Under Western Skies

Two days ago I was dressed in my winter clothes, boots, coat, hat, and gloves, breaking ice in a water trough on our ranch, now I had on flip flops and a t-shirt and looked like I was ready to go to the beach. From the backseat of our pick-up I watched as a lush coastal valley came into view, unbelieving that this Wyoming cowgirl was moving to California.
“I thought you said this place was on the beach,” my younger sister complained when no ocean popped into view. My thoughts were similar but unlike her I said nothing, Katy was the one who spoke her mind.
“Aunt Marge said San Luis was inland a bit,” my mom answered from the driver’s seat.
“How far inland?”
“We’ll find out after we get Sarah’s stuff unloaded.”
Katy let out a long sigh then slumped back against the window. Behind me, in the bed of our pick-up sat a load of boxes representing my twenty years of existence. It wasn’t much, just clothing, books and a few personal items, but I didn’t need a whole lot because the cottage I had rented half-way through the school year came fully furnished. My mom followed the directions on her GPS and not long after we passed the college, we pulled up to a large, two-story, Spanish style home. Katy’s mouth dropped. It looked like a mansion from one of the California mission towns we had learned about in grade school.
“Is this place yours?” she asked.
“I think that’s my place in the back,” I said, pointing to a small cottage at the end of the paved drive. My mom backed the truck down the driveway and we all climbed out, stretching our legs before we walked into the courtyard, hedged in by boxwood, and found the key hidden under a potted geranium. Two large potted hydrangeas sat on either side of the two steps that led to the door and the entire courtyard was tiled in adobe tiles that had a deep blue flower mosaic embedded in the center.
My landlords were out of town and had left me a message about where to find the key. I slipped it into the lock and walked through the door of my new home. Light shone through the kitchen window facing the street. A bar separated the kitchen from the living room with cabinets overhead. The couch and coffee table looked new, along with the flat screen TV mounted to the wall above the gas fireplace. There was a tall empty bookshelf that would be full by the time I emptied my boxes. I let myself out the back slider and stepped onto a small wooden porch that had a barbeque and a patio table with four chairs and two lounge chairs. Back inside I found my mom and Katy checking out the bedroom, the only carpeted area in the small home, all the rest of the floors were a dark mahogany. There was double bed with a thick, dark headboard and footboard with matching nightstands and dresser along with a long framed mirror hanging on the wall. Across the hallway was the bathroom, tiled in travertine with an antique claw-foot tub tucked in the corner. The overall feel of the home was welcoming, simple, yet stylish. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. The rent here had been a steal compared to other apartments I had found online, yet this place was in far better condition than every other place I had researched.
“I just might dump UW and join you out here,” Katy said as we walked back out to the truck and began unloading boxes. The University of Wyoming was the only four-year college in Wyoming, where Katy was half-way through her freshman year and from which I had just transferred into California Polytechnic State University. I couldn’t argue with her, it had been bitter cold when we left the Bridger Valley on New Year’s Day. It didn’t take us long to get my things unpacked and tucked away into new cupboards and drawers so we decided to head into Pismo Beach, a town ten minutes south of San Luis Obispo. My cousin had recommend a popular clam chowder joint that my mom was excited for, but I couldn’t wait to see the ocean for the first time.
“What do you think, Sarah?” my mom asked as we drove down Highway 101 towards Pismo. I could tell she had been pleased with the home I had chosen during our unpacking, which was good because she wasn’t too keen on the idea of leaving her oldest daughter alone in a strange California town.
“I think it will do,” I said with a smile. A smile, I thought, that hadn’t happened in a while and it felt foreign, I had to fight to not suppress it. I turned my head, still embarrassed by my show of happiness and caught a glimpse of my reflection in the window, noticing the ever present dark circles that rested beneath my faded green eyes. The last ten months had taken their toll. I hoped this change of scenery would help rid my nights of insomnia and endless tears shed over Jeremy’s passing. My heart was broken, shattered really, and I was beginning to think it would never heal. I loved Wyoming and hated to leave it behind, but every sunrise and sunset, every gently snow fall and every breeze that rustled through the cottonwoods reminded me of Jeremy. My heart hadn’t been able to begin the healing process with daily reminders of his absence inflicting fresh wounds. Here, in California’s central coast, I planned to escape the memory of my blue-eyed cowboy. Here he didn’t exist. Here I had never existed with him. Here my heart would heal. I hoped.
The sun had begun to sink in the sky when we exited the canyon and I saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time.

