Story Time!!!


Here's an excerpt from my novel

!!!!!!!



...because I promised it a while back and never delivered. I first wrote this story in 2014, and I always knew it would be the second one I would publish. Then Angie Thomas's The Hate U Give was published a couple years later, and although our stories focus on two different topics, the tension and focus on race is similar. Had I tried to publish my story during the first swell of the Black Lives Matter movement, I don't think it would have held up; when you compare teenage romance to heavy political commentary, romance feels much more trivial. Even though Way Down Low also addresses the socioeconomic differences between black and white people in the made-up town of Bull Bay, in the end the focus is on relationships. It wasn't the right time for my novel back then, but it's the right time now.


So I hope you enjoy this snippet.






November 9

Morning

Like some form of water torture, memories of the school year Will shared with Leda drip onto his mind with that awful, incessant plopping sound. It happens during the most inopportune times: while he’s sitting at his desk as his class takes a test; while he’s picking out vests with Heather for his groomsmen; or randomly, in the middle of the night. That’s the worst. He wakes up sweating or panicking because of the anxiety.

Today he’s trying to figure out a wedding registry with Heather. She insists on driving around to different stores in town to find out where their combined personal taste lies.

“Anyone could register at Target,” she says as he drives them down Independent Blvd. She’s all tanned and pretty even though it’s almost wintertime, and she’s wearing a purple dress, close-toed wedge heels, and brown sunglasses. Her yellow-red hair is curly and moves in the warm air coming from the vents, and even this small thing takes him back to his senior year.

Will once took Leda home after school. They’d stayed late so she could help him study pre-calculus, in private of course. The least he could do to repay all the help she’d been giving him over the past two months of their last semester in school was give her a ride home; even in the deep south, waiting outside for a bus in the middle of February was pretty rough.

Leda’s hair was blowing in the heat coming from the vents in his car. The SUV he used to drive wasn’t brand new, but it was a great car. And everyone knew he drove it because he wanted to, not because he had to, so he was fine using it, especially during the winter months. Down here you never knew when snow would turn up out of nowhere. No one was ever prepared.

“God, I hate it when it’s cold,” she said, leaning into the vent.

Will smiled. “Glad I was able to rescue you from the weather, like you rescued me from a failing grade on that math test.”

“Your teacher is a Nazi. I’d be struggling too.”

“Only the best for Morgan Prep.” He said it because every time he said something like that, Leda rolled her eyes. “I’m just ready to get out of here, move on, go to college.”

“To study something in which you have no interest. Because that’s what life is all about.”

“It is in my world.” They crossed Bull Bay’s limits into the city. Leda gazed out the window for a moment, watching the big, fancy houses pass her by.

“In that case, I’m glad I don’t live in your world.”

Will smirked. “Honestly, a person could do a lot worse.”

“You can’t imagine.” She looked back at him. “You still haven’t told me what you really want.”

The sky was half gray and turning dark, casting interesting shadows on the road that Will now watched with intense concentration. Leda was different from the girls at his school. Sure, that’s the whole emphasis of the P.A.D. program in the first place, but she wasn't just different in that way. She was different in a way that allowed him to look past that brown skin and long, kinky hair and into her. For lengths of time he tended to forget just who she was and what he was doing talking to her, tended to forget his reputation. Time and again he had to bring himself back to reality – he had Heather, Leda was “underprivileged”, and everyone would get a good laugh and sneer if they knew he favored her in any way.

“That’s because…” he addressed her question after a long pause, “I’m not sure if what I really want is worth the hassle. I tell myself to just forget about it, you know?”

“And does it keep coming back? The idea?”

Her voice was soft now. She thought of how sad a fate he and the rest of the people in this town had, going about life like robots following a pattern set by others. She was glad she never had to be like any of these people in Bull Bay, didn’t have to ever live a life she didn’t want. She was glad her parents were encouraging her to go for what she wanted and settle for nothing less. They wanted different things for her.

“It comes around every once in a while,” Will answered finally. “Nothing I can do about it though, right?”

