The King’s Might: Excerpt

Here y’go, first part of TKM for you. In case you’re blind or you don’t usually follow me, this story will be available on Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo, and All Those Other Places very soon (7/21/15). It’ll be free to start out with through Smashwords, and .99 on Amazon until I can make it free there as well. Hrmmhrmmm. My gift to you.

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*PROLOGUE*

The girl had been down in the earth for a long, long time.

She had once–weeks ago, months ago, maybe even years ago–been a bright and chubby little thing, full of laughter and smiles. But they had been traveling through the Mountains of Vigilance–her parents had turned away, for just a moment, to consider the crossing–and she had fallen, playing on an outcropping of stone.

She had fallen into a ravine. She had fallen father, deeper. She had fallen into this place, this sunken city, cold and dark and lonely. There had been dead brush, to save her from the worst injuries, but there had also been silence, and limitless dark.

She didn’t know if they had tried to find her. They probably had–she had been well loved.

There were mushrooms and lichens to eat, glowing faintly in the dead libraries and bedchambers of the swallowed city. There were pools of water, dripping from cracks in the wall and forming in buckets and plates from long ago. There was a constant filth, a mixture of soot and new soil that wouldn’t scrub off. There was the sound of her own voice, echoing down the endless stone halls.

There was nobody else.

She was sure of it. Looking and calling had been the first things she had done. Her mother had taught her this, to look and call if she got lost. No one will hurt you, her mother had said. You’re only a child. They will help you find the way back to us.

The little girl remembered her mama, and her papa, and in this dark place, lit only by phosphorescent fungus and the eyes of sightless creatures, she wept.

There was nobody else, and no way out. All the paths curved downward. All the doors led downward.

She didn’t know how many tons of rock were over her head. She had walked down many hallways here in the dark, gone down many flights of stairs. She could feel the weight of it all above her–crushing weight, impossible to lift or navigate.

All paths led down.

Even when she tried to turn around, go back the way she had come, all paths led down. 

Which is why, when she woke in this dark place at some unspecific time–it could have been midday, for all she knew, and she could have slept a hundred years–she was surprised to hear voices.

They were indistinct, these voices. Gauzy shreds of whispers. Barely real. She had to strain her ears to catch them, and her hearing had become very keen indeed.

But they were voices. Up ahead.

She ran. She left her tattered cloak and the handful of mushrooms she had planned for breakfast behind her.

Down, down, down. All the paths went down, but the rock overhead didn’t seem quite so crushing, the place quite so airless.

Voices!

And, like her mama had taught her, she called. Her own voice seemed deafening in the darkness, a thing meant for the world of light and movement.

“I’m here!” she screamed. “I’m here! Here!”

The echo came back to her: here, here, here.

The voices–were they louder now? Sibilant whispers. They might have scared her, if she hadn’t been scared for so long already.

“I’m here!”

Here, here.

Her little boots were loud against the paving stones, flap flap flap. She ran through what must have once been a great hall, its ceiling extending neverendingly up into the darkness, ornate columns receding with each footstep to her right and left. She passed through a meaner hall, its columns plain, its ceiling low.

The voices were almost deafening now, hissing, whining, cajoling.

There was a door in the hall. There was frieze on the door, a hunting scene, figures so worn they were barely visible. The voices came from behind the door.

“I’M HERE,” the girl shouted, with all her might.

From below–though how there could be more below, with all she had traveled, she was not sure–there were cracks and scrapings, as though something vast had stirred from its sleep.

The door creaked open.

Inside, in a room that was dark but not quite as dark as it should have been, it was very cold. The girl wished instantly for her forgotten cloak, for the stout fur vest that existed somewhere above with her parents. Frost coated the walls and the flooring, turned the few furnishings remaining into half-visible lumps.

There was a man in the room, lying on one of the tables. She thought he was asleep, until she crept closer–though he lay very still, his eyes were open. They were the color of old blood. His breath–so shallow it might have almost been her imagination he breathed at all–let wisps of white frost into the air.

She might have been afraid of him, in the world up above. He lay so very still, and the face underneath his long pale hair was as cold as the room around him. Here, he was the only other person she had seen.

She jumped into his arms, buried herself in the ancient blanket someone had wrapped around him. He blinked, once, twice. He raised himself a little off the table. His movements were slow, careful, and filled with terrible certainty.

“Hello, child,” he whispered. “Are you, then, the one the earth powers have chosen to wake me?”

“Help me,” she said. “You’ve got to help me. We were going through the pass–through the mountains. I fell. I can’t find mama. You’ve got to help me find my mama.”

“Shh,” the man said. “Shhh.”

