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Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Next Big Thing

A couple of days ago, I was asked by my writer friend, the inimitable Tyler Tork, if I wanted to participate in an author-centered "blog hop."  (If you are unfamiliar with this phenomenon, think "chain letter for bloggers," and you have the idea.)  I thought it sounded cool -- answer a few questions about my work-in-progress, and then pass the baton to other writers.  It's a chance for our readers to find out a little about what we're currently working on, which is always fun.  So, without further ado, here are my questions and answers.

1.  What is the working title of your next book?

It's called Lock & Key.  A wooden lockbox, and the intricate silver key that unlocks it, figures prominently in it.

2.  Where did the idea come from for your book?

Well, there are two answers to this, the first one being, "Who the hell knows?"  Ideas tend to pop into my head unbidden, and while sometimes I can pinpoint where they came from, most of the time, they just seem to explode into being, usually in the form of one or two powerful images, that I then have to write a story to explain.  For this one, there is at least a partial further explanation, however; my younger son, who is interested in such bizarre fields as quantum physics, was having a discussion with me about the "Many-Worlds" interpretation of quantum phenomena.  The idea of this theory is that at every junction in the history of the universe, all possible outcomes did happen -- just in alternate timelines in the space/time continuum.  (Note that whatever Geordi LaForge might have to say about the matter, this is a conjecture that is far from proven, and in fact it very much remains to be seen whether it would even be possible to prove it.)  In any case, after one such mind-bending conversation, I got to thinking, "Wouldn't it be cool if there was a place where all of the possible outcomes were kept track of -- where you could, if you wanted, look up what would have happened had someone acted differently?"  And that was the genesis of the opening scene in the novel -- when the main character, the hapless bookstore owner Darren Ault, finds himself suddenly propelled into the Library of Timelines after his best friend, physicist Lee McCaskill, tries to kill him.

3.  What genre does your book fall under?

Like most of my novels and short stories, I'd call it "speculative fiction."  Some people would say that it's "science fiction," because it does involve time travel -- but I don't really agree with that, because unlike most writers of science fiction, the how doesn't interest me much -- the workings of time machines, spaceships, and so on.  What fascinates me endlessly, and (really) what all of my stories riff on in some fashion, is how characters react when their world is turned upside down by events that they never thought could happen.  How can you explain something that is completely outside of your experience?  It's the people, and their reactions, that drive the story.

4.  What is your synopsis or blurb for this book?

Darren Ault is a mild-mannered bookstore owner in Seattle, Washington, who is invited for a visit by his best friend, Lee McCaskill.  No one is more surprised than Darren when, in the middle of dinner, Lee pulls out a pistol and shoots him in the head.  But the surprises aren't over; far from being killed, Darren escapes without a scratch, but finds that the event has somehow made the entire human race vanish.  This launches him on an adventure that involves a beautiful red-haired Scottish lass from the 10th century, a chronically depressed Norwegian silversmith, some religious crazies from 19th century Kentucky, Vikings, a manic and murderous highwayman, and the Library of Timelines -- the place where all of the possibilities, for everyone in the history of the world, are tracked, monitored, and chronicled.

5.  What actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Darren Ault -- I'm thinking Shia LaBeouf.  Knows how to play a hapless nerd, but has some basic sex appeal.
Archibald Fischer, Head Librarian of the Library of Timelines -- Tom Felton.  He had the sullen thing down pat as Draco Malfoy.
Maggie Carmichael, Fischer's administrative assistant and right-hand woman -- Tilda Swinton.  No doubt about it.
Maire Gillacomgain, the lass Darren is supposed to save from a fate worse than death at the hands of the Vikings -- Karen Gillan.  She has the red hair and the lovely Scottish accent.
Per Olafsson, the depressive Norwegian silversmith -- Paul Bettany.
Brother Zebulon Bell, leader of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ Risen and Triumphant Through Suffering -- I think if you put a white suit and a straw hat on Vincent d'Onofrio, he could pull it off.
Jane Bell, Brother Zebulon's free-thinking daughter -- Olivia Wilde.
John Andrews Murrell, the insane highwayman -- Johnny Depp.
Lee McCaskill, Darren's best friend and (attempted) murderer -- Chris Hemsworth.  If he can do Thor, he can do a homicidal physicist.

6.  Will your book be self-published, or represented by an agency?

I've completely given up on traditional publishing, after (literally) hundreds of attempts even to get a reading by an agent.  I'm now self-publishing electronically.  It may not be the road to fame and riches, but it's working for now.

7.  How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Well, I'm not done yet.  But this book has had an interesting history; I started it (first twenty pages or so) almost ten years ago, and then put it aside because I couldn't see where I was going with it.  My writer friend Cly Boehs, who had heard that bit of it, encouraged me to pick it up again -- she said the whole concept of the Library of Timelines was just too good to give up on.  So I sat down and basically mapped out the path the story would take, and I've been working on it steadily since then.  If you added up how long I've put into it thus far, I'd say it totals about eight months.  I'm guessing it'll be a year and a half total to have a finished manuscript.

8.  Who or what inspired you to write this book?

As I've said, the two people who really launched this idea were my son Nathan and my pal Cly.  Without them, I wouldn't be writing this right now (although I'd probably be writing something else; working on something is pretty much a perpetual state for me).

9.  What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Well, I'm not sure there's anything else I've read that's quite like the plot of this book.  Stylistically, I owe a lot to Christopher Moore and Terry Pratchett; their ability to take wacky situations and drop characters into them to see how they react is basically a model for how I write.  (This book has a lot of funny moments, as do most of Moore's and Pratchett's books; but a lot of my writing is scary/disturbing, and for that aspect of my writing I'd say I draw from inspirations like Neil Gaiman, H. P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King.)

