>Cherry Bomb: The Prologue

Some folks have been asking to read a sample of my novel-in-progress, so today I’m sharing the Prologue. When I entered the Prologue and first two chapters in the Faulkner-Wisdom Competition last year, it made the short list for novel excerpt, which was encouraging. I’m sure it will get tweaked some more before I query agents, but here’s a taste.

Cherry Bomb: A Novel

©Susan Cushman


Mare’s backpack makes a clinking sound as she ducks in and out of the pre-dawn shadows of the dusky November morning. A cold front moved across the state last night, dropping the usual balmy temperatures to the lower forties. She stops to rearrange the aerosol cans inside it and wraps them with tee shirts to prevent them from clanging together. Pulling her hoodie over her head, she looks up and down the street to be sure no one is watching. Storefronts are still dark, their owners asleep upstairs or in their homes just outside this Southern city of a quarter million people. Macon, Georgia, feels like a big place compared to the rural environs of Mare’s childhood.

She hears a scuffling sound as she rounds another corner. It’s just a homeless man, huddled behind a dumpster, the contents of his life stuffed into a shopping cart. His cough disturbs a sleeping cat that springs from underneath his frayed blanket, upsetting the empty bottle he clings to with dirt-stained fingers. As the bottle rolls onto the sidewalk, Mare hurries by, noticing a light coming on in a nearby window.

Taking a nervous breath, her lungs fill with the aroma of cinnamon rolls coming from a bakery. When was her last meal? Walking silently for another few blocks, she finds the target she’s been looking for—Family and Children Services. The parking lot is empty. She moves quickly along the sidewalk, choosing a spot near the entrance. She uses an aerosol can to break the lights on either side of the doorway so that she can work under the protection of the quickly fading darkness. She opens the can of black spray paint and begins to shake it as she stares at the brick wall in front of her.

What a rush, hearing the metal ball bouncing around inside the can, mixing the paint. Removing the cap, she approaches the wall, takes aim, and presses the valve, releasing the fine spray mist she’s learned to control with all the skill of a trained artist.

Most of her pieces the last few weeks have been simple designs or just tags. Today’s message will be more complex. She’s spent months working it out in her piecebook, and now she’s ready to share it with the world. Well, at least with Macon. The reporter for the Macon News will take care of the rest. Ever since Mare came to town and started throwing up her graffiti, Margaret Adams has been on her own personal quest—not only to expose Mare’s work, but also to expose Mare. Mare has been able to evade her grasp so far, moving from one part of town to another, sleeping here and there, and always carrying her backpack with her, leaving nothing at the crime scene except for the art itself. Adams has featured several of Mare’s pieces in the News, complete with photographs. Graffiti isn’t common in this part of the country in 1981, and the reporter just can’t leave it alone. Who is this tagger, and where does he live? Of course she assumes it’s a he.

Mare tosses her empty cans into random dumpsters after each hit, careful not to leave a trail. She can’t be arrested, at least not until she gets these next two pieces done. Blue lights and sirens approach just as she’s getting started. Diving behind some shrubs that line the parking lot, she holds her breath as two squad cars fly through the blinking orange lights at a nearby intersection. Wiping the sweat from her brow with her sleeve, she crawls out from behind the shrubs and quickens her pace as the sun begins to light up the wall and wake up the town.

Her signature character—a little girl with big, empty eyes and no mouth—is featured in this piece. After outlining the image with black, Mare paints the hair yellow and overlays yellow with orange for the face. Bloody drops fall from the red heart painted on the character’s chest. The child’s eyes gaze upward to a large shadow-like creature. The image takes shape and it’s a man, hovering over the girl. The details in the image of the girl fade to a blur below her heart, as if the lower part of her body is disappearing. She’s been disappearing for years, hasn’t she?

She hears a car on a nearby street and looks at her watch. It’s almost 7:30. Just enough time for her tag—a red cherry with yellow rays emanating from a black stem and the word, “bomb,” in red bubble letters, outlined with black. She can see the wheels turning in Margaret Adams’ brain as she imagines tomorrow’s headline: “Cherry drops another bomb.”


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