Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Chapter One of a New Novel

            Joie Rowantree was almost killed by a hat. It wasn't even a fancy hat, certainly not worth dying for. It was a plastic bowler cap, shiny and black, purchased from the party section of the 99 Cent store. Yesterday, Little Joie had plucked the hat off the shelf and begged her mother for it. "Please," she begged. "It can be for my birthday." Joie wasn't turning six for another eight months, but she gave Mommy those big brown eyes and a moment later, Mrs. Rowantree gave in, as she often did.
            "At least it's not candy," she had said, then looked to her older daughter. "Do you want something, Madison?"
            Madison didn't. "I'm fine."
            "And I'm cool," Joie said, putting on a pair of sunglasses. "Can I get these too?"
            "Nice try," her mother had said.

                                                                        * * *

            That was yesterday. Now, Joie stood by the banks of the Kettle Black River. She was in a fighting stance. Or, at least she thought it was a fighting stance. She kept her legs apart to match the width of her shoulders. She brought her elbows in, and raised her fists to her cheek bones. Her knees stayed relaxed, ready to bounce, ready to strike. And her new hat sat upon her head. Even though Joie wore a rainbow shirt and a pink tutu, the black bowler hat made her feel tough. Like some kind of action hero. Or maybe a super-villain. She hadn't made up her mind yet.
             She faced her opponent: a fern. Tall, green and innocent looking -- and about to be destroyed by a five-year old martial artist.
            "HiiiiiiiiYA!" As she kicked, Joie nearly lost her balance, but that didn't stop her from vanquishing the fern. The plant crumpled in surrender.
            "Did you see me, Mads? Were you looking? Were you even looking?"
            Seemingly oblivious, her big sister scanned the shore for the perfect skipping stone.
            "You didn't even look!" Joie growled.
            Madison replied, "Your feet were right. Your hand placement was good. But you need to hunch over more; don't leave your stomach exposed. You want to make yourself as small as possible so you aren't an easy target."
            "Oh," said the little sister. "Thanks."
            Madison added, "And we use our skills for self-defense. Not to attack plant life."
            "But I want to practice as much as I can, so that when Mom finally lets me join your dojo I'll be as good as you."
            "You'll probably be better," Madison said as she wiggled her toes in the river sand, searching for that ideal skipping stone with her bare foot. When her big toe wiggled against something flat and hard, she knew it was at least a nine-skip rock.
            "Hey, Joie," she said. "Watch me break my record."
            Madison sent the stone bouncing across the water. Only seven skips. Not bad. But not a record breaker. She had seen her father skip a stone that bounced twelve times. He loved geology and could name every mineral within any given rock. Her father would pick up a stone, tell Madison to touch it, and describe how the little rock has been traveling for centuries, millennia, just to arrive at this particular spot in this particular river, so that he could pick it up, skip it across the water, sending the stone on yet another journey. He was usually good at saying that kind of stuff. But he wasn’t around as much anymore because of the new job. And the new girlfriend. Her name was Lisa. That was the same name as Madison’s mom! Her Dad apparently only fell in love with people named Lisa. That just seemed wrong.