He looked at her and she nodded and turned away and they spent the rest of the car ride in almost complete silence, speaking only when she was giving directions. He pulled up in front of her house. The street was unassuming enough, narrow with a lot of cars parked along the curb, and her house was small with a glass front door and warm light emanating from within.

“All right,” she said, hugging her bookbag in her lap and glancing at Will. “Thanks for the ride. I really do appreciate it.”

“Yeah. Thanks for the, uh, help. In pre-calc. I really do appreciate it.”

She nodded again.

“Hold on,” he said without thinking and reached toward her face. He pushed some of the hair around her face back into place, then smoothed her bangs back to the left. “Your hair got blown all over the place. Because of the vent.”

Leda raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips. The look that passed over Will’s face at that moment was different than any expression she’d seen him with since she met him. It was pensive and bewildered. The smug, overly-confident guy she was used to tolerating had shown her something else. It alarmed her a bit.

“Thank you,” she said. She hesitated a bit before getting out of the car because she kept feeling like she should say something else. In the end, though, she opened the passenger door and stepped out of the SUV.

“I’ll see you next week,” he said to her. “For pre-calc.”

She smiled. Just for pre-calc. Just for pre-calc. He would never stop reminding her. “Right. ‘Bye.”

Will watched her until she got to her door and disappeared inside. The thought of what he truly wanted came to his mind again. And once again, he swatted it away.

“Will?”

Heather is speaking to him and he doesn’t remember what about. He glances at her as he’s turning a corner and finds her sunglasses up on her head and her green eyes wide and expectant.

“But you love Target,” he says, picking up where he left off.

“Babe, I’m not even talking about that anymore. I said I think you need to go into Pier-1 with more design ideas than you had in the last store.”

He shrugs. “I’m a basic person. You know that.”

“As evidenced by your choice of career,” she says. Will swallows hard and starts concentrating on the road again, stopping more memories from plopping on his brain. By this point they’re starting to feel like little bits of revenge toward Heather for picking fun at his profession. She doesn’t do it often, but when she does, she does it to strike a chord in him. She’s always known just the thing to say to push him.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “Really, that was uncalled for. I’m just kind of frustrated that you won’t take a little more interest in this process.”

“Hey, I’ve been into it. I gave my opinions on the cake, the colors, and the menu. I’m just not someone who’s a stickler on where we register. I mean I figure I should just leave the decorating to you before I come home with something God-awful that you hate.”

“I just wish I had more insight into your style, you know? It frustrates me to know that after seven years I have no idea who you are in that department. Guys are so out of touch when it comes to stuff like this… I just want our home to be something we both can love, something that reflects both of us.”

“I’ll love it if you love it, honey,” he tells her, touching her chin. “I’ll love whatever makes you happy. Your happiness is the only reflection of me I want anyone to see.”

Heather smiles and puts her sunglasses back down. “Dark wood or light wood?”

“Which do you prefer?”

“Dark.”

“So do I.” His fiancée just laughs and shakes her head.


---


November 9

4:00 p.m.

Jackson sits at the long oak wood table in a corner of the library after school with his hood over his head. He glances up every so often in paranoid anticipation. He’s waiting for Charlotte Watkins, wondering how many people are going to see them together. Luckily, it’s after school and most people have gone home by this point. In a normal situation he would have just gone home to work on this paper with his partner, but that clearly isn’t going to be an option. His mother would have an aneurysm. The library is the safest place for him and Charlotte to be.

He scowls at his hands. He didn’t tell Tatum who he was staying after with because he didn’t want her to tell their mom when she picked her up. This is exhausting, everything he’s doing just to keep the peace in his house, just to keep the focus off him. Why should he have to lie about who he’s with?

He blinks twice and raises his eyes to the fluorescent lights in irritation because his sister had asked that very question when she got in trouble earlier this year. And he remembers the reason why they have to lie. The only difference is he’s lying about someone he’s doing homework with, not making out with. His parents will never have to worry about him doing that.

Charlotte searches for Jackson’s gray jacket and finds him in a table all the way at the back of the library. She shakes her head – figures he’d want to stay out of the sights of everyone. Whatever. A couple more weeks and they’ll be finished with this.

