Once again, I tackled the NaNoWriMo challenge. This year I managed to write 87,000 words in 28 days. There are a few days remaining, but I doubt my schedule is going to allow any significant addition to the word count. I am offering my first chapter (below) for those wishing to read a sample. Hope you enjoy and happy creating:
Marcus Foster hurried along the cracked and warped boardwalk of Piersen. Silently cursing his stiff joints, Marcus tried to appear casual in his rush. The sun was dipping low and soon the curfew bell would chime. He knew the guards would turn a blind eye to his passing. Marcus was the town’s Speaker, after all. The title wasn’t like those of the nobility yet it did offer certain perks. Marcus loathed the idea of using his status as an excuse to ignore the law. Others might do it but Marcus preferred to hold himself to the same standards of common folk. Besides, being the youngest son of a pig farmer, Marcus knew he was more common than most – title or not.
Slipping through the cottage door, Marcus turned to his personal altar offered a quick prayer of thanks. When he turned to the dining area, he gasped as he noticed a man clad in a black cloak seated at the table.
“Greetings, Father Marcus.” The man swept back the hood of his cloak and smiled, “I apologize for visiting so late and if I have caused a fright. I would have announced my presence, but I didn’t wish to interrupt your desire to whisper to your god in the corner. I hope the coffee I brought will serve as an ample compensation for your inconvenience.”
Marcus tried to examine the man’s face but found it hard to read. This man – this stranger, for Marcus was sure of never meeting him before – was too ordinary. An average nose meeting an average mouth over-shadowed by plain, oval eyes of light gray. Black hair curtained a round face of lightly tanned and unblemished flesh. Marcus had the odd feeling that this man could merge with and depart from any crowd while never being noticed. The idea frightened the Speaker.
“I must insist that you leave.” Glowered Marcus as he approached the door, “I don’t know you. I did not invite you into my home and though I am no longer a man of the cloth, I will not tolerate anyone mocking my prayer to the good Lord.”
The man in black swept an arm and the crossbar slammed over the doorway. Marcus gaped as the iron brackets curled to claw into the wooden beam. “I’ve been told that a person doesn’t simply quit being a priest. Find a new path, perhaps. That being said, Father, I generally avoid telling men how to do their jobs but I can’t help but think that the first act of a priest should be forgiveness of my transgressions.”
“You’re him. The Walker. The abomination.” Murmured Marcus as he pressed his back against the wall, “You are here to kill me, no? Someone hired you? Or am I just another obstacle that needs removing in your secret ambition towards power?”
“That is part of why I’m here.” Walker chuckled and shook his head, “Not the bit about killing you. I am no murderer. Neither am I a blade for hire. I am here because of your reaction. Your first thought was that I mean to end your life. I fear that of all the things I have done and will do, killing is the only image people can hold on to.”
“You contradict yourself.” Scoffed Marcus, “You claim to be no murderer while complaining that people only remember the deaths caused by you. It is told that you have killed dozens and perhaps more than a hundred men. Are you professing this to be false?”
“Not at all.” Walker met the priest’s eyes with an unfaltering glare of confidence that caused the older man to tremble, “My hands have killed more people than you could ever imagine or appreciate. Men and women. Elderly and children. Rich and poor. There has been no bias to those who I have killed. It is not a fact I am proud of. I regret and carry within me the memory of every death. When my time comes to leave this earth, I will face whatever lies beyond eagerly. My judgment will come after this life.”
Marcus stared into Walker’s eyes and was struck by the truths they held. Walker exuded compassion, sorrow, strength, determination and weariness in equal proportions. Marcus left torn between shepherding a lost lamb and chasing away a stalking wolf.
“Why are you here?” Sighed Marcus, “You have said that my reaction to you – to assuming you a killer – was part of it. Are you seeking a voice amongst the people to spread rumors of your benevolence? If so, I am not the right person.”
Walker’s laugh was so open and easy that Marcus felt his nerves relaxing ever so slightly, “Good heavens, no! You start preaching of what a decent man I am and folks will think your mind has grown beyond rationality.”
“A friend once told me that I carry too much in my head.” Walker traced a finger along the lip of his coffee mug, “She trusted me and believed in my actions. She said that a time will come when I doubt my purpose and when that happens… I should seek a good, honest man willing to hear my story. That simply telling my tale should be enough to validate my existence. I am hoping you are that man.”
