Tuesday, July 29, 2014

"Leaving Major Tela," introductory Chapter 1

Like a book, someone, somewhere, might be
interested in it if they knew it was available, and where?
There has been much discussion in this blog over the past seven or eight years about concepts and guidelines for writing fiction that were collected from academic studies, years of reading essays by published writers, reviews by literary critics, and interviews or biographies of favorite writers.  As I read new fiction, the acquired palette and toolbox of writing often hovers in my thoughts as I pause to reflect on the twists and turns a story has taken, where it may be going, and how well the author has crafted his art thus far.  Am I locked in yet to where I must find out how this tale ends?  Or, am I now close to bailing out on the author?  It's a terrible disappointment when I decide to abandon a book, and I usually feel a bit guilty.

Since I live in a remote, rural location, the books I select to read are often the result of reading book reviews in email feeds from online sources, or hearing brief radio reviews of books and their authors.  There is only one bookstore within a 35 mile radius to peruse the shelves and make any selections.

Since independent bookstores are a dwindling species these days, even in cities, and considering that chances of my getting regional/national reviews are pretty limited, I thought I'd use this month's post to feature chapter one of my recent YA novel, "Leaving Major Tela," and invite comments from any of my readers who might care to comment.  I think the first chapter sets up the story well enough that the usual bookflap description meant to attract the casual shopper isn't really needed.  A link to the description, the chance to read additional chapters, and opportunity to purchase is given in the blog sidebar on the top right side.   I hope you might find the story interesting and would appreciate any comments.  See the comments link at the bottom of the blog.

CHAPTER 1



They stood at the edge of a wide lawn of brilliant green fescue flanked on three sides by walls of kudzu-draped sycamores.  A diminutive, dark-haired woman wearing battle fatigues and a major’s insignia spoke to a girl standing at least a head taller than she.  “You have often asked to spend a year with your father and I’ve always turned down that request.  Now I have little choice.”
“I didn’t ask for it to be like this,” Caitlin said.
“Yes,” Tela replied, momentarily breaking eye contact and glancing away.  “But I never thought it would be my karma to return to the land of my birth in a foreign army. ”
“So, that’s not any sort of betrayal; you grew up in this country.”
“And loyal to it, always, though I think I might still be viewed by many here as an alien.”
“I think I am, too.  Especially after you exiled me back there for a year.”
A flicker of emotion tugged at the corner of Tela’s mouth.  Her composure was less certain when she resumed speaking,  “So, we return to that catastrophe before we part.  I can only repeat, much was expected of a first child, but to have my own daughter become so combative and disobedient after I had to send your father away—I was astonished.  Then, when you dishonored yourself, there was no other way.  You knew that.”
“Did I?”  Caitlin was agitated and swept the air with her hand.  “You were supposed to be the strong, unshakable one.  My father had his faults, the drinking maybe, but you could have turned that around.  You just couldn’t tolerate any stupid weakness in him or in me.  Maybe we weren’t the only failures around here.”
Tela’s hand shot from her side in a blur.  Caitlin staggered back with the force of the slap.  It took minutes of shallow breathing and a silent brimming over of tears before she could regain composure.
“I’ve had to take total responsibility for this family almost from the beginning,” Tela said.  “That, and being your mother, allows me--binds me--to deal with failures, lapses in honorable character, and in judgment.  Whether your father’s, yours, Kevin’s, Samantha’s, or my own.  My seventeen-year-old daughter does not now have, nor ever shall have, a station in life to presume censuring her mother as a failure.  Do you understand?”
It was hard to get anything out or to yield.  But what could she do? Paused in autopilot now, she read the tensions and stresses in her mother’s features and posture.  A thousand karate lessons with her had alerted Caitlin to her mother’s qi when it was ready to explode and from where the attack might spring.  Now she spotted the slight tremor of Tela’s hand that she’d missed before but she had already made her decision.
“Understood, yes, got it,” she said, hurriedly.
Tela gave herself a few seconds to calm down.  Such an openly hostile confrontation with Caitlin was rare.  Her daughter’s body language had even shown a contained attack reflex.  She was always so obvious to read.  Perhaps she’d never become a top martial arts competitor.
“If we can now lay your rebelliousness to rest, we might get on with the matter at hand,” Tela said.  “You know the drill best and what I expect.”  Her eyes locked with Caitlin's.  "You will be in charge and accountable for yourself and your siblings while I'm away."
Caitlin caught her breath.  "Everyone?  Kevin, too?  I’m only a year older than him.  I shouldn't have to be held accountable for him," she said.  Her voice trembled, "I was even a year younger than he is now when you made me responsible for my own mistake."  Her face reddened.  Why did she have to keep bringing it up?  It had to be some sort of demented parting shot at her mother for that open wound.
Tela's brows arched.  "I thought we’d finished with that?  It’s been more than a year since you’ve come home and you never once asked to discuss your so-called exile in all that time. Now you wish to assert I acted too harshly?"
"Being shipped off to live with strange relatives on the other side of the world, not knowing when or if I'd be allowed to come home again?  Yes, I thought it a bit harsh."
Tela drew out the silence before replying.  "The vulnerability of a girl is much greater than a boy in such matters," she said, "and the best remedies for her mistakes come down on the side of being harsh.  Nonetheless, whatever the response I chose, I'm disappointed you nurtured it as a wound over all this time.  It demonstrates a certain weakness."
Caitlin's shoulders sagged.  Fine, all right, the past was done and over and tomorrow would begin a whole new world.
“Go back to the house and get Kevin and Samantha out here, so we can finish our discussions before joining your father for dinner.”

