things had been rough there. Angie and Hope had slept under mosquito netting and longed endlessly for the comforts of America, even though they lived better than all the Haitian parishioners of the mission. They’d had indoor plumbing, windows, a washer, a fridge, and care packages from the sponsor church in Missouri. American candy, soap, and mac ‘n’ cheese.

Angie hadn’t lain awake every night in Haiti, listening for distant gunfire.

After two years stateside, she didn’t want to be in Congo. She’d come because that’s what family did. Fine, that was a lie. She’d been furious that her father agreed to the mission trip and insisted she come. She’d been angry and afraid. Terrified to think of Hope going on mission just a year after her leukemia went into remission.

“Re-mission,” her father, John, said. “Do you hear that? Re-mission. A chance to recommit ourselves to mission. It’s been missing. We haven’t been fully in Christ since we came to Missouri.”

She wanted to say, “Speak for yourself. If you haven’t been fully in Christ, that’s your problem.” Instead, she kept her head down, waiting to see what her mother would say.

After Hope got sick, they’d come out of the field, taken a pastoral position at Guiding Shepherd. A nice church. Too nice for John. His sermons toward the end were less shepherding and more accusatory. The church elders seemed relieved to send him back into the mission field. Seeing the newsletter photo of the four of them at their farewell party, Angie considered for the first time that they were all hostages to John’s fervor. That was why her mother said nothing to talk her father out of going again. Hope, Nina, and Angie, they were all shell-shocked victims struggling to smile.

A week later, they were in the Republic of Congo, standing on the tarmac at Brazzaville/Kinshasa. Five days of driving over dirt roads to get to the school and the church. The problem was that none of them were fearless anymore. Except John. In Haiti, Hope had been healthy and seven, and had never met a stranger. In Congo, she was weaker. Mortal and embarrassed by that spate of doubt. Nina was like a woman with the wind knocked out of her. The kind of woman who would be stronger in her faith for having been tested. Eventually. In a few years. But not yet. Angie had just lost her sense of rightness. Not her sense of right and wrong, but her sense that she was useful.

She had gone to Haiti at ten, a hopeful little Christian with ideals. Before it was over she’d seen how little good they’d managed to do. Oh, sure, there was the school with the little medical clinic, but there was the never-ending parade of babies who died, kids who dropped out of school to work, girls married way too young, children called restaveks who were nothing but slaves. And the unrelenting poverty.

Then Hope got sick and suddenly there were no more good works. There was a plane back to Missouri and the best medical treatment for Hope. That was good. Angie was grateful. She wanted Hope to live, to get well, but it seemed so easy. If you were American, if you were white, if you had money, or friends with money, you lived in a different world than poor black Haitians did. If you weren’t an America, you were already home. Tough luck.

Returning to a public school in Missouri compounded it. Hammered from all sides with the waste, the indifference, the blindness, Angie found it was easier to go along and be a part of it. She let herself forget what deprivation looked like. She embraced the shallowness, the new clothes, the donated car, the spending money, the ipod, the college applications. John guided her toward a private Lutheran college, to keep her in Christ.

Angie accused herself every day. Lukewarm. Christ would spit her out. He would spit them all out. Even John, whose fervor didn’t keep him from buying new suits and fetishizing his laptop. Lukewarm. John must have felt it, too. Maybe that was why he dragged them to Africa. Hope wide-eyed and a little too thin. Nina with a sharp new crease between her eyebrows that got deeper if Hope so much as sneezed. Angie, glaring at the back of her father’s head as they jolted down the road away from the checkpoint. She promised herself that as soon as they were safely on a plane back to the States, she would tell him exactly what she thought.

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Today’s teaser, in honor of Valentine’s Day, is from a story I’m working on that was inspired by an infamous Kansas family, the Bloody Benders. It’s a bit longer than the teasers I usually post, because it’s hard to get a read on the situation without a bit more set-up.

