National Novel Writing Month: part 1.

For the next 28 days (including today and yesterday as well), I will be driving myself crazy. November is that annual opportunity to have no time whatsoever for a life in the face of writing a novel, the beloved National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). After all, The Great Gatsby is about 50,000 words. Why can’t I fumble out 50,000 in a month? And shouldn’t at least 400 of those words be somewhat entertaining?

I don’t know about all that. But I do know that the best way to keep myself motivated is to have an audience, even if I have to force people into it. So until the end of November or when I finally admit crushing defeat, I will be posting up the very rough, unedited, and probably illogical draft of my NaNoWriMo novel. Ready? Of course not. I’m not either. But here we go!

They were out of coffee again. No matter how many times Oliver rearranged the contents of the cupboard, shuffling dusty, expired cans and cardboard boxes, he didn’t seem to turn up any precious java. The last time he’d made any was the open house weeks ago, when he’d brewed an entire pot for people coming to look at the old house. Only one neighbor had wandered in to see how he was getting on, and he’d sat down at the kitchen table to down cup after cup until his porcelain mug was stained and his stomach churned with the threat of ulcers.

He was making his third sweep across the kitchen when his sister blew in through the screen door. “What’s taking you so long?” Lily demanded as she took as she hoisted herself up on the counter to stare and wait. She’d once been beautiful in a “girl next door” sense, but at thirty-five, her blonde hair had faded out to a dingy shade and her skin had begun to wrinkle after too many hours spent outside trying to keep the dying farm going.

At thirty, Oliver looked less like his own family with every passing year. His own skin remained fair, his hair a mess of dark curls contrasting with the stubble that came in defiantly red. Whereas his sister was quick to fly into a fit of pessimism, he continued his search, convinced that he would find something. “Do we have any of that Sanka lying around? You know, the jar with the orange label.”

In response, she just laughed. “You know Dad’s the only one who can stand that crap,” she reminded him. “You know we have better things to waste our money on these days.” He was starting to lean up on the balls of his feet again, neck craned to examine the empty high shelves. With a sigh, she hopped down so she could close the cupboard and put her brother out of his misery.  What she wanted to do was slam the wood and make a scene, but she knew that they weren’t on opposing sides, not really. “What’s gotten to you, anyway?”

“We should always have coffee around, that’s all. You never know when someone’s going to stop in, and it’s just not polite if they ask for it and you have to admit that you don’t have it.”

“We’re broke, Ollie. Nobody expects us to have anything.”

“We still have our pride,” he reminded his sister, a sharp edge entering his voice. It wasn’t the first time they had discussed this sort of thing. Bankruptcy wasn’t a condition that happened overnight, but once they noticed the slip in their finances, it didn’t take long for that deck of cards to collapse. It wasn’t enough to pick things up and try to assemble them again. What they needed was glue to make sure that the next breath wouldn’t send everything scattering again. Unfortunately, they couldn’t even keep their hands steady enough to get the first card in place.

The sound of tires over gravel interrupted their standoff. Through the back door, they watched the black F150 curl up the driveway around to the front of the house. “Who is that?” Lily hissed accusingly.

“I don’t know. I just went into town yesterday and put all these flyers up on the community board. I wanted to put an ad in the paper, but I don’t even know how many people read the paper anymore.”

“Why are you looking for coffee if you don’t know we’re expecting company?”

“Would you just let me do the talking? Jesus Christ.” He turned his back on her and checked the clock. “I guess it’s almost lunchtime. Hopefully he had his coffee in his office.”

“Office? Who leaves the office in the middle of the day to come out to nowhere?”

Oliver ignored her and ran his fingers through his hair a few times to try to tame the errant curls. He wished that he’d taken the time to shave and put on clothes that were more presentable. His clothes were all patchy or faded, treated harshly but lovingly over the years. It wasn’t every day that a member of the city counsel came out this far, and he wanted to make a good impression. He just didn’t get company often enough to remember what other people liked in strangers.

