January 10, 2006

NaNoWriMo revisited

You know what they say about the road to hell being paved with good intentions.

In November I was going great guns on my National Novel Writing Month work, until I hit a speedbump and lost several thousand words worth of work. You can see by the meter on the right sidebar that I'd almost "officially" reached 60%, and what I lost had put me over that milestone.

In December I announced that I was going to finish the story, yet I never wrote another word.

So once again, in an effort to kick-start myself, I'm going to start posting what I already have, and it seems to me to be the perfect opportunity to have a contest too.

The first two chapters are posted in the extended entry. Read them, and then suggest a title in the comments. I have a "working" title in my mind, but I really don't like it much, so I'm open to any and all suggestions. If you're shy, then send me an email with your title, that works too.

On the first of February, I'll pick a few of the best suggestions and we'll have a contest. The person who suggests the winning title will win a prize, and not just some California-style self-esteem-building touchy-feely crap either. I'm talking about a real hold-it-in-your-hand American icon of conspicuous commercialism.

So read. Be a critic. Be an editor. Come up with a title. Comment. Feedback.

Inspire me, dammit.

Chapter 1.

I swear, you'd think I had just pulled a booger out of my nose, inspected it carefully and then eaten it. The reaction ranged from pretend retching to goggle-eyed incredulity. I think two things saved me from an outright beating right then; first of all I was peripherally one of the gang. Secondly, I'm pretty sure that at least a couple of the guys pitied me. Of course they'd never come right out and say anything of the sort, or honor would demand satisfaction and then they'd have to kick my ass after I started the fight.

No, it doesn't make much sense to me either.

What I had done, to everyone's amazement, was something not terribly amazing when looking back at it. I merely said that Autumn was a rather pretty girl.

She was tall and thin and dark, and not overly much of any of those things except for the dark, because her hair was that black so deep it almost seemed blue. Her moods, when she bothered to display any at all, were often just as dark. Yesterday though, she smiled at me as I helped her to her feet after some younger kids played the same tired game on her. They surrounded her, dancing and chanting "Autumn! Autumn! Autumn!" until suddenly one darted in and tripped her. Then the pack ran off, shouting "FALL!" and laughing idiotically.

One smile, and I was smitten. I knew perfectly well that there would be consequences, because even though we'd all grown up together at the same school, Autumn was still an outsider. She didn't have a father, which was no big deal. I didn't have one myself. It was her mother who was the problem. Mrs. Crisp was an environ-mental-case, an anachronism in a time that had no stomach for it.

As long as she didn't become too big a nuisance, most folks just gave Mrs. Crisp a wide berth. She would show up in the town square, wearing a sandwich board that protested her latest pet injustice, which always seemed trivial to ordinary folks just trying to make it through difficult times. These days it was considered vulgar in the extreme to be so openly political. So mostly, people ignored her. By transference, they ignored Autumn as well.

And now, several of my peers were staring at me as if I'd... well, we've covered that bit, haven't we?

Feeling reckless, I further ventured that Autumn was probably just like us, and that we’d never given her a proper chance. That argument had holes in it a mile wide. We all knew Autumn – as much as you can know someone based on years of observation – and she wasn’t the problem. To most of us she was a zero. A null. It was Mrs. Crisp who was the problem. Mrs. Crisp was a problem I would have to tackle if I wanted to see Autumn outside of school.

That idea itself made me stop and think. In all our years together at school (I’ll quit saying that, from here on out you can just assume), I couldn’t think of anyone that had ever actually visited the Crisp house. However, since Autumn didn’t play sports or participate in any clubs, I was going to have to do just that.

My musings were interrupted by the disgusted snorts of several of my pals, who decided to leave me to my brain damage while they wandered off down the street, looking for something to do.

In truth, I was intrigued by Autumn. She quietly made her way through the school years, seemingly untouched by the whirlwind of life around her. She wasn’t indifferent, for you could tell that she took keen note of things, or at least I thought so from my covert observations. Maybe it was the fact that she was the only kid in school even more peripheral and isolated than I.

