Monday, January 23, 2012

When the Hero Disappears

Here’s the beginning of the novel I started seven years ago. I really like it. It’s a mystery. It’s not a romance. But here’s the thing—I’m about fifty pages into my revisions and I’m wondering WHERE IS ALEC? I remind myself that this is a mystery. It is not a romance. I don’t care….WHERE IS ALEC? The story is soooo much more interesting when he’s around. He shows up a lot more after page 77, but I’m not sure I want to wait 70 pages for his reentrance. And if I don’t want to then probably my readers won’t want to, either.



Brobdingnagian \brob-ding-NAG-ee-uhn\ , adjective:
Of extraordinary size; gigantic; enormous.

The wind whistled and moaned around the library, tossing branches and bending trees. A near human-like scream tore Claris’ attention away from the open dictionary, but she dismissed the storm’s violence and resumed her work.
She brought her finger down on a random word. Brobdingnagian--she wrote the word and definition on the chalkboard above the circulation desk and came up with her own sample sentence. Drake Isling is a brobdingnagian twit. And because she gave each of her library patrons a chocolate for every sample sentence they gave her, she took one for herself, even though Brobdingnagian was technically tomorrow’s word. Today’s word was tenebrous: dark; gloomy. Tenebrous describes the weather and my mood, she thought and then realized that she deserved another chocolate for her second sample sentence. My thighs will be brobdingnagian if I don’t stop eating these chocolates. Another sentence—another chocolate.
The bell tower on the nearby Lutheran Church tolled five. Finally, she could close the library. Stop eating chocolates, she told herself, drive to Western Washington University and confront Drake in front of the students lingering after his American Lit class. She knew that there would be a handful of coeds hanging around in Westchester Hall waiting to talk to him. She knew that because she used to be one of them.
Well, not anymore. She’d never wait for Drake again. After today, of course.
The lights flickered and Claris considered it a warning. Wind storms wreck havoc on electrical lines and power outages were a common winter occurrence in tiny Rose Arbor. Flickering candle light, a roaring fire and a good book were only enjoyable at home. But, she wasn’t going home. She was going to Bellingham to confront Drake. Gathering up her things, she debated her plan. Confront Drake or wait out the storm in front of a fire with a Mary Stewart novel? Fight sluggish traffic, wind and rain for the hour drive to Bellingham or cuddle under a quilt and read? Undecided, she locked the heavy wooden doors and headed for the light switch.
Knocking. Someone at the door or the wind? Looking over her shoulder she saw the door knob rattle. It took her a moment to unlock the heavy wooden doors. The storm’s cold wet wind flew in the library, and Claris looked in confusion at the pitching trees and driving rain. Gray skies cracked with lightning. She was about to go back inside when she saw a huddled figure at the side of the porch.
Dressed in a ratty brown coat and mud caked jeans, Will Harris crouched in the flower bed, his head bent low to the ground. He appeared to be kneeling in prayer in the storm. Will, a regular attendee at the library’s story hours, lived on a farm just outside of town with his brother and grandmother. Because of his rapt attention to her stories, his quiet lisp, and unkempt hair, Claris both loved and pitied Will. Not even school age, he typically walked to the library for story hour unattended and now here he was alone in the middle of a storm. She knew it was hard to live with an aging parent, and she guessed Will’s older brother was his chief, albeit reluctant care giver.
Claris ran to the edge of the porch and yelled over the storm’s noise to get Will’s attention. Rain pelted his matted hair and rolled down the shoulders of his jacket. He knelt in the dirt between a rhododendron bush and the side of the library, his face inches from the mud, his hand inserted into a drain pipe.
Rain spilled over the side of the library and beat upon Will’s face and mingled with his tears. Claris came around the porch, pulled her sweater tight across her chest, and ignoring the mud and rain she knelt beside Will.
That’s when she heard a tiny, whining meow. A kitten had taken refuge in the storm drain--its cries and claw scratching in the metal pipe barely discernable above the storm’s racket.
Claris lowered her face down toward Will and he looked at her with big brown eyes that welled with tears. “Buggerbrain, Todd’s dog, “killed all of Midge’s kittens but this one here,” Will said between bighting back sobs, “and my grandma won’t let any of the cats in the house.”
Claris frowned at the rusted pipe. It could probably be cut by a sturdy pair of gardening shears, but she guessed that the easiest, quickest form of rescue would be to unclog the drain.
