Working hard on the next Thomas Morgan novel (A Savage Autumn.) I'm nearly half finished so I'm kind of pumped. It's a story about a thirteen-year-old girl, Nina Kunis, and a horribly sad and lonely man, Jacob, who lost his wife and unborn child when the towers fell on 9/11.
But, since I'm all about conflict, which is the stimulus for growth, this novel has some high stakes. Shortly after Jacob is driven from the park by a local police officer a six-year-old black girl is kidnapped. A very intimidating stranger named Victor comes looking for Jacob, and a man named Sebastian who claims to be an angel approaches Nina, giving her the serious creeps.
Even though it's set in Cleveland, Tennessee, it deals with terrorism, victims, and fallout; it deals with assumptions, and trust, and ways to find hope in what for a little while seems a hopeless world. It'll be touching and yet very dark due to some characters.
Here's the first rough chapter, about 4,300 words. It'll be edited later once I'm finished with the first draft...
Thirteen-year-old Nina Kunis’s life took a drastic turn two weeks after the towers fell. She, her older boyfriend Clint, and her mother Betsy Kunis, all noticed the strange young man sitting quietly in the park across from Nina’s home on September 25th.
Even there—in Cleveland, Tennessee, eight hundred miles south of Ground Zero—the reverberations and ripples of shattered security manifested themselves in most citizens’ everyday lives. (<--Note: How? Show it) And to Nina Kunis it was as if the strange young man had carried debris with him, for she would learn later that he came from New York and had been there to witness the devastation among the crowds clogging the streets, his voice raised with theirs in a wail of disbelief and fear and anger; and he’d been there later as lower Manhattan was evacuated, his clothing saturated with sour funk and dust, stumbling blindly among the ruin and ashes, the heavy watch his wife had bought him tight on his wrist.
Nina, being thirteen-years-old, and raised by an outspoken and practical mother, did not feel the grief that others felt, though she sympathized on a basic human level. Most of all she was in denial that humans could hurt each other so badly in the name of God, her being a Christian herself and a bit of an outcast in the Assembly of God church. In her mind the attack in New York City couldn’t have happened because it was so horrible and had shaken an entire nation from its stupor of false security, Nina herself among their number. On the twenty-fifth, when she wasn’t actively thinking about it, she was still dealing with it, trying to believe it, or accept that it had happened, and she felt bad that she didn’t feel worse for the families who suffered such loss, because she knew she should, yet couldn’t, because they were strangers to her.
The morning the stranger, Jacob, arrived she was sitting on her bed next to Clint Friendly, a local bad boy and a boy three years her senior. His father was a local policeman and despite that she felt pretty relaxed. Clint’s black hair hung in his eyes as he pulled a joint from the inside pocket of his leather jacket. Clint’s voice was sometimes deep, and other times so high-pitched it hurt her ears. He walked around with what seemed a near-constant erection that he was proud of, especially around Nina and her friends in the seventh grade. Most of them giggled, and sometimes Clint would blush. Sometimes he didn’t. Nina didn’t know what to make of it, other than to think it was normal because she saw how all of the other boys acted around girls, and she watched how men, including her stepfather Rick, acted around her mother. And sometimes she would catch her stepfather staring at her breast and he would look away when caught, ashamed, and vanish into the yard or the garage to mow, or rake leaves, or weed the flower beds, or organize the shelves and his tools. She didn’t mind the attention her budding body brought her so much, at least with her stepfather Rick, because he didn’t do it lewdly the way some boys and men did. In some ways she thought her mother and she were lucky to have him in their lives because he worked hard for them, listened when they spoke, and did other things that her natural father showed no interest in.
She shook her head, tired of thinking.
Clint palmed the joint and rolled it down her thigh. His hand was warm and she smiled and said, “We’ll have to smoke it outside.”
He didn’t argue, just smiled in turn, that glint in his bright blue eyes that felt like someone running cold water over her chest on an incredibly hot day. She found it hard to breathe when he looked at her, and she’d spoken to her older sister, Patricia, about it once while wandering the grounds of Lee University, one mile from their home, where Patricia attended school. Her sister had simply laughed and said, “Men,” and Nina had laughed too, a little disturbed.
