Category Archives: excerpt

How Soon Is Soon?

I was going to write a blogpost soon, but that was hours ago. I was going to advertize my new novellas soon, but that was days ago. My husband was going to choose paint colors soon, but that was months ago. And my next novel, Subtraction, was going to come out soon, but how soon is soon?

subtraction copy

Then yesterday I got good news. Subtraction has a tentative release date of August 1st. Hurray! So now I shall have to advertize soon, beg for reviews, try to get the book into stores… and dream. And definitely dream. Because Subtraction completes a trilogy begun with Divide by Zero and continued in Infinite Sum. Sure, I’m working on Imaginary Numbers now, but that will follows lives on different paths. Subtraction completes the arc of lives wounded by Amelia’s death. Subtraction follows the absent father, and places him very present on center stage. And I can’t wait to see how it will be received.

As to those novellas, perhaps they’ll be fodder for another blogpost, coming “soon.” But for now, here’s a taste of Subtraction, following the writing prompt.

Writing Prompt:

Our writer’s group’s experimenting with different points of view – it’s amazing how they can feel like different authors when you let them on the page. So…

  1. Imagine a teacher walking into a classroom. The students stare.
  2. Start the story in first person from the teacher’s point of view. “New class. New students. What do I do? Will they listen?” and write for just 5 minutes.
  3. Continue in 3rd person omniscient – what does the teacher look like? What about the students. What are they thinking? What does the teacher think? How does the lesson begin? 5 minutes again.
  4. Then finish with nothing but dialog between teacher and students, and see where it takes you.

When you’ve finished, meet Andrew from Subtraction, as he meets his new class:

Part 1

1

“Now children, today I will teach you to subtract.” Andrew marched to the front of the classroom, ready to start his second year with these kids. He frowned as he pondered whether addressing a middle-grade, special-needs audience as children might be insulting, but his mind seemed devoid of alternative words as it sank into more familiar mathematical terms. “Subtract,” he repeated.  To take away, abuse, discard, destroy…

Youthful faces, ranging from blandly accusing to sleepily bland, stared back at him, and clearly couldn’t care less if he frowned or cried. Faint groans arose, inspiring that familiar tightness in his chest. But these students, subtracted from their regular classes, weren’t rejects; not really; not yet; Andrew wasn’t going to fail them if he could help it.

“Sub-traction.” He spoke the syllables carefully and wrote the word with a purple flourish on the whiteboard. The pen squeaked louder than the nervous quiver of his throat while he half-turned to check the children were seated, and to see who was laughing.

A class clown bounced on his chair in the middle of the room.  “Is that like action that’s not acting right?” Beetled eyebrows wiggled, mimicking the bouncing of the tall boy’s limbs.

“Nah,” groaned the one known as Jonah the Whale, squashed like a deflated football in his seat near the door. The force of Jonah’s voice blew strands of sandy hair up like a helmet, and he clawed his armpits with stubby fists. “ Sub-track; it’s like acting subhuman, like what you do.” He pointed to the clown.

Andrew rapped a ruler on the desk. “No teasing in class,” he insisted. Then he repeated, slowly, solemnly—fiercely driving down the whimper of his new-year apprehension— “We’re studying subtraction.”

For a moment, the deep, cultured tone of his own voice distracted him. Who am I? he wondered, and who am I to teach them? But he couldn’t pause to evaluate the answer. “Subtraction is sometimes called taking away.” And what has been taken from me?

Andrew’s eyes wandered, taking in shapes, positions, posture, provocation and more. Meanwhile he pondered what these middle-school rejects might make of the phrase, taken away, they who’d never been given enough in the first place? Inhaling an unhealthy burst of dry-erase solvent, he dragged himself back to the present and began a slow walk around the room.

Fair-haired Amy sat near clownish Zeke. She wrapped thin, freckled arms around the treasures on her desk. Her lips were parted as she muttered under her breath, “Not take away. Not take away.” The delicate voice reminded Andrew of the tick from an antique clock, from an antique home, from a life long lost. He leaned forward to offer comfort to the child. Doll-eyes blinked, but she wasn’t looking at him. Her gaze was fixed on some curious infinity. Her face, pink-cheeked and porcelain smooth, bore only the tiniest hint of unlikely concern, as if she were looking through a window at someone else’s lesson.

