Can You Help Me?

Hi all.  I just found out I have a chance to have an editor or agent read a piece I’ve written and sit down with me one on one to talk about it.  The only problem is that I need to email it by Saturday, and the piece I want to use is a brand new chapter I wrote for my latest book–meaning no one’s workshopped it or evaluated it as yet.  If any of you out there have a bit of spare time and would like to read it, I’m going to cut and paste it below after the cut.  I’d rather not give you too much background, since the agent/editor won’t have any more than the fact that it’s YA fantasy.  Feel free to rip it to pieces and be as picky as you want.  (Although as a side note, I’m reformatting it for the web, so if there’s an extra return somewhere by accident, you can ignore that.)  I would appreciate broad, sweeping comments or sentence level concerns or anything in between.  If you’d rather email me your comments, you can send replies to cundick [at]  Many thanks in advance.  Oh–and I’ll probably be emailing Friday, so comments after then, while appreciated, will be less than completely useful.  Here’s the submission:

Death in the Modern Day

Chapter One

I opened my eyes to see the walls of my bedroom shimmering with heat.  Above me, a cloud of brown smoke hid the ceiling, swirling around my bed and diving into my lungs.  My body shook with coughing, and I stumbled out of bed and into a crouch on the floor, hoping there might be some cleaner air down there.  The carpet was steaming, probably from flames below me in the kitchen.  Had it been a flashover?  Why hadn’t my smoke detector worked?

At least my room hadn’t caught fire yet.  Despite the shimmer to the air, it didn’t feel hot, but if I didn’t get out of there soon, I’d suffocate.  Already my lungs felt starved, as if what I was breathing was doing next to nothing for me.  This couldn’t be happening.  Part of me kept praying it was a nightmare–just like the ones I’d always had–but I knew it wasn’t.  This was too vivid.

I crawled to my door and put up a hand to open it, then paused and simply touched it first.  Elementary school had drilled into me the idea that I should feel a door handle before I opened it, and mine was cool to the touch.  Normal.  There was a draft of air coming in from under the door, but that was all.  The fire had to be all downstairs.  But then, why was there this much smoke?  It didn’t matter.  Flickers of light were flashing at the edge of my vision, and I felt like I hadn’t gotten any air since I had woken up–as if I’d been holding my breath the whole time.  I had to get out.

As soon as I opened the door, everything around me disappeared in a blast of fire and noise.  It felt like a linebacker crashed into me from behind, hurling me forward out of my room, my face crashing into the hall wall opposite my door.  When I could think again, my mouth was full of blood.  It felt like I had split my lip wide open and broken my nose.

It wasn’t until I had blinked a few times–my eyes stinging and tearing in the smoke–and cleared my head that I saw I was sitting in the middle of an inferno.  My lungs were breathing in smoke, but it still felt better than it had in my room.  Orange and red flames licked the walls all around me, as if they had just been waiting for me to open the door and let them in.  I knew what that was: a backdraft.  A fire gets deprived of oxygen and stops combusting, but still maintains the heat.  When oxygen comes back–by a door opening, for example–the fire literally explodes back into life.  But if it had been a backdraft, I should have been burned to a crisp right now.
Instead, I wasn’t even sweating.  I looked down.

My t-shirt and shorts were burning.

Stop, drop and roll.  This was the reason I had always read up on what to do in fires.  The room spun around in a tight circle, the flames blurring into orange streaks as I tried to put out my clothes.  Was my skin too badly damaged?  Had the nerve endings been fried again?  Was I in shock?  Even as I rolled, I couldn’t stop coughing.  The air smelled like a campfire, and I could taste the smoke as it poured down my throat with each breath.

I was still in my tumbling routine when I saw a face next to my mine.  Black helmet, clear gas mask: a firefighter.  I coughed twice more, then felt my vision going dim.  It was as if my body, seeing help arrive, had decided to give up on me.  The last thing I remembered was the firefighter leaning over me, and then I blacked out.


Consciousness came back slowly, in stages.  At first there was nothing, and then my hearing returned, although I for the first while I didn’t really understand what was being said.  It was like my brain was hazy.

