09 October 2011

Sample: Confessions of a Non-Believer

Confessions of a Non-Believer
Mainstream/Women's Fiction
Chapter 1

Carl is dead. If ever there were a day I wished there was some god to comfort me, to welcome Carl's soul to paradise, today is it.

I lie in bed, sure the last few hours have been a cruel dream. After all, young, successful attorneys aren’t supposed to die of undiagnosed heart defects. They aren’t supposed to die two months before their wedding, three months after buying a house with their fiancée. If they’re going to die in the middle of the court room, it’s supposed to be sensational: the result of a crazed defendant or disgruntled victim taking justice into their own hands. Especially Carl, who always had to do the best and be the best, who had to make a name for himself everywhere he went. He’s probably looking down on the whole thing now, pissed that he hadn’t been able to deliver his brilliant closing arguments before fate ripped a hole in his heart and sent him falling to the floor of Judge Aberman’s court room. He probably wouldn’t have thought of me on the way down—of how he was making a widow of me even before I became a wife—only how he’d never get to make partner now.

Our bed seems much bigger than it used to. The edges stretch farther and farther away from me, drowning me in expensive organic cotton. Taunting me. Telling me with all the softness and compassion of an automaton that no matter how many times I roll over, I’ll never again feel Carl beside me.

Still, I heave myself over, and over again, searching for a warmth that isn’t there. Or, at the very least, a cool empty space just over the edge that might tell me our bed hasn’t really grown to infinite proportions I can never escape. I find the latter, in the form of a three foot fall onto the hardwood floor. I hardly try to brace myself, my hip thudding gracelessly against the golden pine, my elbow cracking against the nightstand on the way down.


I swallow the metallic taste that has sprouted from the tip of my tongue, curl my knees up to my chest, stare at the dust bunnies that have collected under the bed. I should get up, I think. Should wipe the stream of unladylike snot sliding across my upper lip. Instead, I let my forehead drop to the floor and continue scanning the shadowy void under the bed as if my fiancé might magically appear there.

Every time I try to imagine his face, I see him as I saw him in the hospital.

When he left the house this morning, he was wearing a dark grey three-button suit. Pale blue shirt. Grey and blue striped tie. But when I pushed through the hospital doors, the only grey was the ashen color of his face; he was wearing only a white sheet.

I’ll have to change the sheets on our bedmy bed now. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to sleep on plain white sheets again.

My cell phone rings from somewhere unseen. I roll over onto my back with every intention of getting up and answering it, but by the time the white ceiling comes into view, the ringing has stopped. So I stop trying to get up.

Minutes later, it starts again. I don’t know how long it rings, only that it keeps on ringing. And ringing. When it finally does stop, for good, it’s replaced by a loud knocking at the door.

“Bree!” The deep voice is somewhere outside my bedroom, but in the house. Apparently I didn’t lock the front door. “Brianne!” My brother-in-law calls to me again. At least he would’ve been my brother-in-law. Not anymore.

“Luke.” I mean to call out, but my voice fails me, emanating as only a cracked whisper. The bedroom door bursts open anyway, and Luke is suddenly on his knees with me.

“Jesus, Bree, why didn’t you pick up?”

“It’s not real, right?” Arms encircle me. I find my face pressed against his neck, a day’s worth of stubble scratching at my forehead. Definitely real.

“You should’ve called me first. I would’ve gone with you to the hospital.”

I hadn’t thought to call. When someone told me my fiancé had collapsed in court, I wasn’t thinking about who I should call to meet me at the hospital. I was thinking about the designer gown that would be arriving at a local wedding boutique in a week for a fitting. I was thinking about the nearly 200 guests we were expecting at the wedding in 8 weeks.

“Gloria,” I said. I was thinking about her, too, on the way to the hospital. Carl and Luke’s mother. Somehow, she would make this out to be my fault.

Luke squeezes me tighter and for a moment I imagine I might feel better if he would just squeeze all the breath from my lungs.

“I called. They’re trying to get a flight out.”

I hadn’t called anyone at all. The drive home is a blur. Someone at the firm must have called Luke.