There was calm to him. Terrible calm. Though she should have felt comforted, should have been overjoyed, she felt only lightness, only unending cold. His hand twisted through her hair–a hand nearly skeletal, white as frost, thin and long-fingered. She didn’t want him to touch her, but it had been so long since anyone had held her, had comforted her.

“I’m looking for someone, too,” he said. “A boy. He’d be–about your age, perhaps a little younger. A golden-haired boy.”

“I want my mama,” said the girl.

The man smiled. It was not a comforting smile, and there was little pity in it.

“Your mama is long gone,” he said. “There is no time, in these deep places. There is only the earth.”

She began to cry. She had forgotten why, precisely–she had forgotten why she was unhappy. The tears froze to her cheeks. The pale man picked them off, his spiderlike hands gentle.

“Your home is here now,” he said. “You are the Waker, and for you to be the Waker there must be something of the old powers in you. Did you hear the voices, little one? Did the earth speak to you, as it speaks to me?”

She nodded. She remembered, vaguely, thinking the voices were something else–human voices. The memory was tinged with white, as though seen through a thin sheet of ice. It was silly, to have thought they were human voices.

They were the voices of the earth–of the hefenta, of the deep powers of earth. And this man–this man was their creature. She knew it, somehow, though she did not know why or what precisely it was she now knew: the earth was a part of her people, the Norchladil people. The cold was in the bones and the blood.

She shuddered.

The man wrapped the blanket around her. She noticed, distantly, how very old it was–the threads breaking with the gentlest touch, something staining it that may, long ago, have been blood. The man’s robes were stained as well, their style ancient. Even as she watched he drew the robes closer to him, and they brightened and whitened, as though touched by frost.

“Who are you?” she asked. Though she knew the answer–though her bones, and the ancestral memories inside them, knew the answer.

“I’m a magician,” the man said. His mouth twitched. “A Northmage. A relic of a time long before. A ghost. The worst sort of ghost–a ghost that knows your name.”

And, bending to adjust the blanket–bending so his cold breath blew right in her ear–he whispered it to her, in the old language of blood and death and the angry earth.

And she was no longer what she had once been.

Some things are that simple.

“Come,” the man said, standing and stretching his ancient bones. “If we’re to find the boy, we’ve much work to do–and you’ve much to learn. Macher tanith ii, they will call you–she who is servant of the dark world.”

Twisted up in his hair, a white comb winkled–the warrior’s comb, malat ma’a. The man withdrew it, held it out to her–its teeth were sharp and long, and its weight was cold and deadly in her hand.

“You shall hold this, for a time,” he said. “You shall learn of its power. But don’t grow used to it, for it must go to the boy. We shall pass it along, when the time comes for me to deploy you.”

He was almost handsome, creature of ice and frost that he was. His hair like white silk, his eyes the same blood burgundy as the eyes of the carving on the comb.

She could almost love him, almost. After all, who else did she have to love?

“Papa,” she whispered. The word died unheard in the airless dark. The man had turned, begun to walk. He didn’t turn around or even pause to witness its death.

Her last thought, as the final pieces of her mind that belonged to her dissolved, came to her in a strange woman’s voice, a voice she no longer recognized or cared for.

No one will hurt you. You’re only a child.

EXCERPT: Balancer, Pt. II

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Soooo hey, you guys. The Antidote comes out tomorrow, and I am, of course, losing my shit trying to get stuff ready. As a result, I’m here telling you to fricking buy it if you liked Aurian and Jin. I’d say something more entertaining, but I’m a little tired. So: buy my book.

Also, to distract you from how tired and boring I am today, here’s more Balancer. Poor Habbi. It’s tough when the High Mother of the village is actually your mother. You get held to a higher standard.

Here’s the first part of Habbi’s story, if you didn’t catch it. The Balancer, Pt I.

*****

Habbi spent as many days as he could in his wada on the foremost peak of Mount Farsight, fiddling with the arrangement of his dreamstones and trimming the goat. The goat proved rather resistant to the concept of trimming: every time Habbi got near him with the shears he would bleat piteously, lower his horns, and threaten a last-stand charge. Habbi was not a herder–was, in fact, one of only four boys in the village whom the Mother had decreed unfit for a future with livestock.

Chasing Stew from one end of the yard to the other with the shears and a horsehair brush, Habbi reflected that the Mother, as in all things, had been entirely correct.

But try as he might, he couldn’t bring himself to kill the goat. Yes, it would mean stew for weeks–and, at the end of those weeks, another trip to the ur-village, another sight of Mikki and her clever red beads. But he rather liked the goat, cursed though it was. He’d been destined for a life of Balancing from his tenth birthday, cut off from the day-to-day activities of the Stone Nation. This goat was the only goat he’d ever really gotten to know. He liked its ugly chipped horns and its monotone bleat.

