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  1. CHAPTER 1 I didn’t officially exist until I was nearly thirteen. The State of Oregon marked this achievement via a document inscribed “Delayed Certificate of Birth” across the top. We were all born during the Vietnam war, and Mom and Dad weren’t about to let The Man know, so it was just the two of them bringing us into this world. Dad had no medical experience, and later I wondered what would have happened if something had gone terribly wrong. But nothing did, not at first anyway. My brother was born on the road. Mom was about to give birth in their red 1957 International TravelAll but then decided that’s where she drew the line, making my dad stop at the nearest commune so she could give birth in a real bed or on a mattress at least. She always rolled her eyes when she got to this part of the story. The Black Rabbit was a collective community deep in the woods of Washington State, all ramshackle cabins, makeshift dwellings, Douglas fir trees, and an assortment of hippies varying in age and hair length. “Your dad knew every commune between San Francisco and British Columbia,” Mom said, a tinge of pride in her voice. Folks there subsisted on free government cheese and powdered milk along with whatever they could grow and forage. Clothing was optional, and they informed my dad it was BYOD – bring your own doula. My parents were welcomed and given a sleeping area so Mom could get on with the task of pushing. They had no idea what they were doing, but it was over rather quickly. She was only seventeen and relatively healthy. Everything went fine, except that Dad, in his inexperience, cut the cord a little too closely, and my brother ended up with an “outie” instead of an “innie” for a belly button. I was their third child, and Dad delivered me in a house in Portland, Oregon. It was on the corner of Northeast Cleveland and Going Street, which was appropriate, Mom said, because I never stop moving. “You’re always going somewhere.” A few days after I was born, she took me to Maxi’s Better Buy on North Williams, where everyone in the neighborhood gathered to share gossip and purchase a few sundries. “Another little one you got there, and she is mi-tee-fine,” Mom always imitated Maxi’s voice when describing their conversation as she set me on the produce scale. “And a small one, only six pounds.” About the size of a cantaloupe, Mom pointed out when she told me the story as soon as I was old enough to ask, which I repeatedly did. Mom was 21 when she gave birth to me. She even took drugs while pregnant, but still, we were “normal, whatever that means,” she would say with another eye roll and a short, sharp laugh. “The body processes psychedelics differently than most drugs. They don’t affect the fetus, and, besides, you each have ten fingers and ten toes.” I was an accident, the baby that wasn’t supposed to happen because she thought she couldn’t get pregnant while nursing my sister. She said she cried the whole time she was carrying me. Thankfully, I was a self-soother as an infant. Mom was busy with a one-year-old and a three-year-old, and God was testing her with my brother, so she didn’t have much time for me. Since she was tired, I spent a lot of time in my crib, not crying. I learned how to calm myself, rolling over onto my stomach and pulling myself onto my haunches to rock back and forth, falling asleep in that position. “You turned out to be the happiest baby. You never cried no matter where we took you, holding out your arms to anyone who would pick you up. As soon as you could crawl, you went right into people’s laps, even strangers, talking away, asking them questions about themselves. You were so direct.” She paused here to tilt her head and consider me. “You still are.” “And you were so smart, memorizing books after we read them to you. I only had to show you how to do things once. Right away, you made yourself mommy and daddy’s little helper.” She smiled again, and her eyes looked distant as she ruffled my hair. “So, in the end, it turned out having you was the best thing that could have happened,” she said, as though wrapping up a fairytale or bedtime story, “because you’re the one who will end up taking care of us when we are old.” My earliest memories are strange like maybe I dreamed them, or Dad made a slide show but put everything in the wrong order. I’m holding an individually wrapped Mother’s cookie, and my brother, in his eagerness, tears it open for me. Dad is in an overstuffed orange chair, reading his newspaper. The turntable in the living room spins while Beach Boys harmonies float from the speakers and mom sings along off-key. My sister and I hover over cradles suspended on posts, squealing with delight as we give them a shove and watch them rock back and forth. At Grandad’s house, I sit in his lap, running my fingers along the lines in his face and grabbing at his round, wire-rimmed glasses. These scenes are all warm-toned, like faded vintage photos with white scalloped edges, and glow with the feeling that we were happy. And we were, until one day, we weren’t. The change came about slowly, as though we drank the same polluted water and were infected by something hidden, unseen, eating away at our souls, rendering each of us a different person. I’ll try to explain how it happened, but let me start again, from when my memories take shape.