***

Ma Bender

The old woman said a long prayer over the food until it was half cold, and then they all began to eat, with the old woman talking the whole while.  The boy with the silver necklace tried twice to take the meager serving of bread off quiet girl’s plate and when she tried to defend herself, the boy struck her hard on the side of the head and took the bread.

Oliver had never been in a house where it was acceptable to hit women and he felt the seconds passing him by between the twinge of indignation and the moment when he caught the boy’s arm and said, “There’s no call for that.”  For a brief moment he thought the boy would strike him, too, but either the old woman’s look of disapproval or Oliver’s size or Oliver’s pistol decided him against it.  He returned the bread to the quiet girl’s plate.

After the meal was done, Oliver managed to bring the talk back around to his brother, asking whether any of the rest of the family had seen him.  He passed the picture around the room.  The quiet girl stared at it a long time, until the old woman took it out of her hand, saying, “I expected the boys home sooner than this, but surely they’ll be in, before too much later.  I’m sure they’ll be able to help you.  You know, they travel a lot, see a lot more of the country. They might be able to find someone who’s seen your brother.”  Oliver looked up to see the quiet girl looking at him.  She didn’t seem embarrassed, but she looked away.

There was a bit more talk about other things, and then the old woman sent several of the boys out to do chores.  She sent one of the younger boys up into the loft after some extra blankets and then turned to the quiet girl.  “Why don’t you take Mister Oliver out to the barn and help him settle down where they’ll sleep for the night.”

The girl nodded, and when she rose, Oliver and James did likewise.  At that moment, however, the strawberry-haired woman put her hand on James’ arm.  Laying a Bible out on the table, the old woman said, “I wonder if you wouldn’t mind reading us a piece out of the Good Book.”  James blushed and looked to Oliver for approval before sitting back down.  The strawberry-haired woman still had her hand on his arm and was smiling at him.

Oliver followed the quiet girl out the door.  She carried several blankets that the boy had thrown down to her from the loft.  He offered to carry them, but that seemed to embarrass her, although she finally gave him the small lantern to carry.  As they neared the barn, he finally got the nerve to ask where the outhouse was.  She pointed a little ways around the corner of the barn and offered to wait for him.  Even with the lantern, it was the worst of its kind that he’d found out west—dank and dark and full of spiders.  Outside, he heard voices, the girl, and one of the older boys.  At first, he couldn’t make out their words, and then the fight grew loud enough for him to understand its meaning.

“Does he still have his gun?” the boy said.

“I’m not helping you with him.”

“You will or she’ll sell you to the Comancheros.  You’ll wish you were dead.”

“I won’t do it.”

Oliver heard a scuffle, the girl’s muffled cry.  He struggled to fasten his belt, wrestled with the plank door, and left the lantern.  When he hurried around the corner, he saw in the pool of light from the barn that the boy with the heavy silver necklace had the quiet girl down on the ground.  He kicked at her as she struggled to get back on her feet, striking at him with her hands.  She pulled him off balance and he fell onto her, punched her hard in the side of her neck, just as Oliver reached them and pulled the boy off her.

The boy staggered,  then came up shouting, “Ahora!”.

His hand went to a small hatchet at his belt, and as Oliver thrust the girl behind him, a burning stripe opened across his shoulder.  The boy was already swinging back for another blow with the hatchet.

“La pistola!” the boy shouted.

Before Oliver could get his hand down to his side, he felt the electricity of the girl’s hand sliding against his waist, felt the weight of the Colt lifted out of its holster.  He staggered back to avoid the hatchet, which made a short stroke against his chest.  He felt a terrible emptiness in his stomach: real, final terror.

He knew it was only a matter of moments before the girl passed the gun to her brother or shot her himself.  For all he knew, he was already bleeding to death, and the boy was readying the hatchet again.  Oliver tried to grab the girl’s arm, said a quick prayer: “God—.” and heard the gunshot.

