ETWG First Chapter Book Awards: Love Is the Bridge by Denise Weeks

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Is the Bridge by Denise Weeks is a Finalist in the Romance Category of Published Books for the East Texas Writers Guild First Chapter Book Awards.

“There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love.”–Thornton Wilder

Anyone who uses a computer is vulnerable to cyber-attack through a cell phone, Facebook page, e-mail account, or even files that might be accessed by a remote system while connected to the Internet. But who thinks it will happen to them?

Paige Campbell had never considered that she had anything to worry about until she got the first crank call. By the time her Facebook page is hacked and one of her files changed so that she is suspended from college and accused of plagiarism, she’s beginning to believe that someone–or something–is out to get her. Not a person or corporation, though, because it seems able to do things that are possible only for a magician . . . or a ghost. Can there actually be a “ghost in the machine”?

Alan McConnell doesn’t believe in ghosts and thinks it’s outlandish to claim that his prototypical AI test system (for writing advertising jingles) has become the portal by which a ghost (or at least a paranormal entity, perhaps a demon, which he also doesn’t believe in) has entered our material plane. But after his system does several strange things and can’t be turned off, he concludes that there is something behind this “haunting” complained about by his client Paige Campbell. Although he can’t see how it’s the spirit of someone spurned by Jenny Lind (the Swedish Nightingale of the P. T. Barnum era) who insists Paige is actually Jenny and who has come back for her to “remove the curse,” he determines to help her.

They run headlong into the murk of a paranormal entity (a ghost, even though he’s not a believer) that has mistaken Paige for someone else but is determined to haunt her until she “undoes” the curse it believes she has set on it and declares her love. Paige and Alan’s mutual attraction proves to be an inconvenience they can’t ignore. But before they can do anything else, they must break the hold that the entity has gained over them without resorting to doing something evil themselves-­-thereby becoming as wicked as the entity.

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Award-Winning First Chapter

Paige Campbell slammed the cash register drawer and grabbed for the store’s incessantly ringing phone.

She’d been expecting Uncle Hans to check up on her, because even after three months he still didn’t trust her to close the store alone. Amused, she lifted the receiver and recited the prescribed greeting. “Hans’ Music Haus, this is Paige, how can I help you?”

A steel-cranked synthesized voice rasped, “Stop asking questions or you’re dead.”

“What?” Paige blinked. “Excuse me? You’ve got the wrong number. Hello?”

Silence echoed on the line.

Denise Weeks
Denise Weeks

Only a stupid prank call. Still, it had shaken her. She tossed her hair back as if to tell herself she was being silly and settled the handset back in place. When the bells on the shop door jingled to signal a customer, she jumped.

“Boo!” said her best friend Anndréa, who’d apparently headed over the moment her shift ended at Joanie’s Scraps next door. “Scaredy-cat. What’s wrong with you? Customers don’t bite outside of Twilight.” Then she looked closer and cocked her head, sending her short black-cherry hair swinging. “Wait, there is something wrong. You’re as pale as a ghost floating in skim milk.”

Paige managed a weak smile. “Crank caller shook me up. I guess that’s a milestone–my first.”

“How romantic.” Andi clasped her hands. “Better make a scrapbook page. We have embellishments on sale.” She checked her watch. “Ready to roll?”

“Just about.” It was three minutes past official closing time. She circled around behind Andi, threw the double front deadbolts, and flipped the sign in the front window to CLOSED. “I can’t stay long, though. I’ve got a gig. Paying.”

“All right!” Andi shot her a high-five. “What kind of gig?”

“Just a jingle.” Returning behind the counter, Paige zipped the blue vinyl cash pouch closed and secured the register. “For a radio commercial.”

“Wow. Your first pro spot.”

“Don’t get excited.” Paige checked the security system keypad and verified all sensors were green-lighted. “Just picking up extra money for next semester’s books and fees–you know, what my fellowship doesn’t cover. This was a random referral from the dean’s office, when this studio called the conservatory to ask for a mezzo-soprano.”

“But still. You should play some of your own songs. I’ll bet they’d offer you a recording contract.”

“They’re not that kind of studio.” She tied her hair back in a ponytail and checked her makeup in the magnetic locker mirror she’d stuck on the side of one of her uncle’s file cabinets. “Let’s see how this goes. They probably have a stable of regulars.”

“And you’re going to be one of them.” Andi sounded so confident. It was sweet, although Paige knew Andi was just naïve about the music business. “Your voice is so amazing, better than GaGa or Britney or any of the pop-tarts. It’s as good as Celine Dion’s or even . . . La Streisand’s.”

“Flattery will get you everywhere.” Paige doused the main lights. “But you know I don’t want to get sucked into advertising and commercials. This is a one-time deal.” Keying in the code to arm the security system, she headed for the back door, clutching the cash pouch close to her chest. “Hurry, we only have ninety seconds.”

Andi rushed to catch up. “Everything that isn’t opera is not a sellout.”

“I’m not exclusively opera. I sing folk and jazz. Ballads.”

