Thursday, July 24, 2014

Salvation Day - Chapter 1

It occurred to me that for all my talk of how I think Salvation Day is my finest work, I've given very little concrete about it.  Today, I'll remedy that.  Below is the first chapter from that novel.  Enjoy it, but know that it'll be the last chapter put out in this blog until the book gets published in November of 2016.
Rain fell steadily as tears streamed down his cheeks.
            Mike Faulkner sat under the awning by his wife’s freshly dug grave, out of the rain and staring into nothing.  The rain didn’t matter; it had been raining for nearly two weeks and today was no different.  He barely noticed.
            The funeral had been over for an hour.  Friends came and silently patted his shoulder.  Several opened their mouths to speak, but no words would come.  Most looked at him with sad eyes that were both pitying and accusatory.  They all felt for what he’d been through, but many felt that this latest tragedy could have been avoided if Mike had paid more attention to Karen.
            Karen.  His wife.  The side of him he took for granted as always being there.  She’d been strong, always the one trying to find solutions and working tirelessly for their daughter.  But when Samantha died, Karen broke.  Shattered, Karen could do nothing but pine for Samantha.  Mike wanted to comfort her, to help her through all of this, but he didn’t know how.
            And in a way, he resented Karen for her pain.  It seemed so much deeper than his.  He loved Samantha but had always been taught to be stoic.  He grieved silently, carrying that weight as if it were an anvil sewn onto his back.  He knew it was there, but he would persevere.  He had to.
            However, Karen wept unashamedly and nearly all the time.  Mike never knew her to be like that, for she’d always been happy, patient, and loving.  She doted on Mike when they were married, and after Samantha was born, Karen doted on her as well.  The pain of her loss tore at Karen in a way that baffled him.  Mike buried himself in his work, while Karen buried herself in her grief.
            Work was where Mike was when he got the call from Elise, their next door neighbor.  She had gone to check on Karen and the door was cracked.  Mike dimly remembered the words about razor blades on the bathroom counter and the sink full of ice.  Elise said frantic paramedics tried to save his wife, but she was too far gone.  He refused to believe any of it and had hung up on her. 
He didn’t even believe it when the police showed up at the lab.  He hid in the bathroom for the better part of 15 minutes, pacing, and stubbornly refusing to come out to face them.  Finally, they tracked him down and made him listen – Karen had committed suicide and was being taken to the morgue on Hawthorne Street.  The police asked if he needed a priest.  He didn’t and kept running over their words in his mind, trying to figure out what they meant.
            The next few days were jumbled as he prepared the funeral arrangements.  They bought plots next to each other a few years back.  That seemed so long ago, when the thought of death was that impossible thing that happened to other people.  The logical part of his brain remarked on how he would need to buy yet another plot, for the one next to Karen was already occupied by their eight month old daughter.
            An icy wind briefly blew.  He ignored it.  All he could do was watch his wife’s coffin lowering slowly into the hole in the ground, mocking him.  Finally, with a small thud, it hit bottom.  A backhoe stood nearby.  Even in the rain, the gravediggers had to get paid.
            Finally, Mike stood up.  There was nothing left for him here.  He slowly left, much to the apparent relief of the man working the backhoe who was eager to finish his job.  The rain continued to pelt Mike’s grey overcoat.  It also matted his light brown hair and hit his face, hiding tears already fallen.
            He slid his key into the lock and walked into his house.  He wanted to call it his home, but without Karen or Samantha, it didn’t have the same feel.  It felt empty, hollow.  Even the sound of his footsteps on the hardwood floors sounded flat.
            Tossing his keys on the entryway table, he glanced absently at a picture of Karen and Samantha.  It was just a few months ago during this past summer.  Karen was in a sunflower dress, holding Samantha on her hip.  Both were smiling.  Karen’s dress and Samantha’s skin almost matched in their hue.
            He gently stroked the picture.  Samantha had been such a beautiful little girl, even with the jaundice that persisted.  She could smile and point, as she was doing in the picture, and Karen was smiling as well.  Mike wasn’t in the picture – he figured there would be plenty of time for that.
