Here’s a video with Part 1 of my holiday movie medley!
And here’s another chapter from my unpublished thriller.
After reading my new intro, my advisor Shelley removed her glasses and set them on the desk atop the partial manuscript she’d already reviewed. She perched her elbows on the arms of her chair and steepled her fingers.
I waited for a response. “What?” I finally said.
Shelley opened her mouth, then closed it again.
How bad could it be? “If you hate it, just please tell me and be done with it.”
Shelley shook her head. “It’s not that, Jessica. It’s not bad. I just wonder . . .”
She picked up her glasses—they had round lenses with tortoise-shell frames that made her attractive features look bookish—and toyed with them a bit, her golden-brown hair falling down around her face as she did. Evasive maneuvers, I thought.
“Wonder what? You’re killing me here.”
Shelley abruptly looked up, her hazel eyes candid and looking directly at me. “I’m not sure you’re really proving your point with this.” She punctuated her remarks with thrusts of the hand holding her glasses, now folded neatly in her grip. “What does this tell us about the power of genre fiction as literature? How does this transcend genre to say something more about the human condition?”
I knew this question would come up. It was a fair question that I’d hoped to talk my way around for the moment.
“At the risk of seeming cryptic,” I said. “I think the answer will become more obvious later in the story.”
Shelley arched a skeptical brow. Skeptical, but one that was open to possible persuasion. Depending on whether I could make good on that promise.
“I’ve already hinted that Alexis is a person who thinks a lot. About the bigger issues, the meaning of life and all that,” I said. “There’s a reason I chose philosophy as her calling. And a reason why cosmology—the study of the universe’s origins—was Daniel’s field of study. These are big issues, high concepts . . . what?”
Shelley ducked her head behind a fall of hair, apparently to hide a smile. It wasn’t working.
“High concepts? You sound like you’re trying to pitch the next Hollywood blockbuster.”
I started to say something, then thought better of it. Why do academic types always assume that if a story is entertaining, it has no literary merit? Why can’t it be both?
Shelley shook her head. “I think you need to work on this a bit more. Give it a bit more, I don’t know . . . depth?”
“You know,” I said, unable to contain myself. “Shakespeare wasn’t playing to a bunch of highbrow intellectuals.”
Shelley looked at me. “I beg your pardon?”
“Shakespeare. He wrote his plays for the common folk. He filled his stories with passion, conflict, tragedy, farce. His language may sound fancy compared to the way we talk today, but in his tragedies, he wrote about murderers and adulterers and crooks and wicked people in general.”
Shelley cleared her throat. “I think I was saying—”
“I know what you were saying,” I said. “You think that a thriller is all about plot and not about character. You think it relies on contrived jolts and cheap gimmicks. Well, Shakespeare used those same jolts and gimmicks. He kept audiences, even in the peanut gallery at Stratford on Avon entertained. And I think William Shakespeare’s plays are considered timeless literature, are they not?”
Shelley simply stared. “Are you finished?” she said.
“Not really. I could talk about Anton Chekov and what he said about guns in plays.”
Shelley nodded. “Yes, yes . . . if a gun shows up on the mantel in Act One, it must be fired at some point.”
“And I’m not sure—correct me if I’m wrong on this—but Chekov is supposed to be a great playwright. You could even say his plays are great—”
“Literature,” Shelley finished the thought. “Okay, okay. Time out.” She smiled with what looked like the slightest trace of apology. Or was it irony? “I still think it wouldn’t hurt to beef up the characters a bit. Give them more . . .” She waved the glasses around. “Narrative weight. Gravitas. Whatever you want to call it.”
She handed the manuscript pages—unmarked—back to me.
“I know what you’re saying,” Shelley said. “But try to make this into more than a high concept.”
* * *
Later, I drove home after a long day at the library, followed by a shift at the bookstore. It was almost nine. I was beat and starved. Lunch had been a cup of yogurt and a banana. More like an appetizer than a meal. As I’d shelved books, my thoughts had been so consumed with the story, half the customers who asked me questions were treated to a dazed look and the cogent response, “Huh?”