“This woman… is she still alive? If so, does she still believe in you?” Asked Marcus and Walker nodded, “Then why don’t you go to her?”
“Because she knows most of my story already... especially since she plays a major role in much of it.” Walker chuckled, “Besides, old Connie is a very busy woman these days within the North Watch Abbey.”
“Connie?” Marcus’ eyes widened in recognition, “You mean High Mother Constance Wyatt? I find that hard to believe. Impossible! The High Mother would never tolerate…”
Marcus paused at the amused expression on Walker’s face. Marcus was certain that the High Mother of the joined churches - the First Daughter of the Keepers of Light – would not condone a monstrous man like Walker. Still, there was a troubling truth when Marcus considered Constance and Walker in the same thought. High Mother Constance has never issued a notice of condemnation renouncing Walker as a sinner. The High Mother was notorious for her edicts. Commands of forbidden activities. Urgings of tolerance towards differing views.
Even the Codex of Accountability – Constance’s tome of wisdom – talks of merciful and righteous killing. There is a whole chapter preaching the difference between a killer and a murderer. To kill in one’s defense and in the defense of the weak was considered righteous so long as it isn’t done with joy in your heart. That was what defined a murderer: killing for the joy of killing. Could Walker be a righteous killer? Could this be why the High Mother has never uttered a single word in opposition to Walker’s deeds? Marcus doubted he could be so forgiving. Walker had already admitted to killing mean women and children.
“So… are you to confess while I witness?” asked Marcus. “To what end? Are you seeking forgiveness? You yourself said that judgment awaits after this world. What do you hope to gain?”
“You can listen to it as a confession if that helps.” Walker shrugged, “Personally, I would think that a confession suggests repentance. I honestly don’t know what to think. Part of me begs for forgiveness and accepting whatever sentence the people find just. There is a larger part that insists that the people have no right to judge that which they have no way of understanding. I just wish to tell my tale to an active listener. I have tried to recite the events to myself and am often sidetracked. If someone is listening, perhaps I can finish and resolve the confusion in my mind.”
“I understand.” Marcus sat across from Walker and poured himself a mug of coffee, “I am willing to listen, though I need to know what to do with what I hear. As a confession, I would be sworn to silence… except if you were to confess an intent to cause specific harm.”
“Of course.” Walker removed his cloak revealing a body that would be average on a teenager who had spent his life working on a family’s farm, “This is no confession, then. You may do what you wish with my words. Dismiss them, preach them, write a book… I don’t care. So long as you share them truthfully, I won’t hold your retelling as an insult. Deal?”
“Deal. Thank you for the coffee. It’s been a while since I have enjoyed a good cup of java.” Marcus sipped at his mug, “I would like to apologize for any insult at my assumption of your intent towards me. As we had never met and I am knowing only the tales of your deeds, it was quite rude for me to judge you off of hearsay.”
“I appreciate that, but you might want to save your apology. I can’t guarantee you will feel so contrite once I am finished.” Walker leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, “Before I begin, I must ask what you know about me – hearsay or not. It will make things easier if I know what I must explain.”
“Well, they say you are a killer… which I can forestall my opinion on.” Marcus looked at the door, “It has been said that you have control over matter and elements, which you demonstrated with my latch. I know there are others who possess unique powers but you are supposed to be the strongest… the creator of the powers, even. Folks only call you Walker. Have you a first name?”
“Jacob. What else do you know?”
“They say you are immortal.” Whispered Marcus, “That you lived before the Great Fall. Some say that you are just the grandson of the original Walker but most insist that you are indeed the only Walker and you have been roaming this earth for the past hundred years… longer perhaps. Is it true? Are you immortal?”
“I don’t know.” Shrugged Walker, “It’s complicated. I was alive before the Fall. If you added up the years between my birth and today, I would be about two hundred and twenty-five years old. Of course, I haven’t aged much in the last hundred and ninety-five years… but I have aged. In fact, I have started to age at a faster pace in recent years. Claiming to be immortal would be a stretch. Long-lived would probably be a better statement.”
