Have you ever noticed that physical pain affects your ability to express yourself? Hit your thumb with a hammer and, at best, you'll manage a monosyllabic curse. More likely, you'll resort to a grunt or yelp to convey the agony.
One of the worst things about developing a painful illness is that it stripped writing from my life. It wasn't just the exhaustion, and it wasn't some manner of depression. The truth is that I could find nothing inside of me. No words. They were gone. Pain had dammed my creativity at its source, and with just one or two exceptions, I wrote nothing of consequence for more than a dozen years.
When the migraines lessened in 2007 I had two novels spring into my head, waiting for me to write them. I recognized a rare gift. I had tried to write a plodding and unoriginal mystery novel in 1992 — a process that was about as enjoyable as dental surgery — so to find myself touched by such unexpected grace seemed nothing short of a miracle.
Unfortunately, living through more than 5,000 migraines in 5,000 days leaves you with some powerful debts, so I must take just about every job that comes along — even when I knew I should run in the other direction.
But dedication and resourcefulness is paying off and finally in 2010, I've had the opportunity to write the first of two novels that's been bouncing around in my brain for three years. The opening lines are below.
Jacob Jollimore didn’t hesitate; his fight-or-flight instinct was missing the fight half. His feet barely touched the aisle as he dashed to the Montréal bus’s rear doors, which were seconds away from closing.
He felt every throb of his heart in his throat. But here was the exit—once through, he’d be safe. He leapt, landed well, enjoyed the brief sensation of flight.
But he couldn’t believe it, the bully—the Neanderthal—still coming for him, shoving his way through the half-closed doors.
Jacob panicked, turned and sprinted. Faces blurred as he dodged in and out. He glanced over his shoulder. Could he outrun such an athletic-looking kid? Maybe. Running was the one sport that he was good at. Some really stupid part of him was even enjoying this chase. He was a jaguar, a cheetah, so nimble and quick, his legs pumping furiously, the breeze whipping at his clothes.
He glanced back again. The small distance he’d opened between them brought another rush of adrenalin.
Something caught his shoulder—it was more a brush than a bump. Only his peripheral vision gave the impression of a couple of cans and maybe a zucchini in midair. He didn’t have time to apologize.
He didn’t hear the bones snapping or the dull thud of a fragile skull on concrete, but later his imagination filled in those horrible sounds a thousand times. Later, he was embarrassed to admit to himself that his first thought was: Good—that might slow him down. He kept running for seven more strides before he heard the shouts. Then, through the din, more of the mocking laughter he’d come to hate.
The commotion told him it was bad even before he looked back. There, in front of the deli. The Neanderthal had joined a group surrounding a figure slumped on the sidewalk. It was obvious that the chase was over, at least for today. And that this mess was far worse than the thumping he’d been trying to avoid.
As if by tractor beam, Jacob was dragged into the gathering crowd. Resistance was futile. One Francophone woman called him a jerk, throwing him a fierce glare that was like a punch to his belly.
“Puis ca c’est le petit sligaud qui a jeté a terre la fille!” she spat.
“And he was just going to keep running, did you see?” snarled the Neanderthal. He winked at Jacob and blew a kiss before melting into the foot traffic.
An old woman lay motionless on the ground. She was neatly attired in a navy blue floral dress, colorless cardigan and sensible navy slip-on shoes. Her pencil-straight salt-and-pepper hair was pinned behind her ears. Her tidiness looked wrong on the grimy, gum-splotched sidewalk.
Jacob couldn’t move as he gazed at her. He couldn’t believe that he could knock anyone down. He was a shrimp, and he knew it. But there she was, her cans of coconut milk and vegetables scattered and rolling on the ground.
Mr. Weinstein, of Weinstein’s Deli, hurried into his shop for a phone. A young man in a business suit was holding her hand, speaking gently in her ear, but she wasn’t moving. Jacob felt like he was floating, looking down at the disaster he’d caused. He grabbed at loose vegetables and made a pile of battered zucchini, ginger and lemongrass.
