If you've been reading "Breaking News", you might have noticed in a recent author's note that I talk about the novel I'll be starting work on in the new year. In the event that you're interested, I'm posting the prologue for the work here. Please note that the prologue is written in an entirely different voice from the rest of the work. It's truly just a bit of a foyer, so that you can shrug off your jacket and stamp the dirt from your shoes before you enter the living room of the story.
I'm not sure how long I'll be leaving this up here. The things I've written over at Fan Fiction will remain right where they are for the foreseeable future, but this thing is mine, and once the novel is complete I intend to query it out. This is not a YA story, although many of the characters within it are college-aged.
Anyway, meet Simon and Lily. Sort of.
It was an ordinary country lane; nothing distinguished it from thousands of similar, gently-rutted dirt tracks.
This road might have been almost anywhere. It might have been almost anywhen, too. Tall grass grew untamed on either side, dotted with the occasional rogue Queen Anne's Lace or cornflower. Small flies and lazy specks of dust seemed to catch fire in the haze of the late afternoon sun, setting lower and earlier now that September had arrived. The trees still held their leaves, all green, blasted full and primed for the change in seasons.
'Everything ends,' the man thought as he strolled along the lane. 'Well, everything normal ends, at any rate.' The amended thought gave him no pleasure. It once had, but not anymore.
He was in no particular hurry. His destination wasn't precisely fixed, but he'd had enough experience to understand it was really less important that he know the destination than that his destination knew him. It would find him, if he let it, and so he kept walking, allowing Circumstance to draw him toward whatever he needed to change, or fix. It would make itself known soon enough.
Until then, he took full advantage of the stillness, and the green calm around him. He strolled and imagined himself to be back home, although home was so distant both in experience and in memory that he couldn't be certain anymore whether what he looked at now bore even the faintest resemblance to that more innocent time. How eager he'd been to leave that innocence, to strike out into the bigger world and grab adventure with both hands. He'd yearned for more, always more and different, and when it was offered to him, offered with secrecy and promises of excitement beyond his wildest imaginings, he'd leapt at the chance and agreed without a second's hesitation. He now counted that lack of reflection among the bigger mistakes he'd ever made. Perhaps it was the biggest: there was no way of really knowing for sure.
The quiet country lane soon gave way to more inhabited surroundings. White farmhouses with dark green or black shutters sprouted up, at first here and there, and then shortly quite close together; dirt disappeared under his feet, replaced with asphalt, then asphalt with double yellow lines painted on top. A white, staked sign welcomed him to Blackbourne, Vermont, Chartered in 1747. So long ago. Or just yesterday, when viewed from a removed perspective.
He walked along the wide street that appeared to split the town in half like a log, noting shops and cafes and restaurants in a quantity which seemed outrageous for such a sleepy little place. The mystery of how such a small community supported so much leisure was solved when he saw the signs for Walton College halls and residences. This was a college town, then. That made his lot far easier, and infinitely more pleasant.
The walk had made him thirsty, and it was getting on for supper. He wasn't yet prepared to interact in any meaningful way with the citizens of Blackbourne, and so finding a low-key venue for a meal was important. The eateries along the main road were buzzing hives, their outdoor tables crammed with students who laughed and chattered and occasionally cursed, making him wince a bit at the crudeness. He noted with relief that the people he saw were dressed in a hodge-podge of fashions, which made his own plain wool jacket and trousers appear not at all out of the ordinary way. He reached an intersection and stepped forward to scan the minor artery for a more quiet option.
His eyes found a dark wood-framed storefront with an enormous picture window, from behind which a warm haze glowed out into the early autumn evening. The sign above the door read "The Library". Intrigued, he turned the corner and crossed the street to investigate, discovering that The Library appeared to be a coffee house of some kind. Satisfied, he pushed open the door, his stomach suddenly very anxious for a biscuit or three.
The smell of brewed coffee and cinnamon wrapped around him as he entered the shop. Breathing deeply, he surveyed the room in the hope of securing a vacant corner for himself. The space was a cozy one, with rich oak bookshelves lining two of the walls, and worn red-velvet armchairs grouped about the place instead of proper dining tables. If he ignored the service counter which ran along the far wall of the room, he was almost able to imagine that this was his father's study back home, and the sensation filled him with a curious blend of pain and peace.
Several of the chair groupings were occupied by knots of young people, variously reading or typing on their portable computers. He spied an empty chair with a small table next to it away from the center of the room, and made his way over to claim it for himself. Settling in, he raised his head to alert any member of the staff in the vicinity that he was ready to place his order, but nobody immediately noticed his presence. He saw a young man dressed in torn denim trousers and a loose, short-sleeved black shirt milling about the place, but failed repeatedly to catch his eye. There was a young girl behind the service counter, humming quietly as she stacked porcelain coffee cups against the wall and wiped down the surface in front of her.
Sighing, he stood again and walked over to the young man to tap him on the shoulder.
"I would like to order something to eat and drink from you, if it's not too much of a bother," he said, and hoped that the tone of his voice didn't betray the irritation he felt.
The young man blinked at him. "It's self-serve. You need to go to the counter and tell her what you want." And with that, the young man turned his attention back to picking up abandoned cups strewn atop one of the low tables in the middle of several chairs.
The girl at the counter didn't notice her new customer until he cleared his throat. "I beg your pardon," he said quietly. "I was wondering if it might be possible to have a cup of tea?"
She turned to him with a smile. "Sure. Any particular kind? We stock Tazo and Lipton." She waited, watching him while he absorbed these unfamiliar names. He noted briefly that her eyes were the color of a thunderhead at summer vespers.
