Work in progress: Fire Without Heat

I think I want to take a lighter approach to my current WIP than I did in my last post. Truth is, I’m having a great time writing this project. It’s certainly refreshing as a writer, after years of struggling, to once again have a project that flows easily. I won’t say it’s perfect, it’s still mostly unedited, but it’s reminding why I like writing in the first place.

I’m on the second entry in a planned series of five. The working title for the series is Hotwires. The working title for book two is Fire Without Heat (following River Without Water – you see the pattern). The setting is a near future, post-apocalyptic version of the Greater Phoenix area, about twenty-five years after the big boom. This is a reconstruction era. I’ve been heavily influenced by my writer friend Caroline Rhodes, who writes post-apocalyptic stories that focus on society rebuilding, rather than focusing on how ugly things might get as so many titles in this subgenre do. (See – or listen to – her wonderful story I published in my podcast anthology, Theme and Variations.)

But having a setting isn’t enough: I needed to populate my reconstruction world with some characters. I’ll admit that I’ve written a whole lot of fan fiction in my head (let’s call it a writing exercise – character building), and I mentally wrote a series of Sherlock Holmes fan fic after watching the 1980s TV series with the luminous Jeremy Brett as Holmes. I spent so much time on my version of Holmes and the character I created to face off against him that I knew it was time to convert them into something I could actually write. My reconstruction world needed law and order, of course, so I needed some detectives. And away I went.

There’s a danger in writing something that you’ve been working on in your head for so long, though. Right now I’m in the middle of a long sequence that mirrors the original setup I came up with back before these were really my characters. My characters argue, one leaves and goes out alone, putting herself at risk, and the other realizes he’s endangered her and has to go find her. This is stressful – trying to live up to the scenes I imagined, trying to translate ideas into words. It never comes out exactly as you thought it would, it’s part of the difficulty of writing, and sometimes it works anyway.

So the excerpt below is what starts the sequence: the argument. Part of the setup for the scene is a collection of mutations I developed for a different project that I never completed. Estus, the character who originated as Holmes, has the ability to let off radiation. Helen Weir, his partner and the narrator of this excerpt, has auditory amplifications. The two of them don’t always get along – he doesn’t like how much she swears, she doesn’t like how much he smokes, and they’ve established a compromise where he smokes a cigarette every time she swears and vice versa. Also, Helen has received a threat to her life that has her taking refuge at Estus’ house. Read the excerpt after the jump…

(from Fire Without Heat, chapter 10)

I was surprised. Estus was a pretty good cook. He only made soup, over a propane burner that made a disturbing hissing sound, and I wasn’t going to hazard a guess about what all the ingredients were or where he’d gotten them, but it wasn’t bad. His dishes were clean, too. “That’s one good thing about having a stick up your ass about neatness.”

He scowled at me over his bowl. Damn. I’d hoped to keep that one in my head and save myself a cigarette.

“Okay, so here’s something weird. How come your buzzing doesn’t interfere with my hearing? If Jimmy hums, and Gerriston turned on the fountain to make that trickling sound? That buzz from your radiation is pretty constant, too. Honestly, I can’t figure out why you haven’t exploded yet.”

His forehead zipped into a crease, like he was giving it some thought. His shoulders started bunching up, though, like he was also worried about exploding, and I was a little concerned that worry would win and he’d start heating up. But in true Sherlock style, he stuck with the thinking. “Interesting. Perhaps it’s a different frequency? Does the auditory amplification mutation do more than simply amplify sound? Does it give you a new range of hearing, in the way that dogs can hear frequencies humans can’t? I’d have to test the theory. Who has that kind of sound equipment, that can generate extremely low or extremely high hertz?”

“Okay, now I don’t understand what the hell you’re talking about. Let me ask you something else.” I stirred my spoon around in my soup a couple of times. “All the mutations were caused by drugs, right?”

“They appear to have been. The effects of radioactive fallout on certain users of prescription or nonprescription drugs, causing unexpected interactions.”

“Unexpected. That’s one way to put it. So which one were you? Prescription or nonprescription? Were you already a dopehead when you were – how old, again?”

There went the grinding in his teeth. Maybe it was different frequencies, the thin one I could catch with my ears and something a lot deeper that throbbed in my head. “Fifteen.” The edges of his spoon handle bit into his fingers as he tightened his grip, little grooves breaking their way into his skin. “And I was on antidepressants.”

I blinked at him. “Antidepressants? Huh. That’s weird, Estus. I just don’t peg you as the kind of person who gets depressed. You’re like a force of nature. Nature doesn’t get depressed. Probably that’s the Burner thing, though. You might not have been like that when you were a teenager. And I’m probably wrong, too. I’ve seen you after you let off a really big blast, and you look all deflated. But that’s not depression, exactly, right? And you’re carrying around some pretty big guilt, but that’s not the same thing either. Is it? Anyway, it’s not like you tried to kill yourself.”

I probably should have been listening while I was babbling, but the headaches that were making me babble all the time were also knocking out my ability to hear anything while I was doing it. It was only when I stopped to take a breath that I could hear Estus gripping his spoon even tighter, and his heart doing a thud-waver, thud-waver sound. “Oh my God, you did. You did try to kill yourself back then. Why?”

He didn’t answer me. I should have figured he wouldn’t answer me. I didn’t expect the flash of rage that burned up all the way through his body, even before the temperature in the room jumped a few degrees. He stabbed his spoon back into his bowl – like you can stab soup but that’s what it looked like – and leaned over the table at me. Heat was flooding off his face and his eyes were hard and unreadable. “I don’t think you’re searching for your lost empathy. I don’t think you learned empathy at all, or you wouldn’t keep prying, trying to dig up things that are already buried.”

I think there was probably part of my brain that was telling me to back off, no big deal, just let him cool down, but it was back behind where the throbbing was. Only the part that got wound up when people shouted at me was working, and it was ready to shout back even louder. “Oh yeah, you were doing a great job keeping those memories buried. As I recall you had to smoke funny cigarettes trying to keep them buried, until Williams took your stash, that is. You know what I think? I think that’s why you wanted to take Coy down so bad. It wasn’t just dick waving, trying to prove who’s the better Burner. You wanted to prove you weren’t as fucked up as him.”

Now I could hear those words as they were coming out and even the yelling part of my brain knew they were going too far. I couldn’t quite stop them, though. Estus’ heart pounded faster and blood was surging in his body, major stress reaction, real fight-or-flight stuff, but the man can keep himself under control. His face tightened up, all the muscles going stiff as rock, his mouth flat, his eyes harder than ever, slightly squinting. Did pupils get bigger or smaller when the adrenaline was running? I couldn’t remember. Why was I thinking about that instead of apologizing? Every joint in his body creaked in protest as he stood from his chair and stalked off into the bedroom. He didn’t even need to slam the door to make his point.

But I could still hear him behind that door. Same heart rate, same blood pressure. No idea what else he might have been doing. It got so loud I was getting nauseous and couldn’t stand to be around food anymore. The whole house smelled like soup and it was suddenly the most disgusting smell ever. I clutched my stomach as I clambered off the bench, almost not getting my leg all the way over and nearly throwing myself on the floor. I lunged for the door and went out.

It took me to the other side of the butte, where I couldn’t see the light in Estus’ windows anymore, before I finally didn’t hear him. It also took me that long to realize this was a really, really bad idea.

© 2014 Michelle M. Welch

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