Show, don’t tell. Weave in backstory. Truisms, guides, rules, pointers—call them what you will. It was the kind of stuff you heard all the time. Yet, somehow, writers were always bending these rules just a bit. Bending them to serve their own purpose. Inserting huge chunks of backstory so colorful you didn’t mind reading it—even though conventional wisdom said to do so would slow the narrative. And adverbs. Never use an adverb. Oh, really? Well, I wish I had a dime for every adverb I’d read, even in the best-written books. Never say never.
Pulling up before my building, I grabbed my purse and knapsack and hiked the stairs to my condo. Despite my skimpy lunch, I sighed at the thought of making dinner. Maybe I’d scramble a couple of eggs. Order take-out Thai.
I was starved, but too tired to even think of what to eat and whether to make it or leave the cooking to someone else.
I tossed my purse onto the couch and the manuscript onto a pile of waste paper the blank sides of which I used to print drafts—waste not, want not, and I couldn’t afford to waste anything. Take-out would be nice, but expensive. The scrambled eggs were sounding better all the time. I figured I’d do some writing, then decide.
I sat at my desk and turned on the computer. Simply watching it boot up gave me a vague feeling of dread. Opening the word processing program would only increase my anxiety. Here we go again, I thought. How many times do I have to review this? How many iterations of the same thing must I churn out before it’s perfect. As perfect as I’ll ever get it, anyway.
I took a deep breath and began to work. Starting where Swede entered the picture.
* * *
Alexis arrived home and hauled her laptop and files up to her apartment. She was just putting the key in the lock when she thought she heard someone whisper her name.
The whisper came from the darkened landing above her, making her whirl with such force she almost dropped everything. She peered into the gloom, but saw nothing. Eugene, Oregon, was a small and relatively safe town, but no place was completely safe, was it?
Her hand trembling, she quickly turned the deadbolt and reinserted the key to turn the knob.
She yipped in fear. This time, there was no mistaking it. Someone was up there—watching her, waiting for her, hiding . . . why were they hiding?
Now, her hand shook and, as she turned the key and hurled herself against the door to get in, the voice said, a bit louder and closer now, “Alexis, it’s just me. It’s Swede.”
Alexis gaped at the tall figure looming above her from the stairs. “Jesus Christ,” she said. “What the hell are you doing, Swede? You scared the shit out of me.”
Swede drew close and said, “Let me in. Quick. We need to talk.”
Alexis backed inside and the tall, dark-haired man followed, closing the door behind him, turning and leaning against it, as if someone were on the other side threatening to break it down. Swede was breathing hard, his eyes closed.
How Alan Sweetser had gotten a nickname like Swede was anyone’s guess. He might be many things, Alexis thought, but Swedish wasn’t one of them.
“What in God’s name are you doing here?” She got a good look at him and her voice softened a bit. “What’s wrong? Jeez, you look like hell.”
Swede brushed curly, dark locks back from his pale forehead shining with perspiration. He took a shuddering breath, opened his eyes–a startling lucid green–and said, “Someone followed you here. They . . . I think they’re after something. It may relate to Daniel’s research. Our research, that is.”
Alexis, who’d been gaping in astonishment, laughed–a sound as harsh as ripped fabric.
“What the hell would I know about your research?” she said, making it sound like an accusation. Poking a finger into Swede’s chest as she spoke, she hissed, “You two were thick as fucking thieves about what you were doing. Daniel never discussed your precious research with me. Would’ve thought you guys worked for the CIA, with what little either of you told me about it. And you, of all people, know that goddamned good and well!” Her voice had climbed to a wail by the time she reached the end of her speech. A fleeting memory of Daniel’s face brought grief bubbling to the surface of her consciousness. First one tear, then several others. The next thing Alexis knew, she was sobbing–sobbing over all the wasted time, the meaningless arguments, the wedge that research had driven between Daniel and her.
“Oh, God,” Her voice shook from the force of her sobs. “Daniel. Oh . . . shit.”
She swatted the tears away, sweeping a backhand across her runny nose, and glared at Swede. “What the hell do you want?” she muttered through clenched teeth.
