An Experiment in Present Tense: The Points Between Chapter One

Submitted by C B Wright on

The Points Between is on hiatus until July (and hasn't updated since last November) but that doesn't mean I haven't been doing anything with it. I actually have part of Chapter 26 written (just not all of it) and, since it is a story that is radically different from anything I've ever tried to write before, I spend an awful lot of time brooding over it and tinkering on it. I often wonder how I will rewrite it, when the time comes.

Enter Curveball. This prose comic is very different in style and tone than TPB, but it is also similar in one respect -- I've never written anything quite like it before. In Curveball's case the difference is that I'm writing it in the present tense, something that, at one point in my life, I swore I would never do.

I swore I would never do it because the first time I read a story written in present tense I hated it. It took effort and it made me tired when I was finished. For a long time I assumed it was because the tense made the setting of the story too immediate and artificial. Now I think it may have been the author didn't use it correctly, because I've read other stories where it worked quite well (Howard Tayler's short in Space Eldritch is a good example of present tense done well.)

I don't know if I'm using it well in Curveball or not, but it feels right. And I notice that as I'm writing in present tense (which feels incredibly difficult to me, still) I'm forced to think about the story differently and it occasionally leads me to write in ways I wouldn't have considered before. Which is neat.

So a few months ago, as an exercise in "trying to look at old material in a new way," I decided to take the prologue and first chapter of TPB and re-write it in present tense, to see if it helped me look at the story in any differently, to see if it changed the tone of the story, for better or for ill... and mostly just to see what would happen. The results were interesting to me--the result feels different from the original, and in the process of writing it I wound up adding hints of things that weren't touched on in the story till later. I printed out a hard copy to edit and then promptly forgot about the whole thing...

... until this weekend when I found the hard copy as I was sorting through stuff to pack or throw away. The soft copy was still sitting on my hard drive. I still think it's interesting. And since I don't have a lot else planned for the site this week, I figured I'd post it. So if you're curious to see what the opening of The Points Between looks like when told in present tense, it's right here, under the cut.

Prologue

Matthew is driving. It’s late, he’s tired, he wants to be home. At least, he wants to be asleep, and home is the best place for that.

The moon is hidden, the night is heavy and thick, the only light he sees comes from his headlights. The road stretches on ahead, invisible, coming into view only at the edge of his high beams, with a startling suddenness that makes Matthew feel like he’s driving too fast. Which is true: he hates driving, and what’s more he hates driving alone. It occurs to him that he might be running away from Richmond as much as he’s driving home. It’s a strange thought. He tries not to dwell on it.

He drives, and hours pass: hours of darkness behind him, with hours more ahead, the rhythmic sound of the car driving along the road, the sound of wind rushing past the windows, the lane marking stretching ahead in a solid, unending double line. It’s hypnotic, and he feels like a ghost, gliding through the world invisible to everything around him.

He drives, and he drives, and the distinction between his car and the outside world begins to blur. The distinction that there is an outside world begins to blur: occasionally there are trees, and he is vaguely aware of them. Mostly he focuses on the road, and the line of the road. His awareness of the world around him begins to fade, until finally it disappears into irrelevance. The road becomes just another line on his windshield, the trees no more significant than the dirt and bugs caked into the glass. He drives, the scenery passes unnoticed, the straight yellow line stretches on seeming not to move. He drives, and the world feels smaller, until the alpha and omega of his world becomes the seat, the dashboard, the windshield. Everything around him fades away, and the only things he believes in are the ache in his back, the soreness in his legs, the stiffness in his neck, and the eternally unending line painted on his windshield.

And then, in a flash, it changes.

In an instant, the world around Matthew becomes real. The glass and steel barriers that surround him are suddenly nothing, and the rest of the world is everything. He is overwhelmed by the presence of something electrifying: there are trees on the side of the road now, and they’re only shadows on the edge of his high beams, but those shadows feel more solid than his hands gripping the steering wheel. Matthew is wide awake, but he feels like he’s fading, drifting away, dissolving into the ether while those shadowy trees grow more and more solid.

A scent fills the car, a scent he can’t describe. It’s sharp and fresh, and it tickles the edge of his memory, trying to coax out something he can only vaguely remember. It makes him yearn for something, something lost but close by. He drives on, and the world around him is real, and he’s a ghost, lost in the darkness.