By the time he’d gathered his nerves, there came a knock at the front door. The doorbell had stopped working sometime within the last month, but replacing the batteries seemed to be more hassle than it was worth. Oliver swore under his breath and hoped that the other man hadn’t been standing on the doorstep for long. In ten long strides he was through the living room and breathlessly swinging the front door open.

“Howdy.” The greeting came from the guest first. As far as politicians went, Martin George was surprisingly popular. He owed his success to a few crucial traits. As an older man who had never married, he had no wife to embarrass in any scandal, and he was fat enough that he looked more like Santa Claus than anyone who was on the prowl for an evening with hookers and blow. Finally, he was an independently wealthy man who had no problem with buying friends and paying off people before they had the chance to become enemies. If he wanted to waste his own hard earned money on his campaign and keeping his seat, well, nobody was going to put their hands in their pockets to avoid getting in on the handouts.

“Mr. George. It’s really generous for you to come out and visit us like this.” Oliver was no great fan of politics, especially when the members of every party sounded exactly the same, but he reminded himself that the man was here not as a candidate but as an individual. As an afterthought, he put out his hand to shake.

Martin’s face lit up at the opportunity to show off one of his key skills. His sweaty mitt grasped Oliver’s, with the other hand clutching at him to engulf his fingers entirely. He didn’t drop eye contact for even a second. “Really, I ought to be the one thanking you for agreeing to see me. I think this is a fabulous piece of property, just incredible. When I heard from poor old Mrs. Hines that you were going to have to give the place up, I asked myself if there was any way that I could help. Of course I have to see the place for myself, get a feeling for what its potential is, but I could see us doing business, young man, I really could.”

The speech seemed too long and made Oliver uncomfortable. Of course he just had to shake his head and put such thoughts far from his mind. He was never going to feel comfortable with selling his childhood home, but his family really had no other choice. This was the easiest way to make everything right again, and if a rich man could give them all the money at once, then it really was the best thing that could happen to them. So why did it feel so underhanded?

“I guess you’ll be wanting to take a look around.” It was a prompt more than anything, and he hoped that the sales pitch he’d prepared for the place would return to him. Somehow it had been easier to go over his home’s perks with total strangers. Trying to bullshit a bullshitter was something else entirely.

A slow smile came over the politician’s plump features. “Do you think I could come in for a minute? I mean, of course, with a farm I’ll want to check it all over thoroughly, but it would be a shame not to take a look inside the house as well. Maybe I could have something to drink.”

Oliver did his best not to grit his teeth as he thought about the coffee. “Of course. Won’t you step inside?” he asked.

At once, Lily rushed in from the kitchen holding a mug. Oliver allowed himself to think for a moment that she’d been hiding the coffee from him in order to have the moment of glory, but as she came closer, he knew that it was empty. “Mr. George, it is really an honor to finally meet you. I was just trying to make a cup of coffee for you, but I forgot that the pot’s broken. Fray in the wire, I think. We were going to go into town today to pick up a new one, but with you coming out here to see us and all, we had to rearrange our schedule a bit.”

Oliver blinked as he watched his sister work. It seemed as though she believed her own lies in a way that was nearly charming. And had she actually put on a bit of mascara and lip gloss while eavesdropping in the kitchen?

Whatever she was doing, Martin gave her a warm smile. It almost seemed like a genuine gesture of appreciation. “That’s quite all right. The doctor told me that I had to cut out the caffeine anyway. Not good for the old blood pressure. It was either that or the bacon, and well. You don’t happen to have any bacon, do you?” He waited a beat before forcing a laugh. “I’m just teasing you, of course. Maybe next time. Why don’t you just show me the kitchen?”

Cleaning up the place had been no particular struggle. When they were trying to find any way to salvage the house that they could, they’d started by selling off the things they didn’t need. Antiques, heirlooms, crafts that could fetch a few dollars at a yard sale, they’d pressed their luck and managed to keep overhead on the bills for a few months. Anymore Oliver had grown oddly detached from how empty the kitchen was. Less stuff to move.