“I have to call Father Granger.” He was supposed to marry us. Now he’ll have to perform another ceremony. I try to scramble to my feet; Luke scrambles with me. His arms are the only thing that keep me steady when my knees turn to jelly.

“Bree, stop it.”

“I have to call.”

“You can do it tomorrow.”

“I have to—”

“You don’t.” His grip is firm. I try to push him away.

“There’s so much I have—”

“Bree, just stop. It can wait.”

“He’s dead!” I scream, saying it out loud for the first time. “What am I supposed to do, huh?” I pound my fists against his chest. “He was supposed to marry me, and love me, and be with me forever, and now he’s dead!”

He’s dead.

Luke sits on the couch all night and watches me make phone calls. Sometimes he protests, tells me it can wait, I should sit down. Eat. Something. Anything.

But I can’t, because every time I slow down, I can feel the world spinning beneath my feet. It’s always been turning, changing, buzzing with the hum of millions of busy lives. But before now, my life always hummed right along with the rest, one ballerina in a carefully choreographed dance. Now I’ve lost my place and can only mimic the movements of the other dancers, frighteningly aware of how fast everything is going by, until I can find my way again.

I call my parents back home in Seattle and they promise to get on the first plane they can catch. Mom tells me to hang in there, not to stay the night alone, to surround myself with friends. She, like Luke, tries to convince me that all my phone callsto cancel wedding plans and make funeral arrangements—can wait until morning. But I keep dialing. Wedding’s off. Carl’s dead. No other reason, and why should there be?

Call the caterer. The florist. Maybe the florist can…no, don’t think about that. Keep dialing. The reception hall. Should’ve started cancelling things yesterday, or the day before, but my lips couldn’t form the embarrassed excuse then. It’s more difficult now to spit out this tragic news instead. This isn’t what I wanted when we decided… How was I to know?

Call the ceremony site. And the guests. So many guests. I can at least start calling my side of the list tonight. The rest will wait.

Can’t stop to listen to the silence or look at Luke’s expressionless face. I haven’t seen him cry. He sits there and watches me pace across the living room, cell phone pressed to my ear. When my fingers run out of numbers to dial, when my lips can no longer bear to form any words, Luke watches me cry.

I stand in the middle of the living room, sniffling, wiping at the tears as fast as they come. I don’t even have the luxury of denial because I saw him, covered from toes to neck. I felt his skin, not yet cold, but not as warm as mine. I can’t delude myself that he might come walking through the door. I cry because he won’t.

And I cry because a selfish part of me is relieved he can’t.

Sample: Sorry's Not Enough

Sorry's Not Enough
Commercial Fiction
Chapter 1

Sanguinolent sunset. Now there's a word you don't see every day. Charlotte circled it with her red pen and drew a smiley face at the end of the line, just below where she'd called out a different phrase for being trite. She continued making notes in the margin as the rest of the group took turns giving their feedback. By the time she was done marking up the poem, the paper was also sanguinolent.

She looked up when the group grew quiet. Her turn. She looked down at the poem again and hoped its author wouldn't be offended. She had to look at the paper to remember his name. Steven.

“It's a little confused,” she said. There was a pause and a shuffle of papers.

“What don't you understand?” he asked.

She snapped her chin up to look at him and was taken aback by the force of his gaze and the color of his eyes. There wasn't an adjective to describe the shade of green staring back at her.

“I'm not confused. Your poem is.”

His gaze dropped to his copy of the poem. She could almost see his brain struggling to acknowledge that there could be any imperfections. He probably thought it was soooo amazing! as proclaimed by Aubrey, the bubbly redhead to his left. She had gushed to an embarrassing extent, obviously more interested in getting his number than saying anything meaningful. It had been sad and funny at the same time. With a pang of something she refused to believe was jealousy, Charlotte realized that, of the two of them, Aubrey would be the only one taking any numbers.

Whatever. She certainly didn't want Steven's number. Not when he looked at her again with an aloof, almost cocky grin, apparently waiting to hear more of her thoughts about his poem. Well, if he insisted.