He liked its company.

The life of a Balancer, he reflected, was a life of loneliness. It was the life of the fulcrum point, lived in this little stone shack on a mountain peak not so different in appearance from a fulcrum point itself. But there were different types of loneliness, and just because this path had been chosen for him did not mean he had to live its most extreme manifestation.

He could keep a goat. Even Ostil, the Balancer Before, had kept his hawks.

He just couldn’t keep a woman.

He couldn’t keep Mikki.

“No,” Habbi told himself, scowling. “Stop that.”

The goat, who had been watching him trim up his cooking herbs from the pen, baaaed at him.

Habbit made a new path through the herbs, laying smooth stones from the village stream in between their rows. He scrubbed the soot from his wada walls and hung bunches of herb trimmings from the rafters to sweeten the place’s smell. He rearranged his dream stones around the shallow hole by the campfire in which he slept, wrapped some of them up in the curly yak skin under which he slept at night. He consulted the stars at night, Balanced his mind and listened to their singing. He placed the dreamstones around himself, chose locations analagous to those stars that spoke to him most sweetly in the sky. It did not increase his harvest particularly, and most mornings he woke with only one stone filled, two if he was lucky. He weighed each one, decanted it carefully into a crystal storage vial of proper warding strength.

His was an important job, he reminded himself. If it were not for the Balancer–if it were not for The One Whose Dreams Are Communal, whose nightly wanderings were the best currency in the Nations–the stones would not hold the dreams of his people. The dreams would wander the world and cause mischief, as they had in the beginning of things. And the Stone Nations would have nothing of value to trade with at the Great Gathering–only tough mountain goats and yak’s milk, shards of obsidian found deep in the mountain caves. Like they had, indeed, before the First Balancer. Before the dreams had been captured, and the world had been righted.

Habbi had not forgotten the anger dream, its mewling and its distended little belly. And there were worse things. There were much, much worse.

Unfortunately, he had also not forgotten Mikki.

Habbi lasted, in the contemplative solitude prescribed for him, for precisely three days. After three days, he was out of corn–and that, he told himself, was a perfectly logical reason to go to the ur-village. Without corn, he couldn’t make his morning mush. And it was coincidental–entirely coincidental–that Algar Farmer’s booth at market was only three booths away from Wolef Herdsman’s.

He wouldn’t even look to see if she was there.

That was the proper way of things.

Yes.

Habbi had, with the force of will that came only to the truly Balanced, managed to entirely forget about the half-sack of corn he kept in the loft.

On the third day, he took up his staff and his traveling sack, tied on his warm fur boots and the cloak of skins his mother had sewed him before his going-away. He selected three crystal vials, full of the green glow of harmless laughing-dreams. He told the goat he was going away for the day: the goat, being a goat and therefore unconcerned, threw up its cud and ate some of it.

Habbi took the sloping twisted path down the mountainside to the ur-village. He nodded, with proper ceremonial sternness, to the guards at the wooden gate.

He wound his way through the market, which was small but lively. He basked in the sound of other human voices, the sight of maidens almost as pretty as Mikki on stone benches in the Great School for Women, dutifully repeating the lessons of their teachers. He waved hello to the folk who waved at him.

He was displeased, but not entirely surprised, to find the Mother standing in front of the Farmer’s booth, arms crossed, face severe under the tattoos of leadership that covered it. She was carrying her carved ivory staff, which she only carried when she was out to teach someone a lesson. Habbi had the rather unfortunate idea this lesson might be taught to him.

“Hello, High Mother,” he said, covering his eyes and bowing in the traditional greeting for a High Mother of the Nations.

“Hello yourself,” the Mother said, scowling most untraditionally. “Habbi. You and I need to talk.”

Habbi had thought of this situation, back in his wada while he decanted the dreams. He had debated what he would say, what he would do, if caught by the Mother.

Of course, he reflected wryly. The very fact that he considered it being caught said something about his state of mind. The phrase he had prepared: “hello, High Mother, I was just picking up some corn for my morning mush”–died on his lips as he looked at her.

It made a child out of you, being caught with your hand in the honey-pot by the Mother. It was even worse when Habbi’s particular set of circumstances applied: when you were the Balancer of your ur-village, responsible for the flow of its dreams. Longing was an imbalance, lust and love more specific than a warm detached glow were imbalances. It led you to do things like leave dreams in dreamstones.

And, of course, it didn’t help when the High Mother was your mother.

“Habbi,” Mother said. “I’ve let this go on long enough. I’ve let you cast eyes on Mikki for long enough. I’ve let Mikki cast eyes on you for long enough. It ends now.”