  2. My best friend is going to die. And it’s my fault. That was the accusation screaming inside my head—like the chorus of a heavy metal song—when the doctor came striding in, asking about tacos. “Chicken or beef?” the nurse added. She was wearing magenta scrubs bright enough to blind someone. Maybe both their vision had been compromised. Could they not see the body right in front of us? “It’s this little game Doctor Mullion likes to play, asking what she should order for lunch,” the nurse explained. “My personal vote is pork.” Little game? My best friend is going to die. And it’s my fault. After rubbing a spurt of sanitizer onto her hands, the doctor took a few steps closer. “So Molly—it is Molly, right?” I must have nodded. “Molly, you’ll have to forgive my growling stomach. But I heard you might be able to help us figure out what happened to your friend. As far as you know, is this her first benzodiazepine overdose?” “No—no. See…that’s the thing,” I stammered, distracted by the tube protruding from Cate’s mouth. A different doctor had intubated her upon arrival, breezing out the door before I could ask any questions of my own. “This isn’t some sort of drug overdose. I keep telling everyone that, but no one seems to be listening.” I then sucked down a deep breath before repeating everything I’d already told the EMTs: What Instant Ten was. How I’d gotten it. And what I suspected might have gone wrong. “So let me get this straight,” the doctor said, folding her arms across her chest. It was impossible to miss the side glance she and the nurse exchanged—confirmation I was next in line for a drug test. “You think your friend’s overdose isn’t an overdose at all. It’s a side effect from a magical invention called Instant Ten…which you got from a girl named Van?” She didn’t let me answer. “And may I ask…is this so-called Instant Ten something you’ve been using as well?” I admitted that it was. “But obviously, I had no idea it was dangerous.” “Right. But then doesn’t it seem a bit odd you aren’t suffering any sort of life-threatening reaction yourself?” Life-threatening. My best friend is going to die. And it’s my fault. I shook my head, determined to prove my point. “I know how this all sounds—like an episode straight out of The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror. And I have no idea why the same thing hasn’t happened to me. But I promise it’s the truth!” I then began rummaging through my purse—a cesspool of toys and used tissues and half-eaten granola bars—insistent on showing them Instant 10. “Just give me a second, and I’ll find it again.” “That really won’t be necessary,” the doctor said, dodging the miniature fire truck I’d accidentally tossed toward her head. “Molly, I’m sure this is all a big shock. However, let me assure you, we see BZD overdoses each and every day, and these are the telltale signs: vomiting, muscle slackness, erratic breathing, pupil dilation, loss of consciousness…” She was ticking symptoms off as casually as a waitress reciting beverage choices but didn’t get the chance to finish. Because the machine hulking in the corner, watching over us like an armed guard, suddenly switched from chirping to red-alert beeping. And as a swarm of nurses came charging in, barking new accusations—Respiratory distress! Plummeting oxygen levels!—Cate’s bed went churning out the door. “Wait—what’s happening? Where are you going?” I tried to keep pace with them in the hallway but was quickly edged to the side by the fluorescent nurse. “They’re moving her to the ICU, which is facing significant capacity constraints. But I promise your friend is in good hands. Let’s get you back to the waiting room, okay?” “But I can’t just leave her. You don’t understand!” And despite my ongoing protests, with a few quick steps, the nurse somehow steered me all the way back to the ER lobby, asking that I take a seat. Instead, I paced alongside the front desk like a caged tiger, my mind jumping from regret to panic to despair—an exercise so exhausting, I eventually collapsed onto one of the blue padded chairs. Head falling into my hands, I allowed my fingernails to dig into the tender flesh where the hair had been ripped from my scalp just minutes before the ambulance came hurtling into my driveway. I wondered if I might go into cardiac arrest. A survival mechanism: my heart’s way of rejecting further trauma. There simply wasn’t a world