I have been sending The Night Girl through a local writing critique group, and getting some good feedback on the early chapters. The fellow writers in the group are supportive, but they also don’t shy away from constructive criticism. So, it’s definitely worthwhile to run this story by them and see how they react to it as first readers.
By chance, I ended up being the only male in this writing group, and while the others have generally approved of my characterization of Perpetua, they do note some issues that I failed to touch upon but which, realistically, a nineteen-year-old girl would probably have at the top of her mind.
To wit: Perpetua is going for a job interview at an office that’s located in a sub-sub basement in one of the office towers of downtown Toronto. After hours. Indeed, other than T.P. Earthenhouse (who reveals that he is a goblin), she’s the only one there. And just a few minutes beforehand, another woman came screaming out from the stairwell.
Is it realistic that Perpetua would enter this office, much less stay there when confronted by the strangeness of Earthenhouse? Well, they didn’t reject it outright, but they did want to know more about Perpetua’s thought processes that resulted in her staying in that chair. Why didn’t she just turn and run out the door?
Well, the real reason is that if she did, we wouldn’t have a story, but that’s not an explanation worth anybody’s salt. So, I’ve tried to provide them with a legitimate one. The revised scene is below the cut:
T.P. Earthenhouse was dressed in a white shirt, red tie, cuff-links, and long pinstripe trousers, and he was three-quarters legs. He stood, about Perpetua’s height, like a box on stilts. He was bald, with skin the colour of mossy stone. His eyes were as black as a shark’s. His nose jutted halfway to his chin and his smile showed several jagged and uneven teeth.
The freak’s grin widened. “T.P. Earthenhouse, at your service, madam.” A voice that deep had no business coming from a body that small. He shook Perpetua’s dangling hand, and stared at the wad of moist chewing gum on his palm. “Why, thank you!” He popped it in his mouth. He blinked, his eyelids shutting and opening with a click like stone on glass. “Ah, spearmint. Most tasty. Please, sit down.”
Perpetua felt behind her for her chair and sat with a squeak. The chair squeaked too. Earthenhouse loped around the desk and climbed into his leather chair, sitting on his haunches in the seat, his long-boned hands draped over his protruding knees. He spotted her resume, plucked it off his desk, and pored over it, muttering appreciatively.
Okay, thought Perpetua, time to assess. I’m here, all alone, in a deserted basement sitting across the desk from a strange, disfigured man, and I’m having a job interview. First question: how safe am I?
“Most intriguing,” said Earthenhouse. “Miss Perpetua Collins, is it?” He looked up at her. “An unusual name.”
“It’s not my fault,” said Perpetua automatically. Then, seeing Earthenhouse look up, she added. “My mother named me.”
“Well, how unfortunate. I assume you can type?”
She nodded curtly. “That’s what it says!” Then she bit her tongue. The shock of his appearance had her clipping her answers short.
“Yes, I see that it does.” Earthenhouse peered at the resume.
Well, she thought, I have an escape route. The front door is unlocked. There’s a big desk between this man and me, and I have a can of mace in my backpack- she shifted her hand - yes, there it is - in case he tries anything funny.
I am in an office where some woman ran away screaming. Mind you, it could have been from his appearance, which while understandable, is still judgemental of her. It’s not like it’s the man’s fault for being born with these deformities. His speech is good; cultured, even.
Earthenhouse went on, “And you are familiar with the Microsoft Office suite of products?”
“If it’s on the computer, I know it,” she replied.
He’s wearing good clothes, she added to herself. He’s sitting on a chair that’s worth more than a month’s rent on my apartment. The money has to come from somewhere.
“I see,” said Earthenhouse. He set her resume aside and peered at her, his hands propping up his chin. “Tell me, Miss Collins: have you had to deal with a family member or someone you know experiencing amnesia or other forms of memory loss?”
On the other hand… “Uh, what? What kind of question is that?!”
He looked nonplussed. “Shall I take that as a ‘no’ then?”
“Yes! I mean, no! I mean— Does this disqualify me as a candidate?”
He moved his mouth as though chewing over her response. “It doesn’t have to,” he said at last. “Your other qualifications appear most suitable, Miss Collins.”
Okay, she thought, that was random. But I’ve been asked weirder questions before and, most importantly, this guy seems to want to hire me. He’s just about the only lead I have. Can I afford to be picky?
Earthenhouse leaned forward. “Well, Miss Collins, tell me: do you know what it is we do here?”
She cocked her head at him. A strand of dark hair fell across her face and she brushed it aside. “Something about rare coins, bouncers, diggers and art installations, right?”
Earthenhouse chuckled. “That is what the sign says, but there is more to it than that.”
Perpetua frowned. There was a shade across Earthenhouse’s gaze, a wariness. She gripped her backpack, re-checking the placement of her mace, but said nonchalantly, “Really?”
He leaned back. “My company is about providing employment.”