“I was, um,” said the Balancer. “Corn.”

“You’ve half a sack left in your wada,” Mother said, scowling. “You think I don’t keep track of what you buy? Onegod, it’s not like you’ve been eating anything but goat stew lately anyways.”

“Erm,” said the Balancer. The Mother whacked her ivory staff against poor Algar Farmer’s  booth in a manner that suggested, very plainly, that she would rather be whacking Habbi.

“This is difficult for me,” the Mother said. “I hope you know that, Habbi. The Rule of the Nations says I should treat you one way, my heart as your mother says something entirely different. You’re lucky: nothing’s come of it so far. The Balance hasn’t been upset, no laws have been broken. But should there be one sign–one single physical sign–that all is not right with you, and your little fastness up on Mount Farsight is less than perfectly Balanced, I’ll be forced to take measures. And that’ll hurt me, Habbi. That’ll hurt me very much.”

And Habbi, who never had known when enough was enough, said: “hurt you? Imagine how I’ll feel about it.”

And his reward for this statement was a single admonitory whack from the ivory staff. Which wasn’t too bad–the punishment for his crime was, by strictest interpretation of the painted caves, ten whacks and one night in the wilderness. And a man of Habbi’s slight build and poor wilderness skills would last precisely thirty minutes in the wilderness after ten whacks from that staff.

So it was a kindness the Mother did him. He tried very hard to remind himself of this as the stinging of his cheek turned into a steady burn. As he explored the bruised flesh with his fingers, touched the impressions the staff carvings had made on his face, he told himself: you had this coming. You are lucky it wasn’t anything more.

“I blame myself, really,” the Mother said. She sighed. “It was foolish, maybe, to put you up on the mountain so young. Onegod knows, I’ve coddled you and let you get away with far too much for far too long. But what were we to do? Ostil died so quickly, and you were the only one in the village who showed proper talent for Balancing. Great talent, shining in the depths of your mind like a white lamp. And please believe me, my son. I felt sorry for you. Few Balancers ascend Farsight before their fiftieth year is out–they have lived among people, had women and sired children. They have been prepared for the contemplative life for years.” She touched his cheek, tears brimming in her kohl-painted eyes.

“Don’t cry, Mama,” Habbi said uncomfortably. For a moment, tattoos and war paint and ivory staff and all, she was just his mother again, just the squat plump woman who had herded goats and hunted yaks and cooked stew for her brood in the family wada before Onegod had called her to the position of leadership she now inhabited.

Mother was young, too, he realized suddenly. Young, for the High Mother position. He was her eldest, and he was only nineteen–though it was forbidden for a male to know his mother’s precise age, she couldn’t have been more than forty. There was no white in her hair, and only recently had he begun to notice wrinkles under the circular tattoos that covered her face.

They would have to help each other. Their positions, after all, were related–a young Balancer balanced by a young Mother. Habbi kissed his mother’s cheek, surprised, as he always was when he saw her these days, by how far down he had to bend to do so.

“I’m sorry, Mother,” he said. “You’re right, of course. You always are. I’ll stay away from Mikki–I’ll try and come to market when the women are all at the Great School. I’ll try not to come so often.”

He pressed one of his crystal vials into his mother’s palm. “For you,” he said. “I was going to spend them on corn, but I suppose that’s immaterial now. Laughing dreams. Good ones. May they help you find a little laughter.”

His mother smiled, tucked the vial into her kirtle. “A balanced gift,” she said. “Perhaps all isn’t lost with you yet, my son. I’ll use them tonight. I’ll think of you laughing.”

As he climbed the twisting path back to his own wada, he tried not to think about the fact that, from here on out, there would be very little laughter left in the world for him.

It was not so bad. He enjoyed the Balancing, didn’t he? Enjoyed the sense of floating it gave him, the sense of suspension. He enjoyed looking up to the pinprick quilt of the stars, enjoyed mining them for answers.

He just wished he could experience his own dreams, sometimes. Even that–even the turnings of his subconscious mind–would be company of a sort. Better company than a stupid goat. Better company than the dreams he had to destroy, their twisting shapes making a sickness in his heart.

He knew what the Mother would say he could almost hear it: you are young, Habbi. Your training was incomplete. These longings will pass.

But it was not the High Mother’s face he saw when he imagined this, that visage made impersonal and mythical with tattoos and paint, but his own mother’s, her eyes worried and her lips turned down at the corners.

This train of thought was why, upon returning to his quiet wada on top of Mount Farsight, he did not immediately notice the cloaked figure hunched by the goat pen, petting the goat. He only became aware, in fact, because Stew let out a particularly pleased bleat–the cloaked figure had apparently found the spot behind his left ear which, Habbi had found through trial and error, it liked to have scratched best.