Swede gulped and ran a hand in a superfluous smoothing gesture down the front of his sweater.
“The research. I thought he might have . . . told you . . .”
“Goddamn it, Swede!” Alexis paused, hunting for the words. “So what are you saying? You think Daniel went back on his word and spilled his guts during pillow talk? Well, surprise! He didn’t, okay? He never told me a thing. All the secrecy was no joy to live with, let me tell you. I knew something was troubling him, but if I tried to discuss it–whoops!–we couldn’t because it had to do with his research. There were nights not long before the fire when he couldn’t sleep. He’d get up and pace, so I’d ask if he was okay. And he was like, ‘Sure, sure. I’m fine.’ But he wasn’t fine and he wasn’t telling me about it because it was all connected to that research, wasn’t it?”
She paused, her ragged breathing matched only by Swede’s and said, “Now you have the fucking gall to come here and act like I’m supposed to know something about this goddamned mystery research that was wrecking our lives, when you know Daniel wouldn’t have told me and you know I know nothing about it.” She paused again and swallowed, trying to regain self-control. “So why don’t you just get the hell out of here?”
“You may not know what Daniel was doing,” Swede stammered, “but they don’t know that.”
“Who the hell is–“
Then someone pounded on the door.
* * *
Okay, I thought. Not too bad.
As I went about fixing my scrambled egg dinner, my cell phone rang. I flipped it open. Private caller. For the third time that week. I don’t like to take calls unless I recognize the number. I sighed and ignored it. I was melting butter in the pan when it rang again. Private caller. Hmm . . . could it be that editor I met at the symposium two weeks ago? But why didn’t she leave a message? I took the call to find out.
“Jessica Evans?” I couldn’t place the voice—deep and androgynous—though it had a familiar ring.
“Look out your window, but don’t move the blinds or make it obvious.” A brief pause. “Someone is watching you.”
Any comments? Feel free to leave them on YouTube or this blog! :)
Hi! That would’ve been the thumbnail for my video, if I could manage to get YouTube to work correctly. God only knows why it doesn’t, and too bad they don’t have any meaningful form of tech support over the phone. Oh, well …
Here’s the video!
And while I’m at it, here’s an excerpt from my young adult novel, Invisible Me.
I’ve barely arrived at school the next day, when Denise runs up to me.
“So? What happened? Where did he go?”
“Down, girl,” I say. “He got on a bus and transferred to another bus, which turned onto Route 29. From there, all I can tell you is he went south. Not having a death wish, I aborted the mission.”
Denise looks crushed. “Where would he go that requires taking Route 29?”
“Next time I could hop on the bus and see where he goes.” It’s the only thing I can suggest.
She beams. “Awesome. That’s a great idea. I can’t wait until next week.”
“Mm-hmm. Want to get together and hang out or something?” These words tumble out. Oops. My cheeks turn hot. I brace myself to be rejected. I’m an expert at it.
Denise looks thoughtful. It seems to take a lot of effort.
She grins. “I’m heading to the mall with a couple of friends after school today. Want to come along?”
Oh, my God. She’s going to let her friends see us together.
I nod and smile. Works for me.
I head for the caf at noon, wondering if Denise is ready to share a meal with me in public. A chubby, black girl appears at my elbow.
“Hi,” she says, out of breath. “My name’s Judy Lee.”
“Hi, Judy.” I recognize her from math class.
“Mind if I eat with you today?”
I stop so short, Judy nearly loses her balance. Why am I suddenly so popular?
“I’m sorry,” Judy says, sounding timid. “You don’t even know me. Never mind.”
She starts to turn away. I stop her with a hand on her arm.
“No, I’m sorry. It’s just . . . no one usually wants to be seen with me.”
Judy looks wary. “Yeah, well . . .” Her voice trails off. She continues her labored breathing. “I don’t have a lot of friends either.”
“Are you all right?”
“What do you mean?”
“You sound out of breath.”
Judy’s smile contrasts sharply with her complexion. “Oh that. I have asthma. Sometimes it acts up. No biggie.”
We stand momentarily like a pair of rocks in a stream, students flowing around us.
“Well, Judy. I’m starving.”
