Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Novel Excerpt

The following is an excerpt from a novel I have been working on for a few months. Pieces of it simply aren't coming together the way I'd like them to come together, and this is one of those parts. My apologies if it appears to end abruptly, though. Feel free to comment on what you see as its strengths or weaknesses.

The coffeepot was buzzing. It wasn’t that Thomas found the metallic rattling all that bothersome on its own – it was just that the coffeepot had been buzzing every Tuesday night for the past six months. The industrial stainless steel percolator sat, as it always had, on the edge of a table, slowly dripping lukewarm decaf into a dirty styrofoam cup placed specifically to catch the errant drops. Thomas could see the source of the noise from across the room – a small gap at the top of the machine showed that the screw which held the machine’s cover on securely had come loose – but why nobody had thought to tighten the screw in six months nagged at him. It would be such a small task to fix the coffeepot, but perhaps even that minor effort was beyond the ability of the people here.

Glancing around the circle of brown metal folding chairs in the ill-lit room, he admitted to himself that the people in the group had more important things to worry about than the maintenance of a worn coffeepot, and, for that matter, so did he. The group meeting had started.

Just once, Thomas thought, I’d like to attend a group meeting that isn’t so depressing. People didn’t usually attend meetings like this unless they had reached the end of their own resources, and it seemed a bit unfair to make the setting so powerfully reinforce the sense of hopelessness and despair. The broken coffeepot, the cold metal folding chairs that showed decades of wear, racks of torn and tattered costumes brought out year after tired year, the stained and dreary carpet, the stale smell of sweat and smoke so old that the odors had seeped into every fiber of the room, and even the faint funereal organ music coming from up above all added to a general feeling of being at the bottom of the barrel. Church basements are all the same, he thought.

Left alone in such a place, the mind might find ways of dreaming itself to more cheery climes, but unfortunately, the whole point of a group therapy session involved there being a group present. No matter the reverie Thomas might be able to summon, he was positive that someone would find a way to break it and pull him back down to the bottom of the well to wallow in another person’s misery.

Thomas uncomfortably glanced around the circle to his immediate left, where Jonathan sat, shifting in his chair. Jonathan had terminal colon cancer and was supposed to have died three months ago according to his doctors. For the six months that Thomas had been coming to group therapy sessions, Jonathan had chosen to sit beside him in the circle. Even on the one occasion when Thomas had purposefully sat in a different chair, Jonathan had followed like a diligent puppy, attempting to stay close at its master’s heels. Of course, Jonathan wasn’t a truly unpleasant man to talk to, but the dark smell of human excrement hung faintly in the air about him – a miasma which resulted from the colostomy bag hidden under his bulky clothing. Raising his cup of tepid coffee to his lips, Thomas tried to concentrate on the smell of coffee instead, but to no avail. With even the tiniest movement in his chair, Jonathan would compulsively reach down to touch the half-hidden bulge under his clothing self-consciously – a fact which called attention to his condition all the more.

Thomas knew he should feel sympathy and compassion, but that well had run dry. Thirty-two years spent counseling the dying and bereaved as a chaplain at Landon Hospitial and he used to greet each new day with renewed vigor, telling himself that he would bring peace to a lost soul, help the confused through their turmoil, and soothe the bitter and the angry. He'd had a natural gift for comforting those in need, and by stripping away his psychological armor, and truly immersing himself in their anguish, resentment, and pain, he could pull himself above the fray, with his charges in tow.

That was then. Now, the thoughts and images of the dying simply washed over him; the feeling of sympathy that had once been so powerful now was replaced with revulsion and apathy.

Ruefully, Thomas ran his fingers through his closely trimmed beard. Isn’t that exactly me? At no time in my life has my calling been stronger. These people have a need for my guidance and counsel. They need to be comforted, relieved, and brought back from the brink of a despair that shadows them with every step in these last few months of life. And it is precisely at this time when I can’t bring myself to tell them that I have no guidance and counsel for them – no hope to promise – nothing of myself left to give.