Minutes pass, he drifts along the road like a dry leaf, crumbling pieces of himself behind him as he drives, and all at once he wants to stop. The trees are no longer trees, they’re a wall, and beyond that wall is… something. Something real. He wants to stop his car, pull over to the side of the road, walk past that wall of real, shadowy trees, and see what is there. For a moment Matthew imgines himself as an explorer, discarding the sepia-toned world of obligation behind to pursue what he can only describe as limitless possibility. He wants to do it. A part of him desperately wants to do it, is screaming from the depths of him to just stop the car, get out, and be in the world.

But the line on his windshield—the solid, yellow, unending line—is still there, pulling him on.

He thinks of his home. His bed. He reminds himself he wants to sleep, that he needs to call his agent in the morning, that a half-finished canvas is sitting in his studio waiting for the next layer of paint. He reminds himself of everything he has to do in the days to come.

Matthew isn’t the only person who finds himself driving down an empty road in the middle of the dead of night, wondering if he is the illusion and the shadows around him are real. Many get this feeling, and find themselves overcome with the urge to stop, to get out, to follow the tug of whatever pulls them away from the life they have. Most, however, find that the feeling is fleeting, the line of the road is strong, and they don’t stop. They drive on, the shadowy trees fade away, and the real world trails off behind them. The ones who find the pull harder to resist might turn on the radio, preferring the nasal lamentations of the AM country station to the small part of themselves still mourning the loss of that one, brief taste of possibility.

Occasionally these people—the ones who drive on—will remember flashes of that night. They’ll half-remember the pull of the trees, and a small, hidden part of themselves will wonder what would have happened if they’d actually stopped.

Matthew isn’t one of those people.

Matthew stops.

The Land Beyond the Trees

Matthew Alexander Garrett leans against his car, one foot on the road, one resting on the door frame. He’s trying to decide what to do. More accurately, he’s already decided what to do, and he’s waiting for the rational part of his mind to give in to the idea.

August nights are hot and wet, and what little light spills out from the interior light shines off the fine layer of sweat covering Matthew’s face and neck. Dark eyes gaze out at the trees along the shoulder of the road; lean hands brush absently at damp, dark hair. The air is heavy with honeysuckle, humidity, and dew; the sent is rich if you like honeysuckle, cloying if you don’t. Matthew does.

The trees are nothing more than silhouettes from where he stands, only slightly darker than the overcast sky. The difference is so faint that if it weren’t for the rustling of branches he’d write it off as a trick of the mind, but he can hear them quite clearly. Visible or not, he knows they’re out there.

For a moment he thinks about how he might paint them: nothing but black paint, of course, the only variation the weight of the brush and the coarseness of the bristles. It would be an image of texture instead of shade. It might be a good painting, though he isn’t sure he wants to try. He imagines the reaction everyone will have: the ones who will be ecstatic that he’s finally seen the error of his ways, and returned to his old form, the ones who will worry that he's sabotaging his career all over again. Randy will shout, a lot. And then of course there will be the people who will look at it and wonder why he spent so much time and effort painting a canvas square black.

He smiles at the thought of that, but it brings back memories of Richmond. The smile disappears. He places his hand palm down on the top of the car, feeling the warmth of the metal roof even in darkness, and steadies himself. He pushes all the unpleasant thoughts out of his head—of Richmond, and art shows, and the sudden and insufferable expectations of critics who, only months ago, didn’t care about his work at all. He concentrates on the trees: the dark, nearly invisible trees that make their presence known only by their whispers as the warm, stale breeze rustles past.

He ducks back into the car, reaches across the driver’s seat and grabs his jacket. Ignoring the heat, he shrugs it on, then kicks the door shut with a heavy boot. The interior light winks out a second later, and the darkness swallows everything.

There is a moment of disorientation when the light winks out—there are no stars, there is no moon, there isn’t even any glow in the sky from streetlights, or windows. He gropes his way around the front of the car, trying to ignore the weight of his jacket in the summer heat. He’s thankful for it a second later when he stumbles, straight into the roadside ditch, sprawling into the gravel at the bottom. His hands sting, but the leather keeps his arms unbloodied. He turns over on his back, sits up slowly, and remembers the flashlight in his glove compartment. Then he remembers the batteries are dead, and laughs ruefully as he picks himself up out of the ditch, dusts himself off, and turns back toward the sound of the rustling of leaves.

He can do it without a flashlight. The trees aren’t far, he only needs to follow the sound of leaves and branches.

He climbs up the side of the ditch, toward the sound of the trees, and slowly inches his way forward, hands held out in front of him, groping for the feel of bark. Almost immediately he feels it: a wall of leaves and branches, tangled tightly together, almost like a curtain. His hand jerks back in surprise; he knew the trees were close but didn’t expect them to be that close, so near to the road.