“I’m glad to see you’ve kept at least one of them,” the cloaked figure said, straightening. “I mean, I suppose even you would get tired of stewed goat after a while. You and I need to talk, Habbi. It’s urgent.”

The figure pushed back its hood.

“Stones and nightmares,” Habbi swore. “Black dreams and a turned knife, I can’t catch a break today, can I?”

It was Mikki.

EXCERPT: Night Shift, Part Deux

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A little more of this story, since you guys said you liked it. Nothing too exciting happens. Lesbians and Vietnam, you know how it is. Just a day in the life of the fucktarded townspeople of Bully, NC. This is a little more telling than I usually like to do, but it’s coupled with showing later on, I promise.

If you missed the first part of the story, here it is. Though, you know, it’s the next post down, so you probably could’ve managed on your own, but whatever, convenience.

*****

The thing about Tinker was–well, there were a lot of things about Tinker. Riley thought through them, in conscripted order, whenever she heard a siren start, or a dog bark, or someone shouting outside. She thought about them whenever she ran the garbage disposal and heard something break inside it. She thought about them when she was up late at night, all the bills were paid, and she needed something comfortable to worry about.

But the main thing about Tinker–the most surprising thing–was simply this. She was sane.

Riley had spent the last few years of their friendship thinking that certainly–certainly–this wasn’t the case. Every time Tinker tried to order live scorpions from Amazon, or drink Skittles dissolved in whiskey, or, most common, dump rotting meat products on someone’s luxury vehicle, she thought certainly, certainly, Tinker had finally gone off the deep end, had become an alcoholic, taken a dose of LSD.

But Tinker didn’t do drugs. She was a light drinker. And, as far as Riley’s somewhat unreliable experience could suggest, she was sound of mind and body. She always knew the date, her address, who was president. And that was how you checked these things. Wasn’t it?

It was perplexing, to say the least.

The miracle of her friend’s birth and raising–a scrawny child of the nineties in the tiny town of Bully, NC, learning through the magic of the internet how to dye her hair with Kool-Aid and think in the fashion most opposite everybody else–had somehow resulted in her continued existence. Somehow, some way, Tinker Tonkin continued to both toss rotten meat on police cars AND rent apartments, go to the drugstore, work part time at Caveat Coffee.

It was as though she led a double life. Double lives–both of them charmed.

“It’s not that odd, really,” Tinker had explained to her one night as they mined the Piggly Wiggly dumpster for old sausage. “I don’t hurt anybody. I don’t hold grudges. And this town–well, it’s never had an artist before. It’s inclined to forgive me a lot just for that.”

And Tinker was an artist. Bully’s own artist. Though her exhibits might boast nose cones and sachets of potpurri at the door, and most of her paycheck must have gone to property damage fees, there was something about her rotting meat tableaux that drew people, even the people who’d gotten caught in the middle of them. The texture, the raw reds and browns, the sense that, in the grainy photographs and boxed-in rotting masses, you were seeing something obscene, something private, something not so different, in sheer wrongness, from pornography or horror movie gore.

The livid colors and unconscionable stench reminded Riley of the photographs her grandfather had taken in Vietnam, kept buried for most of her childhood under the leatherette photo albums in the family room. They reminded her, specifically, of the moment she had first realized the people smiling in those photos were now mostly dead. Had died in a ditch somewhere, young guys with shy grins and stupid jug ears: victims of the Viet Cong in the jungle, quiet and softfooted and sure.

It was an uneasy feeling. Sickness, darkness, childhood lost. Almost a feeling of rape. Riley didn’t like the meat pieces, but she had to admit: they worked. They unsettled.

Which was what Tinker, being Tinker, thought art should do.

Tinker had found a terrycloth robe somewhere in the apartment’s reeking bowels and had donned it. It was covered in khaki splotches, which Riley thought of subconsciously as ‘Tonkin Camo’. The robe’s ratty bottom left a few inches of her acid green ass visible, but it was better than nothing.

Tinker fished in her pocket, came up with a flattened pack of Djarum Blacks. She lit one, draped herself equally over the couch, a pile of laundry nearly as high as the couch, and Riley’s lap.

“So,” she said, belching out a curl of clove-scented smoke. “What brings you to mein humble abode? I don’t see you much any more.” Her eyes narrowed. “Not unless you want something.”

“I don’t want anything. I had something to tell you.”

“You couldn’t call?”

“Your phone’s been dead for a year, Tink.”

“Hmm,” Tink said, acknowledging the truth of this with a neutral nod. “Well played.”

