Screenwriter in Waiting
...ups and downs, lessons learned and all things screenwriting related in my journey to sell my Oscar winning screenplay.
Once again Regal Cinemas offered a fantastic opportunity to see all of the Best Picture nominees for $35. Add in the popcorn and soda for five buck and it's the deal of a lifetime. As I settled in with my $5 popcorn and soda, plus $4.95 for a box of Rasinets, it came to me: This is a learning opportunity. Don't miss the value of this moment. I have the opportunity to experience what the Academy considers to be the 7 best motions pictures of the year, all in one week. What can I glean from them to incorporate into my own writing?
Lesson 1 - A star is born
Insert characters that people care about.
I'll admit it. I underestimated how long the box office line would be on a Saturday afternoon. And the concession line. And the fact that the 4:00 show actually started at 4:00. So I was about three minutes late for the movie. But from the moment I sat down, I was in love. I fell in love with Ally and Jack as they fell in love with each other. For me the strength of this movie was the performances of Lady GaGa and Bradley Cooper, built on the firm foundation of a well written script. I think the challenge for the modern era of love stories is that the characters are not complex. Or if they are complex, they're not very likable. Forget lovable. Another issue maybe that separately they are likable enough, but together, as a separate entity called a couple, they are not lovable. So what makes a couple lovable?
1. They have their identities of their own - Separate from each other, they have story lines that are intriguing. One doesn't exist on the screen solely for the purpose of the cinematic relationship. You could watch a movie about either one of them and they would be equally interesting and entertaining. In a Star is Born, I could sit and watch about Ally, the flawed beauty, who has always been told she's talented enough, but not pretty enough to make it in the music biz. I could watch a movie about her fight to get that big break. Just as intriguing would be a movie about Jack. Broken past, broken hearted, broken down, but yet he is a star. He is a star because of his brokenness. It's in the fabric of his music. How does he manage to stay on topic, with so many demons pulling him down. Two really good movies, rolled into one.
2. They came together in a way that's organic- Yes, there has to be some choreographing to bring them together, but it doesn't feel forced. It seems natural that this boozed-out singer would stumble into a drag bar, desperate for a drink, and find Ally performing among a see of drag queens, who adored her and accepted her as part of their family. She shines in the cloud of smoke and booze and he can't his eyes off of her. I think is one of those moments where you have to let the story tell you how they come together. You can't really force the characters into finding each other, they have to find themselves. You're role then, as the writer, it to observe and take dictation. Let them him tell you how he would approach her and she'll say how she would react. The first meeting is such a delicate moment. You can't interfere as the writer. Let it breathe. Just sit back and take notes.
3. They have passion. Yes, the bulk of that comes down to the chemistry between the actors, but as the writer you have the responsibility to cultivate the proper soil for passion to bloom. Passion doesn't have to mean sex. Passion hot. There is a concept in the law called "heat of passion." Heat can an fierce argument that is resolved with a kiss, a slow dance when everyone else is doing the electric slide, lost in each others' eyes, oblivious to what's happening around them. Passion is two singers on stage in front an stadium full of people, making love with their voices, blending in perfect harmony--with we as the audience feeling like we're intruding on a very intimate moment between lovers.
4. They are not perfect. If there were ever two flawed people is was Jack and Ally. They were drawn to each other in part because of their flaws, and it's their flaws that draw us, as the audience to them. Nobody likes perfection because we all realize that we're not perfect. We may not all have drinking problems, or struggle with our self-image, but we can relate to imperfection. I think deep down we think: "If those two flawed people can find love, then there's still hope for me." I think the trick with flaws, is there has to be balance. Too many times I've seen a male character who is near sainthood with a woman who is insanely jealous, irrational and controlling--wretched, and I think: "Why on earth would he be with her?" Of course she's not the real love interest. Somehow he manages to get out of that relationship--early in the movie--and he finds his soul mate. A woman who is witty, intelligent, quirky but in a cool way and completely sane and they fall in love. And I call BS. Because the man who would be in a relationship with Miss Wretched would never fall for a woman like Miss Cool and Quirky. Or if he did, he would quickly lose interest because she's not his type. Unless, of course he went through some counseling or read a really, really good self-help book. I'm sure there is a good movie out there that contradicts my belief her. And if someone is able to pull that off, he or she truly is an exceptional writing. All that to say, I just say, in creating your characters, don't go too overboard with flaws. And if you do, make sure it's balanced.
Character development is part research, part observation and part allowing space for the characters to grow and evolve on their own. It's one of the most fun parts of writing for me. As you develop you potential best actress, best actor quality characters, be sure to take time to sketch them out, a bare bones sketch then go back and fill them, adding shades and highlights where you see fit. Find some really good books and articles about character development and actually read them, study them. Finally, study movie performances. What is it about those characters that people liked so much? Or hated so much? For one of my plays the villain ( a really nice guy in real life) stepped on the stage to take a bow and was booed mercilessly. We both smiled, that meant he did his job as an actor and I did my job as a writer.
One final note: After the Oscar the nominations came out, there had been a lot of talk that Bradley Cooper had been snubbed in that he was not nominated for Best Director. To be honest, this movie was just the first of the Best Picture films, so I have nothing to compare him too yet. But I have to say, I agree with the talk. He did an amazing job as a director. (And I'm not just saying this because Cooper is a fellow Eagles fan) His vision. The look and pace of the film. His ability to draw out of Lady GaGa a truly memorable performance. In my humble opinion. I walked out of the theater remembering that my first experience with Bradley Cooper was as the nosey reporter, who could never win Sidney's heart in the TV show Alias. He has truly come a long way. And I believe we'll be seeing him in that Best Director category soon enough.
“You can come and have dinner with me.”
“Dinner. Seriously!” Trisha was so stunned that all she could do was laugh. “Are you seriously asking me out? In the middle of my suicide attempt?”
After thinking about it, Jared realized it did sound a little creepy. He quickly clarified. “Not on a date. Just dinner. I’m new to this town so I don’t know the hot spots. And you could probably stand a good meal. A nice steak, some lobster, some good wine. A nice big hunk of cheese cake?”
“I hate cheesecake.”
“Chocolate cake then. Whatever. It’s on me. We eat, we drink. You don’t even have to talk to me. And if after all that you still feel the same way, well at least you can leave this earth on a full stomach.” He flashed a smile that Trisha could tell had probably opened a lot of doors for him—and a lot of hearts. She did not want to be charmed though. And she certainly didn’t want any chocolate cake.
“Jared. Listen. I appreciate you being so nice to me. But honestly, the last thing I need is someone to be nice to me. All I want is for you is to leave me alone. If your conscience won’t let you do that, then fine, I’ll leave. I can always—“
A pair of headlights seemed to appear out of nowhere. They were heading right for them. Maybe they’ll just keep on going, Trisha hoped. In this cold, self-absorbed society, that’s what people did nowadays anyway. No such luck. The car slowed down and Trisha could see the words written on the door: Carlton Police Department.
“This is not happening,” she mumbled. “This is really not happening.”
The squad car came to a complete stop. Trisha could imagine how this scene must have looked to anyone passing by. Jared and her, sprawled out on the bridge, in the middle of the night, panting hard, their clothes tousled from the struggle. How could she explain this one? She could tell the officer that Jared had attacked her. The Carlton strangler had struck again. That wouldn’t work. It would be a big news story and press from all around world would want to interview her about how she escaped the clutches of death. It was the last thing she needed--to have her face plastered on Dateline as a heroine…or worse, a stone cold liar. But she had to get her story out before Jared. If he told the police the truth, she would end up in a psych ward. Or even worse, she could end up on Dr. Phil, totally humiliated as he tried to help her figure how she became such screw up.
The window glided down and a baby faced officer peered down on them. “You folks all right?”
“Uh…Hi officer…um…”Trisha tried her best to sound breezy, like it was the most normal thing in the world to form a human pretzel with a strange man on a bridge in the middle of the night. She still hadn’t figured out what she could say that wouldn’t land her in a straitjacket. Luckily, Jared did.
“It’s my fault officer…” Jared’s eyes took a quick glance at the officer’s badge and read his name. “Pinsky! Officer Pinsky....My lady and I were sitting here enjoying the stars and…well I got caught in the moment. I mean, look at her. Can you blame me?” He reached over grabbed Trisha’s hand, holding it to his mouth and kissing it. Her hand tingled a little and she was too much in shock to protest. Her eyes remained on the boy officer wondering if he was buying any of this.
“Anyway,” Jared continued. "I started kissing her and I guess we sort of lost our balance and... here we are…” He gestured at their bodies stretched out on the bridge as if it were the natural conclusion to a passionate kiss.
There was no expression in the officer’s face. He shifted his eyes to Trisha. “Is this true ma’am?”
