Deadly Design: An excerpt for your pleasure :)

This excerpt from Deadly Design is one of my favorite scenes, but it requires just a little backstory. Kyle and Connor are identical twins, who were born two years apart. They were conceived in a fertility lab because their parents carry a gene for a deadly disorder. Their perfect egg was created and then split into identical twins. In the hopes of ensuring safe pregnancies, Connor was born first, while Kyle spent two years frozen in the lab.

The family doesn’t realize that the boys have been genetically altered to be superior beings. Connor succeeds at everything he does, and Kyle, being two years younger, doesn’t think he can compete with his brother’s greatness, so he doesn’t try. Over the years, he starts to resent his brother’s almost superstar status in their small town, so much so that he flips off anyone who accidently calls him by his twin brother’s name.

The following scene occurs after Connor dies on his eighteenth birthday and Kyle is asked to read Connor’s valedictorian speech during, what should have been, Connor’s high school graduation.

Hope you enjoy!

chromosomes 3d illustration

There is silence, real silence. There are hundreds of people surrounding me.

Hundreds of people breathing and fidgeting and thinking. And staring. The principal has said something. She introduced me, and the gymnasium has filled with the silence of waiting.

I stand, then walk, taking a second to look at my parents. They’re sitting in the first row behind the graduating students, and while I know they want to give me encouraging smiles, smiles to settle my nerves, they can’t. I reach the podium, look down, and start reading. It’s typical stuff, at least what filters through the haze in my brain. Motivational, fortune-cookie shit. “Work hard and you can accomplish anything. Don’t let the difficulties of life dissuade you from your dreams, blah, blah, blah.” And then there’s a space between paragraphs and a handwritten note. It reads Find Kyle in the audience. Look at him. Don’t say another word until he sees you.

I glance back at the principal. She nods her head knowingly at me and smiles with trembling lips. I look up at the crowd of faces staring down at me. I’m searching through them, but for a second, I’m not sure if I’m looking for Connor or looking for me. I go back to the words.

“Kyle,” I read, “I don’t believe in regrets, at least most of the time I don’t. I don’t regret that we were born separately, because the truth is, if Mom had tried to carry us both at the same time, we might both be dead now.”

Everyone is quiet, breath-held kind of quiet. No one fidgets against the hard chairs; no one fans themselves with their programs or turns through the pages to see how much longer this will take. Even the quivering cries of a discontented infant stop. All anyone can hear are the electric fans moving back and forth to aid the school’s ancient air conditioning system.

“I guess I do regret a few things. I regret that I didn’t wait for you. I arrived on the path first, and I ran ahead, so far ahead that you couldn’t catch up. I shouldn’t have done that. To make it worse, being twins, I should have figured that people would always be comparing us. It was up to me to set the bar, and I set it too high – for both of us. There’s always been this thing inside me, pushing me to be perfect. And once it started, it was like running down a hill, and you can’t stop, because if you try, you’ll fall, and the hill is so steep you know you won’t survive.

“I’ll never forget when you were in first grade. We were walking home, an you wouldn’t talk to me because the teacher made you miss recess when you didn’t get a perfect score on your spelling test. She thought that because we have the same DNA, we’d have the same brain, the same likes and dislikes. But the truth is I had to learn those words. Maybe it’s that oldest child syndrome or something. I had to get them right, but you didn’t. You could have if you’d wanted to, but you didn’t, and that’s okay. Hell, that’s great, as long as you know you could have.

“I regret now that I studied for those stupid tests. I mean, really, who cares if a seven-year-old can spell umbrella or a ten-year-old can recite the fifty state capitals? It doesn’t say anything about who we are. Not really. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t have taken Calc 2 or Spanish 4. I don’t think I would have even gone out for track or football. Not because I don’t think education is important or because I don’t love sports, but because there’s no achievement in my life that means as much as being able to walk the path with you. You are my brother…and I love you.” I say these words slowly because they are for me. They are mine. “Nothing means more than that. And to all of you out there who have ever called Kyle ‘Connor,’ and especially to all of you who ever judged my brother for not learning his spelling words or his state capitals or his quadratic equations, this is for you.”

It doesn’t say anything else, but I know exactly what Connor intended to do. I look out at the young and old and middle-aged faces. I take a deep breath and, with tears burning in my eyes, extend my middle finger to the crowd.

Sleeping with the Lights On

I’ve recently started a new manuscript. The idea has been swimming around in my brain for a while, but I was somewhat reluctant to pursue it.

Part of it was timing. Part of it was fear.

Concept of security. Silhouette of refugees climb over the barbed wire at the border

All writers know the importance of research — of immersing oneself in the real world to help you create an authentic fictional one. For Deadly Design, I had to swim in the waters of DNA and ghost hearts and all things genetic. While science certainly has it gray areas and ethical dilemmas, this new project requires me to delve into a world which will NOT leave me unscathed.

One of the things I love most about writing is how writers become mini-authorities on the various topics that come into their fictional worlds. It’s fun to learn about science or space or history. But sometimes we get ideas for stories that are of a darker nature.

I have never been to a war-torn country. I have never seen, first hand, the way war destroys everything. But I have this idea, an idea that I truly love and that I believe could become an amazing piece of literature. Do I want to learn what war tastes and smells and feels like? No.

I don’t want to experience it first hand, and yet I want to create it on the page. So how do I do that?

I’ve talked before about writing naked — figuratively speaking — and when it comes to research, it’s the same.

If we are to have vulnerable characters, we have to become vulnerable ourselves. If war changes people, we have to be open to changing ourselves.

I have literally watched hours upon hours of war videos and interviews, and each is like having a flu shot, only instead of protecting me from some awful virus, the exposure makes me feel things — awful things, but necessary things.

When Elizabeth Kostova was researching and writing The Historian, I’m sure she slept with the lights on, and maybe with garlic hanging from her bedroom door. She created a world where vampires seemed as real as anything anyone had ever read about in a history textbook, and I’m sure there were times when she wanted to take a shower in holy water.

Eilean Donan castle in the night, Scotland

We expect our characters to learn and to grow. But before we can create our characters and create their world, we, as writers, have to grow and to grow, we must be vulnerable.

We have to be willing to put ourselves on the front lines. We have to be willing to expose ourselves to things that might make us toss and turn at night. To things that might make us cry and make our souls age.

Before we can make our readers cry or cringe, before we can make their hearts double-over with joy or sorrow, we have to open ourselves to those emotions.

What would life be like without stories? The best stories are often the ones where invisible fingers reach from the pages like spirits and they inhabit us. They make us feel something new and unique. The make the reader more than they were before they started reading.

As authors, as creators of the stories, we must lay ourselves wide to the world, not to sacrifice ourselves for our art, but to become more. To get the stories right, even if it means sleeping with the lights on.