It’s still Monday somewhere. I promise.
A grueling gauntlet of cross-country travel delayed this post a bit. Four flights in barely 48 hours takes a lot out of someone.
Last week was full of grit and darkness, and this week’s first chapter isn’t much brighter. But where last week was grimdark fantasy, this week is a contemporary love story. A PETAL OF CHRYSANTHEMUM (are you seeing a pattern with flowers?) is a novel I wrote quite a few years ago, when I first started kicking the dust off of the keyboard and diving back into this writing thing that I’d pursued with such reckless abandon while in college. It takes place amidst the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. With a wife hailing from Japan, I’ve got quite a few emotional connections to that country, and the tsunami really hit me hard. I clearly remember not being able to work for several days as I stared in awe at photograph after photograph of a land that nature had all but erased. A land that on multiple levels I’ve fallen in love with over the years.
I put this book aside for a while to pursue writing middle grade fantasy for kids (and there’s some of that coming in future weeks!) but recently I’ve returned to it and started making edits. As with the other entries in this series, this is not a fully polished novel yet. It’s just a snapshot of a book that’s been through several revision passes and is currently undergoing some subtle (and even not-so-subtle) edits to see if I can really make it sing.
I originally drafted this novel in 2011-2012, shortly after relocating to Seattle, when my family was temporarily living overseas. I think that feeling of isolation bled into this one somewhat subconsciously. It’s fun going back and reading all these things I wrote, and thinking through what I was feeling and doing at the time. Each novel I write is a mirror into the state of my soul at the time. I only hope the subsequent edits don’t tarnish the reflection.
Without further ado, the opening chapter of A PETAL OF CHRYSANTHEMUM.
Chapter 1 – March 11th, 2011
Chris knew he was going to die as the water engulfed his legs and the little girl on his back screamed. They’d tried to outrun the tsunami but they hadn’t been fast enough. The first grade class up ahead succumbed to the surging water. Children and teachers, all gone. Their yellow parkas and backpacks bobbed as they cried and clawed for anything solid to hold on to. One by one they all disappeared beneath the surface. Silent.
Freezing water snagged at his legs. The girl with the broken leg in the ladybug dress weighed on his shoulders. Behind him the tugboat groaned as it rode the waves inland from the harbor. There was no time to look back, to see how close it had come. He knew how close it was. Too close. He couldn’t swim but knew that didn’t matter—nobody could swim out of this once it pulled them under.
The girl’s mother sloshed alongside them, tears or seawater streaming down her face, her screams lost beneath the roar of the tsunami and the crash of the buildings shattering under the weight of the water on every side. She reached out to Chris but he couldn’t grab hold. He needed both hands to keep the little girl from falling into the cold, black water that continued to rise, continued to push. Splintered timbers and ground up pieces of civilization flooded in with the tsunami. Abandoned cars along the street clanked into each other as they began to float away. He couldn’t run. His legs refused to cooperate, stuck in the swirling overflow of ocean, unseen currents tugging at his knees and draining his energy.
“Go!” he shouted in Japanese. The woman shook her head. She didn’t want to leave her daughter but the water had nearly come up to her chest. If she didn’t go, if she didn’t find something to hold on to, she’d meet the same fate as the children with the yellow parkas.
A house dislodged in the rising water tumbled past, crashing into the Lucky Lady Pachinko sign. The impact ripped it in half, the furniture and clothes and mementos of life spilling out into the chaos like the entrails of a gutted fish. Mist and grit splashed on his face. Some of it got into his mouth and he spat but couldn’t get rid of it all. It tasted like wet cardboard and sand. He hated the beach. The beach meant water, and water meant death.
Sirens rang out from the hills, urging everyone to flee to higher ground. Chris cursed. He was trying his best, but it wouldn’t be enough.
Something clipped his legs beneath the surface. The diary fell out of his pocket as he stumbled. He reached for it before the murky water pulled it away forever. The girl slipped off his back. Chris shoved the thin book into the waistband of his pants and grabbed at the girl’s arms but they were gone, lost beneath the surface. Her scream choked off into a gargle and then into silence.
“Kaya!” Her mother dove into the water. A pale arm thrust up, covered in filth and splintered wood. Chris tried to catch it but the tsunami pushed him away and sucked her back under. And there, right in front of him, was the tugboat. The water forced him back against the fence that encircled the pachinko parlor. He clenched the iron bars and squeezed until the muscles in his arms began to cramp.
The boat screeched past, metal grinding on concrete as the tsunami pushed it farther inland. Painted onto its white hull in bright red characters: Kiku. Chrysanthemum. Chris had no time to appreciate the irony as the boat lurched and threatened to force him through the bars of the iron fence into the pachinko parlor’s parking lot. A grated bag of flesh.
So this was it. This was where he was going to die. Hundreds of miles from the place he called home, thousands of miles from his homeland. Knocked into the void by a tugboat riding the ocean on the day the ocean swallowed the world.
The water reached his neck, tightening around his chest. His heart beat against the pressure, and all he wanted was for the madness to stop. Water pushed at his chin, currents pulled at his legs, and his shoulders stretched and twisted. He screamed because the scream gave him strength to hold on as the world fell apart. He choked and spit as a smell like musty basements filled his nose.
Just as one hand started to slip away from the fence the currents shifted and he felt the water around him loosening its grasp. The tugboat grunted and stopped. Water sloshed against its faded paint. Behind it, in the tangled mass of power lines and concrete poles it had collected on its way inland, lay two unmoving bodies. Facedown. One large, one small. Hair fanned out, dancing across the surface of the water. The girl in the ladybug dress. Kaya. The mother whose name he’d never learned, who he met on the train somewhere outside Tokyo this morning, reading her trashy novel while Chris played rock-paper-scissors with her daughter to pass the time.
When the water stopped moving he let go of the fence with one hand and pulled out the diary. Blood ran down his arm from a gash in his palm where the iron bar had dug into it as he fought the tsunami’s grasp. He felt nothing but the wetness of it now but knew as the numbness from the cold water wore off the pain would come. The pages of the diary were soaked in water and blood but the ink inside hadn’t run and was still readable. He cried as he flipped through its stained pages. For a second he considered flinging it out of sight.
Screams for help from the survivors filled the silence left behind as the waters receded. Sirens called all to safety. Two men in the distance slipped under the water as it sucked garbage and debris back out to sea. With a final defiant shout he closed his eyes and slipped the pink denim diary of the girl he’d come to find back into his pocket. He hoped she was still alive. He had to tell her that he loved her.
She was all he had left.