“Huh? Yes, we just can’t get enough of each other—“ Before she could finish getting the words out of her mouth, Jared’s lips were planted on her mouth. Reflexively she pushed him away—hard. “Jared! I’m sure the nice officer doesn’t want to watch us groping all over each other,” she said, coyly.
“You’re right, Sugar Lips. Uh…We haven’t broken any laws have we, officer?”
Officer Pinsky studied the scene a moment longer before responding. On one level, something about it didn’t seem right. But at the same time, his girlfriend sometimes reacted the same way when he kissed her, so he couldn’t say it was out of the ordinary. “Uh…No, but it’s probably not a good idea to lay out on the bridge like that any longer. It could be dangerous.”
“You’re absolutely right.” Jared said then sprang to his feet and gallantly helped Trisha to hers. “By the way, would you happen to know where we could get a good steak dinner?”
“I offer you steak and all you want is a burger? I think I should be offended by that.”
“Why? It all comes from the same cow.” Actually it was the best burger Trisha had ever tasted. Thick and juicy, smothered in onions and gooey cheddar cheese. It could have also been the fact that she had basically only eaten Ramen Noodles for the past thirty days. She could’ve eaten a shoe and it would’ve tasted like filet mignon. Thankfully, she wasn’t eating a shoe. She was eating real Angus beef. And to top it all off, she wasn’t even paying for it. So even though she arrived at the restaurant with no intentions of eating, her stomach had forced her to.
Jared did go for the fancy porterhouse steak, but he didn’t seem to be enjoying his nearly as much as Trisha enjoyed her burger. In fact he had only taken a couple of bites, while Trisha had nearly demolished hers.
“Something wrong with the steak?” she asked while shoveling fries into her face.
“Nope! Just too busy watching you destroy that burger. It’s quite a show.”
With no shame in her game, Trisha, sucked ketchup from her fingers. “Well, I’m glad I’m here to entertain you,” she said, then scooped more french fries into her mouth.
Jared couldn’t help but laugh. He had sat across the table from a lot of pretty girls in his life, but never one who had seemed so comfortable in her own skin as to chow down on her meal like a three hundred pound lineman. But was she comfortable in her own skin? Or was she so comfortable with the fact she was going to die that she didn’t give a damn anymore about what people thought of her? That thought made him admire and pity her all at once. The pity side won and his face turned somber.
“I want you to know this is not entertainment for me, Trish,” he said. “I’m here because I’m concerned not because I’m bored.” He could tell by the way she shifted in her seat that his concern was making her uncomfortable. Clearly she was not a person that people showed a lot of concern for.
“That’s nice Jared, but you really don’t have to be concerned about me.” You won’t really know me long enough to be concerned about me, she wanted to say.
“I know. But, I already am. And that might not be a bad thing for you. I mean, you’re right, I don’t know you. After tonight we may never see each other again. You could tell me all your deepest darkest secrets and who could I tell? So really I’m the perfect guy to talk to about what’s going on, because I can’t use it against you. And who knows? You might actually feel better.”
“I don’t want to feel better.” As if on cue, the waitress set down the banana daiquiri that Trisha ordered. It was her third. She knew the drink wouldn’t make her feel better, but it might make her feel numb.
“Okay, that’s a good place to start,” Jared said. “Why don’t you want to feel better? It’s un-American! We spend billions of dollars each year trying to feel better.”
“Well, I don’t have billions of dollars to spend. I don’t even have one dollar to spend.”
“So it’s about money.”
Trisha shook her head, “Trust me, it would be impossible to some up all of my problems with something as simple as money.”
“But money is part of it.”
She shrugged. “Money is part of it.”
“And if you had all of the money in the world, you would still want to jump off of that bridge?”
“No, I would probably pick some place more expensive, like the Golden Gate Bridge.”
The thought of the Golden Gate Bridge and a weekend escape to San Francisco, stirred up memories in Jared, painful memories. But this was not about him. “So assuming you had a million dollars and the Golden Gate Bridge was closed, what would you—“
“I don’t want to talk about me anymore.” Trisha said abruptly, too abruptly she realized—especially for the first person who had been kind to her in months. She leaned forward and the candle light made her tired eyes sparkle. She said coyly. “Besides, mama always said it’s rude for a girl to do all the talking on a date. So, tell me about you?”
Jared's eyes lit up in surprise. “Oh, so now it’s a date, huh?”
“It is whatever you want it to be, sugar.” Trisha eased her hand under the table and stroked his knee.
This was an act. Jared didn’t know Trisha very well, but he knew she was playing a role for him. Sex kitten. Not because she wanted to jump into bed with him—though he wouldn’t have objected—but she was trying to distract him. He was getting close to something. A nice hot meal always worked wonders in pulling down walls. He knew it. Trisha knew it, and she was desperately trying to keep her walls up. To save her from having to play this vixen role for him any longer, Jared decided to let Trisha off the hook, for now.
“All right. So what do want to know about me?”
“Uh…” Trisha had to think about it for a second. She was used to men responding to her advances. She must have looked more raggedy than she felt. “…uh…I know. Why were you walking out by the bridge tonight? No one walks around there after dark…unless they have a death wish. Everyone else around here’s too afraid. Too many ghost stories.”
“I don’t believe in ghosts.” Jared said, soberly, then took a sip of his beer. “And I’m not from around here, so…”
“Where are you from?”
He was being pretty vague for someone who wanted to know all of her business, Trisha thought. “Out west as in….California… China…”
“Nice. And what brings you out to our lovely little town?”
“Uh, Iet’s just say I was helping out a friend. On a business matter.”
“Yeah? What kind of business are you in?”
“Me? I guess you could say I’m in the listening business.”
“The listening business. You mean you’re a therapist?”
“Something like that.”
“Something like that,” she echoed. “You are such a hypocrite. How do you expect me to open up to you when you won’t tell me anything about you?”
“How am I a hypocrite?," Jared said through a grin. "I’ve answered all of your questions. Not my fault you ask really bad questions."
“Oh, you want a good question. Okay, okay, I’ll think of a good question.” Trisha took a sip from her syrupy sweet daiquiri and contemplated their brief time together. What had she learned about him? What did she want to know? Then it hit her. “What was her name?”
“The girl. The one who had you wandering through the woods in the middle of the night.”
He cocked his head. “What makes you think it was—“
“It’s obvious. You go for a walk at night. That means you’ve got a lot on your mind. Either it’s a money problem or a woman problem. The way you’ve been throwing around money over dinner, I don’t think you’re having a money problem. Sooo….what’s her name?”
Jared slid back in his seat, debating how much of himself he wanted to reveal. Finally, he tossed out a name, “Janet.”
“A fake name, but I’ll work with it,” Trisha said.
“What makes you think it’s a fake?”
“I don’t know. You just don’t seem like the kind of guy that would be mixed up with a girl name Janet.”
“Why? What’s wrong with Janet?”
“Nothing. Nothing’s wrong with Janet. I’m sure she is a perfectly lovely girl. Just not a girl you would be involved with. And certainly not a girl that would have you so worked up that you’d be out walking in the woods at night.”
Jared shook his head and laughed. “I’m sorry, and just what kind of girl would I be involved with?”
“Vulnerable. In need of saving. Janet is a good girl, straight-laced, too boring to get herself in any real trouble, so she wouldn’t even make it on to your radar.”
“Unlike you,” Jared said, while nodding along.
“Unlike me.” Trisha answered, realizing the truth of what she had just said. “But whatever, we can play it your way. It’s just a name. So, what did Janet do that had you wandering in the woods tonight?”
“She uh…she didn’t do anything.”
“Well, what did you do to her?”
“Me?” Deep in thought now, Jared had been asking himself that question for that past week. He still didn’t have an answer. “I…didn’t do anything either. It was just a series of unfortunate events.”
“Unfortunate events that you couldn’t save her from?”
He didn’t answer her. Trisha waited a little longer, watching him stare into his beer like it held all the answers. “Hey! You okay?” She waived a hand in front of his face and he snapped out of it.
“Huh?” Jared sat straight up in his seat, looking like he just woke up from a nightmare. “Hey do you want dessert?”
“Do I want—no I don’t want dessert! I want to hear about Janet and the series of unfortunate events!”
“What? Oh…It’s nothing. I mean, nothing to bore you with.”
“I’ll be the judge of that, thank you!”
“Trust me. It’s nothing.” He drained the remnants of his beer from the still frosty mug. That was it. The vault was closed. He wasn’t giving up anymore juicy tidbits about himself to this girl.
“Okay, well don’t expect me to be an open book when your library is closed.”
“Oh, no worries. I’ve read your book from cover to cover. I already know what’s been bugging you.” Jared stared at her with a smug smirk on his face.
Trisha stared back. “You think so, huh?”
“I know so. “
She raised an eyebrow. “Well you sound pretty confident.”