“Could you keep him? I can’t take him home. Buggerbrain will get him, just like he got the rest.” Will’s big eyes pleaded with her. “Can you keep him?”
She didn’t know if she wanted a kitten, but she did know she didn’t want to squat in the rain After giving a Will a quick pat on the shoulder, she went to the office to fetch a plastic shopping bag and umbrella.
Will trailed after her, talking. “Everyone knows how you live alone and have nobody and but your crazy aunt. And now they say she ain’t talking no more, so you’ve got no one to talk to, and of course, there’s only whispering at the library. No real talking going on ‘round here--”
A small community, an insane artist of small renown- of course people talked. They talked about anything and anyone, and Aunt Charlotte was interesting. Parading through town in her nightie, throwing apples at passing cars, spraying painting neighborhood dogs, Charlotte provided entertainment the town couldn’t get on the local cable stations.
“Of course, kittens can’t really talk,” Will said.
“And that’s a good thing,” Claris said, returning to the porch. Quickly, she explained her course of action to Will. She saw him look hesitantly at the roof, the second story window, and the trellis that ran up the wall. The trellis looked capable of supporting the dormant rose vines. She hoped it was capable of supporting her.
After giving Will a brief wet hug of encouragement, she ran up the stairs, threw open a second story window, climbed out onto the window ledge and tentatively stuck a toe of her penny loafers onto the trellis.
Will gazed up at her with wide eyes, and she tried to wave cheerfully at him. Grabbing the trellis with both hands, she gave it a tug to test its strength. A quick look at the ground assured her the fall wouldn’t break anything that wouldn’t heal, she swung out onto the trellis. This is brobdingnagian mistake, she thought, promising herself another chocolate.
Rain beat upon her and trickled down her neck. Her straight skirt hampered her climb, and she pulled it up to increase her range of motion. Dormant rose vines plucked at her stockings, snagged her sweater, and scratched her hands as she scaled the wall. When she reached the roof, she shot a jubilant look at Will. Todd, Will’s brother, had the child by the arm and leered at her.
Suddenly conscience of the skirt bunched around her hips and the red panties she was quite sure that Todd could see, Claris called down to the boys. Todd grinned back.
“Nice seeing you, library lady,” Todd yelled at her, his tongue ring making his words slur. He tugged Will away.
Claris watched the two figures, one dressed completely in black leather, the other splattered in mud, disappear into the woods that edged the grounds of the library. The bag that Will was supposed to use to trap the kitten lay in the mud like a deflated balloon.
Claris stuck her hand into the muck that clogged the drain and threw it at the retreating backs of the boys. It splattered on the ground. The dead leaves, mud and sticks felt slimy and cold, but she hurriedly mucked out the drain while balancing on the trellis. She was rewarded with a whoosh of water. Triumphantly, she looked down to see the kitten washed out into the garden bed. It stood on shaking stick legs--its fur matted to its skin and protruding bones. It stared, frozen in place, as she climbed down the trellis.
The kitten bolted up the stairs of the porch when Claris jumped off the trellis. She landed hard on the grass, her hands breaking her fall. She stood in time to see the kitten tear into the library through the wide open door.
At least it’s a smart cat, Claris thought as she went after it. She tried to brush the dirt and leaves off her skirt, and she slipped off her muddy shoes and soaking sweater and left them on the front porch before entering the library. Standing in the doorway, searching, she called, “Here kitty, kitty.” A tail, gray and rat-like stuck out from under a rack of books. She lunged towards the bookcase, and her stocking feet went out from under her.
Finding herself on the wooden floor, Claris turned to see the kitten watching her with one blue and one brown eye. She placed one hand in front of her for the cat to plainly see, and snaked her other hand behind the creature. The cat tried to dart away, but Claris grabbed it from behind.
Rolling onto her back she held the squirming, skinny kitten in an outstretched hand in the air above her face. She and the small, gray, and rodent like animal considered each other. “I shall call you either Mouchard after Mrs. Frisby’s famous rats, or Rat-fink,” she told the cat. “Depending on which suits you best.”
The cat twisted in her hand and suddenly she felt grateful to the animal for diverting her thoughts away from Drake. She rolled over, clutched the tiny, clawing cat to her chest and went to the basement in search of a box.
