ONE MAN - chapter 1 excerpt

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Forum Revolutionary
Apr 4, 2015
Hiya all, it's been a while since I've put up something in Crits. Have a go at me if you have the time. 1200ish words long. This is the first third of the chapter. Any and all crits welcome, on anything you see of concern here. Cheerioh.

It was probable Olga’s death had brought the Earth’s population down by 50%, leaving Aadi 100% alone. Nobody but him to dig, and so he dug, eventually, surrounded by bare trees and curious squirrels who knew nothing of respect for the dead. When he resumed the burial, the broken shovel was right at hand—had been in his grip since sunup. He finished patting down the ground ten minutes to midnight.

Aadi didn’t cry for Olga then. That would come later. Aadi cried for the simpler absences; parts over the whole: a new joke, a voice other than his own, the touch of warm skin and its proprietary smells, an effect to his cause; the unpredictable. It was snot-filled selfishness, he knew. But it was also raw truth. Olga would’ve recognized it as so, and she wouldn’t have held it against him.

The future was far from unpredictable now. All of the crazy variables were buried with old Olga, and only the more boring equations of life remained: eat, wash, hunt, salvage; sleep. They added up to the same meaningless result day after day. Olga, originally a maths teacher, would’ve said that was how it should be.

He blanketed the mound with her books to keep her warm and distracted. He briefly considered making a pyre with them in her honor, but the poetic gesture would’ve horrified her. So much so that she might’ve come back from the dead to save her books and skin him for the sin. This idea lingered with him longer than it should have. He fiddled with matches for the next two days. These were senseless times, and it would’ve been bad form not to go along with the trend. “The occasional descent into madness keeps us sane long-term,” Olga had said once, in that silly Slavic accent of hers, panting after taking an axe to her favorite chair for no good reason.

The time seemed ripe for an occasional descent. Aadi slept by the grave for twenty moons, despite the forest growing colder and the cabin being a minute away. He needed to be there if she ever dug herself up. He’d read not everyone really died when they died. Some would just sleep. She could be sleeping. She really could be.

On the twenty-first sun, Aadi finally parted with the best days of his life. They rotted below ground now, in a grave that would never see visitors again. The desolation of this thought almost convinced him to stay. Almost. He took nothing with him. The cabin would remain intact, for her to enjoy.

The trail back to the city was mud and growth and prohibiting signposts. It’d been nearly a year since he’d traversed it last, with her. The Novasuno Nature Reserve had been his—their—home for six years, away from the bustle of fusion-powered automation, but it did not cling to him as he’d expected. Trees and animals alike let him go without a second glance.

Aadi camped by the small pond where he’d first bathed after moving to the reserve. He listened to the birds and scattering critters, craving that familiar sense of oneness with nature. But Olga’s strained breathing and mumbled swearing in Serbian left a void in his ears nature could not fill. Maybe technology could. There’d be no company of living organisms once he stepped foot in the city—but also no gales to speak her words, no rustling leaves to wake him up with absurd hopes. The sounds of the city were different. Vojoligilo’s skyline and its artificial white glow pushed back against the salmon orange above, far away, and invited him to much desired oblivion.

The next morning Aadi broke into a park warden shack. Door was locked, but the window had been left ajar. Leaves, decay, and small, muddy paw prints carpeted the floor, with sunlight slipping in through the splintered wood of the walls and roof. The reserve had claimed back every square centimeter.

Aadi was hungry. He rummaged through the two rusted lockers, hoping to come upon sealed protobars, but animals had swept the place with fastidious efficiency. After five minutes, the totality of the booty amounted to a dirty magazine, a box of tissues, and a cracked key card, found in the breast pocket of a tattered coat.

He took coat and card. He circled around the shack and found the unit, just a few paces east of it, hidden by bush and dirt. A compact three-wheeled bike stood encased in clear plastic, critter and weather-proof.

The bike could get him to the edge of the reserve by day’s end. He closed in, key card in hand, but the bikepen did not react. He kicked it with a grunt.

