TUESDAY: Two Cuts From Death

BY HANNAH McKINNON

Copyright is held by the author.

“GOSH, ALICE, the line where she cuts off the man’s fingers with the pruning shears,” Lorna said and shook her head. “It was so real my stomach turned. But I can’t wait to find out what happens next.” She tapped the tip of her red ballpoint pen against her pursed lips before continuing. “You still need to add even more details, but it’s a vast improvement. Immense, actually.”

Alice nodded as she glanced around the table at the other members of the writing circle. Betsy, Lorna, Harriet and Daniel had all made it this week, despite the stifling heat outside, and the church hall’s temperamental air-conditioner. As Alice started to make some notes, her lanky fringe dropped in front of her eyes like a brown curtain. Something she could hide behind.

Betsy clicked her tongue. Alice looked up, brushed her hair out of her face and swiftly pulled her sleeve down to cover her right arm.

“Yes,” Betsy said, “Be even more specific about these things your protagonist is doing. It’ll enable us to better,” she made two fists and grimaced before saying, “connect with the characters, help us feel their pain.” She paused. “I agree with Lorna though, it’s good.”

“Me too,” said Harriet. “It’s by far your best chapter. But more, give us even more.”

Alice nodded again. “Thank you, truly. I-I’ll try my best. I won’t disappoint you. Promise.” She let her shoulders roll forwards and rubbed her face noticing how her cheekbones protruded. From now on, she decided, she’d have a second helping of supper whenever she wanted.

“Okay,” Betsy smiled briefly at the rest of the group. “Good critique everyone. Let’s move on to Daniel’s piece.”

Alice watched as Lorna, Betsy and Harriet shifted in their chairs. They sat up straighter, pulled their shoulders back and pushed their breasts out that little bit further.

“I’ll go first,” Harriet said and her turkey-like chin wobbled. “Daniel,” she purred as she put her palms over her heart. “You know I love Sheriff Sloane. If he were real, well, he’d be competing with my husband. And,” she stopped to giggle, almost covering her entire mouth with one stubby finger, “the Sheriff would probably win.”

“You don’t have to look far to find inspiration for Sloane’s good looks,” Betsy said, and Alice noticed a red flush creep up Betsy’s neck.

Harriet jumped in. “When he kissed Miss Delilah on the porch, well, oh.” She closed her eyes. “Heavenly.”

Betsy, Lorna and Harriet continued to gush over Daniel’s latest chapter of Sheriff Sloane – Texas Lover while Alice resumed watching them from under her fringe. She kept her opinions to herself. She could have said that horses whinny or neigh, not bray. Or told Daniel the difference between their and they’re. Perhaps even pointed out the three clichés he’d used in a paragraph. But she thought at that point his brain might explode, which would be tragic because he really was a treat to look at.

Alice knew he was 28, a few years older than her, and easily young enough to be Harriet, Lorna or Betsy’s son. She wasn’t sure why Daniel was in a writing circle with the invisible girl and three grandmas. She supposed it was because groups like these were sparse this far north of Timmins, even for young men who fancied themselves as the next Dan Brown.

Alice didn’t have much experience with the opposite sex, none really. She thought Daniel might be helpful for some research in the future, once her mother couldn’t assist her anymore.

Tonight was Alice’s third class — she’d been going to the writing circle for a little over a month — and the decision to join had surprised even her. She’d spotted a yellow card in the window of the corner store:

WRITING CIRCLE “PENS TO PAPER”
Is writing your passion?
Then please join us the first and third Wednesday of each month.
We meet at the church hall from 7.00 – 9.30pm.
Writers with cookies are especially welcome.

At first Alice disregarded the sign but after a few weeks she could no longer ignore nor suppress her curiosity. The advert had a friendly tone — surely a reflection of the writing circle’s members too. She’d worked up the courage and told her mother where she was going.

“Why do you want to join a group like that?” her mother said.

“I used to like writing, and . . . I think I was good at it . . . maybe. I-I’d like to try again.”

“Well writing won’t put food on the table. Don’t get ideas about working less, you hear?”
“Yes, Mother, but I can dream.”

“You’ve always had your head in the clouds. Just like your useless father, the sack of shit.”

“Well I wouldn’t know, would I? He left you.” The words had tumbled out before Alice could stop them. She didn’t see her mother swing her walking stick at the back of Alice’s legs, but she’d felt the full force of the blow and yelped as she lost her footing and tumbled to the floor.

“Oh get up and make supper,” her mother said. “I barely touched you.”

That was over a month ago, and as Alice sat on her plastic chair in the church hall, she reached down and rubbed her calf with her fingertips. The bruise, at its largest the width of a tennis ball and a shade of purple so dark it was almost black, still hadn’t faded completely. That wasn’t the first time Alice’s mother had struck her, but at least no bones had been broken. Not that time.

“Are you still with us, Alice?” Betsy said.

She jumped. “Oh, sorry, Betsy. I was miles away.”

