With my last novel (As Above, So Below) in the hands of my beta readers, I’m getting deep into the meat of the next while I wait for feedback. Here’s the rough first chapter of the novel I’m writing. It’s going to be a fun one and get very, very dark before it’s finished. Enjoy.
There was a gunshot in the distance, and then ten minutes later, sirens.
It was a few days short of July 4th and Grace MacDonald had just turned eighteen. It was her third day living on the streets when she first saw Max. She didn’t know him yet; she was just walking aimlessly around the small cul-de-sac subdivision off North Grand Traverse near the river and his house was nearest the road. The houses here were nicer than those just a few blocks over, so many simply abandoned ruins, stripped of anything valuable, others play things for arsons, a few shelter for people like her who had no one to call family or friend and spent the endless moments drifting through the city of Flint like ghosts.
Max was standing half-in half-out of the door of his house, his hands on his wife’s plump hips, as he leaned forward to kiss her. She was not a big bodied woman, Max’s wife, but her body looked soft, slightly doughy, the way people of comfort and security often appeared. Grace looked away from them, nearly tripping into one of the neighbor’s lawns. She was starving, thin and small boned, and the smell of eggs and bacon and toast was strong in the warming summer air, wafting from the house… Or maybe she only imagined it; she seemed to be smelling food everywhere she went. Since yesterday all she could think about was eating. It felt like her insides were shrinking horribly by the hour. All she possessed was a backpack containing three changes of clothes and a couple books. The last foster home she’d been in sent her back into the system a week before her eighteenth birthday and when her birthday came Mrs. Striker threw her out like a hot coal to burn itself away in the night.
She was a little bitter about that because Bill and Nancy had seemed like such a nice couple. Not that she blamed them, she truly wasn’t their responsibility. They’d had her a year and she was sometimes morose and unresponsive those days she thought too long on her birth parents and why they had given her up in the first place. Bill and Nancy couldn’t understand because she didn’t share how she felt or what she was going through.
Grace had always thought that grief was a drink best consumed alone, but now she wasn’t so certain. If she had opened up more, appreciated more, tried harder to be the daughter they’d wanted—both to her birth parents and to Bill and Nancy—maybe they would have kept her.
She looked back at Max and his wife and thought: How nice it must be to have such a home and someone to love you…
Then Max was headed out onto Grand Traverse, headed toward the trail that led along the river and over to Saginaw Street where downtown loomed beyond the murky water. He said, “Good morning,” as he passed her standing there helplessly near the entrance to his community, and he glanced back once over his shoulder, and she thought he looked sad for her. He had a long stride and looked as if he were marching off to war. He looked like a lawyer, or something similar. His suit was a little baggy on him, dark blue, recently pressed. The scent of his aftershave lingered even after he was out of sight and on the trail a bit south of her. It was a tropical scent that made Grace dream of distant beaches, endless sand, endless ocean, and smiling sunburned children.
With nothing else to do, she followed him south, kept twenty or thirty feet between them on Flint River Trail, and she almost expected, hoped, he’d notice her and ask her if she needed help of some kind.
And what then? She hated the idea of begging, but if she didn’t she would die. How long could a body go without food? She didn’t know, and she remembered hearing somewhere that once you hit a certain point, like you could with lack of sleep, you would begin to hallucinate.
Over the last few days she’d walked into restaurants and used the restroom tap to bathe her armpits, the smells from the dining room she passed through like a stab in the guts, so intense and lovely that she considered grabbing someone’s plate and running outside with it because it’d be worth going to jail over having something to taste other than the toothpaste she sometimes squeezed onto her tongue or rubbed on her gums.
She knew she would have to do something soon, something she didn’t want to do, because she couldn’t go on like this. She barely had the energy to walk, and finding some doorway to sleep in, as hard and unforgiving as concrete tended to be, where she could dream of a lusterless future, would have felt too much like giving up.
Max hadn’t noticed Grace following him. Most of his attention was directed inward. His wife of the last six years, Isabelle, was cheating, and she was not hiding it well, although she thought she was very clever. Her attempt at cleverness annoyed him more than anything. For such a shallow, desperate, clingy creature to believe herself smarter or above him was ridiculous. As he neared downtown, the path newly warmed by the recently risen sun, he could still taste the ashen taste of her lips, the horrific scent of her breath. She thought she was slick in sneaking that filthy habit too, but nothing she did could hide the smell on her clothing, the way it clung to her first knuckles, slightly yellowed, her idiotic I-love-yous like an ashtray flung in his face no matter how many mints she chewed as stubbornly and as unabashedly as a donkey.
