So...this is it, the first chapter of that project I was working on that you may have seen me freak out about in my A/N over on THE GREEN BINDER. Currently in the process of querying agents with my manuscript, but we'll see how that goes... Already got one reject after two days. -_-
Total project is complete at around ~80k words.
The structure: Get ready for a jukebox drama, y'all.
Seriously, if you haven't listened to the introductory songs before, I highly recommend them. They are amazing.
The backstory: After I wrote THE GREEN BINDER, I tried a round of queries. No luck. Got super frustrated and low-key sad. I was like: Screw this, Imma write another book. But...what? I want to bring my mood back up. And the first mood-lifting thing that came to mind was Mamma Mia, a jukebox musical comedy. So, then I thought... What the heck, might as well hook up a plot to my favorite songs from the 2010s (because LORD knows the music back then was better than the music now. If you disagree with this, bite me). And so...this project began. Some of the characters/situations are kinda-sorta-not-really similar to the ones from THE GREEN BINDER. I guess because this is almost a rewrite in a way, but not really. I will persist in "rewriting" the same story that has bugged me for the past eight years because I truly believe the world would be a better place if people knew of it.
As always, any comments/critiques are welcome and encouraged!
Anti-plagiarism: Do I need to repeat my stern warning from THE GREEN BINDER? For all you kleptomaniac Swiper-the-Foxes out there, HANDS OFF! Unless you want to face litigation in this life or for Saint Peter to throw you down to plagiarism purgatory in the next life.
Anyhow, let's begin...
To Miss Catherine
It's magic when you touch pencil to paper
Shatter every window 'til it's all blown away
Every brick, every board, every slamming door blown away
— Carrie Underwood, "Blown Away"
Harsh, white-blue light glared down at the small, Spartan, windowless cell. White-washed cinderblock walls pressed in around a table that stood in the middle of hawk-eyed, gleaming linoleum tiles. At the table sat a solitary figure, busy filling in a pencil sketch with innumerable, patient hatched and cross-hatched strokes. A chrome-gray pencil scratched against the paper. The hand guiding the metallic pencil was marred at the wrist by an inflamed, newly healed scar. Similar angry welts and jagged scars ran up the whole length of the arm and disappeared into the shadowy recesses of a plain white hospital gown.
The sketch artist worked feverishly—arms free to rotate the paper and correct the placement of a line with the picture upside down—eyes free to glance at the stony-faced sentinel standing guard in the opposite corner and motionlessly holding a large rifle upright as if both gun and man had been hewn out of the same unsympathetic slab of industrial concrete—but legs not free to stand on account of the cold, steel manacles gripping two bare ankles.
The repetitive sloughing of pencil lead against paper stopped. The pencil was laid down beside the picture. A head bent over the table surface, and a mouth blew gently over loose grains of graphite. Charcoal-colored dust skimmed the sheet of paper and dissipated into the air, twinkling briefly before extinguishing like nano-sized stars on the verge of death.
Two hands rested beside their handiwork, a partially completed picture. Surreptitiously, a lean pinky reached out and flicked the side of the metal pencil, sending it rolling over the edge of the desk and clattering to the floor. The pencil reversed direction when it landed and came to a stop next to one of the front chair legs.
"Sorry, let me get that," a frigid but smooth voice muttered.
The guard didn't blink.
The incarcerated sketch artist bent over at the waist and grabbed the pencil. As the hand closed around the thin cylinder, it shortened and morphed into a three-inch-long, titanium scorpion. Quickly, the hand passed the scorpion's claws over the shackles pinioning the artist's ankles to the chair legs. Barely audible sizzles of electromagnetic energy fizzed out into muted static. A hand squeezed the scorpion.
Less than three seconds after first diving beneath the table, the artist reemerged, one hand grasping the errant metal pencil. The unmoving guard looked disinterested. Fingers flexed, stretching in preparation for another long session of recalling to life a memory by nothing more than the clipped strokes of a finely sharpened pencil that—strangely—never dulled.
Monotonous labor resumed. A pencil caressed the page. Its owner waited.
The guard stared into blank space lying beyond the Earthly blankness of the cell. How many hours had it been already? He tried to remember. Boy, these godd— artists sure take their lousy a— time…
Minutes ticked by in the room flooded with everlasting white light.
A wispy breeze ruffled the back of the artist's robe. Under the table, bare toes twitched.
The guard blinked.
The breeze skidded around the room, gathering force as it slid along the bare stone walls.
The guard heard a whistle. A gust of air swept down his uniform. He craned his neck to look up at the air vent in the ceiling.
The whistle intensified into a howl.
Baffled, the guard continued to stare at the ventilation and wrinkled his brows.
