If Nephys is the first main protagonist of the book introduced in Chapter One, Lucy is the second.
Lucy is the child of a necromancer, and the last necromancer of any significant power. Of course she doesn't know this until her mother dies in a car wreck.
Lucy goes through some very difficult challenges right from the start, not the least of which is the loss of her mother.
Fantasy stories often start with an orphaned child, and for good reason. Characters, especially fantasy characters, are often thrown into impossible environments that isolate them from everyone else and their environments. In many ways, they are like the reader. We are isolated, alone, in a challenging environment. Nothing is more isolating than being an orphan. Therefore the orphan becomes a trope, a symbol of our journey through the story. They become avatars for us, and like them, we are ioslated and on unfamiliar ground.
As a theme it began long before a young boy from Privet Drive met the Keeper of the Keys, or a teenage pilot from Tatooine encountered some droids, or a highschool freelance photographer got bit by a spider. Heck it was probably old even in the days when a lost boy was found by the Pharaoh's daughter amongst the bullrushes. So it's a trope, to be sure, but it's not a cliche. Its universal and speaks across many cultures.
Still, I noticed that a lot of these orphans are orphaned very young, before they could even remember their parents. We usually meet them for the first time, long after the tragic events have parted them from their mothers and and fathers. There is often a distance that separates the character, and therefore the reader, from the event that makes these characters such apt metaphors and vehicles for the conflicts they are about to find themselves in. The pain is still there, but not so new as to be crippling. The character has had time to reflect on his situation. He has come to accept it. His isolation is a dull ache, not an open chest wound.
Now I've always thought this was something of a cheat, though a perfectly reasonable and natural one. Even now in middle-age, married, living on my own, providing for my own children, I find the thought of losing a parent devastating. I can only imagine what it would have been like as a child. Placing the start of the story years after the separation of parent and child gives authors the much needed vantage point of the orphan, without traumatizing their character or their readers.
This make perfect sense for most stories. There is no need to rub the readers' face in the character's grief. Likewise, as a matter of plotting, starting the action too close to the death of the parent may reveal too much of the story, as in the example of our famous boy from Tatooine.
But my story is different. Half of the action takes place in the underworld. My characters pass back and forth between the afterlife and our own. They see the souls of the dead arrive in Limbo, and the dead return to the land of the living, and these events have grave consequences. The whole book is about death. And death is ultimately, for those of us who can't see the other side, about grief, raw and real, and it has to feel real in the book as well.
So when I made a decision early on that Lucy would be an orphan, I decided I simply couldn't meet her at twenty or even eleven years after the fact.
We meet Lucy for the first time, not years, not months, not days, but mere hours after her mother's death.
It's a difficult scene to read and even harder to write, but read on.
“She’s over there, doctor, they brought her up from the ICU a few hours ago.”
“She’s stable—no problems?”
“Yeah, bumps and bruises mostly. They were afraid she had a concussion, but the CAT scan was clean. Miracle really, considering the accident. She’s resting comfortably; here’s the chart.”
Lucia Claire Miller was actually wide awake, laying on her side with her back turned to the two female voices hovering in the door of her hospital room. She was definitely not resting comfortably. She kept very still as if she were standing on a precipice and was afraid any movement would threaten to throw her off balance and tip her over the edge. She was focusing intently on a water stain on the far wall, pouring all her concentration into it. She was trying very hard to clear her head and keep still, but the voices coming from just beyond her doorway were distracting her.
“Poor kid, did you hear about her mother?” the doctor said casually. Lucy could hear her shuffling over papers in her chart.
“No, what?” the nurse replied.
A few hours ago, her mother and she had gotten into a terrible fight. They were up late restoring the old mish-mash farmhouse they had inherited from her grandmother who had died a little over six years ago. It was located on a country farm, several miles outside of Ephrata, Pennsylvania. Lucy had knocked over a ladder and spilled a gallon of dark purple paint all over the original oak floor. The purple paint was Lucy’s choice to replace the brown velvet wallpaper that was peeling on the walls of the upstairs room. It was her room. It was a terrible mess to clean up. Her mother had been upset already by something and yelled at her. Lucy got mad and screamed back.