            He blinked back tears again and scowled a little at the photo.  He reflected that this was supposed to be the best year of his life and it had become the worst.  A few months ago he had a family; now there was only an empty house.
            Absently carrying the picture into the kitchen and sitting it down on the antique table Karen had refinished, he sat in a chair and ran both hands through his hair.  There was no reason to turn on the lights, so the kitchen was bathed in gray.  Three empty beer bottles sat on the table, a fourth one half finished nearby.  Never really a drinker, Mike saw little else to do.
            He picked up the fourth bottle and took a swig.  The beer was flat, but Mike absently drank it anyway.  Drinking was just something to pass a few more seconds and try to get beyond the emptiness.
            Tomorrow he’d return to the lab.  His co-workers told him to take as much time as he needed, but he thought the phrase was ridiculous. He could go back to work and bury himself in numbers, or he could sit by himself in an empty house with pictures of what had been his family.  Although neither choice was appealing, the first offered more distraction.
            Still, he wondered what would have happened if he hadn’t been so quick to return after Samantha’s funeral.  Karen couldn’t get away from the memories like Mike could.  She was a nurse at one point, deciding to stay home when Samantha was born.  As Samantha’s jaundice grew worse and she weakened, Karen stayed by her day and night as the doctors tried to save their daughter’s life.
            Karen was unable to do anything afterwards, and no one would’ve wanted her to be on the job anyway.  Karen stayed home, alone, and melted into nothingness while Mike left for the comforts of the lab.  Mike again absently wondered whether he could have shared her grief when he had little idea how to feel himself, let alone what Karen was really feeling.  Would false comfort might have been enough to get Karen past that which may have never passed?
            He pushed away from the table and finally took off his overcoat, walking into the living room and throwing it on the couch.  He sat on his familiar leather couch and grabbed the remote, hoping the noise would better fill the room than his thoughts.
            He flipped on the TV, which was on the news.  It was the usual type of news broadcast, recounting the day’s usual type of events – the usual murder downtown, probably gang related; the usual fire in a low rent apartment complex, probably started by a kid playing with his mother’s lighter; the usual politicians blathering about how something was wrong and it was the other side’s fault.
            Nothing penetrated the room but the gray filtering through the windows, eventually dissolving and leaving only the light from the TV.  Finally, Mike turned it off and headed for bed.
            As he lay on top of the covers, he could hear the steady pelting of rain outside.  The wind blew through the trees, making a sound like a cracked flute.  Had he been outside, he would have felt the wind chill the air just a bit more, if only for a moment.
            He stared into the darkness for a long time.  By the time he looked at his bedside clock and noticed it read 2:14 am, he had slept only in bursts.  At some point just before dawn, he drifted off, and unlike most nights, slipped into dream.
            The sky was hazy, but he could see a shade of blue in it anyway.  In the distance, there was a green field.  In fact, as he focused harder, the green was nearly overwhelming.
            Wanting to move closer, but unable to do so, he felt like he was treading water.  Some invisible hand held him there, gently but firmly.
            His began to see more clearly.  The field also held wildflowers, beautiful and delicate, swaying in a soft breeze.  Nearby was a lake that looked like deep blue silk.  It appeared to be fed by a golden river.  Silver mist came off of the river and melted into shimmering sparkles.
            Birds and butterflies moved with unconscious grace across the landscape, flowing with the same movement as the river.  My God, he thought, this is incredible.  He let the feelings of comfort wash over him.
            There was laughter in the distance.  Not raucous, but the kind that a child would make playing tag with friends.  He smiled at the sound, the first time he could remember doing so recently.
            This must be what Heaven feels like, he thought.  He pushed against the gentle hand and tried to swim closer.  If he could get beyond the haze, maybe the dream could reunite him with Karen and Samantha.  He struggled again against the hand.
            Suddenly, a dull whisper jolted him…
            “Karen’s not in there,” said the voice.  “And she never will be.”
            Sitting bolt upright in bed, he could feel his heart beating so hard he thought it was trying to escape his chest.  Then he remembered where he was, and his grief returned, intensified by his failure to find Karen or Samantha in his dream.