Halfway across the circle, a woman was quietly sobbing into her hands while the psychologist tried to comfort her. Thomas hadn’t really been paying attention to her story. He vaguely recalled her from a previous meeting, but couldn't remember the specifics of her condition. Whatever it was, she was here for the same reason that they all were here. She was dying and had nowhere else to turn.

His life hadn’t always been so bleak, Thomas mused, waiting for his turn to speak. Six months ago, when he’d finally been persuaded by his wife, Kari, to see a doctor about his persistent cough, he’d been positive that the visit was simply a waste of time and money. After all, even though he’d quit smoking when their daughter, Natalie, had been born fifteen years ago, he’d still smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for the better part of three decades. A cough was just part of what he’d expected. He hadn’t been prepared to face his death. No man ever was. Doctor Spiretti himself, the best oncologist in the state had confirmed it to Thomas personally: lung cancer - and quite advanced. That had been a long time ago, though, and it seemed like remembering someone else’s life. There was just so much that the other, half-remembered Thomas didn’t yet know about his future. About his life. About Kari.


Even thinking her name made Thomas feel the flush of new tears creep across this face. He blinked the flush away, awash in anger and self-pity. It had been so perfect


“Tom? Tom, are you outside?” she called.

“Yeah, Kar'. I’m out here.”

Thomas sat alone on the wooden bench in the shaded arbor, watching the cool summer breeze dance through the young maples at the edge of the garden. He’d planted them just a few years ago to provide a mild windscreen to keep Kari’s garden a little safer, and despite the agony from his arthritis flare-ups and a wicked looking bruise putting them in, days like this renewed Thomas’s love of nature and the artist who sublimely wielded her. The leafy tips of the trees pirouetted and swayed, as if in time to music that only they could hear, and that he could only dimly and jealously feel in the caress of the air as it flowed through the arbor’s ivied overhang.

“There you are,” Kari said, rounding the corner and stepping into the shade. “Doctor Richards called for you earlier. He said it wasn’t urgent, and I promised him that you’d call him back later.” Kari was wearing her pale blue sundress, and the Oklahoma sun was weaving shimmering highlights through her auburn hair.

“Care to join me, Kari? I came out here to enjoy the weather while it lasts.”

“And the Beaujolais, I see,” said Kari, raising one eyebrow impishly. “Anything left in that bottle?”

“I might be able to find something for you,” winked Thomas, reaching under the bench and pulling out the dark green bottle and his glass. “It’s the new one, and I’ve only had a taste.” Kari made her way to the bench and snuggled into Thomas, while he poured some of the fragrant red wine into the glass. Thomas’s arm slipping around her shoulders, Kari laid her head on his chest as her delicate fingers curled around the stem of the wine glass. Thomas ran his fingers through her silken tresses, and rested his cheek against head, inhaling deeply and luxuriating in the feel and smell of her. It had been twenty-nine years - no, twenty-nine blissful years - of marriage and he still couldn’t believe his luck.

“Mmmm. You must have used that lilac scented soap I bought you for your birthday,” Thomas sighed approvingly, inhaling again. “Do you remember all those lilac bushes on campus when we met?” Thomas had been finishing his divinity doctorate, and Kari had been studying English literature. He’d been sitting beside a row of lilac bushes at dusk, thinking about his doctoral dissertation, when a strange girl walked up to him, sat down, and simply asked him whether he might be willing to walk her to the other side of campus as it grew dark. Who’d have known then that her sparkling green eyes would be playfully staring up into his serious brown ones thirty-five years later under the boughs of an old oak that graced their back garden?

“Of course I do. I walked past those bushes a dozen times without you looking up from your battered copy of 'I and Thou'.' Giggling, Kari imperiously stabbed a finger into Thomas's chest. "How you could find stuffy German philosophers more engrossing than your surroundings, I could only guess."

"Austrian, Kari. The author was Austrian and Israeli. And in my defense, I was using part of his work for my dissertation," Thomas protested.

Kari stuck her tongue out and wiggled it at Thomas. "That's not what I remember," she continued. "I remember you being so caught up in your book that you made me do all the work in asking you for a date."

"Now, hold on a second," Thomas corrected, amused at his wife's version of their meeting. "As I recall, after walking you back to the house you lived in, I was the one who asked you whether you would mind accompanying me to the next production at the student theater."

