Author Topic: Adult Speculative Fiction - Novel - First Chapter (first 3,000 or so words)  (Read 159 times)

Offline tmantino

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CHAPTER ONE

In this condition, nothing felt familiar or comforting. Even for the vast, hardy likes of him, hangovers corrupted everything in the world. The sun sitting smugly in the sky, eyeing him baldly. A squirrel’s rustling overhead. The pained wheeze of a city bus. The innocent laughter of a hipster’s child. Poison, all of it.

Breezes hit like stones. Window music like a swarm of locusts. A delivery guy on a passing moped might as well have been a post-apocalyptic biker gang. Nowhere in Brooklyn, nor anywhere currently on Earth, was there sanctuary from Dard’s sapped, salted, suffocating state. Least of all work, where he was plodding down Hoyt Street towards.

There, he would be surrounded by the materials responsible for this aching aftermath: gins, whiskeys, vodkas, tequilas; Tullamore for Gary, Jack for Erin, Sambuca for Manny, Black Sambuca for Friday Manny, Galliano for nobody; bottles, tallboys and nearly-pints for the rest. Of the three, he preferred serving out the cans. Less of a mess when he’d inadvertently crush them in his hand, which still happened from time to time.

Adina, who owned the bar, was good enough not to dock him for those obliterated soldiers, especially since there’d been an improvement in the big guy’s handling. Adina understood that finesse didn’t come easy to a thing like Dard. He quite literally wasn’t built for it. Wasn’t built for a great many things, he himself would eventually come to realize. Things like moderation. Or glory. Stability. Sobriety. Lasting monogamy. Paper clips. Holding hamsters. Longevity. And at the rate things were going, he was thankful for that last one.

Dard made the left off Bergen onto Smith, stooped his minotaur-sized shoulders, and slid his emergent paunch through the front door into the grubby dim of The Halfway Bar. The spare but loyal late afternoon crowd was settled in, and Lorna - glasses low on her nose, tank-top strap over one shoulder under a mangled Sarah Lawrence sweatshirt, hair hastily up with stragglers down her neck - was already counting out her register.
 
“Some kid’s looking for you,” she told Dard before he got to the mouth of the counter.

Dard made the turn, reached into the bottom fridge, pulled out a frosted bottle of the first thing, and pressed it indiscriminately against his head and neck.

“Don’t serve me that nasty one,” parped Kendrella from the far end of the bar.

“The sweat on there would’ve been worth money once,” Nance added, with a Dewar's-aged, tobacco-kissed, staccato chuckle.

“Not no more,” Kendrella said.

“Nope,” Nance said.

“You hear me?” Lorna reiterated to Dard. “A kid was here, looking for you.”

“What does that even mean?” It hurt Dard to be confused right now.

“It means a girl, eleven or twelve, entered the building and asked for you by name.”

Dard opened the beer and downed it. All of it, in a gulp. The bottle crashed against other empties at the bottom of a pail. “Whose tabs are open?”

Lorna closed the register and turned to him in full as he made his way behind the bar. It was like a miffed badger facing down a sick grizzly. “She seemed worried. She was alone. Black hair, dark complexion. You know her? Don’t tell me your avoiding a daughter out there. Don’t tell me that.”

“I don’t know her. I don’t know any kids. I don’t have any kids.”

“And it can’t be a young fan,” Nance said. “Those disappeared a long time ago.”

“Long time ago,” Kendrella said.

He always took it for what it was here, neighborly ball-busting. He could deal with that, embrace it even, as a mini-dose of sanity. After all, this was a man who faced down the most destructive evil of our time (depending on your point-of-view) and single-handedly (with the help of two other augmented beings) saved (mostly) sixty-thousand-plus during a Sunday Night Football game (played on a Thursday night). Ergo, he’d experienced worse than some loose wisecracks from the mouths of boozy acquaintances. Yet they still, every so often, stung. 

“What was her name?” Dard asked.