After rubbing his sore toes he went back to the shack, tore a piece of metal sticking out from under the desk, and attacked the plastic casing for half hour with it.

He arrived at the visitor’s center with the sun’s last rays, on his new bike. The car park was empty and the asphalt cracked all over. He left the bike charging at a battery dock and explored the surroundings. Post lights in the lot shone as bright as the day he’d first arrived. Automated maintenance had taken care of the ones he’d vandalized two years back. Olga had broken the first one. It’d been fun.

Aadi patted the glass doors of the center. He unwrapped the bloody strips of cloth from his hands and flexed fingers. He tore another strip from his already torn shirt to add more padding to his grip, then did a few practice swings with the blood-caked stick. He went at it energetically, with strength he didn’t have, but the building’s tempered glass proved too much for him.

The light was still on inside the center. He wondered how long it would take nuclear fusion to fizzle out, specially now that the world was down to minimum consumption. Olga and him had had a running bet of when the planet would finally shut down. She would never know; chances were high he wouldn’t either. The horrors of sleep took him on a bench, wrapped in the warden’s old coat. Olga was there, lost and confused.

“Where did you go, love? Was it something I did? Why aren’t you here?” she wailed by an empty tomb. Dirt clung to her weathered face, to every familiar line and wrinkle. She’d clawed her way out, and now she was alone. He’d left her. He’d left her and she had no one now. Aadi fell off the bench before even opening his eyes and scrambled to the bike, not fully awake. He started on the path back to her in the pitch black of an unadulterated forest’s slumber. Their little self-made cabin was still standing, full of their things; full of her, half a day away. He could feel her panic, the sickening worry, the desperation.

He stopped the bike three kilometers later. It was cold and humid. Maybe that’s why he was shaking.

The bike’s headlight would attract unwanted attention, but his hand did not reach out to turn it off. In time his ears picked up crunching foliage a stone’s throw away.

“Let it,” he whispered. Arms fell limp by his side; eyes did not chase the black mass closing in, instead fixating on the muddy path ahead, where he would never tread again. A single rabid dog could get it done. It was time he gave something back to the reserve.
That first line really does work well. I still really like it and it sucked me in just as much as the last time. However, for me it may also prove to be the downfall of this piece. Although the rest of the piece is, in my opinion, well-written and just all round solid (Other than me not liking the word 'sunup', I don't really see anything that I would change), it ultimately left me feeling a bit disappointed as it just wasn't as good as that opening line. It didn't really grab me again until the very last paragraph.

Maybe it has to do with the fact that the first line invokes an incredible sense of loneliness and abandonment for me, and the rest of the piece just does more of that in less potent terms? I'll mull things over and see if I can get anything more useful out of it for you. For now, just take this away from it: that first line is really good.
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Yeah, I think I'll mostly agree with Ragandar. First line is great, really hooks you in (I remember it from last time as well). And while I take the above points about not much build on this opener, I was more than happy to go along and would have gon further. Aside from a few personal preferences for phrasing and what-not, I wouldnt change a thing really (I'll leave grammar to those better at it, but I didn't notice anything wrong on that front).

I don't mind slower openings. I don't necessarily prescribed to the 'Go action!' form, but you have the hook which does well to carry you some way. You've got a really strong character and scene here to follow the slow opening, which also helps carry.

But that said, there is only so far you can go with slow before something needs to happen. By the end of the piece/or chapter at least, Id be looking for the story to be introduced. Whether that be a rabid dog and leads on from there, or even just a really slow glimpse or clue of someone he didn't know existed, or whatever direction you're taking the story. Something to make me realise that this (presumably) isn't just a story about a guy's last few years as the last human.

But you write really well, engaging and easy, which is the combination any of us should be striving for I think... And I love most things post-apocalypse.

