Howdy, I've been posting snippets and sections of chapters in here alongside my writing log in the general writing forum since I started my wip back in like March. I finally have a first chapter. I've been writing in random chunks up until this point and am now going back and filling in the gaps in the attempt to have this wip mostly done by the end of the year so I can start edits next year.
Let me know what you think of this absolute monster of a chapter (it's a little over 8 pages long on my google doc, and 11 pages in my handwritten proofreading copy). The main thing I want to know is if it's confusing or not, and if my mc is coming across as intended.
CHAPTER 1 - THE CURIOUS CASE OF MR MONDIVARIO
When the world was born, it was born red. It stayed that way for a long great while until outside forces got a bit bored of everything being red, and decided to interfere. They made everything blue. But in the future, who’s to say outside forces won’t get a bit bored of blue too?
The colour blue was the only thing the man could think of as he stumbled up the path, clutching at his sides and his chest. He hobbled and he struggled and he tottered along. Hacking coughs and wheezing and staring into the blue. His fingers had turned that colour long ago, which was probably not a good sign. He’d thought about that more than once or twice now.
It had been so easy at the beginning, so simple. But it had come for him now. He missed a step and landed with a hard thump onto the road. The man reached for a vial in his pocket and drank in the last of blue before he closed his eyes for good.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
The day was set to be loud and long and quite possibly very boring.
Not quite, but definitely.
Angus stood in the line for the bus amongst his seven peers, who jeered and laughed and shoved at each other in the hot morning sun. The summer weather hadn’t let up. The trees should have been browning and dropping their leaves by now, as was generally customary for autumn, but instead they lingered green. There was no wind, there was no rain, only perilous scorching sun.
The plan was to pile the lot of them into a bus and drive almost three and a half hours away to see some exhibit about old dead kings from countries that were hundreds of kilometres away at the state museum. A topic which they weren’t even studying. They were still stuck on the Gold Rush.
But the teachers needed them away from school for the day to catch up on budgeting for the rest of the term. So off they must go.
Angus was not particularly fond of the prospect to begin with, and even less so when he had seen the bus. There was no way, he thought, that the pile of nuts and bolts that had arrived in the school carpark early in the morning would get them anywhere close to Melbourne. But, for whatever reason, his teachers seemed to have faith.
The school was tiny. There were scarcely thirty students, barely six teachers, and even fewer classrooms. The government provided little funding, and the location provided little opportunity. Most, if not all, of Angus’ classmates would become what their parents had become. Sheep farmers.
The town was as tiny as the school. There was a post office/general store combo, a train station that only hosted two stops per day, a livestock exchange, and a pub which had been suitably christened ‘The Thirsty Shepard’. Beyond that was nothing but paddocks and bushland.
With no real friends and no places to go, Angus was always bored.
He had had a friend called Caspar once, but he’d gotten the two of them into trouble and his mum said they couldn’t be friends. Caspar hadn’t taken that too well. Ever since then, Caspar had taken every opportunity to glare at him so intensely that Angus thought he must be trying to burn holes into his brain.
He did it in the post office/general store combo, he did it in ‘The Thirsty Shepard’, and he was doing it right now. Caspar, who was three rows ahead of him, had turned around in his seat to glare at Angus.
‘It’s not worth it to start something,’ Angus thought. He turned away and looked out the window as the bus pulled out of the carpark, travelling southwards towards the museum.
Angus was made aware of his surroundings about an hour into their journey. He had zoned out long ago, the trees whizzing by him had had an almost hypnotic effect on him. The seconds had gone by at twice the speed.
That stopped when the bus’ engine stalled and jolted everyone forward.
“Come on old mate,” The driver encouraged, desperately trying to get it to start back up again. Zp zp zp zp zp.
Angus could see white smoke pouring onto the road behind them from the exhaust. All of his classmates had turned around in their seats to stare out of the windows. It was the worst place to possibly be stuck, there was nothing around here but dirt and trees. No houses, no telephone poles. Even an hour in, they were nowhere near the highway.
Zp zp zp zp zp. Bang!
The bus lurched forward as the engine stalled again, sending kids face-planting into the backs of chairs. Nobody was wearing a seatbelt of course.
“Alright!” Called the bus driver from the front seat, “Everybody out!”
