I've said in the past that writing is like sculpting: you start with a completely misshapen rock (your idea or concept), and every second until the final chip of rock is removed, the piece is unfinished, and essentially unacceptable. I like that analogy, but it's not entirely accurate; or, at least, not accurate to my experience with my first novel and with my second project.
I'm presenting here Chapter 1 of my second long-form project, Mya. I call it Version 5.0, 'cause I probably had at least 5 versions of the chapter that are so radically different from one another as to seem like completely different stories. This is why the sculpture comparison doesn't really work (for me) -- more accurately, I start with a misshapen clay, I start to mold it, and am continually either adding more material, entirely rearranging the parts, or sometimes scrapping it altogether to start over.
(Okay, I'm not a sculptor, so this may very well describe sculpting as well, but the simplicity of the original analogy is broken).
Anyhow. Below is the newest iteration of a rough, unediting, unproofed, and very-likely-to-change-drastically Chapter 1 of my second project, Mya. Hope you enjoy.
I’m getting old. Older, maybe—because what’s “old”?—but there’s a certain line where nothing seems to have changed, but the entire world is different. I crossed this line sometime in the past five years. It was a quick five years. And unlike every sunny day from when I was young, the memories from the past five years seem impossible to find, like finding the right face in a roomful of skulls. My gift of years is not wisdom, either, but a mind full of slipperyuncertainty, in which I’m drowning invisibly on my way to my toothier grin, when I’m even uglier than I’ll be in the ground. All I seem to wish for these days—in those quiet moments with no distraction available—is that I win a lesser good and a memory with as much tongue as will ever die on the tips of these syllables.
How morbidly I feel. Like a pendulum, the Sword of Damocles, hovering, its tip carving lines into my face, dipping into each organ until it finds its ingress into my heart. And then I’ll rest, a statue to inevitability. Over the past five years, how many times have I seen myself die? Seen the mask and disgusting suit on my body that still thinks it’s young? It once was, and I can’t let it go. How many times have I killed myself, pulled myself onto the sword? Far more times than I’ve been strong or resilient, I admit. I imagine I’m slowly cracking and twisting until the sword need barely nick at my veins. I’ve lost count of these images. Not that it matters; I no longer believe my story is even about me. My eyes are for other peoples’ relevance, and from the seat of my apathy, their posterity.
It’s no wonder how I ended up here, speaking such things to myself. I can trace it back, step by step, like following breadcrumbs backwards to the first time I saw my wife. We were in college, and I was compelled to speak to her because of what she had written on her page, “Temporis Destruit Omne – Time destroys everything”, like a prophecy. Now that she’s dead, I struggle with her face, the sound of her voice, the memory of when I could still run my hands through her black hair, brush her pale cheeks and stare into her dark eyes; when I could lay with her and watch the smoke swirl against our window, and nothing existed beyond the diameter of our arms. Moments like those were even more beautiful for how my mind embellished them. When we were young, these perfect moments were like a lane of cherry blossoms bobbing around our heads as thick as snow—and when she lay dying, her eyes were confused by my face—one by one, each of these memories were plucked. Perhaps somewhere they exist still—some would say they do—but for me, they’re just ghosts. And they haunt me the way I once haunted them.
Ultimately, that’s how I’ve come to be on this train, watching the landscape go from green to brown to grey, slowly infected by the approaching city. My psychiatrist had suggested tropical, but I’ve chosen the city instead. The ancient edifices of the college and its bleak, unchanging streets were once like the dark heart and veins for my spoilt memories—which means, of course, they are integral to my sadness.