10.  What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

I've tried to work in real historical figures and events throughout, to give it a solid substructure of fact within which the plot can develop.  John Andrews Murrell, for example, was a real highwayman in 19th century Kentucky and Tennessee, although I doubt he was as crazy as I'm portraying him.  There were various plots against King Magnus of Norway, although my involvement of the (real) Archbishop of Trondheim is a fabrication, and I hereby apologize for slandering his memory by implicating him in one.  Darren's visit to Norway lands him there in the middle of the Black Death, which was (obviously) a real event, and one which I've always found morbidly fascinating (I set my novella We All Fall Down during the same period, in central England).  So along the way, you meet some interesting real characters, and witness some interesting real events, along with the rather frenetic fictional quest that Darren is trying to accomplish -- undoing the damage to humanity's past that Lee McCaskill unwittingly caused, and bringing everyone back from the paradoxical void.

11.  Who's next in the Blog Hop?

I'm tapping three folks -- make sure you check out their blogs!

1)  The incomparable K. D. McCrite, who has been a continual source of encouragement to me
2)  Jeff "Smoke" Tsuruoka, writer of monster stories
3)  Christina Esdon, actress, writer, and occasional mermaid

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Cellar Hole

Be careful who you talk to in dark places.

***************************************

The Cellar Hole


            It was boredom that drove Jeb Shay up into the hills north of the village.  He was 18, had finished his schooling the previous June, and still lived at home, working part-time at Leckey’s General Store to contribute at least a little to the family coffers.  He worked enough hours stacking jars and cans, dusting shelves, and sweeping to justify the meager paycheck he got every week from Bart Leckey, and gave enough of it to his parents to keep them from hounding him about the amount of time he spent idling. 
            No one in his family troubled much over him.  They never had, really.  His father was a silent man, not given to saying anything more than was absolutely necessary.  His mother often seemed preoccupied with her own problems, not least of which was the vexing question of how a vital, lively young woman had somehow become the middle-aged, graying housewife to a man who hardly ever looked at her, much less spoke to her.  Jeb’s older brother, Leonard, was 21, had gotten a two-year degree at the local college in bookkeeping, and had a steady job as the assistant to the village’s CPA; he spent all of his free time courting Sue Lounsbery, and from the bit of spying on them that Jeb had done during the previous year, they were soon to be married or soon to have no real choice in the matter.  Jeb’s younger sister, Sally, was 15, and was the academic star in the family, and despite her gender looked to be the only one of them that had a shot at a four-year college.  Sally Shay was likely to be a teacher or a nurse, given her brains, drive, and independence, and her eagerness to get out of the dark and still home in which she had been raised.
            Jeb, on the other hand, had neither a goal like his sister, nor an active romance like his brother; all Jeb had was jealousy, a lazy streak, and a bad case of middle-child syndrome.  He was left alone for the most part, and no one noticed him unless he overslept or was late for dinner.
            So it was that one day in early November, having done his shift at Leckey’s and still facing three hours before he had to be home, he struck off up the hill behind the general store, through leafless maple trees and past old stone walls that had been the boundaries of smallholdings a hundred years ago, and now marked nothing, accomplished nothing, only got in the way.
            Just like Jeb.
            He tugged his jacket tighter around him to block the wind, and worked his way in a zigzag fashion up the long, rocky slope.  It was steeper than he’d expected, and he was breathing hard before he got halfway to the top, and turned to rest and to see what he could see from his higher vantage point.  From here he could see the rooftops of Guildford, chimneys breathing out wood smoke.  He saw a shiny black Model A, just purchased that year by the village mayor, Charlie Upshaw, purring its way down Main Street toward the village offices, finally disappearing behind the old courthouse building.
            The village seen from above lost his interest quickly (Just like it does from down below, he thought glumly), and Jeb turned and continued his ascent.  He followed the line of a low stone wall, and soon came to the overgrown, tilted slabs of an old house foundation, nestled in one of the few flat spots on the hill’s steep slope.
            I wonder who lived here, Jeb thought.  No one’s lived up on the hill since I can remember.  I could ask Bart.  Bart Leckey prided himself on his knowledge of the village’s history, and undoubtedly would have an answer, although Jeb had privately wondered at times how much of it was true and how much made up so that Bart wouldn’t have to admit ignorance, something the shopkeeper hated doing.
            Next to what was left of the foundation was a vertical piece of wall with a gaping, dark hole in the center – an opening into what had once been the house’s cellar.  Jeb went around and knelt next to it, and peered in, but the sun was slanting at the wrong angle and nothing could be seen of its dark interior.
            And then a female voice, from inside, said, “Hello.”
            Jeb leaped to his feet, and backed away, his breath coming in a thin whine.
            The voice laughed.  “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”
            “Merciful Jesus,” Jeb said.  “What are you doing in there?”
            “What are you doing out there?” the voice countered.
            “Talking to you,” Jeb said.
            “Well, then.  I’m talking to you, that’s what I’m doing in here.”
            “But why are you in the cellar?”
            “Maybe I was waiting here to talk to you.”
            Jeb frowned.  “How did you know I was coming?  I didn’t know, myself, not until I finished my shift at the store.”
            “Just a hunch.”  There was a smile behind the voice as she said, “Come closer.  You don’t need to be afraid.”
            Jeb walked back to the cellar hole, and knelt down.
            “You’re awfully handsome,” she said.
            “Thanks.”  Jeb blushed.  “Not as handsome as my brother, though.”
            “Well, I haven’t seen your brother, but I have seen you, and I think you’re awfully handsome.”
            “Thanks,” he said again.  “Don’t you want to come out?”
            “Not really.  I like it in here.  It’s cozy, and out of the wind.”
            “Oh.”  Jeb squinted, trying to get a glimpse of who was talking to him, but the darkness defeated him.  “What’s your name?”
            She laughed.  “I think I’ll let you guess about that for a little while.  Mystery is appealing, you know.”
            “Do I know you?”
            “Maybe.  You’ll just have to figure it out.”
            The wind gusted, causing the branches of the maple trees to creak against each other, and making Jeb shudder.
            “Are you cold?”
            “Yes.  It’s freezing.”
            “I’d invite you in, but you know, it’s not proper, a boy and a girl on first meeting.  You understand?”
            “Oh.  Sure.  Yes.”
            “Then we’ll just have to look forward to our second meeting, then.  You will come back?”
            “When I can.”
            “Good.”  It sounded like a dismissal.
            “I’ll see you soon,” Jeb said.
            “Yes.  Yes, you will.”