“–we going to tell him?”  My dad’s voice.

Mom answered.  “There’ll be time for it after a while.  Let’s just be sure he’s okay before we make any plans.  And if he doesn’t remember anything about it, then we don’t need to bring it up.”

“What about your mother?” Dad said.  “Shouldn’t we at least–”

“No.  We don’t talk about her.  The less he knows, the better.  Maybe if he’s not reminded, he won’t–wait.  He’s moving.”

My eyelids opened and I saw I was sitting in a hospital bed.  No tubes or anything sticking out of me, so I couldn’t have been in that bad of shape.  The room was lit with fluorescent light, which made both of my parents seemed pale and worn, an effect made even more pointed by the ash smudges at the edge of both their faces.  They’d clearly tried to clean themselves up, and even more clearly hadn’t done a great job of it.

“Tomas?” Mom said.  She came over to the bed and put her hand on my forehead.  Mom was thin and tall, and even with no sleep and tired eyes, she still managed to look in control, with her hair pulled back in a pony tail and her back straight.  “How are you feeling?”

I blinked, and my thoughts started to click together.  “The house.  What happened?”

Dad swallowed before answering.  “It’s gone.  The firefighter’s response was quick, but . . . there was nothing they could do.”
What could I say in response to that?  The scene flashed through my mind again: the smoke, the smells.  Fire eating the hallway, cracking the glass in picture frames.  “Everything?”

“Everything but us,” Dad said.  “And that’s all that really matters, right?”

We were all quiet after he’d said that.  I don’t think any of us really believed it.  My mind conjured up images of the living room engulfed in flames, the kitchen–my computer, our movie collection, Mom’s recipe books from her grandmother.  Dad spoke up again. 
“I–I’m sorry, Tomas.”

I stared at him.  “For what?  Did you start the fire?”

He shook his head and ran his fingers through his hair, something he only did when he was stressed.  “No.  We don’t know how that happened, but I should have been there for you.  We were running late on our date, and when we got home, the fire was already in full force.  The neighbors had called it in, and your mom and I rushed in to try and get to you, but the firemen stopped us.  It was so hot.  I couldn’t . . .”  He trailed off, his throat practically convulsing as he kept swallowing.  He pushed his glasses up his nose, and for a moment, he seemed like a stranger.  Middle aged, slightly overweight and completely powerless.  No one likes to see his dad look like that.

“It’s okay, Dad,” I said.  I wanted to make him feel better.  “You’re not supposed to go into a house fire, no matter what.  That’s one of the first rules of dealing with fires.  And like you said, I’m fine.  No worries.”

He nodded, but didn’t say anything in response.  Mom looked at both of us, her face lined with concern.” 

I turned to her, giving Dad some time to think.  “What happened?” I asked.  “I could have sworn I was in the middle of the blaze.  How am I not hurt?”

A voice spoke from the doorway.  “That’s what we’d like to know, too.”  A doctor entered, replete in full doctor-in-a-hospital regalia.  He even had his clipboard, which he switched to his other hand as he walked over to me and shook my hand.  “I’m Dr. Geld.  Glad to see you up and awake again.”

“How long have I been out?” I asked.

He smiled.  “About eight hours.  Enough time for us to get some oxygen into you, get you back into working condition and for your body to get the rest it needed to recover.  You inhaled a lot of smoke, but you’re going to be fine.  Do you remember much of what happened last night?”

I shook my head.  “Not much.  I woke up with my room covered in smoke, but it wasn’t hot.  When I opened my door . . . something blew up.  I hit my head . . .”  I had been surrounded by fire.  The temperature inside a burning house can get as hot as 1500 degrees Fahrenheit.  The average is 1200.  Crematories burn at about 1600 degrees.  These were facts I had known since I was seven.  I glanced down at my old burn scar that covered all of my right arm and then some, turning my skin mottled and rippled, like a melted candle.  Knowing about fire was supposed to have kept me safe from it in the future.