Fights are like wildfires—it ultimately doesn’t matter where they start or how. They just burn wherever there is dry tinder and enough wind to carry them. The fight soon leapt from the spilled paint to this lousy dump of a house and the recent move. From there it quickly ranged from the friends she had left behind in Texas to how everyone had hated her in the new school, and how the present solution of home-schooling was even worse because she was trapped all day in this miserable house. The sparks flew in the direction of her mother and how she never understood her. When the fire reached why her dad had killed himself it finally burned itself out, though her Mom had nearly slapped her by then.
Lucy had stormed outside and sulked on the dilapidated porch for over an hour. Mom came out and sat silently beside her and said nothing for a long time. Then they talked about the stars they couldn’t see anymore, and about the endless stretches of green trees in Pennsylvania compared to the open spaces of West Texas, and all the flowers her Mom had planted in their new garden. Eventually, the conversation came back to the fight. A few new ground-rules about fights were established and some terse apologies were exchanged, followed by some tears and some earnest “I love you”s and a lot of hugging. When that broke up, they got in the car, and headed for some much-needed comfort food; an all-night diner at a truck stop nearby that served shakes and breakfast 24 hours a day. They had never gotten there.
The voices outside the door continued.
“They airlifted her mom to Philly, right?” the nurse asked.
“Yeah, but I just got the call from the attending physician in the ER. She didn’t make it…she was declared dead on the scene.”
“Oh my…That’s just awful!”
Lucy didn’t react or flinch in the slightest. She just kept on staring at the water stain, which was beginning to resemble something. Even though this was the first real time she had heard the news, it was no surprise to her at all. She had known her mother was dead. She had known it in the emergency room, she had known it in the ambulance ride over, she had known it while laying in the grass looking up at the twisted wreck of the car caught sideways between two vertical tree trunks. She wasn’t sure how she had known—she had just known. Like those people on television who could hear a song on the radio they’ve never heard before and then play it exactly right on a piano the first time, or the way some people could shoot a basketball perfectly without trying, she just knew it. Her mother was gone, and she was never going to see her ever again with her own eyes.
Even now, though, she could still see her mother in her mind’s eye. Her mom was tall, slender with short, chin-length dark brown hair, and chocolate-brown eyes and olive skin. Some laugh lines around the eyes and a stray lock of gray hair in her bangs were the only signs that showed her full forty-two years. Her mother was somewhat gangly and clumsy and a bit of a tomboy, always mucking around in the dirt of the garden, or repairing something around the house. She looked classy and gorgeous in a dress and heels, but she could usually be found in blue jeans, often topped by a baggy sweater, sweatshirt or plaid flannel shirt, a smudge of dirt on her cheek, and a smirk on her face.
Maggie Miller never put on any pretension that she was pretty, but Lucy had always thought her mother was very beautiful—lithe, slender and lovely—and she wished that she looked more like her. Instead of dark brown hair, warm brown eyes and olive skin, Lucy had sandy brown hair, green eyes, pale skin and freckles. Instead of a tall and slim figure with a svelte waist, she was short and somewhat stocky, nearly the same width from her shoulders to her hips. “Pony-built” her mom had called it.
She always hated the way she looked, but her mom had always tried to make her feel better about her figure.
“Well at least you’ll have breasts! Look at me, I’m flat as a surfboard!” her mom had said once.
“MOM!” was Lucy’s mortified reply.
She had been horrified and embarrassed when her mother said stuff like that, but she had to admit, it did make her feel better.
She could remember lots of things about her mom, but the one thing she remembered most was something from just after the accident. It was a final image of her mother in shades of gray and blue standing in a marsh on the edge of a distant, ruined city. She was yelling something, but she couldn’t tell what. She seemed so far away. There was more to it than that, but it was slipping away, like a dream.
Of course it had never happened. It was something her mind had just invented immediately after the accident. A subconscious mental image that told her what her brain already knew—that her mother was dead. She had had flashes of visions and nightmares like that her whole life. Night terrors too. Mostly images of zombies and vampires and other dead things, the usual childhood fears. Her mother was always interested to hear about them but insisted they meant nothing, they were just manifestations of subconscious fears. Mom had studied a lot of childhood psychology in college. Somehow her mom could always make her feel better and banish the scary dreams. Soon she had learned to ignore the nightmares entirely as idle chatter from her subconscious.