He was aware that he was not truthful with her either, not completely, at least in one area. It was a simple indulgence for him, really, and one that he could not share with her or anyone else. For the last year he’d been journaling about it. He doubted it helped, if it was therapeutic in anyway, but to put his thoughts down on paper, to lock them in the desk drawer in his den, seemingly innocent-looking next to his Beretta semi-auto, gave him a thrill all its own.
He neared a corner on the edge of downtown. The sky overhead was gray and crowded by darkening clouds. He didn’t care if it rained or not. The smell of wet wool would drive others at work a little out of their minds, but they would never say anything about it, and when he caught them looking he knew that part of them would see his father’s face in his own, and they would quickly look away, which would bode well for them since he carried a boot knife strapped to his right calf. It made him feel edgy in a way, dangerous, and it was another secret that not even Isabelle knew about. He planned to keep it that way as long as possible.
The CB weather ball, perched atop the former Citizen’s Bank, now owned by First Merit Bank, blinked a steady blue signaling both a drop in temperature and a rise in precipitation. When he’d been a child and his father had first been a lowly administrator, Max would climb the fire escapes of surrounding buildings to perch near the edge of a roof and imagine that he controlled the weather, or that the globe was his crystal ball and he was a mighty wizard, looking down on the all the little, insignificant snivelers, his father among them.
He hadn’t realized he’d stopped walking until a gentle rain awoke him. It quickly pasted his hair to his scalp and he got moving again, smiling, and paused near the bus stop, taking a moment to look at the poor whites and the poor blacks gathered beneath the glass structure by the corner. A school bus approached. Some of those waiting were so strung out on crack that they approached the curb, believing this was their ride. He shook his head and wondered where they were going. He could imagine a place for such trash, could imagine that they went willingly, given a ticket to destinations unknown, and why not take it, why not ride that bus into oblivion, or simply in circles around the city, because their lives offered little else in way of entertainment or meaning.
The school bus parked on the curb next to him and the driver bent over to reach something he’d dropped on the floor. The kids inside, a few dozen of them, pressed their faces to the glass and gawked at him, some of the little shits pointing and laughing, and although he couldn’t hear what they said, he could imagine. The knife strapped to his calf made his skin itch. The rain obscured them slightly, made the children’s faces somewhat ghostly. Max thought many of them would grow up to be nothing more than they were now: snotty, backstabbing, judgmental, clique-abiding hypocrites.
He could end their suffering now. It would not be hard.
He smiled, and listened to the driver yell for them to sit down and shut up. Then he was in one of his fantasies again, tapping softly on the door, hearing the hiss of it opening and the driver’s bland, fat face confused there for a moment as he asked Max if he needed something… and Max walking up the three steps that had always seemed too steep for the littlest ones, that last step especially, and he would pull his pant leg up and remove the knife from its sheath.
The fat bland face on the doughy white body would open its mouth in a perfect O, having glimpsed the knife in Max’s hand. But it would be too late for the sad, pathetic creature. Max would drive the knife high up in the soft exposed skin of the throat. The children, unable to process what was happening for a second, would sit numbly in their seats, as perfect as wooden sculptures…
But as the driver bled out, Max would turn to the aisle long and dark, the rain growing stronger and beating like thousands of demon fists against the roof. And the kids would scream then, but no one would hear them as he pulled the lever and the door hissed shut.
The good, shy kids always sat in the first seats, the older kids and trouble makers in the back. Even here the hierarchy started, didn’t it? And that was too bad, that they would not know why he had to release them; there was no time to explain it.
He’d think about driving the bus to a more secluded area (there were many of them in Flint), but there wasn’t time for that either and the children, the older ones, would open the back door to escape before he made it around the block, and he couldn’t have that, now could he?
