A Moment When the World is Silent, a novel excerpt by Kasie Whitener

General Fiction – novel excerpt
Title: A Moment When the World is Silent
Kasie Whitener, author
Twitter: @KasieWhitener
Word Count: 2,974

Wednesday

Tony is dead. He killed himself Monday night.

I took my window seat. Twelve hours and thirty-two minutes since I was told, forty-five minutes since I’d had a cigarette, and barely fifteen seconds since I’d thought about it. When they passed out drinks it would be thirteen hours and seven minutes since I was told. When I asked the guy on the aisle if I could borrow his magazine, fourteen hours and nine minutes.

We were going to Virginia, the guy on the aisle and me, and there was nothing I could do to stop that now. But we weren’t in this thing together. He couldn’t even hear the mantra.

Tony is dead. He killed himself Monday night.

Half of my life is in Virginia. Two parents. One ex-girlfriend. Four best friends who would do anything for me. Well, three now. Tony is dead.

It’s February and it’s too soon to be going back to Virginia. It’s the time of year they usually tell me they’re coming to me. If I asked they would be on a plane in minutes to be with me. At least that’s what they say. But none of them have ever been to San Francisco. We still call Virginia home. Say things like, “when will you be home again?” But the loft apartment on West Hartford is my home and I know that, even if they don’t.

Wednesday morning at 9:52 a.m. Pacific time, I asked the flight attendant for a beer. She scowled at me, made change from my ten-dollar bill and handed me a Heineken. But the beer only made me want to smoke.

Tony is dead.

I flipped through the aisle guy’s Sports Illustrated. I let my eyes blur and focus and blur again as I turned the pages. The words ran into black lines and then sharpened back into pin points. The images kaleidoscoped into globs of color and back to crisp pictures of tackles and goals and arenas and ball players. I gave up, handed the magazine back, and occupied myself thinking about my apartment. I went through the details, taking a mental inventory like I do sometimes while trying to fall asleep. Books. Boxes.

Something about Monday night.

Candles. Empty pint glasses. Ash trays. My home is a loft apartment with a large bay window through which the sun falls like a God around eleven a.m. There are boxes along one wall with picture frames and books in them. I unpacked the candles first and haven’t gotten around to all of the memorabilia.

Tony is dead.

I moved in two years ago.

Sometimes, when the moon replaces the sunlight through that window, I light a candle to chase it away. And sometimes I just watch it crawl across the floor until it finds the boxes and puts them in silver shadows. On those nights it feels like everything is blanketed in silver shadows.

Monday night. He killed himself Monday night.

But on Wednesday the sun coated the clouds outside my airtight window with such blinding gold that I had to look away. The hum of the airplane stilled the storm in my head. The Heineken was working on the hole in my heart. He killed himself.

My friends say I’m lucky and they’re right.

When I was seventeen, I was offered a world tour with a skateboard company. When I was eighteen I was offered seven swimming scholarships. I attended the University of California, San Francisco on an academic scholarship. It has all been easy for me. I set the county record for the 200 IM. I made the finals in the X Games half-pipe qualifier. I took the prettiest girl to prom, a Senator’s daughter no less. Then I went to San Francisco with the intention of forgetting it all. I graduate this year and I am not moving home. I haven’t told my parents that.

I like California. It’s 1999 and the city of San Francisco seems to be recovering from a time when it was the Mecca of social change and trying to adjust to a time when social change just isn’t as easy. I read Moliere and Marlowe, stare at abstract paintings and wall murals, drink cappuccinos and listen to acoustic guitars like they’re the heartbeat of some exclusive, complex sub culture. I chose California because it was as far as I could get from Virginia without leaving the continent.

Tony came to stay in San Fran once. He showed up in August and hung around until November. We had a blast. He could talk to anyone, drink anything and smoke every dime of weed in the place.

“Brian?”

“I’m still here, dad.”

“You okay?”

“Yeah, dad.”

He took a breath, heavy white noise in the phone, and said “I’m sorry, son.”

“I know.”