They were all ushered out and waited in little groups, talking and messing amongst themselves under the hot sun as the driver fumbled about the hood again. Angus stood alone. He stared out into the bushland, almost identical to his property. The gumtrees were peeling and the grass was dry and the soil underneath it all was cracked and red with iron. The Millennium Drought had never really ended here.
Angus could barely hear his classmates over the screeching cicadas. But suddenly Caspar’s voice rose above it all.
Angus ignored him.
Caspar grabbed him by the shoulder and forcefully turned Angus around to face him. The two of them hadn’t spoken since the end of last term almost five months ago, Angus had done everything he could to avoid him all summer long.
“We need to talk. You blew me off all summer and then won’t even look me in the eye. I thought we were friends!” Caspar said.
Angus didn’t know how to answer him. Being around Caspar even in the best of circumstances when they had been thick as thieves had made him nervous and clammy. Now, just looking at his face filled Angus’ chest with a stabbing feeling he couldn’t place.
He continued to say nothing.
“I’m talking to you. Did you go deaf over summer holidays as well?”
Angus mumbled something that didn’t even sound like English to him. He couldn’t be friends with Caspar again. It would hurt too much.
Caspar grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. “Would you just listen to me?!”
This got the attention of Miss Lancaster.
“Enough! Both of you!” She stood between them.
She opened her mouth to chew them out, but the bus driver interrupted. “I’m not gonna be able to fix this myself,” He said.
“We’re gonna either have to call for service or hope whoever’s at the nearest petrol station knows how to fix engines,”
Miss Lancaster held her phone to the sky and pottered around on the dirt road for a minute or two, standing on her tiptoes and reaching as high as she could. Angus stared at the ground, filled with guilt. He couldn’t be friends with Caspar. He wasn’t allowed. He couldn’t let his mother down again, she would eat him alive if he did.
“I don’t have reception out here.”
She gestured to the other teacher who did the same and then shook her head. Miss Lancaster looked over at the mechanic, who shrugged and said, “If you two don’t then I sure as hell don’t either. I’ve still got a dinosaur phone,”
He dug in his pockets with a grimy hand and pulled out a phone so old it had seen the last century. Black, buttoned and brick-like.
Miss Lancaster sighed. “Everybody line up please!”
She waved and shooed kids left and right, “Come on! Come on! We don’t have all day,”
“Well, you do technically,” The bus driver said.
She ignored him and rounded everybody up. She sent the other teacher to the back of the line and started off into the distance with eight school kids trudging behind.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
They all travelled in single file to the next closest building. Wandering along in the unseasonably strong sun, heat waves radiating off the track ahead.
The first one had seemed promising, an old-school diner. With checkerboard floors and slick barstools and bright red booths. They had all pressed their faces to the glass to see if they could spot someone inside. But no such luck. The lights were off and there was a note on the door that one of the teachers read aloud.
My favourite customer. I did tell you we were closed Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday this week because of my hip replacement surgery. However, I have left you a pancake stack in the walk-in fridge. There is a key to the back door under the potted begonias. You can let yourself in. The coffee machine is off-limits, and so is the phone. I cannot keep paying for the surcharges on your calls.
I will see you when I’m back on Thursday morning. If you need help or company you can always visit the strange bloke up the road.
And so they continued their trek along the hot dirt road. Passing bottled water and fruit roll-ups down the line, one teacher at the front and one at the back. In search of this ‘strange bloke’ who could maybe point them in the direction of the nearest petrol station, or who maybe had a phone with reception that they could use.
They could see it off in the distance. A squat black building, with a veranda and a pointy roof. As they got closer, Angus could make out the words on the sign drilled into the side of the building.
‘MISTER MONDIVARIO’S SHOPPE OF EXCEPTIONAL ODDITIES!’
‘Antiques, Rare Books, Pet Taxidermy and Cremation Services’
Strange bloke indeed.
As they reached the veranda steps, Angus began to feel a creeping sense of something he couldn’t quite place. It wasn’t dread or anguish or anticipation or horror or excitement or unease or butterflies or nerves or suspense or angst. But something more along the lines of putting all of those things in a jar and shaking them up and then shoving them inside of yourself.
They all shuffled in one by one. The door creaking in the sticky summer breeze.
Shrouded in curtain shadow was the shopkeeper. He sat at a dust-riddled desk piled high with books, tucked away in a dimly lit bay window.
He didn’t acknowledge them at all when the group of them walked in.