"I don't suppose you have any Earl Grey to hand, do you?" He asked it tentatively, praying that the mention of Earl Grey wouldn't make him sound as foreign to her as the brands she'd mentioned made her sound to him. He knew that his accent would already be a bit of a surprise.
"Sure thing," she nodded, and he exhaled in relief. "Just a sec." And she busied herself with pouring hot water into a small silver teapot, then opening up a packet and dunking a tea bag into the pot before closing the hinged lid. She brought the pot back to the counter and placed a slightly-crazed white porcelain cup next to it. "Anything else?"
"Do you have any meats or cheese, and possibly some bread as well?"
She chuckled. "You mean, like, a sandwich? Sure. There's not much left at the moment, but we've got some turkey and swiss cheese wraps, and tuna salad on whole wheat."
He considered for a moment before requesting the turkey and cheese, hoping that "wrap" meant there would be some sort of bread into the bargain. She opened the glass-front display cabinet under the counter and withdrew a cylindrical construction, placing it on a plate next to the teapot.
"Thank you - that's perfect," he said, even though he wasn't at all certain about the rolled-up poultry and cheese. "How much do I owe you for these?"
Her fingers flew over buttons on the cash register. "That's $7.53," she announced.
His right hand fumbled with something inside his jacket pocket for a moment, and then emerged with a ten-dollar bill for her to take. She slipped the bank note into a slot in the register and tendered his change. "Here's a tray," she said, putting his purchases onto the lipped, brown plastic. "Milk and sugar are over there, along with spoons and napkins and mayo or mustard, if you need it."
"Once again, thank you." He picked up the tray and carried it to the little counter which boasted jugs of milk and packets of sugar, selecting a spoon and several paper napkins to join the rest of the items on his tray. He filled a small paper cup with some of the milk from the jug, and extracted four packets of sugar from the basket which held them before carrying everything back over to the small table in the corner next to the vacant chair.
He quietly ate and drank, observing the torpid movements of the customers around him. The only bit of energy seemed to be coming from the girl behind the counter, who bustled about, cleaning and humming and organizing. She seemed orderly and focused, and he envied her for her simple industry. She was plainly dressed, but he could see that her shape was pleasantly feminine, and unlike the other women his eyes had encountered here, she wore a skirt, which ended at her knees. She had a sweet expression to her face, which again was at odds with the faces around her. She intrigued him in a casual way, and he found himself staring at her several times throughout the course of his meal.
The day had been a warm enough one, but as night fell, the temperature dropped and the air grew chilly. The lazy young man in the torn trousers lit a fire in the cast-iron stove, which sat in a corner of the room. The fire and the books lining the shelves made the traveler feel uncharacteristically cozy and comfortable, which were two things he hadn't been in longer than he cared to remember. Shaking his head, he fished around in another pocket of his jacket, pulling out a small, leather-bound journal and a stub of a pencil. He set to work making notes of the date, and the time, and what he'd observed of Blackbourne thus far.
He sat scribbling away for some time. Patrons came and went, keeping the level of noise fairly stable, and he found that he could easily concentrate as he wrote, which was another unexpected pleasure. When at last he'd finished with his notes, he placed the pencil on the table and closed the little journal. He knew he'd have to work out where to stay for the night, and come the morning, he'd be tasked with the onerous duty of establishing a life and a purpose for himself while he stayed here and waited for Circumstance to reveal itself.
The thought made him unspeakably tired. He fished around in his jacket once more, and produced a rather large gold pocket watch. At first glance, the watch appeared to be nothing extraordinary. The glass which covered the face was slightly scratched, and the roman numerals which marked the hours were slightly faded, but the hands on the dial were deepest black and announced the relentless march of minutes with authority. This watch had been his traveling companion, his guide and his comfort, his master and his servant, for a long, long while. He hated it, and he loved it, and he feared it, and he revered it.
Seized with a sudden and entirely selfish longing, he pressed a concealed button on the side of the bezel. The watch face flipped to reveal its other, hidden side, the side with a purpose which the man had sworn to conceal by all means necessary. His finger hovered over the hour wheel, and the minute wheel, the second wheel, and finally over several other, larger wheels which no ordinary watch contained. Would it be considered a crime, a forswearing of the oaths he'd taken, if he permitted himself one brief moment of comfort before the inevitable storm clouds gathered over his head and chased any chance of peace from the horizon? He was already on the outside of his previously blind loyalty, looking back at it with new and suspicious eyes.
His father had been fond of saying that wisdom might be measured in the fullness of time by the choices we make.
The fullness of time, and the choices we make. This is the line which separates happiness from misery, and the proper course of action from a foolish blunder.
He took a deep, ragged breath, and ran his index finger across the escapement mechanism, noting with ironic amusement that his finger sought something called an "impulse roller". When at last he encountered it, he surrendered to temptation and pushed down, once.
The motion and noise around him abruptly ceased. Hands hoisting coffee cups to lips remained suspended in mid-air. The flames in the cast-iron stove froze solid, a suddenly icy fire. This moment was entirely his to command, and had he wished to, he might have done any one of a thousand dastardly things with the power. As it was, he only wanted to stay for a brief moment in this comfortable place that currently asked him for nothing. He wanted to stay and be selfish, just for a moment, just for the briefest possible sliver of time. But of course, as was its custom, Circumstance chose the brief sliver of time to reveal itself in all its complex and frightening glory. Everything around the man was still and dead, and yet everything had suddenly changed.
Because the girl behind the counter, with her back to the room and her mind on her cleaning, kept right on moving. And in her impossible motion, the man recognized the form of Circumstance at work.
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