Betsy smiled tightly, then dabbed her glistening forehead with a Kleenex. “As you know, I went to a writing workshop the Saturday before last.” She paused, clearly for dramatic effect. “Ab-so-lute-ly inspiring.”

Alice leaned in. She’d wanted to go too, but working for The Happy Cleaning Company, which was anything but, and taking care of her mother didn’t leave the time or money for such luxuries.

Betsy continued. “The teacher said nobody wants to read a novel if things always go well for one’s characters.” She glanced around the room. “He explained how to add drama and tension. He even outlined a step-by-step plan, detailing how to plot an entire novel.” She sat back and smoothed her hair with her French manicured fingernails. “I’ve brought copies of the three-page handout. You can have one for five dollars, if you like.”

“So,” said Daniel, raising an eyebrow that Alice was sure would send his three admirers into spontaneous convulsions. “What was the best advice? The gold nugget of the day?”

Betsy fanned her face with her hands. “Well, let me see.” She drummed her fingers on the fold-up picnic table and the noise echoed around the room. Then she nodded, apparently preparing herself to share the secret as her bouffant, jet-black hair bobbed up and down. “He said to do terrible things to one’s characters.” She leaned forward and lowered her voice to a stage whisper. “And to make one’s characters do terrible things. He said, and I quote, don’t hold back.”

Lorna gasped and Alice watched as the eyes around the table widened, almost as if the Good Lord Jesus himself had descended upon the church hall and was addressing his disciples.

Alice smiled. For once she was ahead of the game. She’d made her character do unspeakable things and, at last, tonight the group hadn’t crucified her writing.

After the comments at her first writer’s circle evening, Alice almost didn’t return. Her efforts had been called vague and amateurish, with a lack of finesse. That night, once her mother was in bed, Alice reviewed the notes she’d made. She had to agree — her first chapter was boring. She could do better.

The second chapter came more easily, and she’d worked on it for hours, meticulously detailing a torture scene in her novel Two Cuts From Death. Nevertheless the group had barely been more generous with their critique two weeks ago, and Alice had felt deflated again. After that second class, she left the church hall and had only taken a few steps when she decided to go back to use the washroom, but stopped as soon as she opened the door.

“So, Alice’s piece,” she heard Harriet say. “What did you really think?”

“Not up to scratch.” Betsy sniffed. “I don’t think she’s right for our group. We may be too advanced for her. Let’s see what she brings next time. But you know my rule — three strikes and she’s out.”

Alice had slunk back outside and walked home with her hands balled into fists. She had to do better. She could write. Yes, she could. She’d gain that circle’s approval. No, she’d gain their respect. But she had to work harder. Smarter. Push herself further. Third time lucky, yes, that’s what it would be.

For once, she wasn’t afraid of the challenge. She’d loved writing in high-school and carried around a notebook with a pink, glossy cover and 300 crisp, empty pages. Alice filled them with magical creatures, fair maidens and handsome princes. It was unfortunate that, the day the notebook slipped out of her backpack, it was Kirsty Johnston who found it.

Kirsty read it, of course, to the entire class, even though Alice had begged her not to.

“Listen to this bit. Shh, shh,” Kirsty said as she was perched on Professor Lennard’s desk. Alice sank down in her seat, wondering if she could crawl under her desk to die.

Kirsty cleared her throat. “Princess Ali-ci-a looked up at the handsome Prince Le-o-nard, willing him to kiss her.”

The emphasis on the names was unforgiving and the class made woo-woo noises. Kirsty held up a hand and shushed them again.

“His dark curly hair fell around his cheeks and his eyes were the colour of sparkling emeralds. All Princess Alicia wanted was for his lips to touch hers so she could lose herself in his embrace.” She stopped and threw her head back, a laugh escaping from her mouth. Head shaking, her eyes searched the room until they locked on Alice’s.

Kirsty wagged a finger. “Oh my, someone’s got a crush on Luscious Lennard, haven’t they? Dream on, Awful Alice.” She laughed again and looked around the class. “Shall I read the part in the stables? It’s all heaving bosoms and heavy panting.”

That was the point when Alice had fled the classroom and ran home. Her mother had given her a beating for leaving class early, and the taunting at school continued for months.

Professor Lennard finally made Kirsty return the notebook and Alice burned it, page by page, that same night in the back yard. Her mother wasn’t pleased to come home to a large bonfire. She held Alice’s right arm over the flames, telling her over and over again how useless she was, how she’d amount to nothing, not in a million years, not ever. That was the day Alice vowed she’d stop dreaming, and that she’d never write anything again.

And she hadn’t, not for seven years. But when she’d stumbled across the writing circle advert, something small from somewhere deep inside her, almost dead and long forgotten, shifted. She realized things had changed — she no longer wanted to write about princes, unicorns and rainbows. Now she was interested in the dark side of life — crime and punishment, blood and gore. It seemed her hard work was paying off — they’d actually praised her chapter this evening, instead of blasting it with a virtual flame-thrower.

