Another offering from a brave Anonymous Author. See you on the other side.
Topher And Lucy
You lunge, and strike. Three rapid-fire hits. Splintering wood. Three dents in the bathroom door. Your mother’s voice, coming from the living room, shrills in your ears. You move into the hallway. Muscles taut, nostrils flaring and collapsing with your sucked-in-pushed-out breaths, your hands are curled, the knuckles of the right starting to swell. Your eyes lock on the hall wall just as she steps between it, and you.
Quivering, you balance on the balls of your feet. Like a prize-fighter, itching to dance that half step forward and smash your balled fist into the flesh and bone of the face in front of you. You could put that head through the gyproc. One quick, hard punch. She’s daring you to do it. Just like she dares you all the time. Step out of line so I can throw you out. That’s not what she says, but it’s what she means. Breathe! You won’t hit her. Hurt her, you’ll have the cops to answer to, and you’re already way out of line. How did that happen? You in bed, her face over yours, screaming, Where were you last night? I don’t care if your head hurts. Get up! Then she dumped water on you.
Her mouth moves; sound rings in your ears. Get out! she says.
Fuck! You knew she’d do that. You shout, If I go I’m never comin’ back.
I won’t live with this kind of temper, this kind of threat, she says.
You’re gone, cursing her, shaking your bruised hand. Fuck you, mom. You don’t know a thing! Do you hear me? Fuck You!
Lucy leans against the wall beside the door, hearing Topher rant. Then, the crack of more wood breaking—the garage, or the barn, she thinks. It is not an unexpected sound. In a few minutes there may be tears on her part, self-recriminations, regret. Right now she’s numb. Then, relieved. He’s out the door. He’s cost her so much lately, more than she can pay.
Minutes later, her mind wakes up. The earthquake fund. He’s taken it before.
She runs out to the feed shed, checks the freezer where they store the earthquake kit. The shed’s never locked, the freezer’s not locked when they’re home. If an earthquake hit, keys could get lost. The cash-box key’s inside the zippered pillow-pouch of Harvey’s sleeping bag. The money’s gone. Of course.
Today’s Anonymous Author leads with a hard right jab. You certainly grabbed my attention with an explosive, violent character who’s a half-breath away from knocking his mother through a wall. The action is fast and vivid. The conflict is immediately laid out—an out-of-control raging young man (I’m presuming he’s young) and an at-her-wit’s-end mother throwing him out of the house.
In 400 words, you’ve tackled an ambitious task of introducing two clashing characters, each in their own POV.
You’ve further challenged yourself by writing Topher in the unusual second person POV, always a risky proposition. However, I think you pull it off well in the first page. This angry young man is dangerous, barely maintaining control. By using “you” instead of “he” or “I,” you’ve showcased his alienated, fractured personality. He thinks of himself as “you,” an entity separate from himself. I’m curious if Topher remains in second person POV throughout the story.
You carry his psychological quirks even further. He disconnects from the horrific act of wanting to punch his mother by instead referring to the flesh and bone of the face in front of you. You could put that head through the gyproc. He’s objectified her into detached body parts: the face, that head. Chilling.
Another scary aspect is his ability to justify his violent rage by claiming She’s daring you to do it. Just like she dares you all the time. Her peril is real and terrifying.
Yet, he’s oddly fearful of being thrown out of the house, which suggests Lucy has a higher level of power over him. That sets up an interesting dichotomy—his physical strength vs. her superior position. I’m guessing he’s a juvenile who’s still under parental control. While he chafes at that, he’s also scared of being out on his own.
Then you flip into Lucy’s head. You say she’s numb but she has enough presence of mind to know she will have a delayed reaction in the near future. This seems realistic for someone who’s lived under ongoing violence for quite a while—just get through it, get the crazy kid out, and break down later. But she is worried about him stealing her stash of money, which he does. That suggests the family has serious financial problems if she’s so dependent on that.
The earthquake fund introduces another layer of instability (sorry, couldn’t help myself). Where do they live that they find it necessary to set aside money and leave the shed unlocked in case the key gets lost in an earthquake? Although my husband and I used to live near a major fault line in California, we never had an earthquake fund. I want to learn where this scary place is but I’m willing to wait a little longer.
