Chemistry: Free E-Book and an Excerpt

Chemistry CoverChemistry is a retelling of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, set in a modern high school and told from the perspective of Claude Frollo, the story’s antagonist.

For the next few hours only you can download the entire e-book for free from Amazon. Grab it while you can!

EXCERPT:

The drumbeat of Phoebus’ party still throbs in my ears as though I never left. It’s so loud I can’t hear anything else. The light from that full moon still glows through my eyelids, red like slow-burning coals. I can’t shut it out. So it doesn’t surprise me at all when I catch the sound of Peter’s voice and realize he’s been talking to me all this time, though I haven’t heard or even seen him. It’s all a jumble, whatever he’s saying, but I catch the word Esmeralda and I’m snapped out of my hellish daze.

I lift my head and blink. “What?”

“Claude, are you okay?”

I’ve been wallowing on the floor, so of course he would ask. “Just had a weird stomach cramp,” I say. “It’s better now. What were you saying?”

Peter shakes his head. He doesn’t believe me, but whatever he’s about to say takes precedence, so he gives me the benefit of the doubt. “Esmeralda is missing.”

Those three words are a flood; they wash me away. I never saw them coming, and I don’t know how to deal with them now that they’re here. “Don’t joke around, Peter.”

“I’m not joking. She and Djali have been gone three nights in a row.”

“Is that unusual?”

“Yes!” He’s overwrought. “She always comes home by midnight every night. I live with her, so I know. She wouldn’t just stay away like this. Djali needs routine or she starts to shed.”

I have no idea how to respond to this. In the first place, I’m horrified that Esmeralda is missing. In the second, I’m beginning to suspect Peter’s primary concern is for the goat. “Have you reported her missing?” I say.

“How can I?” He throws up his hands, dramatic as always. “Who am I to her?”

“Well, who’s taking care of her? Why haven’t they reported it?”

“I don’t think anyone takes care of her. She’s always been by herself. The truth is I kind of suspect she’s in the country illegally, but I don’t know. It’s never been a problem until now. Damn that Phoebus. I swear this is all his fault.”

I cock my head. “Phoebus?”

He leans in. “You know he was stabbed at that party.”

“Was he?” I hope my feigned ignorance is convincing.

“Jesus, Claude, where have you been?” Peter reaches down and helps me to my feet. “Everyone’s talking about it. He was stabbed in the back with Esmeralda’s knife. The whole school thinks she did it, and the fact that no one has seen her since only confirms their suspicions. But I’m telling you it wasn’t her. She’s not like that. She just isn’t. Someone’s done something to her, Claude. I heard some of the guys on the soccer team swearing revenge. They say Phoebus is paralyzed for life; he got hit in the spinal cord, and he’ll never play again. They say she’s not going to get away with it. I think they took her, but I have no idea what to do. I mean I haven’t got any evidence, have I?”

I can’t breathe any more. You know how in really campy films, one of the characters will realize he’s destroyed something precious, fall to his knees, and scream, “What have I done?” while pounding a fist into the ground? Yeah, I always laugh at that scene, too. But just now, I think I could do with a good, long, what-have-I-done moment. It would be far better than what I’m really feeling. It’s like my heart has stopped and every limb has fallen asleep. I’m afraid if I try to take a step, I might fall down. If I try to speak, I might scream. And if I blink, the tears gathering in the corners of my eyes will fall. Once the dam breaks…

“We have to do something.” I flinch when my voice cracks.

“I know,” Peter says. “But what? We don’t even know where they’ve taken her.”

Why I Retold The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

People often ask me why I write what I write. Usually, the question is followed by a suggestion that I write something different: mystery-suspense, short stories, picture books. The truth is I tend to write what I crave to read but haven’t been able to find.

notre-dame de parisI fell in love with Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (or The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) many years ago. A good friend loaned me the book, assuring me I would adore it, and he was right. The story was this perfect mixture of tragedy, comedy, and romance, with just a touch of satire and social commentary. Every character was one I could both love and hate. They all made horrible mistakes even though I was practically screaming at them not to. But that’s the nature of tragedy.

I realized I had seen several film versions of the story, but none of them had won my heart the way the novel did. I think that’s because they were so simplified. The villains were villainous, and the good guys were so very good. And Claude… Oh, Claude Frollo was the most changed of all. In Hugo’s novel he is a good man—a fantastic man even—who looks after his fellow orphans like a father and does his best to be both wise and virtuous. But his standards for himself and others are untouchable. When he can’t live up to his own idea of goodness, he believes himself to be a monster and ends in fulfilling his own prophecy. And when the girl he loves turns out not to be the angel he took her for… Well, way too many people pay the price for that.

Claude Frollo Adopts QuasimodoTo me, the original novel is not one story, but many, all tangled together in an inescapable mess. I have always wanted to see it retold in a way that didn’t try to dichotomize good and evil, and since I haven’t been able to find a version that did this, I tried to make my own. I chose to tell just one of the stories—that of Claude Frollo, the one I felt received the most radical changes in other retellings—and I chose to tell it in first person. It wasn’t fun being in his head. Claude is a person who wants to be good, but who has unexamined very-bad-ideas, unhealthy obsessions, and unrealistic expectations. But that’s also what makes him so human.

The idea to set the story in a modern high school came from reading Claude’s first confession of love. It was so desperate, so frantic and clumsy, it reminded me of how it felt to be in love at that age. But setting it in a modern high school also had its challenges. Obviously, I was playing by a very different set of rules. But I hope I managed to retell this story by staying as true to the original as was possible in a modern high school. That was my goal all along.