in which I could handle another loss of this magnitude. Not after what had happened to my mother. My best friend is going to die. And it’s my fault. But wouldn’t Cate herself be the first to say that I needed to stop thinking negative thoughts? Positive visualization! Manifest your thoughts into reality. I closed my eyes, trying to picture her laughing instead of gagging on that tube. I opened my eyes. I’d tried to stop her, hadn’t I? But had I tried hard enough? I whipped my phone from my purse, anxious to see if Van had finally replied to my earlier barrage of messages: 10:04 a.m. Van? R u there? Something’s wrong VERY WRONG I know u said not to share Instant 10 But it was used w/o my permission And now … Something terrible has happened PLEASE CALL ME 10:12 a.m. Van, I’m serious CALL ME NOW OR I’M CALLING 911 10:33 a.m. I am BEGGING u to help me This is a matter of life and death!!! Still nothing in return. Such cruel silence—the opposite of the instant gratification I’d been conditioned to crave by the glowing box held in my hand; a hunk of glass and precious metal that could do anything I told it to. Almost anything. It couldn’t fill Cate’s lungs with air. It couldn’t undo the past. My thumbs had just launched an attack on the screen—violently tapping a new round of messages to Van—when a blur of movement filled my peripheral vision. Looking up, I expected to find the same nurse from before. But there was no magenta. Only gray. Gray blazers. Putty-colored pants. And the blur was actually two people. People who I could tell weren’t hospital staff. Just like the officers who showed up on my doorstep after the episode with my daughter…these people had badges. And when I tried to speak, I swallowed my defense whole. I was trying to help. To make things better. I never meant to hurt anyone.
  3. These first pages are preceded by an introduction which establishes the setting with relevant history. Job one is to orient the reader, as well as well as introduce the protagonist, antagonist, immediate problem, etc. A fumbo has a surface meaning and a hidden one, and it can be used to either avoid or create conflict. It is a puzzle, a metaphor, and the makeshift of an outspoken people during those accidental moments when discretion is suddenly required. It can be a riddle, an insult in disguise, an indirect accusation, and even something someone says without thinking. When should something so frequently silly as a fumbo be taken seriously? Only a few days ago, there was the mentioning, by Busiku, the catechist’s wife, of a goat squeezing through a neighbor’s garden fence. As is the intention of all fumbos, or at least all intended fumbos, it was only after they parted ways that Sophie Tembo began to grasp what it could mean — after a seemingly unrelated chat about their husbands. Only yesterday afternoon, another fumbo was uttered by Emma Tambwa, the village merchant’s second wife, during the village health lesson. As the only ongoing event for every woman in the village of Tumbako, the weekly lessons given by Kaya, the village health worker, were a sort of covert women’s forum. They studied each other’s faces more than the abstract illustrations that Kaya used for visual aids. A tall woman with a sharply upturned lip, shifty black eyes, and a little bulb on her nose, Emma Tambwa raised her hand, and her voice throbbed like a loose piece of rubber: “Do you do eye tests in case a child will need glasses?” Kaya shrugged. “I don’t know if I can get glasses, and, even so, I can’t tell you which ones,” he said. “Maybe I can get an eye chart that will tell me something. Is the child old enough to read letters?” “I just wondered,” Emma throbbed almost innocently. “Just in case the daughter is like the father.” The one person in Tumbako who wore glasses was Sophie’s husband Tolo, the village school director. Only a few hours ago, while she was sleeping, Sophie had a dream about her Grandma Sophie-Aya, for whom she was named. “Wake up,” Grandma Sophie-Aya said. Then she made the sign of the Uke. Grandma hadn’t spoken to Sophie from the dead before, and, after so many years and prayers, she never thought she would. Sophie opened her door and looked, in the growing light, at the village clinic, which was in the next compound. People were already over there, waiting for it to open. She couldn’t tell who they were, at least not yet. With the Sun still low on the horizon, their elongated shadows wagged between the fat mud-brick pillars of the veranda. “Are we going?” her daughter Maria asked behind her. “Yes. Hurry with the basin.” Maria stooped down. With plump red-brown hands and a new copper bracelet on her wrist, Sophie arranged a rolled-up piece of cloth on her daughter’s head. On top of the coiled cloth, she placed a plastic basin piled with laundry. Maria stood up, holding the basin on her head with slim fingers, alertly scanning her