Then he remembered the voice.  It chilled him almost as much as the rain.  Now he tried to rationalize that it was only a dream.
            As dawn broke, his bedroom was bathed in gray again.  Another day, he thought.  Another day to endure.
            Breakfast was quiet.  Two pieces of toast smeared with butter.  Day old coffee.
            Mike stood at the island in his kitchen and stared at the wall while he ate.  Rain rapped the windows, but he ignored it.
            He couldn’t really call it his kitchen; Karen had done the work to make it nice.  He played along as she had hardwood floors installed after ripping up the linoleum.  The antique table was a find of hers at an out of the way store.  Red candle holders on the wall held candles you weren’t supposed to burn, a decoration he never understood.  The display table in the corner held a set of crystal glasses that Karen got from her mother.  The whole room screamed her name.
            Mike had never paid much attention to those things.  He acted interested when she came to him with ideas, but he just smiled and nodded, knowing it would keep her busy when he wanted to be involved in other things.  He knew she’d be around to do those other things, so he ignored their time apart.
            He brushed the crumbs from his face and drank the last bit of coffee.  The memories would be here when he got back, so he put on his coat and headed out.
            The minivan was red, another reminder of a time when he thought his best days were ahead of him.  He’d sworn he’d never own a minivan, telling Karen that such a thing would be a sure sign he’d sold out.  Eventually he gave in, rationalizing that they’d need the extra room for the additional children they were going to have soon.  The plan had been to let Samantha turn two and then begin trying again.  Mike didn’t know if they were going to do more than that, but two young kids were going to need room in a good sized car, and a minivan would be able to take it.  Plus, there’d be years of friends riding around, ballet recitals, and going to pick up a new dog.
            He shook his head at the recklessness of those dreams.  Mike usually held back, not diving into much without careful thought.  He now felt like the one time he went with his heart over his head, he got burned.
            Traffic was light as he headed down King Street on his way to Hadlon Enterprises.  More likely, people were just being cautious in the rain.  He was surprised they weren’t used to it by now, as it seemed like all it had done recently was rain.
            As he arrived at his building, took a deep breath, and got out of his car.  Once inside, he spotted the receptionist already tapping away at her keyboard.  The keyboard went silent and he could feel her eyes on him, but he walked on without saying anything.  He didn’t feel like feigning politeness right now.
            The keypad to his lab still worked (thank God for small favors) and it was dark inside.  White florescent lights flickered on, giving the sterile feel that he found comforting.  Those lights didn’t care whether he gave enough time to his family or regretted not doing more.  They just existed, doing what they were designed to do.
            After switching on the particle refractor, he glanced at the journal on his desk.  It was stuck on the same series of equations it was on when he got Elise’s call.  Those equations were what he had immersed himself in.  He knew that they should balance and produce a solution, but they’d ignored him up to now.  He picked up his pencil, a No. 2 Style Write, and began to work.
            This was what helped him keep his mind off of Samantha after she passed.  Though slow going, he knew it would help him keep his mind off of Karen as well.  He’d been at it for 30 minutes and just input the latest refraction angles into the machine when Gary walked in.
            “Mike?” he stammered.  “What are you doing here?”
            “Finishing up the latest set of equations I’ve got before running them through the refractor,” he said without hesitating.
            Gary frowned at him.  “You know what I mean.  We told you to take time.  It’s only been a few days since…”  His voice trailed off.
            Mike didn’t look up from the machine.  “I need to get back into the mix.  I’m fine.”
            “Bullshit,” said Gary.
            Mike looked at him, the pencil frozen in his hand.  He took a deep breath and said, almost pleading, “I have to be here Gary.  You guys told me to take all the time I needed, but I don’t think that time would be spent any better at home.  It’s better if I just get back into my normal routine until I figure out what to do next.”
            “Everybody needs time to grieve.”
            “What’s that going to accomplish?  It was different after Samantha died – I had Karen, so I needed those days to help try and get her straight, for all the good it did.  But now?  All I’d be doing is feeling sorry for myself.  I’ve got to get into something or I’ll go crazy.”