The boy jerked backwards, fell, and Oliver and the girl also fell back, propelled by Oliver’s retreat from the hatchet and the recoil of the Colt.  The girl leapt up, pointing the pistol down at her brother and fired again.  He jerked and was still.

Oliver sat up, looking around in confusion.  The girl pulled on his arm.

“Now,” she said. “You have to hurry.  They’re killing your friend now.”

Oliver lurched to his feet, his arm and chest numb. “Get his axe,” she commanded, pointing down at the boy’s body.  She jerked up the tail of her skirt, ignoring her bared legs and ran hard across the yard.  Oliver followed with his head swimming.

The old woman sat just where she had throughout the meal.  James had been sitting on the bench across from her, a few candles on the table, reading from the Bible.  Now he wore a noose around his neck, his face gone purple.  The rope was slung up over a rafter and on the other end of it, swung the boy who had gone up into the loft for blankets.

“Help him,” the old woman screamed at the strawberry-haired woman, who was laughing as she scrambled to help the boy pull down on the other end of the hanging rope.  The two of them hoisted James a foot off the floor.  Oliver was paralyzed in the seconds it took for him to understand what was happening.

He stared, trying to comprehend, and in those few moments the girl began to shoot.  She was no marksman and made no effort at severing the rope.  She simply shot the boy who held the rope, and then palmed the hammer back and shot him again in the chest.  He dropped from the rope and the woman let go, screaming.  James hit the floor and began clawing at the noose.  With an ease that belied her age, the old woman turned to the hearth behind her and pulled down a shotgun.

Oliver looked down at the axe in his hand.  Before the old woman could even level the shotgun, the girl crossed to the table and shot her from just a step away.  The old woman fell back, almost into the fire as the girl jerked the shotgun away from her.  She turned back to Oliver.  Her eyes were dead black, unreadable.  There were two hectic spots of color in her cheeks and a splatter of blood on her face.  She held out the shotgun.

“Take it and use it,” she said.  “You’ll be dead if you don’t.”  The old woman groaned and the girl turned back to her and shot her again, just as she had done the boy out by the barn.  She pulled the trigger again and they looked at each other at the sound of the dry click.

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I’m getting back on the Tuesday Teaser bandwagon with a question: How do you react when you’re reading a novel and come across a word you don’t know? Are you annoyed? Are you thrilled? Do you reach for your dictionary with a grumble or a trill of excitement? Or do you just ignore it?

aphid_parthenogenesis

Aphids are lousy at remembering punchlines

I ask, because the excerpt for today’s teaser was the source of a lot of disagreement in my writing group. Some members insisted that putting in a word that your average reader was unlikely to be familiar with was just WRONG. That was how they said it, like I was thinking of robbing a bank.  Other members of my writing group countered with fond memories of books that taught them new vocabulary. Like me, they cited the work of Lemony Snicket as some of the best vocabulary-building children’s books out there.

Besides, they pointed out about my word choice: it’s the punchline. Without the word, the chapter isn’t as funny.  Those opposed to strange words in their fiction countered that it wasn’t a punchline if you don’t know what it means. The lag time involving the dictionary would rob the chapter of its humor.

In the current draft, the punchline remains. I hope it will make it to print that way.

So, enjoy the teaser, and tell me in the comments how you feel about learning new words when you read a novel.

***

After a grueling day at my accountant’s office, looking at indecipherably occult spreadsheets, I drove by Meda’s house hopefully. I never would have done it, considering the embarrassment of her walking in on my act of self-pollution, except for that smile. Just as easily she could have been shocked or too appalled to speak, and I never would have stopped at her house. Her old Datsun sat in the yard, but I got no response when I rang the doorbell. I knocked loudly and a woman I’d never seen before came to the door. Her hair was still dark, but her face was lined and rough, like she had lived hard. Her sunken cheeks hinted at missing teeth. She looked at me strangely when I introduced myself, but she let me in.

