I've been writing & publishing under an additional pen name, making some extra scrilla. And time drifts... but I'll be back.
Last month I did yet another full rewrite on Evening's Land. Putting everything into first POV, adding tension, more of a backstory. I think I've got the first two thirds in pretty good shape. But now the final third is comparatively blah.
I'll revisit it in December or January and then relaunch my efforts with agents... still have a few that are pending, thinking about what I sent, I guess. With the holidays there's an understandable slowdown. I'm just hoping I can get one to bite hard so I can nudge all the others and hopefully then achieve a cascade effect... only one of them has the newest version, and I'd really like them all to see it, as I think that'd make a helluva difference. But you're not supposed to nudge unless you get an offer of representation. And so. I work & wait.
Since I'm planning to neglect you really, really terribly now, I'm going to leave you with the new opening to the book. You can see I reordered some of the chapters, and you can see the new voice of the main narrator. (Jesus Christ, I can't wait to get back to working on Savages....)
I'll paste in a little bit of the old intro as well, so you can see the differences.
⇥ Evening’s Land ⇤
“The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead….”
====== Chapter 1 ==================================================
Roy Northcutt had been drinking High Life ever since uncle Bake slapped a cold one in his hand on the first and only morning Bake ever took him noodling for catfish. His uncle was a big, barrel-chested autocross champion with a scrim of curly red hair that could have upholstered a sofa, and dancing ladies tattooed up his arms- so when Bake winked and said, “Son, this here’s the champagne of beers, the breakfast of champions,” Roy drank it down. He was ten.
The first gulp was like blood and nickels, and the next came sweet and bready and light and suddenly it was going down like Missouri sunshine. The lakewater sparkled as Bake launched over the side and slapped the boat, wading them towards a nest of cattails.
“Now this is what you call a very old technique, kiddo,” he said.
Roy listened. He was looking out for cottonmouths because his mother had warned him that Bake sometimes got “fast and loose.”
“Men been catching fish this way for damn near eons. When you grab hold of your first bad boy its like catching hold of where you came from, you understand me?” Bake grinned. His hair was thin and orange in the sun.
“Yes sir,” Roy said, although he didn’t understand.
“Now, these stumps here, this’n’s where a lot of holes is, and the catfish, they like to belly on in and hole up, see? They feed at night and sleep during the day. So I’m gonna stick my hand in and feel around. If you don’t feel anything that feels like a catfish, son, you just bolt right the hell on back, all right, cause like as not its a snake or turtle. They all like the same holes.”
And Roy felt a little scared, but he nodded.
He shook his head.
Bake guffawed. “That’s all right, this time you can just watch. Here, give me another.”
Roy did, shyly taking another for himself. Bake opened one and then the other with his teeth, spitting the caps into the boat. Ping. Ping.
“All right. Mother fucking yee-haw, right kid? You and me, we should do this more often. So I’m gonna reach down in there and haul me up a catfish. Trick is, you want him to take yore hand as bait and then you reach in and grab his gills, kind of hook your hand in, you know what I’m saying? And then you tug him out.” Bake whacked the boat again. “Here I go. See you soon, kid.”
He slid under. For a moment Roy could still see him, his uncle’s broad curly-haired back luminescently pale beneath the silky green water. But Bake must have finger walked deeper, towards more interesting and lesser known holes, turning his back to the friendly shore. The water sealed above him, smooth as glass, and Bake disappeared.
It must have looked for all the world as though Roy were out there alone on the lake, a kid high on his first beers. The afternoon buzzed. Somewhere a frog jumped in. It began, gradually, to seem as though Bake had been gone an awfully long time, although he didn’t know how long noodling should take, or how long Bake could hold his breath. He listened to water lap hungrily at the boat.
(fast and loose, that’s what his mother had said)
But Bake never came up again. Roy didn’t know how to start the engine, so he leapt off into the cold lake and flailed to shore. Every slip of algae against his legs made the blood beat hard in his throat; any moment he expected a heavy, cold strand to close over his ankle, to pull him down into the dark. He plunged through the cat tails, his toes sliding in the warm, bristly mud. He was screaming now- maybe he’d been screaming all along.
“Bake! Uncle Bake!”
But the lake was silent, staring accusingly back at him like a big green eye in the earth as Roy stood on the shore, his heart shrieking in his chest. He ran up to the road to flag down a truck. Then it was hours later, there was a crowd and flashing lights, he was still standing there shivering down by the lake in a policewoman’s blanket when they finally drug up poor old Bake’s body out of the miserable goddamn water, and Bake was bloated and cold and incontestably dead.
