Chapter 1

Chapter 1

A Chapter by TabithaHapeman
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Chapter 1

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Chapter 1

July 2011

Samuel’s skin was too tight and the noises around him too intrusive. The constant din of conversation, pierced by occasional high-pitched laughter, made the inside of his ears itch. All parties were atrocious, and he avoided them as much as possible as a general rule, but this one in particular grated on his nerves. He should never have agreed to come in the first place. He swished his gin and tonic around his mouth for a moment before swallowing. There wasn’t a single person here he wanted to interact with.

Moving through the crowd while trying not to touch anyone, he made his way to the glass doors that led to a patio or back garden of some kind. At twenty-five, he’d learned how to cope with being in large gatherings, but he could only manage for a short period of time. Hopefully, there wouldn’t be anyone else outside and he could have a few moments of quiet in which to smoke a cigarette and further sharpen his inner monologue about how much he despised gatherings of people.

He only agreed to come to this party because he felt bad for Marnie, who had recently broken up with her boyfriend and was loath to attend this housewarming alone. As she was the only person in his life he could consider something approximating a friend, he rolled his eyes and reluctantly agreed to come with her. He regretted breaking his own policy of never making decisions based on other people’s feelings. Marnie wandered off nearly the moment they arrived to talk to people she knew, or friends of the hostess, and Samuel was left to fend for himself in a roomful of strangers, which was in no way his bailiwick.

Opening the door, he was hit by a wave of humid air that now felt even more oppressive since he’d been standing in the comfort of the air-conditioned interior of the house. The air outside was hot and close and beads of perspiration broke out on his forehead and upper lip within moments of closing the sliding glass door behind him.

He was only wearing a dark blue button down tucked into charcoal dress trousers. He was thankful he had left the jacket at home. Everyone else was wearing more casual clothes, so he stood out in the crowd even without the jacket. Besides that, he would have nowhere to put the thing if he had worn it, now that he was hiding outside.

No other party guests were on the patio, likely due to the oppressive heat. Samuel undid another button on his shirt before undoing his cuffs and rolling up his sleeves to his elbows. Lighting a cigarette, he took a deep drag, enjoying the burning in his throat and lungs. Closing his eyes, he tilted his head up to the night sky and let his shoulders relax. Having a smoke in peace was the best part of this night so far.

With his eyes closed, he concentrated on pulling nicotine into his lungs while cicadas trilled in the trees around him. Beneath the smell of smoke lingered the sweet scent of Hardy Ginger and Voodoo Lilies he’d noticed on his way outside. The small back garden was filled with blooms and foliage. The party host must be quite the gardener.

Samuel used to garden but he hadn’t planted anything since moving into an apartment in Charleston. He had a postage stamp bit of green space outside his apartment but hadn’t bothered doing anything with it in the three years he’d lived in the building. It was a shared space, and he only knew his neighbors in passing, so asking them if they minded him turning the space into a garden was too much trouble.

This little backyard was lovely, though. He ran his fingers along delicate petals of red salvia nearly as tall as his hip and imagined this space must attract hummingbirds and butterflies all summer. The peacefulness of the moment was broken as the door opened behind him. Releasing a gusty sigh, he turned to see who was disturbing his solitude.

The man who joined him outside looked about as annoyed as Samuel felt. He was about half a head shorter than Samuel’s six feet, had lighter coloring and a bulkier build. Samuel had the long, lean body of a swimmer; this man looked more like a short football player.

Taking another drag before the disrupter of the quiet noticed him, Samuel looked him up and down again. He was wearing chinos and a vee cut dark tee shirt, like most other guests at the party, and held a glass of something amber in his hand. Whiskey perhaps, or bourbon. Samuel almost dismissed the man and held his silence but the look on his face was intriguing. He was the only person that night to look like he wasn’t enjoying himself.

Samuel wasn’t very good at starting conversations, so he took a long drag from his cigarette and blew it out noisily before crushing the butt in a flowerpot. It was easier if he alerted the man to his presence and allowed him to decide if a conversation would start.

The man turned to look at him and smirked. “Those things will kill you, you know.”

“You don’t have a native accent,” Samuel said, which was the first thing that came to mind.