Clutching the kitten with one hand, she slipped her silver bookmark into her novel, and gathered her raincoat and umbrella before heading towards the door that led to the basement. She cradled the kitten in her arms and he held onto her sweater with tiny claws.
It had been less than a year since Claris had converted the Greek rival style home that her grandparents had bequeathed to the town into a library. Her grandparents generosity had stopped at the bestowal of the house and property. Money for upkeep or improvements hadn’t been a part of the will, and an outdated monster of a furnace that needed to be adjusted manually heated the house.
Opening the basement a blast of cold air hit Claris. Somewhere an unlatched window thumped. Odd, she thought as she made her way through the dank and dimly lit basement, maneuvering through stacks of books, magazines, and old newspapers. Who would open a window down here?
Damp and moldy, the basement was a breeding ground for mildew and fungus’ that aggravated her allergies. What else might breed in the basement, she didn’t
want to know. Rodents, undoubtedly. She looked at the kitten in her arms that had finally stopped squirming, and now shivered against her chest. “Are you a mouser?” she asked. “Because I believe this basement could be a rodent smorgasbord.”
She’d been avoiding the basement. As a child she had been terrified of the roar of the furnace, and leery of the dark, cobwebbed corners, and as an adult she was overwhelmed by the flotsam of a family that she had never really known. Claris sniffed and then sneezed. Reason told her that the basement needed to be cleaned, but for the moment she was grateful for the clutter because she within moments she found a fishing creel and an old towel. She dropped the towel in the creel and then placed the kitten in the newly created cage and secured the lid with a leather strap. The kitten mewed pitifully at her.
“Sorry, but I can’t have you roaming free on the ride home,” she told it.
Clutching the basket she went to turn down the furnace. The natural gas furnace was almost her height, and many times her width. It coughed and burped as if it suffered from a digestion problem. Claris turned the heat down to 68 degrees, and then glanced around to find the open window. The wind howled, and for a moment the lights flickered. She took a deep breath, and followed the thumping noise. It came from a room behind a heavy wooden door. Someone had locked it. Why? She fumbled for a moment with the outdated latch and then wrenched it. The latch broke in her hand and the door swung open.
In a corner a window beat to its own erratic rhythm. Little more than an air vent, the window was scarcely six inches high and a foot wide. From the outside it sat only inches from the soil and hid behind a lilac bush, but from the inside of the basement it was high above Claris’ head. Standing on tiptoes, she secured the window at the same moment lightning flashed, a roll of thunder shook the house, and the electricity went out.
The meager light from the window filled the basement with a soupy darkness. Claris jumped, and would have laughed at her own skittishness if she hadn’t accidentally dropped everything except for the creel. A spark of frustration matched a flash of lightning and Claris saw her belongings at her feet, the books and raingear--not the keys. Squatting, she patted the dusty, cold cement with one hand. The basement floor sloped toward a center drain. Although she couldn’t imagine the keys rolling, she moved along the floor in that direction.
A crash of thunder, followed by another moment of lightning showed a gleam of something white wedged between stacks of boxes. Feeling along the floor, Claris pushed against the clutter, hoping to find her keys, but instead found a white sock tucked into a familiar pair of ked sneakers, a dark straight pant leg, and a man’s white shirt.
Aunt Charlotte. She lay on her side; her head lolled at an awkward angle. Claris touched her, and then peered into blank eyes. “Charlotte?” Gently, Claris spoke her name, and picked up a limp, cold hand. Claris began to shake. Putting down the creel, she knelt beside her aunt, and tried to lift her into her arms. Wildly, she thought of CPR, but Charlotte remained wilted and unresponsive and Claris knew that she was dead. Claris couldn’t see any blood or signs of violence. Why had Charlotte come to the basement? How? Typically, the manor called when Charlotte managed to escape her room.
A rustling in the bushes outside distracted Claris. A rat? No, a human face with a sharp nose, barely distinguishable through the mud splattered window. Rain slid off a black slicker, and the tears of rain on the window distorted the features.
Claris called to them for help, but the person stood in a swirl of slicker and disappeared.