Old Miss Amos was sitting in her usual spot and Annadore was in her playpen, arranging plastic farm animals and chewing contemplatively on a cow. For several uncomfortable moments, we were all quiet, and then the woman put out her hand.

“So, you’re Bernie Raleigh? I’m Muriel Amos. I’m Cathy’s–Meda’s mother.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Meda’s in the shower right now. She’ll be out in a little bit.” Muriel said it as though they’d been expecting me, so I sat down and waited.

“That’s Bernie Raleigh,” Meda’s grandmother said to Muriel. “He was abducted.”

“I know, Mom. I know that’s Mr. Raleigh. You interested in alien abduction?” Muriel took my uncertain shrug as an invitation to continue, leaning toward me over the coffee table. “You know a lot of people are starting to use hypnotism to find out they’ve been abducted. A lot of times the aliens will cause people to forget that they were taken. They suppress the memories. I remember my own experiences, and my mother has been able to since she had her stroke.”

“It’s like that whole part of my brain got opened up, where I had the memories hidden, since I had my stroke,” Miss Amos said, nodding to herself.

“I was just reading an article a friend of mine got off the Internet.” Muriel indicated some papers on the coffee table. “About this woman who got hypnotized as part of a program to stop smoking. While the doctor was hypnotizing her, she had a flashback of being abducted. The doctor never believed in it before, but he says after that, he thought it had to be real, because he did a bunch more sessions with her and she remembered all kinds of things. It turned out she’d been abducted like fourteen times.”

Down the hall, the sound of running water stopped.

“He’s here,” Muriel shouted.

At that same moment. I added up the intricate web of alien abductions and multiple Miss Amoses. Parthenogenesis.

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After a hiatus, I’m jumping back into Teaser Tuesday, with yet another piece of flotsam from my random crap files.

***

Muddaubers

The hill to the preserver’s house was steep and sandy, no obstacle to the brown woman making her way up it.  She trudged against the grade, her eyes focused on the bit of hill ahead of her.  The child, however, glanced up frequently, perhaps watching how the sky, dark with promised rain, leaned down over the yellow stones of the building.  Every third or fourth step, the child stumbled and the woman wrenched its arm to keep it upright.

The preserver shook his head when the woman and child reached the portico.  It had been many years since he had been willing to provide for a muddauber’s funeral.  He mentioned the name of another preserver whose price was more likely to be attainable, and the woman said, “Ain’t here for that.  Looking to find a place for my girl.”  Under the layers of dirt, the child was female then.

“I wouldn’t pay a single coin for an apprentice that young, and a girl for that matter,” the preserver said.

“I didn’t know as whether you could use her as a prentice.” The woman laughed, and then the laugh turned into a deep, bubbling cough.  “I don’t mean to sell her.  You can have her, if you’ll feed her.  It’s all the reason she stays near me.  You can hear that soon enough I won’t be in the way of doing that.”

The woman coughed harder and brought up something into a rag.  The preserver recoiled, as he always did from the living.

“Can she work?” he asked, intrigued despite himself at the prospect of a free slave.

“She knows how to clam.  I guess she can learn anything else.”

“If she can go down to the market and learn the price of imported lavender and how to wash her face clean, I will take her on.”

“And will he feed me?” the girl said.  She had had the hawkish look of someone familiar with hunger.

“I will feed you if you can manage that.”

After the girl was gone, trotting toward the market, the muddauber woman began to make her way back down the hill.

“Won’t you stay to see if she manages?” the preserver asked.

“If she can’t do for you, then she must do for herself from here on.”

The woman walked on, pausing once to double over with the force of the cough that was killing her.

When she returned from the market, the girl parroted back the prices she had been told.  Her face was also relatively clean.  The preserver sent her to carry twig bundles to build up the fires under the nitrate vats.  She did it without question, her small dirty feet busy.  When she finished, he sent her into the dry room to take a message to his assistant.  The message said only, “Tell me what she does when she sees the bodies.”