“Amazing.” Marcus stared at Walker, “This is how you looked prior to the Fall?”
“Mostly. It was two years after the Fall before I changed…” Walker chuckled, “But we should start from the beginning, I think.”
“Yes, of course.” Marcus rested his arms on the table, “It is your story to tell and my questions can wait. Perhaps my questions will be answered just through pure patience.”
“Constance had said you were wise.” Marcus blushed at the realization that this was no chance encounter. Walker was referred to Marcus by the High Mother herself. “Now, beginnings are tricky things. Does a person’s tale start with their birth or must there first be a great event? If speaking of a person’s life, should one include the parents? Grandparents? Perhaps. I choose to gloss over my heritage. My grandparents on both sides of the family were simple working folks who spent their lives laboring at mundane jobs that offered little more than what was needed. My parents were of a generation that prayed to the illusion of entitlement while ignoring the fact that they would never climb beyond mediocre. I was a combination of both generations. I was also a constant headache to my elders. You spoke of patience. Patience has always been my weakness.”
My younger years were quite normal when compared to other children. I had friends. I would play ball in the park. Skip rocks at the pond. Built haphazard forts in the woods that were imagined to be great palaces. It could be said that I was quite average. When I played sports, I was neither the best nor the worst. In school, I had good grades, though not the best. I would get in trouble for skipping my chores sometimes. At the age of twelve, I even had gain what might be considered a girlfriend. Well, we considered ourselves a couple while the adults called it a young crush.
Her name was Alissandra Hart – though she preferred Lissa. She was several inches taller than me with a dancer’s body, emerald green eyes and longest, shiniest, red head I had ever seen. Of course, I was too young to appreciate her physical assets. I was attracted to her mind. Lissa’s father was a professor at the local university and she always had an endless supply of research materials. You would be hard pressed to catch her without a book under one arm and always a different title each time you’d meet. She was the smartest girl in our class and I enjoyed listening to her explain the plot of her most recent novel or recite various academic topics found in her father’s library.
There was the usual, harmless teasing from other students. There always is. We didn’t care. We shared lunch. Held hands. We created our own code for communication that was a combination of sign language and Morse code. Once… just once, we even kissed while hiding in the back of the school’s library. We were caught by one of the teachers and after a quick scolding, she sent us to our next class. I always wondered why that teacher didn’t turn us into the office or tell our parents. I like to think she had an appreciation of young love. A romantic streak that kept her from interfering. I wonder how different things would have been if that teacher did her job. If we were in real trouble from our parents – perhaps forbidden from being together – might things have been better?
I don’t want you to think there was indecent activities between us. We didn’t progress to rolling in the loft and her getting pregnant. As I said, we had only kissed the once. When I say things might have been better, I mean that our relationship contributed to a series of events that may not have happened otherwise. Of course, things could have happened the same way regardless but by different means. Events have a tricky way of occurring whether you want them or not.
The catalyst that started the dominos of my average life to start falling was a single academic test. Lissa and I were thirteen and our school was chosen to try a new computer-based aptitude quiz. There was a large meeting with the students and parents explaining that the test will not affect our grades but instead offer an insight as to the individual areas of study that each student could improve in, as well as the school itself. The faculty spoke of individually targeted learning. That is, course work aimed at the needs of each student. This sounded great. Classes built around a student’s abilities, strengths and weaknesses. The students were excited for the unique opportunity. Later we would learn that the parents and teachers were more excited about the large paycheck offered by the program developer.
The day of the test we were ushered into a room filled with computer terminals. The monitors were shielded to prevent cheating but one teacher noticed Lissa and I silently wishing each other luck from across the room. I was sent to another room. The teacher explained that he trusted that we wouldn’t cheat, but there must be no grounds for doubt. It made sense. I didn’t think anything of it.
The new room was full of older students who snickered at the scrawny boy being ushered to an empty terminal. The new instructor explained that the test was the same for everyone and it progressed based on individual ability. Three wrong in a row and the computer would end the current test and move on to the next subject. To avoid anxiety, the computer wouldn’t tell you when a wrong answer was given… you would realize that three mistakes were made when a new subject started. Seemed simple enough. We were told to start and the fun began.