He hesitates. This is crazy. It’s probably trespassing. He considers going back to the car and just driving off. But his skin is tingling with excitement, his breath is quick, he feels like he did back in college, when he was about to do something unbelievably stupid just for the thrill of it. He grins, makes a fist, and pushes it through the tangled mass of branches.

There is some resistance, but eventually he breaks through. Methodically Matthew starts to tear away at the branches, pushing them aside as he forces his way in. His hands are bloody from the effort, and as soon as he steps into the trees branches whip at his face and tear at his jeans. He’s glad he’s wearing his jacket—the branches can’t get through the leather. He sees nothing. The darkness is absolute, his ears are full of the sounds of twigs snapping, leaves rustling, and branches whipping at his face with loud cracks and pops. He takes a step and finds his leg snarled in a tangle, wrapped tight around his knee like a lariat. He pulls himself free, hearing ropy, vine-like branches ripping out of the trees, only to fall back into more branches that wrap around him in a tight embrace. Each attempt to free himself is countered by another snarl, another tangle. Something wraps around his wrist, something whips into his face, slaps at the back of his head.

The stench of rotting leaves surrounds him—rotting leaves, and old, musty wood. He gags, panic rises, and he thrashes blindly on. He’s no longer interested in getting through—at this point, he simply wants to find a way out. But every turn is blocked by another branch, every step caught by a gnarled root. The trees are no longer inanimate in Matthew’s mind—no longer silent curiosities, lurking in the darkness like ghosts along the road. They are alive, they are malevolent, they are swarming on him like eager, grasping predators, full of malice, fighting him. A large branch crashes into his forehead, making him stagger; he raises his hands to cover his face and stumbles as he catches his toe on something. He falls forward, hands extended, falling into the damp ground caked with leaves. Something sharp scrapes his cheek—a splintered twig, sticking out of the ground like a spike. Had he fallen an inch to the right, it would have pierced his eye.

His breath grows ragged. He feels blood trickle down his cheek, pooling into the corner of his mouth. He shuts his eyes tight as his face is pelted with leaves and dirt from a hostile branch. He thinks about giving up, sinking down into the muddy ground, waiting in mute surrender until day breaks, and he can make his way back into his car. His knees buckle, he almost surrenders to the trees right there, but a moment later the branches give way and he tumbles free.

For a moment he doesn’t understand what has happened. When he realizes the branches have stopped hitting him, he wonders if he actually made it through, or if this is a trick. Is he through? Has he turned around, and come out the way he went in? Is he still in the woods, standing in a brief gap in the branches, still surrounded on all sides? He bends over, hands on his knees, and draws a ragged breath. He coughs: the air is cold and sharp, his lungs burn from the unexpected chill. It smells faintly of autumn hay.

He opens his eyes and sees the sky. The summer haze of August is gone, the overcast darkness is gone. The sky is black fading into blue and purple, softened by the light of thousands upon thousands of stars, shining brightly. Matthew stares at the sky in astonishment. He’s never seen so many stars. Painting that sky, he thinks, would be a challenge. He finds himself mixing oils in his head, trying to guess at the best way to match the colors hanging above him.

He stands at the edge of a large field. It stretches out before him as far as he can see, the horizon melting into the sky, the field stretching on seemingly forever. Lush and verdant, thick grass and weeds grow without restraint. Crickets and other night insects chirrup and buzz and chatter around him. He shivers slightly, and realizes the cool air is actually cold. It feels more like mid-autumn than late summer. He pulls his jacket tighter around him and fumbles with the zipper as he zips it up halfway.

He turns to look back at the trees. They are tall, and grow close together, but they don’t look oppressive. Their branches do not twine together in an impenetrable wall, and they do not look thorny, or sharp. He rubs his scratched face ruefully and wonders why it’d been such a struggle to work his way through. Then he shrugs, turns back to the field, and begins to walk through the knee-high grass.

There is no moon, but the sky is bright enough for him to walk without impediment. He has no destination in mind. It is enough, for the moment, that he is out of the trees and under this magnificent sky. Somewhere in the back of his mind he realizes that it shouldn’t be cold, that August in Virginia is never cold, but he doesn’t care. The presence of that sky makes anything plausible.

Eventually Matthew hears something new—not crickets, not insects, not wind, but the faintest trace of music, far off in the distance. A few minutes later he’s certain it’s music, but he can’t tell where it comes from. The music grows stronger, louder, and soon it sounds as if rises out of the ground itself. It’s not until he sees the play of flickering light against the sky that he realizes the darkness is tricking his eyes. He’s walking uphill—he has been the entire time, on a grade so slight he never noticed—and what appears to be the endless, distant horizon is actually the crest of a hill fading into the background of the night sky. The music comes from just beyond, on the other side.