RIley wasn’t sure exactly what she was supposed to have been playing, or how she had done whatever it was well. She shifted a little, Tinker’s half-shaven head itching her thighs. That damn smoke–Riley had never been able to stand the sweet-heavy smoke of her friend’s cigarettes. When they were in high school, her mother had only needed to sniff her to know who she had been hanging out with.

“I just came by to tell you,” Riley said. “Ashford Mims is dead. Remember him?”

“Mhmm.” Tinker’s eyes were fixed on the popcorn swirl of the ceiling. “He was a senior when we were juniors. Football star. What happened to him?”

“Car wreck. They found his Buick wrapped around a tree on the side of old 86. Nasty mess. They’re not sure if it was a hit and run or if it was suicide–doesn’t seem like anything another driver could’ve driven away from, though.” Riley found herself intrigued by the ceiling too–cracking and peeling, galaxies of little white stars. “Funeral’s on Wednesday. His mom said to tell you you should come.”

“I never knew him that well.”

“Yeah, neither did I. But you remember how Mrs. Mims is, right? She wants the whole school there. Even ten years after we’ve graduated. A bunch of people talking about how nice Ash was, how kind and good with animals and all that.”

“He wasn’t.”

“I figure it wouldn’t be the worst thing to do, might comfort–what?”

“He wasn’t good with animals. I saw him kick a dog out on the tennis courts once.” Tinker scowled. “The dog didn’t deserve it, either.”

Riley realized she was staring. “Tinker,” she said. “The guy died.”

“I know that. But he wasn’t good with animals.” Tinker put her cigarette out on the coffee table, not even bothering to wipe the embers away. Riley watched them fizzle and darken, looked across at the patchwork of ashen squares where Tinker had done this a hundred times before.

“The best way to remember the dead,” Tinker intoned, in the manner of someone quoting a hallowed source, “is to tell the truth.”

“Okay, okay. Fine. Just don’t tell too much truth at the funeral.” Riley frowned. “You are going, right? I’ll give you a lift. Don’t make me do this alone, Tink. That wake’s going to be like a high school reunion.”

“Why would that bother you?” She shrugged. “Okay, fine. Whatever. I’ll go. I think I’ve got black clothing lying somewhere around here, I can find it by Wednesday.”

“Great. I’ll come pick you up.”

They sat for a little while in uncomfortable silence. They had been so close in high school–had spent every day together, walked home from school together, had hung out in Caveat Coffee and talked on the phone late at night when Riley couldn’t sleep, which was almost every night. They had gone to prom together, causing a minor commotion in both the Prom Committee and the parking lot of Bully Southern Baptist after church. They had gotten drunk for the first time that night in the Tonkin family basement, splitting a twelve pack of Pabst Tinker’s older brother had gotten for them at the corner stab n’ grab. Riley had told Tinker she liked girls. Tinker had told Riley she didn’t like much of anybody. The next morning, they had gone on like it had never happened. Like friends do. Good friends.

What had happened to all that? Age, Riley guessed. Responsibilities. Bills. Riley’s world was night shift at a convenience store, a bare apartment, visiting with Mom on the weekends. Tinker’s world, though it couldn’t have contained much more–Bully was only so big, after all–seemed alien. A rotting meat world, a child’s make-believe world.
The world of a fugitive from life.

The apartment felt even closer and danker than usual, somehow. The smell of Tinker’s ashed cigarette, hot and sharp and sweet. Riley felt her throat constrict. The ceiling seemed to swell, bulge, though it must have just been her imagination.

“I gotta go,” Riley said, swallowing. “I gotta get ready for work.”

“You haven’t even had a beer,” said Tinker.

“I know. I’ll catch you next time.” And then, for reasons she didn’t entirely understand, Riley added: “sorry, Tink.”

She noticed, on her way out, that the parking lot was once again quiet. The BMW, now boasting a meaty topcoat and a cracked windshield, had been moved across the lot. No one had called the police. No one had even bothered hosing off the meat–the BMW owner had probably been proud to find his car so afflicted. People often were, sometimes even to the point of refusing Tinker’s repair money. The town had never had art before, particularly abstract art, and if there was one thing Bully liked as a whole it was feeling included.

Riley didn’t get it, but then again, she didn’t have to. Her car was off limits. Tinker had pinky-sworn it when they were seventeen.

All in all, it was a typical night.

EXCERPT: Night Shift

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I just started writing this. It’s fun, and it’s very weird. Don’t ask me where I’m going with it because I’m not sure. Just tell me: d’you think it’s worth me going on and finding out?

Good. I love an audience.

ONE

As Riley approached, the sound grew louder.

Schlorp. Schlorp. Thwk. Schlorp.

It was a terrible sound. Half squishy and wet, half metallic and hard. It was, in fact, precisely the sort of sound Riley had grown used to, issuing as it did from Tinker Tonkin’s third story balcony.

