Chapter from an unfinished novel

A while back, I decided to write a novel. Sadly, I crapped out about 10,000 words in. This was my first chapter, and I still like it. (The rest, not so much.) Who knows what will come of it? Feedback is appreciated.

The Shit Magnet–1996

Richard Tompkins was nine the first time he was hit by a car.

His mother sent him the half-mile to the grocery store to buy a loaf of bread on a sunny Saturday morning, hoping that the short bike ride of his errand would do him some good, sickly child that he was. The trip to the store passed easily enough, and Richard began to enjoy the breeze in his hair and the sun shining on the back of his neck as he stood on the peddles and pumped his legs. He bought a loaf of honey-wheat bread and hung the cheap plastic bag from his handlebars, setting off for home. He rode the bike on the pavement, just outside of the painted white line.

Four blocks away (and totally unbeknownst to Richard), two men were robbing the First National Bank. They were not professional thieves; this was their first robbery. It did not go well. The entirety of their caper had been planned based on watching heist movies on TBS late at night, giving them a steroidal view of how such crimes actually occur. Gary, a hulking man with a low IQ, took his pistol into the bank and began waving it around, telling everyone to get down on the floor. As he was menacing the three customers and two tellers present on a Saturday for the bank’s limited hours, he held his finger on the pistol’s trigger, accidentally discharging a round into the leg of a middle-aged school nurse who was already on the floor and causing no problems. The shot, screams and splatters of blood spooked everyone. A teller hit the alarm, which began to ring.

Gary bolted, only realizing as he reached the car that he had forgotten the bag of cash he’d been trying to steal in the first place. The getaway driver, the tiny, asthmatic Chuck, had already put the car into first gear and begun to roll it forward ever so slightly when Gary remembered that he hadn’t taken the money and began to head back inside. Chuck was so confused by this that he stared after Gary and forgot to reapply his foot to the brake. He tapped the BMW parked in front of him, setting off its alarm.

By the time Gary retrieved the money and returned to the car for the second time, the wail of police sirens began to add to the two alarms. A crowd of people had begun to stumble out of storefronts to see the spectacle. Gary fired a shot into the air, scattering the crowd as it always did in the movies, and then he hopped into the car. Chuck, regaining his composure, pulled out with a distinctive screech just as the police rounded the corner.

Richard heard none of this, heard only his own breathing as he worked to get his bike up the very slight incline of Parkington Street and toward Johnson Avenue, where his family’s post-war rancher sat on half an acre of brownish-green grass. He had always been a child of deep concentration, a trait that allowed him to excel academically but which hindered any more athletic tasks. He was so unaware of the approaching calamity that he never heard the getaway car’s back tires slide across the warm asphalt as Chuck and Gary turned onto Parkington at least thirty miles an hour too fast to stay in their lane or the two police cars following right behind,

Chuck was not an experienced getaway driver, a fact made glaringly obvious by the high-speed chase he found himself leading. His pursuers’ police academy training allowed them to make up ground quickly, and as the chase wore on, they began to control the action, slowly moving the thieves toward less busy roads and hoping that the criminals would turn down one of the many residential streets with no outlet on this side of town. Chuck saw Richard as he rounded the corner, but not quickly enough to avoid the collision, and he would not have stopped at this moment even if he could have. The car effectively side-swiped the boy on the bike, the driver’s side mirror breaking his arm in multiple places as he went sprawling onto the sidewalk, where he skidded to a stop after depositing flesh over two square yards of concrete.

The criminals sped off, trailed by the police cars, neither of which stopped to tend to the severely injured boy now unconscious in front of a row of townhomes, the bread he’d been sent to collect lying smashed below his relatively intact bicycle. An elderly woman who had heard the sirens and moved quickly to her window had seen the hit-and-run and called 911, though she did not go out to help the boy. Seventeen minutes passed before the ambulance arrived to cart Richard to the hospital.

This was not Richard’s first brush with bad luck. It was, his friends would reflect often, merely the most cinematic example of his uncanny ability to attract misfortune. Even before he took his first breath, Richard was unlucky.