For hours the train had wheezed and rumbled aggressively down the track—the noise and vibration somewhere below my consciousness—but my thoughts were interrupted by a sudden and atypical tremble in my seat. The train then shook more forcefully, and something akin to muscle-memory guided my hands onto the armrests. The pressure against my back indicated the change in speed, confirmed by the wheels squealing to a halt, audible even from within the car. With the danger apparently averted, my fellow travelers looked around at each other with relief and nervous laughter while the crackling intercom explained, in the vaguest terms possible, that there was some sort of commotion in the city ahead that was blocking the tracks. There would be a potentially significant delay. I sighed audibly, as if wanting someone to hear me, but the only one close enough—a woman directly in front of me—showed no reaction.
On the side opposite of my left-hand seat, there was little to see: a hygienic suburb girdedby clean and obtrusive big box stores. On the other side, though, was a rougher borough that began with a line of old apartment buildings. I could just make out individual figures on the fire escapes of the old buildings, gathering on their landing and staring toward whatever circumstance affected the city. I noted the dark-haired woman in front of me seemed to be staring at these individuals, as well.
My eyes rested on her. She was ignoring everything else around her, showing no alarm, surprise, or irritation at our delay. She had black hair hanging straight, covering half of her profile. There was something wistful in her eye. A fond memory, with maybe a tinge of regret? That’s what I wanted to see there—that’s what I wanted to see everywhere. She was perhaps forty, around my age, and her dark eyes were shifting with interest back and forth across the dilapidated buildings.
I followed her gaze through the window of the train—so close to the city I could see the edge of its ancient walls—across the reeds and grass poking through the snow, over the short, neglected slats of the fence, which neither contained nor excluded and marked no division, to the foot of one of the buildings: a run-down, six storey walkup. It looked decrepit, built sometime in the 30s or 40s maybe—just old enough to have escaped the dark ages of architecture from the 60s to the 90s. In this regard, I found the building’s dilapidation quaint and full of character—the sort of thing you only discover as you’re moving in and putting up posters, rather than something your realtor seeks out. The freshest coat of paint on the walls—blue—isn’t that fresh and has begun chipping away, exposing sections of red, which itself has chipped to reveal yellow paint, and so on down to the plain grey wood from which the building was built, rebuilt, and girded for 60 years. Together, the buildings look like dull Jackson Pollack paintings, lined up at varying angles, heights, and compositions. The building upon which I landed was ultimately unremarkable amongst them, had four apartments per floor, each with stairs outside the buildingto each landing, as well as narrow halls and a stairway inside.
The evening sun has brought out each colour of the paint, and flashes off the windows like morse code, lulling a viewer into its evocative deterioration—the sort of wear you can almost hear by seeing it. At that moment, a young woman was taking her oblivious steps up the outside stairs, the precarious creaks accompanying the picture perfectly, and the wind speaking through each uncertain angle and broken step of the stairway.
Mya had straight dark hair that waved upon her high cheekbones with each step on the stairs. Her skin was naturally pale, and accentuated by her slightly dolorous preference of makeup that surrounded her eyes. Her lips were naturally full, coloured dark, and her cheek and jaw were smooth and pleasantly shaped down to her long neck. She was the sort of girl who grew into her beauty late, and whose bitter experiences beforehand caused her to absently discourage it once it arrived. It would nevertheless age well on her—if she continued to age. With each step up the stairs, her dark plaid skirt swished around her legs just above her long black socks. Tucked into the skirt was an obscure band t-shirt with an abstract, spiky logo. She didn’t quite stand out, but she didn’t quite “fit in”.
The sunlight that made the buildings eye-catching from the train was slowly fading behind them. Mya had attended only twenty minutes of the new student orientation before realizing that they were simply providing the same information they had already provided in print. She had decided that anything other than that, she didn’t currently care to know. Her departure was preceded—and to some degree precipitated—by the realization that, while she had spent a few years after high school traveling and painting, the rest of the group looked and acted too much the teenagers they were.
