The Test — Part 1: Initial Draft
A short story written, revised, and completed before your very eyes.
Since my experiment with writing my short story “Zoe” as you watched proved so successful, I’ll have another go at it. The following is a first draft, with comments included. In a separate post, I’ll revise the story with comments about my revisions, and then I’ll post the final version.
I’m starting with no particular idea. For a prompt, I’ve selected a random line from the fantasy novel The Cult Of Unicorns by Chrys Cymri.
“Actually, sometimes I do wonder.”
Out of its original context, the line suggests an unsolved mystery. So I’ll start by presenting an unknown. This may or may not be the big mystery of the story. We’ll see.
People don’t just vanish. Oh, sure, sometimes someone might slip away into the night, leaving no trace, or none most of us can see. After the worry, the fear, the terror, and the grief have all run their course, we might wake up one morning feeling their ghost chasing motes in the early morning sun, or hiding behind the curtain, or reclining in the old chair in front of the TV. Is that them, spooning cereal over their faded lips in the morning, checking the mailbox in the afternoon, tsking over the neighbor’s unkempt lawn as the last light of day dies away?
But solid bodies don’t vanish. Solid things happen to them, and however tenuous the memories they leave behind, the solid world is changed by both their presence and their absence. Paul, my brother, had not vanished.
I frequently labor over the opening, even at first draft stage, because it’s so important. That doesn’t mean it won’t change later, but it’s vital to setting the mood and thus heavily influences what I write later. I like to get it right from the get-go. So I rewrote the second and third sentences several times in the course of getting to the fourth.
His wife April called that late October morning, when cool air blowing in from the west had painted the trees in reds, yellows and oranges, and grocery store candy shelves lay bare, stripped of their wares in preparation for the flood of trick-or-treaters soon to wash over the sidewalks of our town.
“Did he stay with you last night, Robert? Is he there now?”
“Why would he be here? You know what he thinks of me.”
“Dear God, if not there, then where could he be?”
I could hear her pacing, her shoes tapping on the linoleum kitchen floor, back and forth, back and forth. I could almost see her, petite April, golden-haired April, in one of those blue and green dresses she so liked to wear, the hem swishing about her knees, her cleavage just showing. Though I was alone, it embarrassed me to think of her like that. It always did, ever since Paul and I had had our falling out. Maybe I couldn’t prove my innocence to him, but I could punish myself for it.
I’ve introduced two characters here, the narrator’s brother Paul and his sister-in-law April. As a general rule, you can’t make a story out of just one character, so I look for fitting secondary characters to introduce, be they family, friends, or total strangers.
Paul’s disappearance is presented as the challenge Robert must face, but I’ve also introduced a couple of complications: his estrangement from Paul, and the apparent reason for it, namely that Paul thought something was going on between Robert and April. Better still, because of these developments I know where the story is going. (But I probably shouldn’t tell you about that yet!) How did all this come about? Call it experience. I’m always seeking challenges to throw in front of my characters, especially at the outset.
“How long as he been gone?”
She sniffed, and I heard a tissue being ripped from its box. “He left sometime Saturday night and didn’t come back. No phone calls, no texts. He doesn’t answer mine.”
I glanced at the calendar hanging above my cheap little home office desk, although I knew well enough it was Monday. “Where did he go?”
“I don’t know!”
“He didn’t say?”
“I woke up at two thirty in the morning and he was gone, Robert. He was gone!”
Which wasn’t at all like Paul. He could be quick-tempered, even rude sometimes, but not to April. I’d never heard him say a sharp word to her, not even when he thought the worst of us. He’d put that all on me. “Deep breaths, April. Let’s think this through. Did you call the police?”
She whimpered. “I’m afraid to.”
“What if they say he’s been in an accident? What if they say he’s dead?”
“Should I come over?”
I felt her weigh the offer. She should say no. For so many reasons, she should say no, but mostly because Paul might return as suddenly as he had left. That’s not what she said.
So I did.
And thus ends the first scene. I generally have an innate a sense of where a scene break should fall. It often coincides with the moment when I can’t think of anything else to say about the main subject of the scene. In this case, I’ve introduced the characters, had one of them vanish, and created some tension based on an alleged past affair between Robert and April, which Robert apparently denies. And then I throw the two of them together. That seems a proper transition point.