That evening, I brought up my (potential) pending visit to Autumn’s house at the evening meal. Mom immediately recognized the implications and inquired as to whether I’d be staying there for dinner. That question wasn’t as strange to me as it might seem, because I know Mom. Like I said before, my dad died when I was little, and Mom has raised me as best she could on her own. We take in boarders when we can, but mostly, Mom’s best consisted of sex for “favors�. She was always discreet (an open secret in our small town), but there was always food on the table and usually heat in the winter. Being discrete is a far cry from respectable though, and we were pretty much ostracized by the “decent� people of the town, and even by a few of Mom’s “boyfriends� (other than when they visited). I had no illusions about it, because even if we were as rich as Rockefellers, Mom would still be the town pump. She loved men that much. The chance that I would be away for an evening meant that she could entertain someone for an extended time and earn more than the standard “favor�.

Mom wasn’t fazed in the least when I told her that the girl was Autumn Crisp. She knew who Mrs. Crisp was and how she behaved, but in Mom’s world everyone was a friend until you caused pain or trouble for her or me. Then you were forever removed from the friend category and placed in the enemy category. Once there, you might eventually regain a grudging trust, but you would never again be regarded as a friend.

So throughout dinner, and while doing dishes afterwards (I dried), Mom suggested ways to “be sweet� – her words – to Autumn. I’d never shown interest in a girl before, or more correctly, I’d never let on that I was interested in a girl, so my delighted Mom quickly got caught up in planning and details.

Mom sent me to the flower shop with instructions to buy something nice for Autumn. Not knowing what “nice� meant under the circumstances, I explained to the shopkeeper that I needed a flower to give to a girl before asking to walk with her. He smiled kindly and suggested either roses or a small bouquet of anemones. I knew what roses were, but he had to show me the others. They were both beautiful, but I thought that roses might be overdoing it, so I decided on the purple anemones (which were cheaper too). As he was wrapping it up the shopkeeper asked me who the lucky girl was. When I replied “Autumn Crisp�, he gave me an odd look which stayed on his face until I left the store.

The following morning I put the flowers into a brown paper bag, hoping to escape notice from the guys. At school, I found Autumn in her usual before-school spot. There were too many people around to give her the flowers, so I held the bag in my sweaty fist and asked her if I could walk her home. She stared at me as if I were some particularly odd bug (and I was getting tired of people giving me those looks), before saying no. Not being easily discouraged (nervous, yes. Discouraged, no), I tried again after second period while walking between classes, with the same result. After lunch I finally found my chance to give her the flowers relatively unobserved, and presented them to her. That did the trick, although she said I could walk her as far as her street and no farther. I was gifted with another of her rare smiles, which made it all worth it.

It didn’t take long for the word to get around, and there was an interesting range of reactions among my peers. The less mature were content to make rude noises and crude remarks, while a couple made me swear to take careful notice of the inside of the Crisp house so as to give a full report. One even insisted that I swipe something to prove that I’d actually gone in. William, the school bully and self-proclaimed Romeo, wondered aloud whether I’d gotten wind of Autumn’s “reputation�, with a knowing smile. This was pure speculation on his part, because the only reputation that Autumn had was that her Mom was a crank. When I said that I liked Autumn because of her smile, William cheerfully cuffed me upside the head and called me a liar.

I had expected Autumn to put the flowers into her locker, but I heard that she carried them with her for the rest of the day.

It was universally judged as the best gossip day our school had enjoyed since last spring, when the oldest Tipton brother lost part of his finger in woodshop. He had made one minor slip at the table saw, but by the time the story made the rounds he’d fallen headfirst into the planer and the shop walls were sprayed with blood and moist bits of Tipton. Such is the rumor mill at school.

So I met Autumn after school to walk her home, me with my books and her with books and flowers, and we both felt the myriad eyes watching in wonder. As we walked, we talked about inconsequential things like the weather, because we weren’t sure what we might have in common. I tried the normal subjects like school news and sports, but she was remarkably clueless in those areas. I half expected her to begin talking politics or ecology, but to my relief she never even hinted at those. Each exploratory foray into conversation inevitably fell back to about how nice the weather had been lately, and we began to compare the shapes we each saw in the fluffy clouds overhead. At her corner, she said goodbye, smiled at me again, and then walked down the street towards her house without looking back, still holding those flowers.

Chapter 2.

That walk was repeated with little variation over the next week. We discovered that our tastes in music were similar and we began to explore our differences with a little more courage, comparing likes and dislikes on various subjects. Autumn began to smile more often, and we grew comfortable in each other’s company. But still, at the corner she said goodbye and I watched her walk the last bit alone.