short, chubby, baby-faced mother. At ten years old, she was an adept apprentice, a strong girl, straight-backed in a blue cotton dress. If only she wasn’t so shy about everything. On top of the fuzzy cornrows arching front to back over her broad oval head, Sophie hoisted an empty plastic jerry can. The room around them was gray, but it was growing lighter, and almost everything could now be seen. From under the jerry can, she glanced at the picture on the wall, painted on a piece of canvas sack that was stretched over a frame: a mermaid with a snake wrapped around her tail. Her husband Tolo got it in Kitwanga, the market town. She didn’t like the mermaid’s hypnotic eyes, the pinpoints of white light in her pupils. Opening the door, Sophie and Maria stepped off the low, packed-earth foundation of their house into the sunlight, picking their way through the mud and goat shit they’d sweep later, after the ground dried. The morning mist was still on it. They reached the road and scrambled over the glistening ruts, turning their backs to the clinic. Sophie’s foot slid on a patch of clay, the empty container bucking on her head. Clutching the jerry can to her shoulder and the kanga around her hips, she danced to keep her balance, skidded to a stop, and gazed down at a red-grey clod of earth on the big toe in her sandal. She scooped up the chunk of clay and rolled it between her fingers. “Good?” Maria asked. “We’ll come back to it,” Sophie murmured, examining the soft red vein in the road bank. “We’re going somewhere.” “Where?” “Just hurry.” She took Maria’s hand, and they jogged down the firm side of the road. She moved like a chubby piston, and the girl struggled to keep up. The village of Tumbako unfolded alongside them. They jogged past clusters of thatch-roofed buildings: main house, wives’ huts, kitchen hut and latrine. Smoke was rising from kitchen huts where the morning tea was brewing. It was almost the end of the rainy season, and the air was cool, but the light beyond them was growing stronger. A skinny man crouching over a peeling enamel washbowl paused, a piece of green soap bobbing in the water. “What news?” he called. Sophie shook her head, and they kept moving.
  4. Preface The truth of a journey is that the vast and mysterious lands, the terra incognita, you set out to explore, in the end, becomes yourself. Every grain of grief and longing, love, regret, triumph, slips quietly into your suitcase. Harper had learned that at nineteen, a scattered girl full of woebegone and madness who made a pilgrimage to Paris to forget. But there is no escaping yourself. No drug, no distraction, works indefinitely. More than twenty years later, she was in yet another foreign country, and whether she’d gotten there by running toward or away, is debatable. Georgia was supposed to salvage her career and cure her loneliness. Nothing worked out the way she thought it would. A different story unfolded. The whole thing could even be comical, depending on how you told it, and if the story was only about her, which it wasn’t. Harper’s own story would become just one strand in a great tapestry of private chronicles and historical episodes she would spend nine months untangling, then weaving together again, in an attempt to understand some tiny, subtle thing which was the echo of a bigger, profound thing, which she had no idea how to find. Are we mixing metaphors here? Ah well, life is messy. Anyway, this is the thing, this is the beauty part — our stories give shape to our experience, which creates a delicate structure holding the essence of who we are. And sometimes, our stories can only be illuminated and understood, within a larger narrative; the play within the play, as it were. Walk with me; the story begins like this. Chapter 1 Preface Tbilisi September 2018 In those first heady days, roaming through the twisting streets of Tbilisi, Harper Hanigan was brimming with ambition and optimism. She was almost frantic for a fresh start, new surroundings, different air to breathe. It had been a dark, miserable year, and the prospect of returning to Georgia was the pinprick of sunlight which kept her going. Maybe she should have gotten to work directly after arriving, but she didn’t. Leaning out the window of the cable car as it soared above Vake Park, Harper breathed deeply and thought of Gia’s parting words, “Listen girl, when you get back to Tbilisi, relax, you hear me? I’ll deal with professor Blakewell. And by God, hop in bed with that man of yours. Blakewell can wait for the edits. It won’t kill him.” Harper’s furnished flat was in the fashionable Vake district named after the park. It felt indolent and romantic, with meandering tree-lined streets where the sidewalks lifted and cracked, and old, ornate apartment buildings with twisted iron balconies and laundry lines. Weather still warm, Harper slipped on a pale blue sundress and wound her way