“I’ll leave you boys to it then,” Lily said. “There’s some bottled water and juice in the refrigerator. Please feel free to help yourself.”

For its wide windows and back door, the kitchen trapped heat and scent to make it seem as though something had always been freshly baked. Before the children had moved back in, their father had never taken care to clean up after himself. Oil spatter and crumbs had managed to find their way into the unlikeliest of places, rendering the cupboards sticky and the toaster grimy. All that had changed. The old wood appeared freshly stained, and the linoleum floor’s abstract pattern had been worn away in spots from the frenzied scrubbing it had taken to get it clean again.
Not that Martin noticed. His chubby hand brushed over the cracked white paint of the kitchen table before he stood transfixed by the window. Outside Lily stood in the middle of her garden and pulled on gloves. Even after they’d come to the decision that the old house would have to go, she continued to tend to her flowers. She’d argued that a farm without animals or crops looked shabby enough; a garden would at least liven things up a bit. As she tilted her watering can over the impatiens, her lips moved as gently as the petals of pink, blue, and violet. If only Oliver could read lips and figure out what she was telling the flowers that she couldn’t say to her own family.
“Is it just you and the missus here then?”
Martin’s question snapped him out of his curiosity. A furious blush spread across his cheeks, as offended by the implication as he had been when he was a teenager and other boys had asked about his sister’s sex life. “She’s my sister,” he said. “Older sister. We’ve never really looked related.”
“Oh. Of course. So she’s not married then?”
Oliver wasn’t sure if he was covering his tracks or actually expressing interest, but either option did little to make him feel comfortable. “No. Never has been. She always stayed local, and then when our dad started to get sick, it just seemed like the right time to come home. She wanted to be a vet, so with the animals we had at the time, she didn’t mind.”
“Well, I suppose there’s always time for her to find the right guy. I’ve never been married myself, but why take a possibility off the table, right?” The way he smiled didn’t cause the amusement to reach his dark eyes. “Can’t be easy when she lives with her brother though, can it?”
“Not for either of us.”
“Well, all of that is going to change soon, son.” The man barely gave the kitchen another glance, instead moving to the door. His fingers greedily touched the wooden frame, the metal lattice of the screen, and finally the knob. His voice lifted in volume as he stepped outside and greeted Lily with a pun about flowers. Oliver didn’t want to hear, so he didn’t.

Instead he left his sister to her flirtation and climbed the weathered stairs. He shouldn’t have felt so old and spent at thirty, but he could swear that his joints were groaning as much as the wood beneath his feet. These days he grasped the banister a bit too tightly and no longer had the energy to skip steps the way he once did.

