Welcome to the working chapters of Zoey, my latest novel. Follow the navigation to the right to read through the chapters. Please remember that these are the working chapters and as such this is a work in progress.
Sunday, February 28, 2010
I suppose the first question that most people will ask is why I was willing to allow myself to be taken captive, especially by a woman who may have killed a man. The short answer was that even if she did kill him, in doing so she may very well have saved my life. The complicated answer is that if she did kill him then I might actually be culpable for not having reported what happened in that alley, so I really needed to find out what happened after I crawled back to the street. The honest answer is that she was offering me her story and I was in desperate need of a good story.
At first I was rather disappointed that her instructions for our meeting sounded like something out of a cliché detective novel: Change my voice mail message to indicate that I had been called out of town for a few days, walk to the nearest bust stop and catch the next bus downtown, and walk into the alley where we first met. I didn’t like the idea of returning to that alley, but that was precisely the detail that jolted me back to the realization that I wasn’t dealing with a cliché detective novel; I was dealing with the most dangerous woman I had ever met.
For a few moments I began to worry that she had only invited me back to that alley in order to eliminate the only witness. On the other hand, she could have just as easily killed me on the night we first met. In the end, my fears were overwhelmed by my curiosity to discover the fate of my attacker and the story to be told by the woman who had so easily dispensed with him.
In retrospect I guess I should have expected that she was watching me from the time I left my apartment. I had been a bit agoraphobic since the attack though, so I was quite distracted by having to stand at the bus stop and too anxious on the bus to focus on much more than my heart rate. The downtown streets were as empty as they were on the night that we met and for the first time since the attack I found myself craving the safety of a crowd. As strange as it may seem, I rushed to the alley to meet her, hoping desperately to return to the relief I felt when I first looked up at my rescuer.
As I rounded the corner into the alley I was startled to find it empty. I froze instantly, fearing something had gone terribly wrong. Then I was startled again as a large SUV rounded the corner and stopped right beside me. The passenger window descended with a buzz and just before I bolted back out into the street I heard her voice.
“Get in,” she said casually.
My mind began to race. What the hell was I doing? This woman might have killed a man - she was dangerous even if she hadn’t killed him. I couldn’t bare the thought of heading back out into the empty streets though. I had made a terrible mistake and desperately wished that I wasn’t there. I was there, however, and there seemed to be only one way out. I opened the door and climbed in.
“There, that wasn’t so hard. Was it?” she said.
I struggled to control my breathing. She was a lot smaller than I remembered and I began to feel disoriented. The man who had pulled me into that alley had to have been well over six feet tall and nearly three hundred pounds. I remembered the expression of agony that overcame his face as he rolled off of me. I looked down at this tiny woman in the driver’s seat, even more amazed now than then that she had been able to so quickly and quietly subdue him.
“Buckle up,” she chirped with a smile.
As I began to pull the seatbelt, it stopped short.
“It’s stuck in the door,” she said.
As I turned to dislodge the seatbelt I felt her move towards me. In an instant the little bit of light there was in the alley faded to nothingness.
As I regained consciousness I realized that I was no longer in the Jeep. My vision was blurry but I could tell that I was lying on a sofa. While I blinked in an attempt to sharpen up the images around me, I became aware of the intoxicating aroma of freshly brewed coffee. The first image to penetrate my drowsy eyes was the head of a moose mounted on the wall above the sofa. My attention returned to the aroma of the coffee as I tried to get my bearings.
“How’s the headache?” I heard her ask.
“Uhm, not too bad,” I mumbled.
“I’m sorry about that…a necessary precaution, but you’ll feel fine shortly,” she consoled me as she entered the room with a cup of coffee in hand.
I was relieved to find that I wasn’t tied up or handcuffed and I was even more relieved that the cup of coffee was for me. I felt a bit dizzy as I sat up but I steadied myself by grabbing the coffee mug with both hands. Just inhaling the vapour rising from the mug cleared my head a great deal as I asked, “So you knocked me out?”
“Again, I’m sorry, but as I said, a necessary precaution.”
“Let me guess; you hit me on the head with the butt of a gun?”