through vibrant street markets inhaling the colors and smells of harvest season. A tall blond in a sea of delicate, raven-haired women, men on the street noticed her. Though she might not admit it, she enjoyed the attention. At forty-two, Harper was not yet invisible to men, but her presence was fading for them, like an image on an old Polaroid. She passed lanyards of dried fruit and marigolds swinging from faded striped awnings, mud-spattered potatoes tottering in clumsy piles beside apples and walnuts, and mounds of gleaming, ripe tomatoes. Peddlers sliced pomegranates in half to display the ruby seeds inside. Whenever she saw one, open and glistening like a lusty invitation, Harper wondered if O’Keeffe ever painted a pomegranate. Her first trip to Georgia’s intoxicating capital city was on a summer’s research trip in 2017. Harper fell in love with the small, quixotic country, its layered mysteries, the food, and the people. That summer she also met the three remarkable women who now agreed to be unofficial cultural advisors, translators, community liaisons, and all-round champions of Harper’s new research endeavor. It was Friday afternoon, at the end of Harper’s first week back in town, when they arrived at the door of her new apartment for the first project meeting. Magda dropped her backpack on a table near the door and rummaged around for a moment. “Okay, I brought dessert. This is a new, gourmet chocolate bar — it’s supposed to have tiramisu in it, or something,” she rolled her eyes sarcastically. “But tiramisu isn’t Georgian. You know that, right?” Grinning, Magda held up two brightly colored packets stuck together with red tape. “And this, this is kid’s stuff. You know, crap candy. But I love it. Okay, here it is.” She thrust the candy at Harper, “Am I early?” Sebine and Nina arrived moments later carrying a bag of perfectly ripe, golden grapes. Sebine’s brilliant green eyes flashed with excitement, then she smiled shyly. “The vegetable man said these came from Kakheti this morning; they are very fresh. Here,” she said, lifting her hands. The grapes smelled earthy and sweet. They smelled like Indian summer. Nina breezed into the living room, turning slowly, her long black skirt twirling around her ankles. She sighed, “Oh Harper, I loooove your apartment. There’s so much light. Are you unpacked already?” “Yep,” she smiled, pointing to the bookshelf. In her tiny, sunlit kitchen, Harper rinsed the delicate grapes, enjoying their coolness and weight in her hands. On a tin platter, her impromptu charcuterie board, Harper set them beside a fat wedge of smoked sulguni, fresh figs drizzled with honey, sliced apples, a roll of rich salami, salted nuts, and warm shoti, a Georgia style baguette. In the center, curled like rosebuds, were the badrijani nigvzit, purchased from a delicatessen near her flat. Harper smiled, remembering the first time she tasted the heavenly eggplant and walnut rolls, and wondered if it was possible, she’d actually come all the way back to Georgia just for those. “Open the wine someone!” she called from the kitchen. Feeling happier than she had in months, a rush of excitement washed over her as she stepped into the living room with her platter of offerings. On the coffee table, two bottles of Château Mukharani Grappe Noir stood beside an old “Oh, good wine,” Nina purred, pulling a crisp packet of cigarettes from her bag, and settling herself on a pillow. Sebine took off her shoes and pulled a wooden chair near the sofa. Magda scribbled something in the notebook on her lap. Lifting it up she said, “Look guys, I’ve got a new journal so we can keep the notes from our meetings.” Sebine chuckled, “What’s your first note?” “Harper begins meeting with food and wine, like a good Georgian.” The tray still in her hands, Harper paused, smiling at the three women. They were her friends, and she felt so damn lucky.
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  8. Sample of Prose Narrative OPENING SCENE: Introduces protagonist, his personality, and attitude, the setting, and minor characters in his life. The black and white wing-tipped feet of Richie Dodge scuff Arcadia, California sidewalks. He trudges from one curb cut to the next, though careful not to scuff anything above the soles. Faces peer out at him from a shop window, not because of his hipster persona, when hipsters are sort of called hepsters some thirty years after beatniks had their run, but because their images hang captive from posters among three walls. Richie answers their stares with a running critique. Ace of Base—they’ll never be the next ABBA—and The Spin Doctors—who thinks an audience actually wants to hear a thirty-minute jam—and some grunge band—who sacrifices originality for its art; looking and sounding like any other grunge band. His reflection in the glass opposite Soul Asylum prompts a shrug. His tie, hand-painted vintage flash