“The style isn't consistent. The first stanza is really concise, like you chose each word for a reason.” The red smiley face she'd drawn next to sanguinolent sunset caught her eye, but she ignored it. She'd let Aubrey pad his ego. “But the last couple of stanzas have some ornate description that's just a waste of space. And some clichés that need to go.”

“Lots of authors use clichés,” Aubrey said and shot a hopeful glance at Steven. “It can be an effective tool.”

Charlotte shrugged. “Except it's not. Not here. They don't help create a tone or anything, and this isn't satire. A cliché without purpose is still just a cliché.”

Aubrey frowned, but Steven nodded slowly, like he was seeing her point.

“Easy on the poor lad, Charlotte,”Alexander McAnulty said. He was a portly gentleman, and one of the oldest workshop participants. Charlotte liked to think of him as her long-lost, really awesome Irish uncle. The kind who might've let you take a puff of his pipe when you were barely twelve, with a warning of don't tell yer mum. She'd gotten to know him during a previous workshop. “Wasn't there anything you liked about it?”

She softened a bit. She wasn't trying to be mean. “I never said I didn't like it.”

“No, it's okay. I appreciate the honesty,” Steven said.

She would've gone on to mention what she did like about it, but Deb, the instructor, called for the small groups to break up and reform one large group.

At the end of the day's session, Charlotte met Deb at the front of the classroom.

“Ready to go?” Charlotte was looking forward to a cream soda float at the campus creamery.

“In a minute. I asked Steven to come along,” Deb said.


Deb laughed and shook her head. “What'd he do to rub you the wrong way?”

“Nothing. He's just very sure of himself.” She watched him pack up his messenger bag from across the room.

“Since when is that a fault?”

She shrugged. Aubrey bounced over to Steven, grinning like a fool. Charlotte couldn't deny she was cute. A thick mass of red curls, fair skin, a smattering of freckles. Her voice was a little nasally, though. It carried across the room. She was asking Steven to get lunch with her and a few others. He smiled and looked over Aubrey's head to where Charlotte and Deb stood. Aubrey's gaze followed. Charlotte couldn't hear Steven's reply, but the pretty pout said it all.

He slung his bag over his shoulder and approached the front of the room, acknowledging them with a nod. As they walked across campus, Deb and Steven chatted about his job search while Charlotte felt like the odd man out. She trudged alongside Steven, trying not to resent his presence. She had been looking forward to chatting one on one with Deb this afternoon. Deb was like a mother to her, and they hadn't gotten to talk as often as usual in the past month or so.

She perked up a bit when she finally had her cream soda float in hand. Before she could hand the cashier her check card, Steven stepped in front of her and thrust a twenty at the cashier.

“I'll get it.”

“It's fine, I can get my own.”

“For all three.” He ignored her protest. The cashier hesitantly reached for the money.

“I said I can get it.” She gritted her teeth.

“I heard you.” He took his change and smiled his thanks to the girl behind the counter, who promptly blushed. Good lord. Was she the only one not all that impressed? She stalked out to the patio without another word.

She didn't like being indebted to anyone, even if it was for less than five bucks. Especially not some smug guy who thinks his recently earned college diploma makes him an authority on life. After a moment, he came out of the building and sat down next to her. Deb trailed a few feet behind, but before she reached the table, her cell phone rang. She stepped further away and took the call.

“Pistachio is so pretentious,” Charotte said of Steven's double-dip waffle cone.

He laughed and shook his head. “Is that better or worse than being trite?”

She flushed against her better judgment and hoped any color on her cheeks would be mistaken for the effects of the sun. She gazed out across the green stretch of campus between them and the main academic buildings. The Common Grounds is what everyone called the open space. In the middle of summer now, there were more sunbathers than study groups clustered on the lawn. She studied each one that was close enough to see clearly, but no matter how hard she concentrated on tanned bodies and colorful blankets, she couldn't ignore the weight of his gaze.

“You're staring,” she said, without meeting his eyes.

“Why cream soda?”