The bed springs squeaked as she lifted her weight from the mattress and Clint followed her out the side door. He lit the joint. Nina relaxed further in the narrow alcove between the duplex her mother rented and the house next door. It was well-shaded and the sunlight was bright, glinting against the playground in the park across the road where a dozen children played loudly, their voices and innocent screams joyous and harmless. The parents—some mothers huddled in little knots, some fathers, sitting alone, staring at the kids, or staring at nothing—looked bored, almost as lost as the young man sitting on the steps of the gazebo watching them all. He was most likely in his early twenties, a few days of rough beard growing on his cheeks and neck, his fine leather shoes scuffed and dirty. His watch, which looked large and expensive, glinted like the metal the children played upon. He held an open beer can between his hands and raised it slowly every few seconds, his throat working hard as he swallowed, his eyes appearing glossy even from a distance.
Nina thought that Jacob was probably somebody who had recently lost their job, their home, and was reduced to begging, and she felt sorry for him in a way, figuring that he kept the expensive wristwatch for some reason or another, a very personal one, like a family heirloom, that one day soon, when it came down to either eating or keeping time, he would have to pawn it.
She hit the joint and held the smoke in her lungs for a moment and coughed, giggling, coughing more, Clint resting his hand on her shoulder, his other hand taking the joint again, his mouth perfect. She wanted to kiss him but knew that if she could see the families in the park they could more than likely see her, too.
Clint said, “What do you want to do tonight?”
Nina shrugged, feeling good, giving. “I don’t know about tonight, but I know what I want right now.”
Clint grinned, took her hand. “Interesting. Go on…”
It took her a second to realize his thoughts had turned toward the physical. She’d heard all kinds of horror stories about men and their needs… from her mother, her friends, older girls at school, from magazines, and television and films and songs. But so far, in the month they’d been dating she hadn’t surpassed kissing him. And though she could see his need in the light of his eyes, in his aggressive posturing, in the mean, sudden set of his mouth when she’d refuse him, and yet that smile she found so sexy would return quickly and the warmth would come back in his eyes, and she thought Clint only pretended to be a bad boy, in those moments he overpowered his own lusts, she believed him to be better than most men.
“Well?” he said.
She grabbed his hand and pulled him into the house.
Clint said, “Your bedroom?”
But no, she pulled him into the kitchen. She made three turkey and roast beef sandwiches. She handed one to Clint. He looked at it as if uncertain what he was supposed to do with it. He looked at her holding the other two and said, “That stuff didn’t give me the munchies, Nee.”
And she, smelling the beautiful, rugged smell of leather and the sweet heady scent of dope and the food she’d just fixed, simply smiled in return, saying, “Come on.”
She walked through the living room and nodded at the front door and he opened it and followed her out into the bright light. She hurried across the street, past Clint’s old maroon Camaro, beneath the old towering oaks and waited for him in the shade as he closed the door and looked at himself to make sure he appeared just the way he wanted. Once satisfied he rushed across the street, taking small controlled bites of his sandwich and his doing so made her grin. She said again, “Come on.”
“Where are we going?”
She turned and strode toward the gazebo, fast for how small she was. The closer she drew to the homeless guy the faster her heart beat. Up close he was a few years older than she thought. He stared at the ground about ten feet in front of him, sitting on the steps, his shoulders hunched in a newer hoodie. Behind her, Clint paused. She saw disgust on his face. She shook her head, disappointed with him. She turned back to the stranger and said, “Hello.”
The man acted like they weren’t there. He finished the beer he was drinking and set the empty can on the step next to him. She cleared her throat and spoke louder. “Are you hungry? I made you a sandwich.”
Clint came up beside her. He didn’t say anything at first. He just looked from the guy sitting on the gazebo steps to the kids playing forty yards to his right. Nina looked back to the stranger. She said, “Sir, I made this for you.”
She stepped closer, squatted down in front of him and held the food out. His eyes were soft and green and distant. She thought he might be high, too, but he wasn’t. His gaze took a moment to focus on her though, and when it did she smiled and shook the sandwich. “Take it,” she said.
His voice was as soft as his eyes which searched her face openly now that he saw her. “No,” he said, “thank you.”
