This week, I’ve been focusing on my novel, The Inventor.
I’ve been writing this particular story since January, and I’ve recently redefined what the central theme of the story is, so there’s a fair bit of rewriting and rejigging of personal plot lines and so on. I have no idea if it even has mileage.
The year is 2110. It will soon be known as the Year of Winter. The rich and powerful have won: safely ensconced in the undersea territory known as Aquatia, they need only wait for the completion of the Mars biodome to ascend. The rest compete for the attention of the few while struggling to survive. They believe in the teachings of the Book of Mars: that one day they too shall ascend, if they can prove their worth. Two siblings know it’s a lie, but how can they stop it when time is running out, and they don’t even know each other?
I wanted to share with you the opening. Because that’s where you’re supposed to start in a story, but also because they are one of the most challenging parts to get right. Openings, and my ultimate nemesis: endings. Oh, if I could just keep writing a story, never finishing it… like a telenovella, I suppose.
One challenge of writing this was that my main character is female. I wanted to avoid the tropes of helpless girly-girl can’t do anything for herself except fall in love. You (hopefully) won’t find that here – please yell if you do, and I’ll fix it. In fact, Katie drives this story – and what I’m trying to do in overcoming the challenge on perspectives is by completely forgetting her gender from the beginning. It’s not actually relevant here, particularly as gender and sexuality are separate, performed constructs. If there’s anything you think I could do better on this, I’m very happy to hear criticism and suggestions for what you’d like to see.
We start following the protagonist, Katie, on Day 33 of the Year of Winter.
Have you ever had one of those dreams where your brain finds clever ways to tell you what’s happening to your body? Once, I dreamed I had been in a terrible accident in which I’d lost my arm. Of course, I’d gone to sleep on it. Cut off the circulation. Unfortunately, the dream I’m thinking of was more terrifying. I was running from a pack of wolves. I started in a busy city, probably the City, in the evening. The sky was turning pink, like smoked salmon. The sun was setting fast. It was hot; the shape of the golden disc rippled as it sank towards the western horizon, and it felt like it was going to be the last time I saw it, like the end of the world. As it sank I felt the last of its heat fade, and I began to shiver as I ran through suburbs and parks. Somehow I knew that the wolves were coming from every angle. Coming for me. I couldn’t see them, but I knew they were there. I curved and changed direction, running around buildings and lampposts, when after some undefinable period of time, I had slipped into a dark forest, finding myself climbing a tree to get away from them. Cold. Afraid. The air was frigid, damp, heavy. Then the wolves arrived. The first one stood snarling at the base of my tree, surrounding it, clawing at the bark until his – this one was definitely male – friends arrived and they too swiped and ripped away at the trunk of the tree, whittling it down, stripping away bark and wood until the tree itself was balanced impossibly on a fine point. I clambered about atop it as if by my careful ministrations I could keep it from falling, until finally my self-doubt won out and it fell like in one of those old cartoons my grandfather would watch on his laptop. Clever coyote, or something. Then, just as I was tumbling to the earth below, I heard a strange beeping. My body jerked in anticipation of my sudden arrival on the ground, but instead, I opened my eyes in mid-spasm. It was pitch black.
This dream actually followed another – one I have more frequently, one my closest friends know almost as well as I do. In it, I’m taking pictures of my parents as if they were just getting married. Or sometimes it’s their first anniversary. The details sometimes change, but I’m always the one with the camera. My father is always my father. Technically I wasn’t alive when they got married, or a year later, but that’s not relevant to the dream. It’s about my mother, her face is always different. Sometimes it’s soft and round, with blonde hair and blue eyes. Sometimes it’s darker toned, Mediterranean, with big hair and a big personality. Sometimes she’s short, sometimes tall. Sometimes she’s sweet, loving, gentle. Sometimes she’s callous, aloof, disinterested. Each time I concoct a new story of their love; a new beginning and a new end. Only one of them could be the truth. Or none of them at all.
And my father; I knew his face, and his achievements. How could I not? He was the leader of Aquatia. Rhymes with ‘geisha’. Which is, I suppose, who I was raised by. Jackie. Jax. A lady of the night of sorts, I suppose, but more socially acceptable. I think her actual job title was ‘relationship manager’. I say was, because she passed away last year. Only sixty-three; it was quick, apparently. Bad relationship. She taught me how to photograph people. I still carried – yes, still there. My little photo wallet, in my jeans pocket. I still had the most important things.
My first dream had got its metaphors right, at least. The bed I was on was really uncomfortable. It reminded me of the time I bought a new mattress but picked the orthopaedic option. Might as well not have bothered with a bed. Also accurate was how cold it was. I reached around for a blanket, but there wasn’t one. Wherever I was. I wasn’t at all groggy. Pensive, yes, but I had a right to be. I had just woken from the deepest sleep I had ever had. When I was younger, my mum (mum who raised me, not mother who bore me) – Jax – always told me, “if there was one person who would change the world, it’s going to be you, K.” Except, I’m not quite so young anymore. I am most definitely a woman who follows in her mum’s example: a woman with no need for a man, despite being told frequently otherwise thank you very much – usually by men and older women. No woman should ever need a man. She might want one, like one might want a coffee, or a fuck, or an ice-cream – assuming she can tolerate dairy. Anyway. Having just been woken up by some weird beeping, fully clothed and lying on a hard wooden surface in the pitch black, I would guess a man might actually have been useful. A person of any gender, actually.
The cold felt real, now. Not like dream-cold, which feels more like an eeriness, or like the colour blue, than actual cold feels. The word cold feels wrong for this situation, though. Cold to me is emotional. Or a lack of emotion. Freezing is better. It’s got a sense of teeth chattering to it. F-f-f-fucking freezing. The romantic languages have a lot of good F words. For cold, I mean. Frio. Froid. Freddo. F-f-f-fucking f-f-f-freddo the f-f-f-frog.