The skin on one of his uncle’s big freckled forearms was sawed through.
“That was one great big catfish, yes it was,” some cop had said.
And that was uncle Bake. Murdered by a catfish in a sunlit pond. Just 28 years old. Bake had been just a kid then, too, but of course Roy had no way of knowing that then. Now, some thirty odd years later, older than Bake would ever be, whenever Roy Northcutt drank a beer, he drank High Life.
He was on his third of the evening, enjoying the fine porch weather of early April in Charleston, South Carolina when an alarm in St. Philips, a gated colonial era church across the street, began to shrill. St. Phillips. He shot to his feet.
Those big wrought iron gates were locked every weekday at four-thirty, smack on the dot. There was no way some tourist could have bumbled in to trip the thing off. Roy quickfooted it into the kitchen, snatching his 40 cal Glock from the drawer and his walkie talkie from the counter. He ran outside, calling dispatch as he dropped into the street.
“Unit 1 to dispatch.” Trying not to pant. Those Millers had nailed him.
A woman’s voice crackled. “Unit 1.”
“This is the Chief. I’ll be responding to an audible alarm at 142 Church Street. The church.”
“Copy, Chief,” she said.
The gate was hanging open. Jesus. Roy lit up the stairs and kicked the door; it swung in on dark pews. “Unit 1 to dispatch, there is an open door.”
“All units transmitting on Channel 1, standby.”
He had his Glock out, crossing his right hand over the left one that held the walkie talkie. Smell of candle wax and dust, Jesus Christ, why were all churches so fucking creepy? The statues of saints were the brightest points of lights in the place. He swept his gun from side to side, his body packed solid with adrenaline. There. Someone was kneeling at the altar, a youngish long-haired man in a black coat. Praying?
“Police! Put your hands in the air! Dispatch, there is someone in the church.”
“Are you 04?” Dispatch said, as the man turned slowly and smiled, his pale, hooded eyes seeming to deepen as they fixed on Roy Northcutt.
“Hands in the air! Is there anyone else in here?”
The man’s hair was the color of toasted malt, and he brushed it back from his handsome face carelessly as he stood, still holding Roy’s eyes.
“I repeat, is there anyone else in this church!”
“Oh, yes. The Holy Spirit, officer.”
Roy relaxed, trying not to laugh. Fantastic. A crazy man. He lowered his gun slightly.
“Are you 04?” Dispatch said again.
“Yeah, we’ve got a six-seven,” Roy said.
A sound tufted behind him. He knew that sound; knew it instantaneously even as the bullet ripped through him. Shot. He was shot. He went down. Blood, carpet, it all went black.
“Shot fired! Are you 04? 322 Edward, start en route to 142 Church Street. Requesting all additional officers en route to 142 Church Street. Officer, are you 04?”
The blonde man stood at the altar, studying Roy’s body with interest. He glanced up as the shooter loped out from the back of the church and down the aisle, his long, olive-colored coat flying open behind him as he crossed through the pews, away from the blood, to the other side of the church.
“Officer, are you 04?” Dispatch said.
Sirens wailed from the dead man’s walkie talkie as additional officers signed on.
The man in black turned, crashing over a statue of Mary with a gloved hand. Her head rolled onto the floor; he lobbed it through a stained glass window. The shooter rapped out the remaining glass in the pane with his gun. There was an explosion of sound, instantly stoppered by the grass outside as abruptly as metal chimes stopped by a hand.
“After you, sir,” he said.
The walkie talkie crackled behind them on the wet red carpet. “Chief! Are you 04?”
He leapt free into the yard.
=========== Chapter 2: There was a Girl,============================
======================== and there was a Ghost====================
Three Years Later:
June 7th, 2014
My dreams smell like fire; paper lanterns drifting apart in the hot light of day, harmless as balls of dust. But at night I’m caught inside them. I close my eyes, my mind rises into lanterns of smoke and fire, into shadow worlds of sleep. My friend is there, faceless as a cloud, and doors pull me through again and again into my past.
Into a white room that is filled with blood, and her letters.
