I've been loving hot, gooey 6 minute eggs for breakfast (amazingly my boiling privileges have not been revoked) but forgot them in the sink all morning and now, having found them again, they are cold... sadness.
Finished smoothing in all the new stuff yesterday, and rejiggered the ending. This new ending was slow in coming, so hard to wait for, because if you've got a shitty, disappointing ending, no matter how delicious the preceding pages, well you've got a shitty, disappointing book. (The Club Dumas, The Man Who was Thursday*, I'm looking at you.) *Andrew read this to me out loud when we first started dating :) o, his radio voice!
So I hope this one's more satisfying (haunting). We'll see. I've started sending the thing off to friendly eyes. So now I bite my nails, play frantic catch up with my day job. Maybe pick up on Savages again. I've been told to check out Don Winslow's handling of a big cast of characters first, so will have to read that soon.
Anyway, I learned some cool stuff when I was squirreling around, trying to figure out how to rejigger my ending. In our world, as you know, we have a podcast for everything, and I am the podcast queen. This one started off kind of slow, but towards the ending it had all kinds of ideas going off in my head. Some key points in it for me were:
1. You want an unexpected but inevitable ending (Flannery O'Connor)
2. The ending is already written in your book somewhere.
3. For shapely fiction, don't remove the sense of conflict and tension at the end. This should live on to haunt your reader- but you still need to tie up your narrative arc.
4. Last of all, and the scariest: The last line should be a flashlight; when you reach it, it should illuminate the whole thing.
So how about a little something from my book to leave you with, huh?
This is from Chapter 7, one of the new ones written from Faye's perspective. (I had to change her name to Faye from Nell, as there were two N-starting names in EL.)
April 9th, 2011
So Ada’d gotten in a fight at school with Jenna Hazel because Jenna had called her a freaky-eyed slut, and at the end of it Ada had a black eye, but Jenna had two. After that, Ada was instant friends with Jenna’s ex, an older boy named Matthew Blue we’d heard legends about for years, and now we were at his party.
The other guy who lived there called himself Witchhazel. The two of them were small time pot dealers: glass and charred buds were everywhere, but their place smelled meaty and herbal from smudged sage, and an incongruously good pottery collection was ranged along the tops of the adobe walls. Mobiles of driftwood and dried chiles hung from all the doorways, and a big cougar-colored cat bellied up to everyone as they came in through the door.
Ada picked the cat up and snuggled him against her as we stood there, looking into the dark. The house was cool and cave like. There was a humidifier, blankets and beanbags. A small television crouched in one corner, an old Nintendo spidering out in front of it, and Witchhazel, some scary chola girls I didn’t know, and Matthew Blue were all sitting there, hiding their hands.
"Nice place," Ada said, into the room. Her black eye looked kind of jaunty and she knew it.
Matthew Blue was curved low in his chair, as long and thin as a bean, his blue watch cap tugged rakishly over one eye. He nodded over at us faintly, too cool to stand up.
“The sugarbears are here!” Witchhazel said. He came over for a hug, and I saw he had a nasal strip wrapped around one finger as a band-aid. He smelled like mildew. I made myself small in his arms, trying not to touch him.
“Ain’t we sugarbears?” one of the cholas said from the beanbags. Picking at her long, pierced nails. “Mijo, please.”
“Nice shiner, girl,” Witchhazel said, ignoring her.
“Thanks,” Ada said.
In one of the back rooms I could see people with spoons and needles. I kept looking all around me, everywhere except the single place I wanted to look.
He was at ASU now, but the stories about him still trickled through high school like blowing sand. He was one of those beautiful, wolfish boys who always seem to be ranging along the perimeters, infamous for coming up with one crazy scheme after another. In grade school you used to hear about him stealing candy from the concession stand, selling it to everybody at half price. He led the kids in Barrio Hollywood in making a conveyer system through the sewer drains from pulleys and skateboards.
They’d spent that whole summer rolling through their neighborhoods blasting super-soakers in through the windows of passing cars - and then it became a high speed weed delivery system, which led to Matthew’s first run-in with the cops. Everybody said that when they’d caught him, and the officer asked him what he had to say for himself - Matthew had reached out and tickled the man’s belly.
