I finished my first novel, Broken Magic, in 2007. Since then, it’s seen the inboxes of about a dozen publishers and agents. When there was a response at all, it was what you’d expect: Sorry, but it’s not what we’re looking for. There have been gaps where I just gave up, gaps which are the greatest cause of embarrassment for me. I mean, I got through the pain and suffering of finishing a novel, only to sit on a query letter for eight months? One of those queries are out right now, and I’m coming up on the point at which I need to decide that I’m never going to see a response. The Silent No. The only thing worse than the Form Letter No.
That leaves me with a choice. Do I continue to send out letters, or do I decide that this is not a novel that will be published? Before the latest round went out, I’d been on the verge of self-publishing. I’m sick of the thing sitting, mostly unread, on my hard drive. I like it. I wouldn’t still be sending out rejection bait if I didn’t. But it was finished so long ago that it’s getting to be a bit of a drag to have to talk about it in the abstract.
Today, I got dared. I should have made them double dog dare me, but I fold like a 1,000 thread count bedsheet. The dare? To post the first chapter of Broken Magic for all to see. Or, to be more specific, for all ten of my readers to see. Because I fold so easily, I agreed. And because I’ll talk myself out of it if I give it too much time, I decided I’d need to do it immediately. I hope, in some way, posting this will force my mind to make a decision, and that next week I’ll be sending out another query letter, or formatting Broken Magic for publication on my own. Because the first two chapters form a more coherent mini-story than the first chapter alone, I’ll be posting chapter 2 – “Thanks, Babe” – on Monday.
Beyond that, without further ado, the first chapter of Broken Magic.
1. Small Blonde Thing
There is someone playing music in the back of the room, right hand making maddened up-and-down motions across guitar strings. I can’t hear a note of it. Instead, there is the screeching, bubbling nightmare-sound of hot steam forced through milk. I’m paying more attention to a college student making cappuccino than the musician. I can’t remember the guitarist’s name, but I’m pretty sure the girl making cappuccino is Ann.
I haven’t come alone. There are ten other people with me, spread out across three tables. All theater kids. I guess I’m one, too, but I don’t feel like it. Last week was the deadline to join tech crew. I signed up on Friday. Today is Saturday.
I’m out of place. With the theater clique. With everyone in this place, this coffee shop not meant for suburban high school posers. At least I’ve learned enough about coffee to have ordered without sounding like an idiot. I can only hope knowing the difference between a latte and cappuccino is enough to keep anyone here from realizing I don’t belong.
Ann, or whatever her name is, turns off the steam. Musician-guy finishes a song. Another one begins. It is ten minutes before I fall very, very hard for someone I’ve never met.
For now, I’m here because of the girl to my left. I’ve never done theater before. The only theater I’ve seen? Musicals. I’m not even sure if I like theater. But she’s the best actress in school. If you want to spend time with her, you’re going to have to be near a stage. Her name is Laura, and I’ve been mooning over her for two months. It took me all of that time to get the courage to sign up for tech crew. Where I found the cojones to sit next to her, I’ll never know.
Laura knows I exist just long enough to say hello to me. Then she’s talking to a friend, flirting with one of the fifteen other guys in the room who aren’t me, or just plain ignoring me.
At the moment, I think she’s perfect.
Most of the people with me are girls. There’s Sally, a sophomore, who is either Laura’s protégé or rival, depending on what day it is. Janet Haller, who I’ve never heard called by anything less than her full name. Kevin, Greg and Karen, the trio of doom, the worst actors in the school whose only talent is bulldozing over other people’s good ideas. Paula, who threw up on stage on opening night during last year’s musical. She won’t be getting another lead. Nina and Francie, the token lesbians of the theater program, who aren’t actually lesbians at all. But being called dyke is the price you pay for dressing in black, doing theater and hanging out with another girl all the time. Actually, being called dyke is the price you pay for going to high school, being female and not dressing in Tommy. Nina and Francie are just easier targets.
And there’s Laura. Queen of the theater. Short red hair. Dressed in the kind of almost-ratty, old-looking clothes that only a trendy actress could pull off. I don’t think they even match. Tall and thin, small busted but shapely. She’s beautiful, she’s talented, and I’m pretty sure she isn’t wearing a bra.
Everyone female is enamored with the man playing music. Laura set the tone as soon as we sat down. “Damn,” she said, and that was enough. No one has spoken since. That half of every song was obscured by cappuccino-sound is irrelevant. A hot man is playing music, and conversation can wait.
