What follows is an excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Promises, Promises. I started this at least a couple of years ago. I haven’t made a lot of progress. Part of the problem is that I write very slowly, so much so that I’ve focussed on (thus far, unpublished) short stories so that I have something tangible and complete to show for my time.
I keep coming back to this novel, though, in part because I love the characters that inhabit this world. Mind you, given that the novel is of the horror genre, some of these characters will have endings that are a bit less than happy. The interesting thing about coming back to this work repeatedly is that, in the interim, you grow as a writer, and view your earlier prose with completely different eyes.
Please note that I may never finish this, and if I do, I reserve the right to completely retcon this opening scene. Having said all of that, I hope you enjoy it.
by Selim Ulug
Copyright 2019 by Selim Ulug. All rights reserved.
Jennifer Fern closed her messaging app and put away her phone. It didn’t help. The words felt burned into her retina.
“Hey Jenny, sorry to send this by txt but don’t really want a scene. I don’t think it’s working out. We should probably stop seeing each other. Besides, I’ve met someone and don’t want to see her behind your back so… yeah. It’s for the best. No hard feelings?”
Blinking furiously, as if that would help her unsee what she had seen, she took deep breaths and scanned the pub. It was late afternoon, but early for the supper and after work crowd. There were a couple of people seated at the L-shaped bar with its gleaming, dark mahogany wood. Behind the bar, backing onto the flagstone wall, were open mahogany cupboards filled with assorted bottles of liquor. Throughout the pub, the ceiling was covered with square sections of wood paneling. The bar area, with its high chairs and small tables, was separated from the dining area by a long booth backed by a glass partition. A smattering of people were seated here. Some seemed to be tourists, resting their feet after a day of sight-seeing, judging by the backpacks they’d set to rest on the floor. In the dining area, Jenny noted, where only a couple of tables were currently occupied, Alyssa was leading a couple of men from the host station to one of her tables.
Grabbing a couple of menus, Jenny strode towards them. Fortunately, she was used to putting on her game face regardless of how her day was going. Perhaps, she contemplated, that was why actors made good wait staff.
“Hi, I’m Jenny,” she said, smiling as she wiped the table. “Something to drink?”
“Absolutely,” said one of them. “We’re celebrating.”
“Awesome,” said Jenny. “What’s the occasion? Birthday?”
“Better than that,” said the other man. “We’ve each just purchased our first property.”
“Congratulations! So that sounds to me like a pitcher’s worth of celebrating. Harp, maybe?”
“That’d be perfect, thanks.”
“I’ll get that for you then come back for your food order.”
Noting that Dar followed her with his eyes, Chris smiled and said, “She’s pretty.”
Turning back to Chris, Dar said, “Sure, if you happen to like women that are good-looking and pleasant with a nice smile.”
There was a pause during which Chris and Dar looked at each other, past each other, in silence. Finally, Dar said, “You look as stunned as I feel.”
Laughing, Chris said, “I know, right? I kept looking for something wrong with it. The location, the units, the price, they were almost too good to be true.”
“We were lucky,” said Dar. “It won’t take long before they’re snatched up.”
Jenny returned with a pitcher and two glasses. Dar ordered a curry, Chris a lamb stew.
Chris wasn’t able to eat much of his meal. This was surprising as he was noted for having a big appetite. However, the excitement of the day made it hard to think about food. Beer, on the other hand, was a completely different story.
Dar seemed to have not much more of an appetite, and after taking a few bites of their meals, they both ended up sipping their beers in silence, their attention wandering to the hockey game on the pub’s screens. It was near the end of the first period, and the Senators were already losing to the Leafs 2 to 1. The pub was filling in, the noise level rising considerably.
Jenny cleared away their plates, and they both assured her the dishes had been fine. “In fact,” said Dar, “I told my meal, it’s not you, it’s me.” Jenny laughed and offered coffee and dessert. They declined.
“So,” said Chris, “October first is coming up quickly. “We’ll have to plan this out.”
“I was thinking about that,” said Dar. “With the condo settled, I expect I can head back to Kingston tomorrow. We’ll book a truck for the first. By ‘we’, of course, I mean ‘you’.”
“Thanks,” said Chris. “I’m honoured by the… honour.”
“Don’t mention it,” said Dar. “You bring it down to Kingston, then we load it up, move me into the new place, then pick up your things. Get you out of Kanata and into a proper, civilized setting.”
“Hey,” Chris said. “Lot’s of highly cultured people live in Kanata.” Silence for a time, then he asked, “Will you miss Kingston?”
“For sure,” said Dar. “But Kingston is too small a place not to run into mutual friends, and I’m the bad guy. You should see the looks I get. I’d rather get a fresh start.”
“What about your parents?” said Chris. “Have they mellowed at all?”
Dar shook his head. “Not really. I’ve shamed the family. It was no way for a good Egyptian to behave, and so on and so forth.”
“You’ve been to Egypt just the once, haven’t you?”
“That logic escapes them,” said Dar. “Even though I was born here, they’re Egyptian so I’m Egyptian.”
“I’m really sorry,” Chris said. “You know, really. To have things turn chilly with your family at a time like this must make it so much harder.”
“Yes, well, thank goodness I can heap abuse upon you and get it out of my system,” Dar said.
Chris grinned and raised his glass. Dar did likewise and they clinked their glasses. “To abuse,” Chris said.
“To abuse,” Dar repeated. “May it be harsh and rain down often.”
After taking a couple of swallows, Chris raised his glass again and said, “Well, you’ll have a new job in a new city, living in a new condo. To fresh starts.”
“To fresh starts,” Dar agreed.
Those guys toast each other a lot, Jenny observed. It’s kind of sweet how excited they are. Mind you, here’s me sharing a small apartment with Laurie, who wishes I’d move out. Okay, so I guess I’d be excited too.
Carrying a tray laden with several mugs of beer, Jenny was about to pass by their table when…
She stopped dead in her tracks. She wasn’t in the restaurant any more. Instead she was in a large, dark area with a smudge of light a few feet in front of her. Unlike the bustle in the pub, this place, wherever it was, was deadly silent.
“Hello?” she called, tentatively.
Within the light, dust motes danced about, until they began to coalesce, forming… what? It was formless, and yet it wasn’t. Then Jenny felt goose bumps form on her arms and the hair rise on the back of her neck. Her stomach began to churn so that she felt about to vomit. The amorphous cloud of dust became a face, as large as she was tall, with black eyes and yawning maw displaying sharp, many-rowed teeth. The mouth opened even further and the face began to close the distance between them.
That was when Jenny screamed. She screamed loud and long. She was back in the pub and still she screamed, all thoughts of the tray forgotten. Until she heard the sound of glass breaking, the feel of the liquid soaking into her leggings, and someone yelping in surprise. It was one of the two men, the ones celebrating.
Chris was stunned as he witnessed their server first freeze, then scream, and then dump the contents of her tray onto the floor. What missed the floor landed upon poor Dar, who was drenched in beer.
Wiping his face, Dar looked from the server to Chris. “And an auspicious start it is,” he said.