And then one day, Mrs. Crisp spotted me at the corner as Autumn said goodbye. She yoo-hoo’d from their front yard and waved us both over. Autumn didn’t seem particularly put out by her Mom’s changing of our established routine, but she wasn’t thrilled with it either. I wondered if she wasn’t a little embarrassed by her Mom. Heaven knows every teenager feels that way about their parents at least once in a while.

For the very first time, I walked with Autumn down her street and onto her property. Mrs. Crisp was in the front yard, spray paint can in hand, putting the finishing touches on yet another sandwich board. Rail thin, with her silver hair pulled tightly back and tied with a bright yellow bandana, she smiled widely and shook my hand. As we talked about school and classes and homework, I noticed that the house had several times been repaired with pieces of painted plywood, the recycled scraps of previous signs. This gave the house a patchwork look, almost storybook-like, set in the midst of their yard which was just this side of being overgrown with wildflowers and herbs. I’m sure the neighbors would consider it ramshackle, but I didn’t think the word quite properly applied.

Mrs. Crisp sent Autumn in for drinks, and I found myself modeling the sandwich board while Mrs. Crisp stood back to check the readability of the lettering. When Autumn returned, she carried three bottles of homemade root beer, each bottle different than the others. Cool from cellar storage, that was the best root beer I’ve ever tasted in my life.

When I left that afternoon, I had been invited back “any time�, and I found that I liked Mrs. Crisp. She herself brought up her activism at one point, noting with a wry smile that she was a throwback to another world. She understood perfectly well what the townsfolk thought of her, but she was ok with that because to her the doing was the important thing, even if the end result wasn’t what one wished for. She was kind and thoughtful and funny and completely off her rocker in the conventional sense, but sweet nonetheless.

They lived a relatively normal life otherwise. I was surprised to learn that Mrs. Crisp was renowned for her spices and fresh herbs to chefs and restaurants in the area, which brought in some money. They raised pigeons and rabbits in the backyard, and sold herbal remedies and tinctures to make a little extra money.

Our afternoon walks had become commonplace, and eventually Autumn and I fell off of the school radar as the gossipmongers found other, more lucrative targets. We hadn’t yet so much as held hands, and in fact I wasn’t sure exactly what our relationship was. We seemed (to me) to be more than friends, but she wasn’t really my girlfriend either. I usually walked her all the way to her door, and often Mrs. Crisp would invite me in for a root beer or tea. At intervals, Autumn would refuse my company without explanation, instead hurrying home alone. On the following day things would be back to normal, and any questions I asked were pointedly ignored.

It was almost November when the school decided I should take a few days off. William the bully had said some things about my Mom. Technically, everything he said was accurate, but still, it was my Mom. He won the fight, but not as easily as everyone had expected, and both he and I were suspended for three days.

The last thing I expected when I answered the doorbell was to see Autumn standing there. My face broke into a delighted smile, which instantly became a pained grimace since I was nursing a split lip. As I stood there, I forgot everything else as Autumn reached out and gently traced the swelling on my face. It was the first time that she had ever touched me.

The moment passed, and Autumn quietly asked me if I could help her with something at her house. I quickly agreed, let Mom know where I was going and yes, I would be staying for dinner (I looked at Autumn with a raised eyebrow when Mom asked that, and you could sense the decision being made in her mind as if it were a physical thing). Grabbing my jacket, we started the walk to her house.

She was strangely quiet, even for her, and she got more and more nervous as we neared her place. I started to get the willies myself, for no reason other than picking up her mood. When we got to her front door, she opened it and led the way inside. There, at the kitchen table drinking tea, sat Mrs. Crisp with her arm in a sling.

I sat down and Mrs. Crisp started out by explaining that she’d sprained her wrist while taking care of a chore. The task still needed to be done, but it required two people - two people with two good arms – and since I was a good friend she felt that I could be trusted to help. Autumn just sat there quietly, seemingly lost in her own thoughts and with a worried look on her face.

Autumn started when Mrs. Crisp told her to take me to see what needed to be done. Without a word she gathered me up with her eyes and led me to a door off of the kitchen. She opened the door and we went downstairs into the basement, where I found the last thing I’d ever thought to see.

There was a zombie chained to the wall in their basement.