The stranger huffed a small laugh and gave an incredulous look before nodding slowly. “That’s because I’m not from here. You aren’t either.”

“Correct.” Was all Samuel said before pulling out the box of cigarettes from his pocket again.

Pursing his lips, the stranger nodded and sighed through his nose. “Is everyone at this party a complete a*****e?”

That surprised a genuine laugh out of Samuel. “Well, I am. I don’t know about those people in there, but probably.”

A short bark of laughter erupted from him before the stranger held out his hand. “John Smith,” he said by way of introduction.

“You’re kidding.”

“I’m not.”

John was still waiting for Samuel to take his hand, so he reached forward and shook John’s hand once before finishing lighting his cigarette.

John leaned back and put one hand in his pocket. “You don’t seem like the type to come to these kinds of things.”

“I’m not,” Samuel answered. He didn’t normally engage in conversation without necessity but perhaps he was feeling generous tonight. “I came with a friend. Well, she’s sort of a friend,” he corrected himself.

“I’m with my sister. I was supposed to be her sober support partner, but that did not work out.” He hoisted his glass in emphasis.

Cocking his head, Samuel narrowed his eyes. “Did you break the pact or did she?”

John laughed without mirth. “She did. She’s an alcoholic, though she won’t admit it. She promised to stay sober tonight, but she’s plastered already. I needed some fresh air away from her.”

Samuel made a thoughtful sound and tugged his collar away from his damp neck. It was threatening to rain soon; the scent and increasing heaviness in the air foretold what would likely be a thunderstorm.

“You came with a friend, you said?”

Glancing back to John, Samuel nodded. Talking to this man wasn’t onerous so he might as well engage with him. “I work with a woman who has tried to befriend me for three years. It hasn’t worked much, but I felt bad enough for her when her boyfriend dumped her last week that I agreed to come to this housewarming thing. A ridiculous concept, really.”

John nodded as he raised his glass to his lips. “They moved in almost a year ago. Seems a little late to celebrate now.”

“You know the hosts, then?”

“A bit. My sister, Charlie, knows them better, but I’ve met them a few times. Went to their wedding, even.”

Samuel released another thoughtful sound as he shifted from one foot to the other. Normal people had seating in their back patios. Shifting his weight onto one leg, he cocked a hip and folded his arm across his chest while the hand holding his cigarette traveled to his mouth again.

“You’re not entirely sober,” Samuel offered.

“Hah! No, not quite. Doesn’t make much sense to stay sober now, does it?”

“A noble attitude.”

“You know, I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or not.”

“It’s safe to assume I am most of the time.”

“Are you always this much of a dick?”

Samuel couldn’t help the laugh that escaped him. John’s words were teasing, not harsh, and he said them with a smile. Samuel wasn’t used to being teased. “Mostly, yes,” he responded.

“Why’s that?”

That was a question Samuel had only been asked by people as they stormed away from him. Why are always such a dick? Of course, since moving down South he heard that exasperated question much less frequently. People here tended to purse their lips at him and say something like well, aren’t you a little big for your britches or bless your heart. The inability of native southerners to use direct language was charming but also made his eye twitch.

“I don’t like most people, ” was the answer he settled on after a moment’s contemplation.

John swallowed the last of his drink and set the glass on the ground. When he stood, he was more off balance than he should have been. Samuel adjusted his assessment of John’s level of inebriation. Perhaps he was one of those people who came across more sober than he actually was.

John dragged a hand through his sandy hair. “That’s kind of a s**t attitude, isn’t it?”

“I think it’s realistic.”

“I like people,” John said. “Most people, anyway.”

“Except everyone at this party,” Samuel retorted.

That startled another laugh out of John. “Touché. Yeah, you got me there. Maybe I just tell myself I like most people.”

“That’s an interesting lie to tell yourself.”

John grabbed the back of his neck and craned his face towards the sky. “Yeah, well we tell ourselves all sorts of things to get through the day, don’t we?”

What an intriguing statement. This conversation was rapidly growing interesting. Perhaps John was drunk enough to honestly answer his next question. “What other lies do you tell yourself?”

“You seem awfully interested in me for someone who hates people.”