“I’m always confident. Besides, you already told me everything I need to know.”
“Sure…” Jared took a second to dab the corner of his mouth with his napkin before proving his case. “On the bridge. You said the things that would make life better were: A million dollars, a brother who doesn’t despise you. And just for fun, to live on an island paradise with the man of your dreams,” He parroted Trisha's statement almost word for word. “That tells me that your family, financial and love life are all in the crapper. Am I right?”
He was. But Trisha was never going to give him that satisfaction. She was actually a little offended that this total stranger thought he could just show up, buy her a burger, and be able to sum up her nightmare life in ten words or less. Your family, financial and love life are all in the crapper. Regardless of the fact that she had just blatantly come on to him and he straight up ignored it, he was going to have to work a lot harder than that to get beyond her emotional walls.
One hour and two more sugary, rum filled drinks later, Trisha’s emotional walls had come crumbling down in a wave of slurred speech and sloppy tears. “I don’t know what they expect from me,” she whined. “I mean, is the recession my fault too?”
“Isn’t the recession over?” Jared asked.
“Yeah, that’s why my work dried up.”
“What kind of work?
“Ah!” He nodded.
Trisha rambled on. “Can you believe, Finance Guard, the same people who fired me, are the main ones calling me to pay my bills! I mean, really??”
“Talk about irony.”
“Yeah, ironic, huh?” Trisha, let out a light chuckle that was mixed with a burp. “Excuse me. Anyway, I’ve been trying to pay my bills, but I can’t do that if I don't have a job. I mean, it’s true what they say, you can’t get water from a stone, right?”
Trisha squinted at him, through the haze in her mind. “Huh?”
“Blood. You said water from a stone, but it’s blood,” Jared had no idea why he was being a stickler right now, but he couldn’t just leave it out there. “You can’t get blood from a stone.”
“What the hell difference doesn’t make? It’s the same thing. You can’t get water from a stone either, right?”
“Right…Well, I guess Moses was able to get water from the stone.” He could tell by the blank look on Trisha’s flushed face that the Moses thing went right over her head. He explained, “You know, from the Bible. Moses struck the rock and water poured out for the children of Israel to drink.”
She was still staring blankly at him. Then she said, “So what, you’re a pastor now, on top of being a therapist?”
“Sorry, I was just—“
“Whatever, dude! All I’m saying is. The money’s all gone.” Car’s gone. Cable’s gone. And after tomorrow, my apartment’s gone. I was evicted, so…”
“I know it looks bad right now, Trish, but there’s got to be another option. Can’t you crash on somebody’s couch for a few months until you find work? What about your parents?”
“I was on my way to go see them until you stopped me.”
Jared paused. He had to think that one over. Finally,it hit him. “Oh! You mean they’re…”
“Dead. Yup, it’s just me and my big bro now.” Trisha let out another tiny burp. “Ha! And he wants nothing to do with me. That goes for my friends too. They bailed on me years ago.”
“All of them?”
Trisha nodded. “Don’t ever become an addict, J.”
“Jared.” He hated being call J.
“Sorry. Don’t ever become an addict, Jared. It’s rough on friendships.”
“You’re an addict?” He looked around the table that was littered with empty glasses that had once been filled with booze. "Maybe we shouldn't be..."
“Don’t worry. It was pills. I was a pill head. For about a year. I’ve been clean for five years now.” She said, proudly.
“Thanks. But when I was bad, I was really bad. I burned a lot of bridges.” Her head flopped on to the table and the glasses on the table clanked. The old couple across the aisle looked concerned. From beneath the mop of hair that shrouded Trisha's face, Jared heard a whimpering sound. He thought she was crying, but when Trisha lifted her head, he realized she was snickering.
“What’s so funny?”
“Talk about irony!” Trisha was laughing near hysterically now. “I burned a lot of bridges and now I tried to jump off a bridge…” She let out a long deep sigh. “Man, life sometimes can really be…pathetic.”
To Jared’s relief, the waitress sauntered up to the table. “Can I get you folks another--”
“Water.” Jared said. “We’ll have some water.”
“And chocolate cake,” Trisha added.
“To go.” Jared interjected. “We’ll have the chocolate cake to go, please?”
Trisha looked in his eyes and saw a familiar look. Jared was ready to bail. She couldn’t blame him. Lately, she had that effect on a lot of people. “Oh, I’m sorry. I went too far, didn’t I?”
“No, it’s just—“
“And you were being so nice. I’m sorry, Jared. I swear, I wasn’t always this flakey.”
“Don’t apologize. You’re under a lot of pressure. I get it.”
“But it’s no excuse to act like a total lush.”
“Look, there’s no rule book for how to handle a crisis. Hey, maybe we should write one. Then we’d both be rich, right?”
She smiled at his lame attempt at cheering her up. “Aww! You are so sweet, trying to make me not feel like complete loser. I wish you had known me six years ago. Before the…well, before. I was fun. Had lots of friends. Artsy! I used to be artsy. I would paint, do pottery, make jewelry…”
“You can get it back again, Trish. As long as you’re alive, there’s always a chance things will get better.”
“Or worse! I tried to make it better. I paid back the friends that I stole from. None of them will speak to me. I volunteered to teach delinquent girls how to paint at the rec center. One of the girls mugged me! I’ve sent my brother and his kids Christmas and birthday presents every year for the past four years and they come back every time, unopened. When I was using, I had more friends, more attention than I could handle. Since I’ve been walking the straight and narrow, I’m a ghost. Completely invisible. I don’t exist to anyone anymore.” There was a tear in Trisha’s eye but and voice turned bitter. “Not anymore. I won’t be invisible when they fish my bloated corpse out of the river. That’ll get their attention.”
She dug into the front pocked of her jeans and pulled out a Ziploc baggie. “I left them a note, ya know?” She flipped the baggie across the table and it landed in front of Jared. He picked it up. A torn piece of loose leaf paper. She had tucked it in the baggie, apparently to keep it from getting wet when she went in the river. In big beautiful script the message was loud and clear: You did this to me! The simple message ate at him. It was her eulogy, her obituary. He could even see it chiseled on her headstone. The middle finger that Trisha intended to fire in the direction of the cold, cruel world that had turned its back on her.
Trisha knew the note would affect him. If Jared was halfway out the door, this note would chase the rest of him out of there. He thought of himself as superman, but that note would be his kryptonite. It was her truth. The reality that everyone couldn’t be saved. Everyone didn’t have a happy ending waiting for them on the other side of the rainbow. And as nice as it was to play around in his fantasy land for the past couple of hours, it was time for Trisha to get back to reality. There was a bridge out there calling her name. She just needed Jared to plop some money down on the table to cover the check and excuse himself. He had done his good deed for today. More than anyone had done for her in a long time. Not because he fed her, but because, for two hours, he actually cared about her. It was time to let him off the hook. Trisha had shown him that note because she intended it to be his get-away-from-this-lunatic-free pass.
But when the waitress returned, with the two hunks of chocolate cake in plastic containers, Jared smiled and said, “Uh, we changed our minds. We’re gonna have the cake here…and some coffee. Lots of coffee.”
The red Prius pulled up in front of the yellow Victorian with the white trim on Lavender Lane. It was in the middle of a quiet tree-lined street, illuminated by a single street lamp at the end of the block. Quaint. Just like every neighborhood in Carlton. No noise. Just the rustle of the wind and the occasional dog barking.
“This is where you live? Jared asked, looking up at the lofty three-story structure.
“On the third floor. Mr. Banks rents only artist-types. Since we’re the only ones who appreciate beauty of Queen Manor.”
“That’s what he named the house. You know, after Queen Victoria…since it’s a Victorian and all.”
“Gotcha.” Jared tore his eyes away from the house and looked at Trisha. Her eyes were half opened slits, as she leaned her head against the headrest. Maybe it was the liquor, or the fact that her stomach was full, or the cool jazz that was blowing through the stereo, but she seemed at peace. For the first time tonight, Jared had caught a glimpse of what the other Trisha must have been like. The one from six years ago. Calm, quiet, with tiny smile bending her lips. He wanted to kiss those lips. There was a time when he would have already kissed those lips and probably done more. But right now, he was content with watching her be content.
“Thank you,” she said, sleepily.
“I should be thanking you.”
Trisha let out a weary chuckle. “Thanking me for what? Not throwing up in your car.”
“What do I care? It’s a rental. No, I meant, thank you for having dinner with me. It’s been a while since I’ve had dinner with a beautiful woman.”
“You mean a crazy woman.” Trisha opened her eyes wider and studied Jared’s face. His eyes were tired. She could tell he had taken on much more than he had bargained for when he decided to go for that walk tonight. “Why did you stay?”
Jared felt her hand rest on his arm. “Huh?”
“The waitress brought dessert. You were ready to go. I wanted you to go, but you decided to stay. Why?” The sensation of her fingers brushing against his skin made him feel warm.