“No, that doesn’t really work without doing a lot of damage.”
“Trade secret,” she said with a smirk.
“So you’re some sort of spy?”
She burst into laughter and then abruptly stopped and said, “No.”
“Where are we?”
“In a cabin at a lake,” she explained, “No one comes up here this time of year, but we’re only ninety miles from a decent sized town. Your car is out front and your keys are back in your coat pocket. You can leave anytime you wish.”
I walked to the patio doors and parted the vertical blinds to peak out. My car was parked in front of another cabin on the other side of heavy snow drifts that mostly obscured the road. I sipped on my coffee as I tried to clear my mind enough to understand the situation. I had obviously been moved to the sofa and there was no way that she had done that alone. Her accomplice must have followed us in my car. The jagged pine trees indicated that we had traveled at least a few hundred miles north.
I spotted my coat hanging by the patio doors and I confirmed that my keys were in fact back where I usually kept them. I looked back at her and she seemed to be taking great amusement in watching me regain my bearings.
“Where is your partner?” I asked.
“Partner?” she said, obviously confused.
“Whoever drove my car and helped you move me to the sofa.”
“Ahh. No partner.”
“Well there’s no way that you carried me in here.”
“True. ‘Dragged’ would be a better word. You might have some bruises on your left side from when I dropped you on the door jam coming in.”
My left ribs were a bit sore, but I had to ask, “And my car?”
“That’s how we got here. I have to admit though that getting you into your car was a lot harder than dragging you into the cabin.”
I peaked back through the blinds and surveyed the surrounding cabins unable to spot her Jeep. She was tiny and I just couldn’t believe that she had moved me into the cabin, let alone from one vehicle to another.
“How will you get back to town if I take off in my car?” I asked.
“I have other arrangements,” she explained, “I planned this quite some time ago.”
“So our meeting in the alley wasn’t by chance then?”
“I wouldn’t say that. I had been watching you for quite some time. Your chance encounter with our mutual friend just gave me an opportunity to introduce myself.”
“You were watching me?”
“I was trying to figure out how to approach you – about writing my story.”
“I’ve read some of your stuff. I like your style.”
“So you rescued me from that psycho to convince me to write your story? Why not write it yourself?”
“I think once you’ve heard it you’ll understand. The deal comes with a healthy advance,” she said as she slid an envelope across the table, “and I bought you a present. The laptop over there is top notch. You can use it to take notes and there’s a program to record our sessions. Stay until you’ve heard me out and you can keep it. I promise it won’t take more than three days.”
I cautiously pulled the envelope towards me. Inside was a sum of money that I would rather not disclose for income tax reasons. The laptop was a nice shiny prize as well. With some trepidation I asked, “What if I can’t get it published?”
“Who cares,” she chuckled, “just post it on the internet. Inquiring minds want to know. I do want you to submit it for publication though; that’s why I need you. Either way, I would venture to say the advance is likely more than you’ve made on any of your other books.”
I hated admitting that she was right. The desperate state of my writing career was likely more appealing to her than my style. I wasn’t in any position to turn her down and she knew it. “So how do you want to go about this? Should I ask questions, like an interview?”
“Not really,” she answered, “I’d prefer to just tell the relevant parts in my own way. You can ask questions when you feel that something needs to be more specific. I guess I’d also like you to provide the names of the characters, starting with me.”
“You want me to name you?”
“Yeah. What’s my name?”
“How about Zoey?”
My name is Zoey. I would have to say that the defining moment of my life was watching life itself drain from her eyes as her body grew limp. I can’t express what I felt at that moment except perhaps to describe it as simultaneous fascination and horror. I know for a fact that I loved her, for she was my grandmother. I could never understand why my family was so traumatized that I had been there to witness her passing. I would never trade that experience for anything, for without it I would not exist.
My grandparents’ home was truly my childhood utopia, aside from Sunday mornings when my grandmother dragged me off to church - it was a small price to pay. I remember cold winter nights when my grandmother tucked me into a bed of flannel sheets piled over with comforters so thick that I joked with her that she had made me into a sandwich. The old, wood-framed windows had a strip of wood at the bottom which could be flipped to the side to reveal three little air holes bored through the frame. Even when it was forty below I would open those little vents just so I could see my breath in the air from the safe, warm womb created by all those comforters and flannel.
