This is the beginning of my next novel. It’s a little different than what I normally write. No fantasy this time. I kind of wanted to try to bridge the gap between literary fiction and genre fiction — focusing mostly on the characters, and what’s going on inside of them, but also giving enough of an odd plot to be enjoyable for genre readers. I’m not sure if I’ll succeed in this endeavor, but I’ll let you guys be the first judge. Let me know what you think. Comments, and especially criticisms are massively appreciated.
Branden was talking to that girl again. The one from the bar; the girl with the jean-shorts with the rips in them that showed half of her ass, and the flannel shirt that she tied in a knot in the middle just across her bare bellybutton. Her skin was orange and wrinkled, but Branden was drinking a lot lately, and he seemed more lonely than he’d ever been. He plucked away at his phone, sending little smiley-faces, and apparently laughing out loud — you’d think — for how many times he wrote the damn acronym, but a smile never once touched his face.
Nicole stood behind the couch, watching over Branden’s shoulder with her arms crossed as he texted. He didn’t notice her. He never did. She’d whisper in his ear, and call him dirty names — liar, cheater, asshole — but he never even turned his head to face her. He never looked her in the eyes. He went to bed without saying goodnight, sometimes with that girl, somewhere else, and sometimes at home, his eyes wetting the pillow, with beer bottles littering the bed.
It hurt to see him like that. Nicole knew that he was suffering, but she was, too, damn it, and even worse — she couldn’t talk to anybody about it. At least Branden had that. Someone he could call up, someone he could meet up with for drinks. Someone who could hold him.
The only person Nicole had ever had was Branden, and he couldn’t even notice that she was in the same room. Sometimes when she broke down, and threw something, there’d be some sort of recognition, some sort of reflection of who he was, who they had been on his face, and then he’d shake it away, letting it go like whispers in the wind. Something was there, though just under the surface, so close to realizing the pains she was taking to communicate — acting out, to just get something out of him.
But even that was rare.
“Just talk to me,” she said.
Branden continued tapping the keyboard on his phone, sending: “I’ll be there in a little bit.” He was going to her house again, the fourth time since Nicole had found out about them.
He always stank when he came home. Sweat lingered with the caramelized bitter smell of old liquor and stale cigarette smoke, and something else, sort of fruity and wispy, some sort of spray the teenagers wore, and the women who wished they were teenagers wore. Watermelon breeze, or some other nonsense. His eyes were always heavy, and he’d walk passed Nicole in the doorway without saying a word, and he’d fall into the couch without ever taking off his boots. He wouldn’t turn on the TV. He wouldn’t eat any food. He’d lie there staring at the ceiling until he’d only have a few minutes to shower before going to work, until his work started leaving messages asking where he was. He’d get up, pace around the room, then delete them and go back to the couch.
He was so different now, so far gone. It almost hurt to go on watching him live, just eking through life, scratching his way through one aching day after another. Nicole just wished there was some way that she could fix it, even though, deep down, she knew the truth. Things were over between them.
His phone buzzed, and the screen lit up. It was her. Meagan. Nicole watched as her husband opened a photo of some skinny blonde piece of trailer trash dressed in nothing but her tiny white laced underwear, and read the photo caption. It said: “Hurry.”
Nicole felt her face grow hot, burning like the heat of a thousand suns, but it was no longer jealousy, not the jealousy that she had first felt about this girl that burned so bright and violent before. It wasn’t that that she was dredging up, now — that anger where she called him fucker, and traitor, and slime, no, she just felt sad now, and she hurt so so deep within herself; so deep that she thought that if she could cut into her own chest and rip free her dead heart, only then could she stand to feel all right about it all. She felt her eyes begin to burn, and her vision blurred. She leaned closer, almost touching her lips to his ear.
“Stay,” she whispered, her voice wavering as it lumped in her throat.
As the word escaped her lips, she saw it all in slow motion as her breath caught the hair above Branden’s ear. It moved, ever so slightly, just like the way the summer grass does, quivering at the gasp of a looming storm.
He snapped his head to face her, their noses almost touching, lips, everything so close to touching, that she could feel the warmth of his skin, and smell the salt of his sweat, but his eyes, his eyes, they looked right through her. It wasn’t surprise that was there on his face or anger, no. His brow was wrinkled with concern, or maybe it was fear, and Nicole could see the hair prickle on his neck. He shivered, and opened his mouth, his lips parting, floundering for words like there was something there, something fighting so desperately to be said, his face contorted as if he couldn’t believe what thoughts were forming in his head.
For a moment, she thought that he could see her there, really see her as she was, sitting there, just an inch away, with a single tear rolling down her face. But his eyes, they stared beyond, out of focus, searching for something that just wasn’t there. And she knew again, as so many times before, that no matter how hard she tried, no matter how bad she wanted it, that the living simply could not see the dead.