“Your flight leaves at eight thirty. Do you want me to have Joel meet you?”

“No, I’ll take a cab.”

“I’ll call Joel.”

“Don’t do that. I’ll just catch a cab.” I pressed the heel of my hand into my eye.

“I just think you should—“

“Fine, dad, fine. Call Joel.”

“Brian…”

“Just forget it. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

There was a long pause and I swore he was going to apologize again. But he didn’t. “Don’t forget your keys,” he said. Then he hung up. No goodbye. I laid the phone down and dropped my head into my hands.

Most of my friends went away to school like me. We return home for the summers and for Christmas. They’re the kind of friends you think you need to keep. The kind you blow others off for. The kind you pretend you still know even though it’s been three years and 3000 miles since high school.

When the plane finally made its approach to Dulles International Airport it would be four forty nine Eastern Standard Time. Exactly twenty hours and twenty-six minutes since my father had called me.

“I made arrangements on Northwest,” he had said.

“That’s fine.”

“Delta didn’t have a flight.”

“That’s fine.”

Silence for a minute. “Brian?”

“I’m still here, dad.”

They were passing out drinks. Thirteen hours and seven minutes. I asked the flight attendant for a beer. Then I paid her and took it. It may have been nine fifty two in the morning. I didn’t care. I wished desperately for a cigarette. I wondered if I lit one now how many drags I could get in before they told me to put it out. It may be worth it. They wouldn’t kick me off the plane. And even if they did, all the better, then I wouldn’t have to go back there.

I had last been home at New Year’s. Now it was February. I wasn’t supposed to be in Virginia. I should have been holed up in my flat in San Francisco procrastinating with cartoons and marijuana. It was snowing there, just like it had been at Christmas. But Christmas had long since come and gone and on Wednesday it felt like it had been one hundred years since Christmas. Even longer since New Year’s Day.

“So that’s it?” Tony demanded.

“That’s it,” I had replied.

“You just left her?”

“What was I supposed to do?”

“Work it out. Fix it. I don’t know. Give her a chance at least,” Tony said.

“Right,” I said.

“This isn’t like you, Brian.”

“Thank you, Tony, but I know what I’m doing.”

That wasn’t the way it was supposed to go.

I should have been stretching in the sunlight falling through the bay window across my bed, not drinking a beer on an airplane reading Sports Illustrated. I never read Sports Illustrated. Tony always e-mailed me the interesting things. A while back I started skimming his emails for content. His tangents were funny but time consuming and I had things to do.

Tony is dead.

I folded the magazine closed and stared out the window. Clouds. Clouds. More clouds. They looked so big and thick up here. I wondered about standing in them like angels do in cartoons. I thought about falling through them when the flight attendant kicked me off for lighting a cigarette.

He killed himself.

I don’t think airplanes are as great as people insist they are. There’s that constant loud noise that everyone pretends they don’t hear. The droning sound: the culmination of speed, wind and force; the result of decades of engineering developments, the airborne proof of man’s superiority to animals. It’s all rather egotistical, flying.

I wouldn’t have been at all upset if this were my last flight. I could travel from San Francisco to Virginia in a covered wagon like they did back in the day. Sure, it might take months, but what’s time, right? Besides, Tony would be cold in the grave long before I ever had to face them all again. Or better yet, I could just stay in California, and let them forget about me.

I may have gone so far as to pray for a crash rather than land in Washington in February except that I don’t believe in God. Tony used to say I refused to believe in order to rid myself of the duties of religion, confession and prayer and the like. He may have been right. He usually was.

“Brian?”

“Yeah, Tony?”

“What does your heart tell you?”

I had regarded him with a shrug and deflated the point with “I feel a strange grumbling but I think it’s my stomach telling me I’m hungry.” I couldn’t help it. If my heart had a voice I had never heard it.

“How often do you hear your heart?” I had asked him.

“Every time there is an important decision to make.”

“Is this one of those?”

“You tell me.”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Have you thought about this?” he said, frustrated by my nonchalance.

“Since she told me.”