He thought it over and said. “I guess, because it would have been too easy. I never like things too easy.”
Trisha closed her eyes and nodded. “Yeah, that sounds about right.” Her voice purred, as she laced her fingers between Jared’s fingers. She toyed with the idea of giving him her phone number. Then she remembered her cell phone service had been shut off—which brought back a waive of other bad memories, like the broken air conditioner. It was swelteringly hot on the third floor this time of year. She had also remembered that the cable that had been disconnected, the empty fridge and oh yeah…the fact that she hadn’t shaved her legs or had a pedicure in at least six months, so a one night stand was absolutely out of the question. It figures. She finally meets superman and she was too broke to be a halfway decent Lois Lane. ©2016
The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Bridge may have been named after one of the greatest presidents in history, but it had seen its fair share of heartache in the 70 plus years that it spanned the Grey River, here in Carlton. The Grey River had seen so much death that the locals took to calling it the River Styx. By day, the Grey River was beautiful--carving its way through Laurel Valley, creating a majestic portrait of steel blue water against the backdrop of thick green foliage. But by night, the River Styx, was an oily black abyss that slithered through the shroud of trees that lined its banks.
It didn’t make sense that such a quiet, simple town could know so much death. In 1953, Jim Lowell, the mayor of Carlton, slid on a patch of black ice and drove off the bridge to his death, taking with him his wife and three children. Two years later, a school bus carrying the high school football team, followed the mayor’s path and crashed into the guardrail. It didn’t go over the edge that time, but the bus driver was killed as well as the captain of the football team. Six years later, bodies bound in duct tape, started popping up in the Grey River. Seven bodies in all. The Carlton Strangler, Carlton’s first and only serial killer, was believed to have abducted seven adolescent boys as they hitch hiked on I-47. After binding them and strangling them to death, he also tossed them over the FDR.
By then the bridge had become notorious for its morbid past. Every year, it seemed at least two distraught people would fling themselves from the ledge in a desperate attempt to end their lives. This year Trisha Michaels would be distraught person number one.
Trisha was young and single, beautiful and completely fed up with life. She rode her bike the two miles from her apartment to the bridge, knowing what needed to be done. Sunny, her cat, had a week’s worth of food to keep her fat self nice and plump until someone came and to collect her. She had made up her bed, cleaned out the fridge and even scrubbed out the coffee stain that had been enbedded in her living room carpet for the past three years. If the police showed up and did and investigation, she didn’t want them to think that she was a slob—a suicidal slob.
Trisha walked about 50 yards up the trail until she reached the bridge. It was 9:12 in the evening. The place was deserted. No one dared hang around FDR Bridge after dark. People barely liked to drive over the bridge at night--too many horror stores. Trisha was there alone. She was always alone. This time, though, she needed to be alone. She slid her legs over the railing and took a deep breath. The muggy summer air felt heavy in her lungs. Below her lay what felt like a black hole. It was too dark to see the Grey River. Trisha could hear only the water rushing by, noisily against the stillness of night, like the cry of wounded souls urging her to join them.
She didn’t cry. Trisha was surprised by that. She had cried so much these past few months, maybe she had used up all of her tears. And yet her hands trembled like a nervous cat. She took in shallow breaths, as if breathing too hard might cause her to accidently topple over into the river before she was ready.
To calm herself, Trisha tore her eyes from the inky blackness below and looked up to the sky. A moonless night. The stars glittered in the darkness, like the twinkle lights on her old family Christmas tree. A ghost from her past. It comforted her, reminding her of a simpler, more joyous time in her life. A time when she was part of a family and lived in a home full of love. Faces flashed before her: her mother humming carols as she tidied up the house. Grandma arriving at the door, plump and pretty, arms loaded down with sweet potato pies and banana pudding. Trailing behind her, Pop Pop, in his red and green, reindeer sweeter, smelling like tobacco and ranting about the holiday traffic. Her dad was the family photographer, always snapping pictures, while pretending to be surprised at all the gifts Santa had managed to sneak into the house under his nose—as if Trisha hadn’t stopped believing in Santa years ago. They were all gone now. Faded memories, almost transparent in her mind. But she would see them again soon.
She closed her eyes and said a prayer. Another face materialized. Trevor. Her older brother by two years. Every Christmas he hovered in the background keeping a mental tally of how much his gifts cost in comparison to Trisha’s. He had not crossed over to the other side with the rest of her family. He was still alive and well—last she heard. She hadn’t seen him in 10 years. She wondered how he would react when he heard the news. Would he shed a tear when he learned that things had gotten so bad in his little sister’s life that she felt she had no other choice but to end it? He probably wouldn’t throw a party. Or shed a tear. He would be indifferent, just like he was the last time she saw him. Back then it had been an addiction, a disorderly conduct then a shop lifting arrest that caused her to call on him for help. Bail money. He hung up on her. But the next day, he bailed her out then put her out of his life for good. “Lose my number,” he had told her. He meant it. And so she did.
Okay, so she had been a mess then and 10 years later she was a mess again—though no longer an addict. Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference… She chanted the prayer she had grown so familiar with in Narcotics Anonymous, over and over beneath her breath. She had enough wisdom to know that could not change the past. But she did have the courage to change her present. She didn’t have to live this way anymore. Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference…Trisha gripped the railing a little tighter and leaned into the night. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference… The river’s wind brushed through her hair, enticing her to let go. Her gripped loosened until it was just her finger tips keeping her tethered to the bridge. Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference…
She let go.
Trisha braced herself for the smack of her body striking the water, the rush of the cold Grey River pouring into her mouth, nose, her lungs. She prepared for the pounding her body would take as it crashed into rocks and tumbled in the current. None of that happened. The only force she felt was that of her body crashing backward onto the paved road on FDR Bridge. What happened? Her eyes popped open and she saw the top chords of the bridge. She looked down and saw an arm draped around her.
“No, no, no, no!” Trisha half yelled, half sobbed.
The arm was attached to a breathless man. Trisha could tell he wanted to say something but he was panting too hard to get the words out. She made a run for it, scrambling back to her feet and racing for the railing.
The breathless man tackled her. “Are you insane?”
Trisha tried to push his hands away. “Get off of me, you freak!”
“I can’t…let you…do…it” His words were cut off because Trisha was smushing her hands in his face, willing to do whatever she needed to break free of his grasp. Kicking. Shoving. Slapping. His grip was like steel. “Man, you’re really serious about doing this are you?”
“Yes!” Trisha screamed, scratching her nails deep into his hands.
“Ouch!” He howled and finally let her go. “All right, fine! Go! Jump!”
At the release from his grasp, Trisha tumbled forward. She was exhausted from the struggle. She managed to scurry a few feet from the man then collapsed, rolled over on her back and rested on her elbows. The sweet stillness of the night had been interrupted by heavy breathing from both Trisha and the man. He was tall. Even though he was doubled over and leaning on his side, she could tell that he was a tall man, with the lean frame of a runner. His eye brown eyes, which studied her, were squinting. She assumed that he was in need of those glasses, which lay on the road beside him.
“The name’s Jared,” he said between gasps.
She didn’t answer. Trisha was concentrating on building up enough strength to make another run for the railing. But glaring didn’t require any additional energy, so she shot an evil glare in his direction. Then her eyes started to sting as the first tears emerged. She fell back on her back and felt warm tears leak out of the corners of her eyes. “The one thing,” she muttered.
She turned her eyes back to him. “This was the one thing I could change and you took it from me.”
“I’m sorry. I see someone in trouble and I have to come to the rescue.”
“So, what, you have some sort of Superman complex?”
“Superman?” He let out a dry chuckle. “Hardly. I’m just someone who knows we always have options. I try to help people find it.”
“Well, I already found my option.”
Jared slid his glasses back on. “That’s no option. Suicide is what you do when you think you have no options. But there’s always option.”
Trisha sat up and wiped the tears from her cheeks. “No offense. But you’re talking out of your ass.”
“See that? You’ve still got some fight in ya. You’re not ready to die.”
“You don’t know anything about me.”
“I watched you sit on that rail for twenty minutes. If you had wanted to jump, you would’ve done it,” Jared said, confidently. “But you didn’t. You sat there. Waiting for something. Waiting for someone to come along and save you.”
“I came this late because I didn’t want to be saved!”
“I’m sure on some level that’s true. But deep down, you don’t want to die. You just want things to be better. I get that. So what is it? What is it that you want to be better?
Trisha stared at Jared and almost answered him. He had warm brown eyes that made her think he might actually give a damn. And that was the worst thing for her. The last thing she needed was a glimmer of hope. She did not dare believe that there was another option. All that would do is prolong her suffering. If there was another option, it would just turn out to be a false hope and she would end up right back here on this bridge a week later, a month later, or even a year later.
