So, here's the deal. I'm posting my latest version of Chapter One, hoping that someone out there might tell me what they think, and if they'd want to keep reading. My latest worry: that it seems to be a "paranormal" book, when in fact, it's a contemporary novel. That is exactly what someone wrote as a comment when I posted my first chapter for critique as part of an online writing conference. Apparently, when the reader gets to the last paragraph and my main character sees light shining through a crack in the wall, my story suddenly seems to be veering off onto some kind of "ghosties and ghoulies" track. Ack. Not what I intended. So, please read my first chapter and tell me what you think!!
THE FRENCH IMPRESSIONIST
I know it was wrong. My heart stings inside me, but I don’t care. I got away.
The world is no longer black and white. It’s alive with color. Blues and greens have melted together into a perfect painting of sea and sky. I smell something that’s sharp and sweet at the same time, like limes or oranges. It must come from the trees that line the street, quivering in the soft Mediterranean breeze. I breathe in the scents of hot sun on sand, salty ocean, and a puff of sweet vanilla air exhaled from a nearby bakery. A tram whirs by and clangs its bell. A couple passes me, so close the woman’s skirt brushes my bare legs. She murmurs in the unfamiliar cadences of a foreign language, leaving behind a cloud of gentle laughter. I start to laugh, too. I take in my freedom like a drowning person gulps the air. No matter how many more half-truths or total lies I have to tell, I’ll do it.I won’t go back home.
Gripping the handle of my suitcase, I turn around. “Sylvie’s Dream,” proclaims the sign above the shop door in English. The shop is on Rue Massena, part of Nice’s old town. This part of Nice feels old. When I look up from the street, the pink and gold buildings lean into one another and crowd around me, like they’re curious to see who’s invading their space. The paint on the buildings is faded and peeling, and there are patches where plaster has completely fallen away, showing bare stone or brick underneath. Laundry hangs from lines that stretch between buildings, or from little metal frames that stick out under windows. Towels, jeans and underwear wave in the breeze.
It’s so different from anything I’ve ever known. I already love it. I can hardly believe I made it this far. Now, all I need to do is go in. At the thought, my heart flutters inside me like a bird is flapping its wings, trying to escape from its cage.
Before I can lose my nerve, I step up to the door. They’re both here. Even before I got out of the cab, I could see them through the speckled window of the tiny shop. The tall one is Sylvie, my new French Mom. The smaller one is my French father, Émile. Physically, they are as opposite as any two people could be. Sylvie is tall and thin, all dark hair and eyes and skin; a warm, melted chocolate brown. Émile is much shorter, no more than a few inches taller than I am. Nearly everything about him is light-colored. He has papery skin and white hair that together make his indigo eyes seem to jump out at you. When he stands beside Sylvie, he looks like a ghost.
What will he say? What will they say? They didn’t expect me until next Friday, but I’m here, now.
Go, I tell myself, suddenly feeling the need to swallow, hard. It’s time.
My entire body starts to tremble as I push myself through the tiny brown seashells strung on threads that form a tinkling curtain in the shop doorway. As I do, the handle of my case catches and I stumble, but right myself quickly and paste a smile on my face.
“Um,” I say, fumbling in my pocket for my carefully crafted note, but then Sylvie sees me and her face lights up like the summer sun outside.
“Rosemary, oui? C’est toi! It’s you,” she exclaims, and then she chatters a thousand more French-sounding syllables that I don’t understand as her brown arms encircle me and squeeze. She smells like lemons and coconut; and my mind sees long stretches of pale sand against a turquoise ocean. A vision of freedom. My freedom. And Sylvie is the one who unlocked doors for me, even though she doesn’t know it yet.
She releases me and before I can process anything, Émile is before me, his face level with mine, and his eyes crinkle as he grins. He takes my hand, squeezes softly.
“Bienvenue,” he murmurs. “Welcome.”
“Merci,” I whisper, and am horrified at how the word sounds as it leaves my lips, but no one seems to notice. Émile and Sylvie grin expectantly at me, so I finally take out my note. Sylvie peers over her husband’s shoulder to read as I set my case down and gaze around me, trying to pretend that I’m not terrified; that I’m not desperate that this will work. That I have somewhere else to go.
