4 Beginnings for 4 Unfinished Books
For me, being a novelist means embracing a high level of failure.
For every idea that I see to fruition — be it a novel, screenplay, or short story — there are dozens, if not many more, that have been pushed out into the world half-formed, mewling and helpless on my laptop.
I never delete these broken orphans.
Sometimes I use them in other works — what was once an opening chapter of a novel becomes a short story — but most often I place them in their home (a folder labeled, innocuously,“Writings”) and visit them occasionally. I’ll admit that the visits are frequently painful. Often these abandoned pieces don’t work ’cause they’re lame — the story just wasn’t there. But every now and then, I abandon a piece of writing that I still, even years later, love.
These are the first pages of four of them. I’ll intro each.
PRIMARY COLORS — This was one I really hated giving up on. I wrote a good chunk of it and then found myself lost. I knew where the story was going but never really figured out how to get there. Primary Colors is about a girl raised by an Apocalyptic cult that fell apart. She wants to know what happened.
My parents are unhappy.
I see it in the way Dad grinds his teeth when he watches television. The way Mom stares beyond herself when she’s looking in the mirror brushing the grey in her hair.
This unhappiness is like a cancer.
Seven years ago, when we left Harmony Colony, when the Big Inevitable didn’t happen and everything fell apart, Mom and Dad seemed angry but deep-down relieved. Wasn’t until the neighborhood was built and we’d settled in that the first stirrings of the sadness appeared.
It moved into Dad’s eyes first.
I could see it in the way he looked out across the breakfast table and made this face like there was something sour in his mouth that he didn’t want to spit out. Something he was going to chew and force down and just accept. That went on for weeks until he just stopped coming to breakfast.
Work, he said.
Now it’s stuck in his mouth. Now, it’s him grinding incessantly.
With Mom it’s detachment.
She’s there for Amos and me but I catch her all the time daydreaming. Not the wistful kind like daydreaming with your feet in the pool. The expression she wears when she sits out on the back porch and looks into the sky is something lonely. It’s as though she’s listening to ghosts tell her their sad sack stories.
A dark cloud has settled down on our family only they can’t see it.
And no one else seems to either.
Aunt Persephone doesn’t. The Nussbaums don’t.
If Olivia does she doesn’t care.
In their minds, our house is fine. Mom reads dreams for wealthy suburbanites and Dad seems content enough at Wayfield Marketing, LLC. They both smoke pot and look at slides and drink wine and laugh every Thursday when they think I’m asleep. They both drive new-to-them cars. And they have Amos and he’s wonderful. But underneath this respectable veneer, like the supposed-to-look-expensive siding that Arnold and Jack put on their little house, something’s way wrong.
The way I see it, the only way I’ll get this dark cloud off my family is to come up with something myself. It took me about five months to formulate it. Five months of sleepless nights. Me jumping out of bed and scratching out notes on the back of Dad’s old ad forms. I’ve never been good at math, got straight Cs in Mr. Linnean’s physics class last year, but I don’t see how this could fail.
Maybe the Big Inevitable didn’t happen.
Maybe Harmony Colony was just a hippie dream that went wrong.
Maybe none of that matters.
But it is the year of the Dragon and on April 24th I am going to bring five families back together in an empty field under the fully eclipsed moon.
BLESSED IS THE BIG DAMAGE — I had this concept of the very last young people on an Earth where there were no more kids. Dystopian but only kind of — imagine MAD MAX if everyone in the wasteland was over 60 but without the environmental collapse. My prose is trying too hard to be edgy (this was written nearly a decade ago) but I still dig it.
Me and Randolph, we’re pretty much the last two kids left in the world.
Well, really the last two dudes.
There is a girl, Lola, but neither of us have ever met her. We’ve only ever seen her on television. Just these shaky vid clips of her and her nutty father behind a mile of broken glass, rusted metal, and every virus known to man.
Me and Randolph, we’re busting Lola out.
The car Randolph and I have stolen is over a hundred years old.
It still runs smooth but kicks out so much smoke that behind us there’s just this black stripe in the air like the ink trail of a squid. This ancient car is like an eraser, the past just being wiped out in a dark smudge as we speed by.
This car is a stick shift, maybe the last one in the world, and Randolph’s grinding the gears something horrible. The sound, it’s like he’s trying to chew through a rusted pipe with metal teeth. The smell of real gasoline is sweet. But the fact that we’re going sixty miles over the speed limit is even sweeter.
