Want a peak at the first thousand words? Here you go:
Fifty-six hundred voices chanted Dayna’s name, blasting the two syllables in fervent unison toward the recently vacated concert stage as if intending, through force of volume and will, to conjure the twenty-seven-year-old singer out of thin air.
Dayna Clay had just held the sold-out crowd in thrall for an hour and a half, barely stopping for breath or bottled water between songs. She and her band had torn through Dayna’s current hit at the outset but had yet to perform her breakthrough single — the song that, since it hit the airwaves half a year earlier, had attained anthem status among a large segment of the teens-and-twenties set from coast to coast. In so doing, the song had brought both her major-label debut and Dayna herself public attention as serious as it was sudden. And on this, the final night of her seven-month North American tour, anticipation was high that she was saving the best — or, at least, the most-in-demand — for last.
As the murky silhouettes of Dayna and her four backup musicians finally re-emerged on the half-lit stage and took their positions, the chant erupted into a cheer. Dayna adjusted the strap on her cordless electric guitar — a sleek, custom-made, black and blue Stratocaster — and stepped up to the microphone. “Thanks,” she said, a spotlight training itself on her angular features. “Last encore. Last song.”
She ran a hand through her dense chestnut hair and peered out through the haze of cigarette smoke, surveying the sea of heads and upraised arms billowing before her. Glancing straight down, she met the gaze of one of her younger fans: a boy half Dayna’s age standing with palms pressed against the small wooden barricade that, along with a handful of security guards, separated audience from stage. He had spent the concert watching her fingers, intently studying her fret work — a budding guitarist himself, no doubt — but now stared worshipfully into Dayna’s eyes.
She looked away. “Guess you all know this one…”
Another cheer — but one that, as Dayna stood silent and still, quickly subsided.
“I’m pretty sick of it myself. Though I…” She paused. “I remember when it still…”
A female voice from the balcony: “Still does, Dayna!” The comment generated a round of supportive applause, sprinkled throughout the balcony and main floor.
Dayna stared down at her guitar. “Lucky you.” And with that, she unleashed the much-anticipated opening chord.
With a roar of approval that, to Dayna, had grown all but meaningless with nightly repetition, the crowd began surging back and forth in time to the music. After the requisite eight measures of guitar intro, the other musicians kicked in, investing Dayna’s ever-potent composition with their own energy and emotion and pushing the audience into an exhilaration bordering on frenzy. Spotlights and lasers bobbed and weaved, sweeping the stage with pre-programmed yet seemingly random abandon. Occasionally, two beams crossed paths at center-stage, and Dayna — head bowed, hammering away at her Strat — appeared to be pinned at their intersection.
Behind her, purple and red strobes flashed and pulsed as Dayna navigated her song’s unusual chord changes and stop-and-go rhythm with proficiency and poise. Then her head rose, face constricted, eyes shut tight, lips straining toward the mike, and her acclaimed voice — a searing, unsettling contralto, a rich and darkly radiant sound — seized the room with its familiar words of defiant accusation. The bass drum pounded menacingly, each beat reverberating right behind her ribs as Dayna delivered her unflinching account of childhood trauma and torment. A multitude of voices joined hers as she reached the chorus:
Your virtual virtue, your make-believe soul
Took vicious advantage in taking their toll
Your counterfeit conscience, your replica heart
Can wear me and tear me but never apart
As her band charged into the song’s bridge, Dayna’s eyes fell again on the boy below. As before, he was focused on her fingers, scrutinizing — but then, sensing her gaze, he looked up. Dayna mouthed two words: “You play?” After a stunned moment’s hesitation, the boy nodded. Dayna stuck her pick between her teeth, dropped to one knee and extended her right hand. Barreling over the barricade, the boy took hold of her forearm, and Dayna — nodding her OK to the approaching guard — hoisted her young fan up onto the stage.
Still playing, the other musicians watched with curiosity and concern. At the stage’s edge, two more kids tried to follow but were promptly dissuaded as the rest of the audience voiced vicarious delight at the success of the first.
Standing beside her, the boy — five-foot-four and skinny, with a mass of chaotic brown hair — could almost have been the singer’s twin. Both wore jeans, but in contrast to Dayna’s black tank top, the boy sported a white T-shirt with a grainy, larger-than life photo of his idol’s face printed across the front. Dayna removed her guitar and slung its strap over the boy’s head, in the process blotting out her own image with the body of her instrument.
She offered her pick; he took it, hunted briefly for the right minor chord, then found it. All at once he was playing the song that, back in his bedroom with his own, off-brand guitar, he had played so many times before while envisioning himself backed up by just such a band on just such a stage before just such an audience.
