Internet, I’ve been bored. When I get bored, I do an unpleasant self-pity thing that grates on everyone’s nerves– think your kids’ whining combined with Lee Press-On Nails on an old-timey Little-House-On-The-Prairie chalk board.
I need to shake things up– my creative life is a martini that needs something more than a vigorous stir. Wait. I’m in recovery; I shouldn’t make martini jokes. Again: My creative life is like a still snow-globe– BOOOORRRIINNNGGGG. I’m giving it a shake and watching the flakes fall like my fourth grade teacher’s dandruff.
I gave myself an assignment. (Actually, my sponsor gave me an assignment and I self-willed it into what follows.) For thirty days, I am writing a short first scene of a new novel– that is, a new novel every day for thirty days. Different voices, eras, plots, genres. 600 words max. Thirty times. It starts today.
What follows is Day 1. Today’s opening is for a book set in the rural south, pre-Brown v. The Board of Education. It’s Jim Crow. It’s violent and cowardly townspeople v. my plucky protagonist whose family took in Mr. Coleman, a black ex-con looking to start his life anew after a wrongful conviction landed him in prison for three years.
Tomorrow? Something totally different.
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Day 1: Opening Chapter
I heard the dogs first. Their deep, incessant barking drew closer, my heartbeat thrumming in time with them. Must have been a pack. When they reached the fence around our yard, I dared look out the window, even though Mama made me promise I’d stay in bed.
I dumped my three stuffed animals out of the old gray milk crate in the corner of my room. The crate made a loud, scraping sound when I dragged it under the window. As I stood on it, the middle sagged under my weight and the crisscrossed plastic made waffle indentions on the bottom of my bare feet.
In the high moonlight, the dogs’ fur shone black as wet dirt. Their teeth looked as white and sharp as the dinosaur fossils in the Natural History Museum in Birmingham. The dogs tumbled over one another as they tried to scale the chain fence. The biggest one, a black male with a bald patch between his ears, seemed to look right at me. He stood still as a pole and stared straight at the window, then started barking anew with such ferocious intensity that I ducked below the window and fell off the crate.
We knew they would come. Mama and Daddy had said so as soon as we took in Mr. Coleman. “Not a matter of if, but when,” Daddy’d said as he watched Mama make up the back bedroom with an old quilt from my closet. “When” had come. The dogs. Just behind them, the men with their sticks, their fire, their rifles.
I should have been scared. In retelling the story, I write in the fear as if it was there along. But that night, it wasn’t fear. It was relief. We’d been twitching at every sound in the yard, dreading every smudge on the horizon that we feared was someone from town coming for us. I’d grown so tired of hearing Mama cry behind the bathroom door and watching Daddy pick at his fried chicken as if it tasted like burned biscuits that I just wanted them to come already.
Had I only known what they were bringing I would have been afraid. Because I was a child, I had the idea that they would come quick but then leave us to get on with our business. I didn’t know they would turn their lit torches to our roof or cut our fence so the dogs could sink their angry white teeth into our chickens, our rocking chair, our legs. I didn’t know how deep those teeth could sink.
I didn’t know what it was I would have to survive.
People ask me, in hushed whispers, whether I harbor any ill will towards Mr. Coleman for what happened. How could I hate Mr. Coleman? He just wanted a roof over his head until he could join his people up in Detroit. He wasn’t the one who torched my family’s house. He never even kicked the chickens that flocked around his feet, nipping at his ankles, when he fed them in the morning. I’d kicked those stupid chickens every time I walked across the yard to the milk barn.
With so much hate to go around, I grew tired of finding a target for mine. I buried it like a time capsule I had no intention of unearthing. Let some later generation dig it up and go through it.
The doctors in here tell me I have to look at it. They’re trying to draw it out of me, like leeches taking blood. I keep telling them it’s in too deep. If they really wanted to help me with the headaches and the visions, they’d forget about the anger and start with the fear.
Yes, the fear is where this story should start.