Fate did not allow the twenty-five year old Linda Tompkins to savor the glow of pregnancy for long. Every morning began with a vomiting so complete that she was left dry-heaving, hugging the white porcelain of her toilet, tears in her eyes. She felt terror at the thought of how alone she was in these moments, living five hundred miles away from her parents, with no job and no relationship to speak of.

She had lost her first real post-college job on a Friday, thrown the box of her personal effects (so recently removed from her desk) into the backseat of her used Ford sedan and gone to the cheapest dive bar in town, where she proceeded to get drunk beyond any remembrance she had of intoxication. The baby’s father, a shadowy figure Linda had been too wasted to remember sleeping with, had not been seen since the boozy early morning hours after the conception, roughly the moment when Linda realized that she must have just fucked him, given her state of undress and the fluid slowly leaking onto her sheets from between her legs.

Though she managed to get another job fairly quickly, it did not come with health insurance or other benefits, thus depriving her of the thorough pre-natal care which might have made Richard’s entry into the world easier. She did visit one of the city’s free clinics, but the overworked staffers there simply gave her a brief once-over and sent her on her way.

About six weeks before the baby was due, she began to feel more than just sickness. She began to feel pain, intense bolts of discomfort in her abdomen. These she ignored until the spotting started. An older co-worker took pity on Linda and drove her to the emergency room, where doctors discovered a placental abruption and performed an emergency C-section. The baby, weighing just under four pounds and blue from a lack of oxygen, had to stay in the newborn intensive care unit for six weeks.

This new child—named Richard after Linda’s father, refused to take food for several days and had to be fed through an IV. He could not learn to latch on to his mother’s breasts, even as they swelled up and gave her pain. Getting him to take formula was a major triumph for the NICU nursing staff, although they soon realized that he could not keep standard formula down and had to be given a special mixture more in line with his sensitive constitution.

Richard did not show any of the developmental problems associated with premature birth. He was bright and alert. He learned to crawl, walk and talk at the normal times. But he was often ill, which was later traced to severe allergies. As he grew up, he displayed allergic reactions to pollen, cat dander, milk, nuts and bee stings. His reactions were so severe that Linda became adept at using a child-sized epi-pen and developed strong friendships with the EMTs who came so regularly to her door.

One particular paramedic, Don Fisher, took a special interest in Linda and Richard. The fourth or fifth time he arrived to transport the child to the hospital, he asked her out as they rode in the back of the ambulance. (She noted that he at least had the good taste to wait for Richard’s condition to stabilize before making his move.) She agreed to see him, in part due to loneliness and in part due to his particular skill set, which could be of such use to her son. She found Don neither attractive nor unattractive, although his personality was pleasant enough.

On their first date, she insisted that they bring the not-quite-three boy along, figuring that this would give the kindly man second thoughts about a long-term relationship, pushing him away before he got too attached. They ate at a local diner and chatted amiably but without chemistry as her son colored on his kids’ menu. This might have been the end of things for them, but Don ordered peanut butter pie for dessert and while the adults were engaged in conversation, Richard stuck his finger in the pie’s filling and then into his mouth. When his throat began to swell shut, it was Don who jabbed to epi-pen through the boy’s jeans and drove them at high speed to the nearest hospital. When they finally got back to her place at three the next morning, Linda was so grateful to Don that she made love to him. Their bond was sealed.

Don was older than Linda by ten years. She was just shy of thirty when he proposed to her. Once again, they were in a vehicle—this time driving home from seeing Aladdin, the five year old Richard asleep in the backseat of Don’s maroon Toyota Camry. Seeing no better options and telling herself that her warm (though not loving) feelings for the man were enough to sustain a marriage, she accepted his proposal.

Richard loved Don, and the man had a clear affection for him, too. How could they not come to love each other? The emotional connection between savior and saved is undeniable, and it grows deeper with time and repetition. A child as prone to asthma and allergy as Richard spends many hours in doctors’ offices and hospital beds, sure only that his parents are the reason he’s safe despite the unfamiliarity of the surroundings and the terror of the way his body makes him feel.

