Thursday, April 22, 2010

Story - An Exercise in Character

This is a short sample of the kind of writing I do.
It's an exercise in scene. I'm currently writing a short "ghost story" about a single father and his daughter's imaginary friend. I originally wrote this story two years ago, under the title "The Red Tree". Now, I'm revisiting and rewriting it.

This scene will not be in the final story, but it does begin my characterization of Vincent and Annie.

Only last week he had taken Annie down to the quarry to escape the heat. It had been a record-breaking September, and the heat wave that swept through the city felt more appropriate for fireworks and grilling hot dogs than the falling leaves that surrounded them. The quarry was thirteen blocks from their neighborhood, nestled within the suburbs just beyond the city limits. They packed light and set off just before noon.
By midday, the sun had already spent several hours roasting the city. Warmth radiated off the sidewalk and every surface touched by sunlight. The windows of buildings appeared as sheets of light, and the distant skyscrapers downtown sizzled like strips of bacon on the horizon. Vincent’s clothes seemed leaden, dragging him down in the swampy air. It was only the thought of icy quarry water that kept him going. Brushing the perspiration from his eyes, he glanced down at his daughter. Annie had thrown on an ill-fitting T-shirt and shorts over her swimsuit, and even in these she was over-heating. Her swimsuit grew sticky with sweat, and every few steps she let go of Vincent’s hand to tug uncomfortably at her sleeves.
Within ten minutes of leaving the apartment building, they came upon First Street. With a smile, Vincent reminded his daughter that they’d be back her next week, but the humidity seemed to strangle his words from his throat.
Annie looked up at her father curiously, and then back across the street. The older kids had already been in school for a month. They were studying away, tucked away in air-conditioned brick boxes behind a wiry grey fence. The grounds were void of life, a great asphalt slab frying silently in the sun.
Vincent felt a tug, and realized his daughter had stopped in her tracks. He stopped too, and followed her gaze back to the school playground. He saw the familiar shapes of monkey bars and swing sets vibrating in the haze, but noticed that his daughter’s eyes had fallen on something else.
In the midst of the bleak asphalt, a single oak stood proud. It was enormous, far larger in girth and height than any of the street-corner twigs. The tree towered a full foot over the nearest building, with thick branches sprawling like hair down to the rooftops. Its leave stood sharp, sweet greens turning a sickly red against the backdrop of brick and black tar. As cars whistled by and people turned up their fans, this arboreal monster managed the heat without complaint, frozen, watchful.
“I want to climb it, Daddy!”
Vincent looked back down at Annie. She bobbled up and down with excitement.
“No, Annie,” he said, “That’s dangerous.”
She stopped bobbling, and looked back at the tree.
“No it isn’t. I did it all the time at Aunt Peggy’s.”
“Aunt Peggy’s is different, Annie. You don’t have your cousins to help you get up there.”
“I didn’t need them, Daddy! You didn’t see me last time. I got up there all by myself.”
“Good for you, Annie. But that doesn’t mean you could climb this one.”
“Why not?”
“That’s a lot bigger than Aunt Peggy’s trees.”
“No it’s not.”
Exasperation took hold. “Yes, it is. Besides,” he pointed to the thick trunk, “the branches aren’t low enough.”
Annie looked back at the tree. She had his words in mind, and Vincent knew she was standing there, doing rudimentary calculations in the sun.
She looked back at him, turning her head with an air of confidence and finality.
“They’re plenty low, Daddy. I could do it easy.”
She smiled and started to swing her arms back and forth, assured of her victory. Vincent shook his head. He had run out of ammo.
“It’s too dangerous,” he repeated, “You could get hurt.”
Her arms began to swing slower. Annie hesitated.
“I think Mommy would let me climb the tree.”
Her words stabbed, and caught him completely off-guard. Of course, she didn’t realize the gravity of what she’d said. Annie just pulled something from her arsenal, something she knew would push Daddy’s buttons. His face betrayed him for only a moment. He caught himself, smiled, and pulled her back on to the sidewalk.
“Come on,” he said, as if nothing had happened, “We want to get there before the afternoon rush.”

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