God, why won’t she move?
Finally, she stirred. She wasn’t crying, but her bottom lip trembled. She jerked slightly and stifled a yelp—the suited man called after Mr. Weinstein that her humerus was fractured, too. She turned her head and Jacob gasped at the ugly bruise that was blossoming across her cheekbone.
Why didn’t she say something?
She was Asian, like him, and so, so old, wizened like an apple doll. He couldn’t take his eyes off her bruise—until he noticed the blood. The back of her head was bleeding, puddling around her like a crimson halo. Jacob choked on rising bile. He shrugged off his hoodie with a vague thought of stanching the wound.
Then she was looking around, blinking rapidly. She spoke quickly, in a language no one recognized. Her good hand started twitching, brushing her head, her arm. Mr. Weinstein reappeared with a bag of ice in one hand and a cell phone pressed to his ear. The crowd grew.
“...la tete. Oui, Weinstein’s Deli sur Saint-Laurent. L’original,” said Mr. Weinstein as he knelt by the old woman. He seemed to know her. “Elle est éveille, et parle.”
He gently pressed the ice pack against the bruise on her cheek.
“Try not to move around so much, Mrs. Nguyen,” said Mr. Weinstein, switching to English. “Does it hurt anywhere else?”
Jacob closed his eyes. She was Vietnamese.
Could it be any worse?
He still held out his sweatshirt, but no one noticed. One of Mr. Weistein’s waitresses—the pretty one, Tova—hurried from the deli with clean dishcloths and more ice. She gently packed it beneath the old woman’s head and turned toward Jacob.
“Snap out of it, Jacob. I know you didn’t do it on purpose,” she said sharply. Then, softly, “Mrs. Nguyen, is there someone we should call?”
“No. No one.” The old lady’s voice was strong now, surprising Jacob.
In the distance, ambulance sirens were blaring like a banshee.
Mr. Weinstein was speaking. Jacob was so distracted that he missed the first part.
“What?” he mumbled. Not his finest hour.
“We won’t move Mrs. Nguyen in case she has a concussion, but we have to keep her warm. Your sweatshirt will help.” Jacob handed it over, and then had nothing to do. His brain processed just bits and pieces of what happened next. Tova draped his hoodie around Mrs. Nguyen, whose good hand fluttered over the fabric, compulsively rubbing it between her fingers. The paramedics arrived, a calm black man and a Quebecker with tattoos down both arms. They assessed the old lady’s injuries efficiently.
They strapped her in a neck brace to protect against any spinal injuries. “Spine seems okay… A humeral fracture... and I’d say the radial fracture is compacted,” the black one said, speaking in English, perhaps for Mrs. Nguyen’s benefit.
“We’re going to stabilize your arm, Ma’am. It might hurt.”
The tattooed one asked her several dumb questions—what is the date? which city is this? who is the prime minister?—and she answered correctly, grimacing with pain.
She cried out once when the black paramedic moved her arm, but bit it back in an instant. Loading her in the ambulance seemed to take forever, but it was probably only a few minutes.
“You coming with grandmère, kid?” asked the French guy, jerking his head towards the open ambulance doors.
The assumption was reasonable. Jacob was a thin, 13-year-old teenager who had been adopted from Vietnam. He might have been born in the same city. They might even be related! “That dog is not my grandson!” the old woman hissed in that strong voice.
The French guy looked at Mrs. Nguyen, then back at Jacob, his eyebrows raised. Mr. Weinstein smoothed things over.
“The kid isn’t her relative,” he said, lowering his voice. “He knocked her down.”
The paramedic’s face went hard. “You stay here.”
As the ambulance pulled away, Jacob turned and started running again, running through the busy streets towards the old hotel, only slowing when tears blinded him.Home || About || Blog || Writing || Writers & Friends || Links