14 thoughts on “Under Western Skies

  1. vanessafowler says:

    – I don’t get the feeling that Sarah is sad or trying to get away from the beginning – I think a clue or two to that end from the onset would be helpful.
    -The description of her place is nice, but it takes a long time and doesn’t seem to deserve that much attention.
    -I love that she sees the Pacific Ocean for the first time – it gives me the hope that really cool things are going to happen for her.
    -I think Ellen wrote somewhere that seeing the main character in a mirror – her description/eyes – is cliche or to be avoided. And what is faded green for eyes? That descriptions sounds too much like fabric in my opinion.
    -I like that they are going for clam chowder – not sure why, but it works well for me : )
    -The way you describe Jeremy’s passing feels a touch too melodramatic
    -Overall, I would love to find out what happens to Sarah. This seems like it will be a sweet read.

  2. Gentle Reader says:

    When I’m thumbing through books in a bookstore, you have about thirty seconds to hook me before I move on (and that’s if the cover of the book was interesting enough for me to pick it up in the first place). Your first 250 words have to be better than you ever dreamed possible. I’d start with something happening other than the protagonist driving in a car and reflecting on her situation. The first page is always a bad place for information dumps and backstory. Kick off your novel with some kind of opening disturbance. If you’re going to write in first person, a compelling voice with attitude is a must. Check out “I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You,” by Ally Carter. This is (imho) a novel with a strong first person voice that has attitude. The Kill Zone Blog has a wonderful library with a whole section devoted to novel openings (https://killzoneblog.com/tkz-library-2/openings). Check it out! Keep writing and good luck!

    • Nicole L Ochoa says:

      Thanks Gentle Reader. I will step it up a notch. Also, if you would like to tell me the story you wrote, I would love to return the critique. I truly appreciate your thoughts.

      • Gentle Reader says:

        Thanks, Nicole, but I didn’t submit anything here. I just stumbled onto this blog and took a break from my own editing to comment on a couple of the stories. Best!

  3. Sofie says:

    The voice is strong and the story kept my interest, even though there was a bit too much backstory. The backstory is interesting, but you could weave that into later chapters.

    Maybe you could put the last lines somewhere more to the beginning though? I assume that trying to heal and deal with Jeremy’s death is (I think) the character’s goal, so I would put that a bit more central.

    Good luck with your writing!

  4. Bjorn Schievers says:

    Ah! This is one of the few openings that hooked Ellen. Congratulations!!
    Even though Romance is not really my thing I remember reading your opening and liking the writing much. It’s very clear and flows nicely. Your specific attention for Californian details (Spanish style house, clam chowder…) made me feel like you’ve been there and you’re partially basing this on experience. Whether this is true or not, it makes the overall text feel quite real to me.

    I found the second line much more interesting than the first one, despite being long. To me it announces adventure of some sort because you’re not only saying she’s moving, but California is also a completely new world for her. Same thing with her seeing the Pacific for the first time. Adventure!

    I agree with Vanessa that Jeremy’s death is too melodramatic. I would cut it short to: ‘I hoped this change of scenery would help rid my nights of insomnia. I hated leaving Wyoming behind, but there were too many daily reminders of Jeremy. But here he didn’t exist and I had never existed with him. Here, in California’s central coast, I planned to escape the memory of my blue-eyed cowboy.’

    I would also make this part of the first three paragraphs. Up until reading about Jeremy’s death the story has an adventurous undertone but I think for most readers it won’t be enough. I think this baggage she’s trying to escape from will help make things more interesting early on. I also like that you try to set the two sisters apart early in the story and how you reveal Sarah’s age.

    A few specific things:
    – My knowledge of English is far from perfect but I think “San Luis was a bit inland” flows better.

    – I think I would leave part of the description of the inside of the house for later, because it feels a bit like you’re summing up an inventory. It reads well and it flows well, but I feel it’s a bit too much.

    – I don’t know if this is because I’m foreign, but I didn’t get what UW meant till I read University of Wyoming in the next line. So it might help non American readers to switch the full word and the acronym between those two lines. 🙂

    – ‘During our unpacking I could tell she had been pleased…’ I’d switch those two parts so it doesn’t sound like she chose the home while unpacking.

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