            Gary looked unconvinced, but after a moment said, “You know best what to do for yourself.  If you say you need to be here, then I guess you need to be here.”  He reached over to the rack and put on his lab coat.  “Just don’t rush into anything.”
            Mike nodded and went back to inputting the angles.  Brief energy out, and then the printout of the latest refraction tables.  He took the numbers and went back to the original equations.  The curve of energy accelerant was still too flat.  If Harmonic Resonance Energy was possible, the curve was going to have to steepen.
            And that was what this was all about – Harmonic Resonance Energy, a potentially new form of energy that could provide benefits yet unknowable.  By Mike’s theories, once created, it could affect the bonds of reality.  It reminded Mike of the alchemists during the Middle Ages.  Stable enough for dispersion, it could, with proper manipulation, solve many of the world’s resource shortages.  At least in theory.
            There were still two big problems, though.  The first was getting the equations to balance and have the particles align correctly.  If the proper refraction angles of photon bursts could be achieved, it would produce a tiny amount of energy, showing it was possible to do on a larger scale when they constructed a new machine.
            But that was the second problem.  Such a machine would be very expensive.  Even if Hadlon could see the potential profits – one of the reasons Mike still had a job – the machine itself might prove too costly to build.  Mike had hidden the total expense, and Gary played along, because they both knew that the company would have money pouring in if the right way to manufacture it could ever be found.
            He looked at the contrast of the mirrors in relation to each other and wondered if they needed to be readjusted to increase the curve.  As he thought that, his mind drifted to Karen tilting her head up in the mirror in their bedroom and curling her eyelashes.  Mike never understood that, because even though hers were nice and long, they were rarely ever noticed unless someone specifically tried to look at them.  But she looked great in the mirror, full of energy, and she would smile at him through her reflection when she caught him staring.
            With effort, he brought his thoughts away from Karen and back to the problem with the mirrors.  He knew they would have to be readjusted, but Gary would have to help him.  Mike could calculate the angles more precisely, but he didn’t have Gary’s eye to hand coordination in the exacting adjustments.
            It was over at Gary’s for dinner shortly after Samantha was born that Karen had gotten tipsy and decided they needed to leave.  They didn’t explain why to Gary, saying they had to get Samantha to bed, but as soon as they got home and set Samantha’s car seat down, Karen attacked him with passion.  It was the first time since Samantha’s birth that they’d made love, and alcohol was always good for getting Karen in the mood.  He thought back to the feel of her breath on his neck and soft touch of her skin.
            Shit, he thought.  Again he had to pull his mind out of his memories and back to calculating the angles of the photon bursts.  He pulled a note from the back of his journal and placed it on the table.  It was slightly rumpled and familiar, showing how often he’d folded it.  He wished Karen’s letters had that same feel.  She’d written to him a lot when he was doing graduate work.  Mostly she wrote letters instead of email because she felt they were more intimate.  The loopy scrawl of her pen looked like it had come out of the Victorian Era.  She wrote about how she missed him, and he would write back, looking forward to their life together.
            He quickly pushed his chair away from the table and stood up.  Dammit, he thought, get control!  You’ve got work to do.  He walked down the row of work tables to try and calm down.
            Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Gary looking at him.  His mustache concealed whatever expression his mouth wore, but if it matched his eyes, Gary obviously thought he’d snapped.  His colleague’s hands were frozen over the keyboard he was typing on and he was sitting so rigidly in his chair that Mike wondered if he’d had metal rods inserted into his back.
            Hoping to avoid questions, Mike said, “I just needed to clear my head for a minute.”  He tried to force a chuckle, but the sound came out more like that of a child who’d been caught looking at a dirty magazine.  “The angles are still off, and I can’t work them out.  Can you help me adjust the mirrors in a sec?”
            “Sure, Mike,” Gary said slowly.  He regarded Mike as if he was some kind of bomb that could go off with the wrong touch.  “Let me finish this real quick.  Once I hit a stopping point, I’ll be over.”
            “OK.  I’ve got to get the adjustments calculated real quick.”  He walked back to his chair and tried hard not to imagine Gary staring at his back with a look of pity.