“Ah, Amy.” Andrew sighed. “Nobody’s going to take your treasures away.”

Three safety pins from a diaper set were arrayed in the middle of her desk. Buttons in multiple colors formed jagged hills beside them. A pencil with rainbow-colored point, and a pad of rainbow notelets were neatly positioned between musically drumming fingers.

“First we add things,” Andrew said, raising his voice as he marched toward the front of the room again. “Then we have a collection”—a collection of buttons perhaps, and did Amy know how many were lying there?—“and then we…”

“Takeaway! Like burgers!” brayed Julie’s rusty voice of triumph behind him.

Andrew turned. “Well, not quite, Julie,” he admitted, feeling the focus splinter.

“I want my takeaway. I want.” Loud thumps of threatening persistence on the desk accompanied Tom’s voice. Angry Tom, he was in his fourth special school for misbehavior and might soon be dropped out entirely unless teachers like Andrew could win him over. But chaos rumbled over other desks as well.

Andrew tensed, needing a clearer answer, before things fell apart. Then he felt a bubble of inspiration turn his frown to a smile. This was why he did this job. This was why he loved it.

“Yes. Yes. And yes,” Andrew announced, facing the class from behind his desk and pumping his arm with the words like a teenager. His tones turned increasingly valiant as his gaze slid across the sea of puzzled faces. “You’re right.” He pointed to Julie. “Tom’s right… And you… and you… Let’s order some takeaway, just as soon as we’ve got this done.” Then he started to count, pointing to the students each in turn. “Let’s order… seven, eight, nine burgers.”

“I want nuggets!”

“Nine orders of food.” Andrew corrected himself. “And I’ll be in charge of passing them around.”

He had their attention now, or food did anyway.

“I’ll set the box down on my desk, right here. And when I’ve handed one meal to Jonah… you tell me… how many more will be in the box?”

“Me first,” shouted Tom, ignoring the question. But others students waved fingers to count and tried to work it out.

Shy Amy’s head hung down as she continued to play with the buttons on her desk. Her fingers wove in hypnotically distracting patterns. Don’t look at her. Don’t watch. You’ll make her mad. But blue eyes focused suddenly on Andrew, cold as winter, distant as spring. Red-button lips pursed into words, spoked out in a quietly determined, uninflected voice. “Eight.”

“Very good, Amy. So then I give one meal to Amy.” Andrew waved a hand with the imaginary parcel. “Just wait a minute, Tom. And how many are left?”

Middle-grade mind needed a pause before answering, “Seven?”

“Then to Tom… “

“Hurray!”

“Six… five… four…”

The students completed the sequence at last, and Andrew announced in triumph, “That’s subtraction, class. When we take something out of the box, we’ve subtracted it.”

Faces shone back at him in that pause within the triangle of trouble, food and learning. Then Jonah the Whale bounced his chair, legs creaking scarily. “So, when can we eat?”

Whispers rustled, then Tom’s throaty voice rang out, combining threat and doubt. “Order it! I’m hungry.”

Andrew took out his phone. “What’s the number? Anyone know?”

Then food’s calm promise brought peace, giving Andrew a chance to spend more time in quiet discussion with Tom. He said all the right words, warning of all the right consequences, taking into account the rightness of Tom’s desire for burgers, and adding a reminder that the whole class needed to learn. Subtract a little bad behavior here and there, don’t shout too loud, look like you’re taking notice, and all will be well.

Meanwhile Shy Amy drew with her rainbow pencil, plus and minus signs entwined with whispering shades and colors on the rainbow page. Take away her autism, and who might Amy be then?

Take away Amelia’s autism…?

Voices from the past ushered a host of memories in Andrew’s mind. Amelia was the girl long gone, long lost under green of trees and waving branches in a place called Paradise—Amelia, her mother, Andrew’s parents, Carl… all subtracted like numbers from his page. He let his gaze drift to the window, hoping the sky’s bright tones would wash his palette clean again. But who-am-I doubts combined with the whispering of leaves and chatter of children. He couldn’t forget. That long slow walk between Tom’s desk and the classroom door could take a lifetime, waiting for delivery’s knock.