“Well, that’s the end of today’s meeting. Thank you all for coming,” Betsy said, and got up. “Alice, would you help me clear the tables?”

“Oh, I can do that,” Harriet said.

“No, you run off, dear.” Betsy waved a hand at Harriet while looking at Alice. “We can manage, can’t we?”

Alice nodded and gave Harriet, Daniel and Lorna a small smile and a wave.

“May I ask you something?” Betsy said when they were the only ones left in the room.

“Y-yes.” Alice put the drinking glasses she’d picked up back on the table and held her breath.

“Your writing . . . I see such a change compared to the last chapter two weeks ago. We all do.” She paused. “How did you . . . I mean . . . what did you do to make it so vivid?”

Alice exhaled. “Practice, Betsy,” she said. “And research. I’ve done lots of detailed research since our last class.”

Betsy smiled. “Well, keep it up, Alice, because it’s working. Goodness knows what awful things we’ll read about next time. I’m looking forward to it.”

Alice walked home with a smile on her face. It was 9:45 when she arrived at her mother’s house and she lingered in the doorway, relishing the fact that all was quiet. She knew where her mother was. Where else could she be?

Alice opened the basement door and slowly walked down the wooden steps that creaked loudly, even under her insignificant weight. She fumbled for the light-switch at the bottom of the stairs, flicked it upwards, and the fluorescent lights started to buzz overhead.

Her mother was sitting on the old Muskoka chair, exactly where Alice had left her. Her head was moving slowly from side to side and her eyes were tightly shut. She’d probably fallen asleep. It had been a hard few days for her, after all.

“Good news, Mother,” Alice said as she walked towards her. “They liked my chapter very much. They said it was vivid and far better than before. Betsy asked me what my secret was.”

Her mother was shaking her head vigorously now, and her eyes darted around the room.

“They want me to add even more details. Can you imagine?” Alice smiled and reached for the small hoe. She’d put it on the overturned washing basket earlier that day, lined up neatly next to the pruning shears, the herb weeder and the bottle of bleach. As she wiped the hoe on her skirt Alice said, “They want me to describe the character’s pain even more.” Then she whispered, “So they can almost feel it.”

Her mother whimpered, the sound muffled by the thick strip of cloth Alice had securely fastened around her mouth before she’d left for her writing circle.

“Are you ready?”

Alice watched her mother fight against the restraints around her arms, taking note that the freshest blood stains on the floor had dried into the shape of a butterfly.

A good detail, that.

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11 comments

  1. Mary Steer

    Oh Hannah….I will never read your writing the same way again. You sick puppy you! 🙂

  2. Frank T. Sikora

    I think the internal politics of the writing group was the most interesting aspect of the story. When the story descended into a predictable horror narrative complete with the caricature of the of mother, I was disappointed. When writing genre fiction, a writer must have a deep knowledge of its tropes and traditions to avoid cliche.

    To me, the pettiness of the women in the writer’s circle was far more horrifying and frightening and compelling, which is why I avoid writing groups.

  3. JAZZ

    My take on this story: It needs more exposition particularly the family history – “….your useless father, that bag of shit…” doesn’t really give the reader much to go on. And there’s the issue of a grown women allowing herself to be beaten by someone who needs a cane…there’s more of a story there to be sure.

  4. Debbie Scott

    I love it Hannah . . . my kind of story! I wondered why Alice pulled her shirt sleeve down, but it made sense later. Some young people don’t have the fortitude to stand up to their parents until later in life . . . she had her own way of dealing with it !! Passive aggressive perhaps??

  5. JAZZ

    Passive-aggressive, probably not; this would have led to more punishment.
    Passive, yes, until she became a sociopath.
    I liked the story. I just wanted what the women in the story wanted “…….even more details..”

  6. Michael Joll

    I really liked the way you handled the tension within the writing group, Hannah. Tension and enmity can occur in even the most innocuous places, and a writing group in a church hall is one most people would not think of. There are other, untold, or at least unfinished stories here in this piece, including Alice’s tentative infatuation with Daniel.

    I thought that the excursion down memory lane to Alice’s high school days somewhat of a distraction from the main story. And I certainly wondered, Hannah how you were going to end the story. I’m rather with Frank in this one. I did not find much in the story that would lead me to believe that Alice would/could slice and dice her mother without apparently giving the consequences a second’s thought. Resentment? Certainly, and a strong motivator. But revenge on this scale? It did not ring true to me. I would have preferred a denouement involving the writing group. That, I think I would have found credible. And probably far more enjoyable.

  7. Lyanne

    Such a good read — makes me wonder whether the writing led her to madness, or the madness led her to writing. Either way it’s very entertaining.

  8. Gloria Jean Hansen

    Holy Smokes, Hannah–you been standing outside the door of the Elliot Lake NNG Writing Circle? I will attend the next meeting of this long-running group in a different frame of mind. Maybe think of finger-tips in my pocket. In the end, writing circles are like childhood sandboxes — different town, different era, same players. The slice-and-dice may have been a bit much, but I could not wait for the next line.

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