The enormity of it all would have overwhelmed him if he had stopped to think about it, but he didn’t; he just strummed and strummed and then, feeling the firm push of Dayna’s hand against his shoulder blade, stepped up to the mike and belted out the next verse. He heard his voice — his voice! — booming from the monitors and speakers, louder than he’d thought possible. The boy sang fairly well; what he lacked in technique he made up for in clarity and sincerity, and by mid-verse virtually everyone in the building was either cheering his effort or singing along. Dwarfed by the vastness of the crowd, the boy had never felt so colossal; knees trembling, he’d never known such strength or self-assurance, such explosive, runaway joy.
From his elevated vantage point, he could see the entire audience from which he’d just emerged. The audience, in turn, saw what the boy could not: the small female figure behind him taking two steps back and then turning, veering off to the side, moving quickly past the drum kit, ducking into the shadows and receding from sight…
© 2002 by Paul McComas. All rights reserved.
Here’s another excerpt, drawn from portions of chapters 1, 3, 4 &7:
Dayna took off her boots and sat down in the middle of the bed, her feet tucked under her. “Sorry,” she said, to no one and everyone, her head bowed and her shoulders beginning to sag. “I’m sorry.” She burrowed herself, fully dressed, beneath the covers, then reached for the bedside lamp and turned it off, plunging the room, the bed and the body within it into the same dense, all-encompassing darkness that already had risen, silent and swift, like a high tide in her heart.
She envisioned the future spread out like a minefield before her. Her mind raced, imagining the bleakest outcome for every circumstance in her life. Her current song-writing block meant that she would never compose again; the hollowness she felt while performing meant that her music had no substance, and soon the critics would expose her for the sham she was; her chronic fatigue and recent weight loss meant that a cancerous tumor germinating somewhere within her was sucking up all her strength; the accusatory parting words of her most recent lover meant that, even if she lived, Dayna would spend her entire life…
An hour passed. Then another. Then another, and another — each more agonizing than the last. Lying on her side, eyes shut tight, Dayna longed for sleep as for another person, a soulmate: the more persistently she wished, the more painful was her failure to obtain. When at last she fell, just before daybreak, into sleep, it was an uneasy one populated by dreams of insomnia; when she awoke two and a half hours later it was without having rested at all.
The next day was a field trip to hell. Isolated with her sorrows and self-doubts, her memories, mistakes and fears, Dayna lay staring at the clock radio’s mocking digital read-out and cringed at the sliver of sunshine that had forced its way between the curtains and into her stale, brown cell of a room. She yearned to get up — just for a moment — so she could pull the curtains closed and blot out the lone ray of intrusive light…but she was afraid to move.
Toward mid-afternoon she found herself rolled onto her stomach and transported back in time to re-live, pain for pain and shame for shame, the worst nineteen minutes of her life. “No,” Dayna pleaded hoarsely into her tear- and spit-stained pillow, “Oh — God, oh — please, just — no.” Her head swam; she was drunk, again, on the peppermint Schnapps he had given her, the first knuckle of her left fist clenched between her teeth, her pelvis pressed into the mattress as he battered his way into the body she ached to flee.
Afterward she lay on her back, mouth open, shoulders shaking, furious: with God, with Fate, with her mother, with her mother’s despicable excuse for a boyfriend. . .and with herself. Was this to be her reward for facing her demons, for her defiant unwillingness to sugarcoat, her lifelong refusal to self-censor or suppress? How she wished she could be like those with “repressed memories” who’d been granted, at least within the conscious realm, a sanctuary from the past. She was jealous of the ignorant, the clueless, the oblivious; she envied the cataleptic, the comatose…the dead. And then
— instantly, at 3:03 p.m., as if by the flip of some tiny toggle switch in the center of her head…it ended.
Dayna sat up in bed, rubbing the tears and mucus from her nose and cheeks. She stood, padded over to the sink and splashed cool water onto her face; then, wiping her hands on her t-shirt, she glanced down. There on the floor, something caught her eye…something she hadn’t noticed before. A lone weed half the height of her thumb was poking up between two of the floorboards. Dayna got down on her hands and knees to inspect the shoot, a scrawny stem without a leaf to its name. There was nothing distinctive about it — nothing, that is, but its presence within a motel room, its ability to make its way up through a crack in the floor, its stubborn drive to grow and survive.
Dayna stood, walked back into the bathroom and filled a glass with water. Returning, she knelt and poured a trickle in between the slats; the rest of the water, she drank. Then she stepped back to her bed, sat on the edge and put on her hiking boots, tying them up good and tight. She stood once more, grabbed her jeans jacket and walked out the door.
