Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Novel Preview

Ooh scary.

My blog buddy, Old Cheeser, has suggested that I preview an excerpt from my novel-in-progress right here on this very blog for everybody to read and laugh at / pull to pieces / plagiarise.

I don’t usually show people my work until it’s completed so this is quite a departure for me, however, with such a big writing project I can see the benefit of gathering as much feedback as possible.

So. Here for your delight and edification is a small excerpt:

Background: Mike has been mugged and suffered a severe head injury as a consequence. He is recovering in hospital. He has recently experienced a very weird episode which he is convinced is real but everyone else is putting down to epilepsy as a result of his head injuries. Mike refuses to accept this and has recently fallen out with his girlfriend, Cassie, about it...

“Here. I got you some juice.”

Cassie holds the plastic cup out to me but withholds it just enough that I have to reach out for it. I guess she’s seeing if I’m prepared to cover some of the distance myself or continue acting like an arsehole. Her eyes are downcast, looking only at the cup with an intensity that suggests she’s certain it will spill if she risks a sideways glance somewhere else. It’s quite convincing if you’re a stranger but I know her better than that.

I gently touch her fingers with my own as I take the cup, leaving them there a second longer than necessary. As always I’m amazed at how cool and soft they feel and how much information the touch seems to communicate to me... nothing I could put into words but an instinct of something known and knowing. I see her look up immediately and make eye contact. She smiles. Small and soft like her fingers but it’s there. Her eyes still look hurt though. The blue of her pupils looks flattened out somehow. And bruised. Christ, did I do that?

“Cass. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have... I just...” I shake my head. I feel strikingly tearful which in turn makes me feel thoroughly pathetic and miserable. It must be all the drugs they’re pumping into me. I don’t usually get this emotional. I take a few deep breaths to steady the wobble in my throat. I haven’t been as snivelly as this since I was a young kid apologizing to my mother for riding my bike on the pavement and knocking Mrs Stamford over. I was very definitely in the wrong that time too. I take a sip of juice. It’s horribly bland but this isn’t the right time to voice a complaint. I catch her eye. She’s looking at me expectantly but there’s no sign of any concealed malignancy or stored-up fury in her countenance. That’s something I suppose. And more than I deserve.

I begin again. “I didn’t mean to take it out on you. You’re the last person I’d want to do that to. I just...” I wave my hand about in the air as if I could catch sift what it is I want to say from out of the dust motes. “It’s just the idea of...” My tongue buckles in my mouth. I can’t even say it. As apologies go it’s not going to win any awards for eloquence. I feel the soft burn of tears at my eyes yet again and have to break off. I give Cassie a helpless look before dropping my head and staring into my own lap. I shake my head. “What a great apology.”

Cassie’s hand moving through my hair, stroking my head and the side of my face make me look up. “I’ve had worse.” She steps nearer and her other hand pulls my head towards her breasts. I reach out and grip her around the waist, hugging her close to me. I can feel her chin resting gently on the top of my head and the warmth of her breath ruffling my hair. She’s shaking in my grip and I let her cry. Knowing Cass she’s been holding it all in since I was first admitted into the hospital. It’s weird but Cassie crying gives me the strength to get my head back together. It’s not a vampiric thing, more a reaction to her display of vulnerability: my response is to be the strong one and protect her. It’s nice to know that all my caveman genomes are responding normally.

Having my face crushed so closely against her breasts gives me an instant hard-on too. I can smell her perfume – Opium – and a vague scent of washing powder from her blouse and behind it all the unmistakable scent of Cassie: healthy sweat, hormones and emotion. I feel undeniably horny. Mr Caveman is definitely alive and well. It might be a pathetic and disappointingly male concept to cling to but that single reaction alone makes me feel more hopeful than I have done in days. So why I’m now crying is beyond me. A few short sobs and I’m done. It’s as if my awareness of crying removes the ability. I guess the analytical part of my mind is stronger than the emotional.

Two kisses on top of my head and Cassie gently breaks the hold. She steps back slightly and daylight and cool air suddenly sting my face. I feel cleaner for it. I hold her hands and we stay that way for a while, getting our bearings, not speaking.