Curious, he quickens his pace. As he jogs to the crest, the music grows clearer—a waltz—and beneath the music he hears the murmur of voices. As he reaches the top of the hill, the murmur grows distinct: many voices, laughing and talking together.

It’s difficult to get a sense of where he is—there is no moon, and he can’t find any of the usual constellations in the sky—but the trees were parallel to the road, and he’s been walking perpendicular to the trees, so he decides he’s traveling south. South takes him to the very top of the hill, which drops off abruptly into a steep slope, descending into a valley. The valley is littered with trees and fields, bordered by a river at the southernmost end. East down the river he can see a faint echo of a glow that reminds him of electric street lights reflecting off the sky. A town, perhaps, just out of view.

Much closer, and of more immediate interest, is the manor house.

It’s built in the fashion of a lord’s estate at the end of the nineteenth century, seemingly untouched by the passage of time. It rises five stories in height, capped by the arched rooftops found on Tudor houses, complete with tall windows and turret-like fixtures. The two wings of the house are lower to the ground, perhaps three stories at most, but have the same arched rooftops and ornate fixtures. It’s obviously large, but Matthew can’t get a feel for how large it really is. Standing alone in the valley, away form the river, away from the distant town, it possesses a strange sense of intimacy that softens its size and grandeur.

Behind the house other buildings sprawl around the estate. Matthew sees a carriage house, and a full set of stables, though he sees no road leading to or from the estate itself. A number of smaller, well-kept buildings line along the the back—the north side. Guest houses, perhaps, or servant quarters.

The grounds around the manor house are ornate and well-kept. The front lawn, facing south, is mostly obscured from Matthew’s view by the house itself, but he can see rows of hedges and fountains. Just east of the east wing is an elaborate hedge maze, with a dimly-lit statue resting at its center. Just west of the west wing is a large circular pond, sectioned off by four arching bridges that meet in the center, opening up into a large, white gazebo. That is the source of the music.

The gazebo, the bridges, and the gardens around the pond are filled with people. Beautiful people: men who are tall and strong, women who are slim and gracefully, all dressed formally. Then men wear dark suits—not tuxedos, but he doesn’t recognize the style. The cut is different; the cloth is closer to the body, there are coats and vests with many buttons, and the shirts gleam white beneath the night sky. The women wear many different colors, cream and rose and lavender, blue and green and yellow, and the purest of white, in long, flowing dresses. They are elegant. They seem to belong to another time, as though they were lifted from a storybook. It makes him ache.

Lanterns circle the pond, reflecting light off the water and casting shadows across the bottoms of the arched bridges. The gazebo is large, easily the size of a ballroom. From his vantage point he can see inside the gazebo a little, and men and women are dancing. None of the dancers miss a step: they twirl and spin in perfect time with the music, all weaving in and out of each other's paths in an intricate pattern he can’t quite follow.

The colors astound him. The green of the lawn is darker than any green he’s ever seen, the white of the gazebo gleams brighter than the combination of starlight and lantern-light warrants. The dark colors of the men’s suits are stately and dignified, brows and grays and blacks all complementing each who wears them. The colors on the women are vibrant and alive, and add to the glow of each smiling, beautiful face. They dance and laugh, and talk, and celebrate, oblivious to Matthew, standing above, feeling uncomfortably like a voyeur.

All oblivious, save one.

He doesn’t notice her at first. He’s too caught up in the spectacle to notice anything specific. Then he sees her: a slim figure, standing apart from the others, gazing up at him, head cocked to one side. The sound of music and laughter fades, and suddenly realizes how very out of place he looks. They’re dressed in finery, he’s wearing boots, jeans, a t-shirt, and a leather jacket. He panics, suddenly afraid his intrusion will disrupt the party. He wants to disappear so they can continue dancing and laughing. He wants to continue watching them be beautiful.

But the party doesn’t end. She doesn’t call out to the others, she doesn’t warn them. She notices him noticing her, and in response she straightens her head and looks at him directly.

She’s beautiful. Despite the distance, Matthew can see her clearly: tall and slender, dark, curled hair tied up and back, pulled off her neck. She carries herself with confidence and serenity, conveying strength and delicacy together.

