Note: The following is an early draft of the Prologue of my latest novel-in-progress, Fossil Five. I am participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), where writers from around the world participate in a 30-day, 50,000-word event to write a complete novel in one month’s time.
Synopsis: Five alums attending the funeral of a former teacher each receive an envelope with “The Last Lesson” penned neatly in script. Inside the envelope, they find a chilling letter written by their deceased teacher, inviting them to be his students for one final, essential lesson.
“If I fail in sharing this secret with you, I fear the very sanctity of love will soon be nothing more than the dust of fossils washing ashore the Cliffs of Chesapeake Bay. You are my last hope, and this is my last lesson.”
In the coming weeks, the Fossil Five students receive a series of letters, taking each of them on an unexpected journey that will change their lives forever.
I hope you enjoy this draft of the Fossil Five prologue.
A Novel-in-Progress by
“So—We can do this together, yes?”
Josh Amaranth put down his pen, leaned back in his old teacher’s chair, and pulled the blanket to his chin. He waited – hoped – for the chill to leave him (but he knew it would not) as he read the words he wrote on this fifth and final letter. He tried not to think of the pain in his throat that always seemed to slide down into his stomach on nights when it hurt like this.
His hand ached, as well, from writing, but that was a pain that he gladly endured. Writing these letters by hand was essential to reach his students. If he did not take his work with such seriousness, how could he expect them to do the same?
The small mahogany desk in front of him was littered with papers, some stacked in reckless piles with yellow and blue Post-It notes marking beginnings, endings, and other relevant matters that would serve their importance in their own time. Five distinct piles lined the back of the desk, each with another note posted on top, with a name printed cleanly. Two candles burned low on the left and right corners of the desk and highlighted the weeks of scribbled notes, the pressed ink into the worn papers, the exclamation marks and asterisks that lined their margins.
Yes, there was a certain madness to this disarray of paper that surrounded the five piles lined along the back, a certain organization that carried with it a weight far greater than its own.
Josh picked up a short stack of envelopes in front of the candle in the top right corner and began to shuffle through them. There were five in all, each addressed to a former student. With his voice already hoarse and now touched with the sadness of this quick and inevitable end, he read the names out loud, and slowly.
He knew that when they received their invitations, he would already be dead.
Josh coughed when he finished reading the names, and he winced as he tasted the blood almost immediately. Just months ago, it was just a chronic, annoying sore throat that disguised itself like some mutant variation of the nasty bug going around town. But when his mouth filled with blood after a mild coughing bout, he realized that something about his sore throat was a little different than some contagious and very common cold living among the shopping cart handles at the Trader Joe’s just down the street.
Two visits to his doctor, one referral to a specialist, and a long trip to University Hospital’s Cancer Center quickly put everything in simple perspective for him.
He was going to die of esophageal cancer, and soon.
“It wasn’t supposed to end this way for us,” he often whispered to himself (and to Emily as well – always to Emily).
“But it is what we are given. It is our death as much as it is our life. And so it shall be, now and forever.”
This was a mantra that Josh would repeat, over and over, to somehow get through the loss of Emily so long ago. It rarely worked, but he had never given up hope.
He restacked the pile and stared at the first envelope on top.
He had never planned to do this. The idea struck him nearly 3 a.m. the night he returned from his last wellness visit. When his oncologist told him that there was nothing more that anyone could do – that it was now in God’s hands (as if it had been in someone else’s hands all along, he remembered thinking). Somewhere in those foggy moments following …nothing more…, he heard mumblings of months, not years, and living his life fully. There was a bucket mentioned too, and something about a list that should be made. But it was Emily’s voice he heard instead, comforting him. She whispered words that he had never forgotten on the beach, and he smiled.
The doctor had stopped talking then, turned his head a little, and placed a hand on Josh’s shoulder.
“You are not the first patient of mine to take such news with a nervous smile. I know it is overwhelming and confusing all at the same time. Is there anybody I can call for you?”
“No,” Josh had replied, placing his own hand over the doctor’s heavy touch resting on his shoulder.