Finally, she spoke. “You know what would make things better? A million dollars, a brother who doesn’t despise me…oh and just for fun, how about living on an island paradise with the man of my dreams. Can you make that happen Superman?”
“A million dollars, huh? You don’t want much, do ya? I mean, what would you do with it?” He wasn’t really interested in the answer. He just wanted to keep her talking. Keep her mind off of that rail.
Trisha sighed. “Screw it up. That’s what I do.”
“Hey. We’re all screw ups. I could tell you some colossal screw up tales that--"
“Don’t you think I know what you’re doing?”
“What am I doing?”
“You’re stalling for time until the police get here.”
He shook his head, adamantly--a little too adamantly. “Nah, no police. I don’t fool with police. It’s just you and me kiddo. So if you want to jump, I’m the only one here to try and stop you. I’m the only one here with another option.”
“Yeah, what’s that?”
“You can come and have dinner with me.”
“Dinner. Seriously!” Trisha tipped her head back and laughed. She had to laugh. It was so typical of her life. “Are you seriously asking me out? In the middle of my suicide attempt?”
“Not on a date. Just dinner. I’m new to this town so I don’t know the hot spots. And you could probably stand a good meal. A nice steak, some lobster, some good wine. A nice big hunk of cheese cake?”
“I hate cheesecake.”
“Chocolate cake then. Whatever. It’s on me. We eat, we drink. You don’t even have to talk to me. And if after all that you still feel the same way, well at least you can leave this earth on a full stomach.”
He flashed a smile that Trisha could tell had probably opened a lot of doors for him—and a lot of hearts. She did not want to be charmed though. And she certainly didn’t want any chocolate cake...
It’s that time of year again! The summer blockbuster movie season. I am a confessed movie junkie. In particular, I am a fan of those big budget movies bloated with special effects.
Some time in April, I create my checklist of movies that I must indulge in this summer. Those days when I will escape the summer heat, and hunker down in my local theater’s cool air conditioned facilities, armed with my popcorn, Rasinettes and cherry coke, and just escape.
Sadly this summer seems to be lacking movies that I can’t wait to plunk down my hard earned money for. Sure there are a handful that I’ll see, but not like in years past. So I decided to create my own list of Top 10 summer blockbusters. Movies that always put me in mind of summer and make me squeal with excitement no matter how times I see them.
I want to preface my list by stating that I tried to limit my list to movies that I actually saw on the big screen, not that I saw for the first time on video or on cable. So, if your favorite movie is not here, that may be reason. I based my list on The Dissolve's "50 Greatest Summer Blockbusters." See their top 10 here. Of course, some of my faves didn't make the Dissolve's list, but they are special to me nonetheless. So, here we go:
10. Pirates of the Caribbean – The Curse of the Black Pearl (June, 2003)
I loved this movie so much I saw it twice in the same day. Beautiful beaches, swashbuckling adventures, lots of laughter; and best of all Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom combo –what more could a girl ask for?
9. Ghostbusters (June, 1984)
I must have seen this movie a thousand times, but I find myself watching it whenever I stumble upon it on TV…and I crack up every time!
8. ET the Extra-Terrestrial (June 1982)
Funny, visually stunning, and all of the whimsy one would expect from a Spielberg movie. Not only that, but kids roaming the streets out on an adventure, just epitomizes summer to me (except we never found any aliens during our summer adventures).
7. Terminator 2 – Judgement Day (July 1991)
Hands down, this is the best of the Terminator series. I remember sitting in the theater being blown away by the unstoppable, molten metal version of the Terminator, who was straight up off the chain!!! (and yes, I can say “off the chain” since the movie came out in 1991)
6. Batman (June, 1989)
The Michael Keaton Batman. To me this is the one that really kicked off the phenomena of the Comic Book Hero Franchise (and that is a good thing or bad thing depending on who you ask). I loved this franchise because it was dark, but funny. And it didn’t take itself too seriously, which is my main criticism of the new generation of superhero flicks. Plus, the soundtrack was done by Prince. It’s worth the price of admission just for that.
5. Grease (June, 1978)
This one wasn’t on The Dissolve’s list, but I had to put it on my list. I saw it in the drive in movies when I was a little kid, and even though I didn’t understand it then, it made me smile. As I’ve grown up, this movie became one of my summer staples. I hear a song from the soundtrack and automatically I transported back in time to my childhood, sitting in the backseat of my mom's car, in my pj’s trying to watch the movie and listen to it through that tinny contraption that was attached to the driver’s side window. A Classic.
4. Top Gun (May, 1986)
Highway to the Danger-zone, she sings with full gusto. Talk about a movie that had it all. Hot sound track, hot guys and lots of action. How could I ever forget the volleyball scene? I remember songs from this movie dominating the radio all that summer. Take My Breath Away, she now sings, with a heartfelt anguish in her eyes.
3. Jurassic Park (June, 1993)
For some reason, I hadn’t heard of this movie until just a few days before it was set to come out. But there was so much hype about it, I just had to go. The first time the T-Rex took a step and the ground shook, I felt it vibrate in my chest, as well. I thought: “Aw shucks! It’s about to be on!” ….and it was.
2. The Empire Strikes Back (May, 1980)
This is another one of those rare times when the sequel surpassed the original (in my humble opinion). I was really young when I saw this the first time, but I remember being horrified when Hans Solo was frozen in that thing (I don’t feel like looking up the name of that thing, but I’m sure there’s a Star War’s expert who could tell me just what it’s called). And since I’m a space junkie, I fell in love with this movie from the first note of its signature soundtrack.
1. Jaws (June, 1975)
Honestly, I only vaguely remember seeing this in the drive-in. It’s possible that I didn’t see this one in the movies and I have it mixed up with something else, but this is by far, my number 1 go-to summer movie. I watch it every time it comes on. Having grown up near the beach, for me, Jaws terrified and intrigued me all at once--like a roller coaster or a really good water slide…And as an adult, it is a shining example that you don’t have to beat your audience over the head with blood and special effects to make them scream.
If I had made the list a Top 20 list, these movies would’ve definitely made the grade—either because of the level of action and adventure, the visual look of it, or for at least one, it was the movie I saw on a really memorable date: Raiders of the Lost Ark (June, 1981), The Lion King (June, 1994), The Lost Boys (July, 1987), Fast and the Furious (June 2001), Inception (July, 2010), Gremlins (June, 1984), Star Wars (May 1977), The Fugitive (August, 1993)
So that's my list. Wanna show me yours? Or feel free to challenge my Number 1 summer blockbuster--though I think it's going to hard to beat Jaws as the best summer blockbuster of all time.
I walked along the beach this weekend. This was the first beach excursion in a summer that I plan to name: Beach-fest 2015. As you know, I love the beach but for the past few summers I haven’t been able to get there as often as I would have liked (as in every day), more like 1 or 2 visits in the entire summer. It’s criminal!!!
Anyway, this weekend, as I strolled along the beach, Mozart providing the background music for an absolutely spectacular day: clear blue sky, fluffy white clouds gently easing on by. The water was chilled, at first, but my toes quickly became acclimated. I was in absolute heaven on earth!
Suddenly, 2 teenaged boys came running in my direction, pointing toward the ocean. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, since I had my headphones on, but they were excited about something. No offense to teenage boys, but when I see teenage boys pointing at something on the beach, it’s usually because some teenaged girl’s bikini top has fallen down in the water and they can see her boobies. So, I just ignored them.
However, the boys were so adamant about whatever they were pointing to that I just had to look. I followed their gaze out into the ocean and I saw it…A fin. No two fins, then three, now four…five fins. Five dolphins bobbing and splashing about in the ocean, not a care in the world. I was blown away.
I must have strolled this beach more than a hundred times, always stopping to take in all of the sights and sounds, but never had I seen a school of dolphins frolicking near my stretch of the beach. They looked so free. Jumping, leaping, dipping through the mighty Atlantic. And though they were clearly together, each seemed to be dancing to the beat of his or her own drum.
I stood there in awe, for a moment, then followed them as far as I could as I made my way down the shore. I wanted to jump in there and frolic with them, to channel my inner-mermaid. But I am not a mermaid and I would have surely drowned. Life lesson: Fear and freedom do not mix. Freedom lets you frolic. Fear kept me anchored on the shore. (But fear can also keep you alive so it does serve a purpose). So from the safety of the shore, I watched the dolphins play. Jealous that I couldn’t be out there with them but thankful for this random act of freedom God had blessed me to witness.
It made me realize how much joy it brings me when others are free--which is why I write so much about freedom. From the dolphins showing off their acrobatics; to the little boy I saw on the boardwalk getting his groove on to the techno music blasting from the speakers. They were free and my heart was full.
So I encourage you to keep your eyes open for random acts of freedom. Careful—it can be contagious. You never know when one might pop up, but if you spot one, tell me about it.