 

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Maundy

A new command was given on Maundy Thursday – a mandate – mandatum – hence the name. And in honor of “loving one another,” priests wash parishioners’ feet, kings and queens give coins, and altars are stripped ready to remember that giving of it all.

The story below comes from my Bible gift book: Easter, Creation to Salvation in 100 words a day. And if you want to know what happens next (the end of the world perhaps), look for Revelation, from Easter to Pentecost in 100 words a day. Enjoy.

(And if you want a writing prompt, write about the wonder of the season – Easter, spring, whatever season this means to you.)

44. Maundy Thursday

bread and wine

The streets were quiet. Night had fallen, everyone sleeping or praying, except for them.

“Strange about the bread,” said James, still tasting forbidden matzos eaten after lamb.

“And the blessing”—“This is my body,” the master had said, reminding them of something they were too full, or too tired to remember.

They stopped at a garden, sat on rocks, lay on grass, their bodies weary with food. And they barely noticed when Jesus left to pray with Peter, James and John.

Matthew looked up. “Huh? Where’d they go?” then, “Wonder what happened to Judas.”

Voices whispered. Armor jangled. Footsteps approached.

Mark 14:22 “…Take, eat: this is my body.”

 After they’d eaten the Passover meal, Jesus blessed and broke another matzo. He prayed over the third cup of wine—cup of redemption, blood of the lamb—and the feast drew to its end.

Maundy Thursday evening begins a three-day celebration of Easter: Maundy pennies to the poor; priests washing the people’s feet. But it’s communion that matters most—bread and wine shared in remembrance of Him. We file out from church, leaving the light shining in a tiny garden—shrubs and flowers, a place of Easter prayer.

And through the night, people visit, to watch and pray one hour.

45. Good Friday

crucifixion

It didn’t seem so long ago she carried her baby to the Temple, and an old man prophesied, “A sword will piece your heart.”

She hadn’t known what sort of sword. There were all the little swords of childhood, watching and caring for the boy, losing and finding him. There was the sword of his leaving home, and the day he addressed the crowds: “These are my mother and brothers,” as if she hadn’t left everything to follow him too.

This sword was a soldier’s spear, piercing her dead son’s heart.

A mother shouldn’t have to watch her baby die.

John 1:29 “…Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.”

 Good Friday’s service is the long one. We stand and kneel and sit on cue, and pray for all times and all peoples.

The priest holds up the crucifix—“Behold the wood of the cross.” And all other symbols stay hid under their purple cloths—statues in mourning. The congregation marches forwards to bestow our reverent kisses, quickly wiped.

It must look strange—we fools for Christ; irrational kisses in remembrance of God’s salvation. I touch my lips to plastic, and my heart touches mystery.

Returning home we celebrate with hot cross buns, sweetness and spice, pleasure and pain together.

46. Holy Saturday

death

“They tell me Judas has killed himself. I doubt I could even do that right.

“Remember me, Jesus? I’m the one that betrayed you; told them I never even knew you. I stood there, and I saw you look at me.

“Remember me? I’m the one that couldn’t walk on water after all; can’t even walk right on land. You said you’d build your church on me, called me a rock. Some rock. Some church.

“Remember me, Jesus? And you tell me to remember you.

“I remember seeing you dead and buried, so tell me, now what do I do?”

John 15:5 “I am the vine, ye are the branches…”

 We left the church in silence on Good Friday, the altar bare—no candles, no flowers, no music, joyful or sad. On Saturday evening, we’ll meet together in the parking lot, beside the Paschal fire, the air filled with excitement and smoke, shouting “Alleluia” instead of “Crucify.” On Holy Saturday evening we’ll all stand forgiven, and the grave lie empty.

New light, new life, new hope tonight. My brother, the priest, sings “Lumen Christi” and we answer “Deo Gratias”—light of Christ; thanks be to God. Beautiful music, beautiful prayers, and beautiful hope.