“I’m not hungry,” he said. “Thank you.”
Clint said, “You know it’s illegal to live in the park, man?”
Nina said, “People live in parks all the time.” She turned back to the man and said, “I’m Nina. What’s your name?”
“Who cares?” Clint said. “He’s a nobody.”
“Shut up,” she said. “If you don’t want to be here, leave.”
“I’m just saying.”
“Well, say it somewhere else, to someone else.”
He looked back and forth, then nowhere. Then he walked off, trying to appear tough, unfazed, but he wasn’t. He was confused. At the street he looked back at her but she only waved him away, as if dismissing him. Clint climbed into his Camaro and slammed the door and his stereo grew louder as he put his foot down on the accelerator, thinking for a second that he’d proved something to her but all she thought he proved was that sometimes he could be an idiot.
When she turned back to the man, he said, “My name’s Jacob.” He glanced at the street. “Isn’t that boy a little old for you?”
“No.” She hoisted the sandwich up between where she squatted and he sat, determined he’d take it, certain that he needed it. “You sure you don’t want this?”
“Is it okay if I sit by you?”
“It’s a free country.” His voice was so neutral that she couldn’t read him and she was good at reading what people really wanted no matter what they said. She sat next to him, one step lower and studied the kids playing.
He said, “What are you doing here, Nina?”
She shrugged, smiled, enjoying the shade, enjoying the way her blood hummed. He didn’t stink like she thought he might, like some street people stank, and there were plenty of them around, always had been. Usually they came from Chattanooga and the cops made quick work of running them off.
He was different though. Maybe not homeless at all, she thought, judging by the cleanness of his clothes. She thought he was one of those men who look very scraggly sometimes but cleaned up well. She also noticed that he wore a wedding ring. It was simple and gold and seemed too large for his finger. It clicked against the beer can when he reached for it, before realizing there was nothing left in it. To her he looked like Leonardo DiCaprio, and since she was attracted to older men, and had recently seen the movie Titanic, she imagined that she looked like a much younger Kate Winslet. It warmed her stomach, burned inside her imagination, what their unexpected meeting might mean and where it might lead, so unaware and inexperienced that she had no idea true love only happened quickly in the movies. The real stuff took work, and comprise, and patience, and strength.
She said, “Do you live around here?”
“If you call this living,” he said.
“What do you do?”
“What kind of question is that?”
“Just a question,” she said.
“I don’t do anything.”
“Why?” she said.
“Because there’s no point in it.”
She laughed. He was weird, but she figured he was also harmless. She said, “Are you some kind of hippy or something?”
“Yeah,” he said, “or something.”
“You should shave. You look like a homeless guy because of the scraggly beard.”
“I don’t want to shave,” he said.
“It’s just a suggestion.”
“Thanks,” he said.
“Is everything okay?”
He hung his head and she thought she heard him sob as he covered his face, and she didn’t know why but hearing it scared her. He didn’t have to be homeless to be crazy, she realized. But she held her ground, cleared her throat again, said, “Something wrong?”
He shook his head. “No,” he lied. “I just want to be alone.”
“I get that way sometimes,” Nina said. “Life gets too busy with people always wanting to talk or do stuff.” She pushed herself up, not hungry, not sure what to do with the two sandwiches. She set them on the step next to him, said, “Well, it was nice meeting you Jacob.”
“Sure, kid,” he said, nodding at nothing.
As she turned to walk away she glanced at his hands cupped between his knees and saw that he was holding a photograph. She couldn’t see much but the edge of it. She waved and he didn’t wave back.
From the living room, next to where her mother kept fresh roses perched on the top of their old television set, she watched him the rest of the day. He never moved, not once, not to use the restroom facilities near the playground , or to even stretch his legs. He just watched the sun work west, baked in it, hung his head sometimes and Nina knew that he was studying the picture he held.
She wasn’t sure what he was waiting for yet she knew it had to be something important.
Her mother, Betsy Kunis, returned from work shortly after midnight. Nina was still awake, sitting on the couch in the dark living room. The park was dimly lit, only one light pole every fifty yards around its perimeter, but Jacob was still sitting on the gazebo steps. When her mother came into the living room she said, “There’s someone watching the house.”
