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A partial validation, while only partial, is indeed exhilarating. The mind races with possibilities while still haunted by lingering self-doubt. Now there’s a conflict!

I have spent several years working on a novel that has undergone no less than four incarnations and rejections too numerous to mention. I have no allusions regarding the validity of the rejections, or I would not have suffered through the various incarnations of the story. I obviously believe in the story.

Yesterday, I received a request from a real agent for the first three chapters. My heart stopped. There have been so many rejections, but this query letter must have struck some note with the agent. What note, and why is a conundrum! The subjective nature of this whole process is maddening.

My preference is, obviously, for the validation of a publishing company to publish my book. It feels rather like hunting for the proverbial needle in a haystack. The self-publishing route is always available. Today I am posting the first chapter of the book for comments. Does it make you want to read more?

CHAPTER ONE

 

The door opened briefly and a burst of sound from the outside world broke the silence of the passenger car. A man with his duffle passed through the open door and moved down the aisle. He wore an Army uniform and stopped before the vacant seat facing Edward Kean.

“May I?”

Edward looked up and was struck by the soldier’s appearance. Aside from the many ribbons on his chest, the bottom of his right sleeve was pinned up several inches covering the absence of his right hand. Edward tried to drag his gaze up to the man’s waiting face. He couldn’t.

“Sure. Please.”

The soldier attempted to sling his duffle to a rack above the seats. The duffle failed to cooperate.

“Can I give you a hand-” Edward felt his face flush.

The soldier laughed and swung his duffle to the rack above the seat, successfully this time. “It’s only a problem when I pitch or play the guitar.”

“Oh, you are- were you a pitcher?”

“No. Good thing, eh?” The soldier sat down putting his hat on the seat next to him. Edward saw the name printed inside the headband, Sgt. Francis Cummings. There was something familiar about the name.

“Edward Kean.” He said, extending his right hand toward the soldier. The soldier smiled and reached across with his left hand to clasp Edward’s right. The reverse grip was firm.

“Francis Cummings.” His green eyes were penetrating and Edward was embarrassed by the squeeze of determination wrapped around his own softer hand.

“What happened?” inquired Edward with a nod to the soldier’s arm.

The soldier looked at Edward a moment before answering. The moment was more than adequate duration for Edward to feel foolish.

“War.”

Edward felt his face flush.

“What happened to you?” returned Cummings with a cock of his head and a smile.

 Touche he thought and cautioned himself to just shut up and ride. He didn’t.

“Where you going, sergeant?”

“Aberdeen.” The sergeant was trying to sleep.

“Really. Aberdeen?”

The soldier nodded. Edward thought his nod a little prickly. Edward never served despite two attempts to enlist. Did this stranger sense that?

“I’m going there, too. That is, I’m going back.”

“So am I.”

“You’re not from Aberdeen, are you? I thought I knew every-“

“I’m from Texas. I trained at Camp Mackall.”

The two men looked at each other as the train gathered speed on a downhill grade and hurtled forward.

“What brings you to North Caro-“

“Personal.” Cummings took a deep breath, perhaps attempting to minimize his discomfort. He pulled something from his pocket and squeezed it repeatedly. It was his clicker, a signaling device he used among the hedgerows of France to determine friend or foe.

The clicking quickly annoyed others in the car. Heads craned searching for the source of the annoying noise. This was soon followed by whispered protests. The sergeant appeared oblivious and Edward appeared uncomfortable.

Cummings adjusted his back in the seat and looked to Edward. “I’m sorry. I acted like some dirtball running his suck.” He closed his eyes momentarily and sighed. “Aberdeen was the last place I was whole.” Cummings flashed a sincere smile. “And you?”

Edward benignly laughed and nodded, avoiding the question.

Cummings extended his hand with the clicker. “Go on. Click it. It helps.”

Edward squeezed the clicker tentatively, not sure how hard he needed to squeeze to produce a sound. He looked around nervously.

“You can’t break it, man! Squeeze it!”

Edward’s smile was equally tentative as he forced himself to squeeze the clicker several times. The mechanical click annoyed most people, with the exception of Francis.

“I told you. Feels better doesn’t it?”

“Yeah. Thanks, Sergeant.” It didn’t.

“Francis. People call me Frank.”

“Frank.”

The door opened again. Another passenger entered the car. The newcomer scanned the car for an empty seat and seeing one just beyond Edward walked toward the opposite end. He was about to swing his bag into the overhead rack when a voice called out.

“Not here, buddy. No seating for Japs in here, move on.” A middle-aged man stood up straightening his belt and hitching his pants. “You hear me Mister Jap? Move on.”

“Please sir, I am an American-“

“Your kind ain’t welcome here.”

Edward stole a glance at Francis sitting next to him. The sergeant’s eyes appeared vacant. Edward stood up and turned toward the man.

“The war is over mister. Let it go.” He had no idea where this was going; but, he was alive and wasn’t small. Life was not slipping past him. He pointed to the man poised with his bag over his head. “Go ahead and sit down there, sir. It’s OK.” It was his most authoritative voice.

Mr. Burly Voice looked around. “Who said that?”

“Here. Right here,” answered Edward as he raised a hand.

