This is the first chapter of the story that resulted from all the amazing feedback I got from the prompt I posted on Friday. I’d love for you to read it and tell me what you think.
Petrol. Chemical. The sweet scent of gasoline that burns the back of your throat. Slick on my skin like a silken dress. Shimmering multicolors dancing across my body in the afternoon sun. It is the smell of power. But also of fear.
I press the match to the paper; pause. Hesitate. Once I strike, there’s no going back. I close my eyes and breathe a sigh of relief, relishing these my last moments. Or so I hope.
“Let it work,” I whisper, my words floating out on the flammable wind, a silent prayer to whatever gods or ancestors may or may not be watching over me.
It will not, comes the voice of doubt in the back of my head. Just like every other time, you’ll fail. I grit my teeth and shake my head. It will work this time!
It has to.
I let out a deep breath. Only one way to find out. I strike the match. Heat and flame erupt around me. God, it’s beautiful! I smile against my will as the gasoline ignites and is carried off in front of me on the gentle spring breeze like the unfurling of a flag. The orange, red, and white tendrils lick at my hair and skin. No, they are my hair, my skin, my fingertips. I stretch out my fingers in front of me and marvel at the way the flames caress me. They are warm and comforting, like an embrace from an old friend.
But there’s no pain.
Is this what death feels like?
I hesitate, and my happiness dissipates like the gasoline off my skin. No, God, no, it’s not working, there’s no pain, nothing’s happening. Nothing. The fire does nothing. It’s supposed to burn, like wood, like buildings, like humans when their bodies are immolated after death, but to me the flames are gentle, welcoming, but powerless. I cry out in anger and clench my fists. I bite my lip hard and again, feel no pain. My lip does not bleed, nor does my skin blacken and turn to ash. As the fire burns out, its energy exhausted and with nothing else to feed on, I bite my tongue and choke out a sob.
Why? Why doesn’t it work?
The flames are gone. I blink back tears and look down at my skin for traces of a burn, for blood, for anything. But there’s nothing. I am unblemished. I am clean. I am alive.
I stare around the little copse of wood I’ve chosen as my suicide spot, the pine trees and the raw pine needles on the ground. Before I started, I set a little ring of stones around me in the hopes of containing the flames. I didn’t want to start any forest fires. I’m not trying to destroy the world. Just myself, I think bitterly. I look down at the scorched ground beneath me, wondering at how everything around me seems capable of death. Everything but me. And now that I’ve failed yet again, I have to acknowledge the possibility that I simply cannot die. Or at least, I cannot take my own life.
Fear floods through me, renewed. I am alone, and they will find me here. The energy from the fire, from my hope and my anger, surely will have drawn them to me.
Them. I don’t know what they’re called. Just that they’re shadows, darkness, emptiness. They suck the color, the energy, and the life out of everything around them. When I was a child they only haunted my dreams, but they sucked the life from me even then, draining my imagination and my world at night. I never dreamed of anything but darkness. Never in my life have I dreamed of anything but darkness. My mother says sometimes as a child my eyes were black as pitch when I woke up. They never understood why, but I did. When you dream of so much emptiness, it’s only natural that you’ll be empty, too.
I whirl, my heart pounding. The sleek brown hair and gentle green eyes of my younger sister, Ada. I sigh with relief and smile at her. I step out of my circle and pull her into a hug. With her, I’m safe. With her, no one can hurt me.
“What are you doing?” she asks.
“Meditating,” I lie.
“Oh. Is that why you’re standing in a circle of stones?”
“Yes. Dr. Cleese told me that building a comfortable barrier between you and the outside world helps.”
“Why are you naked?” Her voice is neutral, curious. I pause. I look down at myself and remember my nudity. I step outside the circle of stones and hastily wrap my kimono around me. It feels cool and clean on my body.
“Dr. Cleese said that being close to nature can help, too.”
“Oh.” My sister smiles at me. “I’m glad you’re trying to get better.”
I shut my eyes hard. If only you knew, Ada. If only you’d seen me here not five minutes ago, wreathed in flames, dying to die.
“I am. I like Dr. Cleese a lot better than the other doctors mom made me see.”
Also a lie. I like Dr. Cleese, but only because she doesn’t make me take medications. Not that they have any effect. Nothing can protect me from the blackness.
A list of all the psychiatric diagnoses I’ve been given in my life flashes back over me. Schizophrenia, depression, bi-polar 1, bi-polar 2, dissociative, epilepsy – the list goes on. But after sixteen years with perfect grades and no medical or social problems aside from what my psychologists call “night terrors” and the fact that I am physically incapable of harming myself, most of my therapists gave up trying to diagnose me. So now I’m simply a “problem” or a “question”.