Her mother was compact, short, and bony yet muscular. Her hair was dark and her eyes rimmed with red from lack of sleep and irritation from the chemicals at her job. She said, “There’s a man sitting in the park and he’s watching our house.” She grabbed the cordless from the wall and Nina stopped her before she called the police. “It’s not right,” her mom said. “Just sitting there like that. Maybe I should wake Rick up to have him go across the road and speak to the man.”
“He’s not hurting anyone,” Nina said.
“Not yet,” she said. “He’s probably scheming.”
“Planning a crime, casing a house,” her mom said. “Why aren’t you in bed?”
“I’m not tired,” Nina said.
She thought, And I want to see if he sits there all night.
Her mom grunted. “Well, I’m hitting the sack. Don’t you stay up late or your grades will suffer.”
But they wouldn’t. Her grades never suffered. Her mother knew that which is why she let Nina do just about anything she wanted as long as it didn’t put her physically in harm’s way or get her knocked up. They weren’t exceptionally close—her mother worked a lot, and Nina preferred time to herself—but she respected her mother because her mother had enough courtesy to offer Nina the benefit of the doubt when it came to the level of her common sense. Nina had two best friends, Jacquelyn and Ronnie, but both of those girls were raised by mothers who thought they would grow up to be as miserable as their parents so everything their parents did subconsciously reinforced what they had laid claim to in their heart of hearts.
After her mom disappeared deeper into their home and the shower drowned out all the quiet groans of the house, she moved closer to the window, crossing slabs of moonlight on the polished hardwood floor. The gazebo was too far away and too trapped in shadow for her to see if Jacob had eaten the two sandwiches she’d left him. She hoped he had, or would, but she couldn’t be sure. Later, after she went to her bedroom and lay down, she stared at the dark ceiling and listened to Rick try to coerce her mom into having sex.
She blushed for listening to Rick’s entreaties, which sounded so lame and funny.
Eventually she heard the slap of flesh on flesh though, and she giggled, and then buried her head beneath her pillow.
On Wednesday morning, with the sky fading from pale gray to a bruised pinkish-blue, Jacob wasn’t sitting on the gazebo steps any longer. For a second Nina experienced a terrible sense of loss until she noticed him stationed like a quiet and unmovable sentinel halfway to the jungle gym and sandboxes. There were no children playing there that early in the day, but it still made her sense of loss transform into a slight apprehension and she didn’t know why.
Nina swallowed, feeling unsteady, as if her usual snap judgments about people were off. Her mom slept in late since she worked second shift but Rick was up early to mow lawns. He carried his coffee into the living room. He was burly, and hair seemed to cover his entire body, even growing up around his small, dark eyes despite how often he shaved. It was gross, Nina thought, and she felt bad for thinking so at times, knowing that he couldn’t help it.
She heard him say, “Is that the same guy your mother was talking about?”
“His name’s Jacob,” she said.
“What’s he doing?”
“I don’t know. Just sitting there.”
Nina nodded. She didn’t mention that it was strange that he was moving toward where all the children played. She didn’t want to be like so many other people who took the smallest things and blew them out of proportion. As practical as her mother usually was, she sometimes did that. And she knew many kids at school who did that. And there were a couple of dozen adults who weren’t any better at restraining their imaginations. Sometimes she thought that people craved drama more than anything else. She thought it was why they had affairs and cheated on their taxes and professed their love of God but went and acted selfishly once they left the sanctuary.
Rick said, “Why were you talking to him?”
“Why did you approach him?” he said, then sipped his coffee, looking from her to the window. “Your mom doesn’t like you talking to strangers, you know that.”
“He’s harmless,” she said. “And I can talk to strangers. I’m thirteen, not five.”
Rick said, “If he’s harmless then why do you look scared?”
Something clicked in her throat. She ran a hand over her blouse and tried to remember to breathe, to remember what it felt like to imagine herself as someone who could save this man who seemed to have his soul wrapped in barb wire.
“I’m not scared,” she said. “I’m just thinking about something else.”
“Right,” he said, smiling sadly. “Stay away from him, all right?”
He carried his coffee back to his bedroom and closed the door.
