When my new book, 2B
, came out in February, I posted a blog entry about how long I had carried the idea around in my head before finally writing it.
I also mentioned that about ten years ago I made an aborted attempt to start the novel. I didn't get far, only a prologue and a part of chapter one. It didn't feel right to me, didn't seem to be working, so I abandoned it. And waited another ten years to try again, using nothing of the original attempt, not even character names. This time I was ready, the story flowed smoothly, and I created a novel I'm very proud of.
Since the book has been out for a little while, I thought it might be fun to post that early attempt so that readers of the novel could compare and contrast and see what almost could have been. Below is that early attempt, the prologue and part of chapter one.
I awoke in hell.
At least, I assumed it was hell. Where else would have walls painted such a queasy shade of puke-green? Where else would have lights so harsh they pierced the eyes like tiny luminescent blades? Where else would have beeping alien machinery attached to my body with tubes and needles?
“Mr. Dowry?” a demon said in a voice like rocks scraping the bottom of a polluted river.
I squinted against the assaulting light, trying to focus on the blurred figure that had appeared above me, no doubt a soul-sucking harpy come to inflict some unspeakable torment on me.
“Mr. Dowry, can you hear me?”
I tried to sit up, but fiery pain flared across my chest. I opened my mouth to cry out, to vocalize the exquisite anguish of hell, but all that escaped my lips was a hoarse rattling croak, a wounded sound, a dying sound.
“No, no, don’t try to move or talk,” said the demon in a voice far too compassionate for a denizen of Hades. “Not yet, anyway.”
I trained my eyes and concentration on the demon, and the fuzzy edges began to come into crisper focus. The demon was female, with a plump pleasant face and dark hair pulled back in a tight ponytail. Her thin lips were rouged and curled upward.
“Nice to have you back with us,” she said. “I was beginning to worry that you were going to sleep forever.”
I closed my eyes, and my mind filled with odd, disturbing, nonsequiter images. Running water. Bubbles. A tattered paperback. A familiar face seething with rage. “What…” I whispered in a voice as dry and lifeless as a shed snakeskin.
“Do you know where you are?” said the demon who was not a demon. Perhaps an angel, come to rescue me from an eternity of agony.
The angel laughed, a delicate twittering giggle. “Well, no, but I can understand why you’d make that assumption.”
Having used up all my energy reserves on the three words I’d managed to get out since awakening, I merely furrowed my brow at the angel, trying to convey through my expression and telepathy my profound confusion and disorientation.
“You’re in a hospital,” said the angel. “St. Christopher’s. I’m Nurse Horace.”
My eyes flittered about the room. The puke-green walls, the harsh light, the alien machinery. Not hell, but a hospital. Semantics, as far as I was concerned. Panic welled within me, setting off tiny but powerful charges of pain in my lungs. My mouth tugged down in a grimace, and I felt tears slipping down the sides of my face to pool on my pillow.
“Shhh, be still,” Nurse Horace said, a cool hand stroking my sweat-slicked forehead. “Doctor Randolph will be here soon. You’re going to be fine, just fine.”
I was retreating. Retreating from this room that had so easily been mistaken for a chamber of hell. Retreating from the unwanted knowledge that played at the corner of my mind, taunting me with nonsensical images that threatened to make too much sense. Retreating from this demon/angel/nurse whose voice was like honey. I closed my eyes again and retreated, back down the dark hole from which I had so recently emerged. Not all the way down, not as far as I’d been. I was still aware of the world above me, the commotion in that world as more people entered the room, but I ducked my head and stayed down in the dark, not yet ready to face the light.
* * *
Sometime later I began crawling out of the hole, up toward a familiar voice calling my name.
“Sean? Sean, can you hear me?”
I opened my eyes, and this time I knew exactly where I was. A hospital. I turned my head slightly, that small movement sending a flow of lava across my chest. Nurse Horace was by my bed, taking an empty pouch from a tall metal stand and replacing it with one full of clear liquid. She smiled down at me.
“Sean? Oh God, Sean, it’s good to see you with your eyes open again.”
My gaze shifted and located the owner of that familiar voice. A lovely young woman with wheat-colored hair and large green eyes, sitting next to the bed in an uncomfortable-looking chair with vinyl upholstery the same putrid color as the walls. Her full lips were pressed together in worry and fear, an expression to which they were unaccustomed.
“Melody?” I said, my voice still a croak but stronger than before.
Tears sprang from her eyes like lemmings from a cliff, and a stuttering laugh tripped out of her mouth. “Yes, it’s me,” she said, taking my right hand gently in her own and caressing my knuckles. “When Dr. Randolph called and told me you had regained consciousness, I was afraid to believe it. Then I get here and find you all coma-like again, I thought God was playing some cruel trick on me.”