Freedom -The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hinderance or restraint.(oxforddictionaries.com)
There is a scene in my book, Boy Toy, where the main character, Toya, is presented with the opportunity to tryout for the track team. Despite the fact that Toya has often found herself going for a run whenever she felt stressed, her first reaction is to say no. She makes a bunch of excuses: she hasschool work; she just got a perm and doesn't want her hair to get messed up; she would rather be home watching Judge Judy. Advice from a friend stays with her: “If running makes you feel free, why not feel free all the time?” Toya took that advice and ran with it (pun intended) and discovered that not only did running make her feel free but it took her to places beyond her wildest dreams.
It wasn’t until years after writing that passage, did I make the connection in my own life. I am no runner, but I am a writer and writing makes me feel free. I write about how I first discovered my passion for writing in the About Me section on this website. And ever since I opened up my heart to this new romance called writing, I found myself soaring, spreading my wings and dancing among the clouds. Free.
The funny thing is, I didn’t even realize that I wasn’t free. However, once I started writing I could see how repressed I had been: afraid to say how I felt or express my thoughts, because I was weighed down with guilt. I knew it wasn’t uncommon for survivors of sexual trauma to carry around a super-sized load of guilt and shame—and I was no different. I just didn’t realize how much it had affected me. How much I censored myself, second-guessed every decision, silenced my own feelings because it felt wrong or bad.
But when I wrote, I was free. I could say whatever I wanted without any inhibition. After all, that’s what the delete key is for, right? If I ever did write something that was out of line, I could always erase it. I could be joyful, angry, romantic, sexy, petulant, devious…free—without fear of judgement. The only judge was me. And strangely, seeing my thoughts and feelings on paper rarely stoked the fire of my inner critic. So I said more. I truly feel like God deposited this gift of writing in my spirit to unlock the door to those invisible shackles that had been holding me back, since it's neverHis will for his children to be in bondage.
Now, every chance I get, I’m sneaking off to write, or read about writing, or talk with other writers about writing. Just like any love affair, I want to be around it all the time. Writing has carried me across the country and on many amazing journeys—on paper and in my real world—and the best is yet to come.
Do me a favor and try this exercise. I just want to see what else is out there that makes people feel free. So fill in the blanks please:
If ____________ makes me feel free, why not feel free all the time?
Then answer the question. I realize that, depending on how you fill in the blank, some things you just can’t do all the time--no matter how fun it may be. But is there a way for you to do it more often?
“Finally, they bring me a pretty one,” Oaks said, grinning down at Natalie. He was tall and thick like an oak tree, but instead of bark, his massive trunk was wrapped in a rubber apron. “I was getting tired of those homely boys. This one, I can have some fun with.” He stroked Natalie’s cheek with his gloved hand. She jerked her head away.
“This is the last one in the dungeons,” said the guard who had dragged her in—not kicking and screaming, but quiet and calm, ready to accept her part in the suffering her friends had endured. “If you don’t get it from her, I guess you’ll have to start all over with the first one again.”
“Oh, I’ll get it from her.” Oaks was practically drooling when he said that. “I can tell by lookin’ at her, she wants to talk to me. Ain’t that right, Beauty?” His hand reached for her cheek again.
Oaks hand froze in midair. “Duchess.” He peered back toward the doorway, into a face that looked anything but royal.
“And don’t look so surprised. You know, it’s against protocol for you to interrogate a female.”
“With all due respect, Duchess, protocol don’t mean much down here.”
“Obviously, it does, because the princess summoned me down here on my day off to do the interrogation.”
She took a step toward the girl and Oaks threw himself in front of Natalie, almost shielding her from the Duchess’ view. “No. Not necessary! I’ve done all the other interrogations. I-I know the questions to ask. It’s only fitting that I get to do this one too. I want to.”
“You’ve done all the interrogations and got nothing to show for it. Step aside, Oaks.”
“No! Th-that’s not true. They’re ready, now. They’re almost ready to break. I won’t let you come in and steal the credit for—”
“Mr. Oaks!” The Duchess bellowed and the giant man couldn’t help but flinch. “We are here to perform a service for the princess. Not to satisfy our own personal desires. Now, step aside immediately and let me perform my duties. Or you’ll answer to her Highness.”
Oaks stepped away and peeled off his rubber apron. As he slinked out the door, the Duchess added, “The princess wants you to report to the arena and assist with preparations for the executions.”
At the word “execution,” Oaks looked back and grinned.
“I figured you’d be happy,” the Duchess said then turned her attention to Natalie.
The funk of her breath assaulted Natalie’s nostrils before the woman even opened her mouth. She smiled, revealing her rotted teeth. “Hello dear. My name’s Duchess.”
Natalie looked past the blackened teeth to the pock marks on her face and stringy, prematurely, gray hair. “No offense. But you don’t look like a duchess.”
“It’s just a nickname. I’m the Duchess of the dungeons. It’s my home you and your friends been staying at these past few days.”
“Thank you for having us.”
“Don’t thank me just yet. They didn’t drag me in here on my day off to serve you milk and cookies. I came to get results.”
“Well, I’m sorry that you wasted your time. I don’t have anything to offer you.”
“If you didn’t, you’d be dead already.”
Natalie wasn’t moved. The guards had been threatening death since they arrived. And the only thing all those threats did was convince Natalie that they were not actually going to die.
The Duchess could tell by the smug look of the pretty girl’s face, she was not afraid. She had performed dozens of interrogations and, every once in a while, she came across one who thought she had nothing to fear. Until the Duchess gave her a reason to be afraid.
She turned a dial on the wall and a low hum filled the room. From a tiny tray, the Duchess picked up a black rubber disk and held it up to Natalie’s mouth. Instinctively, Natalie sealed her lips and turned her head away. “Trust me, hon. You’re gonna want this. Otherwise, you’ll bite your tongue clean off when I sting ya.”
Sting me? Natalie remembered when Teal limped back to his cell. There was a burnt smell that followed him. He described the sensation of burning hot acid shooting through his body, as if all of his organs were being boiled. That’s what it felt like when he got stung. Electrocuted. Somehow, he had survived it. She would too.
Natalie opened her mouth and nearly gagged on the hard rubber mouth guard that had been crammed into her mouth. The Duchess hummed a little tune and she slipped on her rubber gloves. “Now, I’m not gonna lie, it’s gonna hurt. And it’s gonna leave scars on this pretty skin of yours. So, don’t feel like you gotta prove anything, here. It’s just us girls. Or you can tell me what I wanna know and save yourself a whole lot of sufferin.”
Natalie glared back at her, defiantly.
“No?” The Duchess held up the red cable clamp close to Natalie’s face and the hairs on her body stood at attention. “I was hoping you’d say that.”
For a moment, Natalie blacked out. She thought she had blacked out, but the searing pain from the jolt of electricity had caused her to slam her head against the back of the chair. Fire. Her body felt like it was on fire and her heart nearly exploded in her chest. When the surge of pain stopped, Natalie’s throat went dry and ached, from the strain of her muted scream. How was she going to get through this? How could she take another acid-like sting and not tell all of her secrets? All of the training, the mental techniques from the Academy, all of it had been blasted out of her brain with the first jolt.
Just give into it, Nat, she told herself. Let it take you, let it kill you. Then the Duchess loses. Just let go.
Astrid woke with a start. The effect of Edgar’s tranquilizer had been the deepest sleep for Astrid, accompanied by wave after wave of bizarre dreams and nightmares. Since there were no windows in her tiny room, she had no sense of day or night. The only reason she knew it might be nighttime was because, Silver, who was supposed to be keeping watch over her, was sound asleep. So much for her bold escape plan. All it earned Astrid was a sleeping guard, now camped inside of her room, and a very sore arm from the injection—oh, and it earned her yet another reason to despise Chance. To hate herself for being gullible enough to ever believe he loved her.
But she wouldn’t give up. Astrid had resolved to keep plotting her escape, until she was free, or die trying—whichever came first. And yet every time she pieced together a half-way plausible plan of escape, Astrid found her sucked back into deep sleep by the tranquilizer. This time, she was not greeted by another dream, nor nightmare, it was a memory.
Five years old and wailing uncontrollably. It was back in the days when Astrid had no voice. Back before she drank from the healing spring, so the only thing that came out of her mouth when she cried was a muted moan that seemed to carry on forever. Her mommy would never let her cry that long, neither would Nanny Uma. This was the rare day when both women were away from the palace. Nanny Uma on a scheduled holiday. Queen Madelyne, off somewhere planning some sort of a birthday surprise for her girls.
When it was clear that no one else was going to silence the girl, King Cal had no other choice but to handle it himself.