“Is that long enough?”

“Three hours? Sure.” I tugged the zipper around the edge of the suitcase.

“Time to leave?” he had asked.

“Seems like it’s always time to leave,” I said.

It was four forty five on Wednesday and we were descending into Dulles airport. I changed my watch from Pacific Time to Eastern Standard and watched the landscape grow bigger in the window.  The plane landed safely on the runway at Dulles and came to a slow pace to approach the gate. I brushed off my disappointment. Then we docked at the gate and everyone stood up.

I had my black suit for that weekend and so I’d been forced to check my bag. I had nothing to stow and had boarded on last call. I stood there, bent under the overhead compartment, waiting for everyone else to unload their stuff.

I don’t swim anymore. I quit going to practice when I was too drunk to close my eyes under water. I hardly ever write anymore either. Most stories I get around to telling are so full of bullshit that they sicken me. Meli likes the stuff I write. She doesn’t know anything about fiction but she’s beautiful when she’s lying naked in that silver moonlight that falls over my bed. Tony used to tell me I was the best writer he knew. He didn’t know anything either.

Kacie once told me I should write our story, a love story. She said I should call it “A Moment When the World is Silent” referring to those few seconds in the morning where we were both awake with our eyes closed, the sunlight all through the room, tightly entangled limbs in limbs with the covers down around our waists, skin to skin. I don’t remember those mornings.

She was standing by a closed rental car counter when I descended into baggage claim. She had her hair pulled back into a cloth band and her skin was pale. Faint pink lipstick on and eyes greener than ever, she watched me move toward her. There was a good amount of people waiting on the arriving Californians and they moved past me as I walked slowly toward where she stood. She had gained weight. Her cheeks were still red from the chill February air outside.

I thought about the cold of Washington, D.C. and how it seeps into your lungs and takes up permanent residence. I imagined she embodied that cold although her cheeks were flaming and fighting to restore warmth to her skin. I didn’t want to think about her skin or her body or her hair but it was there in front of me. Her fingers were wrapped around the stem of a white rose.

“Did Joel send you here?” I asked her.

“He thought it would help—“

“We are beyond help, Kacie. But I’ll take a ride. Save eight bucks.”

“Glad you didn’t offer to pay me,” she said.

“No, as I recall, you’re free.” Unprovoked. Unrepentant. Mean.

She followed me to the baggage carousel and stood patiently as we waited for the buzzer and the bags and the frenzy of people staring and grabbing and inspecting and muttering. Then I followed her out to the parking lot.

“The rose was a nice touch,” I said once we’d settled into the seats in her car. I lit a cigarette and rolled down the window. She did the same.

“A man gave it to me when I walked in.” She laid in on the dashboard. “It was supposed to remind me of soldiers in POW camps.”

“Did it?” I asked.

“No,” she said, a little ashamed, “it reminded me of Tony.”

I glared at her.

“Brian, I—“

“I don’t want to hear it.” She backed down. I knew she would. I knew everything she would do. It didn’t surprise me that she had come to get me. She had been picking me up from the airport since I left in 1995.

“Been gettin’ high recently?” I asked.

“Excuse me?” Was that indignation I heard in her voice?

“Just making conversation,” I said.

She shook her head and exhaled a stream of smoke. I watched the scenery race by the window. Snow still blanketed much of the concrete landscape but a few stretches of grass extended their blades through the white. Those blades were dry and gnarly anyway. Barely worth the effort.

We were listening to some maudlin music from the alternative station. I finished my cigarette and threw the butt out the window.

“This isn’t exactly the time for a grand forgiveness,” I said, rolling the window back up.

“I think it’s the perfect time.”

“You could have called or something,” I said, “weeks ago.”

“I wanted to see you in person,” she answered.

“Then this event was pretty convenient for you, huh?”

We were silent for the length of another song. Long enough to get off the highway and on to a four lane road that led to my parents’ neighborhood.

Finally, with a deep breath I later recognized as all the courage she had left, she said: “It isn’t easy for me, Brian.”