Just as they had at sunup, so were the badlands now beckoning her at dusk, calling out to her without a sound. The range visible from the motel was a fair distance away; getting there would take some time, but Dayna didn’t mind. The late-afternoon air was pure and clean, the ground firm beneath her feet. As the sun sank lower still, the distant peaks and ridges began casting dramatic, angular shadows down the face of the range, altering its shape — hollowing it out here, sharpening its incline there — before her very eyes. There must be, she thought, a metaphor in there somewhere — but she was disinclined to look for it. Exhausted not only by her illness but also by all of the collateral introspection, she now longed merely to experience, to see — simply to be.
Close to an hour after she’d set off, Dayna reached the bottom of the nearest arid mound. It was short — maybe sixty feet from base to summit — but steep: a kind of “foothill formation” that appeared to serve as a stair-step to the far taller peaks beyond. To climb it, if she could — and if that possibly precarious foundation of dirt and silt actually held — would be to gain access to the rest of the range, along with whatever sights, sounds and secrets lay within.
She flexed her fingers and, reaching for the mountain’s rough surface, gazed up. Then she planted one boot atop a craggy crest and began hoisting her body higher.
Dayna climbed well. She was light and lithe, both of which helped; more crucially, though, she turned out to have a keen “climber’s eye,” a natural talent for spotting the hand-hold that would, in fact, hold; the ledge that would not dislodge, but endure; the foot-hold that would bear her full weight.
Occasionally she would miscalculate and send a just-loosened fragment bumpily tumbling all the way down. Initially, Dayna found herself pausing to watch whenever this occurred; each such plunge seemed a cautionary demonstration of the descent her own body would make were she to seriously misstep — or lose her balance for even a moment. But after the first few times, she began to grow in confidence, to understand — less with her mind than with her arms and legs, her flesh, muscles and bones — that she was not going to fall. For better or worse, she thought, I am this body, and this body seems to know what it’s doing. Thus affirmed, she picked up her pace; within seconds, she had reached the top.
Dayna scrambled to her feet and stood up straight, hands on her hips, giddily grinning from ear to ear. At first, she didn’t quite know why, but then it hit her: this was the closest she’d come in weeks to feeling good…the closest in months to feeling good about herself.
Unbuttoning her jacket, she looked all around her. The elevated angle not only afforded her a view of numerous newly exposed slopes and peaks; it also revealed caves and crevasses, faults and fissures, hardy patches of scrub dotting the base of a neighboring formation, even the occasional juniper tree stubbornly jutting out of the rocky clay below.
How, Dayna wondered, can that be? How can anything derive sustenance from such parched and unforgiving ground? How can a tree take root in this inhospitable, even hostile terrain…and how, if at all, could I possibly do likewise?
Dayna looked down and kicked once, twice at the earth beneath her. Perhaps…perhaps I’ve already begun.
© 2002 by Paul McComas. All rights reserved.
And one more excerpt (edited slightly for context), from Chapter 9:
To her passenger’s surprise, Kayla steered not toward town but in the opposite direction. Dayna glanced back the other way. “We’re not going to that little church in Interior?”
“Nope.” Kayla shifted gears. “An even smaller church in an even smaller town.”
“Smaller town?” Dayna laughed. “That hardly seems possible.”
Kayla accelerated. “You’ll see.” They rode for a while in silence, the road twisting and turning with abandon; then, her tone one of practiced nonchalance, Kayla spoke again. “I take it you’re not much of a churchgoer.”
“You could say that.” Dayna rolled down her window: it was shaping up into another warm, if windy, late-October day. “I do remember my last time, though. Distinctly.” She looked off toward some faraway formations. “Didn’t exactly make me want to join the flock.”
“A friend invited me. Kind of…like today.” Dayna paused, lost in thought.
“And…and the minister,” she continued, calling his image to mind, “this tall, young guy — good-looking, I guess, in a white-bread way — he had a little chalkboard up there next to his whatchacallit, his…his lectern. And at some point during his sermon, he walked over to it and wrote the word PRAY, vertically, in capital letters. And then he said, ‘The word itself tells you how to do it. P is for Praise: always begin by praising the Lord. Next, R is for Repent: beg for His forgiveness. A is for Anything else. And finally, after you’ve done all of that, you may talk about Y: Yourself.’”
“Interesting,” Kayla said. “But kind of patronizing.”