Samuel smirked. Oh, this was delightful. He so rarely met people who would verbally spar with him. “Well, you’re the first person I’ve met since moving here that actually answers questions instead of saying something ridiculous and polite. It’s refreshing.”

John’s eyes were still closed as he held his face towards the stars. “Where are you from? Up North, by your accent.”

“New York mostly, both upstate and the city. We moved to South Carolina after I graduated high school.”

John opened his eyes again to stare at Samuel. “And you’ve been in Charleston ever since?”

Shaking his head, he crushed the butt in the flowerpot next to its previously discarded twin. “No. I moved to Columbia for college and came down to Charleston three years ago.”

“What did you study?”

“Microbiology.”

He thought of taking out a third cigarette but decided against it. His stomach already felt a little sour from having two in a row. He loved smoking but he wasn’t very good at it; any more than two in the span of a few hours made him ill.

John nodded knowingly. “I studied biology for my undergrad. I’m in my last year of residency at MUSC now.”

Cocking his head, Samuel frowned. “You don’t seem the doctorly type.”

John leaned back against the side of the house behind him. “No? What do doctorly types seem like?”

“They tend not to admit they don’t actually like people as much as they pretend to. That seems like an admission a physician might stop himself from sharing.”

John put both hands on his knees while he chuckled and shook his head. He straightened to standing again before he said, “Oh, you’re something else. Yeah, I guess that’s true.” He wiped his eyes with one hand and resumed his leaning. “What do you do, then? Maybe you work in one of the labs I send samples to.”

“Quite possibly. I’m a lab technician for Palmetto, the physician group.”

“Oh, yes, they’re the largest group in the city. If I weren’t going into hospitalist medicine, I would have joined their primary care team.”

Silence descended on them as John looked at him steadily and Samuel shifted his weight to the other foot before breaking eye contact and scuffing his shoe along the ground. He never knew how to keep a conversation going. It was easier not to start in the first place. It was his turn to talk but he couldn’t think of what to say. He pushed his dark fringe off his forehead before wiping at the line of sweat on his brow.

John saved Samuel having to invent another topic of conversation by saying, “Why did you study that? Microbiology, I mean.”

Samuel looked back and shrugged. “It satisfied my mother.” He cringed at that childish response. How pathetic that he chose a career based on his mother’s desires. Clearing his throat, he tried to recover. “I studied microbiology and chemistry, I just landed in a pathology lab after school. I’m not sure how I ended up there, really.”

That sounded even more pathetic, but it was true. Samuel wasn’t sure what life events had conspired to turn him into a lab tech toiling day in and day out doing monotonous tests and documenting results and conclusions in a medical record hour after hour. He’d been in his position for three years and hadn’t enjoyed it a single day in all that time. He wasn’t even sure he liked microbiology. He chose a scientific path in college that seemed somewhat stimulating, then chose the first job he interviewed for that led to an offer.

The tediousness of his existence was intolerable sometimes. On occasion he imagined stealing one of the boats docked in the harbor and sailing towards the horizon with no plan or supplies. It was a romantic dream of death at sea he didn’t think he’d ever succumb to. That fantasy vied for attention with the idea of buying a fake passport, wherever people got such things, and flying off to someplace like India where he could get lost in a sea of billions of people who didn’t know or care about his name or where he came from.

He could accomplish the same kind of anonymity by going back to New York but that thought held less appeal than the drama of faraway lands. New York was too accessible, too easy. It made the possibility less attractive.

John interrupted his ruminations. “I studied medicine because my father was a doctor.”

Samuel’s ears perked up. “Was?”

John looked away and dragged his tongue across the front of his teeth before he answered. “Yeah. he died when I was a teenager.”

“Ah,” Samuel said. This conversation was suddenly much more personal than he was prepared for. No matter. It wasn’t likely he’d ever see this man again. “Mine died when I was a child.”

John’s smile was sad when he said, “We have a lot in common.”

“I don’t know about that,” Samuel countered. “So far we’ve only established we both have dead fathers. Lots of people can claim that.”

John held up his hand and started listing, raising a finger with each point. “Both our fathers are dead. We’re both Charleston transplants. We both went into a career based on what our parents wanted. We both hate this party. We both kind of hate people in general, but I get the feeling you don’t, really, you just tell people you do. We’d both rather be out here in the dark and the heat than in there pretending to be normal.”