“She didn’t tell me. Like she wouldn’t tell me.”

“As long as she wasn’t press,” he mused bitterly.

“She was a kid.”

“You said that.”

Lorna dismissed him with a lazy shrug. "I've passed on the information. Do what you want with it. I told her to come back, so… Anyway, fruit's cut, Jameson’s got to come up, and I haven't charged Nance for anything."

She gathered her bag, unplugged her phone from the charger and shrunk her way skillfully past the expanse of Dard.

“That’s it?” Dard asked her.

“What? Like a kiss goodbye? That’s for relationships.”

"That word." An ugly chill was sent down Dard’s spine, and only partly from the Ballantine’s still in his system.

“Well, then…,” and Lorna was out the door without a hint of reflection.

“She’s right about the girl,” Kendrella said.

It was a little later, around eight-forty, on a night still searching for momentum, when a small group sauntered in and took up seats recently vacated by the last straggle of regulars. Two guys and a girl, early twenties.

“I-D’s.”

They obliged eagerly. A Minnesota, a Pennsylvania, and a New York, Plattsburgh.

“So you’re really him,” the Pennsylvania lad said to Dard, like he was tearing off a band-aid.

“I assume so. Whatcha drinking?”

They looked in three separate directions. Dard slid a drink menu in front of them.

“I’ll have a Goose Island,” Pennsylvania said after a skim.   

“Me too,” said Plattsburgh

“Same,” said the gal from Minnesota.

Dard palmed three pint glasses in one hand and got to work at the tap. He sensed their scrutiny, innocent as it seemingly was. Innocent, at least, before Dard caught one sneaking a photo of him. “The hell?”

“It’s just a picture,” Pennsylvania said.

“Can’t even ask me first?”

“I’m… sorry.”

“You here just to gawk?”

“Kind of,” Plattsburgh said.

“According to Thrillist, it’s one of ‘The Ninety-Three Most Offbeat Things to Do in NYC,’” Minnesota added.

“To come here and look at me?”

“Yep.” Pennsylvania showed Dard on his phone.

There it was. Number seventy-eight.   

After pouring the pints and muttering vulgarities, Dard stepped outside for a breath. From his periphery, he perceived subtle movement from the base of the streetlight. An involuntary head-turn revealed an individual before him, a female youth, proximate to what Lorna described. The night kept her state of mind - allegedly “worried” - concealed. Until she stepped forward into the tavern’s glow.

“You alright?” he eventually mustered, in the face of her steadfast glare.

“Mister Indomitable,” she said.

A jaded pause. “It’s not actually my last name.”

“Like Christ.”

“Like what?”

“Christ isn’t really Jesus’s last name either.”

Dard scratched the side of his neck. “Um, look, if you’re part of a church or something, this isn’t the time for giving out pamphlets or whatever it is your parents make you do.”

They were on different wavelengths, but she used the topic as a way in. “No one in church will help, and they all know her. No one anywhere will help.”

He'd probably regret asking, but, “Help with what?”

“My sister.”

“What’s wrong with your sister?”

“She’s gone. They took her.”

“I don’t know what you’re saying exactly.” 

“Mariel.”

He emitted a confused exhalation. “Gonna head back inside now.”

“That’s my name. Mariel. Beatriz is my sister’s name.”

Dard expressed both compassion and frustration by taking a seat on the nearest siamese standpipe. “Your sister is missing.”

“Beatriz. Stolen.”

“Just now?”

“Two weeks ago.”

His brow furrowed. “How old is she?”

“Nineteen.”   

Dard felt something akin to amusement, though he didn’t show it. “She have a boyfriend?”

“No.”

“Girlfriend?”

“Like girlfriend girlfriend? No.”

“She has one or the other, and she probably ran off with them for a bit.”

“No.”

An exasperated sigh. “Did your family go to the police?”