            He finally managed enough focus enough to calculate the adjustments he wanted, although he knew they wouldn’t be precise enough – that would’ve taken him most of the day.  In the back of his mind he knew he should’ve taken the necessary time, but he just wanted to get the mirrors done for now so he could run another burst.  Besides, if they weren’t precise enough, it would give him something to do afterwards.
            He heard Gary get up and walk over.  He handed him the worksheet of adjustment, and Gary grabbed the tools.  Mike really wanted to be able to do this, but he wasn’t as good as Gary.  He reflected that he wouldn’t need to be since he knew the adjustments weren’t near as precise as necessary.
            It took 20 minutes since the mirrors didn’t need much tuning, at least not according to Mike’s slipshod calculations.  Gary took off his specs and looked up.
            “That it?” he asked.
            “Yeah.  Thanks.”
            Gary hesitated for a moment.  “Mike,” he said, an awkward note in his voice, “I’m not real good at these kinds of things, but if you want to talk, I’ll try to hear you.  I don’t know what I can do, but I could listen.”
           Mike stared at his table.  He didn’t want to talk about Karen.  What he really wanted to do was ask a question.
            “Do you believe in God?”
            Of all the questions Mike might have asked, it was clear that Gary had not expected this.  He backed up and leaned against the work table behind him.  The tool in his hand shifted awkwardly, but Gary managed to steady it in short order.
            “I guess.  I mean, I used to go to church.  Diane wishes I went more, but it’s tiresome sometimes.”  He paused.  “I went to Sunday School when I was a kid.”
            Mike swiveled to look at him, chair squealing in protest.  “That’s not what I asked,” he said.  “I wanted to know if you believed in God.”
            Gary began to look uncomfortable.  Finally, he shrugged.  “I don’t know.  There are times I think maybe I do, and times I wish I did, but usually I don’t think about it.  He’s either there or He isn’t – it really doesn’t have much to do with me.” He began to say something else but stopped.
            “I don’t know either,” said Mike.  “I’ve never really thought about it.  I didn’t get taught anything about God when I was younger, so I didn’t think very hard about it.  Karen was getting more into religion when Samantha was sick, but I took that as someone searching for comfort.  Recent events, though…”
            His voice trailed off.  He wanted to talk with someone who could sympathize with him about his dream, but the skinny scientist wearing glasses and a mustache was the only person here.  Finally, he spoke.  “I had a dream about Heaven last night.”
            Gary nodded.  “I’m sure you’ll get there one day and see them again.”  His voice was quick and lacked conviction.
            “I don’t know.  If it’s real, then yeah, I’ll see Samantha.  But Karen?  I’m not so sure.”  As Gary looked at him quizzically, he said, “A lot of religions say that people who commit suicide can’t go to Heaven.”
            “Why?” asked Gary.
            “I don’t know.  I’ve never been a religious guy, but I remember hearing about that, probably on TV or something.  Catholics in particular say that suicides go…somewhere else.”
            “Somewhere else?  You mean like Hell?”  Gary curled his mouth.  “What would the point of that be?  Sorry, even if I believed in God, I couldn’t buy into that.”
            Silence stretched between them for what seemed like minutes until Gary said, “I know you’re worried about that because of what happened, but I wouldn’t sweat it.  You asked me about the difference between religion and God.  How would a ‘religious person’” – he pulled his hands off the table and made quotation marks in the air – “know about that unless they died and found out.  I may have missed the news, but I don’t recall seeing too many folks coming back and telling us.”  He attempted a smile, but wiped it from his face as quickly as it appeared.
            “You’re probably right.  I don’t even think I believe in God’s existence, but you wonder about things like that when …stuff happens.”  He turned his chair back around and looked at his equations again.  “Thanks.  I was just, you know, wondering.”
            “Sure, Mike,” said Gary, an obvious note of relief in his voice.  Mike thought the footsteps heading across the room were a little fast, and silence was soon the only thing left between them.