with a flamingo perched on bent leg in blue and orange pastel, hangs sloppily from an unbuttoned collar and dangles over pressed linen trousers below his belt, a pet peeve almost as bad as when the tie sticks out from beneath his collar behind his neck. He runs a hand through his product-styled hair and pulls it straight over his head. When it settles, he’s created a piled-high pompadour, fitting for the anachronistic life he lives. Pressed against the window of the shop, now closed, he cranes for the bins of used records, older vinyl, from the ’70s, then the ’60s. Accepting skips and scratches as part of the act, he copies them to cassettes to save wear and tear. He’s yet to pick up a CD, untrusting of the latest tech fad, though they’ve been around few years. If I invest in those, they’ll change in a couple of years to little tiny things the size of a quarter, he argues with skeptics. It’s not real music anyway. Some digital code standing in for analogue. His eyes widen with Lulu’s Something to Shout About LP leading the row and hopes they have a few Petula Clarks he doesn’t own yet. He’s got twelve already. Looking to the folds of his wallet, there’s stitched leather and a lining of some fabric but no cash. His wages go to vinyl. It being Thursday, he’ll pick up his paycheck, in person, on Friday and come back for Lulu on Saturday after cashing it … in person … with a bank teller. The 21st century looms, and Y2K scares surface among the population, but he pays no heed. He doesn’t even own an ATM card. The pocket planner he retrieves from a trouser pocket, the one opposite his wallet, summarizes his latest downfall. Lauren, 7 pm proves the evening didn’t disappear. Her name’s there, in the May 7 block with an arrow extending three weeks to present day, May 27. He scrawls an X through the 27th, across the entry, Lauren 8:30 pm. Richie flips the pages back to April and studies the 14th day hoping he’s somehow lost track of the years. But it’s still 1993 and his birthday on the 14th still marks his 29th year, the last throes of twentydom. He curls his lip, like Elvis, and tucks his tie into his shirt, like a military man would. His wingtips lumber up a flight of stairs while he fumbles for keys and taps a shoulder on the door that tends to stick. At the open refrigerator, Richie’s roommate for the past year, Drip, stoops and rubs his arms for the cold, wearing just boxer shorts and a white v-neck t-shirt, the Drip Cosgrove walkabout T, Richie calls, Drip’s choice attire around the place. Drip turns with the scuff of Richie’s feet over the black-and-white checkerboard tile. “Du—e!” Drip says, somehow never able to finish the full word “dude.” “You’re home early.” Drip fidgets as though he’s been caught pilfering import CDs at the swap meet, fumbling a cup of yogurt. “No, Drip,” Richie says, “right on schedule. As usual.” Drip’s girlfriend, with her kinda short hair for a cute girl, Richie had once confided in Drip, stands behind the open refrigerator door, bare feet on the tiles. Her face peeks from around the side. “Hi Nancy,” he greets her with a comic-book sigh. “No way, Du—e,” Drip says. “Dumped again already?” “Of course,” Richie says, “It’s been three weeks.” “Wasn’t the one before that—?” “Three weeks, tambien, Drip.” “And you been going with this Laurie chick how long?” “Lauren,” Richie corrects. “She was sickeningly adamant about getting it just so when I met her at the mall. I was looking for that Felix the Cat watch.” “Yeah? What else? Details!” “His arms are the clock hands.” Richie sticks his arms out to demonstrate, one at his side, one straight over his head, three o’clock. “That’s how he tells the time.” “No, Du—e. Details about Laur-ie—en.” “Not much else to say but yes, three weeks it has been.” “She didn’t even have the courtesy to throw off the average,” Nancy says, still tucked behind the refrigerator. Drip nods and grins dimwittedly. “Sorry, Richie,” Nancy says. “Are you, like, okay, Du—e? Drip asks. “I feel kinda sick,” Richie says. “I’ll be in my room. Where’s the newspaper?” “The personal ads?” Nancy asks. “The want ads,” Richie replies. “Go on-line,” Nancy says. “They’ve got updated jobs and even personal—” “I like the print media,” Richie says. “Rough day,” Drip says. “You get fired again too?” “Uh …” Richie says, thinking a moment, “no.” “Did you quit again?” Nancy asks. “No, not yet,” Richie says. “You gotta find a happy zone, Du—e.” “I’m looking,” Richie says. “I’m trying. “Seek and he will find,” Drip pronounces. “Ye. Shall,” Richie corrects. “Right!” Drip punctuates by pointing index fingers from each hand at Richie. “That’s the right—” The refrigerator door escaping his grasp cuts him short. Richie meets Nancy’s eyes. She drops a cup of yogurt, splattering Greek-style over her toes. Richie’s eyes wander from the spill to her waistline. “You surprised us,” she says, “you got home early.” “Yeah, Du—e,” Drip