“What?” She looked at him that time, and immediately regretted it. Didn't he ever blink?

“Root beer float, sure. Coke float, even. Why cream soda?”

The sun glinted in his eyes. At least she thought it was the sun. Eyes couldn't naturally possess that much sparkle, could they? She looked down into her cup, then silently cursed his ability to make her uncomfortable.

“It's what I always get.” The melting ice cream formed a frothy foam on top of the soda. She scooped some up with her spoon and brought it to her lips. It began to fizz and melt away the moment it hit her tongue. She loved the mellow caramel flavor of cream soda as opposed to the almost spicy bite of root beer. Vanilla and caramel. Few things worked so well together. “Why mess with perfection?”

“I agree.” He reached toward her and wiped the corner of her mouth with his thumb. His eyes bore into hers like he was looking for something.

At the brush of his fingertips across her cheek, her spine shifted into a sensuous curve and the hair on her scalp prickled. A flutter of eyelashes obscured her vision for a moment. She couldn't keep looking at him if he was going to keep looking at her like that. She averted her eyes, feeling like a part of her was showing that she'd much rather keep under wraps.

“Sorry.” His voice tickled the base of her spine even as his hand dropped back to the table.

“It's okay.” His hands she didn't mind. It was his eyes she wished he would keep to himself.

Deb finally joined them at the table, oblivious to the tension of a moment ago.

“Sorry about that, guys. Gary is taking the boys to the lake for a little while and couldn't find Gregory's swim trunks. I swear, if the man bothered to move something, life would be a little easier.”

“The lake sounds really good right now,” Charlotte said. Her cheeks burned. From the sun, of course.

“Maybe you can come with us some time next week,” Deb said. “The boys have been asking about you.”

“I miss their little faces.” After seeing them and helping care for them every day for more than two years, she was having cuteness withdrawal after moving out of Deb's house earlier in the summer. She glanced at her watch and sighed.

“What? Oh, you don't have to leave right now, do you?” Deb asked.

“I have to get ready for work.”

“Where's work?” Steven asked. She pretended not to hear.

“I left my uniform in the dryer last night, so I’m going to need to starch it to death.”

“That's too bad. I wanted to ask you guys how you liked working in small groups today.”

“I got some great feedback,” Steven said, grinning.

Deb looked at him, then Charlotte.

“Apparently I’m trite.” He still smiled when he said it, but she blushed anyway. God damn, she wished he'd stop making her do that.

“Not you, the poem. Although you're getting there.”

“Charlotte doesn't hold back when it comes to criticism,” Deb said, smiling.

“Oh come on, you say that like I get some pleasure from it.”

“I said no such thing. But maybe it says something that that's what you heard.” Deb winked and nudged Steven with her elbow.

Maybe she was right. She shrugged it off and stood up.

“Call me tomorrow,” Deb said. “There's something else I wanted to talk to you about.”

Charlotte stiffened. The air grew thick, as though the humidity had doubled. She already knew what the something else was, and she didn't want to discuss it any more.

“I told my Aunt no. I’m not changing my mind.”

“Honey, I just want you to understand--”

“No.” She angled her body more toward Deb, in an attempt to remove Steven from her peripheral vision. “I have nothing to say to him and want nothing to do with him. He has no legal standing over me anymore. I made sure of that.”

“I know. I get that.” Deb stood and embraced her briefly. “Sorry I brought it up here. Just call me, okay?”

“Okay.” She smoothed her shorts over her hips, more as a way to iron out her irritation than to rid herself of wrinkles. “Give the boys hugs and kisses for me.”

“Of course.”

“See ya, Charlotte.” Steven's voice made her pause mid-turn as she was leaving. She looked back over her shoulder. His smile worked some of the tension out of her shoulders. She nodded and smiled back. He'd at least earned that much.

06 October 2011

This Isn't About Steve Jobs

[We interrupt your regularly scheduled Jello World programming of all things writing-related for a moment of personal reflection.]