I knew it wasn’t. It wasn’t easy for me, either, not to share the same air with her much less to think about the last time I’d been here. The air then had been charged with anger when she first told me.

“You did what?” I had yelled.

“It was a mistake,” she had said, trembling.

“A mistake?” I pushed my hand through my hair and tried not to look at her. “When?”

“Over Thanksgiving.”

“Nice.”

“You weren’t here.”

“So you found a replacement.”

“That’s not fair, Brian.” She was crying. “It isn’t just that. Look at us!”

“Look at you! Get off the coke, Kacie, that would fix us.”

She wept softly, dropping her chin to her chest. “I didn’t mean to.”

“You fucked Jason,” I said, bringing the conversation back to the central issue.

“You got me to.”

“To fuck him?” I stood over her. She was kneeling on her sister’s bed.

“No, to get high. You got me high.” She shook her head. “I can’t do this. I don’t know what’s happening.” She put her hands over her face.

I remember thinking it wasn’t my fault. That none of it was my fault. I still believed that, less than a foot from her, riding home from the airport in February. It was too soon. The wounds still too raw. We rode the rest of the way to my house in silence. As she pulled into the drive, I reached for the release to my seatbelt. She laid her hand on mine. I jerked my hand away. “Brian, please, give me a chance,” she said.

“I’m not interested in chances.” I stepped out of the car and slammed the door.

Tony is dead, I reminded myself, wanting to shout it at her through the window of the car, like a storm. I wanted rain pounding every inch of my tortured flesh. I would welcome the punishment of it.

I had reached for her. I pushed my hand into her hair at the back of her head, tilted her face up to mine. I had leaned in and crushed her lips under mine.

“No,” she’d whined, eyes rolling, unable to focus.

“C’mon,” I had said. “You’re sorry, aren’t you?” Keeping a grip on her hair, my other hand had tugged on her shirt. I kissed her neck and whispered, “give in.” Took her lips hungrily into my own mouth.

She had twisted underneath me, then sat up and jerked away. I released her.

Her lips pouted, pursed, wet and still bruised with my kisses. “Dammit, Brian,” she choked out, “why do you always have to push too far?”

I should have let go years ago. Guilt flooded me on the steps of my parents’ house. I turned the key and pushed the door open, admitting myself and my bag.

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35 thoughts on “A Moment When the World is Silent, a novel excerpt by Kasie Whitener

  1. Powerful story. Great character. I liked the mantra and the way it morphed every so often. Maybe my mind runs in cliches, but I was expecting there to be a connection between the breakup and Tony’s suicide. Probably that he had an affair with either Brian or Kacie, the eternal triangle. Instead it seems that both Tony and Joel want him to work things out with Kacie, but he has another girl. Did that only happen since the first of the year? I want more information…also about Joel and Brian. Apparently Joel is one of the “four best friends,” but surely Jason is not or the number would have dropped to three… Most excellent complexity.

  2. I love the changes you made since I last read the beginning. I think the voice has matured a lot and the tension is fabulous! I can’t decide if I should feel sorry for Brian or not. I mean, I’m sorry his friend died, but he seems to have some growing up to do!

  3. I thought it was excellent; there were confusing moments; you mention 9.52 twice; and it’s not clear about which girl is which. that said, it was tight writing, pared down, which suited this story very much; congrats big time

  4. Kasie, this is really, really good, and I don’t say that lightly. I think you handle the disorder of Brian’s mind well. It’s all vivid and the emotions come across as real. Love it. You’re on your way!

  5. I’ve had that flight… suicide of a friend, the plane ride home making things ‘real’. Interesting read that it’s a man Kasie. For me, tears fell into my lap. I bit my lip and stared out the window, trying not to engage anyone. I like the Sports Illustrated fuzzy focus, and the morning drink. I am glad you pointed out the era since they don’t take cash for drinks anymore on planes. 🙂 Impressive stuff as always, keep writing!

