Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Chapter One: Sweet Grass (Novel excerpt, first draft)

[The opening scene from Sweet Grass, the novel I'm writing. The setting is a dystopian future. Feedback of any kind appreciated. First draft.]

It was bright enough to see when Rayner Dane opened his eyes. There was a ripple of gray lines on the ceiling from the dawn light filtering in through the curtains, which hung listless in the still morning air. The overhead fan had clacked to a stop during the night, and the bedsheet was damp from sweat. Though not yet six o’clock, the house was as hot as a furnace. The mournful rasp of a dove floated in through the open window. Then everything was silent again, limp from the heat. Rayner rolled over and reached for his phone on the nightstand. There had been an attack overnight in Sioux City. Twenty-one dead. Resting his head back on the pillow, he stared at the ceiling, slowly whitening as the sun rose. When he picked up the phone again, he read the message from Mitch, which said the antenna at Rock Springs might be in worse condition than they thought. If true, he would need to stay out overnight. Rayner acknowledged the message with a short response, then looked at what people were saying about Sioux City. Someone had uploaded photographs of black scorch marks radiating out from a small crater, body parts and blood spattered in the vicinity. There had been three of them. Two beards and a woman. He started to watch a video of the aftermath, but stopped when it zoomed in on a woman’s blackened, bloody stump of an arm. Her screaming produced a momentary recollection of Buur Hakaba, just enough for him to recognize before it receded. Tossing his phone onto the bed, he stood up, the floorboards warm under his feet. In the bathroom, he discovered the bulb had burned out. Even with the door open, it was dark enough that he had to shave by feel. The water from the cold tap was tepid. It was as though he were washing in blood. After drying, he checked his jaw in the bedroom mirror, noticing stray bristles he had missed at the corner of his mouth. He returned to the bathroom and picked up the razor, scraping his skin smooth. Scraping smooth. It was what he had been doing with his past, paring it away with the same unfailing, meticulous care. Sloughing off his life in small successive stages. He had started by storing his ‘class As’ and medals in a plastic bag at his mother’s. She begged him not to trash them. Then he let his hair grow out. He put on a couple of pounds. Stopped blousing his boots. The next stage took longer. Shedding the body language of a life was no easy undertaking. For a long time he felt adrift without routine. Was lost in situations where he couldn’t identify everyone’s rank. He slowly disengaged from a network consisting entirely of soldiers. Or what was left of it after Africa. Then there was another stage that was buried so deep and bound so tightly inside him that it would take an IED to dislodge. Buur Hakaba. Hargeisa. Wad Madani. The same kinds of true believers laying in Sioux City morgue this morning. Rayner sighed; he had only just started to accept that he would not be able to lop these off like a three-day growth.

He ate breakfast standing at the kitchen sink, looking out of the window at the grass in his back yard. It had been fading to a paler shade of yellow for weeks. Mrs. Garcia was up early, as usual, watering her fruit trees from water she saved in buckets. Lemons. Oranges. Some other fruit he couldn’t identify. Cordero lay under a spreading cottonwood, panting in the shade. Rayner had looked after him once, for over a week, most likely saving him from starvation after Mrs. Garcia fell and was hospitalized. On the first day they formed an uneasy truce, and by the time the old lady arrived home were, if not friends, at least on terms good enough to prevent bloodshed. Mrs. Garcia had never forgotten. Every week or two, she waddled through the hedge to his back door with a leedle sumthin’. Fava bean soup. Rabbit in adobo sauce. Buñuelos. “No Mexican girl ever gonna marry a man all skin an’ bones like you.” She said it every time. When he finished eating, he turned back to the bench and made two sandwiches for lunch. He packed a thermos of green tea into his duffel bag. A couple of freeze dried meals in case he had to stay out overnight. Half a dozen pieces of fruit. Before leaving the house, he opened the back door. Cordero raised his head as he heard the latch click, rising up on all fours, ears pricked. Calling the dog Lamb was so incongruous that Rayner sometimes wondered if Mrs. Garcia wasn’t right in the head. He was big and thick set, more wolf than domesticated. Rayner lobbed half a carrot into the air. Mrs. Garcia waved. He waved back and locked the door, Cordero laying down on the back step, crunching the raw carrot between his decidedly un-lamb-like teeth.

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