Kari sniffed, dismissively. "Yes, but it was my idea. It took you forever to get around to asking me, too. You were so nervous that I thought I might have to change our destination on the walk home another time or two. I'd already had you walk me almost a mile past my house to another friend's home. If it'd taken you much longer to get around to it, I might have had to think up a friend that lived in another city."

"You little she-devil!" Thomas laughed. "I wondered why you 'moved' to a new house closer to campus only a week afterwards. I just thought it was a coincidence." After a few minutes of quietly chuckling while his wife nursed her glass of wine, Thomas remarked, "It's good though, that you remember those lilac bushes, even if your memory of the event is a little different than mine. Sitting by those bushes in the warm sunshine with you was one of the happiest moments of my academic career."

"I not only remember sitting beside the bushes when we met,” Kari said, mischievously, “I also remember all the times we were under those bushes for other activities.” She archly raised an eyebrow. “Oh yes, I remember those bushes.”

Thomas blushed as Kari’s silvery laugh pealed through the arbor.

When her mirth had quieted, Thomas took her hand and half-whispered, “God, Kari. I love you. I really and truly do.”

“Well then, you romantic old rogue,” she said, putting down the wine glass down onto the grass, “whatever could we do about that?”

Thomas kissed her. Running her hands through his sandy hair, she winked at him and pulled him closer. The sparkles in her green eyes pirouetted and swayed, as if in time to music only they could hear. Thomas gave up his reason and gave in to the melody.

Forgotten, the bottle of wine spilled into the grass, and the world smelled like lilacs.


A fresh wave of his mind-clogging odor washed over Thomas as Jonathan shifted uncomfortably in his metal folding chair. Excusing himself, Thomas slipped away from the circle of folding chairs and made his way over to the table where the coffee machine quietly rattled to itself. If nothing else, I’m a bit farther from the smell. As the dark liquid filled his small paper cup, Thomas bit his lip, trying to hold his memories at bay. I can almost smell the lilacs.



Returning to his chair, Thomas settled in and only half listened to the psychologist who was there to help them cope with their illnesses. The man was explaining to the group that pain management techniques could largely give them the quality of life that the group members desired.

Managed? What does this man know of medicine? Or of pain, for that matter? Some pains aren't that easy to deal with...


“It won’t be for very long, Kari,” Thomas said, selecting a sturdy pair of brown dress shoes from their closet. Holding out several neckties, he turned to where she sat trembling on their bed. “Which tie goes best with this shirt? The blue one or the green one?”

“The blue one,” answered Kari. “I just don’t understand why it has to be you. I thought we were finished with this.”

“I have to go where I am needed most, Kari,” said Thomas, easing himself down on the bed beside her. “Right now, there are people who need me to help them find their source of hope, and I can’t ignore their call.” Slipping his arm around her shoulders, he wiped away a tear that was running down her cheek and hugged her close.

“I know, it’s just...” she hesitated.

“Just nothing,” Thomas said. Standing up from the bed, Thomas put his hand out and tousled his wife’s hair. “Don’t worry, Kari. I’ll only be gone for a couple months, and before you know it, I’ll be back home. When I volunteered for missions work in Ecuador, we knew that there were some risks involved. I’m not even going to be near any dangerous parts of the country, Kari. I’m only going to be training other missions workers from a church just outside of Quito.”

“That's what Ron thought, though. The only reason that the diocese called you in is because your predecessor was killed, Tom. I know that you'll probably be safe, but all of the ‘what if’ scenarios keep running through my head. I love you, Tom. I don’t think I could bear to see you hurt,” she half-whispered, tears again sliding silently down her cheeks.

“Come on,” Thomas joked. “There’s nothing anybody could do to further ugly up this mug, and you know it.”

“There’s my girl. It’ll all be okay. I know it doesn’t feel that way to you right now – hell, it doesn’t feel that way to me, right now – but I’m a man of faith. My path isn’t always my choice, but I’m always richer for the journey.” Thomas stood in front of her, took her hands in his, and gently kissed her forehead.

“Put your trust in my words, my beloved,” he whispered. “I’ll come back to you. I will.”