            By the time Jeb got to his house, he was half convinced that he had imagined the whole thing.  He went about his chores, helped with dinner, and no one much spoke to him, as usual.  All that evening, the voice of the strange girl haunted him.  There was something familiar about it – but what girl he knew would be up there, on the hill behind the general store, hiding in an old cellar hole?  He tried out the idea of various girls he knew – ones he’d gone to school with, girls who came in with their parents to shop at Leckey’s, friends of his sister’s.  None of them fit.  None had the right voice, and certainly no girl he knew would have ventured into an abandoned cellar.
            The wind had risen to a howl by the time he went to bed, and the radiator was clanking in a futile effort to warm up his bedroom when he went in to ready himself for bed.  He got undressed, donned his pajamas, and pulled an extra blanket out of the chest at the foot of his bed before putting out the lights and climbing under the covers.  Relaxation eluded him for some time, but finally, he felt himself drift into that comfortable half-doze that precedes a gentle drop into the true realm of sleep.
            And then something touched his lips.
            He was startled into instant wakefulness, and pulled himself into a half-sitting position, leaning on his elbows.  There came a soft laugh.
            “I told you, we’d meet again soon,” the voice whispered, in the darkness.  And then there was another touch on his lips; another mouth, warm and moist, pressed against his.
            “How did you get in here?” Jeb asked, a little breathless, as the kiss broke.
            “Are you asking me to leave?” she said, a pout in her voice.
            “No!”
            “Good.  Because, you know, this is our second meeting.”  She kissed him again, and he reciprocated.
            “But… who are you…?” he said.
            “I don’t think you really care,” she said, laughter in her voice.  An unseen hand pulled the blankets back.  Jeb felt a tug on his pajama bottoms, and moments later, he was swallowed up by pleasure.

            The next morning, he awoke, alone, twisted in a tangle of blankets.  His brain felt logy, sludgy, like he couldn’t quite put two thoughts together.  He got out of bed, at that point discovered that his pajama bottoms were a damp mess, and hurried to the bathroom hoping he wouldn’t meet anyone on the way.
            Fifteen minutes later, he’d cleaned himself up, rinsed his pajamas and brought them into his bedroom to hang on the radiator to dry, and dressed.  Then he headed downstairs, still feeling like his brain was wrapped in cotton wool, but hoping that food would help.
            He was working at the store that morning, so he fixed himself some oatmeal, and then consumed it in silence at the kitchen table.  His mother came in, dressed in her pale blue bathrobe, and put on coffee and sliced bread to toast, all without acknowledging his presence.
            “Hi, Mom,” Jeb finally said.
            Mrs. Shay jumped.  “Oh, Jeb!” she said, brushing a stray lock of hair back from her face.  “I didn’t see you there.”  She turned back to the loaf of bread.  “Are you working this morning?”
            “Yes.  I work till three o’clock.”
            “I see.  Would you like some toast?”
            “No, thank you.  I just had some oatmeal.”  He got up, rinsed his bowl and put it on the rack to dry, and gave his mother a kiss on the cheek.  “I’ll see you this afternoon.”
            “Have a nice day, Jeb.”
            Jeb donned his jacket and went outside.  The wind had died down, but it was still chilly and gray, and the ten-minute walk to the store was cheerless.   He passed two people he knew, but they didn’t greet him, and Jeb himself still felt too shaken and confused to feel up to saying hello himself.
            What had happened last night?  He’d had dreams of that sort before; he supposed every man did, sometimes.  But this dream was different.  There was something about it that seemed more real, not only than other dreams, but than reality itself.  While in the midst of it, he’d felt like every sense was stretched to the snapping point.  And now… he felt like there was something gone from him, some vital spark that he couldn’t quite conjure up.  He no longer felt groggy; he felt, on some level, not quite there.
            He opened the front door of the store, and went behind the front counter and donned his apron.  Bart Leckey came out from the back storeroom, humming tunelessly through his thick mustache, and almost ran into Jeb as he walked over to the cash register.
            “Jeb!” Leckey said, huffing a little.  “I didn’t hear the bell ring.  I didn’t know you’d come in.”
            That’s because the bell didn’t ring when I came in, Jeb thought, but he decided that saying this to Bart Leckey would just have brought up questions he couldn’t answer.   In the end, Jeb just shrugged.  “What do you need me to do today, Mr. Leckey?”
            “Oh, the usual,” Bart said, frowning at Jeb nearsightedly.  “Just dust and sweep.  The wind yesterday blew in dust and leaves, and of course there’s what folks track in.  It’s a never-ending battle.”
            The day passed in tedium, a steady stream of customers, a steady slow-motion list of menial tasks, the clock ticking the seconds out far too slowly.   He took fifteen minutes to eat an apple and a paper bag full of peanuts he’d bought for lunch – Bart gave him a discount on everything he or his family purchased, so it was easier just to eat something from the grocery store shelves and have Bart deduct the few pennies it cost from his next paycheck.  Then it was another three long hours of boredom before the clock stood at three, and Jeb was able to shuck his apron, write down his hours (and his lunch purchases) in the ledger, and escape into the cold November day.
            He found that his feet were heading back up the hill without any real conscious decision being made.  He half expected the old house foundation, and the dark maw of the cellar hole, to be gone; a figment of his imagination, or part of the bizarre dream from the previous evening.  But there it was, surrounded by a tangle of blackberries and osier.  His heart beat a little faster as he knelt, and looked into the darkness.
            “Are you in there?” he said, quietly, a little embarrassed.
            “Of course,” came her voice.
            “Did you…”  He swallowed, the redness coming into his cheeks, and hoped she wouldn’t notice.  “Did you come to my house last night?”
            “Of course,” she said again, and giggled.  “Who did you think it was?”
            “No,” he said quickly.  “I knew it was you.  I just… I just wondered if I might have dreamed it.”
            “No, it wasn’t a dream.”
            “I didn’t know…”  He paused, and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and index finger.  Why wouldn’t his brain work?  He felt mired, like he could barely produce a coherent thought.  “I didn’t know you were going to do that.”
            “Didn’t you like it?”
            “Yes, of course I liked it!  But… I don’t… I mean, I don’t even know your name.”
            “Like I said last night, does that matter?”
            “It should.”
            She laughed.  “By which you mean, it doesn’t.  Right?”
            “I don’t know.  I just… I didn’t know…”  He stopped.
            “If you don’t want me to come back,” she said, “all you have to do is tell me.  Tell me you don’t want me, and that will be that.  No… hard feelings.”  There was just the slightest pause, and a hint of mockery, in the last phrase.
            “Were you going to come back, then?”
            “That depends.”
            “Depends on what?”
            “Whether you want me to.  I can be with you every night, if you want.”
            “You would… you would do that?”
            “If you ask.”
            “I…”  He paused, licked his lips.  “Okay, I’m asking.”
            She laughed.  “I wondered how long it would take you.”