The house was across from the railroad switchyards where my grandfather toiled through the night to connect the next day’s trains. The low rumble of those big diesel locomotives winding up, followed by the slamming of all the hitches as he sent yet another stream of boxcars down a switch track were an annoyance to everyone in the neighbourhood, but I couldn’t imagine falling asleep without them. I was nearly hypnotized by the low frequency rumble of the engines and with each cascade of slamming boxcar hitches I knew my grandfather was one step closer to coming home and lighting the wood stove in the kitchen. I wouldn’t leave my safe flannel and comforter sandwich until the heat from that stove rose up the stairs.
To this day, the low grumble of a big diesel engine makes me groggy. Whenever I’ve traveled by bus, I’ve always sought to sit at the back so as to be right above the motor. Few people could ever find comfort in sleeping with their head against the window of a bus, but that very posture always returns me to my childhood and the feeling of safety and warmth I found in that childhood cocoon.
I always awoke to the most enticing aromas at Grandma’s house, especially in the winter. There is just something about cold winter air that stokes the appetite during sleep. Most mornings, the first thing I smelled was the porridge. In those days I could even tell if it was rolled oats or cracked wheat. Some mornings I awoke to the aroma of thick sliced bacon sizzling in a cast iron pan and I knew immediately that my grandfather had decided to cook breakfast. He fried the eggs in the bacon fat and almost always burned the toast, but the smell of burnt toast was absolutely wonderful because it was always made from my grandmother’s bread. Even as young as I was, I always preferred a slice of her bread to a slice of store-bought cake. The best mornings were the ones when I awoke to the aroma of her baking that bread.
I can still vividly remember the last morning that I awoke to that aroma. I remember the weight of those comforters pressing down on me as I took my first conscious breath, drawing in as much air through my nostrils as possible. My bladder was so full that my kidneys hurt, but I always clung to sleep as long as possible on cold winter nights at Grandma’s house. It took a long time for the heat of the woodstove to waft up the stairs, and even then the floor remained icy cold. I bounced up and down as I galloped to the bathroom, both to keep my feet off the floor and to avoid peeing in my pajamas.
My grandmother was very strict about everyone washing their hands after using the toilet. It took a long time for the hot water to reach the upstairs faucet, but I had to wait for it because she would check the pipes running up through the kitchen to make sure I had washed with hot water. I shivered as I waited for the hot water, listening to the familiar sound of my grandfather chopping wood in the backyard.
As I made my way down the stairs into the warmth, I realized that something familiar was missing. I couldn’t hear my grandmother humming. She always hummed religious hymns as she toiled in the kitchen. I became worried when I walked by the closed cellar door. She always left it open when she was down there, so she had to be in the kitchen. As I walked into the kitchen I realized why she wasn’t humming and my heart sank.
There on the floor, in the corner of the cupboards, was my grandmother. She was propped up a bit in the corner, with her left hand still clasping the handle on the cutlery drawer. She looked a bit gray, and she gasped for breath with a raspy, wheezing rattle. Despite her laboured breathing, she looked quite peaceful and content. In retrospect, I suppose there really couldn’t have been a better way for her to end her days. There was a fresh batch of bread from the oven sitting on the cooling racks above her head on the counter.
The contented look in her eyes changed to one of fear as she spotted me. I think she would have been happy to depart this earth, leaving a fresh batch of bread cooling on the counter, had it not been for the realization that I was about to watch her slip away. I scurried over and dropped beside her, taking her right hand and telling her not to be afraid. As she looked at me a tear welled up in her eye, but then it seemed to recede. The feeling of her hand in mine changed in a very subtle way that you can only ever imagine if you have held the hand of someone who is dying. Before there is enough time for the flesh to grow cold, you just know that the life has left it. Before the muscles even begin to slack off you just know that the blood is no longer flowing. It’s as though there is a magnetic field in the hand of a living person, and it diffuses as the life passes out of them.