The artist tucked the pencil behind one ear. Once there, it bent of its own accord and transformed back into a scorpion. An armored tail wrapped around the tissue connecting the ear to the side of the head. Two pincher claws reached out from underneath the earlobe.
Suddenly, the wind whipped the walls with hurricane gale force. No time to cock a gun. The wind picked up the guard as if he were only a crumpled-up throwaway and flung him against the wall. Skull crunched sickeningly against stone, and a streak of dark scarlet marked the guard's descent as he slid down the wall and collapsed in a lifeless heap on the floor.
Furious terror screeched around the room, whisking away the table and shredding the sketch that had been on it. The artist sprang out of the chair before it, too, was sucked into the insatiable vortex. Fabric flapped around the only sentient being left in the room, threatening to tear away.
Outside the cell and its raging storm, panicked voices yelled. An alarm lever was pulled, and sirens bled into the chaos. Doors slammed open. Heavy boots stomped down hallways, running for weapons and keys.
"Secure the subject!"
"Fire at will! Do not kill! Seek to incapacitate!"
"Repeat: incapacitate. DO NOT KILL!"
The wind ripped the rest of the garbled orders and commands away. An orchestra of frenzy prepared to play its final coda.
Monitors in the abandoned control room showed the tip of a dusty tornado, bruised black and blue and swathed in ominous dark gray clouds, touching down in the cell. It wheeled around the small enclosure—accumulating bulk and growing taller. It rammed against the walls and battered the previously thought unshakeable, nuclear-winter-ready cinderblocks with Earth-trembling might. Dust fell. Stone crumbled. Amid blaring sirens and screaming wind, the entire building complex shook as reinforcement troops continued to pour into the eye of the storm.
The adolescent tornado continued to grow in stature. It pushed against the stone confines and engulfed the ceiling. The artist, heretofore standing placidly to one side, stepped into the uncontained natural rampage. With one powerful, thunderous roar, the tornado ripped the ceiling of the wrecked cell off its rafters.
The tornado, still amassing power, barraged through the complex, indiscriminately devouring the soldiers who ran either at or away from the bloodthirsty terror. It tore a straight path from the preternaturally bright and claustrophobic bunker into the darkened, expansive desert waiting outside.
Dry lightning slashed a jagged scar in the night sky, illuminating scraggly shrubs and lonely, wizened plateaus that stretched into the distance for hundreds of miles in all directions. Thunder boomed its maleficent reply. The tornado crested to meet the dark underbelly of heavily laden storm clouds.
The artist tumbled out of the fury and onto the dusty, arid sand. Behind, men shouted futilely into the crazed wind. Artillery vehicles and armored trucks raced after the artist, chasing the storm without heed to life or death; they were warhorses that charged fearlessly into a murderous onslaught, the charge of the Light Brigade.
The artist ran, stampeding bare feet kicking up a cloud of fine sand and dust. The trucks dashed after the streaking silhouette, framed against the open desert by intermittent flashes of white-hot electricity.
The storm clouds released their load, and hail pummeled the land. Balls of ice thudded against the mad trucks. A battery of machine gun fire echoed the volley of hail, clapping to the booming bangs of thunder. Flocks of sparks flew to accent the descent of night.
The tornado spun and tossed some of the trucks to the side. They flipped through the air and crashed into the desert floor, crumpling and bursting into flames. Tires squealed as the remaining trucks swerved sharply to avoid becoming the next victims of enraged Mother Nature.
The artist continued to run, dashing through the night. Bullets and hail rained down on the lone racer, but neither mechanical nor icy furor could penetrate the sprinter's skin. Both elements rolled off like harmless water droplets—
—For this was the only rain that grazed the landscape, as the storm continued to dry heave. The sky thundered and crackled as if it were about to split in half.
The swelling tornado obstructed the trucks that tried to gain on the fleeing artist. Lightning and thunder clanged simultaneously, shaking the Earth below and the heavens above. The distended tornado ballooned and swallowed the remaining troops, who continued to fire blindly at the target until their very last. Metal grated against metal as the tornado chewed up the pursuers, churning them in a maniacal blender.
Without waiting for the cyclone to spit out the remains, the artist continued dashing, sprinting, running, running—running away from the hideous gnashes of metal and gashes of lightning and into the comfort of the spilt-ink night.
I was already awake when the impetuous alarm blasted its trumpet on my phone. It wasn't time yet to get up and prepare for school—no, that madness would begin next week. Instead, it was time to seek shelter from—
I turned over, half-groggy from lack of sleep and simultaneously half-hyper from whatever dysfunctional biochemical processes were causing the former condition—I turned over in this vastly irksome state of being and checked the alert.