            Three mornings later, Jeb stood naked in front of the bathroom mirror, looking for marks.
            She had bitten him the previous night; he was sure of it.  Just as he was teetering on the edge, his backbone arched like a bow, he felt her teeth clamp down on the muscle in his shoulder.  It didn’t hurt; or, more accurately, the pain was so wrapped up in the pleasure that it seemed like it was all one thing.  He looked, bleary-eyed, at his reflection, at the angle between his neck and shoulders, expecting there to be a neat, serrate bite mark there, with maybe a little bit of dried blood, but there was nothing.  His skin was smooth and undamaged – but when he touched the spot, it was sensitive, like there was an invisible bruise hovering just underneath the skin, out of sight.
            He held one hand up, in front of his face, held it close enough to his eyes that the outlines were blurry and transparent.
            I’m vanishing, came a thought out of nowhere.  She’s eating me alive.
            Nonsense, came a more prosaic voice.  You just aren’t used to nights like this.  It’s what you wanted, it’s what you were so jealous of when you used to spy on your brother making out with Sue Lounsbery.  Now you have it.  Enjoy it.
            Soon you’ll be gone, the answer came, as if it hadn’t heard.  Blown away like a dead leaf.
            He dropped his hand to his side, and then slowly, mechanically, put on his clothes, went downstairs to breakfast, went off to work, where no one spoke to him, no one even saw him there, a shadow among other shadows.

            That night, he ate dinner without speaking to his parents or his siblings.  His sister was eager to get to her studies, his brother to his usual tryst with Sue Lounsbery; and soon it was just Jeb there, with Mr. and Mrs. Shay, silverware clinking against plates, the quiet sounds of a meal among people who hardly know what to say to one another.
            Jeb finished eating, and looked from his father to his mother.  He wanted to get to his room; he didn’t know when the woman would come to him, but he could already feel the desire rising in him.  His mind was playing over what they had already done together, and thinking about what undreamed heights she might take him to that night.  It was only a little after seven; she might not come for three hours, or more, and he wondered how he would manage to wait that long.
            She is stealing your mind, came a warning voice, in his thoughts.  She wants all of you.  She started with your groin, now she’s taking your mind; your heart will be next.
            Again, he forced the voice away from him.  Stop listening, said a voice, and it sounded like a little like his own voice, and a little like hers.
            If she isn’t evil, then why does she say that you have to turn the lights off before she’ll come to you?
            Because what we do can only be done under cover of darkness, came the voice, sweet and seductive, and now it was clearly her voice.
            “May I be excused?” he said, setting down his napkin next to his plate.
            His mother looked up at him, and frowned, as if seeing him for the first time that evening.
            “Of course, Jeb.”
            He stood, tugging his shirt down to hide his erection, and turned to make his way upstairs to his bedroom.
            “Jeb?”
            He half turned back.  “Yes?”
            Mrs. Shay looked at him curiously, anxiously.  “Are you all right?  You don’t look… yourself.  You seem pale.”
            “No, Mother, I’m fine.”
            “Are you sure?”  She twisted her napkin between her hands, looked at her husband, who just gave a little shrug and said nothing.  “It just seems like…”
            Like I’m not here, came the thought, unbidden, but the desire was stronger, the need for what his unseen lover could do, would do to him, would make him feel.
            “I’m fine, Mother.  There’s nothing wrong.”  He managed a smile, and she smiled back, faltered a little, and then visibly relaxed.
            “All right.  That’s good.  You know, it’s so easy to catch a chill in the winter.  I wondered if you might be ill.”
            “There’s no need to worry about me,” he said, and turned back away toward the stairs, feeling the heat rising in his loins.  Any thoughts of pushing his strange lover away were gone, chased from his mind by raw need.  No, he thought, and as he ascended the stairs his smile took on a quite different quality, one his mother would not have recognized.  Chilled is the last thing I feel right now.