With a final hug to his disheveled wife, Thomas picked up his suitcase, and walked out of his house.


“Sir! Sir, you can’t go in there!” Someone was yelling at him. He heard the voice, but ignored the words. Whatever that was about, it wasn’t as important as getting inside… as finding her.

Suddenly there were strong arms holding him back. Thomas struggled against the powerful grip of the person restraining him.

“Let go of me!”“You can’t go inside, sir. This area is off limits unless you are part of the investigation,” the voice repeated.

“I have to!” Thomas screamed, tearing away from the grasping hands and rushing toward the yellow police cordon. “That’s my house!”

He ran. Across the lawn. Past the garden shed. Around a tree. To the flagstone path leading up to the porch. I’m almost there, Kari, he shrieked inwardly. Hold on. I’m coming back. I said I would, and I am. Hold on.

The world spun, wildly. There was blood running out of his nose, and somehow he was facedown on the stairs of the porch. There was a blinding pain in his side. He tried to move, but couldn’t seem to get his feet underneath him. No time.

Only a few more feet. No time.

Then the strong arms were pulling him backwards, and everything faded in a blinding flash of black sparkling darkness.


“Reverend Huxley? You waking up?”

Thomas blinked his eyes, disoriented. “Jorge?”

In his still swimming vision, he saw Jorge Alvarez, one of the doctors that worked with him at Landon. Doctor Alvarez was in his early-forties, had transferred to Landon Hospital from a hospital in Arizona almost a decade ago, and quickly found a kindred spirit in the person of Thomas Huxley. Thomas enjoyed finding that Jorge had a quick mind, was deeply religious and well-versed in theology, and enjoyed engaging in philosophical and theological sparring over lunch in the Hospital cafeteria. As the years passed, their daily discussions blossomed into a healthy friendship. For the past two years, Jorge and his wife, Angela, had been regular guests to Thomas’s home, but why would the Jorge have come with him to the airport?

The airport. I’m not at the airport. He’d just finished checking his luggage when he’d gotten the phone call from a neighbor on his cell phone. He couldn’t even remember all of the details. A house fire… Police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances... Flashing lights and sirens...

“Jorge? What happened?”

“The cop that brought you in said you’d taken a nasty tumble. Looks like you fractured a couple ribs on your right side and broke your ankle. We put you under and patched you up while you were unconscious, but you’re going to have to take it easy on that leg for a little while.” As he spoke, Doctor Alvarez paced around the hospital room, steadfastly refusing to meet Thomas’s gaze. Slowly, he forced himself to look into Thomas’s eyes, and as he did so, he gently lowered himself into a chair by the window. Something was troubling him. After a moment of silence, he spoke haltingly, his hands shaking.

“You’ve known me for seven years now, Thomas. I’m a decent enough doctor – not one of the best, but good enough – and I’ve always relied on you to help me in situations where I needed to inform a patient of bad news. I’m just not good at handling the personal side of medicine, and for that, I’m truly sorry. I’m sorry that I have to be the one to tell you what I very much do not want to tell you, because a better man – a man like yourself – in my situation would have something inspiring to say. You’re a good man, and you’ve always been honest and compassionate with me.”

Jorge took a deep breath and the words came tumbling out, as if he could not bear to keep them silent any longer.

“I’m so sorry, Reverend. We did everything that we could. Kari died in the ambulance en route to Landon. The ambulance crew did everything that they could have done – I talked to them myself – but…” At this, Jorge’s buried his face in his hands and shook, silently.

Thomas lay quietly in his bed, listening to the chatter of the nurses in the hallway outside, a voice paging a doctor over the hospital intercom, and Jorge Alvarez’s discomposure. It didn't feel real yet. They were just words. Just words.

“I’m so sorry, Reverend,” Jorge mumbled, “I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you, Jorge,” Thomas whispered at last, his voice heavy and wooden. A moment later, Thomas whispered continued, “I… Can I see her?”

Doctor Alvarez softly shook his head. “You can, but I’m not sure that you should. It might be better for you to remember her how she was.” Thomas nodded, quietly. It felt like he was drowning.

“Thank you, again, Jorge. I.. I think I’d like to be alone for a while.”