Anyway, anyway. Here I was, four miles from Prophet’s Outpost and four metres below the surface. Not that I knew that at the time. I was more focused on shivering. My teeth were chattering so hard my jaw ached. Suddenly aware of my situation, I tried to sit up, but failed in this when I hit my head on something else hard and, to make it better, I banged it on the board on the way back down. I yelped, then moved to cover my mouth, as if I needed to be silent for some reason. As if it would alert someone to my presence, or my consciousness. Ridiculous in hindsight, knowing now where I was then. It gave me a clue, though. The yelp came back muffled in the small, damp space. I had to get out. Out of wherever I was. The air was black and thick like treacle around me, and there was no light. I could feel the walls on either side of me were wooden, and when I thumped on them, I could feel small amounts of black debris raining down on me and into the cramped space. Buried alive? Someone knew that I knew. But what did I know? I’d forgotten. Maybe it was just the panic of the situation. Calm. Breathe. I had to get out.
It was then that a muffled electronic chime sounded from my throat, making me gasp in surprise. “Low battery,” it warned. “Charge me.” I felt around my neck, but whatever it was had come from inside my windpipe. Windpipe is a clumsy word, isn’t it? There was a small scar… something slightly sore at the front of my trachea. That’s a ridiculous word, too. Sorry. I mean, I like words. Not words to describe the windpipe, clearly, but there’s nothing else available. It’s the same in other languages too. Kazekan, the Japanese call it. Kan means tube; kaze means wind, but also it could mean a cold. As in the virus, not temperature. They have a lot of words for cold, too. Anyway. Throat. Was that tiny bump there before? I couldn’t remember. I still can’t remember how long had it been there.
I had to get out, but I had no idea how far down I was then. How long I’d been there. Then I had the thought. Was I… no, my heart was definitely beating. Palpitating, even. And then, elated, I found myself laughing. At least things weren’t so dire that I couldn’t joke to myself. Too many vampire films I suppose. But as soon as the relief came, it went again. I was alive – and that meant I could die. Suffocate. I felt around in my pockets – did they – whoever did this – know I had a weapon on me? Maybe they didn’t care, because they left the photo wallet, and… yes! Sweet, small mercy. In my back pocket, after some contortion, I found them. Steel, coated in oxidised silver to make them look darker and more menacing. It was the small things that made one feel more confident, others more fearful. My knuckledusters.
I felt the weight of them on each hand. My salvation. I took a huge breath in, and… Go.
I pummelled the roof with my fists, but the top was dense and heavy. My hands bloodied as the wood above me chipped and splintered, forcing bits of wood against my skin, then blood and bone. The pain came on almost immediately. Knuckledusters were designed to fuck up faces, bodies – not hard wood. I screamed in rage to survive the pain, confident now that no one would hear me. The earth that started raining down was enough of a clue for that. I could also feel the blood start to drip from my knuckles in the darkness. My hands hurt, but I kept going. I started tearing at whatever pieces of wood were coming away with my fingers, favouring one hand over the other as I felt a disturbing looseness in my left hand – a broken bone, maybe. The pain spiked when I touched it. I kept going. I spat out bits of earth that fell into my mouth. I felt dizzy from the exertion. Another chime. “Low battery, charge me.” An urgent wakeup call; it sounded like it meant it this time. But then, an opening; an end.
What kind of horrific nightmare was this? A reality; there were no wolves. I ran my bloodied fingers along the grip on the knuckledusters, feeling the inscription on their base. J. C. Stots. Her image floated in front of my face then as it does now, a wistful memory of a person I might never have seen again. But I did see her again. Spoiler alert, sorry. Jaycee, my one-time girlfriend. My best friend before and after. Not for a while, now, though. Not so much ‘after’, really. Much more ‘before’. It’s hard to know when the best days are behind you, when it’s time to make that call. I wish I could put it down to the transience of adult relationships.
The image of Jaycee weakened me, though. I felt soft and flaccid, my muscles limp and ineffective for that last hundred metre sprint to the finish. The last wooden barriers above me. The knuckledusters were hers. Still were, technically. She probably didn’t know I had them, though I would imagine she could take a guess. She knows now.
I found a reserve of resolve from somewhere. I was a cornered animal. Buried, rather. I tore the final pieces of wood away from above me, eventually eroding the integrity of the earth until it dropped down on top of me like a black avalanche. I still couldn’t see anything. I can remember the fear. There’s nothing more frightening than the unknown. Society had taught us that. We push the unknown to the fringes and surround ourselves with what we know. Like penguins in the cold, we shuffle about, most of us take a turn on the outside. Some of those bastards manage to evade the cycle, though, and enough of us turn a blind eye. And there I was, blind, in the dark, in the cold. So afraid, so f-f-f-fucking freezing, so much in pain, I hardly noticed when I banged my head on the edge of the hole I had made in the lid of the casket. The torn edges of the wood scratched at me, but really this was just adding insult to injury. I ripped and clawed and pulled my way through a seemingly endless flurry of freezing black. Where to go? I remember feeling so drained, so stupid, that I’d forgotten which way was up. But that was ridiculous. Whichever was the hardest way to go, whichever way wasn’t down. Obviously. Air, I needed. I thought I needed. So I climbed upwards, pushing through the dirt. The broken wood kept scratching at me, at my legs, as I pulled the last of them through the hole I had made in my premature tomb. Until there it was – something colder, colder than the black, and wet, and…it was white.
Thanks for reading!