Selection Saturday: the (slightly tightened) opening of my Paige story

A number of people on my f-list have posted excerpts from their NaNoVels. Mine is still in that “just typing” stage, though, so I thought I’d present the opening of LOVE IS THE BRIDGE, my ghost story formerly titled SONG FROM THE HEART. Does it read like a romance? I thought it did. Does it hint at the paranormal problem and/or at the suspense plot? I thought it did. I keep expecting to see a lot of ghost stories hit the market. It’s something about the zeitgeist.


“There is a land of the living and a land of the dead,
and the bridge is love.”–Thornton Wilder

Chapter 1

Paige Campbell was closing up shop when the phone rang.

“Hans’ Music Haus. This is Paige. How may I help you?” She figured her Uncle Hans was calling to check up on her–he still didn’t trust her to close the store alone, even though her three-month probationary period had gone off without a hitch–but what she heard was a steel-cranked synthesized voice.

The metallic voice rasped, “Stop asking questions or you’re dead.”

“What?” Paige blinked. “Excuse me? You’ve got the wrong number. Hello?”

Silence echoed on the line.

Some kind of prank call. Still, it had shaken her. She tossed her head as if to tell herself she was being silly and settled the handset back in place. When the bells on the shop door jingled to signal a customer, she jumped.

“Boo!” said her best friend Anndréa, who’d apparently headed over the moment her shift ended at Joanie’s Scraps next door. “Scaredy-cat. What’s wrong with you? Customers don’t bite outside of Twilight.” Then she looked closer and cocked her head, sending her short black-cherry hair swinging. “Wait, there IS something wrong. You’re as pale as a ghost floating in skim milk.”

Paige managed a weak smile. “Crank caller. Stupid of me. I guess that’s a milestone–my first.”

“How romantic.” Andi clasped her hands. “Better make a scrapbook page. We’ve got embellishments on sale.” She checked her watch. “Ready to roll?”

“Just about.” It was three minutes past official closing time. She circled around behind Andi, threw the double front deadbolts, and flipped the sign in the front window to CLOSED. “I can’t stay long at happy hour, though. And I’m drinking strictly diet cola. I’ve got a gig. Paying.”

“All right! What kind of gig?” Andi squeaked.

“Just a jingle.” Returning behind the counter, Paige zipped the blue vinyl cash pouch closed and secured the register. “You know, like the one the Yellow Pages runs: ‘We are the pages more people are turning to.’ For a radio advertising spot.”

“Jingles are cool. That’s how little Janie Fricke got started, and right here in Dallas, too.”

“Good for her, whoever she is. But I’m not getting started on anything.” Paige checked the security system keypad and verified all sensors were green-lighted. “I’m just picking up extra money for next semester’s books and fees–you know, what my fellowship doesn’t cover. This was a random referral from the dean’s office, when this studio called the music school to ask for a mezzo-soprano.”

“But still. You should play some of your own songs. I’ll bet they’d offer you a recording contract.”

“They’re not that kind of studio.” She tied her hair back in a ponytail and checked her makeup in the magnetic locker mirror she’d stuck on the side of one of her uncle’s file cabinets. “Let’s see how this goes. They probably have a stable of regulars.”

“And you’re going to be one of them.” Andi sounded so confident. It was sweet, although Paige knew Andi was just naïve about the music business. “Your voice is so amazing, better than GaGa or Britney or any of the pop-tarts. It’s as good as Susan Boyle’s or . . . or LaStreisand.”

“Flattery will get you everywhere.” Paige doused the main lights. “But you know I don’t want to get sucked into advertising and commercials.” Keying in the code to arm the security system, she headed for the back door, clutching the cash pouch close to her chest. “Hurry, we only have ninety seconds.”

Andi rushed to catch up. “Everything that isn’t opera is not a sellout.”

“I’m not EXCLUSIVELY opera. I sing folk and jazz.”

As they scooted out the door, the phone started ringing.

Before Anndréa could say anything, Paige shook her head. “If that’s Uncle Hans, he’ll try my cell next. I’m off the clock at five.”

Although that wasn’t really the reason she didn’t want to go back.