A man’s smile, floating there like an errant moon- he reaches to grab me. To pull us both back into the car. His hands are so cold they sear through to my bones, and I can’t scream. I can’t scream and I can’t wake up, and it hurts when I finally do. The lanterns come apart and I slide free of my tangled sheets, cold with sweat, and stare at the dust circling in the light from the street.
Sleep waits in my bed like a man with a gun.
Even now, wrapping myself in a towel, I can almost believe it waits behind the fog in the mirror, too. My voice clicks in my throat, loud in the silence. I cut the fog clear with the edge of my hand, but the mirror’s surface only clouds again, swallowing the reflection of my earrings like golden fish sinking deeper into a pond. Long earrings, bronze like my eyes. I don’t look at my eyes, though.
I dress in my room beside the old fireplace, looking out the leaded glass windows into the street. It’s summertime and the bricks are flooded with bicyclists, tourists. The occasional car or carriage tour is welded down there, too: the multi-colored gridlock staring up admiringly at all the colonial-era houses.
A couple years ago my parents were doing the same thing. He bought this place for her on a lark. That’s what they called it, but we knew it was his final, last-exit stab to try to save their marriage. They’ve been fixing the house up these last couple of months while I started college. But that didn’t exactly work out, so here I am. Just the three of us, like before. Locked together in free-fall, like always.
Just outside my bedroom is a door that opens onto the second-floor gallery into magnolia trees. When you sit there you’re almost completely hidden from the street, like you’re in a treehouse. Leaf-filtered sunlight and wisteria is sweet in the air around you, and the soft, creaky floorboards are covered in golden pollen and warm from the sun. Nell would have loved it.
I see it again, my last memory of her, in a hard wash of light like a camera’s flash. The post-it note, wilting down from the warm bathroom door, covered with Nell’s big, scratchy handwriting-
Ada don’t come in.
Our dorm room carpet was slushy with bathwater under my bare feet as I tore open the door. There was blood in the water and half-dissolved pain pills coming apart in the water like tiny little yellow pom-poms all around her. She would have gotten a minor kick out of that, the pom-poms.
I wonder about those men in the car, the terrifying darkness that lived inside them. I wonder what it was about us that made them select us out of the crowd. For a long time afterwards, the darkness that lived in them seemed to be inside everything. Even the desert sunlight. Even the sunlight, began to seem glittering, ruthless. We couldn’t take it.
We’d retreated into our room like the drying tide, Nell and I. We were gonna wait things out with cigarettes, booze, anime cartoons. That was the plan. We were gonna wait it out together until we felt better. Until people bumping into us by accident in a crowd didn’t seem like icy hands, like floating smiles- I mean, we hadn’t even told our parents yet. Nell didn’t have the best relationship with hers.
In the end, I had to tell them alone. Mrs. Taillefer’s face in the dorm’s hallway, stretching tight as a balloon. By then it was a crime scene. Mrs. Taillefer kept repeating the words I said to her, as if she were trying to use them to climb out of something, the unimaginable dark hole that was swallowing us both. “She just-couldn’t anymore. She was tired, she was tired.”
I pick up my tobacco and go out onto the porch to roll a cigarette. And sitting there within the envelope of drowsy light coming down through the trees, it still seemed so strange to be alive, to be real, when Nell was not and never would be again.
Still, I wanted a cigarette. And so long as you can keep your wantin’ pants on, you’re still in the game. That’s what my mom says. Anyway, that’s what she used to say, before they started treating me like some kind of terminal case.
I pull out a sheet of transparent paper and drizzle threads of tobacco into the crease, rolling and compacting them carefully into a whiskey-colored ridge. The air around me is soft and full, carrying rain, and the warm floorboards are gritty with pollen under my feet. The tobacco smells sweet on my fingers, like wood shavings. The crackle of the papers is a sound as pleasant as the turning of a page. I finish the roll, licking it closed from end to end, and start to file it into the old silver makeup compact I use for a cigarette case, but I light up instead and sit there, listening to fire eat away at my tobacco, the way daylight singes at the edges of a dream.
I’m rolling another when I notice the paper beginning to soften in my hands, and the air cools slightly. Rain starts clicking through the trees, echoing off the cobblestone street. People shout and run to their cars.
I can’t get used to it, all this rain. In Tucson, the summer downbursts couldn’t ever cover the whole city at the same time. You could see a storm on the horizon and follow it along in the distance with your finger, like a hair-comb coming down from the sky to make neat, dark furrows across the city. You could smell the creosote bushes on the wetted air and the rain was like bathwater. Big, lazy drops you could follow all the way down your windowpane. And after an hour or so, the sun came through again, drying out the air.
