Anyway, this is the first chapter of my new novel FORGING. (It has a longer title, but my writing group hates when I use the longer titles, lol) I'm still not 100% I like the opening yet, and there are places that could be trimmed out, I'm sure. Later today, after I finish doing some weekend work for my students, I'll record an audio version of this. My voice was not meant for public use lol, but it should be fun, and maybe it'll help me make it smoother. I'm not sure how I'll upload it to the blog yet, but I'll find a way. Maybe youtube with the text flowing over the back or some pictures of Japan or my awesome cat, Goo. Maybe Goo. lol. I also have to try and revert back to a more southern accent than I've adopted recently, but that shouldn't be so hard.
Chapter 1 (Pussyfooting around)
Time was fixing to run out. The US military’s assault on the Japanese Imperial Palace had already begun, but Zack needed to see his daughters and best friend one more time. To say goodbye in case he failed today.
But no. He had couldn’t rush this part.
Across the street, his fifty-story office building loomed, just another gemstone in the Tokyo Skyline. Cars zipped back and forth. Wind whistled between the buildings, yet the repugnant smell of BO, like rotten grapefruit with a hint of tube socks, hung heavy on the passersby. And it was only the morning.
Heart pounding, Zack looked inward and inched his spirit towards his emotions. He focused and took in every detail to prevent his power from consuming him.
His spirit, the mark of the Talented, flowed throughout his body. Inside him, it moved like an extra arm, unhindered by his physical form.
Someone jostled him, drawing his attention. The yawning crowd marched down the sidewalk near Shinbashi Station, glaring at Zack as they flowed around him like a creek around a pickup tire. He stood about a head taller than the lot with shoulders wider than any two of them, yet they still looked as if they wanted to fight.
Sweating, Zack took a deep breath to stop himself from punching one of the skinny fools. He would ignore the Untalented. They couldn’t see or feel what he was doing anyways.
In his mind, unlike Chefs and Handlers, there were eight glowing wells of power his spirit could touch. Refillable paint buckets divided into two types. The black energy sat in the four wells on the left half of his mind. Each represented a negative emotion—rage, disgust, terror and grief.
Focus, Zack told himself. He couldn’t afford to lose himself to his power. Not today. Not this close to his daughters. Not this close to his best friend who had gotten hurt the last time trying to bring him back. He wouldn’t let that happen again.
On the right half of his mind, the positive emotion wells of joy, acceptance, anticipation and surprise overflowed with radiant white energy. With his spirit this close, the energy practically burned him, sending unfiltered ripples of pleasure down to his toes.
To taste his emotions without pause and draw on his power within the blink of an eye would be glorious. Spirit preserve him, but he longed to do it. If he only did it once—
No. One step at a time.
Unfortunately, Zack didn’t have the luxury of painting with only his positive or negative emotions. Of the three types of Artists, Zack was an Abomination, forced to pay the price for mixing black and white.
His spirit jerked towards the energy wells.
Yes, yes, yes. Quickly. Unhindered. Time to stop pussyfooting around.
No! a voice screamed inside his head. Focus!
It was all Zack could do to pinpoint his spirit into his joy and disgust.
Magnificent. The building crafted by the women he had loved—still loved despite failing to save them—glowed with the sun. Disease-covered birds perched over yonder, cawing and cooking like plague rats or spiders with wings. The unfiltered summer heat had begun to bake his skin, despite his recent tan. Wonderful warmth. Icky humidity.
White and black energy circulated along his spirit like two different types of coke being sucked through a twisted wishbone straw. The two sources of power touched. A crimson flash.
Why was he just standing there? What did he have to fear from today?
The mongrels who had invaded the Imperial Palace should be the ones shaking in their boots.
No more holding back.
Time to bathe in their blood. He needed to rip their heads off. Those sons of bitches dare to cross him over some bullshit secret conditions written into the post-war treaty? They would see! Mailing their body parts back to their families was the least they deserved. Their blood. Their blood would cascade from every orifice. And the ecstasy that would bring.
Clenching his jaw, Zack turned away from his office building and shoved through the crowd towards the station. Gray paint coursed down his spirit, from his mind to his hands.
A quick train ride to get there.
Zack could practically taste those bastards’ filthy blood, and a smile of delight contorted his lips. The gray paint poured from his fingertips, into the air around him.
And while he was there, the Emperor would get his—
Zack froze in place and shook the raw emotions that drawing on his power had induced. Safe. Slow, but safe from the urgings. Free from the grasp of his power. For now.
As it always did, the gray paint gathered into a ball, basketball-sized, and hung in the air in front of Zack like a balloon.