“Me, too.” Her coffee-colored eyes light up.
“Let’s get something to eat.”
* * *
As we down our pizza and soda, Judy starts talking about her family. She has a younger brother and an older sister.
“It must be nice,” I say. “I’m an only child. It’s lonely. Especially when you’re as . . . different as I am. And your family’s always moving.”
“My sis is in high school now,” she says. “We’re only two years apart. When we’ve gone to the same school, I’ve been able to hang out with her. She’s pretty popular, but . . . well, not me. Haven’t made too many friends in my own class.”
“Why? What’s the problem?”
“My sister has much lighter skin. Like my brother. They take after my mom. My dad is black as the ace of spades.”
She laughs at her own joke. I don’t know how to react. Should I laugh? That seems cruel.
“What do you mean?”
“People shun you because you’re too black and they shun me because I’m too white.”
I crack a smile. She starts laughing so hard, she’s gulping breaths and shedding tears. I start laughing along with her.
Before we split up after lunch, Judy asks if I’ll help her with math.
“You’re so good at it,” she says. “Want to come over tonight? I live only a few blocks from here.”
I pause and consider her question. I wonder how long I’ll be at the mall with Denise.
“Could we make it tomorrow?”
Judy nods like a bobble-head doll. “Sure, thanks,” she says, trying to catch her breath. “I’m really glad we had lunch today.”
“Me, too.” I feel an unfamiliar rush of warmth. Judy’s smile gleams. “Well, I’ll see you later. Lunch tomorrow?” I nod. She turns and moves toward her locker.
I stand for a moment, pondering life’s odd turns. Here I am, the biggest nerd—hair and skin so white they look bleached. Yet, suddenly, kids are seeking my counsel. Part of me isn’t surprised, because I can learn most subjects with ease. And there are few subjects I’m not interested in.
One summer, I tried reading an old encyclopedia at the library. The volumes weighed a ton each. I started with A and plowed through most of it. I call tell you plenty about aardvarks, apples, agnostics, atriums, and aviaries. Not to mention albinism.
You know the expression “encyclopedic knowledge”? The term is misleading. If I learned one thing from reading them, it’s that encyclopedias don’t cover everything.
After school, I’m standing out front, waiting for Denise. I check my watch. She’s running about five minutes late. I’m wondering if she’s full of shit about going shopping, when she approaches with two other girls.
“Hey, Portia,” she says. Her smile is unforced, her voice lilting. “Portia, these are my friends, Mindy and Tara.”
“Hi.” I can’t help but notice the way the two girls are staring at me. They look frightened.
“It’s okay,” I joke. “You won’t catch what I have. I suffer from lack of pigmentation, not leprosy.”
Denise laughs. “You’re really funny, you know that?” She laughs again. Mindy and Tara chuckle.
“Well, if I couldn’t laugh . . .” I leave the thought unfinished.
“I know what you mean.” For a moment, Denise looks sad. I wonder if she’s thinking about Randy and what he might be up to behind her back.
Denise perks up. “My mom will be here anytime now. She’ll give us a ride to the mall.”
I nod. I’ve already told my mom I’ll be going to the mall with some girls instead of coming right home. I texted her while waiting for Denise and her friends. She texted back, “Good. Have a great time.”
I realize she hasn’t asked what time I’ll be home, who the kids are, or where I’m having dinner. I wonder if she’s so floored that I’m hanging out at the mall with anyone that she forgot to ask.
* * *
Denise’s mother picks us up in a glossy black Beemer. Like Denise, her hair is blonde. Unlike her daughter, it’s styled. And she’s all duded up in a blue suit and pearls, as if she just stepped from a corporate boardroom. My mother goes around in jeans or sweats.
Hmm, I think. Not your typical soccer mom.
A chorus of “Hi, Mrs. Laughton!” erupts from Mindy and Tara, as we scramble into the car.
“Hi, Mindy. Tara.” Mrs. Laughton cranes her neck and bestows a pearly white smile. “Hi, sweetie.” She leans toward Denise, poised to give her daughter a peck on the cheek. Denise recoils. “You haven’t introduced me to your new friend,” Mrs. Laughton says. She sounds happy. Too happy. How can anyone be that cheerful?
