Indie Author Answers #16: Subplots & Sympathetic Characters

Tip of the week: The Emotion Thesaurus – a great reference to help you cut down on redundant emotional expressions. I use it all the time.

And now, this week’s installment of my trunk novel critique, The Problematic Virtue:


17: Brian


The week of Thanksgiving, Brian took the short drive to Denver to spend some time with his parents. Since Jimmy was still absent, Brian imagined several scenarios of how the first family holiday with an absentee member might progress. He had no basis for comparison.

Brian’s father greeted him at the door on Thursday morning. Warm and calm. His father seemed well put-together on the outside, as was his specialty. Not one to wear his emotions on his sleeve. Brian’s mother ineffectively masked her sadness, and Brian wanted to comfort her, but she always had kept him at a distance, for some reason unknown to Brian. They were more like coworkers than family.

Brian laid his suitcase and dirty clothes basket in his old room. The room remained the same as the day he left for college: bed, Radiohead poster, Broncos Super Bowl XXXIII poster, a few ticket stubs from concerts he had attended. Simple, clean, boring.

He then went into Jimmy’s room and discovered a sight so foreign as to seem like he had wandered into someone else’s house. The room had previously been covered top to bottom with posters and art and clippings of random things, but his parents had taken down every single piece and had piled them on Jimmy’s desk, leaving only hundreds of staples and pieces of tape to offset the pale yellow of the walls. Brian had not seen that room so naked since Jimmy was a pre-teen. Something about this change had a mark of finality, an unsubtle suggestion that his parents did not expect Jimmy to return this time, or that if he did come back, they wanted to send a clear message that he was no longer welcome.

A throat cleared behind him. “Do you need to use the washing machine right now?” his mother said. “I was going to put in some towels. I can wait if you want to wash your things first.”

Brian looked at his mother, arms crossed, in the doorway. She did not want to talk about the radical makeover of her youngest son’s room. That much was evident on her face, despite Brian’s wish to ask her about it. With this flight from home being Jimmy’s tenth or eleventh in the last few years, maybe they had decided to take a hard line.

“Sure, mom, I’ll go ahead and do my clothes now. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” she said. She glanced into the unadorned room, then quickly averted her eyes.

As Brian loaded dirty shirts and jeans into the washer, the image of his brother’s bare room haunted him. He wondered if he had done enough to find the kid. He had spent a lot of November trying to find Jimmy by calling his friends and visiting places Jimmy had frequented. All of these turned out to be dead ends. He knew of some friends of Jimmy’s that were somewhere in Utah, and a couple of times he thought about packing up for a weekend trip, but even if Brian did find him (Moab? Salt Lake? Provo?) what if Jimmy refused to come home? Brian now supposed that Jimmy just did not want to be found. Maybe he would come back, or maybe not, but Jimmy would make that decision, and no one else. Either that, or something dreadful had indeed happened to him, which Brian refused to believe.

After loading his laundry, Brian sat down to a Thanksgiving meal with his parents. His mother had set out only three places at the dinner table. Despite the place settings matching the number of guests, the arrangement bothered him. Would it be more odd if an unused fourth place had been set?

“How is school this semester?” Brian’s father said.

It’s great, dad. Had an opportunity to be a studio musician, but that fell through since the studio owner just got out of the hospital and won’t return my phone calls, because my gangster employer is probably the reason he’s in a wheelchair now.

“It’s pretty good. Classes are tough, but I’m getting by. I only have one lab this semester, so I’m not spending so much time in class as usual. I’ve been getting to the library more often, which is nice, but I still don’t ever seem to have enough time for studying.”

“Well, your mother and I are proud of you. We both wanted to go to college, but things didn’t work out that way, and then with a baby on the way, we…” Brian’s father’s eyebrows climbed an inch up his forehead. “I didn’t mean that… I didn’t mean–”

“It’s okay, dad, I know what you meant.”

“We’re just happy that you are doing so well in school. I certainly know what it’s like to have too much on the plate. I’m always telling your mother that I wish we could have twenty-five hours in the day; just one more and I could get done all I need to get done.”

Brian’s father grinned at his mother, and she replied with an anemic smile. “I practiced that card trick you showed me over the summer. Your mother says I’m getting good at it,” he said. “Or, at least, she humors me.”

“No, he’s quite good at it,” she said as she pushed mashed potatoes around her plate with a decorative fork.

“That’s great, dad, I can show you some other ones, if you want.”

“How is that pretty girlfriend of yours?”

She’s a drunk and a cokehead.

“Heather? Oh, you know, she’s good,” Brian said.

“And you two, you’re still doing okay?”

“Sure, dad, we’re doing great,” Brian said.

After dinner and some obligatory football viewing, as his parents both napped in their respective chairs, Brian slipped away to use his parents’ computer. He logged into the campus network and then checked his midterm grade for Social Psychology. Failed. Brian slumped in the chair, expelling the air from his lungs. Not a terrible surprise, because he had missed class so many times and forgotten to check the syllabus that when he took the test, he found out that he had only read and studied half the chapters required. Still, he hoped that he had misjudged his test performance.

On Saturday morning, Brian packed to return to Boulder. His mother slept in, but his father walked him to his car, and presented Brian with an envelope.

“What’s that?” Brian said.

His father fumbled over his words. “Your mother and I… we, uh, wanted you to have this. We know you have a lot of expenses, so…”

Brian opened the envelope and a hand-written personal check stared back at him. Not a great sum, but this was enough that Brian could start getting some money saved. He and his father shared a brief look.

“Dad, he’ll come home,” Brian said.

His father nodded and hugged him. Brian thanked his father for the check and they said their goodbyes, and Brian drove off in his car, his parents never uttering a single word about his missing brother for the entire visit.

As he drove back to Boulder, he tried to formulate a strategy for the rest of the semester. Time had run short and his grades did not look good. He needed to focus. That was the only way to salvage his semester. He spent too much time partying with Alex and arguing with Heather.

Alex, the emerging socialite, wanted to sample a different house party every weekend. Brian arrived at the conclusion that his network of friends was shrinking while Alex’s was expanding, and Brian had no issue with that because he wanted the kid to experience all that college had to offer. He did intend to talk to Alex about his partying, however. The kid had jumped into the lifestyle a little too easily.