Dr. Geld cleared his throat, calling me back to attention.  “Yes,” he said.  “Well that explains some of it.  The firefighter said he found you out in the hall by your bedroom.  His guess had been that you had been involved in a backdraft, with your room being the focal point.  But since you say the temperature inside wasn’t too high–and your body thankfully confirms that for us–we’ll have to just say you’re an extremely lucky young man.”

Lucky?  To have fire ruin my life twice, when most people never have to deal with it at all?  “Yeah,” I said.  “Lucky.”

“Right,” Dr. Geld said, and made a couple of notes on his clipboard.  “I did have one question for you–or your parents.  We ran a few basic tests to make sure your son was alright.  There seems to be some extensive scarring in his lungs.  Healed already–we think–but if you could just confirm–”

“He was in an accident when he was little,” Mom said.  “He almost drowned.  The scars are from then.”

Dr. Geld frowned and flipped through his papers  “From drowning?  I would have thought it had come from when he was originally burned.  The charts–”

“It happened at the same time,” I said.  I was sick of people always tiptoeing around it.  “When I was six, I almost drowned, and they found me with third degree burns on my right arm and side of my torso.  It’s on my records, if you’d get them from my doctor.”

“Oh,” the doctor said.  I knew what he was thinking: how does someone get third degree burns while they’re drowning?  I didn’t know the answer.  “Well in that case,” he continued, “I’m happy to say I can give you a clean bill of health.  You’re free to check out whenever you want to.”  There was another round of hand shaking, and then he left us.

“Free to check out,” I said after an uncomfortable pause.  “Check out to where?”

“Well,” Dad said.  “Your mother and I have been talking about that, and we think we have a sort of plan thought out.  The first part’s easy.  We already have reservations at a local hotel for tonight.  We’ll take a taxi over when you’re ready to move–”

“A taxi?” I said.

“The . . . uh . . .”  Dad paused.  “The car was in the garage.”

“Oh,” I said.  “Of course.”

“Anyway,” he continued.  “We’ll take a taxi over and stay there for the next couple of days while we try and get everything back in order.  I’ve already talked to the library.  They’re being very understanding.”

Mom and Dad had already thought everything through.  That was a relief.  It was at times like these that I was glad I had parents.  “Good,” I said.  “Then what?  We go house hunting?”

Dad and Mom exchanged glances, and it was Mom who answered.  “That’s the thing.  We’ve been on the phone with the insurance agent, and it wasn’t all good news.”

“What’s the problem?” I asked.

“Housing costs have skyrocketed in the last few years,” Mom said.  “And . . . well, your father and I weren’t as on top of keeping our insurance up to date as we should have been.”

I stared at them.  Insurance?  “What do you mean?”

“It means we were under-insured,” Dad said.  “Pretty badly.”

That wasn’t making things any clearer for me.  Mom explained.  “To buy another house like the one we had would cost about four hundred thousand dollars.  We were only insured for two hundred, and that includes all our belongings.”

“But that’s what insurance is for, right?” I said.  “To pay you back for all the stuff you lost.  Don’t the insurance people make sure you’ve done things right?  Or the bank–what about them?  They probably–”

“It’s complicated, Tomas,” Dad said.  “But trust me, we already looked into it, and I’m going to look into it a lot more before we do anything final, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore what is a very real possibility.  Moving.”

“We can’t afford to live in this area any more,” Mom said.  “Not on our savings.  The insurance money will pay off our loans and even give us some money to work with, but not enough.  So your father and I can either commute to work, or . . .”

“Or we could try something a little more drastic,” Dad finished.

“Drastic?” I said.

Dad nodded.  “How would you feel about moving to Slovakia?”

I gaped.  They hadn’t let me go back to Slovakia since I was six and had the accident.  They hardly even talked to me about the place, despite it being where we’d lived for three years, and where Mom had grown up.  “Really?” I said.

Mom glanced and Dad, then said, “Yes.  Our savings would go much further there, and we’d be able to keep our standard of living without much loss.  It’s something we’ve thought about doing for years, but there was always a reason to stay in America.  Now . . .  Your Uncle Lubos said he could probably have a job arranged for me fairly easily.  He knows someone at an ESL school, and they’ve been looking for quality teachers.”

