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THANK GOD FOR Alexander Graham Bell. If the phone hadn’t started ringing, my crazy-drunk stepfather probably would have finished beating me to death with his belt. As it was, I felt pretty sure I’d lost an eye. And at least three teeth.
Half blind, I took advantage of the distraction and rammed him with my shoulder. I’d never fought back before. But this was different. Until now, he’d poked, slapped, and grabbed me in painful ways, and gut-punched me more times than I’d like to remember, but he hadn’t done any lasting damage. At least, not physically. This morning, he was out of control. Crazy mad. I wanted to tell him there was no reason to be angry. But it wouldn’t have mattered. I wasn’t even sure I could form words with my mangled mouth, or force those words past the rage that clouded his mind. So I rammed him the instant the first ring of the phone drew his attention.
He staggered back, crashing into my dresser. Between one heartbeat and the next, I debated and rejected the idea of diving out a second-story window. The front door was my only option. His footsteps smacked the floor behind me as I raced down the hall. I grabbed the stair post and swung around, hoping to reach the first floor before he caught up.
I misjudged the depth of his fury. I hadn’t gone more than three or four steps when he tackled me. He must have dived from the landing. We tangled and tumbled, then crashed to the floor with a sickening snap. I was on top of him, faceup, my back pressing against his chest, unsure which of our bones had been broken. I had a feeling that, for the first time in history, the classic parental lie—This will hurt me more than it hurts you—had actually come true. I also had a feeling my life was about to change in drastic and permanent ways.
Do I have your attention? Good. That’s crucial. Grab the reader with the first sentence. There are ten zillion books out there, and no special reason to pick up this one.
Of course, at this point, there can’t be any book, because I’ve just started writing these words. But, somehow, you’re reading them. I realize this could cause confusion. Let it go. It’s not good to think about the order of creation for written works. It’s sort of like that time-travel paradox where you wonder what would happen if you went into the past and shot off your grandfather’s penis before your father was conceived. There’s no easy way to think it through.
Paradoxes aside, as much as I may have grabbed you with the violent, action-packed bone-breaking opening, I’ve created a problem. If I start out with a gigantic lie, you might not stick with me. Nobody wants to explore new lands with an untrustworthy guide. But I’d hate for you to leave so soon after we’ve met. So here’s what you need to know to take this trip with me: I don’t have a drunken, sadistic stepfather. I have a blood-related dad who probably gets drunk three or four times a year. He’s an accountant. I’ve never had my face cut by a belt buckle. Never been knocked down a flight of stairs. Never been saved by the bell. Got both eyes. Got all my teeth. Damn fine teeth they are.
I’m screwing up the sequence here. I should have introduced myself first. I’m a guy. I’m eighteen. As of today, actually. Happy birthday to me. If you want to sing along, I guess you’ll need to know my name.
Call me Cliff. The most voracious bookworms among you will instantly wonder whether I’ve offered this name as a reference to some famous fictional Clifford, Heathcliff, or Clifton. Nope. I am not a reflection or echo of someone you’ve already met. Cliff happens to be my name. But that doesn’t mean it lacks metaphorical echoes. By an accident of birth, I am well named for this story.
Think about it.…
There you have it. I’m Cliff. Cliff Sparks. At the edge. On the verge. Dangling.
At this point, you’re probably wondering whether I have a story to tell. Will I face life-changing challenges in a dramatic quest to triumph over seemingly insurmountable obstacles? Will I come of age, reach my dreams, or discover the meaning of life? That would be awesome. Though not every book tells a story. There’s another route from opening sentence to satisfied sigh and the terminal snap of a closing cover. That would be a character-driven tale, where I pull you along because I’m so fascinating and charismatic that you’ll follow me even if there are no plot threads to grasp. Nice trick if you can pull it off. Sadly, I’m not that guy. If I had an abundance of follow-me charm, I’d have come of age by sophomore year, at the latest.
But I really want you to stick with me, so here’s my offer: I’m going to tell you a story. But it doesn’t start today. I’m going to take you back to April 16, nearly two months before this very moment, which we think of as the present. (I think I just foreshadowed a flashback.) We’ll leap together to the past, for the best of reasons.
I’m going to spin a tale.
And it will be so enthralling that you’ll get sucked right in. You’ll not only suspend your disbelief—you’ll tie a rope around its neck and hurl it off a cliff, then give the other end of the rope a mighty yank, perfectly timed to snap disbelief’s scrawny vertebrae like a fistful of dry pasta.
I’m going to sweep you along in my tale spin. Soon enough, you’ll forget about this rambling start. You’ll forget we’ve gotten so intimate. Until the next time I burst from the page and raise your disbelief from the dead, hauling the rope back over the cliff so we can both contemplate the decomposition. But either way, no more lies. You can rely on that. And on me.
Yes, sirree—I’m going to suck you right in. Because this is one sweet-ass mother lode of a gripping tale. Here we go …
Copyright © 2016 by David Lubar
Reading and Activity Guide copyright © 2016 by Tor Books