His dad was a lawyer who collected fine wines; Matthew filched them to drink in the secret hallway behind the theatre room. He used to tag all the cool kids to go back there with him between classes.
Matthew loved to test his limits like a wolf loves to run. And here we were, a couple lambs running to slaughter. More people came in and the music cranked up. Witch poured us a drink and Ada went off somewhere, and I was sucked into a confused conversation with some stoners about caving. Finally I skittered outside and found her again. I had begun to feel so anxious that I felt inhuman and buoyant, my body filling with beating wings. I could hardly hear what anyone was saying anymore.
Ada was with Matthew, the two of them standing close, sucking down cigarettes, laughing hard. A knob of painted wire was sticking out from the adobe wall and I pulled on it shyly, watching them together. They made a matched set. The both of them Homecoming Court pretty, but in their feral ways: Matthew lean and tall, with sly brown eyes like he wasn’t quite ever letting you in; Ada with her slinky ticks, her knowing gaze, her laugh as sharp as a blade. Oh, she was terrifyingly pretty, even with that muddied eye. Suddenly I wondered that we’d even been able to find one another in the first place.
How many people never find their missing piece, never even know she exists? You could be walking right past her every day and never even realize. Never even recognize her, your other half, your very closest of friends.
But in that heartbeat it began to seem to me that there was an unimpeachable gulf between Ada and I after all. She was handling this, was made for this. Cool college parties, talking to older boys in the dark. And I was not. I was frozen somewhere outside myself, witnessing myself there as if I were only half real. I turned to go back in, maybe even to leave.
Then Matthew Blue glanced over at me. “Hey, it’s Faye, right?” he said. As easy as that.
I nodded, wrapping my arms around myself with a shimmering happiness. “Can I have one of those?” I said, joining them.
Matthew’s eyebrows slid up and one side of his face went into a smile. It was a habit of his, that lopsided smile. We were just kids, but his habit was already starting to crease his face in a way that made me think of old-school Westerns; men wearing stars and black hats.
“You smoke?” he said, incredulous.
“Oh, I’m just an opportunist,” I said, shyly, taking one.
“Kids these days,” he said.
Ada grinned at me around her hand and the floating ember of her cigarette lit up like a firefly. She had these deliciously secretive ways of doing everything, Ada could make eating a cheeseburger seem mysterious. “You have to watch out for Faye, she’s a wild one,” she said to Matthew. “She bites.” Smiling, I copied the way Ada was holding her smoke, leaning towards her, and she lit mine with hers. “Go easy,” she said, and she wasn’t just talking about the cigarette.
But I pretended not to know what she meant. She wanted Matthew for herself, but Ada was always reeling in boys. There was something about Matthew that made me feel both still and trembly inside. A new feeling. I wanted to know what it was.
“What’s this, you bite too?” Matthew said to me. “Jesus christ, and here I had you pegged as a sweet little angel, my mistake…”
“You have no idea.” Ada grinned and rolled her eyes up at the sky, and I knew she’d decided to let me have him.
“Oh, god,” I said, inhaling tentatively. The smoke tasted strange, poisonous. I felt it curl all through my veins, and dizzy little sparks went off in my head. The side of the adobe looked rheumy in the dark; thick and milky, like a spiked milkshake, as if decades of people had stood here smoking in the dark. I wondered if the place had ever been clean.
“Okay, well first off- I’ve always loved biting people,” I said, and Matthew laughed.
We were drinking wine out of red plastic cups, and he poured some of his into mine, smiling.
“That moment when you first sink your teeth in,” I said, covering my glass with my hand to stop him, laughing, “I used to have these passionate dreams about it. Chasing my enemies down and just sinking my teeth into them. It was incredibly satisfying. Biting slow and deep into somebody who’s all springy, slightly resistant; hot, salty.”
“You’re a cannibal,” Matthew said, and wasn’t sure what to do with his face.