Yet, she had seen a lot of strange things from her subconscious immediately after the accident. And not just monsters from late night B movies. Strange visions and people she had never seen before, and somehow they were far more vivid than ever. They were all delusions too she told herself, crafted from her own memories and fears, that’s all. She even saw a childhood memory where she had been attacked by a duck at a pond, but the duck had been turned into some bizarre monstrosity complete with back spines and a butcher knife.
Lucy shook her head and tried to think of something else. Even now the water stain was looking more like something, but she couldn’t tell what. The brain did funny things when under stress, and that’s all that was she told herself. Mom had been practical and always wanted her to be practical too, so that’s the way she was going to be. She wasn’t going to believe in nightmares or dead things. Now more than ever.
The voices just outside her door kept talking.
“And there’s no next of kin? She’s all alone?”
“We’re not certain, but it sure looks that way. She apparently had a grandmother that died a while back, but there are no known living relations other than the mother and now she’s gone.”
This was not news to Lucy either. Grandma Holveda had died six years ago. Lucy had only met her a few times anyway. Most kids had loving grandmothers that spoiled them. Nana Holveda was stern, dark-eyed, mysterious and distant. Her grandmother had never even hugged her once, so when she passed away when Lucy was seven, it was no loss. Her father had passed away three years before that. She was only four when he had died. He was shorter than her mother, stocky and sandy haired like Lucy. He was very fun, gave her helicopter rides, and always made her mother laugh, but he was often moody and distant himself. There had been no suicide note, no indication it was anything but an accident, but everyone in town gossiped about it. She had always thought he had been happy, but looking back now it was almost impossible to tell. She had been very young. She didn’t know what she thought was more tragic, that her dad’s death was a random accident, or that he had killed himself intentionally and no one knew the reason why. Her mom didn’t even let Lucy see her dad’s body, but had had him cremated almost immediately. Her mom was a bit weird like that. She never let Lucy get near any dead animals or even touch raw meat when they made dinner. She may not have believed in God, but she was practically phobic about dead things, even her husband’s body. So one day her dad was there, and then he was gone. Maybe her mon thought she was protecting Lucy somehow, but it always made Lucy sad that she never got to see him one last time. In a way it wasn’t like he had died at all. It was more like he had left on a long trip and never come back.
Grandma Holveda had never approved of her mother’s choice to marry him, and even after his death, never quite accepted the marriage. Because she had thought her daughter’s choice was a mistake, Lucy guessed Grandma Holveda thought anything that came from that choice was also mistake. That meant that Lucy was a mistake too.
Lucy screwed up her concentration and stared at the water stain some more. It did look like something. Maybe a face, she thought. The voices kept talking.
“Social services will be here to interview her in the morning, we’re hoping that she can tell us something, maybe there’s some distant relative we don’t know.”
The social worker is going to be disappointed then thought Lucy. Both her father and mother had been only children, just like her, and all the grandparents dead. She didn’t even have a cousin, let alone a sibling or an aunt or an uncle.
“And the mother left no will? No instructions about who would be the guardian?”
“The state police went into the home but didn’t find anything.”
“What happens if they can’t find a relation or a legal guardian?”
“Then she becomes a ward of the state. She’ll stay here for the next couple of days for observation, but then she’ll be released to Child Welfare Services.”
“Child Welfare Services.” The term was as cold as a dead fish to Lucy. This was no surprise to her either. She had known kids from foster homes. Some had great, loving foster parents, some, to put it bluntly, did not. It was a crapshoot, and there was no way to know which way it was going to turn out, like life itself. It was all so random. Some had grandmothers that were all smiles and high-pitched voices of delight, who bought them Happy Meals and cute, patterned dresses; others had grandmothers with stern and disapproving cold looks and ugly old houses. Some had fathers to give them helicopter rides until they were six or even seven, and some had their helicopter rides cut short. And some had mothers…fun, loving, pretty mothers that looked good in jeans and liked pancakes at eleven at night and now…she just didn’t anymore. That was all there was to it she told herself. It was unfair and cruel and capricious, but that was just the way it was and you couldn’t think about it too much because if you did it would just drive you crazy. You just had to suck it up and take it the way it was and try not to be a mess for the rest of your life—however long it lasted before death came for you and finally ended it. That was what her mother had always said at least.
“Because she’s a teenager they’ll start her at a halfway home most likely and then, if she’s lucky, they’ll find a good foster family for her…”
She pulled the pillow on her hospital bed tighter around her ears and wished these women would just go away. They were driving her crazy and they never said anything she didn’t already know. She stared a little harder at the water stain on the wall.