Dard wasn’t usually one to recommend law enforcement. And not just because his fellow alumnus and former co-bad-guy-beater-upper and ex-friend and erstwhile confidant who abandoned him even though he’s one of only a handful of people in this world that could possibly relate to his life experience became the country’s top cop, wow, awesome, great for stupid him. No, Dard just didn’t like the police anyway.   

“We can’t,” she said.

“Why not?”

She didn't respond. This prompted Dard to do a kind of silent math. “Where you from?”

“Sunset Park.”

“Where are your parents from?”

“My mom's from Guatemala originally. My dad was from Puebla.”

“What do they do? For work?”

“My mom works at a nail salon. Will you help or not?”

“Help how?”

“Find her.”

At this moment he had a thought: it's nice to be wanted, not to be needed. He was figuring out how to extract himself from this situation and, because of the novel admiration he felt for the girl, didn’t want to just exit wordlessly as he normally preferred. “What was your name?”

“Mariel. And her name is Beatriz. Beatriz Abarca. Nineteen years old. Five-foot-three-inches high. Weight: a hundred-and-thirty-two pounds. But when you find her don’t tell her I told you that. I have pictures of her. Here, take one.” She handed him a print-out. “I can show you what her voice sounds like--”

“Listen.” He stood back up with a groan. It wasn’t easy with her peering up at him like that, anticipating one answer only and not the answer he had for her. "These past few years haven't been kind to me and--"

"I know. I Googled you. And Wikipedia’d you."

"You can't trust Wikipedia. Last I heard, it said I was made with musk ox DNA."

"So you're not?"

“No.”

“Any animal then?”

“Only the human one,” he rued.

A short silence passed. She didn’t budge from her spot.

“First off, I have no idea how to go about finding her. Do you?” he asked, not expecting a serious answer.

“Kind of. I know the last place she was seen. A bodega on Church Avenue and Story Street.”

“Snooping has never been a strength of mine. And my actual strengths are shot to hell anyway.”

“But you still have them?” she asked.

"Technically."

"And are you still good?"

The question poked him in the chest. "Good?"

"On like the side of good?"

Hm, Dard thought. I was. I am. Right? I mean, I may not have been good lately but I'm definitely not bad.

Right?

Dr. Gladys Hofspringer, the head of the covert program that created him, was his mother for all intents and purposes. He never knew the surrogate that carried him. No name, face, remnant of any kind. Did he look like her? Was every speck of him designed and customized by Hofspringer? Or were there traces of this forgotten woman in his makeup, as there would be any child? He never got the answers, thanks to the attack. Even when Hofspringer was alive she kept these things close to the chest. At least to the subjects. At least to him.

What he does know is that he was raised under the scientist and her team's forensic watch, in secrecy, calibrated to be a certain kind of being, one that used his extraordinary abilities for the right ideals, under the right banners, all that. Dardanus he was named, a forgotten offspring of Zeus, at the whims of cloistered academics. He was blueprinted and constructed to traverse the globe, spectacularly decimating all those put before him, withstanding blows and barrages that would take out entire towns, forget people. He was the son of science and the product of alchemy. He was a warrior of thunder and wrath. Social life was a simulation for him, a means to an end. The lab-controlled proxy upbringing he had was meant to prepare him for the mundanity of living so that it didn’t throw him off his actual, extraordinary purpose. Fast forward all these years later, and his existence had become completely mundane, the extraordinary parts defunct. And it was now obvious the mundane was the less prioritized aspect of his education. But did that education, through it all, teach him to be good? Like good, in a vacuum. Good, no matter what.

"Are you still, like, a superhero?" Mariel asked.

"Ah, fuck off with that!" Dard said knee-jerk, jolted back to the present, forgetting the age of his audience. He was about to apologize but saw she was unfazed.

“It’s alright,” she finally said. “The modern superhero is a complicated figure.”

“Superheroes are Marvel and DC and Japanese cartoons and all that other crap. Superheroes are not real life.”

“You have abilities that other people don’t.”

“So do sushi chefs. I’m basically a walking self-storage pod, Madeline. That’s about it.”

