I haven’t written in awhile. To be more precise, I haven’t written here for awhile. I didn’t even write a post about Twice Upon A Time, which is embarrassing. However, I have been writing.
For the last three years, I’ve been writing a science fiction trilogy of novels. This past year, I decided it was time to get serious and joined a Read and Critique group run by published novelist Tammy Greenwood through San Diego Writer’s Ink. This has required me to edit and submit my work over and over again until…well, until my fellow aspiring authors like it. It’s been incredibly fun, challenging and rewarding. As a result, my original pile of 150K words is slowly coalescing into an actual story that makes sense and, hopefully, makes the readers feel something good.
A few weeks ago, novelist/screenwriter/comic book author/nonfiction author Paul Cornell offered, through his newsletter, to spotlight unpublished, aspiring creatives of diverse (read under-represented) backgrounds. Since that’s me, I wrote him immediately about my “aspiring yet unpublished lesbian” status. Within days he got back to me, asking if I would be the first to be spotlighted.
Yes. Yes. Yes.
The trick is, while I have written, and even had published (Outside In Makes It So) some non-fiction writing, I have not published any creative writing. What to do?
We decided I would post the first few working draft (these are critical words, “working draft“) chapters of my first novel, currently titled Separation, here on my blog. This gives both my readers and his readers and opportunity to check-out me and my story.
My goal for completion of Separation is Fall of 2018. Then begins the long, drawn-out poker game that is finding an agent and a publisher. So I will not hazard a guess at publication, but I do intend to pursue it and shed the “unpublished” aspect of my persona.
What follows are the first four chapters of my novel. In case I haven’t been perfectly clear, these are WORKING DRAFTS, subject to improvement without warning.
I hope you enjoy. Mostly, I hope you want to read more.
I try to hold onto the dream, but it drifts away, like turning your head to catch the perfume of a beautiful woman walking by on a crowded street. Opening my eyes, there’s just black. I blink several times, but nothing happens. I bring my fingers to my face and feel my eyelids open and close. My heart starts to beat hard. Am I blind?
I try to sit up and bang my head against something hard and prickly. Shit. I reach up to rub my forehead and brush against a bunch of long, thin, bendable things. The smell of pine is so strong it’s like I took a bath in household cleaner.
I’m in the woods. I’m in the fucking woods.
A series of short, smooth, barking sounds come from my right. Instinctively, I turn to look and see the barest outlines of trees and bushes. Thank God. At least I’m not blind.
Scooching out from underneath the overhanging branches of a tree, I stand up and quickly discover I’m naked, standing in a clearing surrounded by tall trees, stars and a sliver of moon fill the small opening of sky. I cover my breasts with my arms. The night is alive with rustling, whistling sounds. I could be anywhere in the thousands of miles that is Olympic National Park, if I’m even still in the park. I have no idea how I got here and no memories after ditching group therapy and punching that asshole Marty Skellenburg.
This can’t be happening again. The last time I blacked out, Carol picked me up from Pioneer Park, where I’d apparently spent the night, and told me that she was done with me and my drinking. She wanted a divorce. We ugly fought. I hit her. She left with Hannah. I went to jail.
I try to activate my wrist comm, but it’s dark and silent. I bring my arm up close to my eyes, straining to see. My inner arm looks perfectly smooth. No gash, no mark, as if it was never there. Maybe there is something wrong with my eyes. Or it’s too dark too see. I push down hard all over my arm, but there’s nothing. I feel along my jaw and the resonator is gone, too. That’s impossible. Getting drunk doesn’t make implants I’ve had since I was 18 just disappear. Gone, broken, whatever the fuck’s wrong with it, now I have no way to contact anyone, anywhere. I want a drink.
I try to scan the rest of my body, it’s impossible to tell if there aren’t any cuts or bruises, it’s so dark. I can’t even see that ugly, round mole I know is on my right thigh. Even my head feels fine, which is not the way it goes after a black-out. I may not hurt, but I’m exhausted and my legs feel as if I’ve just finished the 3200 meter fly.
I turn all the way around, trying to figure out what happened, but there isn’t enough light. Beyond the clearing, the trees are too thick to let in the weak moonlight. I start to yell.
“Help! Help! Anyone here? Hello?” I yell for a while, hoping I’m still close enough Sitka to get someone’s attention, but nobody comes to my rescue, and I end up feeling ridiculous. There’s nowhere to go, nothing to do until morning when I can actually see something.