I’m starting this scene intending it to be about Robert and April’s past. I have to reveal whatever it was that caused Robert and Paul to become estranged. I think their conflict arose from a mistake…
When she admitted me to their little white and blue bungalow, she stood back from the open door. I might have been the plumber come to fix a leaky faucet rather than her brother-in-law. We didn’t speak, didn’t touch, didn’t look each other in the eye. She led me to the kitchen and pulled out one of the beige padded chairs. A bit of stuffing dangled from a rip along the side. I sat and waited while she fumbled at the counter for cups and made coffee. I wanted to tell her to forget it, but she drew some comfort from the ritual.
That done, she took the phone from the cradle and set it in front of me. I called the police, reported Paul missing, and then we settled in to wait. We half drained our cups in silence.
“Why did you come over?” She stared into the dark liquid as though talking to it.
“You could have said no.”
“We’re family, April. Why wouldn’t I have come?”
She peered harder into her cup. “You know why.”
Obviously. How could I answer? I thought back to the day that had been our undoing. Paul, April, and myself painting their living room. He running out to the garage to get more masking tape. April and I momentarily alone. A silly comment, a joke, another, a crescendo of laughter, a momentary hug. A peck on the cheek.
And then, the explosion.
“For you,” I told her. “However things stand between Paul and I — “
She looked up, eyes smoldering with anger and fear. “Stop.”
“I can’t pretend — “
“Just stop. He’s a good man. He’s your brother.”
“It hurts, April. It’s hurt for almost six years.”
She lifted her cup to her lips. I watched her drink. She didn’t return my gaze.
I don’t know why I felt compelled to explain. She knew as well as I. But I couldn’t stop myself. “I don’t mean I want anything to happen to him, but let’s face it. We haven’t been on speaking terms since that day, and it’s his fault. It’s not mine. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
She thunked the cup down on the table. “I was there, Robert.”
“Of course you were. You know it’s his fault.”
She finally looked me in the eyes, blank, uncomprehending, then laughed bitterly. “My God, you actually don’t remember, do you?”
“Where your hands were.”
I didn’t. Trying to remember was like peering through a fog of years at a distant forest, trying to trace the line of a single branch. “I didn’t do anything — “
“That I didn’t want.” She nodded and ran a hand through her golden hair. “It was an accident, something that never would have happened if he hadn’t gone out to the damn garage just then. You’ve paid dearly for it. I’m sorry.”
She had to be wrong. We joked. We laughed. We hugged and yes, we kissed, a peck on the cheek, nothing more, not my arms pulling her close, not her arms wrapping me in the warmth of her body, not our lips playing over each other and tongues caressing and her breasts pressed against me and . . .
She shrugged and sipped her coffee. “Yeah. Total hell. Sorry.”
“It’s okay.” Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. It didn’t matter anymore. Paul had vanished, and surely that had nothing to do with all of this. “I’m sure he still loves you,” I told April. “I’m sure this isn’t about that. Not after all this time.”
She looked at me, blank, empty, as drained as her coffee cup. “I’m not sure of anything anymore.”
Not so much a mistake, then. In the spirit of throwing in complications, I realized mid-stream that it had to be more than that. I could either make Robert out to be a liar or give him amnesia induced by guilt and maybe emotional shell shock due to his brother’s reaction. The ending depends fairly significantly on which way it turns. I chose the latter, but the former could also work.
An officer dropped by, asked questions, took down information, said Paul hadn’t been admitted to any hospital in the area, hadn’t been involved in any reported accident, hadn’t shown up for work. April and I called family and friends. Nothing. Paul might have been a figment of our imagination. The day wore on until darkness crept over the world, evening gave way to night, a gibbous moon rose, and silence encroached.
“Will you be okay?”
We were in the living room, April sprawled haphazardly on the sofa, I in a recliner not reclining. Eyes closed, face sagging with worry, she still looked beautiful. I remembered. I remembered how she had felt.
“Should I . . .” I wanted to, but I couldn’t voice it.
She opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling. “Say it.”
“Say it, Robert.”
“Should I stay?”
Her eyes closed again. “Would you? If I said yes?”
If I did, Paul would never return. Somehow, I knew that, as little sense as it made. The universe watched, its breath held, waiting for us to falter, waiting to pass judgement on us. It already knew the verdict.
Suddenly angry at the whole world, I thought, I’ll be damned if I let it! And to April I said, “No.” I rose. “I’ll call in the morning.”
Tears seeped from her closed eyes. “Okay. I’ll be fine.”
I doubted that. I doubted either of us would be. But it was the only way. I left without saying goodbye.