            And so it went.  Work, silence at home from parents and siblings, each night new pinnacles of desperate pleasure, and each day his reflection in the mirror looked less… there.  Every morning he checked his body for marks; there was one night that she spent minutes that felt like hours, her warm mouth pressed on the skin above his heart, while his naked body writhed in a desperate twist of pain and ecstasy, and he bit his lip till the blood flowed to keep from crying out and awakening his sister who was sleeping in the next room.  But there was nothing there the next morning, no bruise, just a tender spot on his chest, right above his left nipple, that ached under his touch.
            And as he walked to work that morning, he was quite sure that when said hello to Mrs. Wentworth, who had been his ninth grade writing teacher, she looked around to see who had spoken to her… and then looked right through him and kept on walking.

            “Mr. Leckey?” Jeb said, just before quitting time, three days later.
            Bart Leckey turned around, and frowned.  “Oh, it’s you.  I thought you’d already left for the day.”
            “It’s only 2:45.  My shift goes until three o’clock.”
            “Well, of course.  What is it, then?”
            “Do you know who used to live up there on the hill?  There’s an old house foundation up there.”
            Leckey’s frown deepened.  “Well, that hasn’t been a house for, oh, probably a good seventy years now.  Belonged to a family named Curtiss.  Long gone, upped stakes and moved west, to Iowa, I heard.  Place fell into ruins, land taken for taxes.  Still belongs to the county, I daresay.”  He paused.  “Why?  What’re you doing up there?”
            “I was out for a walk, and came across it.”
            “Is that so?  Well, might be better you didn’t.”
            “Why?  It doesn’t look dangerous.  There’s barely any of it left.”
            “It’s just…”  Leckey chewed on the end of his mustache, and gave Jeb a queer look.  “It’s best left alone.  People have gone missing up there.”
            “I’ve never heard of any.”
            “Hasn’t happened in a while.  Last one I knew of happened when I was a young man.  Fellow named Harkins.  Richer’n Croesus, became convinced there was buried gold up there.  Wouldn’t tell anyone how he knew; just hinted that he’d ‘heard tell from someone who knowed.’  He kept going back, you know, you’d see him going up the hill, every day, carrying a pick and a shovel.  One day he didn’t come back down.”
            “What happened to him?”
            “Couldn’t tell you,” Leckey said.  “No one ever found a body, so hard to say for sure.  Only thing I could think of was that he’d gone crazy and got lost.  But there was some as said he’d been tricked, that there was something up there on that hill that catches people by whatever their weak point is.  Draws ‘em away, eventually they’re so lost they can’t find their way back again.  Harkins – well, if there was a way to catch him, money was it.”  He made a snorting noise.  “Like as not, that’s just a lot of foolishness.  Harkins probably got lost up there, or fell and broke his leg and starved.  Bad end, but no need to talk about evil spirits.”
            No, came a purring voice in Jeb’s ear.  No need at all.
            “Thanks,” Jeb said.  “I think my shift is about over.  Can I go now?”
            “Certainly, Jeb.  I’ll see you tomorrow.”

            Jeb trudged up the hill, as the wind grabbed at him and flung specks of snow in his face.  There was a thin white crust of it around the cellar hole when he got there.
            “Are you there?” he said, his voice weak, and sounding as if it were coming from far away.
            “Of course!”  Her voice was strong, vital, filled with life.
            “I talked to Mr. Leckey today.  He knows about you.”
            “I know you talked to him.  I was there.  But he doesn’t know much, and most of what he thinks he knows is wrong.”
            “What are you?”
            The voice was sweet, seductive.  “Only what you need me to be.”
            “Did you kill Mr. Harkins?  Way back, when Mr. Leckey was young?”
            “Kill him?  Why would I do that?”
            Jeb lay down on his belly, with his face right next to the dark opening.  He squinted.  He thought he could see a shape, a vague, human shape, just inside, but it was out of reach of the light from outside.
            “You hooked him.  Mr. Leckey said you did.  You hooked him by his weak point.  That’s what you do.”
            “Oh, then,” the voice said, laughing, “I guess we know where your weak point is.”
            “That wasn’t fair,” Jeb said.
            “What wasn’t fair about it?  I gave you a chance.  I gave you a taste, then I offered you a choice.  I told you then that if you asked me to go away, I would.  And I would have.  I never lie.”  She paused.  “You begged me.  Just last night.  You begged me to keep on, to make you feel what you were feeling.”
            “I’m not begging now.”
            “No,” she said, and her voice turned harsh.  “I see that.  So what is it you want?”
            “Go away,” Jeb said, and rested his cheek on his hands.  “Go away.  Let me be.”  His voice was muzzy, slurred.
            “Oh, but Jeb, my darling, my lover,” she said, “I think it is far too late for that.  What you have left is hardly anything at all.”  A sad, pitying tone came into her voice.  “I thought you’d last longer, I honestly did.  I didn’t know how easy it would be to empty you.  Perhaps you weren’t anything much to start with.”  She paused.  "Or maybe I was just hungry.  It has been a long time, after all.  Far too long."
            “Please,” Jeb said, as his eyes closed.

            Ten minutes later, a deer minced its way through the little dip in the side of the hill.  It avoided the cellar hole, by some primal instinct against danger; but it looked for a time with its liquid brown eyes at the outline of a man, stretched on the ground, a silhouette in dead leaves and dark earth that was bare of snow.  But then the wind blew, and the snow came down harder, and the outline was blurred and lost in a haze of white crystals.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Lock & Key - another excerpt...