“The person I need is already with me. I won’t be needing anyone else.”
Josh placed Cassandra’s envelope on the first neat stack on the back of the desk and looked at the name now in front of him.
After Josh had left the oncologist’s office that day, he remembered little of anything that he did, or that had happened, in the next seven hours. Later that evening, as he sat in bed trying to retrace his steps after getting his death notice (and trying to suppress any coughing fit that would keep him in the bathroom spitting up blood most of the night), he realized what it was like to experience a walking black out, as if he were some kind of high-functioning comatose patient, out and about with others having no idea whatsoever that he was given carte blanche to do whatever the hell he wanted with no real consequences.
What are they going to do? He had thought. Kill me a little earlier?
He had had no plans for mischief, nor did he believe that in those seven hours of darkness that he had committed any crime more intolerable than doing a little zombie jaywalking across Fairmount Avenue.
He was operating under his own apocalypse now, right?
Yeah, and maybe zombies really do exist, he had thought.
He wondered about the groceries that were now in his pantry, neatly placed as if he needed to control something, damn it. The boxes of pasta had never looked more uniform, lined tightly in the cupboard, labels all facing the same direction.
In those seven hours, he had made as well the executive decision that there would no longer be any boxes in the pantry partially opened. It was all or nothing. Alive or dead. Fresh or discarded. None of this half-full, half-empty bullshit.
And his hair – that was shorter, too. The back of his neck still itched from the residual hair dust of a cut he simply could not remember.
Then, hours after midnight and as he lay awake, he was struck with a more powerful and urgent thought that bypassed the curious and left him completely breathless. The death clock is now officially ticking, and I have thrown away seven precious hours of my remaining life, with nothing to show for it except a pantry full of pasta and a little less hair.
He glanced at the clock on the nightstand. It was nearly 2:30 a.m.
Josh Amaranth placed the second envelope on the second neat stack and whispered the next name.
Close to 3 a.m. that morning, he had closed his eyes and finally found sleep – light as it was, and mildly aware that he remained on the fringes of the dream world.
He found himself on a moving walkway – something he could never bring himself to call a travelator. To his left was everything Emily, still frames and video clips of memories at the beach, along the cliffs, and on the trails. Some of the images he had never seen before, perspectives of time spent together that captured her energy and spirit in a way that was new, even haunting that he never took the time to see every angle, every perspective, every possible way to appreciate and remember her.
They laughed together in some of the short video segments, and in other stills, they found complete peace and unity in the silence of a shared moment.
Josh smiled through a few tears, and caught himself more than once reaching out, trying to touch Emily’s face, trying to reconnect with her just one more time.
On his third stretch across the walkway railing, he heard laughter behind him, and then saw the paper airplane sail over his shoulder and land at Emily’s sandy feet as she walked along Fairhaven Cliffs.
He twisted around to see several of his students from various years, now all together in his decorated classroom, playing around while they waited for the dismissal bell to ring. It looked like a typical final day before winter break, and the teens – most of them clutching keys to their still-shiny Honda Civics and other recent makes and models, called out to him, as if he were in the classroom with them.
“So, Mr. Amaranth,” one began. “Are you sticking around Jacob’s Landing during the break? Or do you have other plans with family?”
“Yeah, maybe go on a date or something?” another one added.
The Travelator pushed by them as they waved to Josh. He heard the bell ring, and they left the room. As the moving walkway pushed him from that scene, he could see the empty classroom, the dimming glow of green and red Christmas lights, and then nothing. The room went black.
He looked to his left. Emily was gone, too.
He turned around and began to run back, against the forward movement of the walkway. He could see a gleam of light on both sides ahead, flickers of color and light. Then he could hear the hint of laughter, of poetry being read on the beach, of school bells ringing.
He raced forward and ran as hard as he could. At times, Emily and his students were nearly within reach. But the Travelator would suddenly accelerate and carried him away in the opposite direction. He ran harder, he would gain a little ground, and then he would lose it just as quickly.
His legs began to tire, and he could no longer breathe calmly without coughing. The taste of blood filled his mouth as he watched his students and his Emily fade to black.