says, “you, umm, did.” “Huh, what?” Richie asks, unable to hear over Nancy’s pink and orange polka dotted panties. It must be the case she’s wearing nothing else. She crosses her arms over her breasts. “Dots,” Richie says in a state of mesmerism. Drip covers her panties with a folded newspaper. “Oh,” Drip says. The top half of the newspaper unfolds and opens to full size. “You need the paper, don’t you? Seems like we got us a Mexican stand-off.” “Sorry,” Richie says. “I didn’t mean to see your dots—” Nancy looks down at her arms covering her breasts. “No I mean—” he tries to explain, gesturing to her undergarment pattern. He turns his back. Drip rolls the newspaper into tube and hands it to Richie, who takes the paper without looking backward. He’s off like the anchor in a relay race. # After two weeks washout from the Lauren event, drip asks, “When’s your last day here?” “Two more days out West, then off to New Hampshire. “You don’t have to move to Canada just cuz of her.” “I think the U.S. annexed New Hampshire last year.” “Why New Hampshire?” “I was planning to move anyway, eventually, somewhere. It’s a long story.” Richie draws a breath and says, “I’m from New Hampshire.” “Yeah, that took a long time.” “That’s the abridged version. See, I grew up in New Hampshire, but after college, I got bored, so I took a job in New York.” “Cool! What was the job?” “Collections at a rental agency. What’s not to hate? I used to sit around Saturday nights depressed, because I knew I had to go to work on Monday morning. Still, I figured I was in like Flynn when my next job was at a radio station in Ohio,” Richie says. “But too much news and talk—” “Not good for a du—e musically inspired” That was my reasoning when I came up with these creative on-air lead-ins when no one was looking.” “Recite.” “Little think pieces I forgot as soon as they aired. One was during a local election, and I say, ‘Everybody talks about politics, but no one’s talking about poli-fleas.’” “Nice.” “I used to think writing a book meant writing in a book. Until a librarian yelled at me for it.” “Wow.” “And the guy who founded the station got a posthumous award from some civic group. I mentioned to our listeners posthumous awards must not be that prestigious, because I’ve never seen the winner show up to accept it.” Drip ponders a moment. “I think that was the one that did it. I was fired more than ever. And I’ve been fired a lot time.” “I know. I read the sacred scrolls. But how’d you end up here?” “In subsequent chapters, I fled west and continued fleeing, job after job, until I ran out of country. That brought me out here to California, to strike it rich. Having not done that, I can’t afford to go to Hawaii, so I’m on my way back East.” “My usual plan is to quit my job without any prospects of getting a new one.” “It’s good you got a plan. “Different strategy this time. I got a job lined up. Working for that political group I told you about. A friend of mine got me in. Deidre. I think I’ll like it, government work. Excellent gold-brick potential.” “Does she know about your ambition, lack thereof?” “She’s always helped me out, ever since junior high. If missed a class, or several, she got me the notes—” “Whoa, unrighteous. You shouldn’t hose your friends.” “It wasn’t like that. Not really. And if people wanna do stuff for me, who am I to deny them?” Richie says. “It would be rude. Besides, they won’t trace me back to her. It’s government work; I’ll get lost in the morass. Or I’ll join a union.” “What do you know about government stuff?” “Haven’t I just stressed my skill in subterfuge?” “I dig onomatopoeia.” “And apparently alliteration.” “You did it again, Du—e!” “As for the job, with the right amount of diplomacy, I can talk my way into and out of almost anything.” “What if you can’t?” “It’ll mess with the time-space continuum. You see, that day has yet to come.”
  9. Author Norah Vawter Title ANNA’S ENDLESSLY COLLAPSING STAR Genre Upmarket Women’s Fiction Comps The Queen’s Gambit meets astronomy. Complete at 80,000 words, ANNA’S ENDLESSLY COLLAPSING STAR is upmarket women’s fiction in the tradition of Little Fires Everywhere and Val Brelinsky’s The Girl Who Slept with God. Hook Line Anna thought this remote observatory in the Chilean desert was her escape, but it's actually her prison: to be free, she’s got to go home, stop pretending away her traumatic childhood, and stop hating her mom for saving her life. Pitch An astronomer in a remote observatory in the Chilean desert, Anna Rose Watson is on the verge of achieving her wildest dreams. But she’s spent her life running from her past. She’s an emotional ticking time bomb. And all the pain she’s repressed is about to catch up to her. When she was a child in New Orleans, Anna and her mother were shot. Her mom saved Anna’s life but ended up in a wheelchair—growing depressed and manipulative, living vicariously