One of the teachers, Miss Lancaster, made the first approach. She was a small, slender woman in her early thirties who was very fond of floral tea dresses and cable cardigan twin sets. She always wore her hair up in a bun with a stick through it and when she spoke her voice was honey-sweet.
However, the words her voice produced were anything but. For all of her external niceties, she sure was a right old praying mantis of a woman. When Angus had first met her he wasn’t quite sure what to make of her. Her outside conflicted so much with her inside that any way he had tried to make sense of her had gotten confused and muddled. The wires in his brain had knotted. But then, in science class one day, they had all watched a documentary on insects. It hadn’t been all that interesting. The bit about fly larvae had grossed him out, and the section on ant hills had been dead boring. However, the section on praying mantises had been incredibly helpful in piecing together the clashing elements of Miss Lancaster.
The documentary had said that praying mantises, orchid mantises specifically, use something called cryptic mimicry to confuse and capture their prey or to hide when there’s a chance that they’ll get eaten by something bigger than them. Hymenopus coronatus, they were called. And suddenly a lot of things had made sense to him.
Like when Angus had been eight and a half Miss Lancaster had caught him and one of the older boys putting large stones in the middle of the road so that anyone who drove past would have to turn around and go the long way. A crude form of entertainment, admittedly. She had dragged them both into a nearby classroom to bail them up and had started with the older boy. Miss Lancaster had absolutely raked the boy over the coals, he had looked like he’d wanted to cry.
But when Angus’ turn to be berated had come she had stopped herself and suddenly switched tactics. ‘You’re a smart boy Angus, and I know you know better. Blocking of public roads is unacceptable and if I catch you again I’ll have no choice but to phone your mother.’ Angus had been bewildered. Until he saw Principal Van Der Weir hovering by the doorway. For all her faults, Miss Lancaster was smart. He would give her credit for that.
It seemed, however, that neither the sweet act nor the stern act was working in getting the shopkeeper’s attention.
“Excuse me, you wouldn’t happen to know where the nearest petrol station is? Our bus has broken down,” She said with her voice pitched up an octave, grinning like a madwoman.
Mr Mondivario didn’t look up at her.
She cleared her throat and tried again, “Hello?”
Miss Lancaster waved her hand around near the man’s face before she dropped her nice act. Just in case he was deaf. When he didn’t respond to that either, she grabbed the book in his hands.
The shopkeeper glared at Miss Lancaster as the two tug of war-ed over the paperback. But he was no match for her. She yanked the book out of his hands and turned over the cover.
“An enthralling read, I’m sure,” She resumed in the sickly sweet voice she had started with. “I did say before that we’re looking for the nearest petrol station. Or maybe we could use your phone to call for a service technician? Our bus has broken down, you see,”
The man seemed unamused, “So?” he crossed his arms over his chest.
“So do you know where the nearest petrol station is?”
One of his eyes was swollen and bright red. The skin around the eye had scabbed over in a way that was both disgusting and intriguing, and his veins looked like they were about to burst. He had frizzy wavy greying hair and he wore a waistcoat with a pocket watch.
“Where is it?” Said Miss Lancaster. She held his book like it was a hostage.
“Up the road a bit, about forty-five minutes on foot.”
Miss Lancaster turned around to look at all of her students. They had already walked twenty minutes in the sun and the morning was only set to get hotter.
“Judith.” She said to the other teacher, “You stay here with the kids while I walk up to the petrol station.”
She turned to the shopkeeper, “If that’s okay with you?”
The shopkeeper humpfed and reached out for his book. She handed it back to him.
“I guess I’ll be back in an hour and a half,”
And with that, the students were let loose in the shop with Mrs Thermopoulos. ‘Judith’.
Angus had never heard her first name before but it seemed fitting. Where Miss Lancaster was intimidating and brash, Mrs Thermopoulos was mousey and shy. She barely ever spoke a word.
Angus stalled behind them. He didn’t want to be around Caspar if he could help it.
He stared up at the ceiling in the shop foyer. “Hey you!” said the shopkeeper.
Angus turned, “Yeah,”
The shopkeeper looked at him puzzled, as if he wasn’t sure why Angus was looking at him. He humpfed once again, burying his head in the pages of his paperback. Angus waited for a second, equally as puzzled as the shopkeeper. But the man said nothing and he turned his attention back to the ceiling.