TORNADO WARNING. Take shelter now in a basement.
—from a tornado, apparently. Pretty much one of the only perks of being a chronic insomniac is that you never miss the alerts coming through your phone at ungodly hours.
I clambered out of bed and wrapped an old quilt around my shoulders. Januarys in Westingbrook were chilly, though not outright freezing, because the temperate desert climate of Las Vegas had rubbed off on its little township minion…though that big brother orgy was anything but temperate. The cold-blooded irony of it all. Las Vegas is supposed to mean "The Meadows," and I suppose it would live up to its name…if you count the desiccated desert shrubs as flowers and the never-ending sea of sand as grass.
Westingbrook, too. Those cartographers must have been having a field day when they were going around dishing out names to these places in the Wild West. We didn't have any brook to speak of, not even a seasonal trickle. It was always as dry as a piece of cured beef jerky. Which is why our water came from Lake Mead, the artificial lake ol' Hoover created for the purpose of electrifying the Great Depression to death but ended up watering a city in the middle of the desert, a city built on poker chips and 1980s mafia terror. Watering that city because an orgy can't survive on booze alone. You've got to get some water circulating in the bloodstream unless you want to succumb to a self-induced poison sting that seeps in after ten, fifteen, twenty shots.
I could think of a thousand better uses of water other than pouring it into the diamond-ash sand, but then again—why bother? Who would listen? Who would care? I was only fourteen and impatiently counting down the years left until I could finally escape my invidious, parched small town. Truly parched. The way people looked at some of us—that condescending and disapprobatory scorn—it was like they were vampires out for blood.
But, if I were to escape three-and-a-half years from now, I needed to survive the out-of-character tornado first. Everything was dark. The wind howled outside like a banshee's pack of ravenous wolves. Thunder sent tremors through the walls.
I stumbled forward by the guidance of my phone's flashlight and knocked on the door across from mine in my humble abode.
"Grandma!" I strained to make myself heard above the impassioned gales.
She could sleep through anything. Unsurprising, given that she'd gotten plenty of practice. There wasn't much else to do at the venerable age of eighty-three if you're legally blind except listen to daytime television and let it lull you to sleep.
I turned the knob and pushed open the door. Grandma was blissfully snoring in her bed across from the window.
I padded over urgently in my bare feet and shook her awake. "There's a tornado! We need to go!"
Lightning cracked and lit up her small, wizened face, tinting it ghastly blue.
"Aurora…" she mumbled, slowly getting up.
I helped her to her feet and led her out of the room. She felt her way along the familiar walls that she had touched for more than a half-century. I pulled the door shut behind us.
The house didn't have a basement. Why would it? Considering that we were hundreds of miles away from Tornado Alley.
So, instead, we huddled in the short hallway that lay in the center of the house, away from the windows that looked out at a tempestuous scene. Thunder shook the ceiling. The cutlery and dinnerware in the kitchen rattled. The floor trembled.
I pulled the quilt in more tightly around our shoulders. None of this was normal. Nevada doesn't get tornadoes. And even if we did, they wouldn't be twirling around in the middle of January.
Maybe, it was some kind of natural counterbalance to—
—the granary? No, that couldn't be right, because the granary that had exploded a couple months back, about a hundred miles to the southeast—that granary had burned down to a heap of charred remains. Luckily, no one had been hurt because no one lived in that out-of-the-way part of the country.
Anyway, the natural counterpoint to a burst of fire should be a healthy splash of water. Except now, the storm raged on without any rain.
So, if it wasn't nature evening out its doles of fire and water, then it must be revenge. The Earth had a nasty vendetta.
Katrina was right when she had told me, "Weirdness is normalcy." She'd only be redoubled in her convictions if she were still here now.
I peered at my phone.
Might as well forget about getting any sleep for the rest of the night.
Lightning flashed, illuminating the room for a split second. A lean but sturdily built young man stood hesitantly next to the door, his hands balled into fists. With the next fall of thunder, a strident alarm cried out from the phone that had been carelessly tossed to the floor.
He shivered, clammy palms feeling pricks of ice from the fingernails digging into his flesh. It was a wonder they were still here, when all the signs were telling them to take shelter.
Refuge, that was what he wanted most of all in that moment, because now, there was nowhere to run, and despite the cloak of darkness—especially because of that impenetrable night—there was nowhere to hide. He had come here as a free person—no handcuffs or straitjackets—and nothing prevented him from bolting out the door and leaving this place behind.
But he couldn't find the will to move. Ice ran through his veins. His legs were blocks of wood. Cotton filled his mouth. And in the depths of his guts, disgust writhed like a decapitated serpent.