through Anna. Unable to cope with the pressure—and terrified she wasn’t worth her mom’s sacrifice—Anna ran out on her whole life, even her childhood love Willie. Now 4,561 miles from home, Anna peers into the distant past, studying ancient stars and working alongside a small, tight-knit group of scientists who live in close quarters. Her biggest problem: she’s dating her research partner, he likes her, and he wants to know the real Anna. But his questions make her feel like a freak. Like someone who doesn’t belong. When Anna discovers a 13 billion year-old supernova, it should be the best day of her life. But news of a mass shooting triggers painful memories—her past crashing into her present, just like her endlessly collapsing star, the supernova. Anna causes a public scene and starts missing work. Instead of seizing her big career opportunity, Anna’s spiraling out of control. Chile was supposed to be her escape, but it’s actually her prison. If Anna’s ever going to fulfill her scientific dreams, or feel like she belongs in the normal world, she has to stop running. It’s time to go home, stop hating her mom for saving her life and hating herself for living, and explore what might have been with Willie—so she can finally live in the present. Sample Joaquin let his long leg brush up against mine, as he always did when we sat close in the observatory during our long shifts. My research partner was tall and skinny, like a gawky teenager. We were manning one of our center’s four giant telescopes: tonight we peered into the distant reaches of Bode’s Galaxy. Studying objects so far away—we were actually looking back in time, into the distant past. After two years in Chile, living in this remote research center in the Atacama Desert, I finally felt cut off from everything that came before. Separated from my family and my past. Most of all, I was free of my mother. I’d whittled my life down to the stars. Of course, Joaquin broke the precious silence. He was incapable of stillness or self-control. “I read your paper,” he said. “Neutron stars?” He nodded, smiling that cocky grin. My handsome Joaquin: sharp and angular in a classically good-looking sort of way. Too good-looking for me to match him. His only flaw was his large nose, but it wasn’t much of a flaw. His interest was flattering, even sweet. But far too quickly he pivoted the conversation to his Christmas plans, and even more quickly to his confusion about my lack of plans. “You’re really staying here?” he asked. “But Lisi told me it will be empty, that everyone goes home—” “There’s always a few of us,” I said, running my hand through my short black hair, which was cropped in the same pixie cut I’d worn for over a decade. “You stayed in this place last year?” I nodded, not mentioning that I’d stayed at Paranal for every holiday since I arrived here. “But wouldn’t you rather go home?” Joaquin turned towards me. Somehow I’d piqued his interest and given him a reprieve from the boredom of telescope duty. “Where are you from again?” We’d been sleeping together for a couple months, since shortly after Joaquin transferred to Cerro Paranal. But I never talked about my past. To anybody. “I live here.” “But where is your home?” Joaquin was just making small talk. But I wanted to kick him in the shin. Sure, other people had casual chit chat about their hometowns, and funny stories about their childhoods. Other people might want to reminisce about their slacker friends in Santiago, who they were going to see over Christmas and who were making a “tall bike” for some reason I still didn’t understand. But my family, well, it wasn’t a family so much as an excuse to get cut by old chunks of glass, again and again, until there was nothing left of you. I refocused my attention on the monitors, wishing for work to distract both of us from Joaquin’s banter and his irritating, if possibly well-meaning curiosity. But nothing particularly interesting was going on in the sky tonight. Then—suddenly—something happened. It came out of nowhere. Like a hand reaching for us. A massive gamma ray burst appeared on one screen. Bio This novel has been longlisted for the Dzanc Books Prize for Fiction, and an excerpt was shortlisted for the RopeWalk Press Chapbook Prize (but not published in either case). I’ve published essays about my personal experience surviving gun violence and childhood trauma in The Washington Post and Memoir Magazine, as well as fiction in the Washington Writers Publishing House’s anthology This is What America Looks Like, The Nassau Review and Agave Magazine, among others. I have an M.F.A. in creative writing from George Mason University. I’m a freelance writer and the Local Authors Editor of online magazine DCTrending.com. I live with my husband and son in the D.C. suburbs, where I’m working on my next novel. www.norahvawter.com
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