I have lots of time to think about how the music really isn’t all that good. Simplistic. Trite lyrics. Lots of stupid crowd pleasing ad-libs, like inserting the name of the coffee shop into the song. I think of voicing them, tearing the man apart to take some attention away from him. But really I just want to talk to Laura, or listen to her talk, or imagine that she has something resembling attraction to me. That last one is sort of hard, what with the need for a drool cup every time music-guy starts a new song.
Rebellion begins with the trio of doom. Whether or not they’re enjoying the music, or find music-guy attractive, is not the point. Fifteen minutes of silence because Laura wants to gawk is far too much. Greg fires the first shot. “You think he’d go out with me?”
Laura peels her attention off of music-guy. Turns to Greg. Her ability to switch moods on command is frightening. Remember, she’s an actress. “Don’t be a tool.”
“He’s probably would.” Everything Karen says has a lazy slur to it, like she’s barely got the energy to speak. It irritates the hell out of me. “Grunge isn’t your type, though.”
Greg shrugs. “True.”
“But he’s definitely hot,” Kevin adds, making sure to keep an eye on Laura as he talks.
Laura knows what they’re doing. Getting her angry is what they want, and Laura isn’t the alpha for nothing. “You really think he’s gay?” She says it like she’s disappointed. Like she believes them. For a second, I wonder if the trio has won this round.
“He’s a little bit feminine,” Greg says.
Karen nods in agreement, suddenly acting sympathetic. “He’s got the aura, you know?”
Laura considers this for a moment. Everyone at the table slides a little forward in their seats. I want them to be right. I want music-guy to be gay so she can stop staring at him. But I don’t want to see her dropped a peg by these three. Stupid conflicting emotions. Why did I come here tonight, anyway?
A song reaches its banal conclusion.
“I think I’ll just go ask him out for you. We’ll know for sure, then.” Laura’s response comes out all happy and helpful. It’s enough of a shock that no one moves to stop her in the second it takes her to get out of her seat and walk away from the table. Greg’s mouth opens. Closes. Everyone but the trio holds back laughter.
The guitarist looks up as Laura approaches. She smiles at him. He smiles back. The likelihood of his homosexuality seems slim. Then Laura is whispering into his ear, and I – like everyone else – am wondering if this was a bluff by Laura, or an object lesson for anyone interested in staging a coup before this year’s musical. Music-guy laughs. Just a little. Karen squeezes Greg’s hand.
“Uh, hey everyone. I just got asked a question by uh…what’s your name?” The music-guy asks the question like he’s about to ask her out. I hate him and his generic music.
Laura answers quietly, so only music-man can hear him.
“Laura. Nice to meet you, Laura. I’m Ridley.” He laughs a little and turns back to the crowd. “Anyway it was a well timed question, because I’m about to take a break anyway and introduce you to someone special. While I get some coffee, you get to be the first to hear the best new musician in the city. Uh, Celeste? Wanna stand up?”
At a table between me and Ridley, a small blonde thing stands. All I see is the back of a white tank top, a calf-length, blue and green skirt and short hair. She turns to look at the crowd, but shyly, so no one really gets a look at her at all.
“This is Celeste, and no, I’m not just lucky enough to have someone as talented as her to play while I’m on break. I’m lucky enough to be dating someone as talented as her.” Not gay, but not available. Perfect. He turns to our table. “So, sorry Greg, I’m taken. You seem like a nice guy, though.”
Rippling laughter moves across the crowd. If the redness in Greg’s cheeks is embarrassment or anger I’m not sure. Advantage, Laura. She won’t be flirting with a hot guitarist tonight, but public humiliation will be enough to keep the trio from bringing that fact up. Her work done, Laura gives a little wave to Ridley and walks back to the table. If it had been me, I’d be still awkwardly standing there, making a fool out of myself. Laura knows how and when to make an exit. Ridley even waves back before continuing.
“Anyway, enjoy the show. I’ll be back on for another set in a while.” Celeste, the small blonde thing, walks up to the stage. Ridley touches her hand, kisses her cheek, and heads straight to the counter to order something trendy.
Laura returns to the table and gives the trio a look. Remember your place, it says. Then she looks at me. At me. Triumphantly. I try to return the look, and fail miserably, I’m sure. Before I feel awkward, I look away.
Celeste sits down, pulls out a guitar and gives the crowd a nervous smile. I can see her face, and despite the close presence of Laura, I can barely take my eyes off her. At the moment, I’m not even sure why. “Just give me a second,” she says barely loud enough for me to understand. Begins tuning her guitar.