The eyes are the real beacon of death, however. That tear that had welled up in her eye seemed to drain back into it. The light in her eyes faded like an oil lantern being turned down. Even after the light from the lantern is gone, there is a faint glow of warmth that continues to fade. It’s like an image burned into your retinas that is no longer there but still visible for a few moments. Even after it’s gone you still think you see it for several more seconds. Your eyes have to fully recover from this overexposure for almost a minute before you realize that you are staring into the darkness. It’s such a gradual realization that it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact moment went the lights go out.
I just knelt there, holding her hand in my lap, staring into her eyes. It was impossible to think of her as gone while the aroma of that fresh-baked bread remained in the air. She had baked that bread, and it was still warm. That was all I had left of her and I slowly inhaled that aroma over and over. It was as though a part of her was still fading away, even though I knew for certain that she was already gone.
I have no idea how long I sat there clasping her hand, staring into her eyes, and breathing in the aroma of that bread. It was as though time stood still. It could have as easily been a minute as an hour. The next memory I have is the sound of my grandfather stomping the snow off of his boots in the back porch. I looked up at the back door expecting him to come and join me in a very serene experience. I truly found it that peaceful and beautiful.
It wasn’t my grandmother’s passing that traumatized me, but rather the reactions to her passing by the rest of my family. I had fully expected my grandfather to come and kneel gently beside me when he came through that door and I had absolutely no context for understanding his reaction. It started out serene enough, with him inhaling the aroma of the bread and donning a very familiar expression of peaceful bliss, but chaos quickly ensued. To my horror, his familiar expression was instantly transformed to a very alien expression of terror as he quickly surmised the absence of life in Grandma. He howled the pathetic howl of a grief stricken old man. He fell to his knees, and then onto his face at her feet. He reached as far as he could to put a shaking hand on her knee and he sobbed and wailed in tones that sent shivers down my spine. For the first time in my life I was truly terrified.
As best as I can reason, that fear resulted in large portions of my memory of the following days being blocked out. I have no idea when my mother, aunts and uncles arrived, but I do remember them wailing in every room of the house. They didn’t bring any of my cousins to the house on the first day and so I was alone with the adults and their behavior continued to bombard me with confusion and fear. They kept telling me over and over that Grandma was “in Heaven now” and that I shouldn’t be sad or scared. They kept repeating the same words through choked sobs as they tried to steady me with their own shaking hands. I don’t think anything could have frightened me more than frightened adults telling me not to be frightened.
I never thought for a moment about heaven as my grandmother slipped away, but I guess I also didn’t realize that I would never see her again either. As each aunt and uncle choked back their sobs to tell me that Grandma was happy and in Heaven, it became more and more clear that they didn’t believe their own words. I wondered why they were lying. I wondered how they could be so certain that Grandma wasn’t in Heaven.
For the rest of the week I spent a lot of time in the living room, hiding between an upholstered chair and the wall. It was my favorite place to find solitude during big family gatherings. My little nook was just under the telephone so I could eavesdrop on all calls as I watched everyone in the room without them taking note of my spying. I watched all of the adults very carefully, trying to figure out what was going on and why they were behaving so strangely.
I can’t begin to count the number of times they consoled each other by saying, “She’s in a better place now,” as their tears kept flowing full stream. I wondered who they were trying to convince, for none of them seemed to notice me in my hiding spot. I slowly came to realize that they weren’t really trying to convince me or each other so much as they were each trying to convince themselves. Once I came to this understanding, the rest of their behavior made perfect sense.
They were afraid because they really didn’t know where Grandma was, and that meant that they had no idea where they were going to wind up when it was their turn. They were frantic to have their lies about Heaven affirmed in order to affirm that they themselves would end up in such a place. None of their tears were actually for Grandma. They were crying for themselves.
It was all too much for me to absorb at that age. Up until that week, Heaven had been a very real place for me; more real than England or Germany. I had no reason to think that I would ever visit England or Germany, but Heaven had always been a definite destination. I knew more about Heaven than New York or Los Angeles. Heaven had streets that were paved in gold and big mansions for everyone. I had heard about it at church and Grandma had told me about it herself as though she had been there.