I make my way back to the tree and crawl underneath the branches. At least there’s some protection here. The ground’s covered in leaves and pine needles. I pile them up around me, lay down, and wait for the sun.
“Sarcasm is just a passive aggressive form of unmanaged anger,”Marty said, mimicking our therapist while pretending to be oh so helpful.
“All right, that’s enough Marty. Time’s up everyone. Good work and see you tomorrow,” Arlene intervened. Good thing, too. I was just about to show him some non-passive aggression. I watched him book it out of the group therapy room. Such a coward.
“Riley, can we chat for a second?” Arlene asked, then sat next to me on the metal chair where Marty had been. “I just want you to know that I see him provoking you and I appreciate your self-control. I know it’s not easy.”
“Ok… Thanks. I’m pretty sure I’d get kicked out of the program if I punched him.”
“True. But, you still get points for not doing it.” She paused and smiled. “He’s not the only one intimidated by you, you know.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Some people feel inadequate in the face of your accomplishments, Riley. Unfortunately, I don’t think he feels proud of his own success when compared to your Olympic medals.”
“I won those medals through dumb luck. They don’t really mean anything. Besides, why does he get to be a dick and you lecture me?”
Arlene sighed. “My intention is not to lecture you, but to help you find some compassion.”
“Because I should be a better person than him?”
“No, because compassion helps us heal. And you, my dear, need to heal.” She paused and then smiled. “Fine, you’re off the hook. Go get some lunch. I can smell Glenda’s pulled pork and baked beans now. I’ll see you for our individual session later.”
I left confused. I’m usually an asshole around Arlene, but it doesn’t seem to matter to her. It’s like she’s always on my side. Even with Carol, I knew I’d eventually piss her off so bad she’d leave. But I can’t seem to shake Arlene.
As I rounded the corner of the counseling center, I heard Marty, and I could tell he was pissed off. I followed the sound and behind a small grove of maple trees hiding the camp’s matter converter and found Marty pinning Daryl Grimwold against a wall. His fist was raised as he went in for a punch.
That was it. He could antagonize me all he wanted, but not someone as helpless as Daryl. While it occurred to me that this may not be my best possible choice, I ignored the thought, sprang forward and tackled Marty, knocking him off Daryl.
“You are such an asshole, Skellenburg. What did Daryl ever do to you?” I yelled in his face as Daryl scrambled away.
Marty was on his feet in seconds and came at me, fists raised. I punched him twice, popping his nose open. He backed off, wailing. It took everything I had to stop there. Thinking it was over, I walked away to get the Doc. Even losers get to see the doctor. Next thing I knew, he slammed into me from behind, driving me forward. My head exploded in pain as I collided with a tree.
I hear that barking sound again and decide it must be an owl. I imagine a big, fluffy, white one, with huge eyes, sitting in the tree above, watching over me.Chapter Two
“Sitka Wellness Center,” the sign is supposed to read. But some of the nails had rusted and a few of the letters have fallen off the rough-hewn log sign, so now it reads “Sit Well ess Center.” I smile. It’s pretty close to “Sit well ass center,” which is surprisingly accurate, since the mission of Sitka is to get people to sit down long enough to heal. Anyway, Charles should get someone to fix it. I’ll remind Rebecca to put it on his to-do list.
I let the transport glide into the facility’s small landing pad to conserve fuel, anything to make our budget work this year, and check my comm as I walk across Sitka’s large, grassy, “parade grounds” (a term left over from the area’s Boy Scout camp years) on the way to meet with Charles at his office. Nine AM on the dot. Riley has been missing since 1:15 yesterday after allegedly punching the resident bully and then taking off into the woods. She has such a knack for finding trouble.
I give a couple of knocks before entering the admin cabin.
“Good afternoon, Sheriff Strathmore,” Rebecca, Sitka’s Assistant Director, greets me. “Dr. Duncan is expecting you. You can head right on in.”
“Thanks, Rebecca.” I stop and turn. “When are you gonna get around to fixing that sign?”
“Handyman is scheduled for tomorrow. Thank you for your concern,” she replies, not even looking up. I shake my head at her prim efficiency and walk into Charles’ office.
He’s sitting at his desk, writing on actual paper with a wooden pencil.
“Hey Emily, have a seat.”
I take off my wide-brimmed hat and place it on the other ancient leather club chair before siting down in front of his substantial, mahogany desk, also left over from when the Boy Scouts owned the place.
“What’s with the antique pencil and paper?” I ask him. “Won’t you just dictate into your compad anyway?”
