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An Excerpt From "Versus Nurture"
Wednesday, February 29, 2012

"Versus Nurture” is the new novella from Jonathan David Morris. Chris and Karen Ransom are just a couple of kids when they first meet in college in the days leading up to the war in Iraq. Still together nine years later, they receive some unexpected news—but before they can so much as sit back and consider it, they find themselves facing a decision so big, it will likely affect every person in the universe. The shocking first chapter is presented below in its entirety. The book is now available for Kindle and Nook, as well as in paperback.

• • •

He was sitting on an upside down bucket with his chin on his fist like Rodin’s Thinker.

“Chris?”

He looked up.

Karen was standing on the rickety basement staircase, her left hand wrapped around its rounded railing, her right hand splayed across her belly.

Christopher Ransom had heard his own name probably four billion times to that point in his life. At least two of those four billion had been from the mouth of Karen—usually followed by some kind of instruction, like Chris, take out the garbage or Chris, don’t drive so fast. There was something different about the way she said it now, her voice pitching up and rising at the end. She sounded almost surprised to see him, like she’d just ripped off the villain’s mask at the end of a Scooby-Doo.

“What are you doing?” she asked her husband, descending another step. Her feet slapped the wooden stairs like a round of lethargic clapping.

The basement floor was made of dirt. Not dirt on top of another surface. Dirt from underground. The house was about 150 years old (it was hard to tell; the town hadn’t started keeping records until 1900, and all the houses built before that year were simply attributed to that year), but in all that time, only one family besides the Ransoms had lived there, and amongst the other things they never thought to do—like installing cable or hooking up a washer and dryer—they’d never gotten it in their heads to pave the basement floor.

Chris and Karen had talked about paving it when they bought the place five years ago. Five years later, they still hadn’t. Karen, who always walked around barefoot (she didn’t like socks; they felt too restricting), hadn’t made it past the bottom step a single time since the day they signed the deal.

“I’m looking for it,” Chris told his wife, reiterating why he’d come down to the basement. Chris was surrounded on all four sides by unpacked cardboard boxes.

Karen descended another step—the final step before the dirt floor. “Any luck?”

“Not a lot, no.”

“You want me to help you look?”

A bluff if ever there’d been one, he thought. “Sure,” he said, not about to call her on it.

Instantly, as if it was no big deal, as if her entire history with this basement—or non-history with this basement—had never occurred, she descended the final step and trotted barefoot across the earthen floor. She walked normally—not with the tiptoed stance Chris might have reasonably expected. She knelt down before the cardboard box that sat in front of his upside down bucket. Photo albums sat inside it, surrounded by a moat of unopened yellow envelopes, each of them sporting red Kodak logos.

“What’s it look like again?” she asked her husband as she sifted through the box.

“Green and blue,” he told his wife. “And two of its edges are tattered.”

She removed a pair of identical brown albums, placing them on the floor. Chris didn’t need to look through them to remember what was in them. It was photos of the year they first met in college. He could still see a few of those photos in his mind, still see the moments—all the parties and the hangouts—those photos were attached to. There would be one of kids giving fingers to the camera. Another one of Chris and his buddy Stoltzfus sealing a perfect game of beer pong. Half a dozen of Karen puffing on cloves with half a dozen different people. Good times. Old times. Times that could never be repeated. Too many things had changed since then. And tonight had changed most everything.

She looked at him as if to wonder why he wasn’t helping. It was his idea to come down here, after all—his idea to grab that tattered-on-two-sides blanket.

Say something, he thought. He had to say something.

“Do you remember that philosophy class we took senior year?” he asked.

Not finding the blanket, that green and blue blanket, Karen replaced the photo albums and packets of photos in the cardboard box between them. “The Simonson one? Yeah. Why?” She tugged at the flap on a box to Chris’s left, pulling it closer so she could look through.

She was beautiful, he thought. It was late and Karen was in her pajamas—the oversized purple ones with the cartoon ducks in galoshes with umbrellas, which did her body precisely no justice. Her makeup had been removed for the evening, and her brown hair was pulled back in a tail. This was love. Because she was gorgeous like this. Because she was Karen. Because she was his.

Karen removed a crumbled wad of yellowed newspaper from the second box. Her one eyebrow crept up high on her forehead, as if to wonder, Is this what I think it is?

