So, I guess in an effort to stick to my guns in a previous post about criticism and feedback, I wanted to share a short excerpt (roughly six pages in Word/2,000 words) from the beginning of the novel I’m currently working on. I haven’t shared it without people I don’t know personally in quite some time so I’m understandably pretty anxious about this. Especially since, I still am not content with the opening.
If you care enough to leave me a comment with some constructive criticism, it would be much appreciated. I’m about 80 pages in at this point. I suppose if I had one question that I’d like answered, it’d be: does it make you want to keep reading? A simple yes or no would help me decide where to go from here.
Thanks in advance, friends!
Chapter 1 – Destiny Islands
It feels like I’ve been waiting forever on him. I guess it’s a long way, but I mean we come out here all the time. You’d think I’d be used to him being late by now. The river’s turning into a dull blue as I wave a stick I found in it. There’s a tiny flower bud that didn’t quite get the chance to bloom at the end of it and I briefly think it might spring to life if I keep it in the water. Sometimes I like to think I’m waving a part of myself into the river. I see the blurry auburn in my reflection with a couple hints of turquoise. I swat at it with the stick but it always reforms in a chaotic mess.
This place can be really lonely. It’s not even a town or a village or anything like that, but we call it Asphodel is if it were. Ze’s mom, Ria, came up with the name and she jokes that the sun and the moon are just artificial. Apparently, there used to be a lot of people that lived over here, across the river, but those houses have been vacant for as long as I can remember. It’s just one long road of dirt with a circle at the end. We live on that circle but there’s dozens of other two-story houses. All empty. Ria says no one stays here long. Maybe it’s because of the huge field completely surrounding our cul-de-sac filled with weeds and tall, brown grass with one huge willow tree down the low hill behind our house and by the river. I’ve gotten to the point where I can ignore the itchiness of the tall grass and just wear shorts or a skirt but Ze always insists on jeans. It’s not a very appealing place, but we make the most of it. We hang out by the tree with its oddly beautiful, loosely hanging branches mostly, like today if he would ever hurry up.
Pretty boring but I think it’s just because we’re in the middle of nowhere. Ria tells me the walk across the river and into town takes about an hour but I’ve never actually seen the bridge. Sometimes I just walk alongside the river and look for it but I’ve come to the conclusion that Ria just made it up to keep me busy. Ria home schools us so there’s really no reason to go into town. I’ve never been though and I can’t remember a time when she went either. I make an eight in the water with the stick. Where is that boy…?
I thrust the stick into the river. “It’s about time, Ze.” I push myself up and look right at him. His bronze hair sticks to his forehead with sweat and I can tell from the way his royal blue eyes look at me that he ran at full speed here on bare feet. I can’t remember the last time either of us wore shoes, actually. “I told you 3 o’clock.”
“I know, I know. Sorry,” he says, panting to a stop. “Mom made me do some extra problems.” He falls down into the tall grass that’s started to brown with the changing of the seasons. The grass is so tall that I can’t even see him anymore. “Anyway, I brought the rope you asked for.” A long burly rope jets out of the grass and lands behind me.
“You idiot! It’s gonna go down the river,” I say. The rope starts sliding into the river. I lunge my whole body toward it but the current’s already got it and my face and hands get full of dirt. The grass is too tall and pointy to even try to grab for it. I hear a rustle in the grass near me.
“Jeez, Hai. What would you do without me?”
I smack the ground and dart to my feet. “I’d probably have a lot less stress in my life!”
He laughs and starts pulling the rope out of the water. It’s a lot longer than I thought it would be. I notice Ze’s got some serious muscle going on in his arms. Since when does he have time to work out? Or I guess it’s just from climbing the tree all the time. “Didya bring the plank with you?”
“Yeah, it’s somewhere under the tree.”
“Sheesh. You act like I’m an hour late. It’s only been like fifteen minutes.”
“Yeah, well. I got here early.”
“Well plan to be late from now on. Mom’s starting to really push this math on me and I still don’t really get it.”
“Alright, let’s just get to work.”
Today, Ze and I were supposed to build a swing under the willow tree. The plan was to swing off and into the river. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I can’t swim. To make it worse, the river is really deep, even right where the water meets the shore. Come to think of it, this is the only water nearby that I’ve seen. We don’t have pools or anything.
“Do you know how to swim, Ze?”
I squint my eyes at him. “So how do you expect us to survive a trip into the river?”
I look at him for a while as he shimmies up the tree with the rope around his arms.
“Hey, can you throw me the board in a sec? I couldn’t bring it up with me.”
“You didn’t use to be like this, Ze,” I say, picking up the board. “You’re so…” I put my arm through one of the holes in the board. “Weird.”
