Monday, January 25, 2010

SHARDS: an excerpt

One question that I didn't fully explore in my first draft of SHARDS was how a terminally-ill father could even ask his teenage daughter to help him end his life. This is a scene I recently wrote to try and fill in that gap. It's still rough, and I'm trying to figure out if it works or not.  It opens with April, six years later, in her father's study, and then flashes back to high school. One of the hard parts of writing this chapter, for me, was that I just couldn't help writing aspects of my own father in -- the Shangri-Las, the scales, even the story about swerving to avoid the deer and then regretting it (the vodka tonics and the actual assisted suicide are not a part of my own father's story, though).

She sat at his desk, in the stiff black leather chair.  Mom could put this space to better use. She still used the old family computer station in the hallway as her own home office space, even though she had a shiny new Dell in place of the dinosaur April had once hogged for homework, Myspace and instant messager.

Still, April ran a finger over the old coffee stains – what a thing to feel nostalgic about – and knew why Mom didn’t. She could almost pretend he was going to come home, in this room.

The row of bare windows, overlooking the orchard behind the house, was behind her; to the right were the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves full of books she had pronounced boring as a child. To the left was a long, low cabinet. Glass shelves held Dad’s various pieces of memorabilia, some worth something, some not. There was a Civil War-era musket, a pile of arrowheads they had found, a big purple geode. Family photo albums, which Dad  had conscientiously filled with every single photo from a roll no matter how unflattering, were stacked up on the top shelf. His ribbons and medals, mounted in a case, from a gory and terrible year in Viet Nam. On the top of the cabinet was Dad’s first typewriter, a record player, an old-fashioned set of scales. The scales had endlessly amused April as a toddler, as she stacked and restacked the round lead weights.

She got up, rifled through Dad’s record collection, and then put on the Shangri-La’s. She dropped the needle onto the spinning disc with a practiced hand, even though it had been years. They had both loved the record player; something about the spinning disc, the need to change records or flip them over.  It connected you to the music in a way, made you focus on it rather than let it fade into the background.

She hadn’t been in here in years, but she used to be a frequent visitor. Dad always had time for her. She used to sit on the edge of the desk while he, theoretically, worked, and ramble on about school and friends. When she was very little, he used to listen to her long stories about a made-up quartet of plucky orphans, who escaped from a series of terrible orphanages that fed them nothing but oatmeal, eventually moving into a magical farmhouse in the center of a forest. 

In fact, he had been sitting here – not yet confined to the hospital bed, but too weak to work from the office most days – the day he had first broached the subject of assisted suicide.

“I don’t want you to remember me dying,” he said. “This cancer isn’t who I am.”

“Obviously, Dad,” she said. She took a sip from her cup of Coke, then wiggled it at him, ice cubes clanking against the sides of the glass. “Mom isn’t home.”

“In the drawer,” he said. She leaned across the desk to open the desk drawer, pulled out the bottle of rum. Mom was on the puritanical side of teen drinking; Dad saw nothing wrong with underage drinking, especially safely at home and away from Ben. She was going to experiment with alcohol sometime, he said, why not here and now?  They’d started off with vodka tonics together while Mom was at Bible study, but Dad’s stomach bothered him too much to drink anymore.

She mixed her rum and Coke with her finger, then sucked on it absently. “I know you don’t like the idea of losing your dignity,” she said. “But to be honest, I want you around as long as possible.”

“I know, baby,” he said.

She turned away, looking out the windows, and kicking her long legs out.

“Don’t be sad,” he said. “This is just a part of life.”

“That doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck,” she said, choking a little on the words.

“No, it doesn’t,” he agreed. “Sometimes I think about how I won’t be there when you graduate college, or when you get married, and I—” he stopped. She looked at him again, her vision blurred, and saw him put his head in his hands. She knew he wouldn’t finish the thought. He was not going to risk crying in front of her. She blinked away her own tears, surreptitiously touching a knuckle to the corner of one eye.

“It’s going to be okay,” she said. “We’ll get through this, Daddy.”

He sat up himself, pulling his hands away from his now-composed face.  “I’m not looking forward to this dying business,” he said.

She waited. Her heart felt frozen in her chest. They had danced on the edges of this before. She knew what her decision was, already; it was just so terrible to contemplate.

“I was driving home last week, and a deer ran in front of the car. Big buck.  I swerved to avoid it. And then, as I was driving the rest of the way, my heart pounding – I wondered what the hell I’d just done.  That could have been my ticket out of this whole mess.”

“Hearts want to keep beating,” April said softly. “I think it’s just what’s in us.”

“Our hearts aren’t very smart sometimes,” he said.

She shook her head. In agreement, maybe.

“Hospice will try to make me comfortable, at the end,” he said. “If they can’t… that is not how I want my life to end.”

“Well,” she said. She clanked her ice in the glass again, a little nervous tic she was cultivating. “You know what a loving obedient daughter I am.” The joke felt flat to both of them; she blundered on, anyway. “I’ll do anything you ever want me to do.”

He put his hand over hers. They even had the same hands; long, with delicate fingers. Hands made for art and creation, sometimes called to be instruments of destruction instead.

It wasn’t a handshake, but it sealed their agreement; later it would be expounded on, but that was the moment the course of April’s life changed.

They had talked about the how a hundred times, perfected the plan. April had used the library for research, in case there was ever suspicion, so no one could trace their home web searches.

There was just one question that they’d never addressed, and it was the one that April was caught up in now.

Who the hell asks their teenager daughter to take responsibility for something like that?

It wasn’t something that had even occurred to her at seventeen. He needed her, she loved him, it was simple as that. They had worked it out to ensure that she’d never face criminal prosecution, that her life would not be ruined.

But of course, it wasn’t criminal prosecution that would ruin her life. It wasn’t the possibility of losing the family insurance payout that paid for her tuition and apartment. It wasn’t even the possibility of losing her seat at medical school.

It was just the weight of having killed someone that she loved.


Kimberly Franklin said...

I. Love. This!

Oh, and Shards...brilliant title. I wish I would have thought of that one. : (

: ) Happy Monday!

Guinevere said...

Thanks Kimberly! That is so nice to hear. :)

I hope you had a happy Monday too! Mine was not as terrible as it could have been.

Jen said...

Hey! I gave you a blog award today, check it out here

Donna Hole said...

“Hearts want to keep beating,”

My favorite line. And : "Who the hell asks their teenager daughter to take responsibility for something like that?" says it all. Her response: "It wasn’t something that had even occurred to her at seventeen" is very apt.

As kids, we'd do pretty much anything our parents asked, if we loved and respected them. You've captured the essence of growing up in that line.

Nicely written.