The three siblings lined up facing Tela.  Caitlin, the lightest in complexion, slight, with choppy hair of madrone red; Kevin, 16, an inch or two taller than Caitlin, thin, with long, black hair; and Samantha, 13, the closest to Tela’s dusky complexion, and with long, burnished brown hair. 
Tela stepped forward and pushed at Kevin’s slouch till he straightened. 
“I’ll make this as short as possible," Tela said, standing back from them. "While I am away, you will accept Caitlin’s directions in all important matters.  You may assume she will consult with me when necessary."
"Oh no, why must I clear anything with her?” Kevin said.  “You're sending us to live with father and he can tell us what we should or shouldn't do—can't you just talk things over with him when that’s needed?"
Tela stiffened.  "Did I ask for advice on setting protocol for our situation?"  She waited.  Kevin held back and his jaw muscles twitched.  Tela shook her head and moved a few steps to the side to stand before her youngest daughter, Samantha—Sam—a taller edition of her mother, a single, thick braided pigtail reaching to her waist, shoulders back and standing to attention, whatever it took.
Tela bent close to examine a small, enameled pin on the girl's blazer.
Sam seemed pleased: "Track, 440m relay in last month's academy meeting," she said.
"So, I don't recall you telling me about this—but it appears to be for second place?"
Sam hesitated and when she spoke a little of her enthusiasm had wilted. "Our team took second but I ran anchor and I was fast enough to make up more than half the winner's lead.  Just a little longer and I'd have nailed her for sure and we might have won."
Tela stiffened.  "A relay," she said.  "Second.  And you were proud of doing your personal best but your efforts went for naught?"
"Well, second, but what could I do about that?"
"That? Nothing, of course, but learn from it.  Be aware of your team's abilities and shortcomings for future contests.  Encourage better training and improvement, and if it doesn't happen, move on.  Don't tolerate mediocrity, strive to win, and don't be satisfied with less."
Tela stood to the center again and surveyed her glum rank of warriors.  “I have a deep sense of foreboding for what the future may bring for us,” she said.  “I am going to try to stay on top of things and see that you fulfill your karma with the warrior ethic of your forebears.  Nothing less will do.  We can go back to the house now and join your father for dinner and a farewell.”