Samuel’s breath hitched. “I’ve never been good at pretending to be normal.”

“Can’t imagine why,” John said.

It sounded sarcastic, but Samuel wasn’t sure if he was misinterpreting John’s tone. It was difficult to discern tone sometimes. “I haven’t given you any indication I’m lying about not liking people.”

“You haven’t ended this conversation yet,” John said simply.

Perhaps that was the logic of a man who had imbibed a few too many drinks but Samuel admitted there may be a point hidden in that statement. He hadn’t told John to go back inside, or himself huffed back into the blissful air conditioning yet. He stood here conversing with a man who didn’t even know his name, exchanging personal details of life. Perhaps he wanted some company more than he was ready to admit to himself.

Clearing his throat, he said, “I’m Samuel, by the way.”

A smile pulled itself across John’s face. “I was wondering if you were going to tell me your name.”

“You could have asked.”

“I could have, but I was curious to see if you’d offer it.”

He blushed, though he didn’t understand why. Samuel was thankful it was dark enough his flush wouldn’t be obvious. “I think you’re a bit drunk.”

“I come from a long line of drunks,” John said. He didn’t sound like he was bragging, just stating something very matter of fact. He continued, “And I have a lot of practice of holding my liquor.”

“That stuff will kill you, you know.”

John laughed again and looked back towards the sky. There was too much light pollution to see many of the stars, but the moon was high and shining like a beacon. “Touché again.”

“As a soon to be doctor, you should know that.”

“I do know that. Intimately, believe me. Easier to admit something than to change it, huh?” He indicated vaguely towards the flowerpot holding the remnants of Samuel’s cigarettes.

Should he prod at that? Question how intimately, and in what manner, John understood that drinking could be deadly? It seemed a ripe subject, something that could yield all kinds of interesting and juicy details about this man who met him toe to toe in conversation. He didn’t want to scare him off, though, or say something too direct, which he frequently did. Poking interesting soft spots tended to make people angry. He imagined people were much like a cat arching its back and hissing when he asked more invasive kinds of questions.

The debate of whether to ask was ridiculous. It was a foregone conclusion. Of course, he was going to poke that newly displayed underbelly. “So, your sister’s an alcoholic. And you have intimate understanding of alcohol related deaths. She’s still alive enough to get drunk here tonight so I’m assuming you’re referring to your father.”

For a moment John’s shoulders hitched up towards his ears and his face darkened like the sky over the harbor did during a sudden storm. Samuel found himself backing up half a step and leaning back in some kind of ancient ingrained self-preservation mechanism. He wasn’t always gifted at reading body language, but John’s was less than subtle.

“Yeah,” John ground out. “You hit that nail on the head.”

“Oh.” Samuel didn’t feel smug in the knowledge his hunch was correct. Only sad, which was surprising. He didn’t feel sad for other people. “Well,” he cleared his throat, “I’m sorry about that.”

It was a lame consolation and came with a half shrug as Samuel put his hands in his pockets and scuffed the ground with his shoe again. He was getting tired of standing. Really, what kind of fools didn’t put patio furniture in a back garden?

Sighing heavily, John shook his head. “It was a long time ago. And I really should know better than to follow in his footsteps. And I might be drunker than I thought.”

“Do you want me to get you some water?”

The question surprised Samuel as much as it did John. John’s brows rose closer to his hairline as Samuel blushed again. Perhaps he was also a little drunk, even though he’d only had the one G&T. Perhaps that could account for his uncharacteristic kindness to this stranger.

“See,” John said with a hint of smugness, “I told you you’re not as big of a jerk as you want people to think.”

“Tonight is an exception to the rule, I assure you.”

Shaking his head, John’s smile softened into a grin. “Do you want to go inside? This is awful out here.”

A trickle of sweat ran down Samuel’s temple to his neck before traveling to absorb into his collar, as though it was proving a point that John was correct, and the heat was too oppressive to stand in much longer. A chair and cold lemonade would have made it somewhat more bearable, but neither of those things were to hand.