“I tried to tell her,” Nurse Horace said. “That you weren’t comatose again, just resting, but the girl just wasn’t hearing me.”
“I didn’t want to get my hopes up,” Melody said, looking at me like a precious family heirloom thought lost then found unexpectedly in a box in the attic. “But you’re back, you’re really back.”
“You mean you don’t remember?”
I tried to concentrate, attempting to rewind my memory beyond awakening in hell. The last clear memory I had was of running a bath after work. After that, there was only the kaleidoscopic mix of images, a puzzle with all the pieces spread out on the table, none of the pieces yet put together.
“Don’t worry about it,” Melody said, her mouth twisting back into that tight mask of worry. “It’s not important right now; all that is important is that you’re okay.”
“Ah, I see you’re up,” said an older man as he stepped into the room. His hair was a stunning shade of silver, his eyes kind and full of good humor behind wire-framed glasses. He was tall, six five at least, and wore a white coat and a stethoscope around his neck. I knew who he must be even before he leaned over the bed and said, “I’m Dr. Randolph.”
I nodded at the man. He looked like the father in some fifties situation comedy, which was simultaneously comforting and a bit creepy.
“Now then,” Dr. Randolph said with a grin, “I’m happy to say you’re doing quite well, given the circumstances. You won’t be doing any high jumps anytime soon, but you’re doing remarkably well for a young man who drowned less than forty-eight hours ago.”
“Drowned?” I repeated. “I drowned?”
A couple of puzzle pieces found each other and locked together. A face, a face I knew, blurred and rippling, a sensation of suffocation.
“Don’t strain yourself trying to remember,” Dr. Randolph said. “A trauma like this, you should be in no hurry to regain those memories.”
The puzzle was teasingly close to being solved, but I decided to let it go for now. And it was a relief. That face in my memory, twisted with rage, was a nightmare right out of some Wes Craven picture. Best to let the demons stay buried for the moment.
“How long was I unconscious?” I asked, my voice beginning to sound like its normal self again.
Melody and Nurse Horace both turned to Dr. Randolph, who reconfigured his face into a look of sympathy. “Thirty-seven hours.”
I pressed my head into the pillow, trying to wrap my brain around this. I had drowned and lay in a comatose state for a day and a half. This was no nightmare, no overly dramatic episode of ER, this was real.
“But you’re gonna be fine,” Melody was quick to chime in. “The worst is behind you.”
“Absolutely,” Dr. Randolph said, his TV-father smile resurrected. “It was touch-and-go for a while there, but you’re through the woods now. You’re going to be good as new.”
Good as new, I thought. Was that possible? After all this, would I ever be the same again?
This is what I remembered later, after the puzzle was completed:
It was Saturday night, and I was working the closing shift at Book ‘Em Dano, the bookstore/coffeehouse where I’d been employed for the past two years. The store closed at ten on Saturdays, but employees had to stay an additional hour for cleanup and shelving. I didn’t get to my apartment until well after eleven.
I lived only a few blocks from the store. So close, in fact, that I could walk to work on a nice day. Not that I ever did, but I could. My apartment was one of four studios in a light gray building that stood tall and rectangular like a cracker box. Two more identical buildings stood on the same lot. My apartment, 2B, was the bottom right apartment of the second building, the brass number and letter hanging crookedly from the door.
The apartment itself was a perfect square, a single room except for a cramped bathroom no larger than a closet that opened off to the left just inside the door. A kitchenette, separated from the rest of the apartment by a long bar, took up half of the right side of the space. In the far right corner was an actual working fireplace with a glass screen. A Murphy bed opened up out of the wall in the far left corner, across from the fireplace. At the very back of the apartment was a rusty metal heating/air-conditioning until like those in motel rooms. It was a tiny living space, but the rent was only three hundred and fifty a month, and that included all utilities but phone.
Stepping inside the apartment, I kicked off my shoes and tossed my keys onto the bar. The light was blinking on my answering machine so I hit the button to retrieve my messages. One from my Mom, asking why I hadn’t called all week. One from the Student Loan Corporation, reminding me that I was behind on the previous month’s payment. One from Melody, telling me to call her tomorrow.
And one from Jeff.