“What about Dad?”

“I could try writing again,” Dad said.  “That’s what I wanted to do before.  At Slovak prices, even a moderate American sale would be as good as a full time job.  I know you’re in the middle of high school and it wouldn’t–”

“I’ll do it,” I said.

That caught both of them off guard.  “Are you sure you don’t want to–” Mom started.

“I don’t need to think about it.  You guys want to do it, and it’s not like I’d be leaving anything great here.  What’s to lose?”

Dad looked at Mom again, then cleared his throat and turned back to me.  “What do you remember about Slovakia?”

I shrugged.  “Not much.  I was six.  There were a lot of trees, and there was a playground near our house.  That’s about it.”

“You don’t remember anything strange?” Mom said.

“No,” I said.  “I hardly remember anything at all.”

Mom and Dad looked at each other yet again.  It felt like they were debating telling me some life-altering secret.  “What is it?” I asked.

“Nothing,” Mom said.

Dad’s shoulders slumped in what looked like relief, and he actually smiled.  “Don’t worry about it,” he said.  “We can talk more later.”

“One more thing, though,” I said.  “When I was still out of it, were you guys talking about Babka?”  Babka’s what we called my mom’s mom.  She’d been dead since my mom was a teenager.

Mom looked at me blankly.  “No.  Why?”

Maybe I had been more out of it than I knew.  Or maybe Mom was lying.  I looked over at Dad, who was fiddling with his cell phone.  Now probably wasn’t the time to push for answers.  “I thought I heard you say something about her,” I said.  “It must have been a dream or something.”

“You’ve been through a lot,” Mom said and smiled.  Her face looked like it had gotten some new wrinkles on it since last night at dinner.  “Things will get better.”

Dad spoke up.  “Right now, we need to see about getting to the hotel and restoring some semblance of order to our lives.  Let’s get you dressed.  Mom went out and got you some new clothes.”

Of course.  My entire wardrobe had gone up in the blaze.  The memory of my t-shirt and shorts smoldering on my skin came back in a flash as I sat up.  “Dad,” I said.  “My clothes were burning.  I remember that.  How is it that I’m not touched?”

He paused while taking out some jeans from a plastic bag, then looked at me and shrugged.  “I really don’t know.  All I can say is that it must have been a miracle, and that’s all the explanation we’re likely to ever get.”

It wasn’t.  I understood it all eventually, but that explanation didn’t come until I’d been in Slovakia for a while.

Thanks again for reading and for any suggestions.  They are much appreciated.

4 thoughts on “Can You Help Me?”

  1. Good beginning
    I wanted to read more after finishing what you wrote. The beginning did not grab me enough — seemed like the “I” came in full force before the picture of the situation was clearly etched in my mind. The narrative with the parents was somewhat long, particularly after the pace of the opening scene — could any of that background be told through storyline as opposed to narrative? I liked the fire description and the strange scenario — burned in water, unburned in fire. It’s a story I would continue to read, but I would be more likely if the first paragraphs grabbed me a bit more with tension and if the narrative were condensed and added more to plot line.

  2. Loved it.
    Perhaps for YA it needs to move along a little more in the conversation part but I didn’t think it was slow. Then again given who I am I wanted to like it so maybe that bias kept me reading. Still, overall it really did grab me and make me anxious to turn the page and find out more about Babka and Slovakia. A couple of minor typos and suggestions for wording improvement:
    I felt like I hadn’t gotten any air since I had woken up –> I felt like I hadn’t gotten any air since waking up (flows better)
    although I for the first while I didn’t really understand –> although for the first while I didn’t really understand (extraneous “I”)
    We were all quiet after he’d said that –>
    We were all quiet after he said that (flows better)
    Mom glanced and Dad, then said –> Mom glanced at Dad, then said, (“and” should be “at”)
    Great job, Bryce!

  3. Re: Loved it.
    Oh, one more thing:
    It didn’t make sense to me that Dad said the car was in the garage during the fire given he and mom were on a date when it happened. Perhaps “date” should be changed to “late night walk” or something.

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