At first, the questions were quite simplistic. My first test was arithmetic. It started with basic adding and subtracting and moved quickly onto multiplication and division. I fought the urge to laugh. It wasn’t long before laughter was the last thing on my mind. The test progressed into algebra and geometry and soon I found myself staring at equations that contained more letters than numbers. I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t understand any of the problems before me. I just looked at the equation, consider the six possible answers and made my best guess.
I decided there was a fatal flaw to this testing program. If it was waiting for the student to get three wrong in a row and a student managed to guess correctly one out of three times, then how could the program accurately measure the student’s knowledge base? I sighed with relief when the computer finally announced that the first test was finished and displayed a flashing icon reading “Start Next Test?” I raised my hand and told the instructor that it didn’t tell me my score. The older students laughed as the teacher explained that the scores will be compiled after all the testing is finished and we will be receive our results on Monday.
Fine. I can wait. Next test. Science – Biology. This test went the same as the math had. Started easy with identifying different classes of animals on into cellular makeup and forward to genetics and beyond before the test ended. Chemistry. Physics. Literature. Electronics. Lunch break. Computer Sciences. Psychology. Philosophy. Art. Music. History. Engineering seemed odd to me. The closest thing we had to engineering in school was wood shop. I just sat and click my way through the tests while usually clueless as to what I was looking at. Most of the student had finished already and many found fit necessary to offer a mocking pat on the shoulder. Each pat scream the statement: Don’t feel bad. You’re just a kid. Do your best… which isn’t much.
I had stopped looking at the subject titles and just focused on the questions. I wanted to finish and get away from this cursed computer! The computer finally displayed a bright green message stating: “Testing complete: Good Job!” I sighed with relief. Looking at the clock and saw it was only fifteen minutes away from the final bell.
“Ah, you’re finished?” asked the instructor. I nodded and blushed as I noticed all the other students were gone. The instructor placed a reassuring hand on my shoulder, “Don’t you worry about those other students. I would hazard a guess that the first half to leave did so because their tests were shorter.”
I wanted to argue that it wasn’t fair for some tests to be shorter… except the tests were supposed to be the same. Each test was as long as the student could handle. Maybe I didn’t do so bad. I thanked the instructor and hurried to find Lissa.
The next couple days were filled with Lissa stressing about the test. I explained my theory of the test’s flaw and how a one out of three correct guesses might produce a flawed result. This only worried her further. She lectured about the sixteen percent chance of guessing correctly per question and something about being right sixteen percent of the time on thirty-three percent of the questions. I held my primary stance through all of Lissa’s worrying: the test didn’t really matter. It doesn’t affect our grades. It might or might not benefit us in the classroom on down the road in the form of specialized curriculum. I wish I could have been right.
That Monday morning, one hundred and fifty students and nearly twice as many parents assembled in the school’s auditorium for the test result. I feared they were going to parade us up on stage one at a time to reveal our flaws to the whole community. Instead, the students met with the test administrators individually. I could see the Proctors greet the students and parents before printing off a result sheet. I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the variety of reactions these tests garnered. Surprise. Confusion. Excitement. Disappointment. Hope. Shame. It was obvious that while some found hidden potential, others found only a void.
My mother nudged me forward and I suppressed a groan. My father’s expression was resolute. He had been one of the few against the testing, but majority rules and the test happened regardless. I knew he was disappointed that he had to delay a fishing trip with his friends just so he can get a slip of paper proclaiming his son’s mediocrity. I knew this because he told so during the drive to the school. I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut and avoid saying that it was more of a drinking trip without the women. My mother had added that she had to cancel tea with Therese Mitchell. My mother was kind enough not to dwell on it, though. We both knew she hated Therese, but the woman always had the best gossip and was eager to spread it.
We shook hands with the middle-aged Proctor with rosy cheeks and honey-colored hair piled atop her head. She thanked us for our participation and busied herself with the computer. Several times she laughed nervously and shook her head before stabbing at the keyboard again. Finally, she looked up embarrassed.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t seem to find your results.”
My father glared at me, “I swear, boy. If I came down here just to find out you skip this damned test.”
“Please, sir. It isn’t Jacob’s fault.” The Proctor was waving her hand frantically, “I can see that he indeed took the test… I just can’t retrieve the scores. I apologize for the inconvenience and will have one of our techs look into the problem. We should have the results before you leave.”