Someone bumped into him, but the crowd soon parted around Zack, congested flow somehow increasing their pace.
Zack reached out and touched the hovering blob of paint, giving it the command, armor.
With the command, the paint slapped at his body like wild brush strokes, encasing every inch of his body in seamless armor. The minor amount of paint used made it near-invisible, spread thin as it was, but the itch of an Artist’s power shouldn’t be felt unless he was close enough to spit on them.
Though, that only applied to the Talented. The fools colliding into his back as they stared at their phones could see or feel shit.
The glare from all the windows coerced Zack into wishing the armor would impair his sight.
But even if he used a truckload of paint and made the armor solid, it still wouldn’t. The sun would still make him squint.
Zack reached through the armor and into his suit jacket, pulling out a bar of Meiji Dark Chocolate. After peeling the wrapper back, he bit off half. Bitter slime allowed him to indulge in disgust while the ecstasy of chocolate on his tongue topped off his well of joy. All eight energy wells full, he returned the melting chocolate to his pocket then jaywalked across the street and entered his office building.
The guard at the door arched an eyebrow and said, “Boss?” with a hint of surprise in his voice. The automatic doors closed behind Zack, but the morning sun still found a way to roast the back of his neck through the thick glass.
Even with the AC blasting the lobby, empty save for Zack and the guard, the summer humidity didn’t want to go away.
The guard reached into his jacket and pulled out a smartphone. “I’ll let Miyuki—”
Zack closed the distance. “Sorry.” He threw a right cross, nailing the guard’s chin. Zack caught the guard before he could hit the tiled floor then dragged his body to the receptionist’s desk between the stairwell and the four elevators.
Zack couldn’t risk his second in command, Miyuki, discovering he had come back. His armor would stop her from trying to cage him in fire, but he couldn’t afford to fight her.
Not with his daughters and best friend here in the building.
While he stuffed the guard’s unconscious body under the desk, Zack wondered where everyone was. Despite being Sunday, there should be someone else here. Shaking his head, he hurried to the elevator and headed up.
Stupid Jpop music blared through the elevator speakers.
What ever happened to relaxing music?
The elevator dinged on the fiftieth floor, and Zack stepped out, tiptoeing into his office. He crossed the carpeted room to the door behind his desk.
So far, so good. No Miyuki. But no one else either.
Zack opened the door to the playroom he’d had installed for his daughters. The floor undulated beneath his feet and sent his heart into his throat. He stumbled onto the foam baby mats that acted as carpet for the playroom.
Had Miyuki already found the guard?
Zack searched the spacious playroom for his daughters as the walls shook. If his best friend, Luna, were here, too …
His Alabama football memorabilia fell from their shelves and crashed to the floor between the two pink cribs on the other side of the room. Moments later, a buzzing tablet and a smartphone joined his trophy replicas on the childproof flooring.
How much time did he have?
The door behind him swung shut while the door on the right wall creaked. Through the window on his left, other buildings across the Tokyo Skyline wobbled with the morning sun hanging just above them.
This … wasn’t Miyuki using her power. Just a standard quake.
As the quake stilled, two giggling voices and someone gasping came from behind.
His Gucci dress shoes made a peeling sound like duct tape as Zack lifted his foot off the foam flooring to turn.
Under a small table between the creaking door and the cribs, Luna sat beside his daughters. While Luna gaped, Zack’s daughters crawled towards him.
“Hey,” Zack said, drawling the Japanese word more than usual. Safe. Zack was safe. Miyuki didn’t know he was here yet, and she couldn’t force him to stick around. After taking a deep breath, he shed his armor, storing it like a paper-thin backpack. “Long time no see.”
Luna moved out from under the table then stood. As she shook her head, her magnolia-leaf-colored braid, a spring green, swung around her body. She took a deep breath. Her tight brown t-shirt looked as if it would rip free any moment. She raced past his daughters and grabbed Zack by his tailored suit jacket, shaking him. “Stupid,” she said, her honeyed voice cracking. After releasing his jacket, she pounded her fists against his chest. “Stupid, stupid, stupid.”
Zack pulled her into a hug, his shoulders dwarfing hers. “Good to see you, too.”
She returned the embrace, her warm breath pushing through his summer button-up. Her taut back and slender body felt good in his hands. Pressed up against him.
She had always been there for him, yet he left her with his kids, afraid of his own power. His lack of control.
When Luna pulled away, her brown eyes were moist and reddened around the lids. Tears glistened atop her sharp nose, which unlike his giant version, was dainty, cute and had never been broken. “Where have you been?”
“Trying to find balance.” Zack dropped to all fours as his daughters drew near, Sarah the faster of the two.