I thought about Grandma’s eyes as she slipped away. I vividly remembered the feeling of life fading from her hand. Where did she go? The question echoed over and over in my mind and I knew that I couldn’t ask the adults while they were so desperately trying to convince themselves that she had gone to Heaven. I might have been able to block all of it out if it weren’t for what happened at her funeral.
My next memory is of walking past Grandma as she lay in her casket. She looked wonderful. She was a bit pale, but she no longer looked gray. I looked up at my mother and asked, “Who closed Grandma’s eyes?” The resulting gasps and shrieks completed my trauma. It only got worse when I explained that Grandma never closed her eyes when she left. The rest of the proceedings are a blur, at least until they lowered her into the ground and began to cover her with earth.
My grandfather was never the same after my grandmother’s passing. My mother took turns with her siblings taking care of him. Unfortunately my parents were divorced and my father had moved to the west coast so the burden was far greater on my mother than her siblings. I think that is why she sent me to spend the summer with my father’s parents, Grandpa and Grandma Summers, at their lakeside cabin.
Grandpa and Grandma Summers weren’t the nurturing type so I found my warmest companionship with their old Golden Retriever, Amber. Amber was well beyond her years of playing fetch, but she seemed to take great pride in leading me down the labyrinth of paths around the lake in search of unknown treasures. That was how I met Matt, a boy who was spending the summer with his parents at their cabin a few lanes over.
Matt was a little older than I, but seemed to have trouble making friends because of his devotion to fishing. When I expressed an interest in catching fish he took me under his wing instantly. Grandpa Summers provided me with an old fishing rod and Matt and I made the long trek to a nearby creek where he promised we would catch schools of brook trout. Amber came along to keep an eye on both of us.
Fishing turned out to far more interesting than I had ever expected. It started out rather boring, but that changed instantly when I got the first bite. Just the feel of that little brook trout on the end of the line pumped up my adrenalin. I shrieked and jumped around, reeling it in as fast as I could. Matt was quite disappointed when I quickly flung it out of the water and into the bushes, for he explained that the greatest joy in fishing was dragging out the battle to reel in the fish.
He lurched into the bushes and grabbed that little brook trout, quickly dashing its consciousness on the trunk of a tree. This was where I expressed my disappointment, for I felt cheated by not being able to watch the life drain from the trout. Matt seemed a bit perplexed by my desire to watch the fish die slowly, but he agreed to take part as long as I agreed to spend more time fighting to reel them in.
Amber expressed her disappointment when Matt hung the fish by its gills in a tree to keep it out of her reach. Apparently this was just the sort of treasure she had been expecting to find on our journeys and she seemed to feel that the trout, by rights, was hers. She made her way to the edge of the creek and laid down with her head on her paws to pout as we cast our lines with confidence bolstered by our recent success.
Matt got the next bite, and he wasn’t kidding when he said that he liked to prolong the fight. He swung his fishing rod around in an exaggerated struggle, reeling in more line as he swung it back down stream. When it seemed that there couldn’t be any more line left in the water, he clicked down the button to let the line spool back out with a whirring zip and started all over again. I jumped up and down in excitement as Amber paced back and forth barking out a warning to anyone thinking of stealing our trout.
Finally that poor fish just didn’t have enough fight left in it to hold Matt’s interest and he swung it onto the path beside the creek. Amber jumped in close to get a good sniff but I pulled her back so I could kneel beside it. There was a lot of life in its eye but it just didn’t have the strength to flop around. It gasped for air and I could tell that its heart had to be beating wildly. It squirmed a bit when I set my hand upon it but was powerless to escape. I leaned in and stared into its eye.
“What are you doing?” Matt asked.
“Watching the life drain out of its eye,” I answered.
Matt knelt beside me to see what I was talking about. Within a minute or so the eye quickly drained and stopped staring back. I really didn’t feel the energy that I had felt in my Grandma’s hand when she had passed but there was no mistaking the failing beacon of that eye. Matt saw it too and was quite impressed that I seemed to know what I was talking about.