Don was the first paramedic out of the vehicle at the accident scene on Parkington. He saw the blood before anything else and that was enough to convince him that this was going to be a bad morning. Only then did he get close enough to the limp form on the sidewalk to recognize the curve of the spine beneath a familiar, if now ragged, shirt. Everything that happened in the next half an hour was based entirely on muscle memory and instinct. Looking back on it later that evening, when it was certain that Richard would live, Don could not remember anything beyond the initial horror of realizing that the injured child was his own.

The accident had broken Richard’s right arm in three places, fractured his skull and caused internal bleeding. His face was swollen and puffy, with severe damage caused by scraping the sidewalk. He had been conscious earlier, had cried through the bandages and morphine. He had asked where his bike was. Don lied and told him it was at home. This seemed to calm the boy, and his sobs became less pitiful. Linda was inconsolable, and she did not leave the hospital until Richard was released three days later.

The first night that Richard and Linda were in the hospital, Don walked to the accident site to find the bike he’d promised was already safe at home. It was gone. Only the smashed loaf of bread in the cheap plastic grocery store bag remained. He picked it up and took it home, dropping it in the garbage bin as he walked in the door.

From his very early days at school, Richard’s classmates noticed his unluckiness. There were the regular allergy attacks, sure, but it was more than that. The Tompkins kid just seemed cursed. When little Janet Peabody got carsick in the backseat of the bus on the way home from the kindergarten field trip to the aquarium, it was Richard that she covered in puke. When the school district cut back its maintenance budget and a nest of mice took up residence in the school, it was Richard’s baloney sandwich that they chewed on, leaving some turds as a thank you to be found when he got to the cafeteria and opened the brown bag his mother had packed so lovingly. And, after 1995, Barnesville School District forbade physical education classes from playing dodge ball after an errant throw broke Richard’s nose.

The car accident cemented his reputation as a talisman of ill fortune. Students began to talk about Richard the way kids in other towns might speak of a haunted house or a suspected pedophile. Campfire stories were told of how he came to be so unlucky, with some speculating that his mother had made a pact with Satan prior to his birth. Others claimed that as a child he had run out into traffic, causing a truck full of mirrors to careen into a telephone pole and shatter its contents, piling at least three millennia of bad luck on the head of one small boy. One of the crueler kids—no one knew exactly who—began to call him The Shit Magnet, a name which stuck as only the most humiliating nicknames can.

Even the other kids’ parents began to shy away. They worried that inviting the Tompkins boy to a birthday party was an invitation to a lawsuit, particularly when the parties were held at roller skating rinks or swimming pools. And besides, they whispered amongst themselves, what if his bad luck hurts my child by proximity? It being feasible, of course, that Richard would be struck by lightning during a pool party and inadvertently fry twenty other fourth graders in the process.

He heard the whispers, knew his nickname. And he understood why people weren’t inviting him for sleepovers or to go camping or to the circus. Being young and therefore malleable, he accepted this as his place in life—limping around the fringes of society, wheezing from asthma, hoping that Don would be on call the next time the ambulance arrived.


About semiblind

Bringing you stark existentialism since 1981.
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4 Responses to Chapter from an unfinished novel

  1. jessecrall says:

    This reads (as I suspect you intend) as an introductory piece, setting the tone for the story to follow. Your voice is clean, light, & very effective. My only critique involves specificity; you’re working in general terms with descriptions of places and people that only start to pop when you get to Richard’s allergies (The Shit Magnet is a great detail). Moving forward, start picturing your settings and the people who feel them and let the colors, vibes, sounds and voices fill the space. Even if you work with free association and then edit/condense, you’ll begin to create a universe in which your story can unfold in vivid terms. Having a strong voice already makes your work easier; let it travel a little more. It’s a lot easier to cut than expand.

    • semiblind says:

      Thanks for the feedback. I appreciate it. Not sure if anything will come from this, but your comments are helpful moving forward with other pieces as well.

  2. jessecrall says:

    Your writing is excellent, it’s just a novel requires added density. The style itself works really well.

    • semiblind says:

      You’re right about density. Looking at the whole of what I’ve written, I think I was going for a John Irving density-of-stories thing, with each character getting their own back stories and asides and anecdotes. I love reading books that are like that, but man, is it ever hard to write.

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