Sarah tilted her head, tufts of golden hair—inherited from Zack along with her rectangular jawline—looking like a tangle of yarn. Not so unlike his own hairstyle, but without the gel.
Using him like a bench, Luna sat on his back. “Still searching? All this time?”
Zack tugged on Sarah’s Anpanman t-shirt as she tried to crawl away, the cartoon character’s form stretching. After tickling her and letting her go, he bucked and caught Luna before she crashed onto the ground. In the mounted position, he gave her the tickle treatment, too.
Luna was as close as his daughters would have to a mother because of his mistake.
Stupid. If only he had fought harder. No. This wasn’t the time.
Puffing out her cheeks in over exaggerated indignation for a long moment, Luna looked like she was about to complain.
Zack traced his fingers along the starburst-shaped scar that ran down her neck. “I’m sorry about this.”
Luna sniffed before glancing at Sarah, who was making her escape. “If you really want to—” Luna forestalled Isabelle’s attempt to climb between them with an outstretched hand and leaned in close. “—apologize, take a shower first.”
Zack’s mouth watered. It had been a while, and Luna was always fun to be with despite not wanting a relationship. She could take his mind off the task at hand. “Unfortunately, no time for that.”
“Make time.” She sniffed again, and her full lips curved into a frown. “AXE isn’t a substitute for washing yourself, and covering yourself with it as you did, you smell like a repressed teenage boy.”
“I like the way—” Zack snapped his mouth shut. He would not argue with her. As fun as it was and as good as the apology felt afterwards, he couldn’t afford to waste the time. Honestly, he should leave now, but … “Look, it has been a long morning.” He took Luna by the hand, freeing Isabelle to crawl between them.
Isabelle grabbed onto Zack’s pink tie and pulled him off Luna, leading Zack like a dog towards Sarah and their cribs. Isabelle had taken his big butt, which stretched out Doraemon, the robot cat thing on her pants. She released his tie and peered back at him with the hazel eyes she had gotten from him.
He stood to face Luna, who had gotten up. “I have to go soon.” I just needed to say goodbye.
Luna crossed her arms under her breasts, clearly teasing him. “Where?”
“Well.” Zack picked up Isabelle and booed on her belly before placing her in the right crib. “You see.” He did the same to Sarah but in the left crib then wrung his hands. “Over yonder. You know. Places.”
“Spit it out.” Luna turned Zack around and poked him in the chest.
“I’m going to the Imperial Palace.”
Luna sputtered something resembling curses.
“I have to save the Emperor.” Zack shrugged. “From the US military.”
Reaching up to grab onto Zack’s ear, Luna dragged him to the center of the room. “I’m sorry.” She narrowed her eyes. “Did you say something stupid? I tune out stupid.”
“Look, I know the Emperor and I had a misunderstanding last time.”
“Misunderstanding?” Luna squeezed the bridge of her nose then glared at Zack. “Misunderstanding! You call that bastard, sitting in the Imperial Palace like a fool, hospitalizing you for a month a misunderstanding?”
Zack flinched. She was right, but all of his other leads had been knocked out. This was the only option left to him if he wanted to be free from his power’s control. If he wanted to protect his daughters and ensure they didn’t fall to their powers in the futures. “Sorry. No other choice. I have to save the Emperor.” As much as I want to let him burn.
“We don’t need him to fight against the US military.” Luna tucked her thumbs into her leather belt and widened her stance, hips thrusting forward. “Besides, if they take that bastard, they might just leave. Blame him for turning the US embassy into a crater.”
A grimace crossed Zack’s face.
“Like you, he’s an Abomination Artist.” Luna held out her hands to Zack as if begging him to agree with her. “How would they find out you were the one who broke the treaty by mixing Light and Shadow paint outside the Imperial Grounds?”
“The secret to finding balance. To insulating my thoughts with love and stopping my power from turning me into a monster.” Zack glanced at Luna’s starburst scar, the one he had given her, then looked away. “Again.”
Luna tapped the center of the scar, just below the collar of her t-shirt. “This was not your fault.”
“It was.” Zack couldn’t think about the Incident right now. He needed to focus. “I should have never let my power consume me.”
“But you regained control.”
And now I can’t remember what Natsumi or Keiko looked like. And the memory of their deaths is fuzzy. A pit grew in his stomach, and it felt like the 7-Eleven rice ball he had for breakfast would find its way back into his mouth. He could imagine the texture of grits with the taste of natto touching his tongue. It was all he could do not to throw-up right then and there.
Still facing him, Luna massaged Zack’s shoulders. Her soothing touch and strong fingers were wonderful. Relaxing. “Do you really have to do this?”