“I understand, Thomas,” Jorge said, rising from his chair and stepping toward the hallway. “I’ll send a nurse in about a half hour to see if you need anything, but I’ll be back later today.”

Standing up, Dr. Alvaraz headed toward the door. As he crossed the threshhold, Jorge made the sign of the cross on himself, and whispered, “God and the saints protect his warrior,” and quietly shut the door.

Alone, Thomas gazed out the window at the flat brick wall that was his only view in the dim gray light that filtered down from above - not that the view mattered to him. I didn’t come in time, Kari. I didn’t come in time. Forgive me.

Alone with his thoughts, he wept.


The group meeting was over. He hadn't gotten a chance to speak before their two hours was up. He'd simply sat in silence, listening, and waiting. As he stepped out of the doors of St. David's church into the cool night air, he knew that he was ready. He knew what he was going to do. He'd made the arrangements. There was no sense in putting it off. Staring up into the night sky, a tear slipped down his cheek.

I'm coming, Kari.

I'm coming.

Fiction, Mood piece: Sinister

(The following is an excerpt from a bit I did when I was trying my hand at writing a detective story. The villian - a narsicisstic serial murderer - is secretly the brother of the detective).

The black car had slipped quietly through the streets. The overhead glow of a streetlamp had lent the night a surreal aura; the trees borrowing strange shadows - dancing in the dark as they flew by. It felt like the kind of night where anything could happen - and if you were unlucky or unwatchful, it just might.

The October damp hung heavily against the Earth, clinging to the shadowy form on the sidewalk up ahead. Her faded black sneakers scuffed back and forth along the cracked cement, breaking dry leaves and grinding used cigarette butts into the gutter. The man could see her shivering - could almost taste her discomfort on the wind. He slowed to a stop and beckoned her over.

“Need a lift?”

“Oh, hey! It’s you,” she replied. “Nice wheels. When’d you get the convertible?”

“Pretty recently,” he said. “You heading back to your place?”

Smiling at him in the half-dark, she raised an eyebrow and asked, “could we make it yours?”

He smiled, and she got in. Without a word, he pressed on the gas. The tires squealed, spinning in the loose gravel at the side of the road, and kicking up a spray of grit. Gaining traction, the convertible lurched forward, and raced away. The car sped on through the night.

It was all so fast. So good. So right. He could barely remember arriving home, taking her inside, or their frenzied passion. There were brief flashes of a hand pressed into the small of her naked back, his breath hot on her neck, and her arching response. He could only just barely recall his hand sliding under the pillow, reaching for her gift. The only thing he could remember clearly was the beautiful widening of her eyes and sharp intake of breath as the blade of the knife slid silently between her ribs. She was terrified, gasping, and it was heady. Intoxicating. Beautiful.

As she struggled feebly under his weight, her blood slowly pooling under them, he knew that that night, it would finally be right. That night, it would feel right. And it did.

Thinking back to it, he shuddered in barely repressed pleasure, reliving every sensation. He could recall her beating uselessly against his back, her hoarse gasps growing hoarser and weaker, and the vibrancy of her green eyes growing dimmer and dimmer. Nothing had ever compared to the act of passion, the hurried intimacy of the affair, and the closeness that he could feel to them as they took him into them and gave him their last passion. He had to relish it. Live it. Savor it. It was special.

He couldn’t permit himself the luxury of such enjoyments very often. It interfered too strongly with his work… his project. It had been too long, though. He needed to share his gift. Was it time again to allow himself the experience? Slipping on his overcoat, he left his apartment and started walking down the street. In the growing gloom of dusk, nobody saw him go. He was just another anonymous face in a sea of humanity. It was a new city. New places to discover. New sights to see. New people to meet. New loves to be had.

In the distance, he could see a girl leaning against a lamppost. He paused under a tree, pretending to tie his shoelace. Glancing up, he watched her. Was she the one? As if in answer to his unspoken question, the chill breath of the Earth raced through her, slicing through her every defense, leaving her shivering. Exposed. Vulnerable. Alone.

From the shadows under the trees, he shivered with anticipation. She looked like she could use a friend.

It would be a good night.