It's my tradition to post the first chapters of drafts here. My current book, The Badlings, has given me surprisingly a lot of grief. It started out as an innocent wish to revisit the books I grew up on, and ended up being something completely different, partly because due to copyright issues I had to cut down the number of books mentioned in it from 30 to 10, and partly because I tried writing parody and concluded that it's not mine. Nope. Don't feel it. Can't do it!
So. Here is the chapter I banged out today. Let me know what you think. My biggest fear with this book is that I'm not growing, that somehow Rosehead or Irkadura are better than this (I'm supposed to be improving!). Whatever. That's my self-doubt talking. If you want to read a chapter every day, cough up a 1$ a month and you can read them on Patreon as I post them. Also, if you want to read more of my blogging but in shorter form, hop over to Ello, I do shorter posts there. And the ultrashort shit goes on Twitter. Yes, that's my reduced social media presence, Twitter (ultra short) + Ello (short) + Blog (long). I also post a picture or two on Instagram, which I sometimes share on Facebook, but that's about it. Okay, why am I telling you all this? I don't know. I'm ranting. Here is the chapter.
A novel by Ksenia Anske, Draft 4
Chapter 1. The Duck Pond
What if you found a book stuck in dirt? Would you open it and read it, or would you throw it at innocent ducks (provided there were any close by)? You wouldn’t do such a thing, would you? Because who throws books instead of reading them?
Meet Belladonna Monterey, or Bells, as she’d like you to call her (she’d decided that Belladonna was too pompous a name for a future scientist). See her dark flashing eyes? Her ponytail all askew? Don’t try talking to her, lest you want to be throttled.
On this sunny September morning Bells was mad. Mad at her mother, the famous opera singer Catarina Monterey, for calling her a “poor scientist.” The argument started at Bells refusing to go to her Saturday choir practice and escalated further into a shouting match when Bells declared that under no circumstances would she ever become a singer.
“So you want to be a poor scientist?” Said Catarina, hands on her hips. It was her usual intimidating pose mimicked by Bells’s little sister Maria from behind her mother’s back.
“What does it matter if I’m poor?” Asked Bells, stung to the core.
Maria stuck out her tongue. Bells considered it beneath her to descend to the level of an eight-year-old’s teasing and ignored her.
“Oh, it matters a great deal.” Replied Catarina. “How do you propose to make a living? You have seven years left until you’re on your own, Belladonna, and every year is precious.”
“I told you I don’t like that name. I want you to call me Bells.”
Her mother’s lips pressed together. “As I was saying, Belladonna, every year is precious. I’ve picked out an excellent stage name for you, and I expect you to thank me.” Her demeanor softened. “You are destined to become a star, with my talent running in your blood. If you stop practicing now, you might never develop your voice.”
“I don’t want to develop a voice.” Blurted Bells.
“You’re a girl!” Exclaimed Catarina. “What future do you think you have in science?”
“Why does it matter that I’m a girl? I certainly have no inclination in prancing around in stupid period dresses and hollering my lungs out like you do.” As soon as Bells said this, she regretted it.
Her mother looked hurt. “Is that what you think I do? Holler my lungs out?”
“I hate dresses.” Bells said stubbornly. “I hate singing. I hate it that I’m a girl. I want to do science. Stop sticking your tongue out at me!” That was directed at her little sister.
“Mom, Belladonna is being mean.” Maria whined.
“Shut up.” Said Bells.
“You shut up.”
“Stop torturing your sister.” Snapped Catarina. “Look at her. She’s younger than you, but she has the presence of mind to follow my advice.”
Maria flashed a triumphant smile and twirled, showing off her pink gaudy dress, the type their mother liked to buy for them. Bells made a gagging noise. She hated pink or anything decidedly girly. She made sure to never wear dresses, and if she absolutely had to, she’d smear them with mud so thoroughly, her mother pronounced them as ruined.
“I see how you are. Well, go ahead.” Relented Catarina. “If that is your choice. But don’t come crawling to me asking for money.”
“Mom, I’m only eleven!”
“At your age I was already working, modeling and making a considerable sum for every photo shoot.”
“I don’t want my face plastered over a can of macaroni, thank you.” Said Bells.
“I want to be a model.” Said Maria.
Bells made a strangling motion, and that sent Maria behind her mother’s vast skirt.
“What do you want, then?” Asked Catarina. “All I see you do is run around with those abominable boys, doing who knows what and coming home as dirty as no respectable girl ought to be.”
Bells face flushed. “I’ll be as dirty as I want.”