“Yeah,” Zack said.
“But if the US brought enough Talented soldiers to assault the Imperial Palace—”
“Most of their forces are Untalented.”
Luna guffawed, releasing Zack’s shoulders and placing her hands across her middle. “What do those,” her words came out breathy, “worthless fools expect to do without a spirit? Wouldn’t last five seconds against Imperial Guards.”
“You underestimate them.”
“You give them too much credit.” Luna moved back to the cribs and knelt down, gathering Zack’s replica trophies from each of Alabama’s fifteen national championships and placing them back onto their shelves. Once she picked up the smartphone, she swiped her finger across it. “When do we leave?”
Zack’s throat constricted. He couldn’t put his friends in danger. Couldn’t put Luna in danger. It would be like losing the women he loved all over again. Natsumi … Keiko … will y’all forgive me if I break my word and kill again? If it means success? “We?”
“Miyuki has everyone on alert after your last message. Though, she’s been fuming more than usual since you haven’t been answering your phone.”
“Yeah.” Rubbing the back of his head, Zack rocked back on his heels, and heat flushed his cheeks. “About that.”
“I was trying to send an email when a Chef came out of nowhere and threw a fireball at me.”
Luna slapped herself in the forehead. “Why do you keep forgetting to expand your armor around your phones? This is what? Your fifteenth phone?”
Zack shrugged. “Seventeenth. Once I’ve painted the armor, I kind of put it out of my mind. I mean … it opens on its own when I stick my hand through it, so I don’t think about it.”
Zack rolled his eyes “Anyways, I’m going alone.”
“No, you’re not.”
“I might lose control while using my power.”
“We’ll check you.” Luna punched her palm. “I’ll make sure you stay focused on the enemy.” She tapped Zack on the nose as if he were a bad dog. Or at least, a stupid one.
Unless I can’t bring myself back when they’re all gone. A shiver raced across Zack’s skin. “No, it has to be a one-man operation.”
“Because you want to kill yourself?”
Zack shook his head. But if I fail, dying would be better than harming you. Or any of the other Artists who follow me.
His daughters, with their rounded almond eyes, stared at him between the bars of their cribs.
Or worse. Finding my way back here to hurt my daughters. “This mission,” Zack’s voice croaked, “requires me to get to the Emperor quietly and rescue him at the last possible moment.”
Luna’s face scrunched up like a buggy under a pickup. “So he’ll be grateful enough to teach you … some trick?” Her tone was dry and mocking. “Padding your thoughts and what not.”
“Pretty much. And if we go in there Godzilla style, either he won’t be in enough trouble or he’ll get killed.”
“So, wouldn’t it be better to stake out the Imperial Throne Room?”
“Had to see my daughters.” Had to see you.
“You’ve seen them.”
Zack tapped his foot and said, “The earthquake—”
Luna straightened Zack’s tie, tinkering with the Eldredge knot. “Stop being a penis.”
“Being of the stronger sex myself,” Luna winked, “I can see that you’re penisfooting around.”
“Fine, fine. But, you do know that expression is about cats, right?”
“Catfooting doesn’t work. Just sounds weird. Penis. That’s a good word.” Luna’s leer made his heart skip a beat. “Anyway, you fit to drive?”
“If I can get a car without alerting Miyuki.” Icy spider legs crawled down Zack’s back, hairy limbs tickling his spine. It felt like that, at least. Spirit as his witness, spiders sucked. “Miyuki would kill me if she knew I’d returned and didn’t stay to resume command of our Talented forces.”
“She would. But I understand the need.” Luna held out the smartphone. “Take my spare phone, and I’ll distract Miyuki.”
“You’d do that? Despite how pissed she’ll be at you?” Zack accepted the smartphone and stuck it into his jacket pocket, next to the half-eaten bar of chocolate.
“Just promise to return this time. No matter the outcome of your mission.”
As long as I’m not a threat to you or my daughters. “I promise.”
“Then stop penisfooting around and go save that bastard.” Luna urged him towards his office, forcing him to backpedal. She reached around him and opened the door.
With the doorframe between them, Zack in his office and Luna in the playroom, he leaned over the threshold to hug her goodbye. “I could fall in love with you.”
“You always say that when I win the argument.” Luna pulled away from the hug and kissed him on the cheek. “Good luck.”
“Thanks.” Zack turned away from her and took a few steps. He glanced back at the playroom, admiring his daughters. Their grins. Bouncing enthusiasm. They were perfect. He met Luna’s gaze. “If anything happens, take care of them.” When she nodded, he walked out of his office, one less weight on his chest.
