Here’s another free story.

So Saturday evening Landlady, M and I were sitting around my trailer, and we were hitting M’s mead kinda hard and they started pitching this new project.

They want me to write The Great American Novel. They’d apparently given this quite a lot of thought.

M’s view is that the path to publishing success (a path I have never walked, or even glimpsed, though I’ve certainly thought about it a lot) is to write the sort of book that will make high school students curse your very name. A book with lots and lots of symbolism, or at least apparent symbolism. I don’t know if this is actually that path or not. But what the hell? Can’t dance.

It involves the Shadow stories, of course.

So this morning I started noodling with the idea. I don’t know if it’ll really go anywhere, because 100,000 words takes a lot of motivation. More than I’m feeling at the moment. But I liked their book idea, and I like the Shadow stories.

So I dug out an unfinished story that hadn’t gone anywhere, and started noodling with it. Tell me what you think.

As If You Had One Last Breath

Neal Higgins finished dressing for work with the baseball cap he always wore, and the transformation was complete. He should head for his truck now; it was time. Instead he began pacing the length of his trailer, not like a caged tiger but like the deer in the next cage. He felt his stomach tighten, his chest go cold.

They’ll come today, he thought. It’s Tuesday, and they’ll come today like they came last Tuesday demanding their generator and it’s not done. I haven’t even looked at it; I’m not even sure where it is. I haven’t made the calls for parts; I haven’t done anything. They’ll come today, and I can’t face them. Not today. Not if Jim’s going to be there when they come.

He tore open the Velcro of the pouch on his belt and pulled out his phone. I’ll call in, he thought, tell him I’m gonna be late. Two hours, that’s all I need. Just two more hours to get myself together, and maybe they’ll have come and gone by then. He held up the phone so he could see the keypad, then slammed it back into the pouch and cursed himself for a coward. What the hell’s wrong with me?

At the end of the hall was the bathroom door, with its full-length mirror. He stopped in his pacing and stared at his reflection. What he saw there did not please him; it never had. A smallish young man; compact, stringy, not muscular. Skinny, even, though he’d always been pleased with his strength. He snorted at himself. Strength. What the hell do I know about strength? He could sling a full 25-gallon propane tank into a pickup bed all by himself, but he didn’t know anything about strength.

Am I a man at all? Sometimes he really wondered. He’d had a woman once, and she’d seemed pleased enough by it. But he broke it off and maybe broke her heart because he couldn’t face the danger, or maybe the effort, of keeping her. He lived alone; he’d always lived alone even before he moved away from home, because he was afraid of everything. Every little thing.

Determined now, he walked through the trailer one last time and made sure the lights and the stove were out. Then he let himself quietly out, locking the door carefully. He got in his pickup and sat for a moment, steeling himself to start the engine. If he started the engine, if he made that much noise, he was committed. No turning back.

He started the engine and backed out of the drive. He always did, every morning. He had to.

But he didn’t have to drive fast. The winding roads out of the boonies and into town were familiar and didn’t need much thought except after some weather. He kept his eyes on the road just ahead of his hood, avoiding rocks. King Kong could have beaten his chest on a nearby mesa, and if he kept his voice down Neal would not have noticed.

I want to keep going, he thought. Just drive away forever. But there was nowhere to go. No place would be different, because he carried his troubles with him. In honest moments, he knew it.

If he’d been in a laughing mood he’d have laughed at himself. He’d wanted this job because it didn’t seem to carry any responsibility. But of course there was responsibility; there always was. A less responsible man would have just blown it off, but Neal was not an irresponsible man. He felt it too strongly, but was too weak to bear it. If something frightened him, if he didn’t feel up to facing it, he ducked it and the pressure of it grew until he dreaded every morning. It was like that with every job he’d ever held. Yeah, there was no running from trouble. He made his own trouble.

Out of the boonies, down the county road and into town. Through town slowly, out the other side and up to the fence that guarded the yard in front of the big, hulking metal building where he spent his days in labor and fear. The fence was closed and locked, of course. It was half an hour before opening time. He was a responsible man, and despite all he had a keen eye for the early bird.