“And jingles.”

“And jingles. For now, anyway.”

As they scooted out the door, the phone started ringing.

Before Anndréa could say anything, Paige shook her head. “If that’s Uncle Hans, he’ll try my cell next. Otherwise, let them call tomorrow to ask whether we have the sheet music for some new hip-hop song. I’m off the clock at five.”

A valid excuse, but not the only reason she didn’t want to answer the call.

  • § §

Paige tore her headset off before the sound check ended. That throbbing hip-hop beat and the rhythmic chanting of the background singers hurt her ears. She could still hear the instrumental track through the glass walls of the recording studio booth. The sponsor’s commercial probably showed a parade of Volkswagen bugs putt-putting around a circus ring of dorky clowns.

The booth reeked of caramel popcorn. She inhaled the scented air greedily as her stomach growled, reminding her she hadn’t eaten. A full stomach took up too much room so that she couldn’t take deep singing breaths.

Plugging her ears against the run-through, she silently rephrased the lyrics two different ways, hoping the producer would give her a clue about his preferred rendition.

“You’re in trim with Goldy’s Gym. Keeping slim at Goldy’s Gym.”

The second way sounded good. And she had to admit it was catchy.

Alan McConnell, the guy who’d hired her, swatched the glass door open and poked his head into the booth. “We’re ready for the take.”

Startled, she twitched. For a moment she couldn’t process the content of his words, because his speaking voice was a beautiful baritone: a wondrous thing of light and shade and color expressed in terms of sound. Mostly a deep purple.

Why hadn’t he spoken through the headphones?

He gestured at the abandoned headset, then pantomimed covering his ears. “It’s a lot easier to hear me when you have those on, you know.”

She felt her cheeks coloring. “Sorry.”

His gaze roved up and down her dispassionately, as it had when she’d first walked into the studio. Paige wondered again exactly what it was that he disliked about her figure. Or her outfit. Or . . . what?

But the important element here was her voice, and he must like it, or he wouldn’t have approved her to do the spot. They’d run through a couple of “American Idol”-style snippets earlier, and then he’d handed her the sheet music that she’d been studying now for twenty minutes.

He looked into her eyes intently for a moment, making her nervous; had he changed his mind about using her? “Okay, Ms. . . .” He glanced down at the paperwork he held. “Campbell. I think we’re ready.”

Another staffer came up behind him wearing a denim jacket with the studio logo. Alan leaned over, and the man murmured something into his ear. He frowned.

The stranger held up her cell phone, which she’d been asked to leave in a bin at the front desk, turned off so that ringtones couldn’t inadvertently ruin a take. “Um, your phone keeps ringing.   We tried to turn it off, but there’s some problem. I thought the call might be important.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry.” She held out her hand for the phone. “It’s an older model, and it can be wonky.” Her cheeks burned as she flipped the phone open. Out of habit, she read the notification screen: 3 MISSED CALLS/3 VOICEMAIL MESSAGES.

That many? Could something be wrong? With her parents? The shop? Aunt Lil, whose illness had taken a lot out of Uncle Hans over the past three years? Her heart thudded.

All three calls were listed as PRIVATE NAME. Also, a text message. But it didn’t make any sense: I HAVE CROSSED BACK OVER TO SEE YOU. And the sender’s ID was nonsense–CASPER1850.

“Could we hurry this a bit? We’re ready for the take.” Alan sounded just a tad irritable.

The phone rang.

Another number she didn’t recognize. This definitely wasn’t good. She hadn’t meant to fool with the phone this long. Quickly she held down the power key, and when that didn’t result in a powerdown, she popped the battery free and handed both pieces to the stranger. “I’m so sorry,” she said again.

“No problem,” Alan said in an unreadably cheery tone.

Like many young moguls–he was probably twenty-five at the most, three years older than Paige, by her estimate–Alan seemed awfully self-assured. But he wasn’t conventionally gorgeous like so many in the entertainment field. Tall, maybe six-two, without being gawky; dark hair and eyes. A couple of crooked teeth on the bottom. An awfully high forehead with a widower’s peak. And she wasn’t sure what she thought of shoulder-length hair and earrings on guys. Wasn’t that out of style?

But on him, it seemed right. Of course, this was all theoretical. She wasn’t in the market.

A can of Joltin’ Cola waved near the doorway, as if to get her attention. “Miss Campbell?” Alan looked at her questioningly from behind his Buddy Holly glasses.

“I’m sorry,” she said yet again, and winced. She couldn’t stand women who were always apologizing, like some eighth-grade airhead.

A smile played around the corners of his full lips. “Just a few suggestions. They’d like you to emphasize the client’s name. If you can manage it without ruining the flow of the lyric. Watch your sibilants.”

Oops, she must’ve hissed in her audition.

“Any problems, hit the talkback button.”

She nodded solemnly. Slipping the headset on, she took a deep breath and waited for her cue.

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  • Jackie Taylor Zortman

    Nice blog, Denise. Congrats for winning the first chapter contest. Your book sounds interesting.

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