“I remember this one time in that class,” he said, “when we had this whole discussion on the idea of nature versus nurture. Are we already who we’re always gonna be on the day we’re born? Just a product of our DNA? Or does the world get to shape us? Do we get to learn and grow?”

She began peeling back the crumbled newspaper.

There were dozens of others just like it in the box.

“I remember Simonson turned to me,” said Chris, “and said, ‘Mr. Ransom, which one do you think it is?’”

Having peeled back the newspaper all the way, Karen now sat there holding a mug, which was white in color with blue words upon it: WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER. She reached in the mug and pulled out a silver-colored peace sign pendant, with four layers of fishing wire running through the hole, making it a necklace. “And what did you say?” she asked her husband. She placed the mug on the floor beside her, then dropped the pendant in her right pajama pocket.

“I said, ‘I don’t know,’” Chris went on, “‘but I’ll put ten bucks on the underdog.’”

“Why are you bringing this up?” she asked.

“Because tonight,” he said, “all bets are off.”

Something creaked, and they both looked up, staring at the old wooden joists that ran the width of the basement ceiling.

A moment passed, and they both remained quiet, awaiting a follow-up noise that never came.

Karen broke the moment. “Have you even started looking for this blanket?” she asked.

“No,” said Chris.

“Then what have you been doing?”

“Taking care of some business. And thinking.”

“About the blanket?”

“About my dad. I’ve just been sitting here thinking how there was this thing he always used to tell me. ‘Chris, there comes a time in every man’s life when he has to make a decision.’ I guess I never really got what the guy was trying to say, because as many times as I heard it, I always just rolled my eyes or shut the door and told him to stop annoying me.

“Tonight, I just wish the guy was still around. I just wish I could call him and tell him he was right.

“Or maybe ask him what he would do.”

The ceiling creaked again, and both of them eyed it. And although neither Chris nor Karen spoke, Chris could feel a certain energy between them—that both of them knew what this creaking sound meant, that they were running out of time.

“But then I think, ‘Chris, you know what to do. You know because it’s in you.’ Maybe it’s in my DNA. Or maybe it comes from life experience. But it doesn’t matter how it got there. It matters that it’s there. And now is the time when I need to use it. Now is that time in every man’s life.”

Karen moved the box between them to the side, and scooted closer to her husband, taking his hands in her own and resting them on his knees. “There is no blanket… is there…” she asked, her voice so resigned, so matter of fact, that when Chris visualized her words in his mind, he couldn’t find the question mark he knew in his gut belonged there.

“There is,” he said, “but not down here. It’s upstairs in my dresser.”

“Then what did you come down here for?” she asked.

“The solution to our dilemma.”

There was one other thing Chris’s dad used to say. It was the reason why he never kept a gun in the house. “Because guns are answers to questions,” he had said. “And once you’ve got a gun in the house, it answers every question there is.”

Chris pulled his hands out from inside Karen’s, shifted his rear end off the bucket, and lifted the bucket off the floor. There on the dirt, beneath where he’d been sitting, was a silver 9mm handgun. Loaded. Chris loved his father. Respected him. Looked up to him. But that didn’t mean they agreed all the time.

There had been a time when Chris never would have used this gun, when the simple fact that he kept it in their home wouldn’t have made sense even to him. But that didn’t matter. What mattered was that the weapon was here. Now was the time when he needed to use it. Now was that time in every man’s life.

“Tonight we have a problem,” he said, “and I’m making a decision. My hope is that, whatever you think of it, you’re going to choose to support me.”

Karen gulped as she looked the gun over.

The ceiling creaked, and they both looked up.

“You’re gonna kill us, aren’t you,” she said.

“I am,” he said, in perhaps the most solemn and reasonable tone he had ever said anything in at any point in his life. “Are you okay with that?”

She looked at the boxes sitting around her. She nodded and she blinked. “I am,” she said, her voice as solemn and reasonable as his was. It was almost as if she knew all along he was making this decision. Like she’d come downstairs playing it out in the theater in her mind; her only hope, Chris could tell by her voice, was that her dear husband would write the same ending. She paused to consider the consequences of her agreement, then looked her husband in the eyes. “But Chris,” she continued—his name sounding normal, as if she was using it properly this time, using it in an instructional context—“just do me a favor and make it efficient.”

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Jonathan David Morris is the author of Versus Nurture. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/readjdm.

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