Here in Charleston, it rains hard for days at a time, sometimes weeks. The air never dries out, not completely. Sometimes you can even feel condensation gather between your fingers when you walk. The streets swell with rainwater, floating up cars, and college kids paddle down the streets on their surfboards and kayaks.
I went inside and opened my windows. I had to push hard to get the panes to lift; it was an old house, and the property had been abandoned for years before my parents bought it.
Something to do with an unlucky death, the realtor said. And when the rain clicked down on the trees outside, you got this feeling like the house itself was remembering its secrets. When rain fell, strange noises lived in the walls, and shadows came unfixed, while outside the magnolias clawed to be let in, out of the rain; the falling towers and balconies of unending rain that fall on summertime South Carolina. Yet the floorboards were warm to my feet, and the rooms smelled like vanilla and books in the sun. In watery sunlight I lay in bed, reading shadows on the walls.
And from there we go downstairs and meet her parents, and then when Ada goes to sleep everything goes sideways.
Here's the way the beginning used to go:
⇥ Evening’s Land ⇤
“The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead….”
Silence waited in the house like a man with a gun, watching the rain slip in. For the boy belonged now to Silence as flies belong to the web that kills them.
But Christopher hid himself in dreams.
=========== Chapter 1: There was a Girl,=============================
======================= and there was a Ghost=========
Ada’s dreams smelled like fire; paper lanterns that drifted away if she didn’t write them down. She had to trap them with a pen. That was how it started. She wrote them down.
The boy was always there now when she went to sleep, his touch shivering through her, licking cold into the doors of her bones. His floating smile like an errant moon beside. Even now, as she wrapped herself in a towel, she almost believed he was behind the fog in her mirror.
“Who are you?” Ada whispered, cutting the fog with her hand.
The mirror only clouded, swallowing the reflection of her earrings. Earrings bronze like her eyes. Gypsy eyes, her father called them. And she was alone.
She dressed in her room beside the old fireplace made cheerful by the leaded glass windows surrounding it. Standing at the windows, she looked down into the street, flooded with bicyclists and carriage tours admiring the colonial era houses. And just outside her bedroom door was a second-floor portico that opened into magnolia trees— Ada loved her room, though it was changeful.
The property had been abandoned for years before her family arrived. Left to go wild in the center of Charleston, South Carolina, it was something to do with an unlucky death, the realtor said. But when it rained, the house remembered its secrets.
When it rained strange noises lived in the air of the house. Shadows came unfixed, while outside the magnolias clawed to be let in, out of the rain; the falling towers and balconies of unending rain that fell on summertime South Carolina.
Yet the floorboards were warm to Ada's feet, and the rooms smelled like vanilla and books in the sun. In pale sunlight she lay in bed, reading her dreams.
“Dinner…?” Tobias said.
“Mom said to make sure you ate.”
“Of course, of course. Well, have you eaten? I’ll bring home something.”
“No, daddy, we have roast beef here. Come home, I’m lonely. I’ve been alone all day.”
“Did you finish your report?” he said.
Dr. Walker was wonderful that way— he kept a notebook of things to ask people about. Once he’d left it unguarded beside her in the car. Ada: silverwork, bicycle, college apps.
“Almost,” she said.
At nine o’clock, he came in the door to lay his newest flavor of IceAir on the kitchen counter. Ada tasted a disc. “It’s fizzy, salty... caramel, or something. Mmm. Not quite caramel. More than caramel.”
“Do you love it?”
She kissed his rumpled forehead. “I love it.”
“You always say that.” Beaming, Tobias sat back at the scarred kitchen table, crossing his long legs. He’d forgotten to wear socks, and his ankles were marbled like expensive cheese.
“Do I?” She dolloped roast into their bowls.
“What shall we call it?”
“Lovely, cherie. I’ll run it by Mike tomorrow. Now tell me about your report. It’s, ah, about voodoo, isn't it?”
“It’s about lots of things,” Ada said, pulling off her rings, arranging them on the table. She picked up the arrowhead, tracing it over the lines of her palm. "I’m going to incorporate this thing about Muhammad Ali, the boxer? He was explaining how he maintained focus during a fight; he says he goes into a room, daddy, a little room he keeps in his mind."
"Is that right?"
