[This is a sketch for one of the POV characters for my current novel. These excerpts may go into the finished product or they may not, but the hope is that they help me understand the characters better. If you want to join me in these exercises, I’ll include the prompts I used to write them. For this excerpt, the prompt was: ‘Write about something your character has lost.’]
Her mother always claimed she hadn’t picked the name until her sister was born. Most babies came into the world screaming. Raised fists and eyes screwed shut, primed and ready for a fight. ‘You looked fit to beat the world, Evelyne,’ she said, laughing. ‘I wasn’t sure it was ready for you.’
Not Eden, though. Eden came out quiet as a breath. The doctor looked worried at first – turned her over, slapped her on the bottom. She didn’t cough anything up. She didn’t cry, even then. She just stared around her with round-eyed wonder. Then her lips started to work, opening and closing, her little brow furrowing. When at last they placed her in her mother’s arms, she looked up and smiled.
‘Like a sunbeam, Evelyne,’ she used to say. ‘She was like a ray of light. And I thought, well, maybe she knows something we don’t. Maybe things are better than they seem. Maybe they’ll turn out alright.’
And she was a sunbeam. She was relentless about her warmth, though she’d never burn you. When they were young, she’d often catch Eden sharing food with other children. Their father didn’t have a good job, but he had a job, so they weren’t on basic. They had more than most of the other families living in the outer ring of the city. You could survive on universal income, but only just. Everything put in their neighbor’s hands went in their mouths in the same breath.
‘Why do you do that?’ Evelyne asked once. She watched a scrawny boy Eden had just fed totter off. ‘We don’t have much.’
Eden really thought about the question. You could always tell when she was thinking: she got that look, that furrowed-brow look she’d been sporting right out of the womb. Existence was a marvelous puzzle she was bent on solving.
‘You know how dad digs trenches to make the water flow out in the field?’
‘It would all get soaked up by the first couple plants if he didn’t.’
Evelyne tilted her head at that. ‘I guess so.’
Eden shrugged. ‘I don’t think kindness builds bridges. I think it digs trenches.’
She never truly understood Eden. Beside her, Evelyne felt like a dandelion blooming next to a rosebud. She’d see weeds in concrete and think that’s what we should be like. But Eden made the concrete her loam. It didn’t matter to her that they were growing up on the outskirts of the city. It didn’t matter that they were always barely scraping by. She turned surviving into thriving, and it was a power so fragile that Evelyne was afraid to question it.
She didn’t want the stem to break. It didn’t have any thorns.
Eden disappeared when she was ten.
They never knew what happened. She went out to play with her friends in the bright light of day. No one saw anything – though there were whisperings that a car had been passing through at the time. Nobody on the outskirts of Osage City had cars. They all took the rail system when they wanted to get anywhere, and they rarely did. Evelyne used to see cars in the distance sometimes: shiny balls of metal that went whipping by faster than a blink, barely skirting the houses, blitzing out into the long empty desert beyond.
Eden’s case got a month’s worth of attention. Then she was filed away somewhere, a couple lines of code tossed into an archive by people with more important things to do. The shrine lasted longer. They set it up on the empty lot where she was taken. It felt like defiance. There were fresh flowers every week for two years, so long that her picture faded and all that was left was her smile.
Her mother staggered in the night the flowers stopped coming. She saw Evelyne down the hall. They stared at each other for a moment, the silence filled with sorrow and the smell of whiskey.
‘It shoulda been you,’ she slurred. ‘You coulda survived without water.’
Evelyne said nothing. Mother went into her room and slammed the door.
Lots of things wilted after that. Mother fell deeper into the bottle. Her father’s pain was more quiet. He threw himself into work so hard even his dark skin wrinkled beneath the sun. He worked until he was exhausted, and then he came home and slept. She figured it was the only way he could sleep at all.
The worst part was not knowing. The never knowing. The gnawing thought that one day maybe they’d find her, maybe she’d walk through the door again and bring life back with her. Sometimes, on nights when her mother went into rages and her father had to keep her from hurting herself, Evelyne wished they would find Eden. It would be better if they knew she was dead. Then they could bury the hope and move on with things, try and forget about the garden.
When Evelyne became an investigator, her father was thrilled. He never said it, but she knew he thought she’d done it for Eden. Maybe there was always a bit of him in her sister. Maybe that was where she got it. ‘You’ll do great things for people,’ he said once, and it was the closest she ever saw him come to tears.
Her mother knew the truth, though. She spoke it in a whisper one night after her husband went to sleep, his blistered hands coated in cream that smelled as antiseptic as her breath. She watched Evelyne walk in the door, gray hair on her temples, dark eyes glittering in the light of the moon coming through the window.
‘It was rage, you know,’ she said. ‘From the very first moment. You were rage. I see it sometimes in you. All this time, and it’s only been growing.’ She shuddered. ‘You didn’t cry. You screamed.’
Evelyne stared at her. Her face was cast half in shadow, her beautiful black skin ashen. Worn. Tired.
‘Are you gonna make it pay?’ her mother asked. ‘The world? Will you make it pay for what it did?’
The expression on her face was hard to read. If it was hope, it was a crooked sort. A fox’s grin right before it broke the rabbit’s neck. Her mother watched her, fingers curling and uncurling in a way that said she’d do it herself if she could.
‘Yeah, mom,’ she told her. ‘‘Till my knuckles bleed.’
‘Good.’ Her words were a rasp. ‘I love you.’
It was the first time she’d said it since Eden left, and she knew the words weren’t meant for her.