Sylvie’s artwork splashes color across the walls, like a paint factory exploded in here. There’s a battered cooler in the corner with a hand-written sign offering bottles of water and Orangina, ice cream and candy bars. Stuff is piled everywhere. Books, necklaces, pottery, a rack of brightly colored skirts. It’s a place that holds the promise of hidden treasures for anyone who wants to look. Messy, but cozy. The tiny space seems to extend soft arms that pull you into a warm hug, a lot like its owner. It’s perfect.
They look up from the note.
“Eh, bien, you are early, but it is not important,” Sylvie says in slow, careful French. “I am sorry that you have lost your voice. So happy you are here! Émile will take you to your room.”
Émile takes my suitcase and gestures for me to follow him, and I do, finally remembering to breathe. I suck in oxygen while we climb narrow, wood steps that lead up from the back of the shop.
Émile says nothing. I’m sure it’s out of pity for the fake illness that caused me to lose my voice. I hope.
We move into a cool, dark hallway and Émile opens a door for me. I step inside and gasp. I’ve seen a photo of the room of course, on Sylvie’s blog, but pictures never compare to reality. This room is warm and alive with color.
Émile smiles. “I hope you like your bedroom. It was our son’s.” With that, he places my suitcase onto the floor and turns to leave, but then he turns back.
“You would like to rest?” he asks me, his eyebrows raised high. His French is slow, too, even slower than Sylvie’s. They are so kind to me. So patient. I blink, feeling tears that threaten to form. I want to say something, but can’t seem to make any words come out. Not a single sound.
Émile shrugs. “Stay here as long as you like,” he says with a warm grin. “Or you may join us in the shop, if you prefer,” he adds. “When you wish.” And with that, he is gone.
It worked. It worked!
I gaze around me. My room, my beautiful new room, has forests and oceans and mountains painted all over the walls. It has stars and planets on the ceiling. A mustard-colored woven rug spattered with paint sits on the floor. On the bed is a vivid quilt that’s a crazy kaleidoscope of colors. The room has a window that looks out over red tiled roofs and palm trees. It even has a cat, whose amber eyes glow up at me from the puff of grey fluff resting on the rug. I’ve never been allowed to have a pet. I stare at the pile of grey fur for a second, not sure what to do. Will it chase me from its territory? But the puffball simply closes its yellowy eyes and goes to sleep.
I turn back to the doorway, close the blue-painted door, and stare at the knob. There’s no lock. On this side or on the other side.
A couple of tears spill down my face, but I swipe them away. My new life just started, and I’m going to live it. I’m going to head back down to the shop and get to know my new family.
But when I grasp the doorknob, I stop. I don’t want to leave quite yet. I turn to check out the room one more time, straining a little to see the murals as the light from the window changes from bright to dim. Outside, clouds cover the sun and a summer storm spatters rain onto the glass. I don’t bother to turn on the light, though. I know this room well already. I walk along the walls, tracing the paintings with a gentle finger. The photo of this room on Sylvie’s blog was what started it all. It’s part of the reason that I’m here. It’s part of the reason I chose Sylvie and Émile for my new family.
The mural at the head of the bed is my favorite. A trail curves through a forest, then up the side of a steep rock-walled canyon, where it angles back and forth in sharp switchbacks. Every so often, along the trail, you see a boy who carries a backpack and a walking stick. The boy, lanky and brown like Sylvie, gradually grows taller. It’s Ansel, now gone. He painted himself in miniature somewhere on the trail each year for his birthday. The painted boy at the very top of the cliff is Ansel at eighteen, heading to Paris. He smiles and pumps a fist in the air.
I kiss my fingers and touch them to the painted boy’s tiny head. “Thank you, Ansel,” I whisper. I couldn’t be here if he weren’t gone. I appreciate his sacrifice. “I promise I’ll take care of the room for you.”
A gleam of light glows on the wall a few feet away. I jerk my hand back in surprise. Painted on the other side of Ansel’s cliff is a wide expanse of stormy sky over a dark ocean. Streaks of bright lightning cross the gloomy haze, but one line of lightning looks strange. It extends downward in a straight line, cutting through sky and cloud until it plunges into the ocean. I move closer until my nose is practically against the paint, and stare. The straight line, of course, isn’t painted lightning. It’s a crack in the wall, one so deep that light from the next room shines through it. Then, before I can even begin to wonder, the crack disappears.
What just happened?(End Chapter One).
Okay. Be brutal. Go ahead. I dare you. :-) No, I'm serious. Also, if you want to know more about the overall story, check out my second blog post. That's where I posted the query letter I've been sending to agents.