I very much enjoyed it and would love to read more(y)
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Thank you for the kind comments. I was a worried about the piece being a bit slow. I was going for the emotional journey, more than "go action!"--as LittleStar so eloquently put it--I know it might not be following the "best-selling formula for success". Desolation and loneliness are definitely what I was going for, and it does come through in the rest of the chapter, but maybe I should up the stakes just a bit in the beginning to keep the blood flowing. I really tried hard as well to showcase the feelings through actions almost exclusively. I filtered nothing. The descent into madness, the suicidal thoughts, the blankness of feeling and being "on automatic"--much like shock--after losing the last person he will ever see, the melancholy sadness, etc. It could be good to intensify these things a bit maybe.

Specifically, I was wondering how the imagery came through to those who read it. I have a feeling I haven't described the setting enough (?). I'm also struggling somewhat with the tone, which should be "desolate", and some choppy structuring at some points.
I really enjoyed this.
Have no complaint, but the story distracts me from any thought of grammar.
I'm not sure that there is anything missing or slowed down.

I fear to some extent that we grow so used to having so much tense action that we easily fail to see that a story can contain all the conflict and stakes without having to make peoples hearts beat out of their chests in great swatches of excitement.

But that's just me. I sort of like the slow moving drama.

In my own twisted way I can picture this as being a completed piece.

Having it as a chapter one excerpt is it's own bit of intrigue.

Wondering what's next.
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This is an added thought you can take or leave.

Believe it or not: I think you would benefit by using fifty percent and one-hundred percent in this instance in the first line.

I'm assuming probable allows the reader to infer that the narrator is wrong. Possibly supported by the fact this is an excerpt of chapter one. Otherwise I'd suggest ditching that word.
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It was no accident I had "probable" in that first line (it wasn't there originally, and it's one of the most important additions I've done so far). The world is a big place, and the MC cannot guarantee he's the last one left, but it's more than likely according to him (it is later explained/revealed the why/how of that conclusion and its veracity or not). This doubt is/will be part of conflict in this chapter and in other events further ahead. The purpose of the word would make more sense if you read the whole chapter. :)

It's good that you noticed that word. It was meant to be noticed.
Interesting. The way I saw it, humid refers more specifically to the environment/weather/air. Lots of other things can be "damp", so it's a weaker word IMO--cloths can be damp. Also, "humid" has a more "sticky" quality to it, while damp has a "rainier/fresher" quality, to me at least. But you raise a good point, because I do say in the excerpt that it's getting colder and it's muddy, while"humid" is more reminiscent of hotter temperatures. Hmmm. Even something as simple as a single word can give you pause huh. I'll revisit this and see what's up on revision. (y)
Humidity and cold do go together and they create a bit of fog usually. That was what I was picturing.
We get that all the time around here in the winter during a slight warm-up where its still quite cold on the ground but the air is full of humidity and then fog.
As others have said you have an excellent first line, which hooks and then affords you the space to deliver a slower piece.

I like slower pieces, so this does well for me. Especially how it evokes a sense of loneliness with the imagery used (nice by the way, a good balance.) Another strength of this piece is the character, seems well fleshed out and you give the reader a good sense of him through his actions/thoughts.

A couple of nit-picks:

sunup and specially didn't seem to fit the piece, probably just me though :) And it does have a choppiness running through it as you mentioned which IMO comes from using the characters name too often. in some instances I would use he to make it flow easier.

So yeah, I enjoyed it and would read on. Keep at it. You have a strong piece here.

Hope I could help some.

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Haha you're not the first one to point out sunup. Why do you guys hate iiiiiit. I love it. :D

The choppiness will be dealt with. I already had an inkling of the flaw in a few scenes, but hoped it wasn't too distracting.

Thanks for the kind words.
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I like this a lot, not only the first line (which was great), but the rest of it too. It reminded me of Cormac Mcarthy's 'The Road' and yes, although it is slow, i think that helps with the sense of lonely aimlessness that Aadi has to deal with.

That being said, you could get to the action faster if need be, that'll satisfy those who find it a little long drawn. Would definitely read on either way. Good job!
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What can I say?
It left me wanting more. Enjoyed it a lot. Anticipation building up as he nears 'dead' civilization. Hope you feel the urge to put another chapter or so up. I gotta know what is approaching him!
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