After a while though I’m overtaken with the need to talk again. To voice my fears. I shake my head by way of a preamble. “I just can’t bear the thought of...” I still can’t say it and close my mouth over the sudden knot in my throat.

“Epilepsy.” Cassie says it for me. Quietly. Confidently. Her tone gives the word a neutral pH. Imbues it with soft pastel blues. Makes it seem like a soft puppy that just needs housetraining. See. Doesn’t seem so bad when it’s out in the open and named. Except it does and it is.

I speak slowly, taking care not to allow the fear and panic I feel lace my words with aggressive hysteria. “Cassie, I am absolutely certain that what I experienced was not an epileptic fit.” I squeeze her hands as if to emphasize what I’m saying. “I was conscious right up to the last few moments. Trevor and I had sat and talked quite calmly for several minutes before he lost it. I had trouble breathing. I had a blinding headache. I panicked. I blacked out.” Cassie opens her mouth to speak but I place a finger gently upon her lips. “Some sort of weird episode I accept. But it wasn’t epilepsy. And whatever it was, was brought on by being freaked out by Trevor.”

Cassie looks pained. I can tell from her face that she’s caught up in some sort of internal conflict. For all that Cassie is strong and fiercely independent in most areas of her life she’s nevertheless one of those people who’ll blindly accept the advice and judgment of a medical expert or doctor even if it flies in the face of her own cast-iron convictions. Mind you, I’m probably being very unfair. I’m not exactly giving her much to go on. I had a weird episode but not an epileptic fit; please believe me even though whatever sense I was born with has been punched out of me... I gaze steadily into her eyes but try not to make it too invasive, willing her to at least allow me the barest chance of being right.

At last she nods and gives me a watery smile. Again I feel like I’m being humoured more than believed but again I’m happy to settle for it. At least for the time being anyway. It buys me some time to try and figure out exactly what did happen. I sigh loudly and give a little shudder. I don’t know why but each time I think about Trevor’s visit I feel more afraid than any thought of epilepsy could possibly make me.

“We’re just so worried about you, Mike.” Cassie voice, so close to me, brings my attention back to her face. Her skin is blotchy and pale – a sign she’s not slept properly in days – but she still looks beautiful and vital.

I pull her closer still and wrap my arms around her waist. “Am I really that fragile?” It feels good to have her this close and captive. I can smell the warmth of her skin and the moisture it contains. The familiar pulses of arousal return once more.

“You didn’t see yourself when they brought you in, Mike. Your face was messed up so badly. There was so much blood.” Cassie closes her eyes, whether to remember more clearly or not to remember at all, I can’t tell. “And then you were unconscious for days. Out cold. And even after that you were only half there. With all the drugs and your injuries you were asleep most of the time. All I had to go on each time I came to see you was your face and at first it just wasn’t yours. It was so swollen and...” She struggles for the right word. “Alien. Not you.” She shakes her head as if to throw off a bad dream.

“You should have seen the other guy.” It’s a feeble joke but even so I’m surprised by Cassie’s reaction. Her shoulders stiffen and her face whitens even more. She looks worried. Sick even. “Hey, what’s wrong?” I rub a hand up and down her back to try and calm her down. I’m shocked by how much she’s trembling. I pull her into a hug and rest the side of my head next to hers. The intimacy is comforting and makes me almost feel normal. Cassie puts her arms around my neck and grips me fiercely. It’s like she’s hanging off a cliff. “Cass? Cass? What did happen? Everybody’s been so cagey about it all – even the police. Nobody will talk to me about it.”

I feel Cassie shake her head again and from her breathing I can tell she’s crying silently over my shoulder. I stroke her back some more and gently kiss her neck. “Hey, come on, it can’t be all that bad. Look, I promise not to have another funny turn.” Another feeble joke. In a crisis I’m full of them.