“I was all of thirteen, and I felt talked down to. Oh, and then he told us, ‘A lot of folks do it the other way around. But those people aren’t PRAYing, are they? They’re YARPing!’” Dayna shook her head. “He thought he was really funny, really cute.”
“There is no ‘right’ way to pray,” Kayla said, her manner diplomatic. “I mean, I’m sure a system like that works fine for some, and if it does, more power to them. But there’s no need to go…enforcing it on others.” She started to slow down the car. “God meets us wherever we are.”
It was, as promised, a smaller town than Interior — so small, in fact, that Dayna didn’t realize they were in it until the vehicle had come to a complete stop. There were eight buildings in all, none more than a story tall. The term “one-horse town” came to mind, but the place appeared to be a horse shy of qualifying. And as for the church, not only was it minuscule — the size, roughly speaking, of a larger-than-average work shed — but everything about it was abbreviated: the door was barely taller than Dayna, the sole stained-glass window was no bigger than an old LP album cover, and the truncated symbol atop the short, squat steeple looked more like a plus sign than a cross. Perhaps, Dayna thought, that last detail was a good omen; where organized religion was concerned, she was overdue for a positive experience.
They entered the church, sat down on the second of three long benches and waited while the room continued to fill. The congregants greeted one another with a kind of restrained familiarity, though no one, Dayna noticed, bothered to approach Kayla or her. Setting aside the photocopied program — a single white sheet, folded in the middle — Dayna looked up at the white candles, the velvet-on-felt dove banner and the simple, wooden altar, and she silently vowed to keep an open mind.
Soon the minister, a round-faced man of about fifty, stepped up to the front and bid the twenty-some worshippers welcome. He then led them in a “Call to Awareness,” an opening prayer and a hymn, sung a capella by the choirless congregation. The hymn — something about following in the footsteps of Jesus — was pretty; if not for her sore throat, Dayna would have joined right in. She relaxed a bit. So far, so tolerable.
The pastor sat down, and a slightly younger woman stood to read aloud three passages of scripture. The first, from Psalms, was a kind of fan letter to God, praising this, that and the other thing about the Almighty. But it was a verse of a different nature early in the passage — “My tears have been my food, day and night” — that caught Dayna’s ear; reflecting, she heard little else until the psalm had ended.
The second reading, from Paul’s epistle to the Something-or-others, failed to impress; its rhetorical structure was so confusing and its syntax so convoluted that by the end, Dayna was left wondering what, precisely, had been said. The piece could have used a good editor.
The third and final reading, from Luke, chronicled a rather poignant encounter between Jesus and a naked, raving man possessed by demons. Christ found the wretch in a graveyard, “living amongst the tombs.” When he asked the man his name, the demons, speaking through their host, replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many” — a nice bit of writing, Dayna thought, divinely inspired or not.
The story rang a bell; she had either heard or read it somewhere before. More to the point, she understood it, felt it. Dayna didn’t believe in demons, but she certainly knew the experience of being seized and tormented and robbed of her true self by internal forces beyond her control. As the lector described Christ’s successful effort to heal the man, Dayna picked up a pencil, scrawled across her program the words MENTAL ILLNESS? and showed it to Kayla, who considered it before nodding in assent.
Another hymn was sung and an offering taken (Dayna and Kayla each tossing a couple of bucks onto the plate), and then the pastor began to preach. His style was quasi-charismatic; he didn’t pace — he hadn’t the room — but rather stood in place, arms alive and fingers flying in earnest accompaniment to his words. He spoke with such intensity that he sometimes seemed to be shouting, although in truth, not once did he raise his voice.
Expounding upon the passage from Luke, he stressed the ability of “each and every one of us” to change, by the grace of “God through Christ Jesus,” no matter “how far gone, how damaged or despairing, how wayward, misguided or lost.” As a few congregants began to chime in with the occasional “Amen,” Dayna’s mind drifted yet again; staring at the worn, planked floor, she contemplated the recent changes in her own life. . .the healing and, yes, the grace that she had received.
“The Lord provides us such a firm foundation that no one is beyond hope, no problem beyond help. Through Him, the alcoholic will put down his bottle and drink no more; the addict will forsake his drugs and make pure his body’s temple…”
But what was the source of this healing, this grace? Was the force at work in her life God, or simply nature? For that matter, was there even a difference between the two?
“…the adulterer will learn fidelity; the belligerent will practice peace…”
Maybe that was the answer; maybe it was just that simple. Maybe…
Dayna’s head snapped up.
“…will renounce his base corruption and sin no more.”