As the walkway continued to pull him forward, he hung his head, closed his eyes, and wept in the dark silence.
When he reopened his eyes, he noticed his shadow, with light sifting to his left, to his right. The dark image of himself stretched deeper into his past, as the light grew stronger around him.
He turned quickly to see a collective wall of white light in front of him. There were images, too. Silhouettes that seemed to be waiting for something, or someone.
He searched for Emily, but she was not among them. He stared at the figures, slowly taking shape, and realized that he didn’t know any of them.
They were complete strangers, yet there was something familiar in their eyes. There existed a hint of kinship.
He knew these people, somehow.
Their expressions were blank as they stepped to each side of the moving walkway. They lined his path as if he were on parade.
But there were no waving flags, no banners proclaiming a victory or celebration. None of this or anything else, for that matter.
Just a void – an inexplicable absence of something that haunted him terribly.
He opened his mouth to talk to them, but did not know what to say. He reached his hand to touch them, but he did not know what they needed.
The moving walkway continued along and the number of strangers dissipated to a final few that stood in front of him at the end of the journey.
There were five of them. And immediately, these five he knew.
Josh Amaranth had awakened from his dream, throwing his eyes open and drawing in a sudden breath that burned his throat so quickly that he could feel the blood trickle down into his lungs.
“They will never know,” he had said aloud. “They will never realize it, because they have never experienced it.”
He winced when he swallowed, the pain matched only by the image of poisoned blood trickling down his throat and into his stomach. He knew that the doctor had told him he had months of a “good life” left in him, but he knew differently. It was his body, damn it, and he knew he had just weeks – not months – left, maybe five if he kept busy enough and lived off of any adrenaline conjured up in the work that lay ahead.
He closed his eyes and remembered those five figures standing in front of him.
They are our last chance.
He knew then what he had to do. He had enough time, and he was sure that he would stay strong enough to get it done before he became too weak, or the pain became too severe.
The bigger question, he knew already, was whether he would have the courage to share his story as the best possible testimony imagined.
Would he be able to take the necessary steps to get them there? To understand and genuinely appreciate what he had left to share with them?
And what would they do with it, exactly? Would they have enough innate passion transcending these swift times of instant this and cyber that?
Or was it already too late?
They are our last chance…
Josh paused at the fifth and final envelope. The name, scrawled across the front, was the oldest student of this group he so affectionately called The Fossil Five. He was confident in the others, but he wondered if this one student had enough of the old way left in him to lead the others, to seize the chance to carry a legacy.
Or would he be the one who dismissed it all as utter nonsense? An old fool’s dream that needed to die just as quickly?
He signed the letter as he had signed the rest: “as always…………….JRA,” and proceeded to fold the letter twice before tucking it in the fifth and final envelope.
He inhaled deeply and then released the air from his lungs; his entire chest collapsed within him, and he sank in the chair.
He knew that after five tireless weeks of lessons, curriculum writing, and planning, he would be tired.
But most of all, he was grateful that he had not already died.
Josh wheezed a chuckle at that thought, tried to catch his breath, and struggled to inhale. He felt different now, a sense of relief mixed with a new pain and fear.
He checked the time, swallowing once more as the burn seemed to find its way through his throat and straight through to the lining of his stomach. He waited for the pain to subside just enough, and then looked at the clock again.
On any other night, it would have been too late to call Mike. But this was different.
This was the end.
He punched the number on the touch display of his phone and pressed CALL.
The phone did not even finish its first ring before Mike answered.
“Aw, shit,” Mike said. “It’s time, isn’t it.”
“I’m afraid so,” Josh wheezed. “I have a lot of directions to give you. Please be quick. It all seems to be happening a little too fast now.”
“Sure, sure. I’ll be right over. I just need to make one stop and then –“
“Yes, please do, Mikey. And see if you can find a bottle of Springbank single malt. I think it’s the ten-year bottle and 100 proof, if I remember correctly. I don’t know how much of it I will be able to have, but there’s no reason why you should be denied the best. We have much to share, after all, and I want to go out with the good stuff.”
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