A wizened old man in a white turban and uniform jacket entered the room pushing a cart.  Tela signaled everyone to sit.  The children waited until their parents took chairs at each end of the table.  The old man set out wheat chapattis, rice, curry, and pakoras, and filled the cups with a milky, sweet tea.
Cyrus—Cy—was a lean, tall man with a long, ruddy face and a shaggy mop of wiry, reddish hair, rather like bronze wool.  "I suspect our school won’t measure up to the level of your academy," he said, ignoring the bowls of food being passed about.
Tela shrugged, "They can seek advanced placement classes and do some additional studies after school. The academy provided them a schedule of targeted learning."
"Caitlin is already in her senior year," Cy said, elbows propped on the table as he tore at a chapatti. "Complicates her situation.  She should be applying for college scholarships, right?"
"Hardly.  She’s already been granted a full scholarship in the cadet program at the Military Institute," Tela said.
Cy’s murmur was almost inaudible, "Oh, our dear Alma Mater."  He ladled curry onto his plate and used a piece of chapatti to mop it up.  "Well, you loved it and the school did have its charms.  I suppose it was the active duty part afterward that failed to impress me,” he said.
“Apparently the marriage part did, too,” Tela said, wrapping her fingers around the smooth-sided tea cup.”
“Well, I did struggle to make the military our shared career afterward, whatever you thought, but that life just wasn't for me.  And it might not be for…" he stopped.  Maybe he'd gone too far.
Tela pushed her cup away and clasped her hands on the tabletop.  "Exactly what was the life for you, Cy?  I never could quite make that out.  Military life too severe?  Social outlets a bit limited?  Money not enough?"
The children stopped eating and stared at their plates.  A painful, distant battle had resurfaced.
"Check all the above, I guess, for a kid raised on a hardscrabble tobacco farm," Cy said.  "Granted, you had a rough hoe of it as a kid, too, but maybe you figured you owed the Institute more than the minimum active duty commitment afterward."
"They offered a noble career for a lifetime—for both of us.  You degraded your promise with drinking," Tela said.
Cy leaned back in the chair, arms folded on his chest. Uncompromising slip of a woman, probably plowed a mountainside with a sharpened stick when she was a girl, somehow got the idea she was an heir to a warrior ethic.  She was partly right about his burnout, though; too much drinking had undone him.
Caitlin put down her fork, moved a water glass, adjusted her plate, and addressed her father.  "Well, our career counselor has been talking to me about applying to a couple of other universities, too."  She shot a wary look at Tela.  "In literature, yes, literature and poetry, a major, and she particularly mentioned Eastern literature.  Thought I might do well in that field."
All attention was on her.  Kevin huffed and rolled his eyes.  Tela sat rigidly, hands opened and pressed flat to the table.  Cy smiled, "Why not Celtic literature?"
Caitlin's face reddened.  "Well, we had discussed stories I'd written in my creative writing class, about the Kalash culture and fighting off foreign invaders—the Scythians, Alexander the Great, the Mughal armies.  All the epics mother had told us about.  But you never spoke much about Celtic history.  Well, there were the laments of lost battles against the English that you sang."  Her face flushed.  He’d been plastered on all those nights. 
Tela pushed back her chair and stood, tossed her napkin onto the table, and said, "Caitlin will enter the cadet officer program at the Institute when she graduates.  If she wishes to pursue minors in literature and history, whether they be Kalash, Celtic, Jewish, or any other, I think the Institute will accommodate her."  She turned and left the room. 

They started out early in the morning, Cy driving, Kevin seated beside him, Caitlin and Sam in the rear.  Halfway across North Carolina a late summer squall lashed the car with rain.  Kevin and Sam passed a travelers’ chess game between the front and rear, with the miniature pieces pressed into peg holes on the board.  Sam stared at the board in her lap, flummoxed at the desperate situation she was in.  Seeing Kevin absorbed in looking out the rain-streaked window in front, she nudged Caitlin and pointed to the game board.  Caitlin studied it, nodded, pointed out a preferred move, and with a finger traced a strategy for the following moves. 
"Why would you want to help her cheat like that?"  Kevin said.  He’d turned around and was watching.
"It’s not cheating," Caitlin said.  "It's just—tutoring.  Is there some rule against that?"
"You know what the major would say, right?  It was cheating."
"Well, Sam is young enough to be allowed some leeway."
"But that isn’t how we were taught.  You’ve reminded me how you weren't much older when you broke the major’s rules about cheating.  A bit more serious than our little chess game but your penalty definitely shocked me.  I knew she had higher standards for you but I sure tried to be a little more careful about my own failings after that.  Even if I wasn’t always so successful."
Caitlin’s eyes got filmy and she leaned back on the seat, head turned away, hands crossed in her lap.  She said, "we never really talked much about that time, you and I, Kevin, about the real reason I got sent away.  I was so embarrassed and I couldn’t discuss it with you.  It was so much less painful to let you believe it was just something like, Caitlin has become defiant so we’re just going to ship her off to improve her karma with family and ancestors for a while."
"I knew what it was all about," Kevin said.  "We went to the same school, remember?"
"Why didn't anyone ever tell me what happened?" Sam said.
"What did you know, Kevin?" Caitlin said.
"That you were involved, really involved, with that senior, Joel Kensie, and the major wanted it checked, and quick."
"Did you also know I'd gotten pregnant?"
Sam dropped the chessboard case to the floor, spilling the loose pieces.  Kevin groaned and turned away without answering.  Rain sluiced across the windshield and the wipers slapped back and forth. 
Cy heard and watched his daughter's face in the rear-view mirror.  "We never talked much about that time," he said.  "You, your mother, and I.  I didn't know how to deal with it.  Maybe we need to talk more now, just you and I?" he said.
"No, father, you and I can't ever talk about that," Caitlin said.  "It's past."

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