My eyes are still on her when I get the guts to speak. “I wonder if she’s any good.”
“Eh,” Laura says, and that’s all. A good actress knows her competition, she told me one day in English class.
With the trio silenced, and Laura stewing over her hot musician target being taken, the others at the table realize they’re able to speak. Francie, who’s been wanting to say something all night, makes her move. “What do you think about the new director?” Ms. Holtmeyer, the theater teacher, is no longer directing our productions. An outsider has been brought in to direct, to give her more time to concentrate on her classes. A subtle way of saying parents have been complaining.
Like she’s been prepped for this conversation before Francie spoke, Nina responds. “It’s totally unfair to Ms. H.”
Paula answers as she always does. Monosyllabically. “Yeah.”
“Holt was a crap director. Anyone would be better.” Laura’s words are dismissive, almost bitter. I’d try to say something – anything – to support her, except somehow Celeste’s guitar tuning is the most entrancing thing I’ve ever seen.
I see Sally nod out of the corner of my eye. Holtmeyer never cast her, but she doesn’t want to sound like Laura’s shadow. A silent response is her most political choice.
Celeste is almost finished tuning, but it’s taking her too long. She’s losing the crowd. She offers everyone a placating smile. I’m awed by how cute she is. Not beautiful. Cute. That might sound like an insult, but note that I’m still staring at her.
“I guess he seems fine,” Janet Haller says from behind me. She got a bigger role than she expected in the play. “But I’ll miss Holt.”
Nina tries again. “I just don’t think it was fair.”
“Well, that’s theater. Get used to it if you want to have a career.” If I was paying more attention I might find Laura’s cattiness a turn off.
Only Celeste is starting to play. In ten minutes, the night has changed meaning for me entirely. I know, somewhere in the back of my head, that I’ll be back to following Laura around tomorrow. I know I’ll be building sets and moving lights just so I can get five minutes with her to say nothing at all. That’s tomorrow. Now, my eyes watch a pale hand caress the fret board of a guitar, readying itself. Now, I’m smitten by someone small, blonde and even less available to me than Laura.
“You don’t have to be such a bitch about it, Laura,” Greg says in an attempt to regain the upper hand. “It’s not like it matters who’s directing. You’re the lead no matter what.”
Laura’s voice rises at the wrong moment. Celeste’s right hand is raised just above the strings. No pick. Finger picking only. I want to hear this more than anything, but instead I hear, “I’ve earned every role I’ve gotten. That’s more than you three can say.”
The opening chord is delicate, and it’s ruined by the argument. I hear the next three, and Celeste’s music just makes her more entrancing. This is different than Ridley. Not just because she looks good, I swear. The argument continues, blasting away the song again. “Can we not do this tonight?” Sally’s attempt to be forceful fails.
“We audition the same as you,” Karen says, leaning across the table, “we just don’t suck up as well, apparently.”
I almost say that she’s gotten it all backwards, but arguing with actors is the last thing I want to do, even if it means sticking up for Laura. Celeste’s mouth is opening, and all I want is to hear her voice.
I’d say my heart skipped a beat, or my breath caught in my throat, except that would sound really, incredibly stupid. Everything does stop for a moment, though, when she sings. Almost like the world around me just blinked. I’m convinced the theater argument has continued and gotten worse, but I can no longer hear it. I thought Celeste would be, at best, pretty good. Cute girl singing songs, worth paying attention to, but not much more. Instead, she’s incredible. No microphone, but every word is clear and resonant. Lyrics that aren’t just lyrics. They’re poetry. Really, freaking good poetry.
I only joined theater because of Laura. I’m sitting in a coffee shop I don’t belong in so I might have the chance to say two or three things to her and stare at her the rest of the time. So why can’t I even focus on what she’s shouting next to me?
Because of the small blonde girl singing on stage.
Apparently I’m the only one able to ignore the battle erupting around me. Ridley, hot music guy, is standing at our table as soon as Celeste’s song ends. He smiles, directly at Laura, and politely asks if we wouldn’t mind keeping it down while his girlfriend plays her set. I’m barely aware of the seething quiet that descends on Laura, or of the smug satisfaction on the trio’s face in seeing Laura humiliated by Ridley. After all, Celeste just started a new song.
Chapter 2, Thanks, Babe has been published here. Broken Magic will be available for Kindle, Nook and in print in September 2012.