The Tower of Amber Lane
by Christine Vines
Issue #279 • July 22nd, 2021•Buy Now!
It’s the coldest day of the year in a small town in upstate New York. Snow has fallen for the past two weeks, but now, momentarily, it has stopped. White hillocks have been made of the trash bins, a sparkling white carpet rolled out over concrete stairs. The rooftops and chimneys wear matching white hats.
Lissa braces herself against the cold as she slings her bag of recycled bottles and cans into the bank of fresh snow at the curb, where they land with a muffled clinking. In a few hours, she’s meant to be up the hill, where her friends are throwing a house party on campus. But as the wind takes fanged snaps at her face and neck, she wonders if she might be content to stay home.
She hops back to her heated building for refuge and considers whether a twenty-minute walk in subzero weather is worth the night she can already imagine in detail—shots of coconut rum at Gwen’s request, puffs from Mitch’s hookah, people whose names she sometimes remembers balancing on couch backs and laughing into each other’s shoulders, and finally, after much resistance, letting Hallie pull her onto the countertop where they will dance both ironically and unironically to a Justin Bieber song from their freshman year.
Christine Vines is a fiction writer from Wichita, Kansas. Her work has appeared in Witness, Joyland, Electric Literature, the Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere. She was a runner-up for the 2018 Nelson Algren Literary Award and a fiction finalist for the 2018 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize from the Missouri Review. She was a 2018 W.K. Rose Fellow at Vassar College, a 2018-2019 Steinbeck Fellow, and a 2020 Marguerite and Lamar Smith Fellow at the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians. She received her MFA from Cornell University, where she also taught English and Creative Writing.
Patrick Ryan on The Tower of Amber Lane
A lot of wonderful fiction has come from writers examining post-traumatic stress disorder. Katie Rogin’s novel Life During Wartime and Phil Klay’s short story collection Redeployment come to mind. So do Edward St. Aubyn’s five Patrick Melrose novels (which, while diving deeply into addiction, all have their roots in sexual abuse). The subject matter can be discomforting and even painful, but good fiction, as Raymond Carver said, “is partly a bringing of the news from one world to another.” And that’s what good fiction about trauma and post-trauma does: it brings the terror to the reader in a way that transcends observation and becomes something much more intimate.
Christine Vines’ “The Tower of Amber Lane” is good fiction that brings difficult news. One of the many things I admire about this story is that, within a fairly short amount of narrative time, it renders the lead-up to the trauma and then, while taking a brief step over much of the event itself, settles into the immediate post-traumatic period. There’s a boldness at work here, a willingness to dive deep into the hours and the very minutes following a harrowing night in the life of Lissa, a college student who’s living on the edge of campus and trying to climb out of the fellow-college-student dating pool. The point of view is close, the voice is intimate, and the effect is beyond chilling. This story is fearlessly fearful—and perhaps all the more so because the reader is right there with Lissa as she struggles to make the right decisions in a world that doesn’t always share her definition of what’s right.
The first time I read “The Tower of Amber Lane,” I started off deep in an armchair and ended up on the edge of the cushion, my hands white-knuckled as I held the pages. Christine Vines has written a story about, as she puts it, “navigating safety in intimate encounters.” Safety, as Lissa learns, is a relative term, and trying to navigate it can be terrifying. One Story is proud to be publishing this powerful work of fiction by an emerging writer of great talent.
Q&A by Patrick Ryan
Over time, I started to see how the fairytale aspect was actually embedded in the story already. The frame was unnecessary adornment, even actively distancing the reader in ways that were probably related to my own anxiety of presenting the story raw. There was something comforting to me in giving the reader some cushion from it, but ultimately Lissa doesn’t have that same cushion and I realized that I didn’t want the story to feel cushioned, that that was not really sufficiently true.
Also, I like the resonance that a number has—a big, three-digit number especially—the sense that he’s one in a long list of men behaving this way. And of course, there’s the sense of place an area code evokes—the way Lissa’s relationship to this place is forever altered after this experience.
I’d say my approach to writing her fear was to center it in her body. That’s where fear and trauma express themselves, even when you haven’t mentally or emotionally processed their effect on you, so it felt right to focus on Lissa’s physical response throughout this story.