So, with dusk and the shadow of the building welcoming her home, she made her way back-and-forth up the outside stairs to her fourth floor apartment, which creaked even at her slight steps. As she was passing the second floor landing, she nearly bumped into a young man who was climbing out of the window of the west corner apartment—this was me, Colin. I was tall and broad, like an athlete, except I had a bit of an unattractive paunch at the time. Otherwise average, but bordering on handsome, I had brown eyes and hair, thick cheekbones that curved into my perfectly average chin. I knew that I had made no impression on her except that I looked like I was either robbing the apartment I stepped from, or maybe that I was simply an idiot. Mya had such a deep stare that it was easy to feel inadequately considered under it. I did, however,manage to stammer an unsolicited explanation:
“The door, it’s jammed shut, so I was, uh…” As I tried to explain to her, water damage had jammed my door shut, perhaps permanently, and I had seen something through the window of which I was interested in a less obstructed view.
After her lingering glance, Mya continued by without acknowledging me or myexplanation.
“I’m Colin.” I hurriedly added to the back of her head as she continued up the stairs to her apartment. She didn’t intend to be rude or impolite exactly—rather, like the college’s orientation, she simply didn’t bother with things that wouldn’t matter, which is the category I fell into that evening.
As she reached the top step of her fourth floor landing, something caught her eye in the distance over the old city. A small bright spot and a black pillar rising above it. Somewhere amongst the stodgy old buildings, there was a fire. She could see the thin pillar of smoke forming, black at the bottom and twisting into grey then disappearing into the clouds. It was barely a line in the distance, but she could see the plume twisting strangely, like a column of ghosts making despairing faces at the city around it.
Still watching the smoke rise, Mya felt suddenly colder. She stepped closer to the railing and rubbed her arms. With the sun behind the building, and sudden saucer of thick cloud over the old city, it seemed even dimmer than a few minutes prior. On the other side of the sky, above the old city, an apparition of the moon had appeared. Falling behind the new cloud, it looked like it was covered by a sheer fabric, like an illusion of itself: there but not. This was regret.
Mya’s stomach bumped against the railing near her door—she realized suddenly she had continued walking toward the edge. She looked down at the sharp drop it would have taken had the staircase been as unstable as it sounded. Looking down, she saw my head poke out from myown landing as I stared off in the same direction as she. I had stepped into the rail in much the same manner. Mya saw me look back and forth, then up toward her. Mya stepped back quickly, unlocked her door and entered her apartment.
In a building that old, Mya didn’t think much of the strange smell when she moved in. She could hardly imagine the countless experiences absorbed into her floors—fights, blood, tears, births, maybe deaths? Either way, soon after her occupancy began, the smell was mostly overwhelmed by the smell of paint and turpentine. She also found it essential to similarly drown out the noise with her stereo, as the walls were extremely thin. She frequently overheard conversations and other loud disturbances. Since she had moved in, she had already overheard a man and woman’s particularly loud argument, which precipitated the slamming of a door, followed by another five minutes of wild screaming—presumably to an empty room. She couldalso hear the girl who lived on the other side of her. Her pitiable, desperate weeping—like a halting moan—was a nightly occurrence. Mya had never actually met her neighbours, but experiencing a single sense of their lives did not encourage her to seek an introduction.
Mya’s apartment itself was small, and most people would consider it more of a bachelor suite, but it suited Mya well. From the inner hallway door, there was a short corridor that connected to a bathroom, then opened out into the living area and small kitchen. There was no proper bedroom, so she slept on a daybed that dominated the wall adjacent to her windows and balcony door. Otherwise, the furniture was sparse—just a short, narrow table for her stereo and a very small tube TV that saw little play. She wasn’t a minimalist—she was an artist, and the floor was sometimes the best easel. She almost always had a large canvas in progress that occupiednearly her entire floorspace. Plus, in the corners, there were rows of finished paintings, and her chipped green walls were adorned by the few of which she wasn’t entirely unhappy. Also dotting the floor were her implements: her brushes, knives, half-rolled tubes of paint, jars of turpentine, etcetera. It was either a miracle or a sixth sense that Mya never stepped on, through, or into any of it. Mya imagined that her careful steps through the clutter might look like a non-rhythmic interpretive dance.