“I’m just tired of home school, I guess. I want to see the world.”
“Ria says we’re not old enough to really go anywhere though.” I put my other arm in the remaining hole and hold it up to the sky. They look kinda like those really old shackles Ria showed me in a book once. There’s even a little crease down the middle and through the holes as if it actually was used as a set of stocks before, without a place for the head though. “She says we gotta stay here in Asphodel. At least til we’re old enough.”
“Throw me the board.”
I wiggle it off my arms and throw it up to him. It’s heavier than when I carried it over here. “So I guess we’re stuck here for a while then.” I find my seat back near the river. The stick is lying just barely out of the water. Weird that the stick found its way back but the rope almost got lost. Anyway, I go back to waving circles in the water.
“Hai, I think it’s ready,” Ze says after a while.
I look at the stick and make sure I have this exact stick, every feature, stuck in my head. Then I throw it into the center of the river and it plops in without a splash. I turn around and see Ze climbing down the tree. The swing is touching the ground.
“Dang it,” he says, presumably noticing it. “I’ll go back up and fix it.”
He raises it and it’s about 2 feet off the ground, just above the grass. Ze comes down and ushers me to the swing. I jump to take a seat and he starts pushing me.
“This is great, Ze!” Almost immediately getting over my fear of heights, I feel the wind shooting through my hair and it feels like nothing I’ve felt before.
“It’s not too fun from down here,” he says as he pushes me to where the branches of the willow reach. This tree and its browning leaves is kind of like our own little hideout. It stops the rain and the bugs don’t, well… Bug us. He stops pushing, but I can keep swinging on my own now.
The wind in my hair reminds me of the stories Ria used to tell me about his trips with Dad─ how they’d stay at the beach all day, just running and swimming and dancing. I never really see Dad though. I’ve just always been told he’s sick and there’s nothing that can be done about it. Ria checks up on me at home religiously to make sure I’m doing my homework but also to take a peak into his room, but I’m not allowed in there.
“Hey, is it my turn yet, Hai?” Ze asks.
Almost forgot. “Yeah, just give me a few more swings!”
I could stay like this forever. I bet I could swing off onto the other side of the river. Ria says that’s where we can learn a lot more when we’re older. I bet there are a ton of cool people like Ze there. Maybe there’s people over there even cooler than− “Ahhhhhhh!” The swing abruptly falls down sooner than it should have and there’s almost nothing between me and the ground. I keep a tight grip on the rope. My whole body is shaking and my heart is in my throat.
“Hey, let go already,” I hear Ze say from above with a sort of struggle in his voice. “You’re heavy.” I look up and there he is holding the rope that’s not tied to the branch as securely as it was before.
“Ze! You could’ve killed me!”
“Aw, come on, Hai. You aren’t dead yet.” He looks down at me with a wicked grin. I can see the pure excitement in his eyes. “My turn!”
I can’t honestly say I’m surprised, but I won’t let that discount the fact that it still pissed me off and nearly scared me to death. We trade places and after a few pushes, Ze says he can keep swinging on his own.
“Ya know, Ze. We can go across the river in just three years. We’ll be fourteen and Ria will let us go. Why don’t we just wait?”
“Three years? No way I can wait that long.”
I sit down at the base of the tree. “Well, neither of us knows how to swim. Sounds like a death wish.”
“We’ll make it!” He shouts on the back swing. “Besides, Mom says your name means ‘the sea.’”
“It does? How does she know that?”
“The sea? I don’t even know which way the sea is, let alone what it looks like.”
“Looks like you’re gonna have to learn someday.” I could hear the smile in his voice.
“Yeah, well, I’m not about to just dive in!”
“Why not?” He asks, sliding to a stop, looking at me like a confused puppy. “What if I got Mom to come with us?”
I guess that kinda makes me feel better. “Fine.”
Ze’s face lights up.
“Alright, give me another push!”
I don’t bother arguing about the fact he had already swung way longer than I had. The swing was his idea anyway, so, I guess that justifies it. I could tell he was really enjoying himself anyway. More than I ever could. I give him one good push and that’s all he needed to soar back into the air.
“So, what does your name mean, Ze?” I know it’s short for something, but neither him nor his Mom would ever tell me.
“Mom said it means ‘the sky.’”
Sea and sky. I almost feel like Ria named me too. Sky, though. That fits Ze. Just watching him swing so high, the wind blowing through his hair, and that smile covering his whole face… The sky really is his domain. Like a bird that can’t get off the ground. Like a chicken. I laugh to myself.
“Hey, do you see that?”
“Over there,” he says, pointing to the river as he swings forward.
I squint hard to find whatever Ze’s talking about in the river. It just looks like water to me. Lots of water. “I don’t see anything.”