Her reaction was not even curiosity.  Living on the river, she had probably seen bodies.  They were likely nothing to her, although they were everything to the preserver.  She looked perhaps five and the preserver guessed she might be as much as eight.  When offered food, she ate enough for two. After she ate, he put a blanket under the front table, where he received bodies in the first step toward preservation. The girl lay down on it, but her eyes were tirelessly watchful. Perhaps she expected some encroachment from him, and left on her own, she likely would have been in the hands of a pimp within a day or two.

Such things happened, but the preserver had no interest in them. He saw beauty only in the dead.  The girl was a pair of hands and feet to him, someone who might do work and so earn money.  Nor was his assistant interested in the living, although his passion for the dead went more deeply.  So, the girl slept unmolested, and in the morning, the preserver frowned when she told him her name: October.

“A person can’t go about called by a month.”

“I was born in the eighth month.”

“It won’t do,” he said, and as there was no one waiting for his attentions, he went into his quiet room and browsed through his preservation records, looking over possible names.  When he sat down with his assistant to discuss ordering of supplies, he broached the topic.

“She needs a better name.”

“You intend to keep her?” The assistant saw only the annoyance of a living creature under foot who might require his care.

“For as long as she is useful, but I won’t call her October.”

“What about Tulip?” The assistant did not have the benefit of the preserver’s records, but in his mind he kept a list of those for whom he had felt something special.  So in that way, was he made to feel a bit of fondness for the muddauber girl.  She was called Tulip and each time he heard the name, he thought of that lovely girl, just sixteen, with soft lips, who had died of a snake bite.  Her left leg had been swollen and black, a grotesque of flesh, until it was properly lanced and drained and pressed and painted.  Once she was perfected all over, she had gone to the vats, where the assistant’s love for her faded, and the preserver’s love was born.

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More random crap! This is the opening to a spec fic piece that has dogged me for a while, but never completely taken form.

***

Dr. Brouse said, “Don’t bring any baggage.”  At first I took it as a metaphor, but it’s literal, too. My luggage is a six-inch cubed, padded steel shipping case.  It looks like it’s made of a shiny metal quilt and it smells of industrial newness.

New everything, starting tomorrow at 6 am.

That’s only eight hours away and I’m already down to the bare minimum.  I’ve given away my furniture, books, dishes, stereo, computer.  Everything that’s worth anything.  I’m down to the clothes on my back, plus one last clean set, two boxes of sentimental crap, a sleeping bag, and a container of yogurt in the fridge.  If I can keep it down, I plan to eat that before AIF picks me up in the morning.

Baggage

Baggage

The steel case sits in the middle of the empty living room next to the boxes.  I look through the photo albums, trying to decide what to put in the case.  Mom and Dad and Ryan and I at Yellowstone, with a geyser blowing smoke against a cloudless blue sky behind us.  Chipmunks, lots of pictures of chipmunks from our trip to Yellowstone.  Studio portraits that make my family look like victims of a Sears catalog fashion crime spree.  I settle on the picture from my sixth grade year, before Ryan and I turned into sullen teenagers, but after Mom stopped wearing that goofy blond wig.  I also pick out a couple of Polaroids, even though they’re already fading from a lack of fix stop.  For all I know, when I open the box in five years, I’ll just have ghost pictures.  That’s all they are now, I guess.

I spend some time crying.  I’m not even sure for what.  I’m not really leaving anything behind.  I have some friends, some of whom might be sad when they don’t hear from me, when I literally drop off the face of the earth.  That said, nobody’s going to break down crying when I don’t show up.

I manage a nap, almost two hours, and wake up scared of the dark like I haven’t been since I was a kid.  I go around the apartment, turning all the lights on, wishing it were morning already.  Wishing I weren’t alone.  Wishing it weren’t too late and too forbidden to go out to a bar and bring home a stranger, but it is.  The bars are all closed and it’s against official protocol to risk that exposure before stasis.

