Terra Incognita

For those of you who don’t know, I’ve been on hiatus from writing since I decided to go back to school almost a year ago.  Maintaining my 4.0 GPA (yeah, I’m that guy) doesn’t leave much room for composing new fiction.  As such, I haven’t been posting much as this site is mostly dedicated to my pursuit of writing success.  No writing equals no success to report.

However, a few people have commented on my lack of updates (you know who you are), so I am going to take the easy way out and do what I’ve been saying I’m going to do for a while—serialize my first finished novel.  I worked for months on the story, writing nearly every night until it was finished.  The result, while not a very well-written story, was proof to myself that I could finish a novel and confidence to a writer is at least as important as talent.  I never even considered sending it to agents because I knew it wasn’t that good.  It served its purpose, though, in teaching me the kind of commitment necessary to write a full novel.

I called the novel Terra Incognita, although I was never really in love with that title.  I’m putting it out here—warts and all—because I have nothing better to talk about right now.  Updates will come as frequently as I care to post them.  Please enjoy and be kind for the many, many mistakes I left in the story.

Chapter One

Marcus Briggs drove along the expressway at slightly less than sixty miles per hour. Cars and trucks sped around him, doing the speed limit of sixty-five or greater. Some people honked their horns, annoyed they were forced to switch lanes to maintain their high-speed pursuit of a better life.

The radio in Marcus’s old Toyota was on, tuned to public radio, but Marcus did not hear it. The only sound in his ears, hours after hearing it, was Heather’s voice.

“We need to talk,” she had said. “Not now, but when you get home from work.”

That was an hour ago, just long enough for him to make up an excuse about being sick and getting excused from his job at the store. Now, for better or worse, he was nearly home. He was betting on worse.

He knew this talk would not be a pleasant experience, or a quick one. For some time, Heather had been growing more and more distant. Another three weeks would mark their two-year anniversary of cohabitation, and Marcus had hoped to celebrate with a weekend at the Biltmore estate in Asheville, where he had proposed before dozens of tourists in the flower gardens. Now, he simply hoped Heather’s bags were not completely packed when he got home.

As he exited the expressway, he thought of all the things he had done wrong over the previous three years that he and Heather had been together. Nothing major came to mind, no deal breakers. By all accounts, Marcus was a great guy, perhaps a little too career-oriented and not family-oriented enough, but a worthwhile boyfriend nonetheless.

“But . . .,” added Heather’s best friend Tanya, “she thinks you’re boring now.”

Ouch, he had thought when she said it. He felt a bit of helpless indignation at the remark. While his interests certainly did not coincide with those of most people, he hardly considered himself boring. If he was so boring, he wondered, what had attracted Heather to him in the first place? He considered her out of his league when they met in college and his views on this had not changed, although he was not foolish enough to question the good thing he thought they had together.

Marcus pulled off the expressway, hardly paying attention to where he was going. His internal pilot, that unconscious portion of his brain that navigated when he was too tired or stressed to think about the driving process, was leading him faithfully home to this confrontation that he both dreaded and desperately wished to begin.

Turning left onto Wallace Avenue, he thought about his job and how much it, or rather his dedication to it, was to blame for his problems in his relationship with Heather. Having worked retail since his graduation from high school, Marcus felt a certain comfort and competency with the business world he did not feel anywhere else. He had quickly advanced from the lowest rungs of the ladder at SportsWorld through a combination of his remarkable business savvy and his love of sports and last year had become the youngest general manager in the company’s two decades of existence. As the company looked to expand out of the Carolinas into other markets in the South, Marcus’s name frequently arose as a candidate to lead this expansion.

Heather, however, had bristled at the thought of relocation. She loved living in Blue Ridge Mountains, though she cursed the harsh winters with the fluency of a born New Yorker. As a paralegal working in a busy law office, her coworkers had become a second family and, more recently, her support group as she and Marcus grew more distant. He often saw people from the firm in his store, shopping for their camping supplies or softball gloves, scowling at him as he walked past. He sometimes wondered if somewhere within the halls of Parker, Gregg, and Smith if there was a dart board with his often-pierced photograph tack to it.

Frustration rose within Marcus as he turned right onto Baker Street, like acid rising into the throat during a particularly bad case of indigestion. He forced it back down, knowing that only through cool negotiation would he be able to rescue his relationship with Heather. Now was the time to admit to every wrong she accused him of committing, valid or not, and to accept any penance she deemed necessary.