We sat back on the path and discussed what had just happened. I told him about my Grandmother’s passing and how the life that drained from her eyes was much deeper than what we had just witnessed. He was quite enthralled by my description and we discussed it at length, completely oblivious that Amber had gone missing. By the time we remembered the fish, we turned to discover that it had disappeared as well. Just then, Amber emerged from the bushes, covered in dirt, and we realized that she had buried our treasure.
The daily fishing expeditions that I took with Matt and Amber made the summer pass quickly. As it turned out, though, the long treks were a bit more than old Amber could handle and the wear and tear began to show itself. Her hips had been deteriorating for years and all that exercise was more than they could bear. She showed her age most in the morning as she began having more and more trouble getting back on her feet.
Spying on Grandpa and Grandma Summers wasn’t a task at all, for they always spoke as though I wasn’t in the room. Each day they spent more time on the topic of having Amber put down. Finally the morning came when they told me that Amber couldn’t accompany Matt and me on our daily fishing expedition.
“Will she be here when I get back?” I asked.
“What kind of question is that?” my grandmother shot back, obviously startled.
“You’re going to put her down, aren’t you?”
Both my grandparents stared at me in amazement. As strange as it may seem, I’m convinced that they were completely oblivious to the fact that I, like them, spoke English. Like all too many adults in my life up until that point, it just never dawned on them that an eight year old might be listening to their conversations. My grandmother was a hard woman and not one to be intimidated by an awkward topic, so she knelt in front of me, stared me straight in the eye and said, “Yes, we’re going to have her put down today.”
I think she was expecting me to cry and run away, thus alleviating her of any further uncomfortable interaction with a child. She definitely didn’t anticipate my reaction, for her face grew sour when I told her I wanted to be there when Amber passed away. She turned to my grandfather for support, but he was a hard man who grew up in hard times and he gave her no quarter.
“Let the girl come along,” he said coarsely.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
In the ensuing discussion it quickly came to light that Matt had been having long discussions with his parents about our preoccupation with watching fish die. There seemed to be little concern for Matt regarding those activities, but in light of my experience watching my other grandmother pass away it was determined that something strange was happening to me. My grandfather argued vehemently that watching Amber being put down might be just what I needed to get past my predilection with death.
My grandfather pressed his will successfully and shortly thereafter Amber found herself in my Grandfather’s truck, sitting between me and Grandpa on her last ride. Grandpa’s harsh demeanor was as resolute as ever and the only companionship I had during the ride was Amber. I sat comfortably with my arm around her big neck as she panted and stared out the familiar windshield for the last time.
The proceedings at the vet’s office proved to be very anticlimactic. Amber was too drugged up when she passed away and actually lost consciousness without being aware that she was about to die. Somehow that changed things. When the life slipped out of her paw it wasn’t nearly as strong as when it had slipped out of my grandmother’s hand. I wished that Amber had been conscious as she was dying and I really felt that she had missed out on something, as did I.
The hardest part was not being able to look into Amber’s eyes as she passed away. I thought a lot about the significance of the eyes during death as I rode with my grandfather back to the lake. As was his custom, he didn’t speak a single word the entire return trip. When we got back to the cabin, though, my grandmother was more inclined than ever to converse with me.
She was relentless in pressing me for my feelings about the experience at the vet’s office. It was obvious that she was hoping to drive me to tears, to get me to express grief at the loss of my beloved companion. She was driving in the wrong direction though, for unlike all the adults I knew, I didn’t find death to be abhorrent. I told her plainly that they had robbed Amber of her only chance to experience death by drugging her the way they did. My perspectives on mortality were not well received, to say the least.
Both of my grandparents returned to discussing the matter as though I weren’t in the room. They were far too old fashioned to even know what a child psychologist was, let alone what benefit might be yielded by such an intervention. My grandmother was adamant that something had to be done and my grandfather just paced back and forth agreeing with her repetitive assertion until he figured out what that something might be. He stared at me for a minute, then glanced back and my grandmother and announced that he knew what to do. For the first time in my life I was ushered out of earshot.