“Then get out of here. Out of my house!” Catarina waved her hand, her eyes throwing daggers. “Go live with your father, and don’t you dare coming back unless you’re clean and have changed your mind.”
“Fine.” Said Bells quietly. An iron determination rooted her to the spot. She flung her head high and professed in an injured tone, “I will make it on my own, mom. You’ll see.”
Catarina blinked and took a step forward. “Belladonna Monterey, you’re going to choir practice, and that is final.”
“I’m not Belladonna, I’m Bells!”
“Your name is Belladonna.”
“No, it’s not!” Bells shook so hard, her voice quivered. “I’m Bells, I’m Bells, I’m Bells!” She turned on her heel and stormed to the garage.
“Come back this instant!” Catarina shouted after her, but it was too late.
What do you do when you’re mad? I’m curious. I’ll tell you what Bells did. She grabbed her bike and took off. “I will run away, that’s what I’ll do.” She said through clenched teeth. “I’ll find a way to make it on my own. I don’t need her. That will teach her how to call me a poor scientist.”
She pedaled so fast her ponytail whipped in the wind and her eyes spilled over with angry tears. She rode to the duck pond where Peacock, Grand, and Rusty—the other three badlings—were already waiting for her. They have agreed the night before to try and jump from the roof of the abandoned one-story house near the park on Bells’s dare that she would be the one to do it more times than any of the boys.
They called her.
Bells didn’t respond. She dropped the bike and stomped to the stagnant pond water in search of something to hurl as far and as hard as possible. Her eyes fell on a brown corner sticking out of the mud. She kneeled, clasped it and pulled. Out came a thick leather-bound tome. It was as large as her choir teacher’s musical notebook. Without a second thought Bells weighted it in her hands and, aiming carefully, chucked it right at the ducks, sending them flying with cries of displeasure.
“There,” she said. “Now I feel better.”
I imagine you want to know what happened next. Well, it was as expected.
The book landed by the growth of sedge. With an ominous creak, it flung open and lay still, as if waiting to be examined.
“Did it just...open on its own?” She walked up to it and bent over. An otherwise ordinary book with ordinarily printed words, it was huge and thick and bloated, containing way too many pages for its binding, all of them yellowing and uneven, as if borrowed from different manuscripts you might find in an antique store.
Bells thought she saw something on top of the paper. She leaned and gasped, her mouth hanging open. It was the most peculiar sight. The page spread held a miniature landscape. A frozen lake and a dark forest around it, covered with snow that sparkled in light of a tiny sun. It hung in midair, so close to Bells’s face, she was tempted to touch it.
She blinked, and it was gone. All of it, the sun and the landscape. An old tattered book, albeit enormous, lay sprawled at her feet. Something prevented her from touching it. She stood up, gazing blankly, and touched her head instead. It felt warm, the normal temperature.
“This is it. I’m seeing things.” She muttered.
“Hey, Bells!” Called Peacock.
“Hey!” Echoed Rusty. “We thought you chickened out. Man, we were waiting for you for like an hour already, right? I mean, come on, you said nine in the morning.”
They were ambling over.
Grand made it first, panting from effort. “Um, Bells? Are you all right?” He puffed out his cheeks, taking a breath. “Have you been crying?”
“Huh?” She looked at him and through him.
“Have you been...crying?” He repeated, uncertain.
His round face shone from perspiration. He wiped his hands, sticky from the doughnut, and patiently waited for an answer.
Bells called him Grand for his formidable girth and considerable presence. To the rest of the world he was known as George Palmeater. His mother, Daniela Palmeater, worked as a cosmetologist in a funeral home, and his father, Stanley Palmeater, died from heart failure a few years ago—“from being too fat,” as his mother explained. He had two little bothers, Max and Teddy. They liked to climb him like a little mountain, twist his ears, pull his nose, and poke his sides. This instilled in Grand an admirable patience, as well as a caution in choices and a morbid obsession with death that could be only curbed by eating doughnuts.
“What made you say that?” Bells sniffled inconspicuously, coming back to her senses. “I haven’t been crying at all.”
Grand’s cheeks colored. “But your eyes...”
“You’re seeing things.” She glanced down again. “And I’m seeing things. I think. Pinch me, please?”
“Pinch you?” He rubbed his hands. “What happened?”
“Mom again.” Said Bells in a tone that didn’t invite further conversation. “Choir practice. Don’t ask. Listen, Grand, do you think children can hallucinate? I mean, like, in the middle of the day for no reason at all?”