Turning left at last onto Herringbone Court, he felt his heart rate quicken as the Toyota seemed to slow to keep balance. The vehicle crawled down the pavement, Marcus fearing what he would see as he approached the cul de sac. At last, the Victorian came into view and he saw, to his relief, Heather’s silver Ford parked in the driveway. One light, in the kitchen, was on and he knew she was inside waiting to say her goodbyes.

Marcus switched off his lights to attempt some element of surprise, hoping to catch her off guard and verbally disarm her before she could launch her goodbye speech. Pulling his car into the driveway directly behind Heather’s, he hoped to cut off her exit unless she drove through the yard she had worked so hard every weekend of the past summer to maintain. Still, he hoped the situation would not come to that end. He turned off the ignition, got out as quietly as possible, and walked slowly past the Ford. The back seat, he saw, was loaded with Heather’s clothes and an assortment of boxes, all ironically bearing a label from the SportsWorld warehouse. The passenger seat also held a few boxes and a small television, the one from their bedroom. Marcus wondered briefly where she intended to go with so few things, or if perhaps this was just the first haul that preceded her return with the moving van.

Approaching the side door leading directly into the kitchen, Marcus saw the light from within spilling outward through the beveled glass. He stopped, fear welling up inside him. What if he failed to persuade her to stay? What if she had found someone else? These possibilities had not arisen in his mind before. Like the many problems that came with operating a multi-million dollar sporting goods store, his mind saw this issue as just one more needing a quick, decisive resolution. Up to that moment, Marcus held absolute confidence that he could fix whatever the problem was in their relationship and they would go on living a content life together. Now, he found his confidence shaken as tears began to well in his eyes. Fighting them back, he pressed on and opened the door.

Heather sat, hands folded upon the table, waiting for him. Her face was void of expression and she said nothing as Marcus entered the kitchen and sat down tentatively across from her. Trying to think of where to begin his argument, he reached across the table to grasp Heather’s hands, but she pulled them away, laying them in her lap as she continued to stare at him.

A long, uncomfortable silence descended and lasted for what Marcus felt was a lifetime. Finally, he knew he must speak or he would lose the ability to do so.

“Don’t go,” he whispered, then, “please.”

Heather sighed and looked away from him toward the floor. Her red-rimmed eyes glazed over and a single tear fell into her lap. “I . . .” she began. Her voice croaked, telling him that she had been crying for some time. Still not looking at him, she started over, “I finished and put away all your laundry and went to the grocery. You shouldn’t have to go again for a few weeks.”

Marcus half stood and pulled his chair a quarter turn around the table to be closer to her. “Whatever the problem is, we can work it out. Just tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it.” He started to reach for her hand again, but thought better of it. “I don’t want to lose you.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry I can’t be what you need.”

“You are what I need. You’re everything I need.”

Heather snorted, then snuffled again to keep her nose from dousing her sweater. “What you need is someone who doesn’t mind to be alone a lot” She managed a weak smile and looked up at him, “and I don’t want to be alone anymore.”

Marcus left his chair now, descending to his knees right in front of her. He was careful not to touch her or come too close to her, less she recoil again. “I’m sorry I made you feel that way. I wish you had told me sooner.” He bit his lip, thinking the last line made it sound like he was giving up. “Tell me what I need to do to fix this and I will,” he repeated.

Heather stood up. “It’s too late for that now.” Leaning over, she kissed him on his forehead. Her lips felt hot against his skin. Stepping around him, he walked to the door and went out into the night.

Marcus’s mind raced, debating on whether he should accept defeat or follow her out to the driveway and beg again for her forgiveness. In his moment of indecision, he heard a car door open and slam, then the engine start up and grow fainter. The engine noise stopped and he heard again a door open and slam shut. Steps came back up the driveway and for a brief moment, Marcus thought his pleas had paid dividends, a thought that shattered when he heard another car door open and shut, this time closer, and another engine crank and fade into silence.

Stumbling out of the kitchen onto the driveway, Marcus looked out and saw his car, parked now against the curb of the cul de sac. She had moved it to allow herself to leave. Without conscious thought, he walked down the driveway and opened the door to the Toyota. Her key, with its yellow plastic head, lay in the seat. He picked it up, inserted it into the ignition as he sat down, and pulled the car back into the driveway to where Heather’s Ford had been moments before.

Marcus felt as though his guts had just been spilled out through a hole in the bottom of his abdomen, but with the confrontation finally over, he found that he could think more clearly. Arguments against Heather leaving now filled his head and he wanted to kick himself for not putting up a better defense for their relationship. Getting out of the car, he walked back to the kitchen door and stopped looking down the street, hoping against hope that she would change her mind and come back. He had no idea how long he stood grasping both the door latch and his last shreds of hope, but finally he turned away from Herringbone Court and entered the kitchen.