Inside though, were other people. People who were not as interesting as John. People who probably chewed loudly and were well into their third or fourth drink, making them likely to put their hands on Samuel’s arm or lean in close to him to the point he could smell their perfume or aftershave and the alcohol on their breath. Going inside was a terrible idea. Leaving this party altogether was an attractive concept but so was talking to John.

Samuel was saved from trying to answer by the door opening. He rolled his eyes and turned away for a moment, saying, “Ugh, not more people out here, please.”

His complaint was ignored as John turned towards a petite blonde woman who stumbled over the threshold and into his arms. “Charlie, Jesus, you’re three sheets to the wind.”

“Don’t be mad, Johnny. I just came out here to check on you.”

Her speech was slurred to the point Samuel had to intuit what she actually said, since the words were strung so closely together, and the ending consonants had fallen away into the nonexistent breeze. Compared to this woman, John was utterly sober.

Before john could respond, Charlie lurched to the side and threw up on the marigolds that lined the back of the house.

“For Christ’s sake, Charlie!”

Samuel took a step back into the grass. This was not a family drama he wanted to involve himself in. Cleaning up someone’s sick was definitely not something he would ever volunteer to do. As John was otherwise occupied, and certainly in no position now to continue their conversation, Samuel might as well leave. The only unobjectionable person in the whole house was now busy with a drunken and vomiting sibling, so there was nothing else to keep Samuel there.

“Nice meeting you,” he said and was surprised it was true. “Good luck with, uhh,” he gestured vaguely towards Charlie, who was now dry heaving and bent double, being held up by John, “all that.”

Before John could respond, Samuel turned and made his way through the still open door. The air conditioning hit him like an ice block to the face and he blinked a few times to adjust. The sweat on his forehead and the back of his neck now felt like tiny droplets of ice water and he shivered. Damned Southern summers. He loathed them as much as he loved them, sometimes.

Marnie was chatting with a couple of women who looked around her age. They were all wearing the same style of short sundresses in different colors and had the same blonde highlights streaked in their hair. They all had little handbags draped over their shoulders, which they adjusted every few minutes in the same manner they tucked the same strand of hair behind their ears. Damned women.

To hell with it. There was no reason to tell Marnie he was leaving. It wasn’t as though he cared if she left with him or not. She could get a cab home when she was ready. It was her idea to drag him all the way out to the West Ashley suburbs anyway.

Without a nod to the hosts or a word to the other party goers he walked straight through the house to the front door and out to the street where his car was parked. It was nearly an hour drive back to his apartment and a sudden fatigue came over him as he turned the key in the ignition. It was good he was going home.

As he drove back to his apartment in the French Quarter his only regret was having ended his conversation with John. It was rare he met someone so easy and pleasing to talk to. He shoved that thought aside. It wasn’t as though he had any skills in making friends or keeping people around. He barely spoke to his own brother and mother. Marnie was the closest thing he had to a friend and he was sure they only spent time together because of their close proximity in the lab. It was best not to think of John further. No sense in wanting what he couldn’t have.



© 2020 TabithaHapeman


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In general, I don’t comment unless there’s a request for critique. But you write well, and because you’re a victim of the nearly universal misunderstanding we all leave school with, I thought you’d want to know—especially given that you’re writing a multi-chapter piece.

There are two significant problems that got you into the situation I'm about to comment on, both unrelated related to talent, potential, or the story. First, is that like most, you forgot that professions are acquired IN ADDITION to the set of general skills we’re given in our school days. And given that the universities offer a four-year major in Fiction-Writing, you have to assume that at least some of what’s taught is necessary. Right?

The reason we forget that point is the reasonable assumption that the set of techniques our teachers called “writing,” is in some way related to the same word in the profession of, Fiction-Writing. It’s not. We were given writing skills that support of the kind of writing employers require: reports, essays, and letters—all nonfiction, and all share the common objective of informing the reader clearly and concisely.

To that end they are fact-based and author-centric. The narrator, in a voice the reader cannot hear—rendering it inherently dispassionate—reports and informs. And using that approach in an attempt to write the result will read, at best, like a report, a chronicle of events, or history lesson on the life of a fictional character. Given the methodology there is no other outcome possible.