            He tried to get back to his work and find a way to get something else, anything else, into his head.  It wasn’t working.  Mentioning Karen’s suicide forced other images into his head – like seeing her body on that metal bed at the morgue.  Her skin was waxy and pale, probably from the loss of blood.  He wanted to reach out and pull up and eyelid, hoping she’d pop up and say, “Just kidding!”  But the attendants stopped him.  They’d briefly discussed what to do with the body.  He mumbled something about their burial plots.  They made some preliminary arrangements and told him to go home for the night.
            Home was a different nightmare.  The paramedics had worked on his wife, but they didn’t clean up the mess.  The bathroom sink was full of cold, red water where the ice she’d soaked her wrists in had melted, but not before she bled into it.  She bled into the sink, onto the floor, and even  onto the walls.  He’d have never picked her as a slit-the-wrists kind of girl, but knew Karen rarely did things without a reason.
            Terry, Elise’s husband, came over to check on him and helped him scrub the bathroom.  Terry said Elise was too shaken to come over, but those were about the only words they shared.  He picked up a towel and a bottle of cleaner from the kitchen while Mike grabbed the mop.  The circumstances were less than ideal to clean up that much blood, but they made due.  They mopped, scrubbed, and wiped for two hours.  Near the end, Mike began to slow, as if cleaning up the last of her blood would mean she was really gone.
            When it was over, he threw the towels into the garbage, knowing he would never get the blood out of them.  Terry looked around, asked Mike what he needed that night, and left after promising to be by in the morning.
            Once again he pulled his mind back to reality and forced himself to work on his equations.  Gary was already at his table and apparently working very hard.  Mike got the impression he was avoiding looking up in case Mike wanted to talk again.  It didn’t matter – he didn’t want to look at or talk to anybody right now.
            No work really got done that day.  He tried, but it wouldn’t come.  Maybe I should have taken more time like they said, he thought.  But I still don’t know what I would’ve done with it.
            He left 30 minutes early, throwing on his overcoat and looking out of the window and at the rain.  Still gray, still coming down, this time in a chilly mist.  Not the pelting type that had been coming down the last few days, but still enough to make the trip to the car unpleasant.
            He pushed open the door, turned his face against the mist, and walked towards the minivan.  He fumbled for his keys, dropping them.  Shaking them off, he finally managed to unlock the door and climb inside.  The chill wasn’t any better in here, and he knew that if he didn’t turn on the defroster before he left, he’d soon be unable to see.
            The radio came on.  Mike preferred jazz, and his satellite radio held 15 stations of it.  Dance jazz.  Blues jazz.  Toe tapping jazz.  He found a nice slow selection, hoping it would soothe him.  Traffic passed at the same cautious pace it had that morning.  With a steady tug of the wheel, he pulled out of the parking lot.
            Cars were going much more slowly than he cared for, so he pulled into the left lane and headed towards his house.  Karen would have gotten onto him about his speed, especially if Samantha had been in the car, but she wasn’t here now, and he hadn’t had an accident since he was in high school.  Yes, the road was slick, but people always drove more slowly than necessary.
            He glanced out of the window at the pattern the wind was creating with the water on the glass.  That had fascinated him since he was a kid.  It was as if the droplets of water were dancing just for him.
            He’d been looking at it for a few seconds when the minivan suddenly screeched to a halt.  The seat belt grabbed him, digging hard into his chest.  For a second he thought he’d hit something, but the thought was gone as soon as it formed; he never felt an impact.  The car just stopped.
            He was about to curse, afraid of the price tag that would be associated with such a catastrophic repair, when a large blue SUV screamed in front of him, horn blaring.  Mike looked up and realized he’d nearly run the stoplight.  Had the vehicle not stopped, he’d have been broadsided by the SUV and probably killed.  After a few seconds, he figured out that the loud thud in his ears was his heart, and he slowly managed to steady his hands.
            Be more careful, he thought, almost in Karen’s voice, as the light turned green.  He looked both ways, carefully checking traffic(something he almost never did), and edged out into the intersection.  He knew that he’d be temporarily cured of driving too fast or not paying attention.  He glanced to the side to see if anyone saw how close he’d come to being pulverized before returning his focus in front of him.
            If only he’d looked behind him, he might have seen the lone figure in a long black overcoat and wide brimmed hat staring at him.

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