She frowns when she notices how clear his eyes are under the light. He’s got to be the stiffest person she’s ever met, so tightly wound, so unsmiling and humorless. He’s definitely making it easier for her to stay focused on their paper; it’s easy to focus when you’re working with someone who’s dead as a doornail in the eyes and the personality.

He sees her right as she approaches the table and sets her bag down. She lifts one side of her mouth and sits. “Are we making some kind of illegal deal back here?” she whispers.

“I just thought we could use the seclusion,” he explains in just as quiet a voice. “You know, so we can focus.”

“I see.” Charlotte decides not to press the issue, willing herself to get her ideas out there as quickly as possible so she can go home. She knows Jackson will go along with pretty much anything she says, but she knows it’s got to be good because if the paper has any flaws, she wouldn’t put it past him to put the blame on her.

“Okay,” she says, splaying her notes out in front of her. Jackson sits there with just his book of Poe works, rolled into a tube in his hands, and a pencil stuck behind his ear, poking out from under his hood. “Did you read the story?”

“Yep.”

“What’d you think?”

“It’s weird.”

“Yeah,” she agrees with a sigh. It’s going to be fun translating whatever commentary he adds to this discussion into analysis-worthy language. “Um, what did you find weird about it?”

“What’s not to find weird about it? Roderick Usher is a psycho. The narrator is supposedly scared but he’s not scared enough to make a beeline for the big, creaking doors when Usher starts acting funny. I’m sorry, but I don’t understand why Poe didn’t kill both of them off.”

“Well, someone needed to live to tell the story.”

“I could have lived the rest of my life never having read this story.”

“Poe’s not for everyone.” Charlotte resists smiling. She actually enjoyed the story, able to read past the weirdness of it all to see the meaning underneath. “So since the story itself is something a lot of people take for face value, I think our paper should be on the main themes of the story, the imagery, symbols, so on. We could make several good arguments from that stuff because in the end it’s all about our interpretation.”

“That’d be a great idea if I picked up on any symbols or imagery. The most I got was that the house is a creepy dump that’s falling apart and should be condemned.”

“Okay, so let’s look at the house. It’s one of the things I focused on in my notes. I found we could make an argument that it represents the stages of a mental breakdown.”

“…A mental breakdown. That’s a pretty bold argument. What’s your textual evidence?”

“Well, look at the story. We see up front when the narrator gets to the house that there’s a crack down the middle, showing the deterioration that is already there. The house is a sickness itself, with all that restrained… hysteria is the word the narrator used, I think. Then Roderick Usher starts hearing his dead freaking sister – hearing stuff, right? And then, finally, his sister comes back and the house crumbles to the ground and everyone dies, signifying an end of suffering.”

Jackson is staring at her again, his pupils so small in the blue sea of his eyes, so black against the light color. “Deep,” he says.

“I know.” Her eyes dart to the side and then back at Jackson. “It, um, it’ll sound a lot more eloquent in the paper.”

“Sure.”

She sighs again. Looks like she really will be doing this all herself. “I did a little research on mental disease but we’ll obviously have to do more to be able to verify our argument. Could you handle that?”

“Spending all my time on the internet looking up stuff about mental disease? Sounds unbelievably fun. I can’t wait to get started.”

She smiles, ignoring his sarcasm. “Great.”

“How long does this paper have to be again?” Jack asks.

“Six to eight pages.”

He groans. “I’ve got to come up with six to eight pages worth of mental illness? By the end of this I’ll be insane.”

“But not hearing the voice of your dead sister.”

“My sister wishes she was dead. It’s the same thing around my house.” He stops talking and tenses up. Did he just say that out loud?

Charlotte stares at him, shocked. “I’m… sorry. I didn’t know you actually had a sister –”

“It’s okay. Let’s not talk about it.” He opens his book to a random page and pretends to study the words on the paper so Charlotte will let it go. And she does let it go because she doesn’t want to dredge up anything awkward or difficult with this kid she doesn’t know. Revealing things about one another is the fastest way to get close and she can’t afford to do that. She can’t afford to care and doesn’t see why she should anyway.

Jackson wishes he could sink into the floor. This is only week one. He’s got four left. Spending time with Charlotte Watkins is going to be the death of him.