“Astrid, stop…Stop...” Cal stepped into the princesses’ bedroom and surveyed the scene. Vega was sitting on her bed, flipping through a picture book, completed unaffected by her sister’s groaning. Astrid—the source of the commotion—sitting on the floor, holding her blue teddy bear. “Stop it, Astrid.” He never knew what to do with her when she was worked up like this, afraid to even touch her because she seemed so fragile to him.
Cal turned Vega. “What’s the matter with her.”
Vega shrugged. “What isn’t the matter with her?”
“That’s no help, Vega.” He sighed and turned his attention back to Astrid. “Enough of this, young lady! Only babies cry. And you are not a baby. I need you to be a big girl and tell me what’s wrong.”
Like a loyal subject, Astrid obeyed her father the king. She willed herself to stop crying. Took a deep breath to regain control. Next, she formed both hands into little fists, tucked her thumbs up between her index and middle fingers, and the twisted her hands back and forth. TOY.
The king looked confused.
More earnestly, she took her two fists and put them side by side then yanked her fists apart like she was breaking something. BROKEN.
When the king looked even more lost, Astrid sighed in frustration. The only one more frustrated was the king. “You know don’t I don’t know sign language...Vega, what’s she saying?”
“How should I know?”
“You’re taking lessons, aren’t you?”
“Sometimes. But they’re so boring, Daddy?”
“Still, you need to learn to communicate with your sister. It’s important to—”
In the time it took for the king and Vega to debate the importance of Vega learning sign language, Astrid had grabbed a crayon from her desk, wrote a note, and handed it to her father:
She wrote in surprisingly neat handwriting for a five-year-old. Then plopped Blue Bear to his lap.
“Toy broken,” the king read out loud. He examined Blue Bear and saw now that his button eyes were missing. “Who broke your toy?”
This may have been news to the king, but for weeks Astrid had been aware of a serial toy killer—her toys—roaming the palace. A Toy Troll, Queen Madelyne had named it. They didn’t know who was responsible—though Astrid had her suspicions. Her suspicions were confirmed today, after lunch, when she walked into her room and caught the culprit, plucking the button eyes right out off of Blue Bear’s plush fur. Astrid pointed an angry finger and the king’s eyes followed it in the direction of Vega.
Not an ounce of guilt in her expression. “It’s not my fault.”
“Then whose fault is it?”
“The people who keep buying us the same toys. Just because we’re twins, doesn’t mean our toys need to be identical. How am I supposed to tell Astrid’s toys from mine?”
“Okay…but why break the toy?”
Vega shrugged and said, “Because!” as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, “Astrid is deficient. Her toys should be deficient too. That way we’ll know which toys are hers and which toys are mine.”
“Oh, I see.”
To Astrid’s horror, her father seemed to be accepting this ridiculous explanation. No way. She couldn’t allow it. She grabbed the king’s hand and dragged him to a corner of the room, to a cardboard box full of broken toys. Dolls with missing limbs, stuffed dogs with the stuffing pulled out. A tiny wooden horse on three legs.
“You broke all of her toys?”
“No…Not all of them,” Vega said sweetly, “Just the ones that were like mine.”
That wasn’t the outrageous part. The true outrage, the king still hadn’t noticed. Astrid pointed, emphatically, to the side of the box. Written in big clunky letters, Vega’s handwriting: F-A-S-I-L-I-T-E-E.
The king tried to sound it out. “Fas-il-i—”
“Facility, daddy. The box is a facility. That’s where broken things go, right?”
“Yes, Vega…Yes, they do. But you shouldn’t have broken your sister’s toys.”
“I was only trying to—”
“I know, I know…” He patted her on the head. “And Astrid, your sister made a mistake, so you—”
Astrid didn’t want to hear it. She went back to her desk and wrote: ON PURPOSE!
King Cal was tickled by this. He paid no attention to the message, but for the first time, in a long time, he paid attention to the messenger. “This is amazing. I had no idea you could write so well, Astrid. Vega can you write like this too?”
“Why should I, Daddy? I can speak.”
He nodded, barely paying attention to what Vega said. He was too busy marveling at Astrid. “Write something else for me, Astrid.”
Astrid grinned and carefully wrote out the words: I LOVE YOU, DADDY
And she put a little heart at the end of it.
She heard the king gasp. Caught off guard by these words so clearly expressed by Astrid. It’s not like she never signed them to him before. Plenty of times. But it was if those words never resonated with him. Not like seeing them written by her, right before his eyes. In response, the king did something that caught Astrid off guard.
He hugged her. King Cal put his burly arms around her and said softly, “I love you too.”
Astrid sank into his arms, getting lost in the strength of them and the sandalwood notes of his cologne. The only thing that could pull them out of this moment, the sound of Vega sobbing.
Never to be outdone, Vega turned her own display of waterworks.
“Vega. What is it, my love? Why are you crying?”
“I-I’m sorry, daddy. I didn’t mean to make Astrid sad. I thought I was helping.”
“Of course, you were, princess. And Astrid understands. Don’t you, Astrid?”
What else could she do, but nod in agreement.
“See? Astrid forgives you.”
By then, Vega had worked herself up to near hyperventilation and said between gasps for air, “…but…do…you…forgive…me…Daddy?”
“Forgive you?” He held open his arm and Vega raced right in. “My future queen never needs my forgiveness.”
He started out holding both girls, but Vega managed to slowly squeeze Astrid out of his arms. Astrid could have hung in there longer, but thought it would be silly to get into a shoving match with her sister just to stay in her father’s arms. She scooted out of the way and went back to her crayons, drawing pictures of her and Daddy dancing together. Meanwhile, Vega looked up at the king and said, “Dance with me, Daddy.”
At once, the king scooped her up and led Vega in the fanciest of all waltzes. While being spun around by her father, Vega took a quick peek at her sister, trying so hard to look like drawing a picture could be anywhere near as fun as the real thing. And just to make sure Astrid knew where the real fun was, Vega sang a beautiful melody, in perfect harmony with her father’s waltz.
It didn’t matter to Astrid. She remembered falling to sleep that night with a smile on her face. She beamed at being so close to her father and hearing him tell her that he loved her. She knew that he loved her. Her mother was always telling her how much her father really, really loved her, even though he wasn’t the best at showing it. But it was something special to actually hear him say it.
Even better, when Astrid woke the next morning, she found Blue Bear tucked in the bed beside her. His button eyes had been restored.
Astrid sat up to find her mother picking broken toys out of the cardboard facility box.
“Good morning, Astrid,” Queen Madelyne said, cheerfully. Her voice had stirred up Vega too. “Good morning, Vega.”
“Morning, Mommy.” Vega said as she yawned.
Astrid could hardly contain her excitement. She signed, “Blue Bear is all better!”
“Yes, love. Blue Bear is all better. I had Nanny Uma give him magical eyes, this time.”
“Magical!” That made Vega sit up. “What makes them magical?”
Madelyne walked over and sat on the edge of Vega’s bed. “Oh well…If he spots that Toy Troll bothering Astrid’s toys again, he has the ability to put that troll in time out.”
And magically, Astrid’s toys were bothered no more.
Why am I thinking about this? Astrid wondered to herself, as she laid on that mattress. Even now, after her memory had been restored, she hadn’t thought about the Toy Troll, or Blue Bear. Blue Bear, whom she had left with Uncle Russ before leaving for the Never Mind.
Why am I thinking about this? In the darkness of this tiny room, in the bowels of the palace, that memory was a light. A warm moment, that Astrid clung to as hope. Confirmation that if she could just get to her father, if she could somehow get word to him, that little spark of love he had displayed that day, so many years ago, would take over. And she would be saved.
All she had to do was figure out a way to let her father know. To get word past this guard, past Edgar, past Chance, and then past Vega.
"Maybe I could find a way to climb…” The tranquilizer pulled her back into another round of sleep before Astrid could finish that thought.
Alone in the forest, it was easy to forget the mission. To let one’s mind wander into happier times, climbing trees or playing hide-and-go-seek. These trees were made for happier times. But there was no time for happy thoughts. Quiet, secluded, with only the rustle of leaves to keep him company, Chance never lost sight of his objective. Now that he was able to separate himself from the other soldiers and get lost deep in the woods, he was able to focus.
When he first returned to Oceali, it took a moment for Chance to get over the devastation. He left under cover of darkness the last time, so he didn’t really get a chance to take in how much the island had changed. A few strategically placed bombs and a paradise had been transformed into a war zone.
This was Vega’s work, he thought to himself, as soon as he stepped off of the helicopter. Vega’s work. Heavy-handed and over the top. If he had been in charge—which he clearly hadn’t been—but if he had been, he would have taken a stealthier approach. Keep the island under surveillance. Identify the weak points then ease in through the openings. Keeps casualties to a minimum and leaves more to salvage once the invasion is complete. There wasn’t much to salvage here.
