Experiment in Fiction 1

The following is an excerpt from a story I started nearly four years ago. I haven’t touched it in a long time, and I’m not sure I will. I wanted to throw it up here, however, in the hopes that I’ll get some feedback on it and see if it’s worth pursuing. I don’t know if it is. I haven’t read this in forever and don’t know if I’d word it the same way now, and it’s not that far along if I have to. If you like it, sound off. If it’s not your cup of tea, tell me that too. I’m just exploring right now before I begin writing something new in earnest, so your input is valuable and very important to me. Thanks, everyone!

She was watching the clock, working quickly, mopping as fast as she could. The melting, slushy snow from the dirt-and-gravel parking lot and gas islands made for mud the consistency of ketchup, and the black-and-white tile floor was slick. There was no way she was going to mop earlier in the day; every trucker that tramped through the tiny outpost on the edge of Utah would have messed it up anyway. The tiny gas station was the last stop before Wendover, and the gambling haven of Nevada. It was the only thing for literally dozens of miles around, and set off the highway to the south, apart from the underpass of the eastbound highway lanes. As such, it went from frenetically busy to completely dead at no particular intervals. That was maddening; aside from the usual cast of four or five folks from town that came in every morning for their coffee, the gas station was an oasis of life and fuel for the truckers and travelers traversing the nation across Interstate 80. They came in at all hours and in great waves.

She was slopping the muck around the floor and watching the clock edging toward closing time: 11:30 p.m. Once that clock struck the magic hour, Lucy Wallace could lock the doors, shut off the lights and signs, and then pack it in for the night. She was forty-eight years old, and had worked for the same gas station since her husband has passed away three years ago. Despite the odd hours, she preferred the closing shift; as a rule, it was quieter and there was a lot less for her to do. She often whiled away the evening watching TV on the tiny portable behind the counter, or reading romance novels. Her dark hair, colored once a month – nothing wrong with coloring the gray, she told herself – was cut sensibly to the shoulder, and her lovely blue eyes hid her age. But, her toughened hands and calloused knuckles betrayed the fact that she worked in a menial job. That realization, as she looked at her rough hands and short nails, brought her back to the task at hand. The crap on the floor would wait for the morning clerk, Evan Morris. Evan was a jackass anyway … let him clean it up.

She was just smiling to herself at the idea of leaving some of this mess behind, and the thought of the coffee and brandy she was going to have before going to bed, when she saw the headlights emerge in the blackness of the night from beneath the underpass. There wasn’t anything else on this end of the road; it dead-ended into the gas station. There was no doubt where the vehicle was heading.

“Son of a …” Lucy grimaced.

The dim, aging bulbs of the light from the gas station island barely illuminated the dark pick-up truck as it crunched and slid to a halt beside the pumps. A man with his collar turned to the mountain winds and cold, a ball cap pushed down over his brow, hunched over the nozzle and began to wrestle with the gas cap on the dirty truck.

Lucy sighed angrily and slammed the mop against the wall, then moved back toward the counter. She tried to plaster on her most pleasant face; it was the last customer of the day. It wouldn’t hurt to be nice.

The door opened with a wash of cold night air, and the man in the fleece-lined denim coat, buttoned to his chin shuffled in. The tail of the coat, she noted, was dirty about the bottom where it hung to mid-thigh. The jeans that bagged around his legs were dirty, too. His hands were grimy and the area around the nails and under them black. He looked like he’d been traveling a long, long time, and the journey wasn’t an easy one so far.

His head was bowed as he fished through his wallet, his beat-up work boots slushing through the remnants of the mud on the floor. She watched him out of the corner of her eye while she reached beneath the counter and checked the amount on the pump. The pumps were old, analog pumps; more than one customer had commented that they hadn’t seen pumps like that for at least ten or fifteen years. She noted what the dollar amount was, and shut off the controls to prevent any other late arrivals from keeping her yet longer.

Lucy was finishing up, noticing that he had moved off toward a freezer full of cold drinks, and she decided to turn off the lights outside, and the “OPEN” neon sign. As she flipped the switches and got the keys ready to lock the door behind the man milling his way around the store, looking at the items on the shelves, she cursed softly under her breath. Hurry up already, she thought venomously. You’re not the only one with someplace to be, jerk.

She finally began jangling the keys in her hand, trying to make as much noise as possible, hoping he’d take the hint and leave. At last, she heard him shuffling toward the front, head down again, the bill of his hat hiding his features from her as he continued fishing through his wallet.

He put the wallet away, and reached inside his coat, simultaneously placing a bottle of soda pop and a bag of chips on the counter.