            Madison stared at the ripples wishing she could have that seven-skipper stone back in the palm of her hand. She wanted another shot. She wanted to obliterate her father’s record. She blamed the Kettle Black for her failure. The river wasn't as smooth and relaxed as it normally was. The vicious winter blizzards and soggy spring days had made the river grow fat during these summer days. This was the safe end of the Kettle Black. Further down, things got rough. They couldn't play down there.  No swimming either. And they weren't supposed to be this close to the river at all unless there was a grown-up.
            "You girls okay?" Uncle Brian was fishing off the railroad bridge. He was the official adult, almost forty years old, but not nearly as mature as Madison. He broke rules all the time. He wasn't supposed to be drinking while babysitting, yet a six-pack of beer sat next to his fishing tackle.
            "We're good," she called back.
            "If I don't catch anything this time, we'll pack up and head home," he said, casting out. His fishing hook caught on the train trestle behind him. "Dang it!"
            Madison laughed to herself. Silly Uncle. She returned to rock hunting for a while, but there weren't very many winners. Mostly twos and threes, and a solitary four-skipper. Her personal best was nine, but that was last year and no one had been around to witness her greatness. On the trestle, Uncle Brian had finally untangled himself from fishing wire and seemed to be sipping the last of his beer. Madison wiped her feet in the grass, sat on a park bench, and pulled on her socks and shoes. In the distance, the whistle of the three o'clock train announced itself.
            "Time to go?" Joie asked.
            "One more," Joie said. She wanted the next fern to be her greatest adversary, so she put the hat on the plant. "There. Now you look like a bad guy."
            "Please stop hurting the ferns," Madison said the words firmly, like a command. "They didn't do anything to you."
            Even though Joie was only five years and four months old, she had already gotten tired of reminding her sister "You're not my mom" and "You're not the boss of me." So instead of saying those things she responded with a rather clumsy but effective roundhouse kick, which decimated to fern and sent her plastic bowler cap rolling down the bank to where it floated on the water like a little boat beginning a voyage.
            "My hat!"
            Joie, who never cared for rules, ran down to the edge of the bank and jumped. In the instant before she leapt part of her mind told her not to do this, but the part of her mind that relied more on vision than common sense, judged that the water wasn't deep. She could clearly see the bottom through the ripples of the stream. She thought: It couldn't be deeper than my knees, right? She had seen Uncle Brian jump in this river lots of times, and it only went up to his waist. And so she jumped while her sister's screams were drowned by the roar of the train crossing the bridge.
            As soon as Joie entered the water with a splash, she realized that she had made a serious miscalculation. The river was deeper than she had thought. The water had tricked her! She couldn't touch bottom. The current, which had seemed slow and easy going from the bank, was actually swift and powerful. She tried to swim back to shore, but the waters of the Kettle Black took her farther and farther away. Joie bobbed up and down. The water level was at her nose. She didn't panic, though. She didn't think she could drown. She was the star of her own movie, so she believed nothing truly bad could happen to her. Uncle Brian will rescue me, she thought, and she blew bubbles in the water to pass the time.

            Uncle Brian, however, was still on the wrong side of the passing train, clueless to the calamity. Madison knew that it was up to her to rescue her little sister. Her first impulse was to jump in after Joie-- she was the fastest swimmer in the third grade. But her rule-obsessed mind remembered the wisdom of her gym teacher: a distressed swimmer is a dangerous swimmer. They will grab onto you and sink the both of you. So she ran down the bank, leaping over bushes, dodging tree branches, and plowing through a battalion of ferns. Joie would have been proud, she thought, then realized she was already thinking of her sister in the past tense and that terrified her.
            She raced ahead, keeping an eye on the river, and her sister. It was like they were in a race. One sister was running through the woods; the other was bobbing up and down, carried by the river. Madison could hear the rapids just around the bend. She doubled her speed, pulling ahead. If she could get to the log first, the log that stretched over the Kettle Black like a decaying bridge, she might have a chance. She could scramble out to the center of the log which seemed to hover just a foot or two above the river's surface. Then Madison could hold onto a branch and reach out and grab Joie -- no, she might not reach -- but Mads could dangle her legs and her sister would be able to grab her feet and pull herself--
            She was running out of time. The hat floated past the log and seconds later it was swallowed up by the white water.
            "Joie!" she yelled, trying to stay calm as she ran full speed across the mossy log. "Get ready to grab onto me!"
            But she never got the chance. Madison slipped on a patch of loose, rotten bark and she fell face first against the log, giving herself a bloody lip. It was a small miracle that she didn't tumble into the river herself. She was trying to get back on her feet as she saw her little sister drift by in a blur, some twenty feet out of reach.
            "Mads!" the girl screamed, and then she was gone. Moments before entering the rapids, some unseen current pulled Joie under the water. A splash. Some ripples and then nothing. Only the roar of the white water.
            Part of Madison wanted to jump in after her. But another part of her told her that would be certain death, and she did not want to die. Part of Madison was screaming, screaming louder than she ever thought her voice could go. And another part of her, a strange part of her mind that always thought the wrong things at the wrong time, thought: "You are going to be in so much trouble."
            She was about to scramble back to the bank, hoping that somehow her sister was still alive, somehow able to survive the rapids, when something very strange happened.
            The hat floated to the surface of the river, near the bank. This part of the water was far away from the rapids, a nice relaxing pool that would be fun to swim in if it weren't against Mom's rules. The hat did more than float, though. It seemed to rise up out of the water as if it was worn by the Invisible Man. No, not an invisible man, but a man made out of water. There wasn't a face, but there was definitely a head and shoulders... And then Madison saw that this strange creature -- for that's what she realized she was looking at, a strange, alien, fantastical creature wearing a black bowler hat -- was pulling Madison's little sister onto the shore. She was alive. Thank God, she was alive.
            "Mads!" Joie cried, spitting water. She didn't seem to mind that some monster was carrying her in its translucent arms.
            Madison raced to her sister, who now stood on dry land, soaking wet and grinning as if death was an impossibility. The river creature made a gurgling sound and crept back toward the water. Now that she was closer, Mads could tell that this short, stubby figure might be made of liquid, but it wasn't water. It wasn't like the magical ocean waves that were in Joie's favorite movie, Moana. The creature was more like a thick slime. It was clear, shiny, and transparent, just like the water, but inside there were air bubbles, kind of like the ones inside Uncle Brian's jumbo-size bottle of hair gel.
            It leaned forward, as if it was about to whisper a secret to Joie.
            "Don't let it touch you!" shouted Madison. But Joie flashed her "You're not the boss of me smile" and reaches out to touch the blob. It almost looked like they were shaking hands, except the creature did not have hands or fingers, just a blobby, crystal-slime tentacle. "Joie, don't!"
            Joie stared at the faceless creature, as if lost in conversation. "Oh, I see," she said, her words dream-like. "Uh-huh. Oh, that’s sad. I’m so sorry. Uh-huh? Okay, I will tell her.”                 