“Yep,” he replies. “But, I like the way it feels in my hand. And the sound of graphite scraping against the wood fibers. Want to try?”
“No thanks. I believe I have a statement to take and a resident to find?” I ask.
“You do,” he says.
“So, Riley finally decked Skellenburg?”
“No excuses, but I can’t say I blame her. That man should get an honorary degree in provocation. Afterwards, Riley took off into the woods? Any idea what precipitated the incident?”
“He said they were arguing about her progress in treatment, though I doubt that’s all that transpired between them. Mr. Skellenburg would like to press assault charges.”
“There were no witnesses?”
“He claims they were alone and no one has come forward.”
Sometimes I miss the days of video monitoring. Privacy intrusion laws make my job much more difficult. I sigh.
“He didn’t slug her back?” I ask.
Charles shakes his head with a smile.
“An innocent victim, huh? This isn’t Marty’s first incident, Charles. And the story is always the same. He’s a bully.”
“Is that you’re professional opinion, Sheriff Strathmore?”
I ignore him and continue. “I mean, Riley is no saint either, but unless she can prove self-defense, punching Marty in the shnoz is going to land her back in jail, regardless of the provocation. And, while I understand the therapeutics of taking a time-out in the woods, it only makes things worse for her legally.”
“I know. They’ve both screwed the pooch,” he says, tossing the pencil onto his desk. “Depending upon the outcome of your investigation, Marty is likely to be sent back to his Adjudicator for alternative Reparations. But Riley’s path is less clear. Up until now, despite some set-backs, she’s made good progress towards program completion,” he continues. “Not that it matters right now. She’s been gone overnight and I’m worried.”
“She’s not answering her comm?”
“That’s the strange bit. It’s not even registering as active.”
“She way too young for her nanos to wear out; it must have been damaged. I’ll get Justine to see if she can do some techno-magic. In the meantime, without a comm trace, we’ll need to hunt her down the old-fashioned way. Make sure she didn’t get eaten by a bear. Though, Riley’s a tough nut. I’m more worried for the bear.” I chuckle. “I’ll call Mike and have him come over with the hound team. Can we use Sitka staff to search?”
“I’ll ask Rebecca to round them up,” he says.
“Once we’re organized, I’ll find Marty and take his statement. Let’s meet at the parade grounds in 30.”
“You got it.”
This time, there’s no clinging to my dream as I wake-up, just the twisting cramps of some serious hunger. Dark, green, pine needles hang in my face and their smell is still overwhelming. The birds are singing so loud I want to cover my ears. I’m cold. I push away the branch and sit-up. The tree must have kept me dry, because everything else is wet. I crawl out from under the branches and stand up, jumping up and down to warm up. Narrow shafts of early morning sunlight cut through the trees now, making the clearing glow in contrast to the gloom of the thick summer woods beyond. Now that I can see, I search for the clothes I was wearing yesterday. But there aren’t any clothes, just muddy, wet leaves covering the ground.
I check my wrist again, stupidly hoping to find my comm, but my skin is still smooth and even. Maybe I was too tired or strung out last night to feel afraid, but terror comes over me now and I sink to the ground. I have no idea what’s happened to me, but I’ve got to get back to Sitka. They could kick me out for being gone overnight. And for punching that pervert. This is my last chance. The Adjudicator was clear: prove I’m a good mommy by finishing the program or lose any hope of getting Hannah back.
A piercing, high pitched whistle startles me. I look over and see a small bird with black markings, long beak, and an orange chest sitting on a broken branch, dangling at 90 degrees. The bird whistles again and flies away. I walk over and notice a whole bunch of ripped and broken limbs in the thick bushes. Either a big animal did that or I did. Though, I figure I’d be scratched up pretty good if I’d forced myself through all that. Something about the direction pulls on me. I look around on the ground near the branches, but there aren’t any footprints. Of course, because rain. Shitty rain. And masses of leaves. Whatever broke those branches made a path, like a trail of breadcrumbs leading me to the witch’s oven. A sudden breeze blows through the clearing, giving me chills, and I swear I can smell bacon frying. Someone must be in that direction.
Fuck it. My intuition is the only intel I have to get somewhere with more people and less trees. I start walking. A little way from the clearing I find a bunch of white fur caught in some leaves. I pull it off the branch and rub the coarse hair through my fingers, which makes them tingle. Surprised, I drop the fur and shake my hand. What the hell lives in these woods? Some kind of albino wolf?