Unless you've been hiding under a rock for the past 24 hours, you know Steve Jobs (co-founder and CEO of Apple) died yesterday, following a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was only 56. My Facebook and Twitter feeds have been flooded with quotes, pictures, remembrances, tributes, etc. related to this fact. It has been touching. And I have to admit, it's hit a little harder for me than I ever thought possible. I'm not spiraling into depression over it or anything, but still. It hurts. But it really has very little to do with Steve Jobs at all.

I do not own - nor do I really have any particular affinity for - any Apple products. Seriously. Not even an iPod. While Jobs was certainly an innovator in his industry, and is an iconic figure of this generation, he's hardly the most influential, important, or inspirational person to have graced this earth. I don't say that to detract from his accomplishments or diminish the grief felt by so many at his passing. On the contrary, I think it elevates the public outpouring of sympathy and grief. We grieve for the loss of human life - you don't have to have worshiped the man to feel a sting of pain now that he's gone.

Like I said, it's not about Steve Jobs at all. It's about us, and the thread of humanity and life that connects us all as we each try to find our way. It's about recognizing in someone else a hint of something you feel strongly within yourself. What struck me about Jobs' passing is the fact that his last public appearance was in June, and then he stepped down from his position in August. Two months ago. That's no time at all.

This drives home two powerful lessons for me. First, the human spirit is something fierce. He was hard at work - doing a job that would probably give most of us ulcers - until mere weeks before his death. Patrick Swayze, who also died as a result of pancreatic cancer in 2009 at the age of 57, was hard at working filming a TV show within a year of his death. In the face of such obstacles, we - human beings - can still do so much.

My mother-in-law, Elizabeth Dolk
Second, pancreatic cancer is a bitch. It's unfair. It sucks more than any amount of expletives can possibly convey. My mother-in-law passed away from pancreatic cancer a few years ago. It was only a few short months between diagnosis and her final days. She was 62. I've been pausing to wipe away tears the whole time I've been writing this post, because there's still a lot of grief and anger there for me. Pancreatic cancer is a beast of a disease that can steal the light from a person's eyes in such a short amount of time. It can overtake even the strongest of spirits and before you know it, the person is gone. My mother-in-law, Elizabeth. Steve Jobs. Luciano Pavarotti. Patrick Swayze. Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch. And so many, many more. Just gone. That's terrifying.

But as much as this isn't about Steve Jobs, it isn't about cancer, either. It's about the dichotomy of being connected to the world while carving out your own space. It's about the ability to feel sorrow (or love, or anything, for that matter) for someone you may have never met, whose life may never have even impacted yours in any significant way, but who you know has touched others, and who is like you if for no other reason than you belong to the same species. It's knowing that none of us is a solitary creature (no matter how much I try to be, sometimes.) Some of us make waves while others make small ripples, but always know your life - my life - affects someone. Sometimes the thread of humanity that connects us all is there, glinting in the sun so that we can't deny its existence, but other times it's barely discernible. But it's always there. I have moments where I feel it so strongly it nearly suffocates me and I push it away, out of sight, afraid of what that connection means - afraid of what potential commitments or obligations (or opportunities to hurt, disappoint, or injure) I fear are hidden in that little thread.

Sometimes I feel crippled by the simple fact that you are human just like me. There, I said it. But what does that even mean? It means I live a cautious life - one full of admiration and love and affection for others, but one where I'm afraid to make those waves, or even tiny ripples, for fear of adversely affecting anyone else, because I sure as hell don't want to be negatively affected by anyone else's actions.

One of the quotes from Steve Jobs that I've seen a lot of since last night is this:
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.
How much more fitting does it get? It's such a duh sentiment, but it's still like a punch in the gut. It was like Steve Jobs was speaking to me from the grave. I did a little digging and found more of his speech from the 2005 Commencement at Stanford:
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
I didn't hear or read his speech when he gave it. It took his death to bring those words to me. It's been an emotional 24 hours inside my head. And even though Steve Jobs said those words, I'll say this again:

This isn't about Steve Jobs. It isn't about cancer. It isn't even about death.

This is about life.

So if you'll pardon me, I have some living to do. I hope you do, too.