“For rare coin dealers?”
He chuckled louder. “Actually, the rare coin division helps finance the rest of our business. You see, Miss Collins, a lot of people depend on me. This company puts my people in contact with the right people, to ensure a decent standard of living for those who would be otherwise destitute.”
Oh, don’t tell me I’m working in social services, she thought. She’d taken part of a social work degree, complete with job placements, but dropped out after a year after realizing that it was like signing up to be a tour guide in the ninth circle of hell. “Are there a lot of destitute art installers?” she asked. And swore it had sounded less stupid in her head.
Again, there was a shift in Earthenhouse’s eyes. “It’s not the career that is the problem, Miss Collins,” he said after a moment. “It’s the class of people I deal with — that I am a part of, actually.”
“You see, Miss Collins…” He leaned forward, his hands steepled. “…I am a goblin.”
Silence descended. With a bit of a clunk.
Then again, thought Perpetua, the eighth circle of hell was working for a boss who was actually crazy. Like that time I spent working at Taco Bell with the night manager who was sure he’d been abducted by aliens. Screamed every time lights pulled up to the drive-thru window. Six weeks was enough of that.
Then again, there was that job with the travel agent who thought he was Queen Isabella and I was Christopher Columbus. He kept on sending me out to fetch curry for lunch. That hadn’t been so bad. He’d paid well, too, until the men in white coats arrived to take him away.
So this man here thinks he’s a goblin. Is his abducted-by-aliens crazy or just Queen Isabella crazy?
They stared at each other. Perpetua started to count the number of times she blinked. She was up to five when Earthenhouse spoke at last. “You seem to be taking this news rather well, Miss Collins.”
She kept her face in a non-committal frown. “I do my best.”
“That’s better than most people,” he replied. And though his feet did not touch the floor, he tilted his chair forward just enough to lean close without falling over. “Your reaction pleases me, Miss Collins. Doubtless you have heard stories about my race, but you shouldn’t judge me by what you’ve heard.”
“Oh, that particular judgment is very far from my mind right now, Mr. Earthenhouse.”
“Good. But you can understand how this might not be the case for other humans. And yet, we live amongst you. We need to play by human rules to make a decent living. This is what my company provides.” Earthenhouse leaned his chair back. “My business connects my people with various economic opportunities in the city, especially in the realm of security and art. We pride ourselves in maintaining humanity’s ignorance of our presence, but that raises challenges in establishing links with the human economy. This is where you come in.”
Right, this is the important part, she thought. Pay attention as he describes your job. Note any references to strange rituals or oaths to ancient gods. This will decide whether I stay or go running screaming out the door. “Really? How?”
“Well, Miss Collins, we would like you to become our human face. Not literally, of course; that would be messy and hardly an effective disguise. No, you would be responsible for managing our clients in the art installations and bouncer departments. I’ll keep track of things in the digging department; that’s a passion of mine.” He nodded proudly at the pictures hanging on the walls showing railway tunnels under construction. “So, are you interested?”
Was I interested, she thought. That is the question. But maybe it came down to math. $19 per hour worked out to $152 per day, $760 per week or roughly $570 after taxes. Working for a crazy person. Was working for a crazy person worth that money?
But this is the last lead I have. And, more importantly, it’s eight days to the beginning of the next month. A week’s wages would just about cover the rent cheque which otherwise would bounce. Could I afford to be choosy?
I could see if that radioactive man still had an opening available.
Then she noticed that Earthenhouse was looking at her. The light gleamed off his shark-like eyes, but he looked… small in that big chair. He looked like he wanted her answer to be ‘yes’, and she felt strangely bad that she was thinking she would say ‘no’.
All right, fine, she thought. I’m down the rabbit hole. I might as well swallow the bottle marked ‘Drink Me’. “Does this job come with vacation pay?”
Earthenhouse smiled. “Two weeks in the first year, three with the next.”
“And the benefits package?”
“Comprehensive life and extended health. You’re salaried, so no overtime pay, though we rarely ask you to work extra hours. You’re entitled to a half-hour lunch break and two fifteen-minute breaks throughout the day.”
Sounds good, thought Perpetua. “So, the pay: twenty-five bucks an hour?”
Earthenhouse frowned. “I was sure I advertised nineteen.”
“People lining up at the door, are there?”
“Hmm,” he rumbled. “You have a point. How does twenty-two sound?”
He really is crazy. “Done!”
“Excellent! Let me draw up the contract. Here,” he nodded to the fruit basket. “Have a fruit while you wait.”
This is a first pass, and will likely change. One frustration I have with the new scene is that, in the old scene, there was a strong rhythm in the dialogue between Earthenhouse and Perpetua. While the new internal dialogue for Perpetua helps explain her decision to stay, I fear it disrupts this pace. Perhaps another pass will take care of that. Perhaps something new is needed. We’ll see.
Either way, comments are welcome.