It’s going to be fine; I just need to get back to Sitka.
I keep following the path of destruction. After a few hundred yards, it turns into a narrow, dirt trail bordered by some serious undergrowth of grass and shrubs. It reminds me of the animal trail we followed during a walk when I first got to Sitka. I don’t know where this path leads, but deep in my chest, under my heart, I feel a tugging, like someone tied a rope to my spine, pulling me this way. And there’s the smell of food cooking. So, I walk and walk and walk.
Despite the crazy situation, it’s peaceful out here. I haven’t been alone and unsupervised since I got to Sitka in April. And, it’s warmed up, so my ass isn’t freezing off anymore. I want to just space out and forget I’m butt naked, but the forest pushes at me, invading my senses, and I can’t help but notice every fucking thing. The wet, shiny, emerald green of all the plants is easy to look at, and the forest is filled with birds, sounding like a million wind chimes all ringing at once. As the soft, leaf-strewn ground squishes through my toes, it releases a musty, earthy smell. Both sides of trail are practically walled in by low growing plants which rustle against my legs with every step. The trees above me are so tall and close together almost no sunlight makes it down to the ground. They drip with an ashy green moss. It should feel really creepy, but it doesn’t because of the flowers. They’re mostly white and low to the ground, but every once in a while there are bushes with balls of pink flowers that practically glow against the green. They smell sweet, almost cloying. I even come across some berries I recognize from Sitka. Glenda makes an amazing rhubarb-salmonberry pie.
I stop walking to eat the berries, and hear water. I realize I’ve been hearing it for a while now. Excellent. I’m dying of thirst. Keeping an eye out for bears, who also love salmonberries, I stuff my face. Maybe that fur was from an albino bear.
It’s going to be fine. I’ll get back.
When my hunger eases, I decide to find the water. It’s to my left. The smell of bacon is gone, so before I leave my “trail,” I find a couple of big branches on the ground and make them into a cross. I go get one more branch and make it look like it’s pointing in the direction I was going. It would suck a really big one if I got turned around and ended up back where I started.
I leave the trail and trek through the undergrowth towards the water. A few hundred feet away there’s a wide, shallow stream. It sparkles in the little bit of sunlight filtering through the trees. I sit down on the bank and put my feet in, leaning down to slurp water using my cupped hands. Streams like this used to be so polluted you’d get sick if you drank from them. Thank God, we figured out that shit in time for me to get lost.
The water feels cool and tingly against my skin. I’m hot and want it all over my body, so I carefully step into the stream and lie down on the slick, bumpy rocks, letting the shallow water flow over me. See? I’m just skinny dipping, not wandering around naked in the woods. The sunlight moves back and forth over me with the swaying trees. I tilt my head back and let my long hair float with the lazy current. Water’s my jam. Some people dream of being birds and flying. Those dreams are my nightmares. I dream of being a dolphin, or a water breathing human, free in the ocean. The water chills me out and my thoughts drift.
“Alright, Ms. McCain. I need to make sure you understand exactly what’s going to happen next. We are going to re-route the pleasure centers of your brain around your alcohol associations. That means you’ll no longer enjoy the effects of alcohol. You can still make yourself get drunk, but you will find no pleasure in it when you do. You’ll just feel sick. Do you understand?” the neurochemist explained.
“Yep. Got it Doc. Drinking will suck and so will life, but I’ll have to go on anyway,” I replied, trying to sound like I didn’t give a fuck when all I wanted to do was drown in the closest vat of cheap vodka. Though I’d have to even work hard for that.
“It looks like you are going to Sitka Wellness Center for your adjustment treatment?” he continued, flipping through my chart.
I swallowed and nodded.
“I know Dr. Duncan, the director there. He is very good. I am sure you will make a full adjustment and recovery. Who is going to take you to Sitka and help you get settled in?”
“No one.” I said. “I’m alone.”
He looked up for the first time and frowned.
Alright. Enough of that.
I sit up and run my hands through my hair, discovering a mess. I scrabble at it, pulling pine needles from the wet, tangled matts as the sharp, acrid smell of pitch tingles in my nose. I wince when I also pull-out some strands of my bleached white hair stuck to the needles. I drop them into the stream and watch as they drift away, swirling and dipping with the current.
I’ve got to keep going.
I stand up, too quickly, and slip on a moss-covered stone. My ankle twists underneath me, and I start to fall. I reach out my right hand to stop myself and hear something snap when I hit the stream bed, then I collapse completely into the water.