So I hope you enjoy my new book, Chemistry, which is available now at Amazon. It will be free on October 30 and 31. The warning Claude gives you in the book description is a real one. This isn’t a pretty story; it’s a tragedy. But if you think you might like to get a modern taste of Claude’s untidied tale—complete with cobwebs, dust, and mildew—please feel free to give my little experiment a look.

And lastly, if you want an excellent soundtrack for reading either Chemistry or Notre-Dame de Paris, I recommend VAST’s self-titled album. I listened to it accidentally the first time I read Notre-Dame de Paris, and I listened to it again while writing Chemistry, just to relive the experience of discovering Hugo’s story for the first time. It’s perfect music for this tragedy. It’s brutal, passionate, primal in a way. I swear some of it came right out of Claude Frollo’s head. I’ve embedded a taste of the album below, probably my favorite song. If you like it, I’d wager you’ll like the rest of the album, too.

All It Takes

Due to the most recent tragedy, there’s been a lot of talk about bullying lately, and it’s brought back some memories for me. One memory, in particular, I thought I would share because there’s someone I’ve always wanted to thank. I never did tell him the extent of what he did for me, so I guess I’ll try to pay it forward.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a small-sized person. Not teeny-tiny, but small, and I was also incredibly thin in school (people always asked me whether or not I was anorexic, and then didn’t believe me when I answered no). I was shy, wore baggy clothes, and hid behind my hair. All this, instead of making me invisible as I hoped it would, turned me into an enormous, red and white target. Throughout my K-12 education, I have memories of boys holding me down in the mud, physically restraining me, sexually harassing me, repeatedly drawing attention to me when I just wanted to be left alone. I told a teacher about one instance, just so I could maybe switch seats in class, and his response was, “Eh, boys will be boys.”

Girls will be girls, too, by the way, in case you think bullying is a male-dominated sport.

Every day was miserable. I hated living—hated it like you hate a person who’s betrayed you. I was afraid to wake up in the morning, afraid to attend certain classes, afraid to eat lunch in the cafeteria (which didn’t do anything to quell the anorexia rumors). One of the worst classes I had was a P.E. class. One boy there was very good at convincing everyone else in the gymnasium that I was worthy of daily public ridicule. He hated me, and I didn’t even know his name. One day, I finally got fed up, and after taking his abuse in silence for almost a year, I finally asked him, “Why do you hate me so much? What did I do to you?”

His answer blew me away. “You were born,” he said.

That was when I realized there was no reason for any of it. There was nothing I had done to cause it and nothing I could do to stop it. I was just there to give some pathetic ass a target to practice on so he could get the attention he craved.

That being my history, I hope it’s understandable that I had a particular loathing for sports. I made a point of avoiding any elective participation in them. But when my only ride home from school joined the track team, my choices became either sit around and wait for them to be done or join. So I joined.

We had one day to try everything, and then we could pick our events. For me, the most awesome event of all was the high jump. I loved it! I admired people who did it well. So I signed up for it, with complete disregard for my decidedly non-high-jump-esque body. I am not competitive. I just wanted to learn to do it, and even if I lost, I didn’t care. I knew I would have fun. I mean that’s what they teach you in grade school, right: the goal of sports is to compete, but mostly, to have a good time?

Nope. Welcome to reality, youngsters. First the coach tried to talk me into doing a different event. But I loved the high jump! Then she told me I would not be allowed to compete. My job would be to right the bar when it fell at meets. Great! I was happy to do it. I didn’t need to compete. I just wanted to learn how to do the jump. Finally, she said it would be a waste of time to coach me at practice, and refused to do so.

So here’s where the story takes a turn for the best-ever.

The best-ever was an awesome high jumper. He was tall and confident (by confident, I mean real confidence: not loud, showy cockiness, but a quiet strength of identity). This isn’t the twerp who needed to tease me in P.E. in order to feel good about himself. This kid was the real deal. And he volunteered to coach me after practice. I didn’t even know him; that’s the part that gets me. He stayed late every day and taught the high jump to a near-stranger. He even discovered that my strong leg was not the one I’d been using, so I was able to switch legs and improve to almost the minimum competition level.

I was so happy! Sports were fun! I could watch myself get better and better, thanks to the help of one kick-ass person who took it upon himself to teach me. If I could find that person today, I would tell him what he did for me and owe him forever. He may not have aided the track team by helping one sadly inadequate athlete, but he restored my faith in people, and he gave me a reason to get up in the morning. He couldn’t have known that’s what he was doing, but it was.

I guess what I’m trying to say is it isn’t enough to oppose bullying. There will always be people who don’t give a shit and need that rush they apparently get by kicking those who are already down. If we want to make a difference, we have to tip the scales in the other direction.

I’m not suggesting anyone walk up to a bullied person and start complimenting them out of the blue. They’ll be suspicious of that anyway, as they’ve probably already had someone ask them out on a dare (yay, memories). But if the opportunity presents itself, don’t hesitate to show miserable, downtrodden people they’re worth something. Just a little extra time and effort, maybe a sincere smile—that’s all it really takes. Because some people have nothing but negative interactions every day of their lives, and just one shift from that heartbreaking routine can change everything.

Lastly, don’t be offended if your smile isn’t returned at first. The person you acknowledged is likely just in shock. But know they’ll go home tonight and remember that smile, and maybe they’ll even remember it tomorrow morning. And maybe, eventually, they’ll get the courage to smile back or say hello. And then you’ll know you’ve changed someone’s life for the better.