I don’t see it that way.
The shadows that haunt me aren’t figments of my imagination. They’re real, and they’re growing. I cast my eyes around the trees for signs of the encroaching blackness that follows me, blossoming like cancer, draining all the light and energy from me. But there’s nothing. The colors are normal – wooden browns, evergreens, the blue of the sky peeking through the trees, the green in my sister’s eyes. I would know if they were here now. I would feel it. I comfort myself with the knowledge that they’ve never been able to hurt me while my family is around. I don’t know why, but I am safe with them.
“Mom says lunch is ready.” Ada slips her hand in mine, pulling me back towards our house.
“Let’s go, little peach.” She laughs at the term of endearment.
I let her lead, pulling me through the pines and the mossy carpet of leaves and needles and around to our house. When Kuri starts barking, my sister drops my hand and dashes towards the house, where the little dachshund is waiting impatiently inside his electronic fence. She scoops him up and carries him up the stairs of the porch and through the sliding glass door, as he licks at her ear the whole way.
Inside, my mother is stirring a pot of noodles, and my sister is already at the table with Kuri, named for his chestnut color, sitting on her lap.
“Noomi, where have you been?” my mother asks as she sets a bowl of hot soba in front of me. There’s restraint in her tone. She wants to say more, but doesn’t. I can tell she’s trying not to be too impatient, too demanding.
“Meditating,” I say, using the same lie I told my sister. I dip my spoon into the soup and relish the feeling of the hot broth slipping through me. Like the fire against my skin. Comforting. “Dr. Cleese says it’s good for me.”
“Really? Is that what you were doing out there?” She’s suspicious, as always. She doesn’t believe me. But I don’t blame her. After ten suicide attempts – now eleven, after today – in my sixteen years of life, my mother has a right to be suspicious of me.
You need not worry anymore, mother, I want to tell her. This afternoon’s failure has proved to me what the rest of them could not – that my violent attempts at self-destruction are useless. Worse than useless, as the energy from the attempts will draw them to me. If the shadows don’t find me during the day, my dreams tonight will be blacker than usual. It is impossible for me to hurt myself, and so I will not try anymore. Of that, I am certain. Instead of fleeing the shadows that haunt me, I must finally acknowledge the truth I’ve been running from my entire life: I am here to stay, and so are they.
I shiver. I do not want to feel the emptiness anymore. But I can’t keep trying futilely to escape.
I have to find a different way.
That’s it for Chapter 1! I incorporated a bunch of ideas from the reader suggestions I got on Friday. From @Ceraunoscope, I got the idea of the shadows absorbing the energy from the protagonist, and the working title, Porous. From J. Edward Paul, I’m going to use the word Harbingers for the shadows, but our protagonist won’t learn about that until later in the story. From Reckoner67, the idea that the protagonist believes wholly in ‘them’, whatever ‘they’ are, but the reader doesn’t yet know if they’re real or purely psychological. From Nillu, the focus on the internal/external world (I hope I pulled that off!) From Jess West, the question of what ‘they’ gain from her, although that, too, will be answered more fully later.
A lot of people suggested that I keep the genders neutral for as long as possible, but plenty of others thought she read as a female. So I named her Noomi, and decided to focus on the mystery in other parts of the story. I realized as I wrote this chapter that I was picturing her and her sister as Asian, so despite their non-Japanese names, they are of Japanese heritage, which may or may not be of importance through the story.
So, what do you think? What would you like to see happen in Chapter 2? We’ve met the protagonist and her sister Ada, and we know that the protagonist has a dark history with psychological disorder that she believes is unfounded. But is it? Certainly there’s something strangely magical going on, as she cannot harm herself. I’d like to introduce some more characters. Who are they? What are their names? But most importantly: Now that Noomi has resolved to stop fleeing the shadows via self-destruction, how does she go about fighting it?
Also, many people have suggested that the protagonist has been reincarnated many times throughout history. I’m not sure I’m going to go that route, but I’d love to hear some more specific suggestions!
The next installment will be posted next Monday. Thank you for stopping by!
This is a first draft? Holy camoly. What beautiful imagery, and lots of mystery to keep us engaged. My only nitpick? The name “Dr. Cleese.” I think John Cleese, and then I start imagining a tall lanky British comic doing a silly walk, and it pulls me out of the mood of the piece. Just a thought.
Thanks, Graham! I’ll change the name, that’s a good point. I’m so glad you liked it!
Hey Amira, heck of a first draft.