“Men for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Ada said. She looked careless and abstracted, shoving her hand through her red hair. Hardly listening. She’d heard this story a million times before. She knew how much I liked to tell it, though.
“So maybe I was some kind of jungle thing in a past life- okay, anyway, so we’re on the playground, Ada and me, and out of nowhere I just turn and attack this kid-
“Robbie,” Ada said.
“-like, I flew at him, at Robbie, the back of his head, and knock him to the ground. And I bit him really hard, and then I kind of came to, and he’s screaming and crying, and then I remember just standing there, sort of astonished at the fact of my own brutal efficacy, the way I’d just- bam!-dispatched him. Like in my dreams, you know? I think maybe that was the first time I ever got in trouble in my whole life. Ms. Hernandez, she was crazy-appalled. She yelled at me, put me in time-out. The way they did that in Catholic school, you had to stand next to the chain link fence and hold on to it for the rest of recess. Remember, Ada?”
“Yeah. Pretty sure I bleached out a couple of the rungs, they made me stand there so many times.”
“So I’m standing there crying, while Robbie goes limping back to kickball, all like, shocked and shaky. I mean, nobody saw that coming, I straight up leapt on him out of nowhere.”
“In sum, you’re a psycho,” Matthew said, his eyes soft.
“I guess, man. Little bit.”
“With an angel’s face. I think I like that.” He blew smoke at me, smiled. There were tiny smile lines etched at the corners of his eyes. "I'm surprised you girls came here, you know? This isn’t the kind of place a guy usually meets girls like you.”
"We like to say yes," I said, and Ada was silent, letting me talk. She knew why I’d bitten Robbie, what had happened to me the night before.
"I'll try to make it so you never have to say no, then," Christopher said, seriously.
“What makes you think you know anything about me?"
"I'm in the business of knowing about people," Matthew said. He looked at me, smiling lazily, and then he looked up at the sky. “The first girl I ever loved was crazy.”
“Jenna?” Ada said.
“Hazel? No, Jenna was just-” he waved his hand. “You guys don’t know her. This is a girl, she and I were kids together. She broke my heart, fair and square.”
“I think once you’ve experienced love, you should just push it away. So that it never becomes tainted, you know? Love is like a drug. You get addicted. You start to need it, and then you get weak, you get vulnerable,” I said. But I could already feel things inside me rearranging themselves as I looked at him, and I knew I was lying.
“No, I think love is selfless,” Matthew said, slowly. “I think that’s the point. It’s not about pleasure or even pain. It’s about giving yourself up to something larger-”
“Sounds very impressive, Mr. Blue,” Ada said.
“But that sounds like an addiction,” I said. “And what if you choose the wrong person, and then you waste your whole life loving them, refusing to see that your person is nothing like what you believe them to be?”
“But you can’t always try to control things, mama,” Ada said. “We can’t control anything. The moment you realize that is the moment you get the real power. Being comfortable with uncertainty, being able to operate that way, when everything around you is in chaos. To be able to take events in hand…”
I didn’t know what she was talking about.
“No one’s perfect,” Matthew said, waving her words to the side. He was talking just to me, I realized. Intently, as if it were just the two of us, standing there in the warm dark.
“People aren’t archetypes,” he said. “I mean, you don’t know me well, so maybe I seem that way to you now. I’m just a fucking drug dealer, right? But we’re all just people, in the end. And the flaws are what is important, maybe what’s most important of all—because once you decide to look past the flaws and love the person that’s there inside—and they love you in return, in that same way—you’ve both crossed this kind of threshold; you’ve found real love. And then you go on holding up your image of them like a flame, because you love them so much. You show them their best self and help them rise up to fulfill their potential. And whether or not they ever actually achieve their full potential doesn’t matter; it’s the journey, learning how to love, how to become, that’s the point.”
I smiled at him. The scent of creosote hung in the air between us, and somewhere a bird was singing out its night cry again and again.
“We live in a world of non-love, that’s why people are so obsessed with it, that’s why we see it so clearly,” Ada said, looking around. She shook her hair and then began to stack it on top of her head in a lopsided bun, the ash from her cigarette tilting wildly.