Schlorp. Shhwk. Schlorp.

“Tinker,” Riley called. Then, when there was no response from the open French doors: “TINK.”

The schlorping paused. As she edged through the moldy gloom of Tinker’s apartment, Riley could only imagine the sight that awaited her on the other side of the French doors–what would it be today? Year old beefaroni? Liquidized vienna sausage?

Schlorp. Thwk. Thw-w-w-wkkkk.

And the cry, proud and primal over the half-empty parking lot:

“I AM AN ARTIST. I AM A MOTHERFUCKING ARTIST.”

Schhhthump.

From below, a car alarm went off.

“Jesus,” Riley muttered, stepping in and freeing herself from an unidentifiable pile of brown goo on the linoleum. “Hang on, Tink,” she called. “I’m coming.”

She picked up speed, moving at a half-jog through the islands of dirty laundry and regretworthy former comestibles that covered the floor. She edged through the doors with care, however–Tinker wasn’t violent, not really at least, but it still paid to move slowly around her. There was always the danger, when one came up on Tinker Tonkin unaware, of catching salmonella, botulism, or that one with a T that came from raw pork (which Riley couldn’t for the life of her remember the name of, even though, knowing Tinker, she should have them all memorized by now, as well as their symptoms and treatments).

Tinker Tonkin, clad only in a pair of acid green underpants, was leaning over the balcony, predatory grin etched into her sunken cheeks. She was holding a child’s plastic bucket in one arm. Her other arm, clad in a rubber kitchen glove, was buried up to the elbow in the substance inside, which was simply the nastiest fucking mess Riley had ever seen, or smelled, or heard. As Riley watched, she scooped up a fistful of it and dropped it neatly on the BMW in the parking lot below.

Schlorp.

Tinker’s abstract-line chest tattoo, all too visible in the sere complex lighting, heaved with her laughter.

“Um,” Riley said. “Tink, I think it’s about time you came inside.”

“Oh,” said Tinker, waving. “Hey, Riley.”

She dumped the rest of the bucket over the railing. The sound it made–hell, the smell–was so awful Riley instantly blacked it out.

The car alarm below was a frenzied screeching.

“I’m doing an installation piece,” Tinker continued conversationally, as though it were the most normal thing in the world to be on your balcony in your underpants at one in the morning, dumping rotten meat products on someone’s BMW. “Mobile installation. Transistor Decay IV. It’ll go with the moving truck you helped me do last month.”

“That’s nice,” Riley lied. She tried to forget about the moving truck. “We should go back inside now.”

“It’s so nice out here, though!” Tinker said, wriggling her bottom in what, had she been something other than a human toothpick covered in skin, would have been a lasvicious fashion. “C’mon, Ri-Ri. You never want to just hang out any more. We can make mimosas, drop SPAM on convertibles…it’ll be like old times.”

“I never dropped SPAM on anything,” Riley said, taking one of Tinker’s wasted arms and tugging. For someone who must’ve weighed about ninety pounds, she was difficult to move. “C’mon. Hup. Before somebody calls the cops.”

Tinker waved an airy gloved hand. “Nobody’ll do that,” she said. “I’m the local artist. Who’s going to call the cops on artistry?”

To punctuate this concept, she threw the bucket over the ledge as well. There was a loud crunch, and the tinkle of shattered glass.

It was only then, when a dog started barking and lights came on in the first floor apartment, that Tinker deigned to stroll back inside.

“Have it your way,” she said, as though she’d simply decided to retreat. “Let me take down the camera and I’ll grab you a beer.”

Story Excerpt: Erasure

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Image by Paul Robichaud, via Unsplash. This is what you bastards'll see now for every story excerpt.

So I’ve been working on this sci-fi dystopian kind of thing lately. I know: travelling oft-travelled ground. But it’s fun. And fun is what I need, because all this editing is most DEFINITELY something other than fun, probably something four-lettered. It’s a revamp of an old story I’ve had kicking around in various forms forever: a little worried I’m veering into the territory of cliche, but hell. You gotta have fun sometimes, and to hell with the cliche-ery.

It’s the story of Moll Coulter, a former criminal of uncertain background who’s had her memory partially erased by Sunrise City Gov. It’s got all that chewy Blade Runneresque dystopian stuff in it. Moll does recover her memory, about halfway through–when she discovers that, not only is the world around her not what she thinks, but the people she trusts are perhaps not the people she SHOULD be trusting. Fun tipple includes Soyful Noise, a Christian soy-product conglomerate, home products made from a combination of soy product and cockroach, a brief but informative lesson in how to kill a law officer with a grappling gun, and a man, the mysterious Thelonius Crowe, with a Coat of Many Colors. Yes, they say things like ‘oh my Dog’ and ‘cheese us rice’. Taking the Lord’s name in vain went out with the ascent of Soyful Noise, and they’re nothing if not creative.