“…but that’s not the worst of it,” the doctor continued.
Lucy’s eyes quavered and her concentration on the water stain broke for a moment. The two women’s voices went on.
“Not the worst of it? What do you mean?”
The doctor gave a long sigh and paused before continuing, “Her mother’s body is missing.”
The nurse gave a sharp intake of breath. So did Lucy. This was the first thing they had said that she didn’t already instinctively know.
“Stolen! You’re kidding!”
“I wish I was.”
Lucy’s resolve wavered. She bit her lip and tried to stop her eyes from welling up but it wasn’t working. She tried staring at the water stain harder. A wildfire had started somewhere inside of her. She thought about truck stops and pancakes and chocolate shakes late at night.
Why would anyone want to steal a body?!
The fire spread to purple paint and old houses.
“Do you remember that funeral home in New Jersey a while back that was selling body parts to medical research firms overseas?”
“Ugh…that was horrible.”
“They think it might be something like that. Maybe junkies looking for a quick profit to supply their habit.”
The sparks carried over to foster parents and no more conversations on the porch. Lucy choked back sobs.
“Why couldn’t these women just STOP talking and go away?!” she thought. The water stain on the wall really did begin to resemble a face.
“Someone came in pretending to be a relative of the deceased, and got access to the morgue. They think it was an inside job too. An orderly who worked there is missing along with three bodies.”
The flames licked up the dry tinder of cold grandmothers and helicopter rides and missing parents…missing mothers. The water stain definitely resembled a face now—it looked familiar. Her mother’s face? No, it was a stranger’s, a woman with long, black hair and cold eyes.
“That’s just terrible.”
“Just some random thing…I guess.”
Random, meaningless, hopeless, pointless. That’s what it all was. That’s all it ever was. She swallowed the sobs, pushed back the tears aching to break free from her and pulled the pillow tighter over her head. The water stain was just a water stain. That was all, it was not a face and it did not mean anything. The dreams were meaningless. It was all meaningless.
She looked away for a second and out the window of her hospital room. Outside her window, she could see across the street. There was a park along the riverfront, and a small stand of trees along a river. By the edge of the trees in the shadow just outside the glow of a lamppost, stood a small boy with a baseball cap. He was spinning a yo-yo up and down, up and down, over and over again, and it seemed like he was looking right at her. It was the same boy she had seen from the accident. She thought she had imagined him. She looked at him in disbelief for a second, blinked and turned her eyes back to the wall.
The face in the water stain lunged at her.
Lucy screamed and stood up in the bed and tried to jump away but the wires and tubes form the monitors and IV’s pulled her back. She thrashed and yanked at them desperate to get away to no avail.
“OMIGOSH! She’s awake!!” The nurse ran to her and tried to restrain her. The doctor followed immediately.
Lucy flailed and fought them off and tried to get away. The nurse struggled to restrain her. Two other nurses and a large orderly came to their aid when they heard the commotion but none of them could calm her. Finally, the doctor just grabbed her in a bear hug and held her tightly against her as Lucy flailed her arms and legs, kicking and hitting the young doctor all over. The doctor didn’t react but instead just held Lucy tighter to her.
“It’s alright…it’s alright…you’re safe.” the doctor said soothingly.
The nurse stroked her back while the doctor held her. Lucy relented and surrendered to the doctor’s embrace. The doctor was younger than her mother, but she was dark haired and thin like her mother. She gripped the doctor tightly, grabbing fistfuls of her white lab coat and sobbed against her neck and shoulder and cried harder and longer than she ever had before. The doctor sat on the edge of the bed and rocked Lucy for more than fifteen minutes until she was calm.
As Lucy’s wails quieted to muffled sobs, the nurse asked the doctor if she wanted a sedative for her, the doctor just shook her head no.
Then the nurse said in a whisper, “Do you think she heard us talking?”
The doctor said nothing but just sighed and continued to rock Lucy as if she were not a thirteen-year-old, but a small child.
Lucy didn’t dare look up from the doctor’s shoulder for a long time. She was afraid the face would still be there. She braved a peek. It was just a water stain that didn’t look even remotely like a face. She had imagined it. Then she turned her eyes to the window. The park, trees and lamppost were all there, but the boy with the yo-yo was gone too.