We’re nearly in Castle Rock when we see the cops.
The way they look is just like in the movies.
These cops, they’re silent and slow. They follow behind us in a pack, moving side to side, not really trying to catch up.
Randolph says, “They’re not toying with us like in the shows. There’s no roadblock ahead. They’re just scared shitless.”
Randolph kicks the car into fifth gear and we blow through a tollbooth, the yellow arm bulging and bending then exploding in a riot of splinters. Somewhere behind us an alarm goes off, but at this speed, as far away as we are now, it sounds like a goose honking in the smoke spiraling out behind us.
The cops, they turn their sirens on.
They speed up.
A helicopter appears five hundred feet above us.
“That’s a feed,” Randolph says, “We’re live, brother.”
I lean out the window and look up. I smile. I wave.
Randolph says, “For sure mom’s watching this right now. She’s probably spitting out her coffee and jumping up. I can see her hooting and hollering. Can’t you?”
I say I can. And I can. Only, in my mind, mom’s not spitting out coffee. Randolph’s always been something of a romantic. No, she’s spitting out her purple pills and her yellow pills and the cube shaped white ones. She’s spitting out water and elixir and syrup. Her attendants are trying to hold her down in her chair but they’re just as weak as she is. The three of them will be on the floor in no time.
Past Castle Rock now and there are three helicopters.
Randolph, craning his neck to see through the windshield, says, “That one there, the one with the big red spot on it, that’s Japanese. I’ve seen that one by the house. When we did that run on the pharmacy, I saw that one afterward. We’re big in Japan, Taylor.”
A cop car materializes out of the smoke and pulls up alongside my window.
The cop has a big white moustache and lazy eyes. His partner is bald and wearing tri-focals. They’re fiddling with the loudspeaker, punching buttons and hitting switches. The two of them arguing like roommates at one hundred and ten miles an hour.
Randolph says, “Wave to them.”
The cops are stressed, the one with the ‘stache sweating furiously.
Randolph says, “This is the fastest they’ve ever been. Even when those two were our age, even then the speed limit was under sixty. I’ll bet these two codgers are having the ride of their lives right now. They’d probably love to bag us. But even more, they’d just rather be at home watching on the feed. Taylor, show them the sign.”
I pull out the cardboard sign we made this morning and hold it out the window.
“Long enough for them to see,” Randolph says. “Hold it steady.”
I try but the wind whips it out of my hands after only seconds and the sign goes flapping up into the smoke to join the goose alarm.
The cops fall back.
Randolph flicks his portable on speaker and we hear the buzz about us in eight languages at once. It takes me a few minutes to find the English but by the time I’m picking it out, Randolph’s dictating it to me. He says, “They’re saying we’re on the run from D-town. That we’re like, wait, that we’re like channeling the spirit of the American West. That we’ve got the future of the country on our shoulders. And right now, right now they’re saying that we are doing what every single one of them wishes they could do.”
Sticking my head out the window, I see all the cops have fallen back.
Just the road ahead and the smoke behind.
And we’re almost out of gas.
Still dictating, Randolph says, “The French dude just said that we’re the last of the Mohicans. Seriously? He just said we’re like Jesus. This is crazy, but he said there’ll be a new religion named for us, devoted to us. Maybe it’s just that he’s French — “
Behind us the black smoke starts to thin out. It’s gray and then light gray and then dirty brown. Two miles on and it’s almost white.
I tell Randolph that we’re about to stop.
He says, “They’re saying this is our coming of age. This, right now, is our war against the ravages of old age and frailty. This is what we were born to do. And the French guy, he’s adding — “
And Randolph notices the empty tank light.
He says, “That was fast.”
We’re almost to Colorado Springs and the car is lurching.
It’s got the dry heaves.
Good thing we’re almost there.
SHALLOW SEA — This is the story of two people stuck on a beach one hundred million plus years back. They got there the way you’d assume: time travel. Only, SHALLOW SEA was never meant to be a sci fi story in the traditional sense. It’s a love story first. A survival story second.
There will be a storm tonight.
I am sitting on the Big Rock in the quay and I can see the storm blooming over the ocean a hundred miles distant. It billows like a slow motion explosion.
Looking at it, I think of cream swirling in coffee and my mouth waters. It’s funny because I don’t actually remember what coffee tastes like. I imagine sensations of bitter and sweet, of hot and salty. But that’s all.