I’m not sure you need to say “using the same lie,”–I think it’s perfectly reasonable Noomi would say meditation, since it would be odd for her to say something else in front of her sister, who would of then question it. Also, I may not know enough about the characters but I think Ada would likely have been a bit more dubious/ have stronger reaction to finding her sister naked inside a stone circle , with possibly at least remnants of fire starting material. I think she accepts Noomi’s explanations too quickly.
Otherwise, fantastic draft. Good language, good descriptions. I love the detail about the dog licking Ada’s ear the whole way. And best of all you’ve established a good mystery/ tension, which you can take any way you wish: supernatural, mental illness, horror, some combination thereof, maybe none of the above.
PS a trifling thing but I hear Cleese and I think John Cleese, but that just may be my own problem. 🙂
When are we going to write?
Graham (another commentor) also said that Cleese made him think of John Cleese 🙂 I’m going to change the name.
Great point about Ada. I definitely am envisioning her as a naive young child who loves her sister and doesn’t want to lose her, but you’re right that she probably would be more skeptical of such a strange event. I’ll try to revise that for future drafts.
And thank you so much for commenting & reading! You know I always value your feedback 🙂
I’m just gonna go fangirl here and say OMG I freaking LOVE this!!! No suggestions or critiques from me this round. I’m just going to enjoy the story. Brilliant start, Amira!
I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Jess! And please, fan girl away 🙂 thanks for reading!
It drew me in completely and left me wanting more. Like the previous comment, I want to watch the story unfold.
I love your style of writing, and I look forward to reading more (and more!)
Thank you so much! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I hope I can keep it up. If you have any suggestions for how to move forward, or what you’d like to see in chapter 2, I’m open!
Excellent chapter! That is really great, keep writing.
Thank you, Cynthia! Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂
I agree with Jessica. I loved it! So mysterious I don’t think I could ever come up with something which felt so real, yet so supernatural at the same time. My instinct (because I’m a terrible realist and like stories which have a deeper message) is for it not to be supernatural but psychological. But that’s just me. I agree with Daryll about the point about the sister being a bit more freaked out and some realism around the remnants of fire, but then again perhaps her lack of reaction is because weird stuff happens a lot or perhaps she experiences it too?? I don’t know how you’d develop that as I’m not in your head. I think I’d like to be having read this. Amazing for a first draft! Anyway I think it’s got great legs and you can go where you like with it. One minor point; The Harbingers sound a lot, at least for me, like the dementors from Harry Potter at the moment so perhaps need to explore them more?? Unlike the others I quite liked Dr Cleese actually! 🙂 But can understand the distraction.
I look forward to next week’s installment and sorry I haven’t come up with any suggestions for moving the story on. 😦 Perhaps next week. 🙂
Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Freda! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I definitely think you’re on the mark about Ada, the younger sister, and I’m trying to figure out if she is somehow experiencing these strange magical events as well, or something different, or if she’s just a girl who loves her big sister. Great point about the Harbingers – maybe I will try to use that term elsewhere, as I am kind of in love with the word 🙂
Thank you so much and I hope you’ll follow along & continue giving such excellent feedback!
Great stuff, Amira. A lot of loaded imagery to work with here. The self immolation makes me think at once of that iconic Quang Duc photograph and also the mythological Phoenix. This is a really cool project idea. An experiment in perception. You never really know what a reader sees until you straight up ask them, do you?
The premise is cracking and what gorgeous imagery too. Thought you nailed the balance of internal/external & love the working title. Dr Cleese made me think of Monty Python! Look forward to Monday, n
Sorry love, should have read other comments. Just realised MP already mentioned. Love how engaged everyone is x
Haha, think it’s so funny so many people thought of Monty Python! Am absolutely going to change that. Glad you liked it, thanks so much for following the story my love.
What wild vivid imagery! This is some of the best prose I’ve seen from you (and that’s saying a lot). I love the premise and setting. I’d like to see how the shadows effect the lives of Noomi’s family. I.e. they can’t see the danger they’re in, but Noomi can, and of course, no one believes her.
Very disturbing, this young woman and her dark nights, her final solution, but not sure I get “the premise” one other commenter referred to. It has a comforting flow from the catastrophic (suicide) to the gentle lead of the younger sister back home, which makes me more curious than the suicide attempt. The sister is so calm and reassuring. In fact, it reads more self-contained as a short story (or flash) than a first chapter. In that regard, I don’t get a sense of where it’s going to next. As for the Cleese guy, I liked the name and made the association to John Cleese, but it not pull me out of the story. Maybe you could address this by giving him a first name, Vernon Cleese, Leon Cleese, something so removed from John.