So he’d walk down that aisle—stabbing, stabbing, stabbing—without looking at the faces of the little ones, the slightly larger ones, then the older ones in back there, the last few rows of seats, pale and wide-eyed, the girls crying, the boys trying not to, fourteen and fifteen year olds, jocks and geeks, virgins and sluts, whining desperately for God, and for their parents, and to each other…
And he would finish them, expecting some to at least fight back, but they were weak, only slightly weaker than their parents, and their blood would flow so easily into the non-slip grooves of the aisle, and it would coat his clothing and his face and his hands, hot blood, cooling blood, their cries trapped in it, trapped in his head, and he would feel nothing, not a thing, and he thought that would be a shame, to not feel anything after doing something so incredible…
He snapped back to the present, to the real world, and saw the bus driver looking at him oddly, and Max could feel the sweet, boyish smile on his own face. He raised a hand and waved to the driver, and the man waved back nervously and opened the door to get a better look at him and then quickly shut it.
Max looked around and saw Grace then. She was thirty feet or so behind him, her backpack slung loosely over one shoulder. He cocked his head and studied her for a second, almost suspecting that she sensed what he’d just fantasized. There was a knowing look in that young face, a wariness. He smiled at her and then winked just to see what she’d do.
She stood in the rain unmoving, a hundred pounds soaking wet, small enough that she appeared a twelve-year-old child. An interesting creature in a way, Max thought, if only for the desperation he could sense. When she didn’t approach him, he shrugged and turned back toward work. He was going to be a little bit late and his father would give him a hard time about it, saying that he needed to set an example for all the other employees, and he thought he would set an example all right.
The day held possibilities…
Grace watched him stare at the bus full of kids, and she thought that he was one of those poor guys who wanted a son or daughter of his own—like Bill and Nancy had—but for a reason with him or his wife, were unable to. He looked at those kids with such love and passion that it made Grace’s heart break a little.
When it started raining she flipped her hoodie over her head and imagined she looked like just some other street trash, those broken and destitute who didn’t all get there by addiction or debt. People like her were around, most of them still sleeping this early in the morning, others out picking up pop cans and scrap metal they could make money off, but she didn’t know that then. She was thinking that the rain was going to make her stink even worse and it caused the foul scent of the Flint River to grow stronger.
She looked around again, unsure if she should approach Max or not. He seemed like someone with a kind heart, that small bit of understanding or sympathy was all it took, wasn’t it? For someone to see you there and know you were hurting and didn’t have shit to offer except your dreams of some kind of stability and certainty.
She thought, Approach him. Just talk to him…
But then Max turned and smiled at her and actually noticed her, and she wanted to say: Mister, I know you don’t know me, and I don’t want to bother you or anybody else, but I’m starving, like literally, I haven’t eaten in three days, and I don’t even know where I can go to take a shower, I stink, you know? But I need to eat; I’ll do whatever you need if you could just find it in your heart to give me five bucks. It’s not much. You won’t even miss it, and like I said, you know, I’ll earn it, all right? Doesn’t that sound fair for both of us?
But he was turning away then and he walked on down the street and crossed the intersection. She followed him down Saginaw Street, across the intersection, and watched him walk boldly into First Merit Bank on the corner of Saginaw and Union. The cobbled streets downtown reminded her of something old and forgotten. There were smiling and hurried college kids across the road, teeming outside the doors of the University of Michigan-Flint. It was a beautiful building, the foundation brick, the middle all windows and teal-colored sheet metal, teal sheet steel along the roof and fascia. The other kids didn’t seem to notice her. She wanted to cry, just watching them, but she wouldn’t let herself.
She thought, Things are going to turn around, they’ll get better…
Max’s father took him into his office. He performed his duty of correcting his son’s tardiness with the most solemn expression as he sat on the corner of his desk and looked down at Max, his beefy arms folded tightly across his chest. Max nodded along in the proper places and did his best to look chastised. When his father finished, Max said, “I’m so sorry, Pops. I know there’s not any excuse, and I understand why you’re so disappointed. I wish there was something I could say to make it right but I know you’re a man who believes little in words and mostly in action. I will do my best not to be late again.”
He looked at his watch. It was nearly eight-thirty. If he had much to do he would have already been behind schedule, but he didn’t care much for schedules and cared even less about his job, his father, or the people who came to the bank with such unabashed shame or inflated pride.
Max kept his money in a separate bank so that his father could not keep tabs on his account, which he would, Max knew, given the chance. Everything the old man did was geared toward security, had been like that all of Max’s life, and probably before, but Max didn’t care about that either.