I stopped there, having run out of time for writing, but I knew what would follow…
I barely slept that night, and when I did, I dreamed of our past, of Paul finding us like that, of him throwing me across the room, bloodying my nose, knocking the wind out of me. In the dream, the beating didn’t stop, which made it worse than reality, yet somehow more tolerable, for now I knew I had deserved it.
Morning came too late and too soon. I dragged myself out of bed, showered, made toast and coffee, called in sick. Work would just have to wait until my brother and my mind emerged from the void. I resisted the temptation to call April, but checked the clock again and again, wondering when or if she would reach out for me. That she didn’t both worried and vexed me.
The day slipped from morning to afternoon before she did. “Come see me,” she said, and hung up without another word. It’s a small miracle I didn’t receive a ticket — or several — on the way over. Anticipation and nerves churning my insides, I arrived to find Paul’s black Ford Mustang parked in the driveway. Fighting off a rising tide of dread, I went to the door. April was waiting for me and admitted me. Her eyes never strayed from the floor.
This sets up the following encounter, which was in the cards ever since I revealed Paul’s disappearance. I know the general form it will take, but not all of the substance, even now.
And there was Paul, on the sofa, watching me with his inscrutable eyes. He licked his lips but said nothing. I had no desire to speak first, but the silence nearly buried us all alive, so I shoved my hands in my pockets and said, “Glad to see you’re okay. We were worried.”
“Yeah,” he admitted. “Sorry about that. Thanks for coming over.”
I looked at April, who acknowledged me with a shrug and motioned for me to sit down. I took the recliner and she sat next to her husband. He put an arm around her as though afraid of breaking her.
“So what happened?”
Even I had trouble figuring Paul sometimes, but I could tell now words were eluding him, probably for several reasons. I wouldn’t have blamed him for accusing me again, for questioning what April and I had done while he was gone, for throwing me out as soon and telling me never to return. In a way, that might have been for the best. I wasn’t prepared for his answer.
“I couldn’t live like this anymore.”
If April knew what he meant, she didn’t show it, but neither did the statement surprise her. A rabbit hiding in the tall grass, she kept perfectly still.
“Hating you. And doubting my wife. It was eating me up inside.”
“So you ran away?” I couldn’t keep the condemnation from my voice, no more than I could believe he had done it.
“Removed myself from the picture. To test . . .” He sighed miserably and pulled April close.
My fingernails dug into the arms of the chair. I was beyond caring what he thought of me or did to me, but how could he have treated April so? She deserved better.
“I pushed it off the cliff, let it fly or fall as it would. I forced myself to trust the both of you.”
This is the moment I’ve aimed for: the revelation of Paul’s intent in running off. It will take some explanation, though, and I rather struggled getting it out. You may feel the narrative isn’t as full here as in the earlier sections of the story. That often happens in my first drafts. The development is frequently better earlier on as I try to establish the feel of the story, but later when I’m focused on getting the plot worked out, other things sometimes suffer. That’s okay. This is a first draft. Such problems can be fixed in revision.
April looked away while I scrutinized her face for some sign of her thoughts and wondered how we all had come to this pathetic moment. Paul stared at the walls, out the window, anywhere but at us. I had but one question for him: “What if you can’t?”
“That’s what I learned. I can.” He squeezed April, and she faced him, her face melting into a smile like a warm summer morning.
She buried her face in his shoulder and simultaneously laughed and cried. “You’re such an idiot.”
She might have been right, but I couldn’t let it hang there. He hadn’t seen, hadn’t heard, couldn’t possibly know. “But Paul. What if you can’t? While you were gone — ”
He put up a hand to stop me. “No more, Robert. This isn’t yesterday or six years ago. It’s today.”
Which didn’t make the past vanish any more than he had, nor could we be sure it would never return as he did. But it made a moment to make a start. Because, really, it’s the only moment we have.
Possibly this got a bit rushed at the end, but I had two problems. First, with the motive behind Paul’s disappearance revealed, I couldn’t waste too much time wrapping up. That is the climax of the story, where the primary conflict is resolved. With the bulk of the tension gone, you won’t stick around too much longer. Second, I had to find an elegant way to conclude without suggesting that they all lived happily ever after. This trio has too many issues for that to be the case — as do all real people. Rather, I just wanted to paint the moment as a turning point in their lives. Finding the way to do that took a bit of searching.
I’ll present a revised version in part 2 of this series. Be sure to read on!