Remora: \ REM-er-uh \ , noun;
An obstacle, hindrance, or obstruction.

She thought the nameless face would come to help, but after a moment of huddling in the dark basement, holding her lifeless aunt, and hearing no one approach, panic set in. With tender awkwardness, Claris returned Charlotte to the floor. She picked up the kitten’s creel before bolting towards the stairs.
Stumbling through the gloom and maze of boxes of debris, Claris tripped once over a viola case and tore another hole in her tights. Righting herself, she plunged through the dark to the top of the stairs and finally reached the phone and caught her breath. She picked up the receiver and knew immediately that it, too, was dead. She scrambled through her purse for her cell phone before remembering there wasn’t cell service at the library. No one could call to tell her Charlotte was missing. She couldn’t call anyone for help. Bolting, she took about three steps into the storm before returning for her shoes. She had left them by the front door.
Inexpensive, dirty, size six shoes that no one would possibly steal. Where were they?
She gazed into the library. Charlotte dead, a face in the window, her shoes missing. Was she alone? Somewhere from inside the library a door slammed. The wind, Claris told herself, but when the kitten began to cry, Claris darted down the library steps.
Staggering more than running in stocking feet and a straight skirt, Claris cast a backward glance at the library high on Olympic hill. Rain pelted against her face and soaked her blouse as she toward Main Street and downtown. A streak of lightning cracked the gray sky; thunder rolled with an intensity that shook the sidewalk. Above her wood cracked as a bough of a pine tree broke in the wind. It tumbled to land in a heap beside her. Fallen twigs and branches scattered on the sidewalk poked her feet and shredded her stockings. Clutching the kitten’s creel, she ran the quarter of a mile to the first house.
Claris paused at the gate of Audrey Mortenson’s home to catch her breath. Audrey’s windows were dark, not surprising given the power outage, but the chimney didn’t curl with smoke and the house wore a vacant, empty look. The gate creaked as Claris pushed through. Bracken and large, green slugs littered the walkway. She pounded up the steps and banged on the door, but her knocking sounded hollow.
The rain trickled inside her shirt, soaked her shoes, and filled her eyes as she turned away continued running and stumbling down Main. She could barely see, but it didn’t really matter. Aside from her brief years in college, she had lived in Rose Arbor since Charlotte’s accident. Claris knew the streets well.
She ran into a large, warm expanse of flannel. For a small moment a rain slicker engulfed her, and then she tangled with an umbrella. In her efforts to extract herself, she slipped on the wet pavement and fell with thud on her rear. The creel landed beside her and the cat cried in protest.
Claris looked up at her impediment and saw a pair of heavy boots, Levi jeans, a flannel shirt and an unbuttoned dark green slicker. Rain and embarrassment washed over her. She pulled the creel onto her lap and checked its strap.
“Are you all right?” A tall man with wavy, honey colored hair gazed down at her. She stared up at him. He looked familiar—and then Claris realized he looked like her! Same coloring, curly hair and green eyes—he could be a sibling or a distant cousin—except that Claris didn’t have any family. Except for Charlotte. He stooped down to take her hand to pull her upright. His large hand swallowed hers. “You’re shaking.”
Stepping out of the umbrella’s protective canopy, the rain beat against her. Large, wet maple leaves cart wheeled by and attached themselves to her legs. Claris shook herself, managed to run a trembling hand through her hair and stammered at the man, “I am so sorry.”
“No, I’m sorry, here, let me help you.” He held the umbrella over her.
“No, thank you,” she murmured, stepping away from him.
“Don’t you have a coat, or anything?” He followed, umbrella aloft.
Claris shook her head as she fought the rain. Wind whipped through her hair, and tugged at her wet blouse.
“Wait!” he called, hurrying beside her. “Would you like a ride?”
“I’m not going far.” She pressed on.
“Let me come with you, share my umbrella,” he said, easily overtaking her and blocking her path. He looked pointedly at her shoeless feet. “Let me help you.” He bowed his umbrella towards her. His eyes traveled over her and she hugged the creel closer to her chest. “Have you been fishing?” he asked.
He pointed the fishing creel.
“Excuse me, please.” She pushed past him, but he easily kept pace and held the umbrella over her head. I don’t have time for this, she thought and the words became her internal mantra.
“Where are your shoes?”
Claris tried to match his face with the one at the window. It could have been him. She pressed into the wind, trying to ignoring the potential murderer holding the umbrella over her head, but when she stubbed her toe on an uneven bit of sidewalk and dropped the creel, he was beside her.
The kitten shot out of the creel. Claris tripped towards the escaping kitten and stubbed another toe on a bump in the sidewalk. “Bugger,” Claris swore and the man laughed.
She looked into his good-natured face, and fought the temptation to smack him. With a throbbing toe, Claris limped after the cat shimming up a trunk of a maple into the maze of branches.
“Kitty, kitty,” Claris called. The cat scampered out of reach.
Rain trickled down Claris’ upturned face, and she tears welled in her eyes.
The tone of the man’s voice softened. “I’ll get her. What’s her name?”
“Mouchard.” Claris sighed. She closed her eyes against the tears and immediately saw Charlotte lying on the floor of the basement. Her knees buckled and she reached out to brace herself against the tree trunk.
An old Ford wagon splattered up the street, and stopped at the curb. “Claris?” Emily rolled down the window.
Claris looked at her old friend. “Can you take me to the police?”
“Get in the car, dear,” Emily said. The wind ruffled Emily’s gray curls and teased her lace collar. “You look a fright.”
Claris glanced at the kitten and then at the man.
“I’ll save the cat,” he said. “You go get the police to find your shoes.”

And then he disappears until page 77. Double sigh. I'll have to change this.

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