Pain explodes up my right arm and I scream, but water fills my mouth. I cough and retch as I role over onto my left side and sit up.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
I feel dizzy with the pain and dry heave into the water, but there’s nothing to throw-up.
Thirty minutes later, most of the Sitka staff gather at the parade grounds. A few will stay on campus with the residents during the search. Charles arrives first, the SAR team trailing behind him. We review the plan and then Charles calls for everyone’s attention.
“Alright crew, listen up. Riley McCain bugged out early yesterday afternoon after an altercation with another resident. Put your hand down Dusty; I’m not going into the details. She’s not back, so it’s time to bring our girl home.” He pauses and gestures for me to step forward. “Sheriff Strathmore is going to lay-out the plan.
“Thanks, everyone, for helping out. As you can see, we’ve got the Clallam County Search and Rescue dogs out with us today. Please stay out of their way and let them do their jobs. Divide yourselves into teams of three or four. I’ve marked out search areas on these maps.” I shoot out maps to their comms. “Take an area, some water, a med kit and head out. I expect each team to check-in every 30 mins with Dr. Duncan or myself. If you find Riley, or see anything suspicious, send out an comm alert to code 6363.”
“And let’s be clear,” Charles interjects, “You don’t check in, you’ll find a shit storm when you return. Hear me?”
They all nod, most looking somewhere between grim and amused, and turn to form teams.
Charles gives Mike one of Riley’s old t-shirts. It’s the one she wore the last time I was here. On the front there’s a cartoon of two round, bumpy, robots. Riley called them Daleks. One was a therapist, the other a patient on a couch. The therapist was confirming that patient’s narcissism, OCD, anti-social, borderline personality disorders were perfectly normal. I had to ask her what Daleks are. She rolled her eyes at me and called me a pop culture moron. I could tell she loves that shirt.
Once the teams are organized and on their way, I head out to investigate the incident that allegedly sent Riley to the woods. I find Marty down behind the lakeside bunkhouse with a bunch of other Sitka clients, sitting on cheap plastic chairs. I pause and listen as he regales them with his version of the fight with Riley, until I walk around the corner, at which time he clams up.
He’s a mess with two black eyes and a nose wrapped in bandages; the good doctor’s work, no doubt.
I flick my fingers at the groupies, and they scatter like cats in a back alley.
“Alright Marty. Dr. Duncan tells me you would like press assault charges against Ms. McCain?”
“Yeah, that’s right. Fuck her. Look what she did to me!”
“Well, let’s save that for your official statement, shall we? Don’t want to miss anything,” I say and hit record on my wrist comm. “Right,” I say a little louder to make sure it’s clear. “Mr. Martin Skellenburg, please give your verbal assent to the recording of your official statement. In giving your assent, you are acknowledging that everything you say can be used by law enforcement and the judicial system to pursue justice for all involved parties. You are also acknowledging that you give this statement as an act of free will and have not been coerced in any way.”
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever,” he says.
“Finally, please affirm that you are telling the truth, the whole truth, and that you pledge to not provide false information nor will you deliberately leave out pertinent information.”
“Yeah. Just get on with it.”
“Please tell me what happened.” I pause to give him my “don’t you dare give me any shit, I’m the goddamn Sheriff” look. He stares at me for a bit, as if assessing his choices, then shrugs his shoulders.
“Freak lost her shit with me, that’s what happened. There’s something wrong with that bitch. It’s not my fault she can’t handle a little constructive criticism.”
I look at him and wait.
“I told her that she’d been avoiding taking responsibility and I wouldn’t give her kid back if I was the judge.”
“Is that all? I can’t imagine why she punched you.”
“I know, right? So, I had to protect myself. I pushed her back. It’s not my fault she tripped and fell against a tree.”
“Did she hurt herself?” I ask, keeping it cool.
“How the hell should I know? She hit her head against a tree and fell down. Then, she started shaking, like she was having a seizure or something. Before I could help her,” he said and I try not to roll my eyes, “she ran into the woods. That’s it.”
“I swear, Sheriff. She ran away, so she had to be OK, right?”
“I believe people can be hurt and move at the same time, Mr. Skellenburg,” I say, trying to dial back the sarcasm for the record. “Was there anyone else around to see what happened?”
“Nope, just me and the bitch,” he says quickly.
“Alright, one more question. Which way did she go?
© 2018 Heather M. Berberet, Psy.D. aka Doctor Who: On The Couch. All rights reserved.