Here's another bit from my work in progress, Lock & Key.  In this scene, our hero, Darren Ault, has just been informed that he's being sent back to 14th century Norway to repair a divergence in the space-time continuum.  Or something like that.  Truth be told, even the Head Librarian of the Library of Timelines, Fischer, and Maggie Carmichael (his ultra-efficient administrative assistant) aren't entirely clear about what's he's supposed to accomplish.  And unfortunately for Darren, trying to fix something when he's not even sure what he's supposed to fix is not the worst problem he's facing.

********************************
 
            “Fine,” Darren said.  “All right, I’m ready.”
            Maggie looked over at Fischer.  “You need to tell him before he leaves,” she said, giving her boss a disapproving frown.
            “He’ll find out when he gets there,” Fischer said, shifting from one foot to another, like a child caught in a lie.
            “Fischer, that’s not fair,” Maggie said.  “Tell him.”
            Fischer looked at Darren, and cleared his throat.  “Um, maybe you should know what was happening in Norway in 1350.”
            “What?  Was there a war or something?”
            “No, no war.  Just this thing.  There was this sort of… um… plague going on at the time.”
            Darren’s eyes widened.  “A plague?  What kind of plague?”
            “Well, it was sort of,” Fischer said, and winced a little, “sort of… the Black Death.”
            “The Black Death?” Darren said, his voice rising to a hysterical squeak.  “You’re sending me back there during the Black Death?”
            “Well, that’s when the divergence happened.  Not my choice.  Just, um… watch out for rats.  And fleas.”
            “Watch out for fleas?” Darren shouted.  “How do I watch out for fleas?”
            “I don’t know.  Take lots of baths.”  Fischer gave Darren an uncomfortable smile.  “Anyway, off you go.  Remember, you’re trying to find some guy named Per Olafsson.  Ask around.  There can’t be many Per Olafssons.”
            “Now wait a minute, Fischer, you can’t just send me somewhere when they’re in the middle of a freakin’ plague…”  But Fischer flicked his fingers at Darren, as if he were brushing off a fly, and Fischer’s office was suddenly replaced by a chill, windy darkness and silence that seemed, to Darren’s mind, distinctly plague-like.

            At first, Darren thought that there was something wrong with his eyes.  Then he wondered if he’d materialized inside a cave, or in a dungeon.  The darkness around him seemed absolute.  Then he remembered his last night in Scotland – the total, cloying darkness, in the absence of any sort of artificial light source, a darkness that most modern humans never experience.  But once his eyes had a minute to adjust, he realized that it wasn’t completely dark.  In the distance were spots of a faint, yellowish glow that looked like they could have been candles or torches.   It wasn’t much, but it gave his eyes something to focus on and his brain something to hope for.  He walked toward them, down what seemed to be some sort of tree-lined road, although it was hard to tell in the dark.
            The wind was incessant, and icy.  Darren had thought that the Hebrides in summer was cold; here, Darren could feel his ears and fingertips going numb within five minutes after his arrival.  His foot found a puddle, and there was a cracking sound as his sneaker broke through a rind of ice and his foot sank up to the ankle in frigid mud.  Swearing, he pulled his shoe free, and continued to trudge toward the light, which had resolved into a collection of low buildings whose windows held oil lanterns, guttering smokily, and producing a jaundiced glow against grimy panes of glass.
            “Charming place,” Darren muttered under his breath.  “All this, and the plague, too.  What else can go wrong?”
            And that was when he heard a sudden thudding noise, and turned just in time to be knocked flying by a running horse that struck him broadside.  He was airborne for what seemed an amazing amount of time – he had time to think, Broke my cardinal rule.  Never ask “What else can go wrong?”  Because the next thing you know, things go further wrong, like being trampled by a wild horse.  It figures.  And then his head struck something solid, and there was an explosion of fireworks inside his skull, and his consciousness winked out like a snuffed candle.

