Stretching Beyond the Limit: Writing Outside Your Comfort Zone

Today, I’m sharing with you the first chapter of a novel. Well, it can’t really be called a novel…not yet at least. In my last graduate semester before thesis, my professor gave the class an assignment: we were to write something outside our comfort zone. There were more stipulations than that, but one of the main things I learned from pushing beyond my preconceived limits was how much I enjoyed writing different material.

So, here’s the relatively unpolished first chapter of a detective novel (I hope you enjoy it, and please remember that I worked hard on this chapter and would be disappointed to see my idea taken from me):

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MINE

Chapter 1

The Strangler

The news said the police caught the killer. Some twenty-nine year old guy from Ohio. His alcoholic father abused him as a child. His mother was too high on drugs to care. The news reporters had done their research on this guy. Billy Marcus: a single, white, calculus high school teacher who never stayed at one school for more than three years. Billy stalked Danielle Lewis, raped her, and strangled her. He took her corpse deep into the woods and buried it. The news said he came back and visited the corpse. Did unspeakable things to it.

The news was wrong.

Not about visiting the corpse, or the stalking, the rape, and how Danielle died. Strangled with a white and red polyester rope. Low stretch fiber. Resistant to abrasion. Durable. That rope’s got a nice feel to it.

The news was wrong about Billy. He wasn’t the killer. He was some nobody looking for a few minutes of fame.

If he wanted the attention, the trial, the conviction, the death sentence, he could have it. I didn’t like seeing an innocent man get convicted, but no one forced him to lie to the police. And Billy knew things. He looked guilty.

I picked up the TV remote from the bed and clicked off the television. A moment of quiet. I breathed it in.

And then the whimper came.

I hushed the noise.

It came again.

I rose from the bed and headed for the bathroom. The room’s carpet, a moldy green, and the print on the wall, a cluster of flowers, held the faint imprints of all motel guests before me. The air conditioning unit thrummed in the background, a steady buzz that sucked all the moisture from the air.

My reflection appeared in the rectangular mirror over the faux marble sink. Brown hair, combed back. Brown eyes under thick, straight eyebrows. Square jaw. Cheeks more rounded than sharp. Eyes spaced evenly apart. Clean shaven. A handsome face. Trustworthy.

I smiled at my reflection. No wrinkles formed around my eyes. My cheeks barely rose from their resting position. I told myself to close my eyes slightly, to push up my cheeks more.

Better. That smile looked believable.

The whimper. Muffled. Feminine. Pretty.

I stepped into the bathroom and shut the door. “Good evening,” I said, and turned to the bathtub. A shallow tub. Horrible for any sort of bath. An adult couldn’t stretch out fully in that tub. I preferred the deep claw foot tubs. Something nice about soaking in hot water. Lilac scented bubbles were my guilty pleasure. They left my skin smooth, soft.

“I do apologize for having to restrain you in such an undignified manner.” I closed the toilet seat and sat on it. The tips of my shoes touched the side of the tub. The shoes were black, a cross between boat shoes and casual dress shoes. An intriguing combination, but sturdy and good looking. The type of shoes a man bought when he had money to spare.

“I would not have to gag you, if only you would not scream.” I reminded myself to smile. A woman was in my tub, a beautiful woman. Her hair, a dark, wavy red – not the dyed type, but natural. Her eyes, warm brown, a shade lighter than mine. Nineteen. Freckles lightly dusted her cheeks and collarbones. Her name: Ellen Breen. A sophomore at Maxwell University, she was majoring in physics and had a passion for astronomy.

I enjoyed stars as well. Cygnus, the Swan. Perseus, the Hero. Orion, the Hunter. But Ellen was Cassiopeia, the Queen. Ellen: my Gamma Cas, the main star in the Cassiopeia constellation. A monster of a star, so brilliant and volatile and bursting with energy that it would eventually collapse on itself and then explode. A supernova, outshining all the other stars in the night sky until it burned out and was no more.