“Fine. Boy, your mother and I will be by the refreshment table.” My father swaggered away, “Let us know when you have the results.”
“I’m sorry for any problems this has caused.” Whispered the Proctor.
I realized that she must have been seeing the potential of a beating if I did poorly. I couldn’t blame her. Abuse was present in even the most cultured homes. I wish I could have explained that her fears were only partially valid. My father never placed a hand on me. In anger or love. He would bark. He would growl. He would damage my possessions, but he would never hurt me physically. Some would argue that words and emotions can be more harmful than fists. I felt that any scars obtained from my father were superficial and easy to hide.
I smiled at the Proctor and made up an excuse, “He’s just upset that he had to delay an important meeting for this. Time is money and whatnot.”
I felt blessed when a gentle hand grabbed my arm and pulled me away from the Proctor’s cubicle. Lissa was smiling with barely contained excitement. She held out her results like it was a plaque of valor.
“My test says I should be a minimum of two grades higher!” Lissa hopped up and down, “The superintendent said he will arrange for me to take the advanced classes. At this rate, I might be able to graduate a year or two early.”
“That’s great, Lissa.” I forced a smile. “I am proud of you.”
I was happy for her. She was smart and deserved every opportunity. I just worried that I was going to lose her. Lissa was moving up and I was certain that I was going to continue at my usual, average pace. How long before she embraces her need to sprint and forgets those who can barely walk?
“What’s wrong?” Lissa stared into my eyes seeing my trepidation. “It’s your test, isn’t it? You said the test was flawed. I don’t care what the results are. I know you’re smart.”
“My grades say otherwise.”
“Your grades are a result of your failure to apply yourself.” Lissa smirked and tapped me in the forehead, “You have potential. I will help you. We can do this together. So, let me see your results. I need to know where to start tutoring.”
“I don’t have any results.” Lissa’s frown was enough to break my sour mood and I laughed, “Computer error. The Proctor said I took the test and the results are in there… she just can’t retrieve them. She did assure my father that there would be results before we leave.”
“There better be.” Lissa tried to scowl indignantly and lost it in a giggle.
We were quickly distracted by Stacy Mitchell, niece to the notorious Therese and the self-appointed, school version of her aunt. Stacy had been fluttering about learning all the best results. Best meaning the most surprising and usually most embarrassing. Turned out that the senior girl who had the best grades and was already being approached by various universities had done terribly on the test. Rumor is that she has been charming and cheating her way through school. A boy two years from graduating did very well and apparently had failed to apply himself in class.
I didn’t really care. Lissa found it interesting, though. When she revealed her own results, Stacy donned a smile and nodded. It was no surprise that Lissa would prove to be smart. Stacy did seem a bit too interested in the fact that I hadn’t received my results yet. I tried to explain the computer issue and she acted as if it was normal. As she walked away, I couldn’t help but wonder what spin the little scandalmonger would put on the situation.
The waiting lines of students slowly diminished and my nerves started to fray. I was the only one without a printout. Lissa was doing her best to calm me with kind reassurances. Her support worked until my parent approached. My father had obviously moved past his irritation at me. His disgruntled eyes were focused on the administrators. Good. They are the wrong-doers. Sick ‘em, dad!
A tall man with slicked back, grey hair and wearing a crisp, black suit stepped onto the stage. His smile reminded me of an evangelical preacher. All charm and devotion with a hand held out begging for money to help the poor… the outstretched hand encrusted with gold and gems. The man stood patiently waiting for the crowd to grow silent. The smile never wavered. When all was still, he spoke:
“I am Harold Patchard – founder and designer of the OmniTest Program.” There was a smattering of applause to which Harold waved a hand dismissively. “I wish to thank each and every one of you for your participation in this program. Students, thank you for taking the tests. Parents, thank you for raising such fine and promising children. Teachers, thank you for sharing your knowledge that these children – these leaders of tomorrow – might have the best opportunity to succeed.”
This gained a more wholesome applause. Harold continued, “I know, some of you have learned that you didn’t do as well as expected. This is not a failure. This is an opportunity for you to charge forward with renewed focus and strive towards your future success. There are those who did quite well. I beg you, do not become complacent. Climb ever higher and soar to endless horizons!”