Once I got over my astonishment, I started to ask questions, but Autumn waved them aside and we headed back upstairs. Sitting down again, Mrs. Crisp began filling me in with the details between my many questions. The zombie was Mrs. Crisp’s father, Autumn’s granddad, and I should call him Granddad as well, since he didn’t respond to any other name. No, keeping a zombie isn’t illegal, it’s just not common. They keep him for two reasons; first, because he’s part of a medical study and they come check on his health once a month, and take him for a weekend checkup once a quarter. The second reason is because he’s Mrs. Crisp’s dad… well, he used to be. Yes, they have to feed him, why do you think they raise pigeons and rabbits? No, he’s not terribly dangerous, any more so than a two hundred pound mindless baby who is always hungry.

After about a half hour, Mrs. Crisp said we could finish talking over dinner, but that right now, Granddad needed to be restrained so that his area could be cleaned up. They had been in the process earlier when Mrs. Crisp slipped and fell, injuring her wrist. That’s where I came in. They showed me what to do and how to do it, and once I got over the revulsion of touching Granddad (even with gloves and a heavy canvas butcher’s apron), it was actually pretty simple.

Dinner was strange. Not the food itself, because I couldn’t begin to tell you what was put in front of me, let alone what it tasted like. I was still turning recent events over and over in my mind.

He wasn’t really a zombie, you know. Not in the classic horror movie kind of way. We had all learned about the great avian flu pandemic two generations past, and how it scythed its way through populations, killing millions. At least as bad was the mutation that destroyed a person’s ability to think, turning them into mindless and mobile flu-spreading automatons. We’d seen the films, where whole cities were virtually depopulated by these monsters who shuffled around, sneezing and drooling, until the flu eventually killed them, or until the living people started killing and burning them in self-defense.

The government saved some for research purposes, and a surprisingly high number were kept alive by families who couldn’t bear to put mom or dad or sis down. Mostly by luck and improvised quarantines, people managed to save their former loved ones. Some zombies recovered from the flu, but none ever regained the slightest bit of brain power. The best were about as bright as a slightly retarded dog. But that was all history that they taught us from books in school, whereas this, this was reality. By now, Granddad was a rarity, being old as humans go, and a virtual Methuselah among zombies.

I agreed to stop by every day after school, staying until evening for dinner and to help Autumn with Granddad, at least until Mrs. Crisp’s wrist was better. I could just imagine how happy that would make my Mom too. I also promised not to tell anyone, for although Granddad wasn’t a secret, he also wasn’t common knowledge, and people tend to react stupidly when faced with the unknown and unusual.

Mrs. Crisp gave me a one-armed hug as I got ready to go, and at the door Autumn stepped close and gently kissed my lips on the side away from the hurt. I asked her if she’d like to go to the movies on Saturday and she smiled and said yes.

Walking home through the chilly November evening, I reflected upon the day. I’d gotten my very first real kiss from my very first real girlfriend. And my girlfriend (girlfriend… wow!) just happened to have her zombie grandfather chained up in the basement.

Posted by Ted at January 10, 2006 12:03 PM | TrackBack
Category: Zombies of Autumn

How about "Love and the Undead"?

Posted by: Silver Blue at January 10, 2006 12:47 PM

Awww... Thats so sweet, my father is a review whore! Like Father Like Daughter.

Heh, Haven't read it yet, I'll read it after my classes.

"The Good Child"

Posted by: Rachael at January 10, 2006 03:44 PM

Well, not knowing where this is going, I can only suggest some (prolly im)possible titles.

(I'm seeing really cheesy pulp fiction jacket art here, btw.) **ahem**

Autumn And Her Discontent (I thought of that before I got to the basement scene)
Oh, For The Luvva.... CHRIST!!! (horrified expression on highschool boy's face)
The Writhing On The Wall

Posted by: Tuning Spork at January 10, 2006 10:32 PM

Grandfather Zombie

Posted by: Rachael at January 12, 2006 12:24 AM

With only a couple chapters to go on, I'm not sure whether any of these would work for the final book:

Zombies of Autumn

I Married A Zombie!

I Was a Teenage Zombie

Zombie Plague

Posted by: JohnL at January 12, 2006 09:08 AM

...just keep writing. Don't worry about word count.

Posted by: f-i-n at January 12, 2006 01:01 PM
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