“Did you just call me Madeline? I’m Mariel.”

“Sorry. Long… day, we’ll call it.”

“Longer for Beatriz, I bet.”

At that, Mariel walked over to a bicycle that Dard hadn’t noticed leaning on a stop-sign and got on.

“Where you going?” he asked.

“To figure out another way. Keep the photo. Pass it around to someone who might actually care.”

And with that cutting remark she was off pedaling into the night.

Few hours later, just on the wrong side of midnight, Dard was behind the bar still mulling over Beatriz’s photo. He hadn’t noticed his Spotify stopped playing ten minutes earlier, and that the two lone patrons were sitting in eerie, ambient quiet.

“Excuse me,” one of them said, not impolitely. “Can I get another?”

Dard didn’t acknowledge him. The customer glanced at the other one in confusion, getting an empathetic shrug in return.

It was about a quarter past four when Dard finally pulled the shutters over The Halfway. The printout was folded up and peeking out of his jacket pocket.

The walk back to his basement studio apartment was unrushed, pensive. Dusk was beginning to glow behind the sheet of night. He didn’t have to look at Beatriz’s photo any more. It was stamped onto the front of his brain no matter what else he tried to think about, not that he tried to think about much else. What was he looking at? An innocent victim? An opportunity at redemption? Both?

As he opened the waist-high wrought-iron gate - knee-high for him, really - to enter his humble abode under the brownstone staircase, he got a text from Lorna.

U up?

Dard stopped before turning the key in the lock. Was he up? For this, right now? With Beatriz on his mind - God, why was Beatriz on his mind? And why was he calling her ‘Beatriz’ like it was his niece? She was a two-dimensional stranger. He didn’t even have full-blown proof she was real. Maybe he’s being catfished? Maybe Martha, if that even was her real name - wait, it wasn’t, it was Mariel - what if Mariel, if that even was her real name, didn’t have a sister? What if she’s just messing with him? What makes more sense: that this was a bizarre, elaborate ruse with a vague payoff for the trickster? Or that it was just, well, true?

Im hungry

Eating was something Dard could always get on board with, inner conflict or not. He was soon stuffed into a booth at Daisy’s Diner across from Lorna. She had just ordered a Greek salad with grilled salmon. He a double-order of corned beef hash and eggs and an absurd stack of rye toast buttered for him. And three large tomato juices.   

“Mariel. That’s her name.” Dard just wanted the food to get here. He wasn’t really up for sharing the details. But it might be good medicine to do so.

“What did she want?” Lorna asked, before sipping an unsweetened iced tea.

He snickered. “Oh, not much. Just to find her maybe-kidnapped sister.” He took out the photo and showed Lorna.

“This is her sister?”

“Apparently. Seen her?”

“Don’t think so. But… okay, so she was kidnapped?”

“What I was told.”

“Who took her?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why?”

“That I definitely don’t know.”

Lorna looked over the photo again. “And she asked you to find her? She didn’t go to the cops?”

“I think her parents - or her mom at least, doesn’t seem like the dad’s around - they’re not here totally legally. I don’t know. If so, can’t blame them. With all that ICE horseshit.” 

Lorna placed the photo flat on the table, still examining it.

“You want to know what I’m gonna do,” he said to her.

“I know what you’re gonna do. You’re gonna look for her.”

“Is that so?”

“That’s what it sounds like you’re telling me.”

Dard tilted his head like a perplexed pup.

“You held on to the photo. You remembered the details of an encounter with someone. That never happens. It’s obvious you want to do this. I’ll go further: you feel like you have to do this.”

The food came out hot and quick and they started digging in. Dard got distracted mid-meal by the jangle of a busted shopping cart passing right outside the window. He looked up to see a street-weathered face staring eagerly back at him. The face made its way inside the diner.

“Christ, this guy,” Dard said, resigned and peeved both.

“Who’s that?” Lorna asked.