  6. I love the tension that you’ve created and the dialogue, both of which really propel the story forward for me. The opening was confusing for me though. The listing of all those times seemed just that: a list, and I couldn’t see why it was important.
    I love getting introduced to so many different characters though, especially Brian, his dad, and Kacie.

  7. As the other Lara stated, I had the privilege to read an earlier version. I love the changes. The whole story is tightening up nicely. Nice rhythm of pacing with the back and forths in time.

  8. I think the mantra works very well. When someone dies, your mind does go around in circles, and in this excerpt, the dialogue keeps circling back, like a hawk riding up a thermal, pulling the reader into the story.

    I wish I could get into first person though. To me, this selection of person is too much like reading a tight script, not a lush novel. But that is just me.

  9. Ooh, I can see lots of motivations and unfolding plots from these characters. This drew me in and made me want to read more for sure. Kacie blames Brian. Brian blames Kacie. Does anyone blame Jason? And why is Tony dead? What happened there? Lots of unanswered questions. I also loved the bit where Brian talks about Tony’s emails and skimming them.

    I didn’t quite buy that Brian has so many talents at such a young age: snowboarding, skateboarding (okay, those two go hand-in-hand) and swimming (less so) AND he reads literature, writes fiction and appreciates art and music, all in between getting high, taking pretty girls out with his good looks, and studying. And when he sees snow, his first thought isn’t snowboarding, which seems odd if he’s that good he reached X Games qualifiers.

    BUT, all in all, a great story introduction.

    • Great point, Wendy! Brian was “that guy” in high school, right? The one who seemed to know everything, who seemed at-ease with everything. And his parents gave him everything, so it’s pretty easy to have experiences that others think are “really?” But he’s sort of pissed it away now in his art-life, trying to be a serious writer, trying to be deep, but mostly just being high. The reality of his faking it all the time comes out a little later.

      Honestly, the skating and snowboarding are hold-overs from a younger author (me) and her idea of the coolest-guy-ever. So they might be expendable. And the X-Games thing was meant to be about skateboarding, not snowboarding. Maybe that needs some revision attention.

      Thanks for the feedback!

  10. Powerful first line that had me off-kilter from the get go. That made the rest of the story even more tense and emotional than it already was. I am definitely interested in reading more!

  11. I, too have lost a good friend to suicide. Death is never casual, but suicide seems to leave a gash in the heart like no other. After all the years since my friend’s death, I still wonder how I didn’t see her pain, and whether I could have made a difference if I did. With that said, let’s move on to the writing.

    Your prose is clean, sparse, leading to the tension I feel inside Brian. I get the impression that Brian is rather self-absorbed by how he doesn’t show any regret, grief, or even a reflection on why Tony killed himself. I think this goes beyond being simply stunned by a sudden death, especially a suicide. The only indication I saw that Brian may actually feel something is when he ruminates over skimming Tony’s emails. Which makes Brian a highly unsympathetic character at this point.

    I wonder if Brian will be revealed as having some kind of OCD about the tracking of time by the hours.

    Here is a small inconsistency with the action:

    About half-way through: I gave up, handed the magazine back, and occupied myself thinking about my apartment.

    Later, you say: I folded the magazine closed and stared out the window.

    Obviously, you’ve already given back the magazine.

    The most important concern I have about this novel beginning is, despite your tight prose, it doesn’t have enough urgency *for me* to read on. I’d like a few more hints into why Brian is so silent about why Tony killed himself. I want a hint of the bigger story that looms out there. Draw me in with a secret, a flashback, a looming conflict and I’ll be hungry to read on.

    • Thanks, Carolyn. I really appreciate the feedback. I agree with your comment on the urgency. Brian’s disconnect from Tony does make him unsympathetic; and his “perfectness” being a bit unrealistic doesn’t help.

      Since there’s some other feedback about the heavy dialogue and missing “action” I’ll revisit the magazine piece and see what it really does for the scene and what it tells us about Brian.

      Thanks again, #litchat for the opportunity to post here. I’m thrilled with the feedback!

  12. Pingback: A Moment When the World is Silent – Novel Excerpt | Kasie Whitener

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