She glanced over at Kayla, whose own disappointment, though muffled, was apparent. Seething, Dayna stood, moved to the edge of the bench and looked at the pastor, whose eyes — like everyone’s now — were riveted upon her. “Love your neighbor,” Dayna all but spat at him, then turned and stormed out the door.
With anger to burn, she stalked past Kayla’s car and across the parking lot of a long-defunct Tastee-Freez, finally coming to a stop in the middle of an old dirt road, the closest thing to a main drag this piddling burgh had. Hands in her pockets, she glared down at the earth under her boots, the wind blowing her short bangs to and fro. Spotting a rock, she stooped to pick it up; glancing over her shoulder, Dayna found herself wondering whether that stupid plus-sign cross was within her range. Instead she spun on one heel and, as hard as she could, cast the stone into the ground.
Dayna squinted into the wind. Part of her wished that, like the Dayna Clay of old, she’d stayed in the church and shouted the man down; another part of her wished she’d stayed away. She wasn’t welcome there; never had been, never would be. What on earth had made her think…?
Kayla, too, now stood in the road, perhaps ten yards behind. Her arms hung at her sides; she looked shaken, unsure. As they peered at one another across the dead space between them, Dayna couldn’t shake the notion that Kayla and she were characters in some western movie. There was no denying that this place looked like a ghost town…and all the more so with every one of its two dozen citizens tucked away in church. The crowning touch — as the wind picked up and the women began walking toward one another, showdown-style — was the lone tumbleweed that, behind Kayla and off to the right, began bumpily rolling by.
It was almost enough to make Dayna laugh. But not quite.
“I’m as shocked as you are,” Kayla said, stopping just in front of her.
“Oh, I’m far from shocked.”
“He’s never talked that way before. At least, not that I’ve heard.”
“Was it because we were there? Together?”
“I…don’t know.” Kayla moved to place an arm around her.
“Someone might see.”
“God might see.”
Kayla held her at arm’s length and looked Dayna dead in the eye. “God,” she said, her chin quivering but her voice steady, “put you in my life.”
Equal parts moved and confused, Dayna softened. “That’s sweet of you to say.”
“Guess I’ll have to take your word.”
“You believe in God…don’t you?”
Dayna sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe. I try…but they don’t make it easy. The Almighty’s p.r. people are doing a piss-poor job of representing their client, y’know?”
“I know.” Reaching out, Kayla took Dayna’s hand; they left the road and headed back across the lot. “There’s this church in Rapid City that’s…better,” she said. “Guess I’ll just go there from now on.” Then, softly: “Kind of a trek from here…”
“I believe in something,” Dayna went on. “Sure; call it God. Yeah, I guess I do. It’s just that the two of us, God and me — we’re not exactly on speaking terms.”
Kayla turned toward her. “Why’s that?”
“People always talk about how we ought to repent for our sins, tell God we’re sorry.” She kicked a jagged stick out of her path. “And I suppose I see some point to that; it’s good to be held accountable for your actions. But I also think that every relationship ought to be a two-way street.”
“What do you mean?”
By now they had reached the car. “This is probably some kind of blasphemy,” Dayna said, “but as far as I’m concerned, God ought to repent to me.”
Kayla opened the driver’s door and got in. “What for?”
Sitting down beside her, Dayna closed her own door and stared at the dashboard, trying to decide how much to reveal. She wasn’t used to having someone with whom she could talk like this. “I don’t want to go into any detail; not here. But it involves something that happened to me when I was a child. Something…God-awful. Something I prayed would end, prayed for weeks — for all the good that did me.”
“But God didn’t cause it.”
“Didn’t stop it, either.” She turned away. “This may be pride talking, but I can forgive someone who lets me down — I can focus on the good and excuse the rest — as long as they say, ‘I’m sorry.’ She looked back at Kayla. “But God’s never said anything of the kind.”
Kayla stuck the key in the ignition. “Not in so many words.”
“What do you mean?”
She started the car. “Look at how you’re feeling — I mean, compared to before. Look at the…the hope and the healing you’ve received.” Kayla grabbed her companion’s leg and gave it a shake. “Dayna, look at who you’re with! If all of that doesn’t add up to an apology, then I don’t know what does.”
As Kayla shifted into gear, Dayna began to reply but then stopped, reconsidered, remained silent. Kayla’s was a novel, even off-beat way of looking at the world — quite different from Dayna’s own. But the girl did seem to have her shit together, so maybe there was something to what she’d said. Maybe she had a point.
The thought lingered, potent and persistent, as Kayla turned her car around and drove them away from church, out of town and back down the winding road home.
© 2002 by Paul McComas. All rights reserved.