A dead star, but still a star and worth visiting. After all, the death of a star made way for the birth of new stars. With so many young stars in the galaxy, it was difficult to choose or to see all of them. Many of the most beautiful stars lay hidden behind dense dust clouds. Only when the radiation-saturated winds ate through the dust did these young stars become visible. By then, they were no longer so young, but nearly ripe. I watched them until they grew ready to go supernova.

How could I miss such a transformation?

I couldn’t.

I was drawn to these women. Nothing to stop me. Nothing anyone could say to prevent these women from going supernova.

I did need to be more careful. Find a new place to keep my dead stars. If Billy hadn’t confessed, the cops would still be looking for Danielle’s killer. If the cops didn’t want to wrap Danielle’s murder up to appease the mayor, the press, the parents, they would realize Billy’s story didn’t add up one hundred percent. For one, he didn’t know how the rope felt. He described it in his interview as coarse.

But I wasn’t going to save his life. I wasn’t going to sacrifice myself for someone who didn’t know the difference between a rough and smooth rope. I didn’t want the death penalty.

The whimper. Big, round eyes. Bambi-eyes. Soft rub of rope against rope.

Ellen’s breasts stretched the front of her crème sleeveless shirt as she pushed against her restraints. The little gold Star of David necklace bounced into the air and then down onto her two small, perfectly round mountains. Many breasts were different sizes. The left a little bigger than the right. The right slightly lopsided. Small imperfections, but mistakes all the same.

“Stop that,” I said, “You do not want to injure yourself.”

Ellen kicked the side of the tub. Mumbled angrily, but the tape wrapped over her mouth prevented any discernable dialogue.

How come Ellen didn’t understand that she was one of the lucky ones? To be chosen, to be plucked from the multitude of stars, to be added to my collection. A gift. She, a treasure, more than the others. Better than them, yet she didn’t comprehend. My Cassiopeia. My queen.

My expression didn’t falter. I dedicated too much time into refining the genial face, the face of a gentleman. The one that said to women, come, you beautiful creatures, you gifts upon this earth, let me lavish you with presents both material and non. I can be so generous because I am wealthy. I’ll spend my wealth on you.

Let me ravish you for all time.

I forget none of you.

Ellen shrieked, a muffled cry, and kicked the tub again. Her bare feet thwacked uselessly against the fiberglass tub.

I met her eyes, and didn’t blink.

In a moment, she quieted and turned away. But the damage, the anger, it swarmed inside me, building to a crescendo. A tidal force.

I rose from the toilet seat.

“We need ice,” I said. If I remained, my anger would best me. Rage would spew forth, and I’d lose control of my hands. My fingers itched for the smoothness of the polyester rope.

Patience, I chided myself as I exited the bathroom. I shut the door behind me, tugged on the knob until it clicked, and then grabbed the beige square ice bucket from the top of the dresser. My fingers warped the bucket’s plastic sides. Careful, I thought. Nothing must be damaged upon our departure.

Outside the air pressed upon my face, my chest. It weighed down my hair. A few strands slipped loose and fell about my eyes. I pushed them back, but they, stubborn, rejected my efforts to appear put together. For the best. This motel was not the sort of place for men like the one I portrayed.

Seven dingy rooms on the first floor. Seven on the second. A narrow set of white painted stairs, the railing slouching sideways, led from one floor to the next. A small main office with a single-paned glass window, and a middle-aged man, balding and who looked more pregnant than the knobby-armed, frizzled haired girl who hung around him. She should flit, all eighty-nine pounds of her, but she slumped against the sea foam colored countertop, her tits, for they did not compare to Ellen’s breasts, two pinpricks pointed at the sticky white floor. A half-burnt menthol cigarette drooped between her thumb and index fingers. When we first arrived at this motel, and I entered the office, with Ellen asleep in my trunk, this girl jammed the butt between her lips and stuck her face in mine. “A light?” she asked.