“Um. I don’t know. I think, yes. But that would mean they have a psychological disorder of some sort, and if untreated it could lead to a condition knows as schizophrenia, and then they would start hearing voices and seeing things and then they become paranoid and start—”
“Okay, I get the point,” said Bells weakly. She burned with desire to look down, and made a concentrated effort not to. What if the landscape she saw was there again? What if it wasn’t? Did that mean she was going crazy?
“Is that a book?” Asked Grand.
“Wait.” She touched his arm. “Let me—”
“What’s up, Bells?” Interrupted them Peacock.
The gangliest and the tallest of the boys, he slapped her shoulder in a way of a greeting and raked a hand through his blue hair, a fauxhawk, the pride and glory of his appearance. Bells called him Peacock—Peter Sutton was his name—for his cockiness and exuberance. Changing hair color was his way of getting noticed among the many people present in his loony house. His father, a real estate agent, has gone off his marbles, in Peacock’s opinion, and married a loud artist woman who recently moved into their tiny apartment together with five children from her two previous marriages.
“Okay, I have a favor to ask.” Said Bells and pointed down. “Do you guys see what I see, or am I going crazy?”
“What the heck?” Peacock fell to his knees.
The landscape was back on top of the page spread, more pronounced this time. The snowy sky hung over it a silvery layer. Wind howled and raged over the minute forest.
“There are trees and a lake and everything!” Peacock’s voice shook from excitement.
“Wow.” Exclaimed Rusty, sniggering. “No way! Is this for real? That’s like, nuts! Right, Bells?”
He sniggered a lot, and Bells pronounced him Rusty for his rusted out voice—his given name was Russell Jagoda. He also talked a lot, which, coupled with his small size and knobbly joints that never seemed to stop twitching, gave him an appearance of a monkey. His parents were killed in a car crash when he was six and the brunt of his childhood was spent in the company of his Polish grandmother Agnieszka who walked dogs for a living and instilled in him the love for petting any animal, dangerous or not.
He stretched out his hand.
“Don’t touch it!” Snapped Bells.
“Why not?” Asked Rusty.
“We don’t know what it is.” She twisted her ponytail. “I do know one thing, though. I’m not going crazy, since you guys can see the same thing I see. And that is a good thing, I suppose.”
They crowded around the book, mouths agape.
“Where did you find it?” Asked Peacock.
“Right over there.” Bells pointed to the spot where the ducks sat huddling, their beady eyes shining with malice at her outrageous behavior. “I thought someone has thrown away. It looked and felt like a book when I pulled it out. I didn’t know if would have this inside it.”
“You found this?” Asked Grand. “On the ground?”
“Yeah, right where the ducks are. See? It was stuck in mud, so I dug it out and...” She didn’t finish, sensing her face tingle. “I didn’t mean to throw it. I was just mad.”
“But how is this possible?” Asked Rusty, edging closer.
“It’s not,” stated Bells. “Scientifically speaking, it’s not possible for anything like this to exist.”
“So, what you’re saying is,” offered Peacock, “this doesn’t exist?” He nudged the book with his sneaker, and the winter on top of it wailed with such ferocity, they all recoiled.
“I suppose it is real,” admitted Bells. “Only I don’t understand how this would work. I can test it and tell you.”
“And how do you propose to do that?” Asked Peacock.
“Like any respectable scientist would do, you dolt. Watch me.” Bells squatted between him and Rusty and hovered her hand over the page.
“Hey, you told me not to touch it.” Objected Rusty.
“Exactly. Because you wouldn’t know how. Get out of my way.” He nudged him aside. The air froze her palm, and after a few seconds she had to move her hand away. “It’s cold. I can feel the low temperature on my skin. Because I trust my senses, I conclude that this is real.” Then, spurred by a rush of an overwhelming curiosity, she touched the lake.
“What are you doing! Are you off marbles?” Cried Peacock.
“Are you scared?” Challenged him Bells, forcing herself not to wince. The frost bit her fingers, and they got stuck to the ice. She tried pulling away and couldn’t. The lake held her fast.
“Um, maybe this is not such a good idea, testing it.” Ventured Grand. “I went into the freezer at my mom’s work once, you know, the mortuary freezer, and I touched one of the walls, and it was very cold and it looked as if it was powdered with sugar, so I licked it and my tongue got stuck to it and—”
“Okay, we heard this story a thousand times.” Said Bells with a nervous chuckle.
“But this is a different one...” Said Grand, crestfallen. He was fond of sharing morbid accounts of stumbling into a room full of corpses or eating lunch with his mother right next to a dead body freshly made up with makeup, or other unmentionable adventures that nobody except his friends could stomach.
