Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Teaser Tuesday :: The Palimpsest

In response to the #TeaserTuesday meme on Twitter, I offer a glimpse into the world of The Palimpsest (currently in submission)


The Palimpsest

a novel

by Scott Walker Perkins

Jordan pulled her jacket tight against the cold mist and tried to think back to the last thing she’d put in her stomach besides coffee. There had been a Powerbar in the lab and then scotch with Morrie that afternoon. Coffee, energy bar, coffee, Scotch, more coffee and yet more coffee or “Saturday dinner” as it was known in the imaging lab.

It was a wonder anything came up when they pumped her stomach.

Her gaze danced across the doughy rounds stacked under the bell jar next to the espresso machine. An intrepid spider had scaled the stack and left its ropes in place trailing down the north face. She’d been coming to the tiny coffee stand for years and the stack of bagels hadn’t changed in content, shape or size in all that time. A firm reminder if she needed one that she was in Seattle -- coffee was for drinking, bagels were decoration.

The barista looked up as she passed coffee cups to the three students in front of her.

“Hi, Jordan,” she chirped. “The usual?”

“No…” She glanced sidelong at the bagels and forgot any notion of trying to eat one. “Do you have any juice?”

“I can make you a smoothie.” The girl blinked and seemed to see Jordan for the first time, eyes tracking from her drawn face down to the hand resting on the counter. Jordan pulled her hand back and let her sleeve fall down to cover the white hospital wristband. For the first time in her life she wished she could be the sort of woman who carried sewing scissors. Or a hunting knife. Why didn’t they cut the thing off when they discharged her?

“The usual is fine.”

The girl didn't ask more questions and Jordan didn't offer. Espresso and money changed hands and Jordan walked away. By the time the next customer ordered, Jordan had faded into memory, just another customer seeking warmth on a foggy morning.

As she walked, Jordan ignored the other pedestrians crowding her path back to the archive. Students bundled up in purple University of Washington jackets and hooded sweatshirts shouldered past her. The males gave her the requisite second glance but continued on when it became obvious she wasn’t going to look up and return their admiration.

She kept her head down and her offhand in her pocket, the crisp edges of the hospital band scraping the inside of her wrist with each pivot of her hip, reminding her that her world had changed.

Jordan couldn’t bring herself to drink the coffee, but the steam rising from the cup invaded her head, ripping away the last veils that shielded her. She wasn’t ready yet, but the forces of espresso are irresistible and memories washed over her.

Her footsteps faltered and she drew to a halt as she entered the parking lot.

The lamps overhead were beginning to flicker and darken as their sensors detected a sun rising somewhere behind the clouds. Her little white Volkswagen waited faithfully among the few cars already in the lot. Pale wrappers littered the asphalt around the tires bringing vague memories of sharp pains in her arms and the earnest voices of paramedics demanding her name. Fading in and out of a world painted alternately red and blue by ambulance strobes.

The little convertible had been purchased as an expression of freedom but now it felt dangerous. The canvas roof was too dark, the flexy windows throwing back her distorted reflection in the halflight. A fragment of yellow police tape fluttered from the seam of her door. Jordan shifted her satchel strap and scanned the empty lot, the frisson of dread running up her spine.

“Do you work at the university?” he asked.

“I’m a doctoral candidate in paleography, but I’ve been working with Doctor Stapleton at the Fuchs-Mostowy Archive on a privately-funded project.”


“We study handwritten documents -- I’m working on new ways to read erased writing in old manuscripts by viewing them under special lighting conditions...”

She didn’t remember it, but obviously told him about the book -- her precious, tattered, ugly little medieval prayer book that no one would look twice at if they didn’t know better. It certainly didn’t look like a book worth stealing.

Jordan caught herself as she stumbled against the trunk of a BMW. The car’s alarm chirruped a friendly warning to back away before it called for help. She pushed away from the silver sedan and looked around, scanning the faces of pedestrians cutting through the parking lot between the archives and the university, looking for yellow eyes. Everyone was bundled up against the autumnal cold snap, hoods up and heads down in the mists.

Yellow eyes. She ran her fingers through her hair and fought the tremors.

The flashes of memory were all but useless if she couldn’t give a better description than ‘male, Caucasian, brown hair with average height and build’. And those damned yellow eyes. Not contact lenses, no matter what the detectives said. As the darkness descended, the eyes had been all she could see, those horrid amber spheres leaning over her…

She poured out the espresso on the ground and wished she had braved the bagel. Even stale cobwebs were better than gnawing emptiness. It was going to take more than bread. For every moment she remembered, another had been erased, her memories scrambled and out of sequence like a sheaf of note cards fallen from a lectern.

Jordan turned away from the car and crossed the lot toward the archives. Her keycard was still missing but the guard at the side door recognized her and let her in. Jordan made polite excuses and moved past, hoping word had not yet spread.

The Fuchs-Mostowy archive was housed in a sprawling mansion near the University of Washington. Barnabas Mostowy had designed the building to echo the rambling half-timbered structures of his wife’s homeland and during his lifetime collected the third largest collection of pre-modern literature in the United States. His widow had further endowed the institution on her death, allowing high-tech research projects like Jordan’s to exist.

She walked alone through the silent corridors and down into the depths of the building, finding her lab sealed by police tape but her office unguarded and the lights on. When she’d departed the previous evening, it had been with every intention of returning. Her computer was still turned on and it woke up with the stroke of a key.

A page of her dissertation filled the screen, black letters floating on a white field.

Jordan selected everything on the screen and deleted it. The cursor now flashed at the top of a blank screen, mocking her with the idea that if she wanted the deleted chapter back, there was still an ‘undo’ button.

Oh, if wishes were keyboards...

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed the slowly building suspense and the layering in this story. I'm curious enough to read on, which is what you want, but I balked immediately at the spiderwebs on the bagels. I realize this is a small thing and perhaps I've not frequented enough coffee shops in Seattle, but...
    That's the only glitch there was for me and I mention it only because that's what went through my mind upon reading it.

    An otherwise fine beginning. Hope to read more in the future.




Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).