I reached for her just as her hand went back down safely. Her hair fell over her face and she grinned happily.
"We should celebrate," she said. "Just us and old Reverend Moon. There's something happening here. Right? Something about this place, the two of you. You kids. This moment." She lifted her cigarette and moved it in a sign of the cross in front of us. “Don’t ever forget this.”
“Let’s get you some water,” Matthew said. He moved back and held open the door, grinning at her fondly. Then we we were all standing around blinking in the kitchen, and it was like returning to earth after having thought maybe you’d escaped it.
Witchhazel was sitting on the oven, talking to a chola girl. He was wearing yellow ostrich cowboy boots.
“Can we shower?” Ada said to him, abruptly.
Witch blushed. “Of course, just go through there. But it’s, um, kind of a mess.”
“That’s cool,” she said, and I had to follow her.
I hoped Matthew was behind us. For a while I felt him there; his gaze on my neck, and then it fell away, and I knew she and I were alone.
The rafters in Witch’s bedroom were strung with drying herbs and there was some weird kind of altar above his mattress. Action figures, skulls. Dirty black sheets, his bed unmade, cheesy tapestries pinned over the windows. And Matthew was gone.
Witch’s bathroom didn’t have a door. I slid up onto the bathroom counter and squirted toothpaste on my finger while Ada examined the shower skeptically.
I could see from where I sat that it looked slimy. Long black hairs were pasted on all the walls and on the soap. The shampoo was uncapped, lying empty on the shower floor next to a dead, knotted-up spider.
"Huh," Ada said.
She was instantly herself again now that we were alone, and I realized that her stony act had been to get me away from Matthew. Had I made her jealous?
“I think maybe ol’ Witch isn’t really a showering kind of guy, you know?” she said.
"I don’t know, but no fucking way am I going in there,” I said.
“Dude, we have to. We smell like pot, your mom will kill us.”
She turned on the faucet.
“Why, do you want to go home already? It’s not even-” I flapped my hands around. I didn’t know what time it was.
The water groaned through the pipes and came out smelling sour. The room began to fill with steam as Ada undressed.
“So what do you think of Matthew?” she said, innocently.
I wriggled, grinning helplessly. I folded my legs up, dropped them again.
“He’s... a city I’d like to visit,” I said.
Ada smiled to herself quietly. “He likes you,” she said.
Then I saw the long, angry cuts on Ada’s legs, high on her thighs. They were purple at their edges, and deep.
“Ada… what the fuck? You fucking promised!”
“Jesus.” She turned away. “I have. It was just-” She stepped into the shower, waving her hand at me. “Sometimes I still need to, that’s all.”
“Whatever.” I slipped out, pissed. As I left she was still talking, making promises. Assuming I would be still standing there. Like always. Ada would never have imagined I’d just walk away from her like that. I never had before. But the things rearranging themselves in me, one of them was a long thin cord, and it had snapped. It truly creeped me out, her fucking cutting.
“I’m not sick,” she’d say; but it was. She was tempting out a beast I knew by name. That ashy dreamless sea drawn down by girls with their knives, by men with blackened spoons- and by the end of this story I will be sundered there, but Ada was always made for the bright shore.
I didn’t want the darkness for her. For her to slip and fall, irretrievable, into my sea. I used to worry sometimes that I’d somehow infected her, that what was bad in me had found her out, too.
When I first learned about Ada’s cutting- swapping dresses, a warm spring day- she cried and cried, and then we talked about it for hours. She promised me she would stop, but she never did. We’d talk about it again. And again. Now, buzzing with something I knew wasn’t entirely anger, I stood in the bedroom doorway, looking for Matthew.
He was in the kitchen, talking to some Latina I didn’t recognize. She looked like she was from Phoenix; a beautiful, tea-colored Barbie with a tight-packed bounce beneath her micro-dress. Her long, glossy black hair was curled into shapely ringlets, twin wrist dermals glinted delicately against her perfect skin. They were laughing, standing close.
What was he saying to her, I’ll make it so you never have to say no-?