“Well, I think this is very real, actually.” Said Bells, the first twinge of panic twisting her stomach. She couldn’t feel her fingers, and the freezing clutches of some mysterious force pulled her whole arm, so that she had to plop down on the ground, pretending like this was just what she was planning on doing all along.
Rusty edged up to her. “How does it feel, Bells? Can I touch it now?”
“No!” She cried a bit too suddenly. “I mean, yes, you can, after I’m done, okay?”
“You’re shaking.” Observed Grand. “Don’t you think you’ve tested it enough?”
Just then—oh, don’t you love these words, “just then”? They make your skin tingle, don’t they? You know something dreadful will happen in a book and you start biting your fingers. Good job, because you are absolutely right. Something dreadful indeed was about to happen, and it happened very fast.
Clearly fed up with waiting, the book proceeded to act. In pulled Bells down like a magnet might pull a piece of metal, drawing her closer to the page so that her face was inches away from the silvery tide of snowflakes shimmering over the surface of the book. It burned her cheek, and she positively decided that this was the time to panic in earnest.
“It’s pulling me in!” She cried.
“What is?” Asked Peacock dumbly.
“The book, you blockhead! Don’t you see?”
Another tug. Bells cried out, clawing at the dirt to stay put. And then she began to shrink. She looked up at the boys, too stunned to utter any noise or make any movement. Her eyes shone out like two frightened saucers.
For a silent second the boys gazed at her diminishing shape. She found her voice and shouted. “Help me!” It sounded high-pitched and unnatural. She was half her size now, a third, a quarter. She took a deep breath and added an insult, in the hopes of persuading her friends to move. “Get me out, you idiots! What are you looking at? Help!”
At last they unfroze and rushed to her aid.
Grand grabbed her ankle, Rusty seized her leg, and Peacock clasped her waist. Not that it did much. Bells slipped right through their fingers and in the last moment, before the realization hit her that any resistance was futile, she said resolutely, “You know what? Maybe it’s a good thing. Anywhere is better than home.” And with a shriek of terror she dwindled into a dot and got swept away by the snow.
A thick silence fell over the pond.
Let me pause here and describe the scene to you. A nice sunny autumn morning. A rarely visited corner of a park overgrown with yellowing maples. An old duck pond, complete with mossy stones and round lily leaves. A dozen shameless ducks—the very reason why not many people ventured here—gathered around the boys in hopes of scoring a few doughnut crumbs that smelled so cunningly sweet (Grand always fed them when he came here). Four bikes heaped over one another. A growth of sedge, a mound of dirt, a giant open book, and three eleven-year-old boys kneeling next to it, their faces lit with a mixture of amazement, bafflement, and fear.
Suddenly—horrible things always happen suddenly in books—a fierce wind was born out of nowhere. It rushed across the treetops, tearing off leaves and loose twigs. The sky scudded with clouds. The sun disappeared. Squawking, the ducks fled to the far end of the pond and huddled in a trembling mass of feathers. The coldness issuing from the book made a slurping noise as if satisfied after a meal. The wind died, the noise stopped.
“She’d gone.” Said Peacock incredulously. “It took her. It took Bells!”
“She shrunk! Did you see that? Is that crazy or what? What do we do now, huh?” Rusty scratched his head.
“I’m going in.” Grand cautiously looked into the book.
“Going where?” Peacock’s eyes widened. “In there? Are you nuts?”
“Hey, that would be cool, wouldn’t it?” Added Rusty. “I’d be sacred to shrink like that, though.”
“You guys do what you want. It got Bells, so I’m going after her.” Said Grand resolutely, closed his eyes and placed his hand on the lake. The book greedily accepted him and in another moment he vanished, whisked away into the forest.
Peacock and Rusty stared at the spot where Grand was a second ago, then at each other.
“We can’t just leave them, Peacock.” Said Rusty. “I mean, I get it that it’s scary, but we have to get them.” He gingerly extended a finger and touched the page. “Hey, that tickles, stop!” But the book didn’t intend to stop. Rusty rapidly diminished in size and disappeared.
The book creaked, as if mocking the last badling with its open pages, waiting.
“Rusty!” Cried Peacock. “What the heck? This is not happening. This is not happening. It can’t be.” The little hairs at the nape of his neck stood up. “Okay, okay. I’m coming, guys. I’m coming.” He squinted his eyes shut and felt for the paper. The second his finger made contact with the lake, it sucked him in. When that was done, the front cover lifted and shut close, startling the ducks and sending ripples across the pond.
“Happy reading, badlings,” rustled the book and sank back into dirt, feeling rather accomplished with itself.