His first thought upon reentering the house was to go immediately to bed. Perhaps this was all just a bad dream, he told himself. Perhaps Heather would sleep on it and decide that it was a bad decision. Still, he knew better so instead of walking through the kitchen to the stairway just beyond to go up to the bedroom he now had all to himself, he decided his best option was to drink himself into oblivion and hope for the best.

Marcus rarely drank and never did so to excess. He never understood the appeal of downing a case just for a few hours of mindless euphoria, especially when hangovers seemed to last so much longer. Besides, he had often told friends at college parties, most alcoholic drinks tasted horrible. Why endure such nasty concoctions when an ice cold Coca-cola tasted so much better?

Reaching into the cabinet above the stove, he pulled down the bottle of Absolut, not one of the flavored versions so trendy with his alcoholic friends in retail management, but plain vodka. He tipped the bottle up, allowing the colorless liquid to fill his mouth. He tried to swallow the vile liquid, but gagged from the taste and spit most of it out onto the kitchen counter. As he cleaned the spill with a few paper towels, he pulled a rocks glass from another cabinet and half filled it with Absolut. He tossed the sodden towels and pulled the half gallon of orange juice from the refrigerator, topping off the glass.

He returned to the kitchen table, stirring the drink with his index finger, and flopped into the chair Heather had occupied a short time before. He took a sip and still found the vodka almost too much to handle. Setting the glass down, he stared blankly at the table for a while. Cow print salt and pepper shakers stood sentry in the center flanking an arrangement of artificial daisies blooming over a small vase of the same bovine pattern. These rested on a square red and white table cloth, too big for the small round table they used in the kitchen and marked here and there by tiny punctures from knife tips and fork tongs.

Marcus raised the drink for another sip, this time hardly noticing the vodka. Adjusting rather quickly to alcoholism, he thought as his eyes passed to a small stack of envelopes lying next to the salt shaker. The top envelope, he could see, was the cable bill, unopened and addressed to Heather Bentham. He lifted the stack, hardly believing that there could be such insensitivity among human beings as to send him bills as his world was crumbling around him.

The cable bill. A credit card application. A letter from some supposed psychic who desperately needed to speak to Marcus, but obviously could not find a phone number in her crystal ball. Then he came to the last envelope, bigger than the others and oddly shaped, it was perfectly square and felt less like paper and more like . . .

“Leather . . . “ Marcus said to himself. He was looking at the back of the piece of mail and saw that a wax seal held the fold shut rather than some commercial adhesive. The seal bore an insignia he had never seen, some symbol he could not quite make out. A strong feeling of unease settled in his stomach upon seeing the seal, resting next to his sense of loss like two old buddies sitting at the bar.

He flipped the thing over slowly, noting that the envelope was constructed of a single piece, deftly folded into shape through some art that eluded him. He then looked at his name and address on the front, hand-written in an untidy scrawl that Marcus found disturbingly familiar. Recognition came to the surface of his consciousness and then sank again into the depths of his mind, like a trophy fish that rises to the surface to taunt the angler before disappearing with a ripple into the murk.

Instinct told him he should not open this particular piece of mail. Something deep inside him warned him of something terribly wrong with the letter, but it competed with a strong sense of urgency, compelling him to open it immediately and not waste any more valuable time. He touched the seal, pausing a moment when he noticed his hand shaking. Marcus took a deep breath to steady himself and pulled at the wax, peeling it easily from the leather.

Inside the envelope, the letter, for Marcus felt sure that it was a letter, offered another surprise by its material. Rather than common copy paper or a piece of notebook paper, a nearly transparent sheet of what Marcus guessed must be papyrus or something similar, folded neatly in half, slid out. He handled it gingerly, afraid that the smallest shake of his hand would tear it. At the top he saw no date when the missive was composed, only his name written in the same hand that had addressed the envelope.

He read the letter. When he finished, he continued to stare at the strange note, an expression of troubled confusion settling upon his face. He read the letter again. A third time. A fourth. When he finished his sixth reading, he let the letter fall from his limp hand onto the table. He wanted to read it again, just to be sure that the first six times had not been a hallucination, but he could not force his eyes to look at it again. Instead, he picked it up carefully, as though afraid it would bite his hand, folded it, and stuck it inside his shirt pocket.

Leaving his drink on the table and the kitchen light on, Marcus charged out the kitchen door, even forgetting to lock the door in his haste. He opened the door to the Toyota and got in, turning the key in the ignition before his backside touched the seat. The car backed quickly into the cul de sac and then sped quickly down Herringbone Court, following the Ford that had left just a few minutes before.

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