            Darren opened his eyes, an uncertain amount of time afterwards, to find himself on his back on what seemed to be a straw-filled mattress, to judge by the crunching noises it made when he stirred.  There was no wind, but it was only marginally warmer, despite the fact that he was under some kind of covering made of singularly scratchy wool.  The back of his head was throbbing, and he moaned a little, tried to sit up, and almost immediately decided that this wasn’t a good idea.
            An oil lamp, with a greasy-looking flame that illuminated almost nothing, seemed to detach itself from its perch across the room, and float upwards through the air toward Darren.  It finally stopped, hovering right over him, and Darren squinted at it.  He could barely make out a gnarled hand holding it, and then, still in deep shadow, an even more gnarled face, a face neither clearly male nor clearly female, a face that looked like a shriveled apple, all creases and lumps and crags.  It was framed by a few thin wisps of white hair.  A voice with the timbre of an unoiled gate said, “Don’t sit up.”
            “I’m not going to,” Darren said.
            “Knocked your head a good one, you did.  Shouldn’t get in a horse’s way, especially not Thorvald’s stallion.  Bloody dangerous beast, he is.  Bit the tip of my great-nephew Bjorn’s nose off, poor lad, all ‘cause he thought to offer him a bit of a turnip.  Now he wears a clamp bit on his face.”
            “Bjorn?”
            “No, Thorvald’s horse.  To keep him from biting.  Doesn’t help poor Bjorn, but I s’pose it’s better than nothing.”  The person with the lamp paused for a moment.  “He has the devil’s own time breathing on account of it.”
“The horse?”
“No, Bjorn.  Doctor tried to stitch his nose back together but it didn’t work, and he looks like he has a lump of putty in the middle of his face.  Snores something terrible.  Sounds like someone strangling a goat.  Keeps the whole house awake at night.”
“That’s a pity.”
“It is that, stranger, it is that.”  The voice paused again.  “What’s your name, and where are you from?  Your clothes are odd, and I’m guessing you’re not from Trondheim.”
“My name is Darren.  Darren Ault.”  Darren left a definite pause between the two; he hadn’t really minded being called “Darinauld” by Maire and her family, but no sense encouraging the same kind of thing here.
The lamp-person gave a cackling laugh.  “Darren Ault?  Such a name.  Darren Everything.”
“What are you talking about?”  Darren squinted at the person holding the lamp, as if bringing the face into focus would make the voice make more sense.
“Alt.  Alt means ‘everything.’”  The voice cackled again.  “So if you’re ‘Darren Alt’ you’re ‘Darren Everything.’  Who gave you that name?  Everyone?”  This elicited a bout of laughter that only ended when it turned into a paroxysm of coughing.
“No,” Darren said, in a weary voice.  “It’s just my name.  I didn’t know that’s what it meant, and I didn’t choose it.”
“What was your father’s name?”
“Carl.”
“A fine name.  So, you are Darren Carlsson.  No need for more than that.”  The gnarled hand came down and patted Darren’s shoulder.  “Well enough, Darren Carlsson.  I am called Gerda Ingjaldsdottir.  I’ll stay with you till sunrise – sometimes these knocks on the head can turn evil, and always when it’s dark out, seems like.  My granddaughter’s husband’s brother was kicked in the head by a mule, and he was fine at first, but that night he took badly and now all he does is cluck like a chicken.  Terrible shame.”  Gerda tsked under her breath.  “But when it’s light out, if you’re still alive, I’ll fix you some food and a cup of hot broth to drink.  Till then, just sleep if you can, and try not to die.”
            That seemed like good advice, and Darren closed his eyes, and despite the pain in his head and the clutching cold, he finally drifted off into an uneasy sleep.

            Darren opened his eyes and turned his head painfully toward a source of cold, gray light that turned out to be a pane of glass so covered with grime that it was impossible to see out.  He turned the other way, wincing a little, and saw Gerda sitting in a chair on the other side of the room, snoring softly, her lumpy chin resting on an ample, and equally lumpy, chest.  She wore a loose-fitting dress of some coarse brown material, and had tucked her hands into the sleeves so that her entire body appeared to be wrapped in burlap.  Another piece of brown cloth covered her head, with a few strands of wispy hair sticking out from beneath.  She looked a bit like a cloth bag full of potatoes, with an oddly face-like, burlap-wrapped potato protruding from the top.
            Darren sat up, which made the pounding in his head get worse, and a wave of nausea swept over him.  He considered throwing up, decided not to, and then swung his legs out of bed.  His shoes and socks had been removed, and when his bare feet touched the icy-cold wood plank floor, he yelped a little and lifted them again.
            The noise awakened Gerda, who snorted, coughed, and then opened her eyes, blinking sleepily.
            “You didn’t die,” Gerda observed, and then yawned cavernously, exposing gums only sparsely adorned with teeth.
            “Not yet,” Darren said.
            Gerda nodded.  “Always could happen,” she said, and stood up.  “Day’s barely begun.”  She walked over to Darren and leaned over him, peering at him nearsightedly.  “You look like you might be all right.  You haven’t had any inclinations to cluck like a chicken, have you?”
            “No.”
            “What sort of clothes are those, that you’re wearing?”
            Darren looked down at Fischer’s sweatshirt and jeans.  “What do you mean?”
            “They’re brightly colored, like the fancy clothes nobles wear, but they don’t seem to fit you very well.”
            “I borrowed them from a friend,” Darren said.
            “Ah.”  This seemed to satisfy her for a moment, but then she frowned, and leaned forward.  “And what are those things?” she said, pointing at Darren.  “On your face.”
            “They’re glasses.  They help me see better.”
            “Do they?  How?”
            “I don’t know if I can explain it.  But they work.”
            “My eyes are none too good.  Do you think they might help me?”
            Darren shrugged.  “Could be.”  He took them off, and handed them to her.  She shoved them on her face, and then gave an exclamation of delight.
            “Jesus and all the saints!” she said.  “It’s like being young again!”  She looked around the room, her face a study in wonder.  “I can see every crack in the wall!”  She frowned.  “And every speck of dirt.  I guess no blessing comes without a curse.”  She took the glasses off and handed them back to Darren.  “Just as soon not know how filthy this place is,” she said.
            Darren put his glasses back on.
            “Are you hungry?” Gerda asked.  “Good sign you’re not imminent to die, if you’re hungry.”
            “I’m famished,” Darren said, with feeling.
            “Well, that’s good.  I’ll get you breakfast.”  Her brow furrowed.  “Don’t take a bad turn and die while I’m gone.”
            Darren assured her that he wouldn’t.
            Gerda was gone for only five minutes, and returned with a wooden bowl containing something steaming.  She handed it to him, and he saw, with some dismay, that it was filled with porridge.
            Good lord, Darren thought, why can’t I end up going to a place and time that knows how to make a decent breakfast?  Didn’t people in the past know how to fry an egg?  But he was hungry enough that he dug in, and finished the entire bowl in short order.  Afterwards, his stomach seemed as if it were accepting of what he’d given it, and his headache appeared to be abating a little.  He handed the empty bowl back to Gerda, and said, “Thanks.”
            Gerda gave her cackling laugh.  “Good appetite,” she said.  “It’s a good sign.”
            “Gerda, do you know someone named Per Olafsson?”
            Gerda’s wrinkled face seemed to crumple.  “Per.  Poor Per.  Yes, I know him.”
            “Why do you call him ‘poor Per?’  He’s still alive, isn’t he?”
            “Well, as far as I know.  I haven’t checked on him this morning.”
            “Good.  But what’s wrong with him?”
            “Oh, he’s just a poor, sad young man.  He’s got the second sight, you know.  He’s always sighing and pining for what he thinks should have happened.  He’s never satisfied with what he’s got.  Makes himself miserable, poor thing.”
            Darren frowned.  Okay, he thought, this sounds significant.  I wonder if this guy is a Monitor?  “Wait,” he said.  “What do you mean, ‘what should have happened?’  How does he know what should have happened?”
            “Well, that I don’t know.  He gets these fits.  In church one week, he suddenly burst into tears, poor dear.  He said that he just felt like it was all wrong, that he should be somewhere else.  But where else he would have been, of a Sunday morning, I don’t know.”
            “Did he have any idea of what he should have been doing?”
            “He said something about a wife, a wife he should have had.”  Gerda leaned forward, and said, in a conspiratorial whisper, “He’s not married, you know.  Never has been.  I think that’s part of his problem.  I probably don’t need to tell you this, but if a man’s secret parts don’t get used, they kind of spoil, and the rot backs up into his brain and makes him crazy.”  She gave Darren a grin that exposed two yellowed teeth.  “That’s why I made sure to give my husband, rest his soul, plenty of opportunities.”
            Great, Darren thought.  Now I feel nauseated again.
            “Anyway,” he said, “did Per ever tell you any details?  About what he thought should have happened?  I mean, other than he should have been married.”
            “No.  Just seems sad all the time, poor thing, and goes on and on about how everything should be different than it is.  But of course, you can ask him yourself, as soon as you feel up to it.  He lives only a mile away.”
            “Do you think he’d mind?  Would he be upset that you told me about his, um, obsession?”
            “No, I’m sure he wouldn’t.  He goes on and on about it to everyone who will listen.  I think that the only danger will be to your spirits.  He’s a bit… melancholy, as they call it.”