They’re all beautiful, of course, and from a purely detached perspective she’s no more or less beautiful than the rest. But she does something the other don’t: she looks outside her world. The others stand inside the manor grounds and see only the manor grounds. They look at each other and see only each other. She looks beyond their borders, and sees the hill, and the stars, and sees him.

Matthew feels foolish. He stands motionless, caught in her gaze, trying to decide what to do and failing to make a decision of any kind. They stare at each other for some time, doing nothing else, paying no attention to the others, who ignore them in turn. Finally, Matthew sees her dip her head and then bob into a graceful curtsy. He blinks, surprised, and awkwardly raises his hand in return.

She straightens, cocks her head to the side again, and waits.

He tries to muster the courage to do something—to turn away, or move forward, anything. The music swells, growing louder and clearer, as if it fed off his indecision. Finally, as it reaches its crescendo, he starts down the hill: down into the valley, to the manor house, to the party of beautiful people, where she stands waiting.

Comments

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typo? me vs he

in the one spot you used " me " it feels like you meant it to be " he ", in the line
"For a moment he thinks about how me might paint them: "

Ah the magic of such long night drives.

Good catch...

... yes, that is definitely supposed to be "he." Fixed now.

In fact, it was a long night drive that gave birth to the idea of this story.

--
Writer, former musician, occasional cartoonist, and noted authority on his own opinions.

Hmm. Definitely a different

Hmm. Definitely a different feel. I like it. You might consider playing with the tense... shifting from past to present as he shifts between places.

The Anono in your El.

Hmmm.

I dunno, tense shifting would make chapter 9 a real mess.

--
Writer, former musician, occasional cartoonist, and noted authority on his own opinions.

TPB edits and more!

As you're reawakening TPB (an event I've *really* been looking forward to) here are a few edits (and suggested clarifications and/or stylistic ideas) for you to consider:

1) "It’s hypnotic, and he feels like a ghost, gliding through the world invisible to everything around him."
and
"He drives on, and the world around him is real, and he’s a ghost, lost in the darkness." seem redundant.
Perhaps in the first instance he's 'real' passing through a ghost world which makes the second instance more powerful in juxtaposition?

2) "crumbling pieces of himself behind him as he drives" seems too active. Perhaps "pieces of himself crunbling behind him as he drives", which doesn't give the impression of him being in control.

3) "wall is… something" - "wall is... something". (Italics to emphasize strangeness)

4) “discarding the sepia-toned world of obligation behind to pursue” doesn’t need ‘behind’

5) “depths of him” – perhaps “depths of his being” or “depths of his soul” (a bit dramatic but using ‘him’ twice in the sentence doesn’t seem to flow…)

6) “heavy with honeysuckle, humidity, and dew; the sent is rich” – “humidity, and dew” seems redundant; also ‘sent’ should be ‘scent’.

7) “His knees buckle,” – the text doesn’t imply or state that he arose from falling.

8) “away form the river” – ‘from’

9) “possesses a strange sense of intimacy” – “projects”?

10) “brows and grays and blacks all complementing each who wears them” – “browns and grays and blacks all complementing those who wear them” – fixes ‘brown’ and the singular/plural structure of the sentence.

11) “and suddenly realizes” – “and he suddenly realizes”

12 )” and sees the hill, and the stars, and sees him” – perhaps “… and sees him” or “, and sees him” for emphasis

13) “as if it fed off his indecision” – “as if feeding off his indecision” to maintain tense.

14) “or move forward, anything” – “or move forward, anything” again for emphasis.

Overall the presentation seems to me somewhat Hemingwayesque, i.e.: short, declarative statements with very few wasted words. Interesting...

Finally: Congrats on the new gig & Good Luck in Alabama!

Oh yeah, I almost forgot!

It's "Howard Tayler". I have trouble remembering too.

Mebbe.

I dunno, tense shifting would make chapter 9 a real mess.

It might seem that way, but you might recall reading a draft of "Mouthbreather" where I changed tense mid-stream, and no one noticed until I mentioned it. And I'm not as a good of a writer as you are, so there's also that to consider.

The Anono in your El.

arrrgh...

... so many typos. So very, very, very many typos. :D

Thanks FN. I've fixed Howard's name (*smacks forehead*), will look at the others later.

Anon, I'd completely forgotten that but you did pull it off flawlessly. I'm not sure I want to try, though.

--
Writer, former musician, occasional cartoonist, and noted authority on his own opinions.

This is why...

...I always have a flashlight on my keychain.

Once I got accustomed to this being a story and not a book review (present tense does that to me for some reason) it seemed to flow. Now don't go changing it from present tense to first person - you'll really have gone off the deep end.