“I never intended this test as a tool of division.” Harold frowned, “It’s not my goal to split you into groups of the smartest and dumbest. I truly believe that each and every one of you have the potential to achieve greatness. This test is meant to identify where you currently stand and where you need the most work.”
Harold produced a folded document and rubbed it between his fingers, “Another goal of the OmniTest Program was to identify students who would require assistance beyond the abilities of their current school.”
I was panicking. I prayed to every god I could think of that it wasn’t my results. Please, don’t let me be that special student. The student too dumb for public school. The student who’s potential could never go much beyond glue taster. If I am to be that idiot student, then I won’t go to school. Honestly, my father might insist I quit school for fear that his defective son would embarrass the family even further.
Harold opened the document, nodded and looked to the crowd, “Jacob Walker? Could you please join me up here?”
I wanted to die. I considered just keeping silent. Maybe I could hide and everyone would assume I had left already. That was impossible, of course. How would I hide when four hundred eyes had shifted to stare at me? My father’s glare burned with repressed anger and I thought this might be enough for him to actually hit me. The crowd parted creating a clear path to the stage. I was doomed. I imagined the stories of criminals being marched through town before being hanged. As I walked forward, the eyes of my peers looked away. I couldn’t blame them. Don’t look at the idiot. It might be contagious. I paused. I wasn’t going to stroll blindly to my demise. They can’t make me!
“It’s all right, Jacob.” Urged Harold with his all too plastic smile, “You’re not in trouble.”
I was about to shout. I was going to run away. I might be too dumb for a test but I’m smart enough to avoid danger. A small hand grasped mine and I looked over to see Lissa smiling. She winked and nodded towards the stage. She said she didn’t care how bad my test was. She would be by my side. She would help me. She was my friend. She would be my tutor. In that moment, I realized what love felt like and I basked in her glow. I didn’t even notice that we had reached the stage. Lissa urged me to climb the stairs. No matter what was to happen, it wouldn’t change us.
“Jacob, thank you for taking the test.” Harold shook my hand before draping an arm across my shoulders as if he was posing for a photo with the President of the United States. Harold held the papers in the air and smiled, “Jacob here is a prime example of why I created the OmniTest Program. It is called OmniTest because it is comprised of every standardized test currently in use. From high school to college to military to government. The test ranges from pre-school knowledge to the final exams given to doctors and engineers. The test is designed to open access to additional tests based on the success of prior tests.”
Harold handed me the document, “Jacob’s results show that not only is he far too advanced for this school, but he would surpass the courses of most universities. This being said, I wish to formerly offer a full scholarship to the Patchard Institute where you might find your true calling and receive an education that will properly challenge that brilliant mind.”
I laughed. I couldn’t help it. Being an idiot would be hard to live down. Being a genius? Well, I thought Harold was the idiot. I pulled Harold away from the microphone.
“There has been a mistake.” I whispered, “I guessed on most of the test. Getting one right out of three doesn’t make me a genius. It just makes me lucky.”
“What do you mean? One out of three?” chuckled Harold.
“Yes. The instructor said that the test ends when you get three wrong in a row.” I explained, “So, I only had to get every third question right. Luck. I guessed on most of the tests… especially the later ones.”
“It isn’t three in a row. The test ends when you had three incorrect answers… period.” Harold laughed, “Also, I am aware you guessed. You had to on some of those questions because they were either of knowledge that is only encountered by the most ambitious grad students or of knowledge that isn’t available to the general public. You made educated guesses. You might not understand why you guessed the way you did, but you did guess correctly. You do have a great mind and with the proper tools, I am certain you will come to understand the reasons behind those guesses.”
I wanted to argue but Harold walked away. He thanked everyone again and asked my parents to join him. There was a short discussion that sounded an awful lot like a negotiation and soon my father had an arm around my shoulders. That would be the first and last time my father would tell me he was proud. I wish I had appreciated the gesture. I wish I could go back and tell him how much it meant to me. At the time, I barely noticed his words. My mind was focused on Lissa. Her sad smile. Her resolute nod. The realization that the roles had flipped. I was going to be the one who left her behind.