Denise introduces us. “Um, Mom, this is Portia. Portia, this is my mom.”
“What a beautiful name,” says Mrs. Laughton, sounding rather dreamy. She catches my grimace in the rear-view mirror. “Your name is charming,” she assures me.
* * *
Mrs. Laughton pulls up to the mall and delivers a final set of instructions about what time she’ll pick us up and where. She calls it the “pick-up point.” Well, duh! “Please don’t be late, okay?” Big pearly white smile. “Have a great time, girls.”
We explode from the car and race toward the entrance. I’m giggling and rushing through the automatic sliding door. Mindy and Tara bounce a few steps behind Denise, whose blonde hair reminds me of a flapping golden flag. I let them lead the way down the main hall with its shiny marble-tiled floors. The air conditioning feels cool against my skin. I smell cookies or pretzels. The girls slow down as we approach the central court, where several people are milling about—a good-sized crowd of mall rats from my age to late teens and a few mothers pushing baby carriages or guiding toddlers by the hand. Denise reaches the railing, leaning against it as if staking a claim. Tara and Mindy hover, ladies in waiting to the princess.
“So, where do you guys want to go?” Denise asks.
“Old Navy,” Tara says.
“That’s old news! Hot Topic!” Mindy pipes up.
I glance around. Wow, this place is overwhelming. Slightly dizzying even. The ceiling has lots of skylights and reaches halfway to the stars. Sunbeams wash over everything, making the place gleam. Plastic palm trees and flowers are arranged in the fake stone planters. I spot a bookstore across the way. It’s all I can do to restrain myself from running over there.
“Well, let’s ask Portia,” Denise says, snapping me from my reverie.
“Old Navy or Hot Topic?”
As a card-carrying nerd, I have no opinion and I couldn’t care less. But it seems best to play along. Which store should I choose?
After a moment’s pause, I say, “We have plenty of time. Why don’t we go to both?”
Denise smiles. “You’re so smart.” Tara and Mindy look befuddled. After a bit more discussion we settle on Hot Topic. Mindy seems to be more assertive than Tara. We wander over to the store, where, following Denise’s lead, the girls find things for me to try on.
“Oh, look! This is perfect for you.” Denise hustles toward me, with a pair of hip hugger jeans and cute cropped top with a sparkly heart decal.
“Honestly, you shouldn’t,” I say. “I didn’t bring any money.”
Mindy and Tara float about, holding items up and posing before the large mirrors. Despite my protests, they keep recommending clothes for me to try on. They don’t seem to understand that I have no money.
Sitting on a chair tucked in among the racks, I make myself as small as possible. Can I will myself into invisibility? What an interesting idea for a short story. Maybe I’ll write it someday.
That would be the most awesome job, wouldn’t it? To be a writer. To write stories about kids who could do things like think themselves into invisibility. Because when you’re a writer, you can make almost anything happen.
Denise walks up. “We’re going to Old Navy. Are you sure you don’t want anything here?” She holds up a pair of faded cutoff jeans with frayed bottoms like Daisy Duke would wear.
* * *
After a quick tour of Old Navy—nothing of interest—we make our way around the perimeter of the mall, stopping here and there. Because we eat dinner early at our house, I feel hungry and pick up a soft pretzel in the food court. Amazing! I text my mom and ask her to set aside my dinner. I keep thinking about the bookstore but don’t mention it.
Tara checks her watch. “Hey, Denise. Isn’t your mom coming soon?”
Denise, looking at a group of guys, snaps to attention. “Oh, right. Everyone have everything?”
Tara holds up her shopping bags. “You bet.”
Mindy holds up her bags. “Sure thing.”
I hold up my one bag with the new pair of jorts Denise bought for me. “Yeah.”
Finally, here’s me, holding the proof copy of my latest novel!
To get it for half-price, buy it on Smashwords and enter the code AY45G before Dec. 31, 2014!
PS: My brother has a YouTube channel now! Here’s his version of one night in Bangkok!
And here’s another! :)