            After a second bowl of porridge, Darren felt as if his strength had returned sufficiently that he could venture out.  He cleaned a spot on the window, and looked out into a muddy road, with a field of brown grass and leafless birch trees stretching off into the distance.  A few disconsolate-looking goats grazed in the field.  The sky was a uniform gray, like dirty cotton.  The wind was still blowing, rippling the grass, and rattling the pane of glass; he could feel it slipping its fingers through the cracks in the wall, making Darren shiver.  The whole place looked cold, miserable, and generally uninviting.
            “Here’s a jacket you can wear,” Gerda said, just as he was steeling himself to open the front door.  “It belonged to my husband, rest his soul.  He’s no use for it any more, being called forth into the Fields Of Lilies To Sit At The Feet Of Jesus.”  Darren could hear the capital letters. 
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Oh, it’s all right.  In the midst of life, we are in death.  But, in any case, no sense hastening your own travels into the next world.  You can’t go out there clad as you are, or you’ll catch a chill and die.”  Gerda handed Darren a battered coat, much worn, but lined with what appeared to be sheepskin.  It looked deliciously warm, and he put it on and tied the front snugly.  It seemed a little short in the arms, but otherwise fit well.  He decided that he would wear it from now on, even indoors, unless he was still in Norway when the weather warmed up.
            “Thanks,” he said.  “I really appreciate your taking care of me.  Thanks for everything.”
            Gerda patted Darren on the shoulder.  “It was the least I could do,” she said.  “It was wonderful having someone to care for, and to keep me company.  Ever since my dear husband died of the plague last week, I’ve been that lonely.”
            Darren goggled at her.  “Your husband died last week?  Of the plague?”
            “Yes, and such a terrible wrench it was.  He didn’t suffer long, poor thing.  Died in that very bed you slept in last night.”  Gerda sniffed a little, and dabbed her eyes with the end of her head scarf.  “So sad.  He was a good man, Jon Haraldsson.  A good man.”
            Shit, Darren thought, and felt the panicked sweat forming on his skin.  I’m going to die.  It’s not fair.  I survive getting shot by a homicidal physicist, and speared by a crazy Viking, only to catch the plague from fleas in a mattress.  I wonder if the lightning-fast microprocessor will get me back in time for a doctor to give me an antibiotic before I die of the Black Death?
            Darren looked down at the coat he was wearing, and suddenly felt as if the sheepskin was crawling with fleas.  He knew it was his imagination – well, he was almost certain that it was his imagination – but the feeling was maddening.  He nearly took the jacket off and gave it back to Gerda, but when he looked at her ugly, kind face, he thought, You can’t do that.  She wouldn’t understand.  And it just wouldn’t be nice.
            A snide voice in his mind responded, Fine.  Just be nice, then, and die of the plague.  She’ll be upset that you died, and say about how nice a guy Darren Everything was, and wasn’t it sad how he got the plague, but now he’s Sitting At The Feet Of Jesus, and so it’s all okay.  And then she’ll offer the Flea-Infested Bed of Death to the next hapless traveler who comes through, and it’ll all happen again.
            But then, he thought, Hey, look, it’ll be okay.  Compared to being skewered by a Viking, the Black Death is at least potentially survivable.  You survived the Vikings, you’ll survive this.  And then the surprising thought went through his mind, Maybe Fischer was right; maybe all of this is making me more confident.
            Darren said his goodbyes to Gerda, who gave him a rather tooth-challenged smile and a sincere farewell (“Stop back any time.  Don’t die in the meantime.”), and went out into the cold April morning to try to find the depressed, second-sighted Per Olafsson – and see if he might have a clue as to what was supposed to happen in a day or two that so decisively changed everyone’s timeline.