Gyproc was not a familiar term so I Googled it. It’s a gypsum board/drywall material that’s used in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, but apparently not common in the U.S.
Another clue this story might be set outside the U.S. was the lack of quotation marks around dialogue. Depending on where you market this, you might consider using American-English conventions of grammar and punctuation.
“Get out!” she says.
You shout, “If I go [add comma], I’m never comin’ back.”
“I won’t live with this kind of temper, this kind of threat,” she says.
Here are some small nits:
Is the title Topher And Lucy? If so, you can do better. At first glance, from the whimsical-sounding name of Topher, I thought it might be a children’s story, which obviously it didn’t turn out to be.
Skip the comma in the first sentence: You lunge and strike.
Splintering wood doesn’t match dents in the door. When wood splinters, it generally leaves sharp, ragged edges because of the grain. Dent seems more appropriate to metal or a surface that, when struck, remains largely intact but with an indentation.
The image of nostrils flaring and collapsing and sucked-in-pushed-out breaths is a fresh way to describe hard breathing. Nicely done.
Your eyes lock on the hall wall just as she steps between it, and you. Even though eyeballs can’t literally lock, that usage is common, although incorrect. However, if you still choose to go with it, consider that eyes usually lock with other eyes, not with an inanimate object, like a wall. Maybe instead: Your stare drills into the wall.
Hall wall is an accidental rhyme that doesn’t read well. Also it seems odd that he would be looking at the wall rather than Lucy. If it’s because he can’t bear to face her, maybe rewrite to show that. Your stare drills into the wall so intently that you almost expect to see two round holes in the plasterboard. Instead, your mother’s face appears, right in the line of your aim.
Step out of line so I can throw you out. That’s not what she says, but it’s what she means. These sentences capture the skewed communication between mother and son. Consider putting Step out of line so I can throw you out in italics to emphasize that’s what he imagines she is thinking.
In the following, I added a clearer attribution and changed dumped to dumps to keep tense consistent. Also suggest you rework the paragraphing:
Breathe! You won’t hit her. Hurt her, you’ll have the cops to answer to, and you’re already way out of line.
How did that happen? You in bed, her face over yours, [added] and she’s screaming, “Where were you last night? I don’t care if your head hurts. Get up!” Then she dumps water on you.
Semicolons belong in nonfiction, not fiction. Replace with a period.
Again, if you’re writing for an American audience, adopt quotation marks around dialogue. And fix the capitalization in the following:
“Fuck you, Mom. You don’t know a thing! Do you hear me? Fuck you!” Mom is used as a proper name, therefore capitalized. You might be attempting to show emphasis by capitalizing You, but the epithet followed by an exclamation mark makes the point.
Lucy leans against the wall beside the door, hearing Topher rant. Use this opportunity to ground the reader a little more in the setting. Lucy leans against the kitchen wall beside the back door, listening to Topher rant.
Minutes later, her mind wakes up. I think she’d remain aware of where Topher is until he leaves and the danger is past. Then she can zone out.
It is not an unexpected sound. Neither is the too-high revving of the motorcycle’s engine and the crunch and ping of gravel as he pops a wheelie out the driveway, down the road.
After the engine noise fades away, she allows herself a normal breath, a few moments of silence. Peace.
Then her muscles tense again.
The earthquake fund.
He’s taken it before.
For dramatic impact, suggest you make the last two sentences their own paragraphs.
The money’s gone.
Anonymous Author, you’ve done an admirable job on your first page. You dug deep into the heads of two troubled characters, hinted at a threatening setting, and kicked off a chilling conflict that promises future violence. This story appears to fall into the Domestic Suspense or YA genre, with two narrators who may be both unreliable and unsympathetic. I don’t have an emotional connection yet with either one, except to feel sorry for Lucy. But I am curious to learn if Topher’s hatred toward his mother is justified.
TKZers, what do you think about Topher and Lucy? Would you turn the page? Are you engaged with these characters? Where do you think this story is going?
The first page of Instrument of the Devil went through TKZ‘s grinder and came out much improved from readers’ insightful comments. It became page 2 instead!
I highly recommend writers embrace this opportunity for honest, constructive feedback.