After Nina went to her room and dressed she snuck to the entryway and put on her shoes and a light jacket. Then she paused, a hand on the doorknob, and figured it was better to wait for Rick to leave before she approached Jacob again. Only there wasn’t time for her to do so because shortly after he left for work she would have to head to school. She bit her lip, weighed her options—which didn’t take long since more than anything she thought of what it had been like to look into Jacob’s eyes—and she opened the door. She walked across the street to the gazebo. The sandwiches were gone. She smiled to herself. It felt good.
The day was breaking, the sky pink and gray and purple. Jacob had his back to her, facing the deserted playground. She didn’t want to approach him when he had just told her yesterday that he only wanted to be left alone, but she was curious about his staying in the park all night, and curious why he had moved from the gazebo out into the middle of the lawn.
She took a deep breath and let it loose and squared her shoulders. She wasn’t any type of investigator, but trying to be one, at home, at school, finding little clues in what people said and what they didn’t say, all thrilled her. She hadn’t ever told anybody how much it thrilled her because she thought it might be viewed as unhealthy and the last thing she wanted to do was talk to a therapist. She didn’t even know the whys of her own motivations, and didn’t want to. But when it came to the whys of others, it was a natural, exhilarating moment for her.
So she crossed the turf still slightly damp with morning dew and stopped next to where he sat, his arms braced against his knees. She said, “You know some people probably won’t like you sitting there watching the playground once there are kids here.”
“So what,” he said, more statement than question.
“I’m just trying to warn you,” she said, “you don’t have to be a dick.”
Jacob laughed. “You’re okay,” he said.
That made her feel good too, having a stranger say she was okay, she didn’t know why, just like she didn’t know a lot of things, but what the hell. She smiled and said, “You seem really sad. Has anybody told you that?”
He nodded, still not looking at her. “I am,” he said.
He rubbed his hands together as if a sudden chill overpowered him. He shrugged. “It’s not your problem. It’s not anybody’s problem.”
“Are you suicidal?” Nina said.
He was but he couldn’t tell her what it was like to want to blow your own brains out, or to slice so deeply inside your forearms that no one, no matter how good a paramedic might be, could ever reverse the damage you’ve done to yourself. She was too young to know about such things, he thought. And if he took his own life, he didn’t want anyone else to know he was gone.
“You’re kind of annoying,” he said, hanging his head, the tone of his voice suddenly so soft that she didn’t take offense; not that she hadn’t heard from others that she could be annoying with her questions. He sighed deeply, said, “What are you doing here?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “You just look like you need someone to talk to…”
And he did, he needed someone to talk to more than she could ever imagine. But he thought the human race was a monstrous race, including himself among their number, but just barely. The wound in his soul was simply too fresh to see anything clearly, or with any faith.
“I’m okay,” he said.
“Okay,” Nina said. “You know where I live if you need anything, right?” She pointed across the street but he wasn’t looking and that made her a little angry. She said, “Look.”
He looked. Then he nodded. “Thanks,” he said. “You’re all right.”
She smirked. “You too, I guess.”
“Be careful around that guy,” he said.
“Is that his name? The older boy?”
“Yeah,” she said. “He’s not bad he just acts like he is.”
“Just be careful,” Jacob said.
She thought about it a second, remembering how Clint had instantly judged Jacob, and she felt like it hollowed her out. She nodded, said, “Okay.”
“Okay,” he said.
“We say okay a lot,” she said.
“It’s okay,” he said, smiling a little, but she didn’t miss the tears in his eyes, and she couldn’t know then, at that time, how often his wife had told him everything would be okay, how she had bolstered him when he would doubt the security of their jobs, or the health of their unborn baby, or the next ten minutes.
He nodded again. “Go on,” he said, “get out of here.”
Nina laughed. “I’m just across the street.”
“I know,” he said. “Thanks for the kindness. You’re a weird person.”
“I know,” she said. “Take it easy.”
Her heart was pounding because he looked so goddamn lost, so in need of help, but she couldn’t help him, even at thirteen she knew that no matter how much somebody else needed you you couldn’t change a thing in their lives: you could only listen if they spoke, and you could only hold them if they leaned on you.