So, remember earlier this month, when I unveiled a piece of teaser art as a thank-you to readers after I hit the “100 sales in one month” benchmark?
Yeah, well, over the long holiday weekend, I broke the 200 copies sales mark, and hit a new personal record for sales in a single day, AND cracked Amazon’s top 50 list for my genre. That deserves another special thank-you, right? Well, here it is: a special “rough cut” preview of chapter one of Action Figures – Issue Three: Pasts Imperfect!
What is a “rough cut preview,” you ask? Simply, it’s chapter one from the first draft, which means it is completely unedited. That means there will be typos, there will be wonky sentences, and there will be changes by the time the book sees publication (which, FYI, is this September — tentatively), but the chapter will appear in the final product more or less as you read it here.
One important final note: if you’ve already read either or both of the first two books, I’d appreciate it if you took five minutes to leave a favorable review on Amazon. The positive reviews I’ve received so far played a crucial role in attracting new readers, and it never hurts to have a few (or lots) more. Thanks!
ACTION FIGURES – ISSUE THREE: PASTS IMPERFECT
PART ONE: HIGH SCHOOL HELLCATS
It’s been a weird winter.
Weird by my standards, I mean; life hasn’t been normal for me since I got my powers from a dying extraterrestrial, but feuding sorceresses and demons attempting to literally raise Hell on Earth? That’s a bit much, even for me.
Still, I would happily run out and fight every demon in creation to get away from the man who might well be my greatest enemy ever:
My mom’s new boyfriend.
Ben sits on the opposite corner of the couch, looking as uncomfortable as I feel. We stare at each other in silence, our mouths set in a line that, at a glance, might pass as thin smiles.
“Dinner smells great,” he says, acknowledging the mouthwatering aroma of my mother’s lasagna, a hearty dish so dense with pasta, cheese, and assorted meats you could use it to patch potholes. It’s one of her A-list meals, one she trots out for special occasions.
“Mm. Yeah,” I say. Not much else to say about that, really; “food smells good” tends to be a self-affirming observation.
Cue awkward silence the second.
“I’m not good at small talk,” Ben says.
“Me either. Well, the point of this dinner is to give us a chance to interrogate each other, so let’s get to it. When did you start dating my mother?”
“Uh, couple of weeks ago? We’d gone out before, with after-work groups, I mean,” he begins. I unconsciously dig my fingernails into the armrest, and his voice dissolves into nonsensical white noise.
A couple of weeks ago, my mother enjoyed a Friday night out with some co-workers. She didn’t come home until Saturday morning. She told me she had too much to drink, so she spent the night at a friend’s place. It’s important to note, she told me this while staring at the carpet, guiltily, as if I’d caught her stealing money out of my purse. Conclusion: her “friend” is sitting across from me now, and they did not simply have an innocent little sleepover — and now, they’re a thing. An item. A couple.
I accept certain realities about my parents’ divorce. I know, logically, their marriage is done and gone. I know they’re never getting back together. I know they would eventually move on and find someone else. I didn’t know it would happen for Mom this quickly. I mean, come on, she and Dad were together since high school. And now, six months after the split, she already has a new boyfriend. That’s what pushes me past mere discomfort and into the red zone of anger.
It takes a supreme effort of will to stomp that anger down and, for the sake of civility, say to Ben in a steady, level voice, “That’s cool.”
“I know she hasn’t mentioned me to you at all,” Ben says, though he doesn’t seem bothered by this, “but she talks about you all the time.”
“Often through clenched teeth, I’m sure.” Hey, I’m realistic. I know I can be a pain in the butt.
“No. No, it’s all been good.” I cock a skeptical eyebrow. He smiles. “Okay, it’s been mostly good. I get the feeling you two are a lot alike.”
“That’s what Dad thinks,” I say, putting a little too much emphasis on Dad. Scale it back, Carrie. Mom and I have been on relatively good terms lately, don’t screw it up by chewing out her —
Mom emerges from the kitchen, carrying a plate of cheese and crackers. “How’s it going out here?” she says.
“Fine,” we say in unison.
“Good,” Mom says. She sits in the easy chair near Ben — close enough to make it clear they’re together, but separated enough to put me at ease. That’s the theory, anyway.
“We’ve been talking about how you two met,” I say.
Panic flashes across Mom’s face, ever so briefly. “Oh?”
Ben jumps to the rescue. “She was appropriately bored. There isn’t anything terribly romantic about two co-workers deciding to date.”
“I may have fallen asleep,” I say. Mom relaxes, smiles in relief, then excuses herself to tend to dinner.
Apparently, we set the tone for the evening right off, because dinnertime conversation is sparse, dry, and inoffensive. There are no inquiries more probing than “How is school?” and “What do you do for work, exactly?” — standard getting-to-know-you chit-chat. The bland discourse continues through our dessert of tiramisu and espresso. Now, normally, Mom likes to throw a little Bailey’s Irish cream into her espresso, but this time around, she takes it straight, and doesn’t offer any boozy additives to Ben. Now that I think about it, she never broke out any wine for herself or Ben — thus minimizing the chance either of them might let something embarrassing or scandalizing slip out.
That’s when it hits me: this night wasn’t about us trying to impress Ben; they were trying to impress me.