Half of the Academy’s campus was still intact, just deserted. The rest of it was a charred ruin. After leaving the helicopter, Chance found himself up in the room where they had held him, chained to a bed. The place where he got to know a different version of a girl he had known so well. He took a seat on the same bed where he once charmed Astrid, wooing her until she couldn’t help but fall in love with him. Chance was really good at that. His instructor back in cadet school told him that he was “gifted at making people believe whatever he wanted them to believe,” and it had certainly come in handy this time.
Sitting on the bed, Chance looked out the window and took in the scene. He had spent countless days staring out of this window, watching the kids come and go in and out of colorful buildings. Laughing and carefree. Oblivious to the enemy watching from the window; and the danger that would soon drop out of the sky and blow their happy little world to pieces. Now, there were no kids and hardly any buildings.
“No wonder they couldn’t find any healing waters,” Chance chuckled to himself. “They’ve blown the whole island apart.” He had almost forgotten that the chapel was right across from his window. The only thing left of it was a crumble of stucco, wood, and terracotta tiles.
A thought passed through Chance’s mind. “That’s where I always go for answers.” He remembered Astrid saying those words to him about the chapel.
“It couldn’t be that easy,” he muttered to himself.
The place where Astrid went for answers. The place intended for spiritual healing. Could it also be the source of the Never Mind’s physical healing too? Did they actually build the chapel on top of the healing spring?
He laughed out loud. “No wonder they can’t find it.” It was buried under a ton of rubble. And it was no surprise that Vega couldn’t find it. He suspected that she hadn’t set foot inside of a chapel since her mother died.
This had to be it. It was so out there, so public, so hidden in plain sight, that this had to be where the healing waters were stored. Chance was sure of it. The next question was: How to retrieve them? The answer was simple. He couldn’t. Not in time for the king’s deadline. Which was why Chance found himself presently roaming deep in the forest. He saw only one option and there was very short window to make it happen.
As he walked, he called. The Daughtry Boy’s call. Two hands cupped to his mouth, Chance made the sound of a loon. A sound that bounced off the trees and echoed back to his ears. He had been at it for hours. Taking a few steps, doing the call then waiting for a response. Nothing. The sun was starting to set. They would be looking for him to return soon. He kept calling.
It was starting to sink in that he was wasting precious time. It was the longest of longshots, anyway, that he would get a response. And even if he did get a response, would it be the response he had been looking for?
He kept calling.
Out there all alone, with no one knowing where he was, Chance was well aware that someone from the Underground could shoot him dead and it would be months before anyone ever found him—what was left of him.
He called again. Then pulled out his flashed light. It was getting too dark to see with his natural eye. He’d have to turn around soon. His tracking ability was strong, but even Chance would have a hard time finding his way back through an unfamiliar forest, overly thick with vegetation, in the dark.
He called again.
And then came the response.
The same loon call, fainter and higher pitched, like it came from a boy.
Chance turned and shined his flashlight around until it landed on a pair of big, round eyes, staring back at him from behind a bush.
“Hey there, little Byrd,” Chance whispered. He took a step toward Alfred, who took a step back. “How are you? You hungry? I brought you some cookies.” Chance dipped into his pocket and pulled out a little bag of cookies. He offered them to Alfred, but the boy was frozen. “It’s okay, Al. It’s just me. You’re safe.” Chance could tell by the look on Alfred’s face, he wasn’t so sure that he was safe. Not with Chance. “I see. You don’t trust me anymore.”
Alfred shook his head.
Chance approached, slowly. “Your friends must have told you that I hurt Astrid. That I brought all of this misery to the island.”
That set Alfred off, launching himself into an angry tirade through sign language. Chance had no idea what he was saying.
“Hold on, Al. I don’t understand. Wait…Stop!” Standing right in front of him, Chance knelt down to look him in the eyes. “I get that you’re angry, but there’s no time for that now. Astrid’s in danger.”
That got Alfred’s attention.
He signed something else that Chance couldn’t understand, but he tried respond anyway. “Yes. Astrid. She’s alive, for now. But not for long unless you help me.”
Alfred nodded emphatically: Yes of course. Anything for Astrid.
“I need you to bring me some healing water.”
Alfred’s eyes darkened and he stepped back again. He shook his head.
“It’s not for me, little Byrd. It’s for Astrid.”
Alfred shook his head even more emphatically.
Chance’s radio sprang to life and Alfred jumped. “Kane. Check in.”
At the sound of the enemy’s voice over the radio, Alfred tried to run but Chance grabbed him and covered his mouth, out of reflex, as he momentarily forgot that the boy couldn’t speak.
“Check in, Kane.”
“It’s Kane. I’m on the southwest side, about to head in now.” He turned his attention back to Alfred. “Listen, little Byrd, I’ve gotta go. I can’t force you. All I can do is say it again, Astrid needs your help. I know you don’t trust this uniform, but I need you to trust me. Trust this...” He pointed to the Daughtry Boy symbol tattooed on his arm. Identical to the one seared into Alfred’s arm. “Daughtry Boys stick together.”
She was still there. Somehow, Natalie hadn’t figured out how to let go. She didn’t need to let go, just hold on. As bad as it was when the pain seared through her, Natalie realized that, as soon as the sting ended, the pain did too. She just had to endure the eternity of the eight seconds or so of electricity coursing through her body. Then the pain would cease. And for all of her tough talk, it was clear to Natalie that the Duchess didn’t have that stinger on a kill setting. She had endured the last three zaps by pretending, with each one, that’s what it would feel like to kiss Owen. Each time the clamp came into contact with her skin, she imagined her lips coming into contact with Owen’s lips, sending a surge of energy through her and leaving her breathless.
It was a childish, schoolgirl solution, but she was technically still a schoolgirl and it was working for her.
The Duchess was surprised. She hadn’t expected Natalie to last through one sting—and certainly not three. They could only give five stings before the worn out old electric box started smoking. She took a break while she thought of her next approach. “Ya know, we’re not cruel down here,” she announced, between sips of water. “That’s why the princess sent me instead of leaving you in the hands of the big dumb Oak. We females have to look out for each other, right?”
Natalie grunted something, so the Duchess pulled the mouth guard out of her mouth so she could speak.
Natalie’s words were faint, barely audible.
“Speak up, girlie, I can’t hear ya.”
Natalie strained to raise her voice and the Duchess caught the tail end of, “…up comes the sun and dries up all the rain and the itsy-bitsy spider…”
The Duchess laughed, a dry, hacking, coughing laugh. “Now that’s funny. I’ve heard a lot of things, but I can honestly say, I ain’t never heard that one before. I gotta be honest with you, girlie. I didn’t think you were that tough. A pretty girl like you. I thought you’d fold after the first sting…But you impressed me.”
She held a cup of water to Natalie’s mouth and she lapped it up like a thirsty dog. “Yeah, it’s gonna be a shame to kill you.”
Natalie kept drinking, still unmoved by all the talk of killing. The water wasn’t cool and sweet like home, but it was wet, and her throat had become excruciatingly dry.
“Did they tell you? Two days. They’re getting everything ready now. Quick and painless. One shot to the head and it’s over. Well, I guess the painful part would be watching your friends die.”
Natalie stopped drinking.
“Didn’t know about that part either, huh? They make you sit there and watch as, one by one, your friends stand in front of the firing squad. That won’t be pretty.”
Natalie finally spoke up. “…At least they’ll be free,” though her voice was painfully horse.
“No, they’ll be dead. Now, is that little secret worth all that misery?”
It was, wasn’t it? Whatever this water was that the princess was so hot to get her hands on, it must have been priceless. For Highness to carry on this big secret right under her father’s nose. Risking the death penalty for all of them if they got caught, it must have been far more valuable than all the suffering in the world.
That’s when the Duchess realized, she was using the wrong currency against Natalie. This girl wasn’t moved by her own pain or suffering. The Duchess was learning that about these kids from the Never Mind. So, what did move her? She took a seat and studied Natalie more closely. What was it that would get her attention? The thing that the Duchess couldn’t get away from was her beauty. Perfect mouth, perfect nose. Perfectly tousled hair. Even matted with sweat from torture, not a single strand was out of place. A wave of hatred rose up in the Duchess.
She had known girls like this one, as a child. These girls always looked down on her like she was a deficient, when her only deficiency was that she hadn’t been born with the genes for perfect teeth and perfect hair. That’s who this girl was, strapped to the chair before her. Pretty and popular. The kind of girl who never had to lift a heavy object or kill a bug by herself. Who would never cry alone because there would always be some fool tripping over himself to offer his shoulder to cry on. That’s probably why she wasn’t fazed right now. She was expecting someone to come riding in to rescue her, once again. The pretty girl, riding off into the sunset, with her gorgeous mane of hair waving in the wind.
A sudden gleam hit the Duchess’ eye, as she smiled down at Natalie. “How about a makeover, girlie?”