It was a busy morning for a Tuesday. Every time he heard a truck pull in he flinched, waiting for the old couple to come and rag him about that damned generator. But it was only somebody wanting to pick up a weedwhacker that had actually been fixed, or wanting a propane bottle filled. He could handle that. In the meantime, between visitors, he tried to figure out why the McCullough’s chain kept binding up. Damn it, the sprocket was worn but not ruined; that wasn’t the problem. The chain’s guide teeth weren’t hanging up in the bar. He didn’t know what the problem was. But he’d figure it out, or he’d get a clue from the boss when he showed up. Something. Just don’t let anybody yell at him today, okay?

The main shop was a smallish wooden thing in one corner of the huge old building. The rest was open, and cavernous. Somebody had told him that it was built in the ‘seventies to make flue linings for the local power plant. Back then they’d needed the space. When the plant people were done with it, they sold it. It was a good building, didn’t leak at all during the monsoon. But it was really too big; too high and wide for anything practical. It was impossible to heat in winter, and nobody ever tried. The biggest problem with it was that it was so big, everybody assumed it could just hold anything. And now, decades later, it held damn near everything. All jumbled together, the mess of the world. When you’ve got too much space, you collect too much shit. A simple fact of life.

There were shelves halfway to the ceiling on the back wall. Over the decades the boss had filled those shelves to the point of collapsing with bits and pieces of a thousand unfixable machines, more or less separated by type. Between those shelves and a narrow walkway, the floor was filled with the abandoned junk of years. It was good to know where and what the junk was, because every once in a while you could find something useful; something that could get another machine back on its knees if not its feet. But most of it was just junk. Sometimes he lost entire projects in here, if he put them off too long. That generator was in here someplace.

The day passed without any very bad thing happening, though Neal flinched every time a customer drove into the yard. He had to do something about that damned generator, and he didn’t know what to do about it. It didn’t work and he couldn’t fix it, but that wouldn’t placate the old couple when they came back. Why couldn’t he just tell them so and ask them to take it away? It was stupid to live in fear because of one worn-out machine!

Five o’clock finally came, as it always did though it always seemed to take forever. Neal cleaned and put up his tools and hollered good-bye to the boss who was puttering around somewhere in back. He fired up his truck and headed home.

Back in the boonies he sat on the porch with a cigarette and watched the sunset, pondering the question. It was the same question he pondered every night. Was there something he should do about it? And if so, what?

So he wasn’t a man of action. He could live with that. What tore at him was that he was a coward. And really – there wasn’t even anything to be afraid of. What was the old guy gonna do, beat him up?

“Do you want to see?” The voice was very clear.

Neal’s head snapped up; who had spoken? He looked frantically around, but nobody was there. He got up and circled his trailer; nobody there. He was out in the middle of nowhere, forty acres in the desert and miles beyond that. Nobody was around to have said anything.

But somebody spoke. He’d heard it.

And that was scary. The only rational explanation was that Neal had just gone nuts. He didn’t want to be nuts, he had enough problems.

It was almost full night now though the moon was in an early phase and already risen, so it was actually fairly bright. The junipers cast faint shadows in the bluish light. He could see well enough to walk away from his trailer and into the desert.

Neal Higgins was from the city, not the desert. He hadn’t come to this place for his pleasure. He had retreated here, running from his many fears. And he had not been prepared for much that he found.

The thought of sudden violence and death, unnoticed or unremarked as too ordinary to mention, shocked him and he didn’t know what to do about it. But violence was everywhere here, wasn’t it? Life and death were very close to the surface here. They were very real and solid things, not the fuzzy irrelevant hypotheticals the city made of them. Food was essential, but there were no quick drive-throughs here. Water was essential, but the taps didn’t flow limitless and chlorine-scented. The very air he breathed could freeze him or burn him, and no electric company came with endless heat and air conditioning to turn it all soft and safe.

There was something terrible about that. There was something beautiful about that.

And there was more. Sometimes, very rarely, he felt stirrings of … something else. Something eerie. A sense of weird unearthly things going on under the surface. He always shrugged it off, of course, because he was a rational man. He didn’t believe in magic because it didn’t exist and that was that. He didn’t believe in elves, or witches, or leprechauns or fairies.

Or voices out of nowhere. Except right now, he sort of did.

Whatever it was he felt on those lonely nights when the wind blew pitiless, he felt it now. It wasn’t his imagination. Something was here with him, something he couldn’t see. And it might not be a friend.

He saw no movement, heard no click of pebbles on the ground. It was a feeling, maybe a scent he detected on some deep, disused animal level. But something was there.