Looking through the boxes, I settle on the obvious: my mother and father’s wedding rings.  I used to think I would get married and wear my mother’s ring, but now it’s just something to rattle around in a box for five years.  There are also bronzed baby booties, but there’s only room in the case for one.  I pick Ryan’s.  Even though it’s a little dirty, I take off the t-shirt I’m wearing and wrap the bootie and the rings in it.  I close the case, turn the latch and notice the plaque riveted under the handle.

0000013, it says.  I’m the thirteenth passenger and I wonder why.  A little finger of superstition pokes at me.  Lucky 13.  After I think about it for a moment, though, it’s probably just that my name is Mariann Eddy.  13 out of 40 passengers.

That’s going to change in a couple hours.  After AIF picks me up, I’ll never be Mariann Eddy again.  I’ll be Passenger 13, and then after that I’ll be Eva.  It’s what I picked—my middle name.  Dr. Brouse encouraged it.  He said, “You’ll be starting over in a way few people ever will.  I want you to leave your old life behind.”  I do, too.

At 5:45, I’m dressed in the last pair of clean clothes I own.  I carry the other stuff down to the curb.  It’s strange seeing those boxes and my sleeping bag sitting next to the trash can, but before I can think about how scary that is, a white van turns down the street and flashes its lights.  Along one side is a discrete logo for Agricultural Investment in the Future: the I in AIF is a slender tree with a tuft of leaves at the top.  I go back into the house and grab my purse and my steel case.  I leave the apartment key on the kitchen counter for the landlord and turn out the lights as I go.

Standing on the porch, I realize I’m not done.  I take my lip gloss out of my purse and put some on.  From my wallet, I take my AIF ID card.  Then I walk down to the curb, lift the lid off the trash can, and toss my purse into it.  Wallet, cell phone, everything.

As I cross the street to the van, I swing the steel case for Passenger 13 in one hand, like a kid.  The van driver leans across to open the door and the dome light comes on like a beacon.  I’m light as a feather.  Good-bye, Mariann Eddy.

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Back by popular demand: more totally random crap from my writing files. Okay, fine. There was no demand for random crap, but it’s what I’ve got. This is a scrap from a historical that’s been put on a back burner about a dozen times. The pleasures of research have also slowed down forward progress, but I still like the story idea. Someday I’ll get back to it.

***

The woman who answered the row house door was poisoned on gin, her teeth rotted out, her eyes sunk in their sockets.  Not long for the world if she went on drinking that way.

“Good day to you, ma’am,” I said and let a schilling wink between my fingers for a moment.  Her rheumy eyes caught the gesture and went bright even under their haze of gin.  Not too far gone to want a coin.

“Mrs. Jakes sent you from ’round the corner?” she said. “It’ll cost you a deal more’n that bit of silver.  My daughter’s a virgin.  God’s truth she is.  Ne’er been touched by a man.  Not e’en her own pa.”

She cracked a toothless smile at me, making me wonder if she was too far gone to do business with.  Then it occurred to me she was expecting someone and didn’t know I wasn’t him.  I simply needed to play the role to get what I wanted.

“How much?”

“A virgin, I swear it.  Milky white skin, innocent.  Only fifteen,” she leered.

Fifteen and still a virgin.  An unlikely proposition in that neighborhood.

“What’s your price then?”

“A gentleman like you,” she hinted.  To her, I suppose, I was a gentleman.  Clean and dressed in fine clothes, but that was all a costume.  A thing I’d learnt to put on.  “A crown, sir.  Never been with a man, she hasn’t.”

Highway robbery unless the girl was pretty and truly a virgin, and that was unlikely.  A shocking expense, too, when all I wanted was information.

“The girl—her room is above stairs?  Does it face the street or the mews?”