“Some random dude in the neighborhood. Every time he sees me, he gets on me.”

“Look who the fuck it is, everyone!” the random dude bellowed from across the way. There was no one else eating in the diner. “America’s greatest hero! He’s gonna punch freedom into our enemy’s faces! Evil look out!” He capped his taunt with self-induced belly laughter.

“He’s crazy.” Lorna said to Dard.

“Opinionated, at least.”   

“Hey,” the random guy said, stumbling closer. “What was that little girl’s name? The one you left to die in the fire? Do you remember? How old was she? Whole life ahead of her. And what did you say? 'Can't jump into every fucking fire.' I seen a t-shirt with that on it. You making money off that?”

Never going to live that stupid cell phone clip down, Dard thought, am I?

“Hey,” Lorna said. “Leave him alone.”

“Yeah,” the random guy said. “You’re right. He doesn’t like to be bothered. Why should he be inconvenienced? He’s only got powers better people would die for. But no, yeah, you’re right. Why bother the fuck?”

Lorna stood up. “You think he doesn’t feel like shit about it??”

“Lorna--”

“You think it doesn’t eat at him every day of his life??”

“Seriously, don’t even humor the guy--”

She continued unabated. “Look at him. Look at this defeated creature. Cannonfire can’t beat this man down, but life has. People like you have.”

“Lorna,” Dard said, tight-jawed. “Please, please, sit back down.”

She scowled at the waitress behind the counter. “Just going to let him harass your customers?”

The random guy dropped loose change on the counter. “I'm a customer. I’m buying a corn muffin.” He turned to the waitress. “One corn muffin, please.”

Dard stood, took out some cash from his pocket and tossed it on the table. “Let’s go, come on.”

She fell asleep on him soon after climbing into his bed, jeansless but still in her shirt. Dard was still mostly clothed himself. He was staring off, tired but roused. His breathing heavied as he meditated indistinctly. In between those breaths he caught her letting out tiny snores, tinged with an aroma of feta cheese and vinaigrette. She's not even trying to brush her teeth anymore, he thought. Maybe this is turning into a relationship after all.

He didn't know how he felt about that. He didn't know how he felt about anything right now, tonight, this morning.

It was nearly midday, with Lorna still aslumber, when Dard slipped out of bed without an hour's sleep in his system. He took a quick photo of Beatriz's photo on his phone, grabbed his jacket and left.

Online PIJ1951

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This is not a genre I would normally read, but overall you write well. You kept me reading, and things got much better once you got the over-writing out of your system.

What do I mean by over-writing?

Your story takes a long time to get going because you decide to kick off by showcasing your verbosity rather than providing an instant hook. I'm patient so I stuck with it. But the first paragraph is a particular stinker, and many readers will browse the first page and if there's not enough there to grab their attention they will find something else to read.

You also over-describe - attaching an adjective (sometimes even two) to almost every noun. This makes for a slow, sluggish read. There's a lot you can trim without jeopardising the character development or plot momentum.

You also use unnecessary speech tags. 'said' is best - or none at all if it's obvious who is speaking.

For now, keep writing. This shows promise. But you might find the advice given in Stephen King's 'On Writing' invaluable.

Offline tmantino

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Thank you for the feedback. Very helpful.

Offline Jemacush

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I completely agree with the first critique. Trim it up a little and it’s a good read. Also, I thinks it’s a little long for one chapter, I think it could easily be two. One last thing, the section where he’s thinking about how he became what or who he is would be better off being revealed in conversation or slowly throughout the first part of the book. Otherwise, I think it’s really good.
JCush

Offline tmantino

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Appreciate that feedback too. I can definitely see where both of you are coming from. It's funny trying to be aware of overwriting but still doing it. 

Offline Jemacush

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I feel your pain. I have an issue with over-writing actions. It takes me two paragraphs to get someone from a chair to the window. I know I’m doing it but I have a heck of a time stopping myself, then I’m stuck with a lot of clean up.
JCush