This night, our Savior is risen.

47. Easter Sunday

resurrection

“King of the Jews.”

“So they say.”

“D’you think he’ll stay dead?”

The older man laughed. He’d been a soldier long enough to know, the dead don’t walk. “We killed him son.” And if they could keep the body guarded, maybe peace would return to the violent province.

They sat around the fire, telling war stories to flames, cursing the land, scorning people who might be foolish enough to try to steal a corpse.

Then they saw what they could not see, and heard what they could not hear. In the morning, the grave stood empty; the dead had walked.

John 11:25 “…I am the resurrection, and the life…”

 Jesus walked the earth again for forty days. His disciples saw Him. Huge crowds ate and talked with Him. And those who chronicled events wrote their tales, while eye-witnesses still lived to disagree. Like newspaper reporters today, each stressed his own version. But together they tell one story, one the authorities couldn’t suppress, though it would have been so easy to disprove—if there’d only been a body.

After the forty days, Jesus disappeared. After fifty, at the Jewish Pentecost, the Holy Spirit turned frightened fishermen into Fishers of Men. And two thousand years later Christians still follow the carpenter.

Divide by Zero

I’m reading through the latest version of Divide by Zero, formatted for publication by Second Wind Publishing, and…

drum  roll…

coming very very soon!!!

So here, to celebrate and whet your appetite, is an excerpt from the first chapter. I hope you’ll enjoy it, and, of course, I hope you’ll buy the book too. But enjoy anyway 🙂

*****

Peter gazed down at the golden pond of his drink. I’m not my father he told himself though his reflection wasn’t sure. I’m faithful, good and true. I’m not like him. I don’t hurt people.

He glanced up at the woman dancing on the stage. She was young and beautiful, unblemished and free. He watched her swirl, swinging her red skirt high above her knees. Mary had danced this way in their youth. She’d hung on his arm, long curls of hair brushing his face, filling his nose with the perfume of roses and sun. Her eyes shone like blades of new grass in a painting. Her lips brushed his, soft as petals falling in rain. But this wasn’t Mary, and Peter wasn’t his father. He wondered if his parents had ever known any dance but hurting and tears.

“You could try your chances with her, old man,” said the friend at Peter’s elbow. “See how she’s looking at you?”

Peter shook his head.

“I mean, seriously, she’s got all the moves. And look at those…” The friend fisted hands in front of his chest, but Peter shook his head again, making his ears ring. The conversation clattered too loud and jarring. He shouldn’t have come here, shouldn’t have let them persuade him. He should have stayed working, or gone home alone.

The friend of a friend from a table close by rocked a lazy hand. “Old Pete, you know, I rather think he likes…” Long fingers dangled in the air as words trailed away.

Not that Peter minded, but why should not wearing a ring and not dating mean people assumed he dated men? Crazy world we live in. He sighed, lifting the glass back to his lips. Drink up. Get out of here. I shouldn’t have come.

Subraction

So there I was, editing, adding to, reworking, rewriting Imaginary Numbers, and a dear friend asked “Who is it about?” An innocent question; a sensible one; wasn’t Imaginary Numbers meant to be the third in series, starting with a tapestry of small-town life in Divide by Zero, followed by the canvas and paints of Infinite Sum as Sylvia tries to mend after Zero’s tragedy. So who is Imaginary Numbers about? It’s about two side characters, small threads in that tapestry, and the small dark mystery that defines their lives. But what about…?

Divide by Zero cover, by Peter Joseph Swanson
Divide by Zero

Suddenly I knew, the book I was working on simply isn’t book three; it’s book four. First I have to tell the tale of that other broken thread, or the weave might fail. And I don’t have a contract for him. What shall I do?

I emailed my publisher at Second Wind Publishing. He’s promised to send me a contract for Subtraction, and the tale will be told.

  1. Divide by Zero
  2. Infinite Sum
  3. Subtraction, and
  4. Imaginary Numbers

Thank you Second Wind Publishing!!!

And here, for your comments, suggestions or complaints, is the first short excerpt to prove I’m really writing it:

Continue reading Subraction