The woman’s eyes narrowed, gone suspicious of me that quickly.  It was a fool thing to say, a beginner’s mistake.  “What’s that to you?”

“Only that I should like to know the prospect from the room,” I said in my blandest dandy voice, the one I’d learnt from Robert Letour before he hanged at Newgate.

She shrugged and said, “To the street, an’ it please you, sir.”

“A crown it is,” I said.  “You’ll have the first half now, but the second after I’ve satisfied myself that she is as innocent as you say.”

With any luck I’d bluff my way out of paying the second half crown and she seemed to fear that, too.  When I produced the two coins, held them up, one in each hand between my thumb and finger, she hesitated, eyes glowing with desperation.  She was terribly thirsty.

I presented her with the half crown in my left hand and returned the second to my right pocket, to feel the reassuring presence of my pistol under my coat.

“This way, sir,” she said.

The house was worse than the street.  The only window on the first floor was covered with greased paper and in that foul darkness the stink of unwashed flesh and gin and rotted food was like a blow to the face.  I gagged against it and kept my hand against my pistol.  In the reeking darkness, the old woman hesitated at the stairs until I feared an ambush, but she was only hesitating because the coin in her hand spoke of gin to her.  The time to walk me up the rickety stairs would keep her from it a moment longer than she liked.

“Up and to yer right, sir.  Just undo the latch and mind you don’t let her out.”

Kept prisoner then.  It didn’t surprise me, if the woman was pimping her.  I half-expected to be set upon in the narrow stairwell or at the landing, but I made it to the top unmolested.  From below, I heard the outer door opening and closing.  The old woman going out to the gin house.  To Mrs. Jakes, where she thought I had been sent from.

The upper door was closed with an iron latch, and when I slid it back, a quiet voice said, “Is that you?”

My Mary

My Mary

The girl was too lovely for that place.  Pale and thin, with chestnut hair and soft brown eyes.  Her cheeks flushed when she saw me and she stood up from her narrow bed, looking me up and down with wild eyes.  Abruptly, the fear dropped away and she smiled.

“Oh, you ain’t who I was expecting.”

“And who were you expecting?” I said.

“Her.  Or some scoundrel come to—to pay her.”

“I have paid her, but I don’t intend any assault on your honor.”

She laughed, cheeks going pinker, and sat down again on the bed.  “My honor?  Oh lord, you’ve learned a fine way to talk.”

“I was forced to deceive the woman below, but I shall be quite direct with you, Miss.  I am a representative for a gentleman investigating the disappearance of a young woman, whom I believe was recently in the house directly across from yours.  Directly across from your very room, I believe.  May I look out your window?”

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I don’t know about you, but I have this folder in my writing file called “Random Crap.” In it is every random story idea I ever had. Some of them are spindly little affairs, a few hundred words before something even shinier caught my eye. Others are a bit fleshier, tens of thousands of words written before I gave up or moved on or ran out of time. (It’s true! Some ideas come with expiration dates and if I can’t make them work before the buzzer sounds, I’m out of luck.)

Other items in the Random Crap folder are things I just haven’t gotten around to, but hope to some day.

So for today’s teaser, you’re getting Random Crap, but I’m not going to tell you which kind. It could be that there’s a half-written novel that goes with this, or it could be this is all she wrote.

***

“I am just what they told you I am.  It’s true.”  The boy smiled, his teeth glinting white in his tanned face. He had plucked the thought, the question from her head.  “The collar, no.  Your Elders are not magicians. They have no powers to constrain me.  They’re just paranoid old men.  Whatever power you had is gone now and it was never in these chains.”

As he reached up to open it, Yerma saw that it was unlocked.  Perhaps had been unlocked for days as he awaited an opportunity.  What held it together was a red silk thread.  He snapped it, but instead of tossing the collar aside, he held it out to her like an offering.