“That it for ya?” Lucy asked, trying – unsuccessfully – not to sound annoyed.

“Cigarettes?” he asked, head still down, looking at the items on the counter.

“Sure, what brand?” she said, the irritation creeping more deeply into her tone.

“Uh, Marlboro Reds,” he drawled.

He had an accent, but she couldn’t identify it. She reached over her head into the cigarette dispenser above the counter, her hand scanning over the boxes for the right ones, and noticed something flash near the counter. She felt a peculiar pressure on her chest and upper abdomen, and she jumped in start at the sudden pang she felt and the blast of light.

She looked down, suddenly feeling light-headed, and that’s when she saw that she’d been cut, and blood was gushing all over the counter and floor.

She opened her mouth in horror, and looked then, into his eyes, those cold, snake-like eyes, the world swimming around her, her head light and spinning, vision tunneling, seeing but not seeing as he casually and deliberately cut the cord on the telephone.

Interestingly, Lucy noted, she was never able to scream.

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6 thoughts on “Experiment in Fiction 1

  1. Hey, this is an interesting start. Something I noticed is that you tend to use the passive voice a lot. Don’t worry – we all do it (and I’m especially guilty, I fear).

    I’ve found a great way to combat this using MS Word’s FIND and REPLACE function. If you’re interested, pop me an email and I’ll go over it with you. No need to make everyone else slog through it here. 🙂


  2. Hey, thanks for coming by, Ian. I appreciate the offer for help. Having been a support tech for more than a dozen years, though, I think I can see where you’re going with the F&R thing. But that doesn’t mean I won’t shoot you an email so you can point out the things in the story you didn’t like — unless you want to do that here.

    Hey, if folks don’t wanna slog, that’s what the vertical scrollbar is for, right?

    I also worry about using the passive voice, but I recently was chewed high and spit out by a real grammarian on what “passive voice” vs. “pluperfect tense” are. This, however, was written well before that. But, since events are being described as though they occurred in the past, usually prior to some other event also in the past, I wonder if some of what I’ve done falls into that category.

    I’m open to receiving any criticisms about how the writing can be strengthened, so don’t hesitate to let me know what you think. This is just a first draft, too, so it’s in the prime stage for making any necessary changes, and I only have all of one and part of a second chapter to edit.

    Sound off and let me know!

  3. Raga6

    I like it. It’s creepy. I started to get the sinking feeling when she started turning everything off. I would like to see more.

    The “passive voice” thing doesn’t bother me at all. I think it’s a juicy beginning that raises a lot of questions and makes one want more answers.

  4. Hi, Raga, and thanks for coming by again! I’m really glad you liked it, and I’m glad you took the time to comment!

    I really appreciate your input, Raga. It means the world to me! And I’m glad you thought it was creepy. That’s the general feel I was hoping for.

    The passive voice can be a problem. And I know that lacking a thorough understanding of it, I can potentially ruin a story by taking too much life out of it and stagnating it. But, if you don’t feel that happened with this story, I guess I don’t need to be as concerned as I thought!

    Thanks again, Raga! This week’s all about posting experiments. Let me know which, if any, is your favorite. Maybe that’ll be the next thing I write.

    But don’t count JD, Wendy and Dillon out either. Not yet, anyway. 🙂

  5. ianthealy

    The main thing in “repairing” the passive voice is to replace as many state-of-being verbs (am is are was were be been being) as you can with action verbs. Instead of “He was watching”, “He watched.” That’s not to say you should never use them, but they can overrun your manuscript and you’ll never notice. Look at your first paragraph – you used “was” 8 times in 8 sentences. Passive voice keeps the reader distant and uninvolved. Wikipedia has a great article on it here.

    I use the F&R function by altering the formatting of SoB verbs to be a noticeable color like hot pink or something. It makes them very easy to spot when editing/rewriting. If you have other bothersome writing tendencies (I overuse “that”) you can use the same technique. Then once you’ve fixed all your edits, just F&R all formatted words in the altered color back to black and Bob’s your uncle.


  6. Ian, thanks for coming back and leaving such a great, useful comment. I may have to actually blog this as a post, unless you want to do it yourself — that’s a fantastic tip.

    I don’t use Word for my writing/editing, but you’re making a strong case for adding it in as another helpful writer’s tool to do something slick. That kind of nugget can’t be left unmined, so if you aren’t going to let the world see it, I will … with all credit to you, of course!

    Thanks for coming by again, Ian, and thanks a ton for pointing out the areas requiring improvement.

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