Worth continuing? Lemme know.

EFR

****
ONE
The Girl Who Almost Burned Us

It was Friday–a Bright Day–and Moll Coulter was dreaming of apples.

She had put the blackout skins in the windows yesterday morning, when she was still relatively sober, and had therefore done it relatively well. In one corner of the window, the skin had begun to peel, and a single batonlike ray shot through, ending in a hot white coin of light on the floor. Moll shifted and turned in her sleep, as though the brightness bothered her.

In her dream, the apple twirled, backwards and forwards, on its stem. It was perfect, unblemished, round. There was a smell that rose up from it–a smell that Moll, who had never seen a real apple in her life, associated with body wash and perfume and high class hookers.

It was a peaceful smell. Delicate. Moll felt intoxicated–which was nothing new. This intoxication just felt better.

“Ohmidog, Moll,” said a voice from outside the room. “Oh. My. DOG. MOLL!”

The apple disappeared, gone in a flash of white light. Moll was left, bleary-eyed, staring at the cracks in her bedroom wall. She yawned, stretched. Knocked three empty bottles of Admiral Soyton’s 150 Proof to the floor.

One bottle, rolling into the beam of light, cracked, exploded, and began to melt.

“MOLL! WAKE UP, MOLL!”

The bedroom door rattled on its hinges, and, after what sounded like a summary kick, snapped at the lock. Bobbitt, her enormous mass shrouded in a protective suit, rushed inward, dashed through the beam, and slammed the corner of the curtain back into place. 

“Heyyy,” Moll said. “Bobbitt.”

“Are you INSANE?” Bobbitt screeched, her voice tinny through the suitspeaker. “Bright Day breaches are no joke, Moll. You could’ve burned us all in our beds. Lucky I saw the corner, coming home from work. Cheese us. One tiny hole–one pinhole–that’s all they say it takes. And you left a whole corner undone. That’s how the Alegharis died, you know. Rip in the Bright Day skins, too cheap to replace it. Tenement B burned to the ground.”

“I didn’t–”

“Apologize, Moll.”

“But–”

“Apologize. Now.”

Moll blinked a few times, waited for her vision to come into focus. Bobbitt, her face sweaty and pink with exertion beyond the suit mask, was scowling mightily. All four of her chins wobbled dangerously downward.
Moll sighed. “Elaine was home, wasn’t she.”

“Yes!” Bobbit threw her suited arms up as far as the suit would let her reach. “If killing yourself and destroying all our possessions means nothing to you, yes, beyond those little factoids, Elaine was home sick today. You would have burned my only child alive in her bed. You would have–”

Bobbitt choked, sputtered. Wheezed. Looking at her, bent over and hacking, Moll did feel sorry.

“I’m sorry,” she said. Still hacking, Bobbitt gave her the finger.

“Look,” Moll said, sitting up. “I didn’t mean to. I just–”

“You were drunk,” Bobbitt growled dangerously. “I know. When are you not?” She fiddled with the suit collar, pressing buttons and twirling dials. There was a faint pop as the pneumatic seals loosened, and Bobbitt drew the suit helmet over her head and tossed it into a broken-backed chair.

“Find a new place to live,” she said at last. Moll would give her this: she sounded regretful.

“But,” Moll said, though at this point it was more just to say something than because she had any argument.

“Nope,” said Bobbitt. “Find a new place. Bright Day breaches, broken bottles on my floor, shouting obscenities where Elaine can hear them–you’ve become a liability. If we’d lived a hundred years ago, I might’ve given you a second chance–but this isn’t the United States of America anymore, Moll. This is Utopia. And there are no second chances in Utopia. Not for any of us.”

Moll would also give her this: she was shaking her head. She didn’t smile. She didn’t look happy about it.

“I’ll give you until the end of May,” Bobbitt said. “That’s almost two weeks to find a new place.  After that, if you aren’t out of here, I will personally throw you on the street, Bright Day or Dark Day or anything in between. And I doubt–I highly doubt–that your suit is in any better shape than your blackout skins.”

Moll nodded. It was all she had left to do.

“This breaks my heart,” Bobbitt added, after a moment of silence. “Just thought you should know. You aren’t a bad person, Molly. Elaine loves you. But what can I do? What the hell else can I do?”

Moll certainly didn’t know.

Bobbitt closed the door on her way out. The door, its latch broken, swung right back into an open position.

Moll sighed, leaned back, and closed her eyes.