# # #

Paige tore off her headset before the sound check ended. That throbbing hip-hop beat and the rhythmic chanting of the background singers hurt her ears. She could still hear the instrumental track through the glass walls of the recording studio booth. The sponsor’s commercial probably showed a parade of Volkswagen bugs putt-putting around a circus ring of dorky clowns. Or pink elephants, marching downhill in green running shoes.

The booth reeked of caramel popcorn. She inhaled the scented air greedily as her stomach growled, reminding her she hadn’t eaten. A full stomach took up too much of her deep-breathing room.

Plugging her ears against the run-through, she silently rephrased the lyrics two different ways, hoping the producer would give her a clue about his preferred rendition. “You’re in trim with Goldy’s Gym. Keeping slim at Goldy’s Gym.”

The second way sounded good. And she had to admit it was catchy.

Alan McConnell, the guy who’d hired her, swatched the glass door open and poked his head into the booth. “We’re ready for the take.”

Startled, she twitched. Why hadn’t he spoken through the headphones?

He gestured at the abandoned headset, then pantomimed covering his ears. “It’s a lot easier to hear me when you have those on, you know.”

She felt her cheeks coloring. “Sorry.”

His gaze roved up and down her dispassionately, as it had when she’d first walked into the studio. Paige wondered again exactly what it was that he disliked about her figure. Or her outfit. Or . . . what?

But what was important here was her voice, and he must like it, or he wouldn’t have approved her to do the spot. They’d run through a couple of “American Idol”-style snippets earlier, and then he’d handed her the sheet music that she’d been studying now for twenty minutes. He looked into her eyes intently for a moment, making her nervous; had he changed his mind about using her? “Okay, Ms. . . .” He glanced down at the paperwork he held. “Campbell. I think we’re ready.”

Another staffer came up behind him wearing a denim jacket with the studio logo. Alan leaned over, and the man murmured something into his ear. Paige couldn’t make out a word of their muted conference. To distract herself, she hummed the jingle’s melody under her breath, then started a quiet vocal warm-up as she waited to be fired.

Instead, the stranger held up her cell phone, which she’d been asked to leave in a bin at the front desk, turned off. Apparently that was the practice for everyone who entered the recording studio, ensuring that ringtones couldn’t inadvertently ruin a take.

“Um, your phone keeps ringing,” said the new guy, in a tone that bothered her because she couldn’t determine whether it was flat from irritation or from boredom. “We tried to turn it off, but there’s some problem. I thought the call might be important.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry.” She held out her hand for the phone. “It’s an older model, and it can be wonky.” Her cheeks burned as she flipped the phone open. Out of habit, she read the notification screen: 3 MISSED CALLS/3 VOICEMAIL MESSAGES.

That many? Could something be wrong? With her parents? The shop? Aunt Lil, whose illness had taken a lot out of Uncle Hans over the past three years? Her heart thudded in her chest as she quickly pressed the buttons to examine the list of incoming calls.

All three calls were listed as PRIVATE NAME. All right, then not a family emergency. At least she hoped not.

Also, a text message. But it didn’t make any sense: I HAVE CROSSED BACK OVER TO SEE YOU. And the sender’s ID was nonsense–CASPER1850.

“Could we hurry this a bit? We’re ready for the take.” Alan sounded just a tad irritable.

The phone rang.

Agents are cleaning out their query boxes (judging from the flurry of rejections I’ve seen by e-mail) in order to make room for the NaNo novels, or to clear the decks for the holidays. I don’t think this would be a great time to start submitting. But then you never know when you might catch someone on an auspicious day.

Nathan Bransford has just bailed out of the agenting biz and into a paying day job. How many more agents will we see doing this as the industry continues its downward spiral? I believe that readers are out there who want a different kind of book, but who aren’t being offered anything but the currently popular stuff. So I can’t see any end to the downward spiral. You’d think they might learn from watching the movie people and the way their big blockbusters can fail and the smaller films can catch an audience. Self-publishing is not the answer, though, unless you have a huge travel/promo budget and you’re free to zigzag the country charming audiences as a speaker.

So why are we doing this again? Oh, yeah . . . we aren’t in touch with reality. Remind me later. I’m sure to forget.


Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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