Ben, thankfully, doesn’t linger long after we finish dessert. He gives Mom a chaste good-night kiss on the cheek (girlrage rising), tells me how nice it was to finally meet me, and away he goes. He’s barely out the door when Mom hits me up for my opinion.
“Well? What do you think?” she says hopefully.
I highly doubt my approval, or lack thereof, matters for much, but I say, “I liked him.”
She buys it, but Mom’s not going to let me leave it at that. “Honestly?”
No. “Yeah. Honestly.”
“I want you two to get along.”
“I think we got along fine.”
“Good,” she says. “I expect you’re going to see each other quite a bit.”
“Cool,” I say, and I head upstairs.
“Carrie?” I pause. Mom wrings her hands anxiously. “You really like Ben?”
No, Mom, I hate him.
“Yes, Mom. I like him.”
She smiles, and in that moment, I realize what an exceptionally skilled liar I’ve become.
I’m not proud of this.
Guilt and anger keep me from falling asleep right away, and I spend the night fading in and out. I wake up feeling like five miles of bad road, as my dad likes to say — less than ideal condition for enjoying a day of birthday festivities.
Not mine, mind you; my birthday is about two weeks away. No, today is for celebrating the sixteenth anniversary of one Matthew William Steiger’s entry into the world. Today is also February 29, which is appropriate; it’s an odd day for an odd kid, who I expect will take full advantage of his privileges as the birthday boy and call for a day of odd activities.
After wolfing a couple of strawberry Pop-Tarts and power-chugging a couple cups of Mom’s wretched coffee, I hike over to Sara’s house.
“Hey,” she says, then furrows her brow at me. “Where’s Matt’s present?”
“Well, crap,” I say. “Back at my house, because I’m a moron.”
“Let me finish breakfast, and we’ll run back and get it.” I follow Sara into the kitchen, where she proceeds to wolf down a corn muffin like a contestant in a corn muffin-eating contest. Stuart eats with more restraint.
“Better slow down, or I’m going to have to Heimlich you.”
“I just want to get out of here.”
I’m about to ask why, when Mr. Danvers appears in the kitchen, dressed in a dark blue suit. “Oh, hello, Carrie,” he says. He doesn’t wait for my response. “Sara, I really think you should go with me.”
“I told you, I have plans today,” Sara says through a mouthful of muffin.
“And I told you, church is more important than that Steiger boy’s birthday party. You can go after church.”
That Steiger boy?
“Yeah, I could. Or, I could go to the party right now, like I planned. Come on, Carrie.”
Sara brushes past her father. I follow, offering Daddy Danvers an apologetic smile, which he does not return.
Once we’re out the door, I ask, “What was that all about?”
“Ugghhh. Dad’s in one of his moods,” Sara says. “I don’t know what set him off, but all week he’s been all gay agenda this and liberal media that, and this morning the fair-weather Catholic decided it’s time to church up again after, like, a year of not going.”
“And he asked you to go with him.”
“More like he ordered me to go. Mom, he asks, but she’s got the Get out of Church Because I’m Jewish Card to play.”
“Fun. Frustrating parents must be the motif today.”
“Uh-oh, what’s going on now?”
“Mom has a new boyfriend.”
Sara’s jaw falls open. “No way.”
“Uh-huh. I met the new suitor last night. Ben and Mom and I, we had a lovely little dinner together,” I sneer. “Ben was so interested in me and my life and my friends. He wanted to know all about me so we could become the bestest of friends.”
“I don’t know how to ask this delicately,” Sara says, “but do you think this is the guy your mom spent the night with that time?”
“Oh, I know it is. Mom was twitchy all night.”
“You didn’t bring it up?”
“God, no. Things were uncomfortable enough without me saying, ‘Oh, hey, Ben, quick question: did you get busy with my mother?’ ”
Besides which, bringing up that touchy subject could backfire on me, big-time. Earlier this month, Mom caught me in an ill-thought-out lie — a necessary lie, told to cover up a late night of super-heroics, but badly executed nevertheless — and I confronted Mom about her (alleged) hook-up to deflect her interrogation. It worked, and she hasn’t brought the matter up since — and she won’t, but only as long as I don’t push her to admit that yes, she was “with” Ben. I’m not sure whether this is blackmail or extortion. Either way, it’s another item on my big list of Things of Which I am Ashamed.
“Can I ask you something?” Sara says. I know what that means: she wants to ask me a question I might not like, but doesn’t want me to blow up at her. “Do you think you might be misdirecting your anger?”
“Misdirecting my anger?”
“Yeah. You know: you think you’re angry at Ben because he’s dating your mom, but you’re really angry at your mom because she’s with someone who isn’t your dad?”
“Where’d you get that from?”
“You spend a lot of time talking to a psychologist,” she says, referring to Mindforce, “you pick up some things. Well?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Is Ben a decent guy?”
I shrug. “I guess. He seems okay.”
“Look, you know I’m on your side, but maybe you should give him a fair chance, and not hate on him right off when he hasn’t actually done anything to deserve it.”
“Hmph. Aren’t I supposed to be the grounded, rational one?”
Sara smiles. “I’m expanding my repertoire.”