“Hey you!” the shopkeeper shouted again. Angus ignored him. This game wasn’t funny.
There was a good reason for him to be staring at the ceiling. It was covered in the most detailed wallpaper Angus had ever seen. There were hunters chasing deer, and mermen lounging on rocks, and-
The man looked strange now. Gone was the apathetic stare, replaced by some manic gaze that made Angus feel the way he imagined a kangaroo must feel before it hops onto a round with oncoming traffic. The shopkeeper's smile reached ear to ear, in a creepy dead-eyed grin. He looked like he was waiting to tell the world's funniest joke. His head shook violently, jerking and grotesque.
“Come closer,” He said.
Angus did. He didn’t know quite why, but he did as he was told.
“What happened to your eye?” Angus asked.
“Rat bit me.”
“A rat bit you on the eye?”
“Yes. To be fair, to be fair…” The shopkeeper replied. Angus waited for him to finish the sentence.
“It’s been waiting for you. Do you know that?”
“That it is waiting.” The man didn’t elaborate on what ‘it’ was.
The man giggled, “Oh you have a surprise in store then,”
“What’s your name?” Angus asked. He didn’t want to know, but he figured that if the man answered with the name that was on the shop he was only messing with him, and if he answered with something else that he was crazy and had a split personality or something.
“You may call me Mr Mondivario,” He said, “It’s written on the shop. To be fair, to be fair…”
His logic was definitely flawed. The man was certainly crazy.
“They have stories about you there. They’re waiting for you. The rat who bit me is waiting for you,”
Angus didn’t like where this conversation seemed to be headed.
“To be fair, to be fair…” The shopkeeper stared at him wildly, then winked the eye that was red and swollen.
Angus didn’t quite know what to do with any of that. He wasn’t sure if he ought to tell someone the man needed help or if it was best to just wander off.
The two of them stood with eyes locked for a long moment.
Then, Mr Mondivario’s head shook again, twitching, gurgling. The blank stare returned.
“Is there something I can help you with young man?”
The shopkeeper humpfed at him and returned to his paperback, with the cover bent all the way over. Like nothing had ever happened at all. Angus wondered if he’d somehow managed to imagine an entire conversation. Or perhaps it was an elaborate practical joke that the shopkeeper liked to pull on unsuspecting customers. He looked to see if anyone else had seen. But there was no one to his left and no one to his right. So he turned on his heel and retreated as far back into the shop as he possibly could.
On his travels, away from the bizarre man at the counter and as fast as humanly possible, he saw many interesting things. There were animals’ heads on the walls, mounted from wooden plates. An array of liquid-filled jars with snakes and octopuses and strange bits and bobs. There were doll heads and dreamcatchers and novelty wind chimes.
Angus marvelled at crystal balls. At terrariums. At jars filled with strange sharp teeth.
The further in he explored, the more closed in it got. The shop seemed to consist of a million tiny interconnected rooms overfilled with lovely and rare objects. There was so much stuff that Angus could barely navigate his way from one to the other. Every step he took was accompanied by a dodge or a duck as yet another object came into his periphery.
He could hear his classmates off in different corners of the shop letting out the occasional whoop or holler upon discovering a bizarre artefact or amusing bygone between the cases and carts. He turned corner after corner.
The store got tighter and tighter as he did. It was consuming him. With each step he took it devoured another limb and spat out the bones like a breadcrumb trail so that someone else may follow and be drawn into its guts.
Angus couldn’t hear his peers anymore. The walls were drawing him in and pushing him to some end. He barely noticed his surroundings as he tried to find the heart of this strange beast called a ‘Shoppe of Exceptional Oddities’.
Odd it certainly was.
At last, he came to one that he thought must be the very back of the store. Though it seemed that he had gone down more than he had gone out. The shop was certainly bigger on the inside than it seemed on the outside. Or deeper, perhaps.
It was a large room, filled with a labyrinth of bookcases. The shelves were labelled by subject. ‘Wo__d conom_cs’, ‘Polit__al _trat_gy’, ‘Knit__n’. Angus could barely make out the words as he passed. Every shelf was covered in a thick layer of dust, and as he walked along the winding isles he could see his own footprints on the hardwood. Not even the shopkeeper came back here it seemed. And, neither had any of his classmates.
