Came across this contest asking for the first 10,000 words of a novel back in February. They took submissions for the first half of the year and the results are in. Sixth place from well over a hundred submissions. I’ll happily take it.
The advice from the Ink and Insights competition , the Woodbury Writers Group, and my two fabulous critique partners have helped tremendously since I entered. I wish I could go back in time and submit what I have now!
We’ll see about next year.
The overhaul/rewrite is nearly done, (though I’m still sharing with critique groups and partners) and I’m going to start querying for it again in a couple of weeks. Wish me luck 🙂
For anyone interested, here’s the first chapter of On Leave From Perdition.
Zero days left.
Freedom Bird. Didn’t matter what you rode, you could have a seat on Air Singapore, or grab the tail feathers of a goddamned albatross, but whatever got you the fuck out of ‘Nam had the word Freedom emblazoned on it. That’s a big promise.
Travis Air Base looms, minutes ahead, but freedom is precisely what I don’t feel. The plane’s sudden decent triggers nausea, but it starts in my head and moves to my gut. The relief I expected this flight to bring isn’t here.
Though about to return to the life I never wanted to leave, I’m in a panic because a vice is closing around my throat, and the looming silence terrifies me. I could talk to Elm about anything. Almost. He’d been through the shit with me, and was probably the smartest man I’d ever met. Not book smart, the guy had dropped out of elementary school, but people smart. He created a bubble of sanity to keep our unit whole in the midst of that mind-fuck meat grinder, and until the moment the plane began to descend, I thought it might have worked.
The ground approaches. My forward momentum strains against the belt, the wing flaps bend to increase the lift as the engines slow, and the plane seems to pull backwards as if it too is reluctant to land.
I should have stayed in Vietnam.
The sound of the rubber hitting the tarmac strikes my ears and I take in a startled breath. My arms search for something to grasp.
Elm looks over at me and asks, “You okay?”
My fury, as if tied down by an aged and cracking rubber band, explodes at Elm’s gentle touch. “You don’t even have a fucking phone? What the hell. How the fuck am I going to get ahold of you?”
He stares at me for about three seconds in silence, then characteristically shrugs his shoulders. Leaning toward me across the fuselage as if his response calls for secrecy, he says, “Jim, I have yo’ num’er, and you have my Aunt Janelle’s num’er. We’ be able to talk.”
Good god; the idea is absurd. Like he’s going to travel thirty miles to make a long distance call having no idea whether I’m going to be there or not? And like I’m going to call and ask them to fetch him from thirty miles away?
Being able to get ahold of him in an emergency isn’t good enough. For the last ten months his gravity kept me grounded, and I don’t see how I’m going to cope without him. But why tell him what he already knows? It’s not his burden to bear. He can’t change being poor and black in Louisiana because I need him to have a phone.
A minute later I’m out of the plane, in the dry air, blinking back the sunlight and reaching for the railing on the rolling staircase. I look to the bottom and my gut drops like I’ve crested the peak on a rollercoaster. There’s a crowd of new recruits fresh out of boot camp ready to board the plane as we empty it. Holy shit. I’m struggling to breathe and white knuckling the railing so I don’t domino the guys lined down the steps ahead of me.
Just because I’m leaving it, doesn’t mean the war is over. It’s November 8th, 1971, and the mad gaping maw sits there ready to consume the next group, gathered here at the foot of the stairs.
And they’re clapping. Why the fuck are they clapping? The sound is a hand trying to wake me, but I wake from reality to memory, one I’d forgotten, or maybe suppressed. We did the exact same thing last year. We clapped for the guys emptying out ahead of us in exactly the same way.
The memory slaps me with its clarity, and I understand it for the first time. One crazy soldier with bulging eyes had screamed at us. First he grunted “you dumb motherfuckers,” but when the whistling and cheering started, he snapped, and started to yell. “You fucking corpses think this shit is something to clap over?” The guy had a voice. It fanned out the applause like a rush of wind on a cluster of candles.
He shouted as if waiting for a response, but we stood there dumbfounded. I opposed the war in my own vague, semi-ignorant, inactive way, and then my draft card came up. But after boot camp I’d been sucked into believing what we were doing was necessary, and it was going to require the best I had to offer to pull my share of the duty. I completed my mental rebellion against the man’s words; I called up the sound of our drill sergeant reminding us we were part of “the best army God ever saw fit to put on this earth,” and I was just beginning to wonder why this man thought we shouldn’t be clapping, when deep in our crowd of greens someone yelled, “Fuck you.”
The private cussed at him and it hit a switch; the angry vet’s eyes retreated back into his skull, and he even became aware of the dangling spit, using the back of his sleeve to wipe it. Then he smiled like the reaper, with all the certainty and tragedy of death.
Another soldier behind him spoke, this one’s voice merely weary compared to the other’s fury, and he gave me the impression his comment escaped unbidden, as surprising to him as it was to the few of us who heard it. He quietly said, “They’re better than you.”
The scene slams back into my consciousness, scattering the reality around me. They were better than us. My feet move without conscious connection and my eyes take in the image of the uniform of the man in front of me, but my brain is seeing memories. Alan, as I load him into the body bag, putting the boots, with his feet still in them, at the bottom, by what was left of his legs. Joseph carrying a dying child and covered in blood. Beneath all of it, I see her eyes staring up at me, burning through me like smoldering coals.
Shouting pulls me from these depths. Someone is shouting. It’s the guy in front of me, but I can’t make out what he’s saying. When I look at him, I notice my hand. My knuckles are wrapped in a wad of his shirt. I release it and apologize. He turns away, as if what I did wasn’t crazy, and he wanted to return to his own reverie.
Three hundred and sixty-five days showed me why those soldiers didn’t appreciate our clapping. Nausea and revulsion over our mission comes to a sudden boil at the sound of applause. I finally understand how the word revolution can mean both to come back to where you began, and to be completely changed.
Here I am back at the start, but nothing will ever be the same.
I move through the next few minutes like a ghost, only becoming solid when Elm reaches his hand out. I extend my own. It’s a gesture filled with strangeness, implying we’re acquaintances instead of good friends. It’s unbearable. I pull him in for a hug, and say, “Take care, Elm.”
He lets go and quietly replies, “An’ you, Jim.”
Elm’s departure removes my last tether. For months the thought of returning home to lose my wife and daughter sent me into a panic only the opium suppressed, but now I feel a void in the gaps between my nerve endings and the entire world. Behind me, the pulse of my life ebbs into the distance. In front of me, I’m watching the tragedy of a life that already happened to someone else.
I see how Jim settled the strap from the duffle bag into a comfortable spot on his shoulder, and turned away from the space where Elm stood. He pulled the brim of his hat down, as if it would help with the sun, and walked over to the bus marked, “Los Angeles.”
For nine hours his head rests against the window in silence, and he exits the bus once to use a gas station restroom, at his bladder’s command. Otherwise, he was still, oblivious to the pain in his joints and the rumble in his belly. The bus drew him, mile by mile, toward the tragedy awaiting him at home, and mile by mile, Jim drew further away.