"He goes into this room and there's a mask on the wall. A warrior’s mask. And he takes it down and puts it on. Just during fights."
"Becoming the mask," Tobias said. "Marvelous. I wonder what sort of masks you and I should keep in mind. Ha ha."
"You could have one with crazy Einstein hair."
Tobias touched his hair absently— for some reason Ada had it in her head that Albert Einstein was his boyhood hero. Over the years she’d given him Einstein mugs and Einstein calendars and Einstein shirts and aprons, none of which he ever remembered to use. “Mm?”
"To help you be smart. And divorce mom.”
“Jesus, Ada. Yours would be someone with tact, I hope."
"No. With confidence." An elaborate sigh.
"Did you ride your bike downtown today, gingersnap?"
"Maybe tomorrow. When I start up school again, I was thinking I'd do homework at coffee shops. You know, to meet people."
“The coffee houses will be full of frat boys.”
“You mean writers, artists… cafe life...”
Her father rolled his eyes.
“Oh, you hate everyone,” she said. “Such an elitist.”
“I’m not. Just— specific. Listen, I know it's summer, honey, but what if you began your studies early? We could find a group, you could check in with them… Your cousins homeschool year round."
“I am studying. I’m doing this report, remember?”
“That hardly constitutes—”
“I thought you wanted me to follow my interest? I am. I’m ok so far, aren’t I? Daddy, make me a love potion.”
Tobias leaned back. “But how would you feel if your mother and I—”
“You’re saying you think you could?”
“I can do anything. I can even customize it so you fall in love with Mike.”
“I love these little conversations of ours. Mike’s great. He’s nice.”
“Just what I always wanted. The guy who picks his nose with his pinkie.”
“You could do worse, homeschool.” Tobias rumpled her hair. “He said to tell you hello, by the way.”
She ducked his hand, fixing her hair reflexively. “Have you found an assistant here yet?” Tobias shook his head, picking up one of Ada’s rings as his wife came into the kitchen, grocery bags braceleted over her arms. She kicked the door closed, and on second thought turned to see if she’d marked it.
“Fuck. Oops. Well, that’ll buff out, don’t you think…?” Then Mary was shaking groceries onto the counter; lentils, butter, spices; wet, flopsy slabs folded into butcher’s envelopes. Thinking: what if she began using her maiden name again?
“Where have you been?” Tobias said.
Mary: date nights—
“… I went out with the boys. The interns,” Mary said. Birlant-Walker; it was like poetry. “The fish you can get out here, just incredible. It doesn’t even smell like fish.” She held an envelope to his nose. “Smell.”
Her smile too quick, too wide. Mary turned away, slamming cupboards, shoving in groceries. That smile. “They’re doing a story on diners and dives. How’s the roast?”
Ada pressed her toes into the rug.
“But we said we’d take a break from the station. Make a fresh start.” Tobias reached for his wife.
“‘We?” She danced away, shining. “You mean I’ll take a break. While you go on as you always have— I’m the one who’s supposed to stop everything. Remember? Well, how nice for—”
“We moved across the fucking country to do this again? Mary, goddamn—”
Ada picked up the plates and went up to bed.
A movement in the air— a lingering drift, hovering over her. The house circled, while Ada waited under the covers, breathing wildly. What was that?
(just a dream, a horrible dream)
She slid out from under her quilt, feeling foolish. Funny how colors looked different in the dark. Her quilt was like a negative of itself.
But that wasn’t right. Something was wrong. That sound, it was the one from her dream— something else was in her room. It came onto the bed. Ada scrambled back, too frightened to make a sound, and the thing drew over her, otherworldly, monstrous.
Snuffling at her neck. Oh, horribly real. She shrank back, trying to level into the sheets. What to do? Hit it with a candle? A book? But she couldn’t even scream, and the way it moved— Heavy, so fast!— with such long, oily teeth—
Shadows poured into the air.
And friends, if you're still with me here, thank you.
Hold your dear ones close this holiday. Be understanding of those who seem disquieted or are difficult to be with. You never know what someone else is carrying. Shame, loss, grief- pain wears strange faces. But we are all in this together, at least for a little while longer. Be kind, love hard, and breathe deep. After all, what do you have to be scared of?
P.Z. West's first novel, EVENING’S LAND, is a Library Journal Self-e Selection, winner of the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation Award and recipient of the Carol Marie Smith Memorial Scholarship for the NOEPE Center of Literary Arts.
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