He followed the shelves along until they came to a dead end. A single book lay on the ground in front of the final bookshelf. Angus crouched and retrieved it from the floor. It was so coated in dust Angus couldn’t even see its colour, let alone its title. He blew on it to try and take the dust off, which backfired and instead sent millions of dust particles swirling into his face. Angus hacked out a series of coughs as he brushed the dust off the book with his sleeve instead.
It was dark green. Leatherbound. And its title was illuminated in gold foil letters. ‘The Land That Was Lost’, no author.
Angus flipped through the pages. They were all blank.
“Hm.” He said. And put it back on the shelf in the gap it had fallen from. There was a click, and the bookshelf began to turn.
He took several slow, cautious, absolutely and utterly bewildered steps back in astonishment as a new room revealed itself.
It was the smallest room in the shop by far, and it was definitely the darkest. There was all but a flickering lamp on a little dark wood side table to see by. Although, seemingly, it wasn’t plugged in to anything. Along one wall was a locked glass cabinet filled with jars of wet-specimen rodents and mustelids. There were ferrets, rats, spiny mice, wood mice, polecats, sables, chinchillas, gerbils, lemmings, weasels, mole-rats, martens. There was a brass plaque above the keyhole that labelled them as ‘Messengers’.
The back wall was covered with a moth-eaten tapestry that was so worn and faded that Angus couldn’t make out what the picture on it was supposed to be. He ventured forward towards the door frame to try and see better. He placed his hands on either side of it and peered through, not daring to let his feet cross the threshold. It wasn’t much better up close.
Angus swivelled his head to see what was along the back walls of the door frame. One corner was empty.
In the other corner, sat a boxy object covered by a heavy velvet cloth. Strangely, it was the only object not coated in a thick carpet of dust. Angus stepped into the hidden room to get a better look at it. He rubbed the material between his fingers, deep red and buttery and embroidered with golden stars. It made a great woosh as it fell to the ground. His curiosity had gotten the better of him.
An elderly woman's face stared back at him. Eyes blue and unblinking. Her hands unmoving and her fingers spread across a set of cards with pictures of people and stars and symbols all over. He leant forwards to read what the words on the cards said, ‘The Nine of Swords’, ‘The Tower’, ‘The Fool’.
He waved his hand in front of her through the glass box she was in. She didn’t wave back. She couldn’t, he realised, spotting a slot for coins on the side of the box. Small cracks had started to form in the paint around her cheeks and a paisley scarf covered the scalp she didn’t have. Her glass eyes sparked in the dim light.
Behind the box, on the wall, was a sign he hadn’t noticed. ‘The Great Fortune Teller!’, it proclaimed in old-timey font, ‘20c per prediction’. He fished in his pocket for change, wondering if it was even possible that something so old would still work. The coin landed in the bottom of the slot with a hard clink. The Fortune Teller blinked, “I am Madame Dubois. Knower of all things,”.
The voice was worn and her mouth didn’t move with the words. Her blinking was slow and mechanical. “I am Madame Dubois. Knower of all things,” she repeated. Must be broken, he thought and began to walk away.
He turned back. The machine gave out a loud lurching sound. Her blinking stalled. Eyes half-way between open and closed, “I am Madame Dubois. Knower of all things,”. He drove his knee into the side of the box sharply, trying to get her to work. He wouldn’t get his 20c back if she didn’t finish. He kneed the side again, but she was stuck mid-blink. “I am Madame Dubois. Knower of all things,”.
The boy knelt down to the starry velvet cloth on the ground and tried to pry open the coin slot. The screws were loose. He tugged harder and harder. A clang of metal each time he tried. The machine gave with a final tug, sending him flying back, holding a large hunk of metal. Thunk. He had managed to pull off a substantial section, he could see the cogs and gears that moved the upper body of- “I am Madame Dubois. Knower of all things,”.
There was a cruel shine behind the furthest gears. He leaned forward on the cloth and stuck his head in amongst the gears, trying to see what it was. Arm outstretched, fumbling to dislodge the shining object. He turned it in his fingertips as he sat back.
A coin. No, a token. Engraved into it was the smiling likeness of the shopkeeper, and the text that circled the edges read ‘MISTER MONDIVARIO’S SHOPPE OF EXCEPTIONAL ODDITIES’.
A noise started to come from the upper reaches of the box where the mechanical torso stared out. Clicking and whirring. He rose slowly, hands and face pressed against the glass. “I’ve been waiting for you,”.