Hot-faced, I turned back into the bedroom, feeling like an idiot. Then suddenly someone had my hand, was winding his fingers into it. Matthew. I threw his hand away.
“Don’t go,” he said, pulling me to him.
The pressure in the hallway seemed to change around us as if the floor had dropped out and he were breathing up all my air. “Just-”
"Dance with me, Faye," he said.
"It wasn't a question. I'm trying to make it so you never have to say no. Remember?"
“You’re a fucking player,” I muttered, but Matthew knew what he was doing. He fitted me to him gently and folded his arm around me so that I automatically curled into his arms, just as if I belonged there. Then he lifted his arm again, so that I spun, and we were dancing, stepping, turning, laughing, and the girl in the kitchen watched us quietly.
His face, when it touched mine, was very warm. "You're beautiful," he said. "Tell me about a time when you were happy." We were electrically close. "Tell me," he said.
I tried to think, shook my head. "I’m happy now,” I murmured. Because I didn’t deserve this, whatever was happening- although- would it be crazy to enjoy it while it lasted? Or would that only make it all worse?
"You're running from something," he said. "Something in your head. Or is it… something in your future? What is it that you don’t want to do?"
"Please don't... tell me about myself. Stop."
He touched my face again. This time he didn’t take his hand away. "Hey, it’s okay. I won’t. We're all running from something. But how old are you, anyway?"
I tried to laugh. It sounded fake and dumb. "I'm growing up as fast as I can," I said. Then I tried to pull away again, but he still wouldn't let me, as if I were a bird he’d caught with his bare hands.
"You're young. You're so young."
"I know. I know." I shook myself free. “You keep telling me about myself, why do you-”
"I can take you home. Do you want me to take you home? Let me do that."
“I don’t want to go home.”
"There’s a lot of people here. Let's go somewhere," he said.
Matthew’s bedroom was cleaner than Witch’s. He had books, maps. More than one laptop open on his desk, I’d never seen anyone with more than one laptop.
"Little lost Faye," he said. He kissed each of my eyelids.
"I'm not any of those things," I said, but I was saying one thing and doing another, and he wasn’t listening to a word I said.
"What, you’re not even a Faye? You're cute." He stroked my hair, and pleasure slipped through me. He felt so good.
"You were going to tell me about something happy," Matthew said.
"You're insistent, is what you are," I said.
"Don't you know about me? I get what I want.”
"And what you want now is a bedtime story?" I murmured.
He squeezed me.
"I'm not good at stories. You want Ada for that."
"Story," he said, snuggling me. “And the one I want is you. Not Ada.”
"I remember... being nine or ten. With Ada.”
“We were at her grandparents place in the country for a week or something, and her dad sent us out with this big bag and some scissors. We were supposed to cut down musk thistles. This invasive species, you know? But we found this creek instead, and some tadpoles, and then there was this cow skull, too, and she was telling me about how one time, she’d been out there all alone and she found all these massive bodies, all lying in a row- cows that had been struck by lightning. Then all at once it was really late, and there was a storm coming in. You know how you can feel it in the air sometimes? And we were totally, completely lost."
"Wait, what, this is a happy story?" Matthew said.
I laughed. "Worried you won't get what you want?"
"Never. I always get what I want. Trust me."
"Hush then. So we're out there all alone, and the wind's picking up. It's dark, and we're crossing this huge mud bank, because Ada is sure it's a shortcut back to the cabin, and what do I know, right? So there's all this mud, and the moon, and us, and these coyotes start crying and screaming. And they sounded loud, like they were really close by, and Ada starts fucking telling me this story about how sometimes coyotes do come after little kids, which I didn’t know. So then we're terrified, right? We’re running, and our shoes get sucked off in the mud. And there was something, right then, about that moment that was perfect. That's my moment. Running through the mud, not knowing what was going to happen. I felt utterly alive."
"Maybe you like to be lost," he said.
"Maybe I do."
All my life I’ve wanted be somewhere else; someone else. I did like to be lost. When I was lost I forgot who I was. I could be anyone. As a kid I used to walk around reading a book until I didn’t know where I was.