From the hallway, he heard Luna screaming for someone to hurry to the playroom. Probably Miyuki. Which meant Zack didn’t have much time to make it to the parking garage, and he couldn’t use the elevators.
Zack sprinted into the stairwell, taking the steps three at a time. He was thankful his workout regimen had been so intense to keep his mind off losing Natsumi and Keiko, but damn. Stairs blew chunks.
At the bottom of the stairwell, the scent of burned oil greased the air of the parking garage full of black and white cars.
Zack hurried over to the only gray car in the parking garage, a Lexus parked between the stairwell and elevators.
As usual for the front-company-owned cars, the keys hung in the ignition.
Zack waved at the security camera Miyuki always kept tabs on then climbed into the Lexus and cranked it up. I really could fall in love with you, Luna. He put the Lexus into drive and scraped past a pair of cars on his way out.
Loud Japanese metal made the trip short and smooth, other than the time or six he ran up onto the sidewalk when he had gotten into a song. Past Tokyo Station, the looming Tokyo Imperial Palace came into view. Ten-foot sections of stone wall framed the Shikashita Gate, which had several wood carvings of demons and ogres. A work of art, save for the gaping hole in the center.
How long had the US military been there?
Palms sweating, Zack stopped the car a few feet from the gate and clambered out the passenger’s door. He didn’t trust the driver’s door not to scream after visiting the sidewalk so many times. He didn’t want to go back in there. Stop penisfooting around, he told himself, adopting Luna’s expression. Thinking about the armor, he encased his body in the near-invisible protection then crept up to the Shikashita gate and stuck his head through the hole.
The air inside the gate tasted like soot and burning hair. With the sun halfway to noon, the humidity used his sweat to glue his suit to his skin. Pigeons cooed from the bonsai pines and sakura trees that lined the wall. Nothing moved.
Zack scurried through the hole and towards the Imperial Palace.
Jade roof tiles. As expansive as a football field and well over fourteen stories tall. Though, from what he remembered, there were only seven floors, including the top two floors that were split into three tower-like sections, which only his spirit allowed him to see. If Zack squinted, the Imperial Palace looked like the giant monster, King Ghidorah, from the Godzilla movie with the same name.
Zack cracked open the servants’ door and peeked inside.
Cool AC licked his face. Much stronger than his office building’s. Unfair. Silence pecked at his ears. Still, nothing moved.
This quiet couldn’t be good. He eased the door shut behind him and rushed down the carpeted hallway, avoiding patches of hardwood or tiles anytime he crossed them. He didn’t want the sound of his footfalls taking off ahead of him.
Scrollwork blended with paintings. Thuds and explosions rattled the walls from somewhere above. The smell of gunpowder. Voices came from around the corner, along the first hallway to intersect this one.
Zack skidded to a halt. He inched up to the corner and peered around the edge.
With green and blue camo uniforms, two bulky Americans—Hook Nose and Blue Eyes—held a set of double doors open. Both men held their guns at attention as they glanced back into the hallway every so often.
The US military. Stilling his breath, Zack crouched and prepared to dart across the intersection as soon as the two soldiers scanned the hallway again.
Behind the first two soldiers were two more. Both women. Both with bigger guns. Past the women, a bald soldier leaned over, speaking to someone.
It wasn’t important to know who he was speaking to or about what, but Zack edged farther around the corner to check. Just in case. Could be vital later.
Restrained by a hulking soldier with a massive forehead, a junior high school boy jerked left and right. The tears in his black button up school uniform expanded with each motion. Beside him stood a little girl, maybe ten years old, held by a twig of a soldier. Though, unlike the boy, she didn’t fight back.
Why would the US military capture kids?
Gut clenching, Zack glanced between the stairs ahead of him and the room of soldiers. Even if they’re pissed about the treaty I broke, they shouldn’t hurt the kids.
The bald soldier slapped the boy. And again. Standing up straight, the bald soldier cocked his fist back, golden knots of rank catching the light.
But, Zack swallowed, if I start a fight here, I may not be able to make it to the Emperor in time. No, if I catch them by surprise, I can keep it quiet. He crept around the corner and towards the soldiers.
Some pop song murmured from Zack’s pocket, growing in volume.
Luna’s phone? He froze in place, scrambling to pull it out before it got too loud.
The four soldiers closest to the door spun to face Zack, guns pointed in his direction. The bald soldier lowered his fist and glanced at Zack, his face looking as if he had bitten into a lemon.
Shit. Zack groaned as the first gunshot rang out and took him right in the smartphone. Sparks sprayed into the air along with yet another phone’s guts. Luna is going to kill me.
Comments and suggestions are welcome.