Think about it. Did even one teacher spend one minute on the three issues we must address quickly on entering any scene in order to provide context for what’s said or done? No. Were you made aware of the major differences between a scene on the page and one on stage and screen—and why that difference must exist? How about the elements that make up a scene on the page and their management? I ask, because if not, how can you plan and execute a scene that a reader will recognize as being one?

Of more importance, was even one second spent on the difference between POV as defined by personal pronoun usage and viewpoint? This matters because viewpoint is THE method by which we make the scene real enough to the reader that if the protagonist trips, the reader reaches out to restore their balance. If ten people view the same thing there will be ten different views on what happened. That matters, because in fiction, the narrator’s viewpoint is irrelevant. They’re neither in the story nor living the scene. What matters to the realism of the story is the protagonist’s viewpoint—a subject not even mentioned in our school-days. To illustrate what I mean, this article may help:
https://jaygreenstein.wordpress.com/2011/09/22/the-grumpy-writing-coach-8/

While our schooldays skills can tell the reader it’s raining on the protagonist, as E. L. Doctorow observed: “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader. Not the fact that it’s raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.” And no way can the nonfiction skills we were given do that because they're fact, not emotion based.

Every action you take; every decision you make is flavored by and driven by your personal viewpoint, necessities, and personal interpretation of the situation—right or wrong. So unless the reader is made to view the scene through the lens of the protagonist's viewpoint, they cannot empathize or identify with the protagonist. And fair is fair...it is their story.

In this case, to overcome the dry recitation feel of the nonfiction approach, you’ve elected to transcribe the words fo a storyteller. About 50% of hopeful writers take that approach, so you have lots of company. That works perfectly when you read the piece. For you the narrator’s voice—your voice—is alive with emotion. It changes intensity and cadence. For you adverbs are demonstration words, as in speech. So were you to read, “He slowly turned,” in your mind, you hear your voice place emotion into saying, “He slooowly turned.” The reader doesn’t.

And as you read, you know the storyteller’s performance: The expression changes that illustrate emotion; the gestures that visually punctuate; the body-language that amplifies and moderates. The reader? Have your computer read the story aloud to hear how different what the reader gets is from what you do.

The fix? Absolute simplicity. Add the tricks the pros take for granted to those you already own. Talent is a wonderful thing, but untrained talent is potential. A talented writer without training has no advantage over an untalented writer. So…

I won’t kid you. The words simple and easy aren’t interchangeable. But, if you are meant to write you’ll find the learning like going backstage at a professional theater, and it will have you saying, “But that’s…it’s so obvious. Why didn’t I see it, myself? And the practice? Writing stories. So what’s not to like?

The local library’s fiction-writing section is loaded with the views of pros in publishing, writing, and teaching. And you need that, because you won’t learn the techniques by reading fiction any more than you become a chef by eating. So jump in.

To help, here’s a link to the single best book I've found on the basics of writing scenes that will sing to the reader, Dwight Swain’s, Techniques of the Selling Writer. It’s an older book, and talks about your typewriter, not keyboard. The pages on research can be replaced with, “Use Google.” And, like most men of his time, he talks as if the serious writer is male. But get past that and no other book I’ve found comes close to clarifying the why’s of the techniques. But on the other hand, before I found his book I'd written six unsold novel. My next submission resulted in a contract.
https://ru.b-ok2.org/book/2640776/e749ea

Use the leftmost button to initiate download.

Think about it this way: Since the day you began to read you’ve selected fiction that was written with the tools of the profession, and polished with them, as well. You don’t see them in use, because, as they say, art conceals art. But you see, and expect, the result of using them—as others expect to see it in your work…which is a pretty good reason for acquiring a few of those tools. After all, we can’t fix the problem we don’t see as being one. Right?

For a kind of preview of what’s in that book, most of the articles in my WordPress writing blog are based on Swain’s teachings. But whatever you do, hang in there, and keep on writing. It never gets easier, but after a while, we do become confused on a higher level. And if every day you write a bit better, and live long enough...

Jay Greenstein
https://jaygreenstein.wordpress.com/category/the-craft-of-writing/the-grumpy-old-writing-coach/

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Added on August 2, 2020
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