There are tubers in the shallows by the Mating Pond that I sometimes imagine taste like coffee used to but I know that’s wrong. My taste buds have changed. If I were where you are now, I’d find the food impossible to digest.
I can tell by the color of the clouds that when the storm comes, the lightning will be fierce. Last big storm, fifteen days ago, the roof of the shelter was lit up with St. Elmo’s fire, a dancing, green flame that gamboled like a drunk along the struts, as bolts thin as wires struck around it and shook the ground.
In the morning, the roof was scorched in tree-root patterns.
Every storm reminds me of the day I arrived here.
I used to think of it as a tragedy. A curse. Slowly, that feeling gave way to one of freedom and even appreciation. I now understand the enormity of what I have done. It still amazes me how the entire history of life on this planet can be shifted, even if it’s only slightly, by one person.
One person and one emotion.
BARRY’S BESTIARY — Wow. This one is old. And amateurish. The idea was to push the thriller genre in all sorts of new directions. I don’t consider it a mash-up, hate the term, but BARRY has an Orthodox Jewish assassin and a zombie in it. Not the kind of rotting zombie you’re thinking of though…
It was 4:30 AM. Tuesday. Two weeks ago.
I’m sure of it because I recall opening my eyes and seeing the clock, those giant, digital numbers, casting an eerie but familiar glow over the nightstand.
And then the voice. Like the glow of the clock, it too was familiar.
“Boker tov, motherfucker.”
He leaned in and pressed a gun, with silencer, against my temple.
“I’m bringing you in, macher.”
He woke me from a nightmare. One of those where I’m running too slowly and the people running after me are running too fast. They don’t catch me. But it’s an agonizing experience nonetheless. I remember awakening sick with anxiety over it. I was still seeing the chasers sprinting up the overpass, gaining two feet for my every inch. But it wasn’t the pursuit that had my stomach in knots; it was the slow tension of the whole thing. Pumping my legs against the concrete and they were like jelly, my heart racing…
“How much?” I asked, aching from the run.
“They’re offering $25,000.”
“And you’ll turn on me, throw me to the wolves, for that?”
“It’s never that easy. Do you think I’d be here if that’s all that it came down to? Running you down like a dog and tossing you to who knows what? No, never that easy, Barry. I’m doing this for my family. I’ve got six mouths to feed.”
“A son last April.”
“A sheynem dank.”
“Look, Razi,” I turned over and faced him.
Silhouetted in the garish half-light he looked more imposing than he ever had. Razi was a big guy and rough-hewn. The beard, the curling pais, the hat, they did very little to cloak the powerful build of the former Navy SEAL beneath.
“I’m in deep shit here, as you can probably tell,” I said, “I’m sure you noticed the girl, my daughter, sleeping in the other room. And the dead looking guy, you must have seen him by the television.”
“Yeah, he alright? He didn’t bat an eye when I walked in.”
“No, he’s not alright. He’s technically dead.”
“But he was watching television.”
“That’s what he does.”
“Razi, who the hell is paying you that measly sum to bring me in?”
“Right. I’m going to give you about ten seconds to get that gun out of my face and march your ass back out the front door before I kill you. Understand?”
Razi smiled, his teeth bright green in the antiseptic light.
I’m not sure of what exactly happened next. I either leapt up from the covers and used the Knife Foot and Hand form to knock Razi to the floor or I leapt up from the covers and caught him in the throat with a Mantis Fist. Regardless, and my memory has been increasingly hazy, Razi hit the carpeted Motel 6 beige floor before he could fire a bullet into my skull.
It sounds easy in retrospect but I pulled a groin muscle doing it and Razi wasn’t down for long. He was like one of those serial killers you see in trashy films, springing back up like an airplane seat when you hit the small silver button on the armrest. He was up and firing before I made the doorway. A bullet grazed my left thigh but I was out a second later.
In the main room, Roland was still watching television. Something on the Discovery Channel about snakes. He didn’t move.
My name is Barry Winfield and this is the story of me, my daughter Charley, and a zombie named, Roland.
My name is Keith Thomas. It’s one of many names I’ve used as a writer, screenwriter, and filmmaker. If you like what you’ve read here, I have a novel, The Clarity, coming out in Feb. 2018. If you visit my website — Night Platform — you can sign up for my newsletter and I’ll tell you more about my work, my thoughts on writing, collaborating, and filmmaking, answer questions, riff on collecting good ideas, and share any worthwhile insights that I discover.