Jeff was my ex-boyfriend, the prefix very fresh. We had broken up only two weeks prior, but Jeff didn’t seem to fully grasp the concept. He called me regularly, begging me to take him back. He had dropped by the store a few times, until Yvonne, the manager, had threatened to call the police if he didn’t leave the property. Wednesday night he’d shown up at the apartment, obviously drunk, and serenaded me with a raucous version of Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” One of my neighbors had called the police over that little display, and the cops had hauled him off for disturbing the peace. I’d had the presence of mind to have the police officers procure the key to my apartment that Jeff had never returned. The message on my machine was the first I’d heard from him since that night.
“Sean, man, why are you doing this to me? Huh? Are you punishing me for something? I need you, baby, don’t you understand that? We can work this out, if you’ll just give me a chance. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. You don’t want to throw away everything we’ve built this past year, I know you don’t. Or do you? Are you that selfish and heartless? Is that it? You were just toying with me this past year, making me your own personal little love slave or something, and now you’re done with me and you can just toss me out like yesterday’s garbage. It’s that easy for you, isn’t it? I mean that little to you, huh? ‘Oh, well, that was fun but now I’m through, hit the road.’ You spineless little fuck. You can’t treat people this way. You can’t be allowed to get away with it. You hear me? You need a reality check, someone to knock you off your goddam golden pedestal. You’re not such hot shit, and someday very soon you’re going to see that. I’m going to make you see that. I’ll be seeing you.”
I went to erase the message, but my finger paused above the button. Yvonne and Melody had been trying to convince me to take out a restraining order on Jeff, and I was beginning to think they were right. He was becoming more and more unstable, and it was starting to really frighten me. I decided to save the message, just in case I needed it to get a protective order.
My relationship with Jeff was one of those things that was a disaster right from the start, and everyone could see it but me. I knew he had a volatile temper and had gotten into more than a few fistfights, but through my rose-colored glasses I just viewed that as part of his passionate nature. He could be absurdly jealous, but I merely thought that was a sign of how much he truly loved me. Two of his ex-boyfriends claimed that he had beaten them, but I considered this to be lies spread by a couple of bitter fags. Melody had once broached the subject of Jeff’s temper with me, but I had reacted with anger, accusing her of wanting to sabotage my happiness. Love was not only blind when it came to my relationship with Jeff, it was also mentally challenged.
My wakeup call came in the form of a size 11 work boot. It started out as a silly argument, buried resentments clawing their way to the surface. We had rented a movie and were going to order a pizza and stay at my apartment for the night. I had asked Jeff if he would pay for the pizza because my funds were starting to get a little depleted. He balked, saying his job in a textile mill didn’t exactly leave him rolling in the dough.
“Well, look,” I’d said, trying to keep my voice calm, “I paid for the movies, and I almost always pay when we eat out, so could you just pay for the pizza this once?”
“You don’t always pay,” Jeff said, his voice gaining volume. “You make it sound like I’m just some big mooch. I got expenses of my own.”
“You live with your mother and drive her car.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jeff had roared.
“It means what it means,” I’d said, exhausted already. I hated to argue. “I just wish you could pick up the tab now and then.”
“How about I pick this up?” Jeff had said, taking one of his heavy work boots and tossing it at me. He threw it with force and it struck me in the side of the face. “How do you like that? That work for you?”
I stood there, dazed, staring down at the boot. And that was it, like a light went on, or a switch was thrown, or a dam broke, or whatever clichéd metaphor would be most appropriate. I had looked up at Jeff, his face scrunched up in anger, and I could see that he didn’t even seem to realize that he’d done anything wrong. He’d just hit me in the face with a steel-toed boot, and he still acted as if he thought he were the injured party.
“Get out,” I’d said, soft but firm. “Get out right now.”
Screaming had followed, but Jeff had left. He seemed to think that it was just for the night, and he had been honestly surprised when I told him we were through. Then had started the calls, the visits, the overall harassment. I considered myself an intelligent man, I wasn’t sure how I had ever gotten involved with someone so violent in the first place, but I just wanted to put it behind me.
Which would have been easier to do if Jeff had not continued to call and pop up.
I’d been planning to make a late snack and watch Saturday Night Live, but after the message I just didn’t feel up to it. Instead, I figured I’d take a bubble bath then hit the sack. I’d call Melody in the morning and see if she’d go with me to get the restraining order.
I went to one of my waist-high bookcases to pick out a book to read in the tub. I passed over books like Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, A Brave New World—books I’d never read, and probably never would, but I felt made me seem smarter just by being on my shelves—and selected They Thirst, Robert McCammon’s tale of vampires taking over Los Angeles.
And there you have it, the 2B
that could have been. There is some stuff here I kind of like, but I do think I wasn't yet ready to tackle this story and am glad I waited.
If you haven't yet read 2B
, you can find the novel here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08RWBT9CK/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_tkin_p1_i0