“I do not smoke. Bad for your health.”

She popped the cigarette out of her mouth and jutted out her hip. A ridiculous gesture. Forced, unnatural and pathetic.

“It’s menthol. Safer. Duh.” She looked at the middle-aged, balding man and jammed her thumb at me. “Can you believe this guy?”

The man didn’t say anything.

“If I offended you, I apologize,” I said. I pressed my hand to my chest, right above my heart. The motion seemed to comfort the girl.

“Yeah, well, whatever.”

“My mother miscarried my baby sister because of smoking menthol cigarettes. I fear I have developed a soft spot when it comes to pregnancy and smoking. What is the saying? Children are our future? We should provide them with the best while we can. They will be taking care of us one day.” I watched as she flicked her cigarette with her index finger. A few ashes fluttered to the floor. “It would be tragic if our children were to die before us, and leave us to fend for ourselves in old age.”

The girl laughed. “I’m never growing old.”

“I do not doubt that.”

Her laughter increased, until it clanged my eardrums. I asked for a room, paid in cash, and picked up the room key.

“See you around,” she said.

I waved and left the office. How unwise her words, her interpretation of mine. Better, though, for her to misconstrue my meaning. I overstepped, said something inappropriate, something strange. Rude, and memorable in a “isn’t he a strange one” way.

I shifted the ice bucket to my other hand, and wiped my forehead with the back of my palm. The sun, fat and bright, suspended high in the cloudless sky, bombarded me. Sweat slid beneath the collar of my shirt.

My mother never smoked. And I would have probably killed any sibling.

The ice machine sat near the pool, an oval concrete menace surrounded by a chain link fence with a gate that never closed. The parking lot encircled the pool, except for the side with the ice machine.

My shoes rapped lightly on the concrete walkway. I turned my back on the pool and lifted the slanted front door of the machine. The machine grumbled and a waft of cold air blasted me. I reached in and lifted the ice shovel.

A laugh, not like the girl’s. Like the stars expanding all at once in the night sky. The bucket slipped from my hand and clattered against the ice. I hastily scooped it up, and dropped the shovel. The door snapped shut, nearly trapping my hand.

By the pool, spinning in circles, her arms stretched out to her hands, her white-blonde hair, a freshly fallen snow bank, swirling around her, her red sleeveless dress eddying about her legs as she laughed, the tinkling of stardust. I hadn’t noticed her before. But she must have been there, hidden behind a dust cloud. Revealed by radiation-drenched winds, though no wind stirred, and I felt no disturbance, no moment of insight where I knew she was going supernova.

Yet, millions of stars burst into supernovas with each laugh, each glint of her smile beneath the sun.

Everything else fell away. All the others meant nothing, black holes that wasted my time and energy. Ellen Breen, nonentity, worthless and damaged compared to her.

Cassiopeia. Not a queen. Nothing like a queen.

Ellen must be cast aside. Because the goddess of all queens entered my life.

My fingers trembled. They never trembled. My heart, what was it doing? It raced. Faster and faster it beat. Louder and louder too, until I feared she heard it.

All the nothing led to her. Everyone I met, every woman, man, child, all spiral galaxies coalescing to create the brightest light in all of space.

I had to make her mine. Forever.

“Stella.”

Shattered. The world returned.

“Come here, you silly girl,” a crone of a woman with a darker shade of blonde hair called from a dark blue minivan. She waved her lanky arm back and forth above her head and honked the horn once. “It’s time to go.”

“Coming, Mom,” she called. She ran for the gate. Her sandals thwacked against her heels. She pushed open the gate. It clanged shut behind her.

It did not bounce back open.

Stella.

Instinct grabbed me, shouted for me to race after her, to snatch her before she reached her mother, to never let her out of my sight. The ice bucket cracked in my hands. Matter less.

Stella.

Stella.

Stella.

Mine.

© Brittany Krueger

(Photo courtesy of Sweetie187.)

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