Burly Voice turned his swollen body to face his accuser. He grinned. “Son, I don’t believe you have the spine to back that up.” Nervous whispers rippled among the riders and everyone turned toward Edward. The passenger in question did not move, his hands still on the bag pressed against the overhead rack. Beads of sweat appeared on his temple.

Nothing was heard save the clicking of the wheels on the tracks, a metronome far different from Cummings’ clicker.

“I’m gonna grab this Jap by the neck and throw him outta this car, unless you wanna stop me pip-squeak!”

Edward was afraid to look away from the man; he could feel eyes staring at him. He stepped over Cummings’ feet and into the aisle. Before Edward could take a step Cummings stood up and pulled Edward into the seat. Cummings walked down the aisle toward Mr. Burly Voice.

“I ain’t got no beef with you, Sergeant. Not with all those ribbons. You understand my-“

“No! I don’t understand. Maybe you would like to explain.”

“Look Sergeant-“

The flashing fist was nearly invisible. Cummings snapped a left hook and sent Burly Voice sprawling to the floor. Burley popped up immediately and stared at the Sergeant in disbelief.

“What hell you doin’ man, that’s the enemy? What gives you the right-“

Cummings pulled off his dress coat and pushed his abbreviated arm, the one devoid of a talented guitar-picking hand, toward the hyperventilating Burly Voice.

“This does!”

Cummings entire body quivered with rage. After a deep breath, he turned away and walked back to his seat. He put the coat back on with some difficulty and Edward started to get up and help.

“I got it!”

Edward sank into his seat.

They rode in silence for more than an hour. The sun was setting. The train was eerily quiet.

“What made you do it?” inquired Edward.

Cummings turned to Edward and looked at him. Was it sympathy or remorse in his eyes?

“He pissed me off.”

“Cummings- I mean, Frank?”

Francis looked up from his pinned sleeve.

“I was in school.”

Cummings gently nodded. There was no smile.

“You’re lucky, Edward. I can’t go home.”

“Why-“

Francis leveled his eyes on Edward with a look that was either a challenge or warning. This time Edward was silent.

Edward resisted the impulse to close his eyes to the glare of sunlight. Tuned to the vibrations of the train, he stretched his legs out as best he could and watched the rolling landscape of North Carolina recede past his window. The rolling hills were destined to flatten out into the Piedmont of Moore County and his home in Aberdeen. He had taken this ride many times in the past four years while a student at UNC-Chapel Hill. These rails and surrounding terrain were as familiar as any street in Aberdeen: Main, South, Sycamore, Poplar, Pinehurst, High, especially High street. He grew up there.

A smile spread across his face as he watched this sea of pines and grassy fields, sculpted plots of land carved out of the swells of rolling hills. These comfortable hills were like the ocean, an undulating living vastness that must surely have a soul. There was meaning here; although, he couldn’t name the meaning. He was certain some Grand Design included North Carolina.

Thoughts of any design usually produced an emptiness in his gut. It was the feeling one gets standing at the very edge of a precipice and peering over the edge. He feared looking for something he might never find in full.

North Carolina was home. If he had to belong somewhere, this would be the only choice. These past four years, however, were like a train laboring on a steep grade.

A passenger worked his way up the aisle fighting the motion of the train. It was another soldier. A corporal.

VE Day and VJ Day had occurred more than a year ago and many wounded soldiers were only now returning to civilian life, like Cummings seated beside him. Edward’s ghosts of war were very different from those of Francis Cummings but no less disturbing.

Wooded fields and farm rows continued to slip past Edward’s window even faster now, or so it seemed. His mind flirted first with his ill-fated choice to intercede moments ago, and then his recent decision to return home, a family request, rather than follow some other adventure in the outside world. He had stood once again at that precipice unsure whether he made a decision or had one thrust upon him.

Edward turned back to the windows. The tense silence within the passenger car stared back at Edward, reflected in the darkening windows. Some unknowable decision caused Edward to start talking.

“There is this legend around Chapel-Hill concerning a student named Peter Dromgoole. He was from Lawrenceville, Virginia, in the 1830s. He was said to be an aristocratic, high-strung, proud and defiant fellow who loved drinking, gambling and racing horses. He fell deeply in love with a girl from the village named Miss Julianna. Unfortunately, Miss Julianna had another suitor too. According to the legend Dromgoole and the other suitor argued during the commencement ball and agreed to resolve the situation with a duel on a hill near the Triassic basin, east of Chapel-Hill. Francis heard about the duel, which was illegal in Carolina, and rushed to the hill. She arrived just in time to see the weapons discharge. Dromgoole fell over dead, his blood staining a large rock, which can be seen even today. Terrified, the students hastily buried Dromgoole and left for the summer. Miss Julianna was deeply in love with Dromgoole and returned to the site of the duel many times during the summer until her health began to fail. She was finally bedridden. Later in the summer she was heard to whisper ‘I’m going to him- he’s sad, he’s sad- and so alone, alone.’ She died. Students often talk of seeing Miss Julianna and Dromgoole walking hand and hand in early summer.”

 The train churned on, Edward with it, following the rails toward Southern Pines. He looked away from a mystified Cummings, who seemed unsure of how to react to this story from nowhere!

“You believe in ghosts?” he finally asked.

Edward had no response.

“You like drinking, gambling, and racing horses?”

Edward laughed and nodded.

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