She decided she would go to bed early that night, though there were many hours left with which she could still work—and normally would. However, the long, banal day of happy smiles and chipper college-life platitudes had exhausted her. She figured this happy-go-lucky hedonism would melt once her fellow students realized they had actual responsibilities.
Her bathroom was a typical sort of mess, featuring empty toilet paper rolls, an upended garbage, and an uncovered toothpaste tube. The only attempt at order in the room was the pill bottles, lined up carefully like soldiers at attention against the wall—or prisoners lined up for the firing squad. As she did every night, Mya hesitated for a brief moment, two sides of a discussion playing out in a split second, before studiously tapping a pill into her hand and washing it down.
A few moments later she was lying on her daybed with her covers pulled up to her chest and her arms were folded above her head. Her eyes were wide—wider and less tired than at any point that evening—and she stared up at her ceiling, which was patterned with chipping paint and concentric circles of water damage that looked like targets after years of faulty plumbing and other accidents. She tried not to think about the story that the one red circle might tell.
As the pill she took was absorbed slowly into her stomach lining and entered her bloodstream, her wide eyed survey of her ceiling started to blur and within a few minutes of that, she fell asleep and into an unfortunately familiar dream. Part of the reason for the pill was to make her sleep entirely black, but that night the images found her again in that little moment of inevitability, which was like a smirk of time that was once wedged like a rock in her stomach. In reality, she experienced dreary months of infection, like roots spreading slowly through her body, followed by months of drearier treatments. But every time she dreamt, she entered one single moment of a single night.
It started with her boyfriend’s face, mostly blurry, as he was on top of her. He was astypically oblivious as any high school boy, but he had rows of teeth like a shark inside his grin, and claws with which he grabbed and scraped at her, while his preternatural mass held her tight beneath him.
She could feel each drop of his sweat pattering against her face and body. She avoided looking, but she could gauge every awkward, sloppy thrust by its desperately uncomfortable, painful movement. They were in her childhood bedroom, not long after she had cleared out the childhood, so it was spartan for teenager’s room—just a canopy bed, night table, desk, a Joy Division poster, and an easel with a half-finished painting on it that she never ever, in real life, had painted: it was something with wings and claws, lurching and crawling from the frames, its face black but eyes bright and focused so it could watch.
That was the scene, like the water upon which the boat sways. In the real life it mirrored, it was an experience not unlike the ritual replayed a million times over for squandered youth. The boy would finish his task, stammer an apology, then leave. For Mya’s part, she was disengaged from the actual experience, and would catalogue it in a hundred different ways she could internalize and use in her art and her writing.
Though this scene was still a year from her diagnosis, at night, in her head, everything shifts. There’s a blinding flash of pain in her stomach. Once. Then again, worse. She winces hard, which the boy crassly misinterprets as encouragement, his rows of fangs biting down on her shoulder and neck. Mya starts to get scared and the strangeness of the experience becomes apparent even in the dream. Yet, it wasn’t the animal on top of her, clawing at her, nor the demonic figure stretching at her from the painting that caused her alarm. Her dreaming mind tried to calm her features: the pain was nothing, it had happened a few times before, but it was nothing, just gas, bloating, anything and everything that would just go away. Three, four, then five times the pain repeated, growing more intense and welling up inside of her like a dam had burst. With a frantic and vicious flail, she threw the monster off of her.
“We’re not done!” he exclaimed, his voice lowering to a growl as Mya left.
Doubled over, Mya stumbled out of the room to the bathroom. Her knees slammed down hard in front of the toilet as she violently expelled the contents of her stomach, once then again and again. The water in the bowl slowly became thick and deeply red. Finally finished, she stared at herself staring at her blood, and behind her the two monsters crept blackly into the bathroom behind her, their claws like four arms of the same beast, reaching, reaching for her.