I wanted to be so lost that when I looked up, I couldn’t recognize anything around me. This meant I had to walk a long time. Then I had to give in and knock on people’s doors to ask them if they would take me home. You’d be surprised how happy you can make people when you ask them to come to your rescue, if you just ask for it in just the right way, so who was I to deprive them?
I had other hobbies, too. I’d slide into unlocked cars whenever I found them. Sit at the wheel, breathing what it felt to be someone else. I stole things. Kept them, looked at them, knowing how my own action had unfastened that of someone else’s, turning theirs loose in the world to float like a ghost. Secrets, lost actions. A true map of the world would show all the lies.
"Lucky me." Matthew kissed me lightly. "You've got a lovely taste," he said, "and a lovely touch, and I'm glad I found you.” He kissed me again, and I kept my eyes open, watching him. His expression was so tender I couldn't believe it. With his eyes closed he looked young and sweet and his lips were like wine. Somehow he sucked all my breath away and the next thing I knew we were crushed together. I felt my heart tremble wildly.
“I wonder what will happen next?" He touched my mouth softly, as if I were a rare and delicate flower he did not want to crush, and then he bit his thumb. “I think I know.”
“You’re such a hippie,” I said.
Someone pounded on his door. We ignored it.
The pounding got louder.
“What?” Matthew said, sharply.
And then I could tell we both had the same thought at the same time, that maybe the cops were here. I looked at his window and wondered if there were cacti underneath it, because somehow I’d lost my shoes.
“It’s Ada, let me in!”
“Uh-” Matthew said.
I looked at him. “It’s fine, mamacita, I-”
Ada threw open the door. Her face was hot and wild like I’d never seen it. “What the fuck? You ditched me- there wasn’t a door, and some fucking guy came in.” She was close to tears. Her shirt was soaked. I could picture the scene. Some handsy drunk guy, and Ada trying to fend him off, to dress herself and escape. Alone and vulnerable. Because of me.
“Oh gosh, I’m sorry, I didn’t-”
She flung my hands away. “It was fucked up. I’m going home.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Okay,” Ada said. “You’re staying.” She looked at Matthew and then back at me, her eyes hardening into golden nails. “Okay, fuck you, bye.”
She closed the door. Quietly, and that was worst of all. I felt like eggshell. We’d never had a fight before.
But I was mad at her, too. Because now, after all, she was the one ditching me, and I turned to Matthew shakily, I wanted to grind myself against someone’s metal, wear myself down.
"You said you knew what would happen next," I said. “Tell me.”
“Are you okay?” he said.
"Whatever. I have to go."
He grabbed me, laughing. "Hey princess, wait.”
“Do not call me that.”
“No, stay with me, she’ll be fine. How about this? I'll write it down. I'll write down everything that's going to happen. But you have to promise me you won't read it yet."
I paused. "Okay."
He took one look at me and laughed. I was still hot-eyed and pissed, distracted.
"Ah... jesus. You girls. You'll read it as soon as you have your hot little paws on it, just for something to do. So I’ll tell you what. I'll write it down and then I’ll mail it to myself tomorrow. So you can see from the postmark that I really wrote it all down, like I said I would. And when it's time, I'll give it you."
"How will I know it's the same envelope?"
"You can kiss the seal."
He had to go out into the kitchen to find paper. When he told people what he was doing, the beautiful girl loaned me her lipstick. "I hope it's something really nice," she said.
"Thanks. Me too."
Matthew sat at the table, writing. He smiled at me.
"He's cute," she whispered. “I think he really likes you.” She had wide-set eyes and a clear, innocent expression. What were all of us doing there, at that dirty place in the dark?
"I like him," I said, suddenly aware of how I must look to her. Dishevelled, pale-faced, barefoot. I don’t know. Maybe they thought I belonged there.
Matthew stood up and walked over, folding the paper into the envelope, and the way he did it with such precision without even needing to look down gave me little butterflies- oh, good with his hands- and he gave me the paper to kiss, and I did.
My heart was drenched in wine. I stayed and stayed.
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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