His father was not a bad man, and most people in his social circles thought him an outstanding one. He knew the mayor of Flint (not that Max thought that some great accomplishment) and his father had manned the decades with Citizen’s Bank and handled the transition of their sellout to First Merit with relative ease. If he ever stressed about work, Max had never seen it. There was admirable strength in that, he was certain, but he didn’t see how it really made the world a better place.
So, sitting there, he imagined his father moving over to the third story office window and looking over the street. And he imagined that he, Max, would stand, approach him, open the window while mumbling about the pitter patter of rain like the sound of fleeing children’s feet, and he’d point, his father would lean forward, and Max would step behind him and grab just below his knees and tip him over the sash and watch him fall, the old man screaming until he splatted like an overripe watermelon on the sidewalk below.
He didn’t like the police much either, so he brought his father back up to the window and placed a patrolman on the sidewalk below and then replayed it, killing two birds with one fall.
His father snapped his fingers in front of Max’s face, the flick of his thumb or forefinger brushing Max’s nose so sharply it stung.
He looked up at the old man and said, “I’m sorry, I was so deep in thought about how I could make this all up to you.”
“Just show up on time, all right?”
“Of course,” Max said.
His dad uncrossed his arms and dug his fingers into the edge of his desk. He said quietly, “Is everything going okay?”
“Perfect,” Max said.
“You can talk to me if you need to, and if you don’t feel comfortable with that, you could always talk to your mother. You hear me?”
Yes, Max thought. You’re saying you see something wrong with me and want me to confide in you or Mother, but how am I supposed to do that? How could either of you understand what sometimes goes through my head?
Max nodded. “Thank you.”
His father waved him away. Max left his office and retreated downstairs. There were three tellers working, and two other loan officers like himself. They tried not to make eye contact with him, but he saw that Rodney Fortson had a smirk on his thin, scrubbed face. The girls behind the counter were keeping themselves busy. Lucy was old and plump and smiled at the photographs thumbtacked next to her computer. She’d just gotten her first grandchild, a little girl, and she never shut up about how magical and gifted the child was. Max sometimes thought he’d like to steal the blessed babe and make it into hotdogs for the next company picnic, which was coming up soon, over the 4th of July weekend. He smiled at her when she looked at him and he called out, “Good morning, Lucy! How is the beautiful little girl?”
She answered and he closed her out after a minute, pretending to go over some loan applications he hadn’t noticed until just that moment. But Lucy wasn’t deterred; she prattled on to the young brunette, Suzy, who had recently started the job, and by the look on her face would put in a request for transfer before the week was out. Max smiled at her too as he organized his paperwork, but for a split second he saw her glance his way with such a baleful expression that he wanted to walk up to her, take the scissors from her tray, and stab her in the eye.
Really, he wondered, what loss would the bank suffer for that? She was barely functional, and if she couldn’t listen to Lucy without learning how to block her out or redirect her then Suzy would never last in the banking industry or any other job. But she was young and he tried to keep that in mind.
He was doing okay, not wanting to gut her or anything, when he heard Rodney clear his throat loudly several times.
Rodney Fortson’s desk was to the right of his. Max glanced at him. The man was younger than Max. Perhaps twenty-five, so thin that if Max flipped him upside down he could use him and his full head of straw-colored hair as a broom.
“Do you have something to say?” Max asked him. He leaned back in his chair. He thought he should feel more anger or something similar when looking at his wife’s lover, but all he felt was a quiet impatience.
Rodney leaned back in his chair too and crossed his legs and cupped his hands beneath his chin. There was a question in his eyes but for some reason Max couldn’t fathom, the younger man refused to ask it. “Do you need help with something?”
“Not really,” Rodney said. His voice was thin, nasally, and he brushed the tip of his nose with his thin fingers and looked off into the distance in the direction of Max’s house, as if he were imagining what Isabelle was up to at that very moment, possibly imagining her in the shower, cleaning up for their lunch break romp in the sheets. When he glanced back at Max, he was smirking. Rodney said, “How is your wife? Is she going to be at the 4th of July party?”
“I imagine she will,” Max said. “You?”
“I wouldn’t miss it.”
“She seems to like you,” Max said. “She mentions you often.”
“Really?” Rodney sat up quickly and leaned forward, lowering his voice. “What does she say?”
