Here is the excerpt that I selected to read from my first novel at the recent Open Mic at The Writer’s Center. (Actually I only read about the first two-thirds of it, as the time limit was 5 minutes, but this was what I had in mind.)
The context, approximately as I explained it for the group over there: my characters are the descendants of a few of the survivors of a catastrophe which resulted in a massive, global depopulation, and my protagonist has decided to go and investigate to find out what made the catastrophe happen. Therefore, he gets up one morning and tells his uncle that he’s going to take a trip.
On the fifth day after he told Roy about his plan, the children were especially difficult at school. The younger ones wouldn’t calm down, while the older ones simply wouldn’t do anything. He was accustomed to dealing with each of these syndromes, but not exactly this combination to this degree. Around the time to start the writing lessons, he got to thinking about what a relief it would be to let some other poor sucker deal with the little brats while he answered to nothing more arbitrary than the elements and time.
“Guess what, everyone?” he announced at the end of the day, when they were all clearly itching to leave. “Teacher Char has something to tell you!”
A few children responded with, “What?” while the rest clearly weren’t listening.
“You’re going to have a new teacher soon, because I won’t be with you much longer!” Suddenly all eyes were trained on Charlinder, while little mouths fell slack.
“Why not?” Elizabeth asked.
“I’m going on a trip to Italy to find out about the Plague, and I don’t know how long it’ll take, so you’ll need to have a new teacher in the meantime!” he explained happily.
“Why do you want to go away?” asked a round-eyed little girl named Brisinda.
“I’m not abandoning you,” he said. “I’m not going to leave here forever. But you know a lot of people around here have questions about where the Plague came from, so I want to go to where it started, and find out what happened. Then I’ll come back and tell you all what I found.”
“How are you going to get there?” asked a 12-year-old boy named Dorius.
“By going west. Come here, let me show you.” He led the students to the world map etched in clay on the wall. “Here’s where we are.” He pointed to their spot on the American east coast, clear of the Appalachian Mountains but too far inland to be a maritime climate. “If you go east, Europe is closer, but there’s an ocean, and I don’t think there’s anyone around who can make it that far by water. If you go west, though,” he demonstrated, showing them the route he’d been tracing for weeks, “it’s much farther to travel, but you can get there by land.”
“What about that water up there?” asked Dorius, pointing to the Bering Strait.
“Are you going to swim?” asked Brisinda.
“Oh no,” Charlinder laughed. “It’s much too cold for that. There is water up there, but it’s not very far, so I can get across it by canoe.”
“Where will you get a canoe?” Elizabeth inquired.
“I’m sure there are people out there who have their own canoes, so I’ll just get a ride with them. Then it’s all land the rest of the way.”
“How far is it?” asked a small boy.
“Thousands, thousands of miles.”
“How long will you be gone?” asked an older girl.
“A long time.”
The real change came at dinnertime. Charlinder was just sitting down to the usual bowl of stew and cornmeal with his uncle when he saw Miriam storming up to them, looking too unhinged to be described as angry or worried.
“You’re not kidding, are you!” she shouted, standing over Charlinder and Roy with their dinner bowls in hand.
“If you want to talk to Char, maybe you could take it somewhere less busy?” Roy suggested.
“When he told me about your half-brained idea to walk all the way to Italy, I thought you were joking!” she railed at Charlinder, squatting down to his eye-level and ignoring Roy. “But you really mean it, don’t you!”
“I guess your grandson told you what I said in school today?”
“Yes, he told me!” she outright screamed. All their neighbors eating nearby were staring, while Roy gently inched into a position to hold Miriam back in case she pounced. “And you’re totally nuts! You’ll never get there, so stop telling these kids that you’re leaving them and bringing back answers to the Plague, because it won’t work!”
“Hey, that’s not fair,” objected Charlinder. “It may be hard to get into Asia, but once I get over the Bering Strait–”
“You’re not gonna make it to the Bering Strait!” she interrupted. “You won’t even make it to the Mississippi River! You’ll freeze if you don’t starve, and even if you stay safe, you’ll still get tired and turn back! So stop trying to talk yourself into this fantasy!”
While his gambit of telling his students had clearly worked well enough to convince an adult such as Miriam that he was sincere in his plans, he couldn’t believe she was saying this to him. Maybe she was worried, and maybe she would miss him, but did she really have to cut him down?
“What, you don’t think I’m good enough to do this?”
“No one is ‘good enough’ for what you’re talking about! You’re a man, not a machine! And you’ve hardly ever been more than ten miles out of your village in all your life! You have no idea what you’re talking about!”
“You don’t know what I’m talking about, either.”
“I know well enough not to commit suicide over something that only Jesus-freaks and other fanatics care about!”
“What in the fop is her problem?” Charlinder growled to Roy in their cabin later that night. “Does she have to put me down in front of everyone like that? Can she at least hear me out before she blows her top?” He was pacing the cabin while his uncle reclined on his bed, waiting for Charlinder to settle down.
“You, of all people, know Miriam better than that,” said Roy.
“Yeah, so why does she have to be like that?”
“I’m sure she could have acted differently, but did you try listening to anything she said tonight?”
“What, so you’re siding with her?”
“I refuse to talk to you while you’re in this kind of mood,” said Roy flatly.
Charlinder sat down on his bed and looked at the floor between his knees.
“Has it occurred to you that Miriam got so upset because she cares about you and doesn’t want to see anything happen to you?”
“Yeah, I know she cares, but why does she have to be so negative about it?”
“Because I’m sure you’ve put plenty of thought into what you hope to accomplish, but have you stopped to consider what you’re getting yourself into?”
“Of course I have. I know it’s a long way, so I’ve spent the last five days thinking of all the things I’ll need to take with me.”
“It’s not only a long way you’re traveling. We’re talking about mountains, rivers, city ruins, wild animals you’ve never seen before. Much of the land you’ll need to pass through is very, very cold, though while we’re on the subject, there could also be a desert somewhere along your route. You don’t know how many people are out there, either, once you get off the Paleola. You could find two or three villages in a day, or you might not see another human being for weeks at a time, which could be dangerous if you run out of food. Even more so if you break your leg, or get sick.”
“Well, then I won’t break my leg, or get sick.”
“You don’t know that accidents won’t happen, especially when you don’t know the terrain and aren’t used to the climate.”
“So what are you telling me to do, just forget about the whole thing because of a million and one things that might happen?”
“I know this is important to you. And you don’t need me to tell you about everything that might happen. You have Miriam to do that. I’m telling you to stop acting like getting into a canoe to cross the Bering Strait is the only thing you have to worry about.”
Charlinder said nothing. By “stop acting” like that, what exactly, he wondered, was he supposed to
“It won’t be the beginning of your troubles, it’ll be far from the end, and I doubt it’ll be the worst,” Roy went on.
“So what should I do about that?”
“You can’t teach yourself all the remaining languages of the world,” his uncle began. “But you can make a list of all the things you’ll need to take with you to help you live through your journey.” That much, Charlinder had already been doing, though he hadn’t yet progressed to writing it down. “And then figure out how to convince the village to let you have all that for yourself.”
Charlinder’s stomach suddenly felt slightly sour. “Oh, shit. Miriam is on the council.”
“I didn’t say you’d have to convince the village council,” Roy corrected him. “If you can get them on your side, even better, but I said you’ll have to convince the village.”