“Now,” he said.  A pair of young mercenaries grasped her arms.  Men who had been hired to guard the boy, to protect her. She didn’t bother to resist.  They were enormous men with meaty rough hands.  She would only do herself injury to fight them.

“You came to kill me, priestess, but you will never reach Kanheral in time for the Kinging festival.”

Yerma assumed he meant to kill her, but he only snapped the collar in place around her neck.  From the front of her robes, he retrieved the key, where she had carried it all along, safe.  Even when she slept.  She thought of the night she had drunk too much wine.  Or thought she had drunk too much wine.  Drugged.  Who had taken the key and returned it?

He plucked that thought out of her mind, too.  Gesturing to the shadows behind him, he said, “Come to me, my beloved, and see your loyalty rewarded.”

From behind him came Nathor–slender as a reed, wide-eyed but proud.  She gave Yerma a triumphant smile.  An underling rising up against her mistress.  A dagger in the heart.

“Say farewell to your mother, Nathor.  You will not see her again.”

Nathor frowned, searching for metaphor in his words.

“Ah,” he said tenderly.  “She didn’t know she was your daughter?  Of course, you would not have risen to your high place if you had claimed her.  And yet you kept her so close to you.”

Nathor’s face tensed and her lip quivered.  The triumphant look was replaced with something much darker.  It was the nature of betrayal–it required hatred from any wellspring.  She would learn to hate Yerma, because she would need to, to soothe the guilt of betrayal.

in the desert

in the desert

“Let us go.” As the boy turned to go, he cast his gaze over the contents of the tent.  Yerma watched him calculating the likelihood of her escape, before he brought his foot to rest against the brass water ewer.  He smiled as he rocked the ewer toward her, rocked it back.  Back and forth a dozen times until it toppled, the sour desert water gushing into the thick wool rug of the tent floor, and below that into the thirsty sand.  He wetted his fingers in the rapidly absorbed puddle and reached for the lamp wick.

In the darkness, she heard their departure. Laughter, champing horses, and then a steady count: “Heave one.  Heave two.  Heave three.  And over.”

The roof of the tent crashed down on her, knocked her to the ground, the stone anvil striking her gut and forcing the air from her.  There were two other blows on her back: the other tent poles being knocked in, the rest of the tent’s weight toppling on her.  When she got her breath back, she struggled to roll off the anvil, although the tent pressing on her made it like swimming through sand.  When she managed it and lay flat beside the anvil with the weight of the tent off her, she felt the damp of the water soaking into her robes.  Water lost, life lost, that was the lesson of the desert.  She would learn it.  That was his intention.  She would lie there unable to move, pinned down and chained, dying slowly without water.

The weight of the tent was oppressive, steadily absorbing the heat of the air and slowly the damp wool that sustained her was leeched dry by the sand under it.  In the broiling heat and darkness, she prepared to die, parsing the pieces of her regrets and successes.  She remembered the slack lips of the girl she had allowed herself to dote on.  How foolish she’d been to trust Nathor just because she was her daughter.  Foolish to imagine that blood unknown made loyalty.  Perhaps if she had told the girl, but there had been too much risk in that.

Yerma couldn’t gauge time, beyond the vague shifts in temperature and the steady loss of moisture, but she believed it had been three days.  As quickly as the weight had fallen on her, it was drawn away and light pierced the thin flesh of her eyelids.  Rough hands grabbed her shoulder, turned her onto her back.  Thick fingers thrust into the gap between the collar and her neck.  Struggling to swallow, to speak, she opened her eyes.

The rough hands released her, dropped her, and there was a sharp hissing sound of surprise.  She pursed her lips, an unspoken plea forming there.

“Water?  I’ll wager that,” said the voice that went with the rough hands.  A Jento mercenary.  She squinted, brought him into focus–dirty face, dirtier hair, and filthy black fingers that he slipped under the collar again.  Of course, he had come to finish her.  The gold collar must be worth a great deal.  Enough gold and jewels to set a man like that for life.

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