One Thousand Words – Attempt #2

I think it should be legal to count all the words I type throughout the day as part of my 1000 words. Last time I tried this—yesterday, you may recall—I barely made it to 500 words.

One of the things that I think is hardest about fiction is character names. On the one hand, you want your characters to have names that become familiar to your readers, names that both define your characters and embody the characters’ definition. On the other hand, picking a name for your character is like picking a name for your own child: it’s as important as it is difficult, and at some point, you’re stuck with the name you picked. When you have a story or a novel that contains multiple characters, the process is exponentially more challenging, because not only do you have to pick each name, but also make sure that the names work well with each other.

You know who is not good at making up names? John Grisham. Some people may disagree, but I think that some of his character names are so absurd that they actually distract from the plot of his novels.

For now, on to the exercise! Remember: single session, no breaks until we hit 1000 words. Go.

Tomek crouched behind the low counter and tried desperately to slow his breath. His hearbeat, deafening in his own ears, seemed sure to give him away, calling to the soldiers like jungle drums. He tried to remember how many he had seen: three? five? Certainly more than two, but beyond that he couldn’t be sure.

No, he scolded himself, I have to be sure. He forced himself to count each one in his mind, to remember each masked, shouting head that had barged into the Resteljica public school. Jedan—one—and dva: two had definitely come in together through the front door, past the school office where Tomek now hid. Tri, the man who came up the hallway from the other direction, herding teachers and students into the shared cafeteria/gymnasium at the center of the school—with fearsome commands that would have defied disobedience even without the menacing wave of his automatic rifle.

Chetiri… chetiri… had there been a fourth? Calm, deep breaths. Yes: there had been a fourth soldier, and even as he kicked himself for not paying better attention, Tomek knew why he had been harder to remember. Unlike the first three, who barked their orders and shook their gleaming guns in the faces of women and children, the last man had held back, gun lowered to his side, watching—surveying—from the doorway. As Tomek pictured the stern, fearless look on the man’s face—he realized suddenly that this was the only soldier not wearing a mask—and considered the mean saunter, the disregard for the chaos in front of him, he was certain that this was their leader: the commander of the group.

Where were the intruders now? Tomek closed his eyes and listened to the cries and shouts coming from the gymnasium and could make out two distinct male voices growling above the din. That meant at least two men in that large room with all the students and teachers. Down the main hallway, a door slammed open, followed after a brief pause by a shout of Nishta!, then another door, another pause, another shout. Someone was searching classrooms, and they were coming toward the school office.

Toward Tomek.

He had to move, he had to move soon, he had to move quietly—and, most importantly, he had to do it without being seen. Slowly Tomek eased himself down onto his stomach, being careful not to poke above the office counter, and also not to knock anything over. He inched forward until he could just peer around the corner of the counter toward the cafeteria. In the open double-doorway across the hall, with his back to Tomek, was the silent commander, the only one whose location was not betrayed by his shouting. He watched over the roomful of hostages without a word, nothing more than an occasional nod, never turning toward Tomek or giving any indication he suspected there might be someone behind him.

Another door slammed—much closer this time. Tomek quickly scanned the room for any escape. His eyes settled on the word Direktor, painted in large block letters on the frosted-glass window of the door at the other end of the room. Of course, he sighed with relief, the principal’s office!. The principal’s office had a window; Tomek could slip out the window into the schoolyard and run for help. The only problem was getting there: to reach the principal’s office door, he would have no choice but to come out from behind the counter, out in the open, and cross directly behind the guerilla across the hall. Tomek weighed his options: Do I crawl slowly and quietly, and risk being seen if commander turns around or another soldier comes into the room? Or do I run and risk making noise and knocking something over? And… what if the door is locked?

Slam! Pause. Nishta! There was no time for crawling. Tomek slipped off his shoes, hoping that the noise in the gymnasium would mask the sound of his stocking feet on the floor better than the clatter of hard rubber soles. Holding both shoes in one hand, he stood, took a deep breath, and sprinted for the other side of the room. In less than 10 steps, he was at the door. He grabbed the handle, reflexively muttered a prayer, and turned. The door opened easily.

Tomek resisted the urge to shout a hurrah as he flashed into the empty principal’s office. He locked the door behind him. Just for good measure, he grabbed the wooden chair that sat in front of the large and imposing desk and wedged it under the door handle. Finally allowing himself to feel a sense of hope that his escape plan might work, he spun around to the window, grabbed the frame with both hands, and lifted.

Tomek’s luck had run out. The window was locked.

He pushed harder, but it was no use. Tomek frantically scanned the office for keys, or even something to break the window. Throwing the director’s chair out of the way, Tomek jumped behind the desk, and yanked open the center drawer. Nothing. The top drawer on the left. Nothing. The next drawer down. Noth—wait. A glint of metal at the back of the drawer. Why does the principal keep a pistol in his desk? Tomek started to wonder, but the question was interrupted by the sound of a doorknob jiggling. Tomek grabbed the gun and held his breath, and tried to stand perfectly still.

After a moment, the person at the door seemed to give up—the jiggling stopped, and the shadow on the frosted glass moved away. Tomek looked at the gun in his hand. Perhaps he could shoot the window out. Just as he was deciding whether he could make it through the shards of glass before the soldiers responded to the noise, a silhouette reappeared at the office door—and this time, it was accompanied by keys. Jingling, fumbling, and then the sound of the right key sliding into the lock. The little wooden chair held up to the first, gentle push, but it was no match for the weight of the soldier behind a firm shoulder against the door. The chair slid to the floor with a crash, and the door swung open.

Tomek raised the pistol and pulled the trigger.