When Cassie’s voice comes it’s shaky and ragged and barely above a whisper. “It was horrible, Mike. They brought him in at the same time as you. Only he was dead.” I feel myself gasp feeling oddly detached from my reaction; like it’s another person experiencing it. I’m glad that I’m not only holding onto Cassie but also sitting down on my bed. My legs feel like they’ve turned to water.

“Dead? Christ. I had no idea.” In my mind I go over what I can remember of the attack. A montage of badly dubbed images and snapshots flicker before me but nothing I can get a firm grip on. I lick my lips before speaking; they’ve gone suddenly very dry. “To tell you the truth I can’t really recall anything much about what happened. I saw blood. I think.” I shake my head. “It all happened too fast.”

A loud sob from Cassie makes me refocus on the present and I squeeze her tightly to me, at a loss as to what else I can do. A typical guy, I want to find something to say to her to fix the unfixable but, of course, there isn’t anything. I just let her cry and hold her close.

“He had your name, Mike. He had your name.” Cassie bites off another sob and breathes in hoarsely. “Your name exactly. The police thought it was a joke. When I arrived I didn’t know which one was...”

More sobs rack her and her whole body seems to dissolve into a mass of trembling and convulsive shakes. All I can think of to say is, "Oh God."


Old Cheeser said...

Pretty intriguing stuff! There's a wealth of detail in your description that's really good and the interaction between the couple - their dialogue, behaviour, actions - all seem very real, thanks to the attention you have lavished on these aspects! My only real criticism is perhaps the amount of detail slows down the action a bit, but then, I haven't read the rest of your story, and this might be a "breather" section.

And I want to know if what happened to Mike was real or not! The excerpt has a definite air of mystery about it which I like - it certainly makes you want to find out what happens next, which is the hallmark of a good story. (I'm sure you've got it all worked out already, haven't you?)

Anyway, thanks for sharing it.

-eve- said...

Hmmm... I can't comment as a novel writer, since I'm not one, but as a reader, looking for holes in the story (since you mentioned it), I felt that the 3 paragraphs starting with Cassie supplying the word 'epilepsy' didn't really blend in so well. In the 1st one, it sounds like you yourself do fear epilepsy (when in fact, I thought you were convinced that it wasn't epilepsy!). Hmmm... apart from that, I guess that the details in that part are a little sketchy (perhaps that's what you had in mind?).

I like the parts leading up to those 3 paragraphs, and the way the passage ends, though (you could end the chapter there, and they'd turn the page to read more!). You're good at the 'man-thoughts/feelings' and the descriptions, and the story-line is intriguing (it's looking like it's a story about phenomenology, unless you end up with a twist at the end, and it's actually something the US government is covering up, like in X-files ;-)).

TimeWarden said...

Interesting story, well written. It put me in mind of an episode of “Hammer House of Horror” in which two identical victims of a road accident become switched at hospital. In the case of your story, it would mean Cassie’s Mike is the dead one (or is he?!!) and she’s about to go home with an impostor, explaining her feeling that the man in the bed is somehow “alien”, the epilepsy being a red-herring!

Steve said...

Thank you one and all for actually taking the time to read it.

It felt pretty weird posting a small part of the story, seeing it in isolation was a strange feeling.

Because things are going to get weird and warped I wanted to create a very strong sense of reality to begin with - hopefully the interactions between Mike and Cassie are real. Old Cheeser, you're right - this section is a "breather" after some intense emotional stuff.

Eve, Mike's feelings about epilepsy are complicated: part of him of course doesn't want it but mainly he feels that the experience he'd had previous to this scene was real and not as a result of a fit... however, the evidence suggests that it was a fit which has left Mike feeling very isolated about it.

Timewarden, I don't think I saw that Hammer Horror episode - damn! However, there's been no body switching here but the synchronicity does lead Mike to think that what happened wasn't just a freak of nature or an accident but somehow deliberate and fated... with disasterous consequences.


Odd question I know but do you already know how the book will end? I have always wondered this about writers, do they plan it all out in advance?
Good work.

Steve said...

I know roughly where it's heading, yes, but have left myself enough room to manouvre to keep things fresh and interesting as I write it... well, that's the plan anyway!