A shadow to the right caught his attention. Against the daylight coming through the window, his father was rendered only a sliver, a dark parenthetical aside.
Darren Pratt had once been a tall, broad man, the proud owner of a farm that had been expanded and passed down through the family for four generations. He’d grown up more comfortable around horses than people and could predict shifts in weather better than an almanac. Farming was more than a way of life for him. It had been in his blood until cancer was discovered there too. The last decade of leukemia had warped his body from the inside, twisting and bending him into a memory more than a man.
“Who’s walking around our yard?” he asked. He was freshly awake from a nap, his voice as feeble as onionskin.
Oliver could hardly count the number of times he’d explained their finances to his father. Every time the old man just closed his eyes and insisted they take some other approach. Get rid of a few more farmhands, he’d say, or tear down that extra shed and sell the wood from that. Animals could be slaughtered, more valuable crops could be grown, or they could just claim their produce was organic in order to bump up the price a bit.
But there were no workers left and no crops to sell. They only had lenders, and debts, and late payment notices. The place was a tradition, but empires fell to less.
“You know of Martin George, right? He’s been on the city counsel for ages. Apparently he likes to pay visits to people, see how they’re getting along and what they might need. He just wants to spend our tax dollars as well as he can.”
The lie sounded hollow even to his own ears, and by the way his father snorted, Oliver knew that the excuse hadn’t gone over well. “Is that what he told you when he showed up here? You shouldn’t have let him in. He’s a politician, son. They always have their own agenda, and the more they look you in the eye and shake your hand, the more you can trust that they’re not telling you the truth. They’ll sooner smile at you and feed you to the wolves than actually let you know what’s going on in their minds. You go and get him off my property.”
“Oliver, you may be living here, but I never asked you to. This is still my home, no matter what. I did not give permission for this man to trespass.” Frail hands grasped the drapes to draw them shut. Darren had meant to snap the fabric in a quick, violent gesture, but the window was too tall and his muscles in his arms had long since shriveled.
The day was already not going as Oliver had planned. Maybe rescheduling would be for the best, some day when Lily shuttled their father around for his marathon of visits to doctors. He still wasn’t fond of the man outside, but he had enough money to make their most pressing problems go away. He wasn’t going to reject that sort of possibility due to personal bias. Maybe he didn’t have his pride anymore after all.
If he had to concede, he would do it wordlessly. He wanted to tell his father to go back to bed but knew that it would only arouse suspicion. Instead, he walked out of the room and closed the door behind him. Not his most mature moment, but it was better than another outburst.
Going down the stairs seemed to have a greater impact upon him. If only he could keep walking long enough, he’d add enough years to become a ghost and fade into the floors, the walls, the glass. To be forgotten to everyone else seemed like a better option to him than the constant fear that someone might notice their situation and push them out of their home with nothing to show for the centuries of Pratt blood in the area.
The heaviness of his spirit helped to keep his feet dragging as he stepped outside. The flowers had been abandoned, only half of them wet enough to show. Lily had gone. He had never known his sister to abandon her chores or even to be social. Of the siblings, she’d been the one to inherit the love for the dirt beneath her fingers and the sun overhead. If she wasn’t nurturing something, plant or animal, then she hardly knew what to do with her time. Nature was obvious to her. The motives of people were not.
Yet her laughter carried across the breeze and drew Oliver to the front yard, where she leaned against the bed of the polished truck. Even from across the yard, he could see that the way she leaned over created a gap in her shirt. How could she not notice the way she was acting around this guy? The man had to be nearly twice her age, and it wasn’t like he looked good for his age.
His jaw was tightly clenched when the two stopped talking and stared at him. “What is it, Ollie?” Lily asked as she straightened up. She at least had the good sense to tug up her shirt so the neckline would be a little more appropriate. “I was just asking Mr. George here if he wanted to check out all the property and if his shiny truck had ever been off the road before, wasn’t I?”
“It’s Dad.” Before their guest could even answer, Oliver spoke up. The air seemed to freeze in his lungs, keeping him from elaborating. How could he possibly explain that he’d been ordered by his parent to send someone away? That he hadn’t even bothered to put up a fight about it?
His sister grasped him by the shoulders tightly. Even though he was nearly half a foot taller than her, her eyes still managed to draw his. “Dad? What about Dad? Is he okay?”
“He really needs us right now. I’m really sorry about this, Martin, and it was nice to meet you. I’m afraid we’ll just have to try this again some other time. As you can imagine, having an elderly father who has health issues is stressful enough–“
“Why does he need us? Ollie! Would you stop being so vague?”
Rather than retreat, the stranger put his hand on Oliver’s arm. The touch was warm, humid in a way that repulsed him. “Is your father going to be okay? I do have my truck here and would be more than happy to help with any emergency that you’re going through.”
“We’ll be fine, thank you. Why don’t you call tomorrow, and we’ll set up another time for you to come out and finish your tour?”
His sister continued to grasp at him, but he couldn’t turn his eyes to her. The fear he had caused her would be punishment in itself for his cowardice. Martin took a step back and smoothed his starched white shirt over his belly. “Well, I hope you’ll give me a call this evening and let me know that your father is fine. We’ll discuss it then, shall we?”
Oliver nodded and couldn’t speak as his sister ran to the house. Another handshake and another forced smile during a handshake, and then the gravel was the only one to whisper goodbye to Martin George.

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