           “Tell me what?” Madison demanded. “What’s happening?!” 
           “I’m not supposed to say yet. That’s for later.” Then Joie peer at the creature, intently listening, even though the only sound was the wind and the train whistle fading into the distance. “Okay.” She grabbed Madison by the arm and raised her hand outward. “Mads, he wants to give you something.”
            Before Madison could protest, before she knew what was happening, the creature’s blob-like arm stretched out, forming a grapefruit sized ball where a hand should be. Something dropped out of it. A skipping stone. The one Mads had found with her toes. It landed in the palm of her hand. It was dry. Not a hint of moisture. Not even slime.  
            Then, the river creature, which was no taller than Joie, slumped away. It seemed clumsy on land, but once it returned to the water, its movement was smooth, even graceful. Even though the thing had no eyes, it seemed to look back for a moment as if to ask a question. Maybe it was because Joie answered: “Oh, yes! You can keep it. It looks good on you."
           It nodded in thanks and then disappeared into the river, hat and all.


  1. Hey professor bradford, an interesting plot twist for you to be asking us for feedback! I really like the characters, and I instantly connected with them. I was totally both of these kids to some extent when I was younger. Moreover, I also loved how seamlessly the details about the characters were revealed, definitely taking notes on that. I was actually on the edge of my seat when Madison fell into the river, which I was surprised at. Something I am looking for going onward would be is if/how the river creature will be interacting with the characters in the future, and what significance/symbolism will come of that. As a side note, I don't know if you have a martial arts background, but the details were pretty spot on. As far as actual feedback goes, I think the only area id be able to contribute would be wether or not the plot is compelling. This is just the first section so there is not much I can gather from the whole story, but so far I care for the characters, and I am interested.

  2. Oooh, tables are flipped now? It's my turn to comment on a professor's work? (You should never give a student this much power. Never, I tell you!)

    My first thought reading through this first chapter, all I could think was, "Where was this story when I was younger?!" At the ages of 8-12ish, my love of reading was a bit dulled because of all the reading assignments I did. I hated them because there was rarely a good monster/creature story appropriate for my age. Or if there was, they usually had a "Goosebumps" vibe to it, and my parents didn't like me to read those because then I wouldn't sleep at night. This is that story my elementary school self wanted to read so badly.

    I'm amazed at how easily you got me to like these characters! It's too often when there is a really young character like Joie, they would just irritate me. Which is why I often stray away from stories about families with a young child. Yes, I know children that age tend to get into mischief, but I feel like authors tend to emphasize that mischief way too much instead giving that child more of a personality, which in my experience they definitely have at five years old.

    However with Joie, I like this balance between mischief, naïveté, and personal character (like the moments before and after jumping into the water and her thought process). She feels genuine intstead of an annoyance to read about.

    I'm also pretty sure I've been corrupted by my own strangely-spelled name where I'm probably over-thinking how to figure pronounce Joie's name. Joey? Joy? Or (I'm drawing from my knowledge of French pronunciation here) Zhwah? Highly unlikely it's that last one, but for some reason I'm hearing it in my head while reading more often than Joey or Joy, that's for sure.

    As for Madison, I could definitely see little ol' serious child me in her. Though she's nicer to her sibling than I would have been. I'm glad you made her to be a caring older sister, since it makes me more concerned for her well-being as well.