And then he saw it. A huge coyote stared at him, not ten feet away. Its eyes collected the moonlight and shined with cold yellow flame. As if to beat home the message that violence was not only possible but maybe imminent, a big jackrabbit dangled from the beast’s great jaws. It was not dead.

Coyote – for that was his name – stood motionless. The next move belonged to him, and the next and the next. All three knew it, though one was not prepared to accept the fact. The jackrabbit kicked feebly, hopelessly.

“Oh, you fought me a good fight, little runner. But you’re in my jaws now. So relax.” With no visible effort, Coyote closed his jaws and Neal heard the sharp snapping of bones. The rabbit convulsed once and went very limp.

“Do you want to see?” Coyote had not taken his cold, yellow eyes from the man.

“Huh? See what?” Was he really talking to a dog?

“Do you want to see?” Was the dog really talking to him?

“If you do, come on along!” Coyote turned and loped into the darkness.

Neal didn’t follow, of course. That would be crazy. Dogs don’t talk. Dogs don’t show you things, unless they’re Lassie and unless Timmy fell down that damned well again.

And yet, to his utter shock he followed. His viewpoint changed, hugging the ground and moving with startling speed into the desert. This was insanity. He was insane.

You are not insane, because who the hell decides that? And who gives a damn what they think? Feel the sand beneath your paws, smell the wind that brings scent to your muzzle. Taste the sweet, hot salty blood of this runner who gave you such a fine chase. Feel the wound he gave you just before you got him. Feel the now.

He was Coyote.

He walked and ran, rutted and hunted and slept. He yipped and howled with the pack; his pack. He prowled alone. He lived for days and days and every single bright sharp singing moment of it was now. He lived in a world made more of scent than sight, and each scent was a message of what was now. He knew every emotion, every feeling it was ever possible to feel save one. Life and death were all around him, they were him. He was the bringer of life and death. And he knew no fear. Fear was beneath him, beyond him. Irrelevant to him. He took joy in every good moment; he dealt severely with every bad moment. There was no room in his life for fear. He didn’t have time for it.

He knew only life. And death. And now. He knew triumph and disappointment, success and failure, fullness and hunger, strength and weakness, joy and sadness and … now. These things were life. Now.

The man, the coward who was Neal Higgins lived in a world of dim fears of what might be, what disasters and disappointments each new day might bring. He cowered from his fears and never saw each shining moment of now that held everything there was in the world. He let every moment pass, concentrating on his fear of the next moment. And so he accomplished nothing.

Neal/Coyote knew nothing at all about fear and would have laughed at the idea. Now. Live now, live as if you had one last breath, live as if the whole of your life were contained in that moment. Because it is. Will you waste that breath worrying about someone else’s demands? Or will you spend it on yourself and on those who mean something to you?

And he stood on the slope and stared into eyes that glowed with cold yellow flame.

“You decide. Doesn’t matter at all to me.”

The moment was now, and it held all the world.

And what happened next would happen, and it held no fear.

About Joel

You shouldn't ask these questions of a paranoid recluse, you know.
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6 Responses to Here’s another free story.

  1. Mike says:

    You know you could publish this as an ebook (all be it quite short one) on somewhere like Smashwords. Either give ’em away or sell ’em.

    Joe Konrath is selling 200 ebooks a day on Kindle, reckons he’s on target for $200K this year.

    Me, I make about 10c a decade on the ‘content mills’.

    But I quite like this, and you have nothing to lose by whacking it up on an ebook site for the rest of the world to download for free or buy.

    Hell, you could be the next big thing. You gotta start living in the now, man – not just writing about it. (Listen to the hypocrite here! ‘Scuse me while I run away and hide again.)

  2. Anonymous says:

    I’ll buy it. Good winter project when the cold winds are howling and you’re all snug in your secret lair. K

  3. Mayberry says:

    I like it! Keep it going!

  4. Groundhog says:

    I’d read more 🙂

  5. desert fox says:

    Hooray! Joel is going to write the Shadow Chronicles.

    Where do I get in line to purchase a copy?

    Strongly recommend you publish as an e-book on Amazon. (Lulu is OK, but not enough people know about it.)

    Cheers.

  6. CorbinKale says:

    Thanks for the free story!

To the stake with the heretic!