“Oh, the usual, asking if you have a girlfriend yet, things like that,” Max said. “It’s hard for her imagine someone as handsome as you not having a girlfriend. I think she worries you’re lonely or something of the sort. I really don’t have a clue. Half the time I get tired of listening to her talk.”
“Maybe you should listen to her more,” Rodney said.
“What do you know about it?” Max said, his voice level, calm. “You haven’t been married yet, have you?”
“No. But if you love someone, shouldn’t you listen to them?”
Max scratched at the hidden knife tight to his calf, and said, “Who said I loved her?”
Max turned back to the paperwork on his desk. He could sense someone staring at him and at first thought it was Rodney, but then he looked up at the higher levels around the rim of the ground floor and saw his father leaning against the railing, a sad expression on his face. He figured his old man might have overheard him talking about Isabelle. That could work to his favor in a way. His old man was a family man first, or so he liked people to believe, and if he thought Max was late for work because he was attempting to iron out something in his marriage, then the old codger would cut him some needed slack, which was good, because Max didn’t need people looking at him too closely.
Isabelle spent most of the morning cleaning the house. Max tended to be a slob and he’d only grown worse as year after year he grew lazier and expected more from her. He left his dirty socks in front of the couch every night, these balled up black socks as thin as nylon that stank to high heaven, and she spent every morning picking up magazines he’d read and tossed aside and gathering up dishes he left in the living room, the bathroom, their bedroom. When she raised a fuss—sometimes hysterically, since that seemed to be the only action that got a response from him—he would do better for a day or two, and then slide right back into his reliance on her to play at being his mother.
She was sick of it.
When the house was cleaned she grabbed a bottle of wine from the kitchen and poured a glass and sat on the couch. The day was wet yet warm and she felt the same way inside as she thought of Max and then Rodney. At first, when her and Rodney had stumbled into that exhilarating, awkward romance—it was almost like she was a teenager again, fumbling in the dark, at a loss for breath and eager to meet his needs and fulfill her own—she had expected it to be a one-time thing. But the quick intimacy they’d shared had sparked that most ancient of fires, and her loins felt loose and hot any time she replayed their couplings and their conversations in her mind. Max had thrilled her that way, a long time ago. Over the past few months she had tried to figure out why he’d lost his vitality, his passion, his imagination. He used to be spontaneous, a vivid soul full of uncontrollable energy. His love making had been inventive, whereas now it was nonexistent, unless he was experimenting on someone else.
She sipped more wine, finished the first glass and poured another, forcing herself to take more time with it, to not rush, to avoid becoming a lush and lost to her own complex emotions. She wasn’t sure if she was simply using Rodney, it was possible, and if she was, she didn’t want to break his heart, but little else would shake Max enough for him to see how close their relationship was to the brink. And that was a pity, she thought. What they’d had in the beginning had been good. She’d had three ho-hum relationships—one in high school and two in college—before meeting Max. When he swept into her life, it was like the ebb of the ocean drawing her out into the dark and the unknown, and it was an exhilarating feeling. He took her throughout the city, unafraid of any place or any one, like a thief in the night, or the king of shadows. Looking back, after their quick courtship and marriage, she sometimes worried that he had purposely put both of them in jeopardy for some cheap thrill. He had corners in him, and would sometimes laugh at the scariest things, and as much as it bothered her, she liked that part of him most. Now, as lazy and unresponsive as he was, she realized she didn’t really like him at all. She’d heard stories from girlfriends and cousins and aunts about men changing, and she’d always thought that the only men she’d seen change were men who had changed for their wives. But she had not shaped Max into the unimaginative boring slug he was now, had she?
She finished her wine and looked at the clock hanging to the right of the front door. Rodney would be on his lunch break soon. Just a half hour. She almost didn’t want him to visit her because it too was getting old, the sneaking around, the way it made her feel about herself. Not a good feeling. She’d never cheated on anybody before and never thought she would have reason to. She still wasn’t sure that she had reason to now, and did her best to justify it to herself by saying that she had needs too. And sometimes she’d wake, or step from the shower, so horny that she felt like a goddess, or at least twenty again, and she’d want Max, badly, and she’d try to coax him to the bed, or to bend her over the kitchen table and take her from behind. But he wouldn’t. Not anymore. She suspected he had something on the side as well and it was it made her feel small and childish in hoping that he felt as dirty and unsatisfied as she did.