Manifest Destiny

Billy Munsen walked into the old bruja‘s tent and breathed an involuntary sigh of relief.  He’d been riding for three days, the path out of Hope little more than a dried rut in the desert hardpan.  It was hot out there – had to be 100 in the shade, were there any shade that wasn’t thrown by oven-hot mesas – hot enough for him to worry about the roan he’d ridden making the journey.  He could hear it outside, whickering softly to itself as it took long draughts from the oasis.  The caballeros in the other tents were nice enough not to snicker when he rode in, but he knew how he must look.  Sixteen, raw, and pink and sweating like a dollar whore on penny night.

He stood in the relative cool of the dim tent and pulled out his wallet.  He checked inside – 10 dollars – a fortune for a family like his.  He knew he’d need some of it to refill his saddlebags with some food (water he could get from the pool in the oasis), and most of it for the bruja and her medicine.  He slipped the wallet back into his shirt and let it hang from the thong around his neck.  The leather was cool against his skin.  It made him think of his mother, cold and pale in her bed, the sickness that was inside her long past fever.  You could see it in the way her eyes were sunken and her skin hung from her cheeks like grey curtains, that the disease was eating her from the inside out.

A voice from deeper in the tent came to him, scratchy and inflected.

Hola, nino.  You rode a long way on el camino muerto.  Have a seat.”

Billy stepped forward and found the back of the tent was dimly lit with a stumpy candle in a small metal holder.  It lit the face of an old woman wearing a long purple dress and flowered scarf.  Her skin was the color of old oak, and her face was lined like the bed of a creek after a summer with no rain.  She smiled, showing yellowed teeth, her rheumy eyes crinkling at the corners, crazing her skin as though an earthquake had passed through the hardpan.   She gestured at the chair across the small table from her.

“Sit.  Sentarse.

Billy pulled out the chair and sat, the wood creaking under him.  He shifted a little, the hard wood making the blisters on his flanks sting.  He winced, and tried to hide it, afraid the old woman would think him too small or weak for his task.  She continued to smile, as though she hadn’t seen a thing.  He pulled a kerchief from his back pocket and wiped the sweat from his forehead.

When she seemed sure he was settled, the old woman let the smile fade from her face in dips and drabs.  Billy tried not to be scared.  He knew the old fools in the village whispered the word bruja like it was a snake that would rear back and bite them.  She was no such thing to most – just an old woman who knew medicine.  Those who said that she was evil or poison, earned those things, he felt.  Despite his fear, more a fear for his mother than of this woman, Billy wasn’t one of them.  She looked at him, a squint creasing her brow, turning it into a fleshy bluff over her eyes.

“What’s your name, nino?”

“Billy.”

She nodded.  “Si.  Billy, you come to me for medicine for your madre?”

Billy nodded back.  He could feel the lump in his throat.  He watched the old woman stand and totter to a corner of the tent.  There was another table there, with shelves attached to the top.  She rummaged around, and he could hear the clink of glass on glass and the crinkle of butcher’s paper.  After a moment, she muttered something under her breath, and returned, a small glass vial in her hand.  Its contents were silvery and slick and seemed to move with a life all their own.  She placed it on the table and sat back down.

“How much?”  Billy asked.

He could feel the old woman weighing him.  He thought of his mother, and the sweat that made the sheets cling to her pale skin, and the way she would shake despite the heat that radiated from her.  He thought of her cough and the moments when fever would light in her eyes, pale fire that forced foul words and moans of pain from her chapped lips.  He knew the old woman could ask anything of him – five dollars, or his soul, and he would gladly pay either, and yet she did not.

“One dollar.”

Billy felt confusion cross his face, then felt a flood of relief when he picked his wallet from inside his shirt and fished out a dollar.  He laid it on the table and closed his hand around the bottle, the glass cool on his palm.  He drew it to him and watched the old bruja to see if she changed her mind.  When she did not, he let a breath he hadn’t been aware he was holding, and held the bottle a little tighter.

The old woman smiled at him.  “Go.  Vaminos.  Ride well.”

Billy left, the bottle clutched to his chest.  Behind him, the old woman had begun to hum to herself.

*

The trail was hot as ever, and Billy rode with his hat pulled low and his shoulders hunched, as though that would somehow deflect the fire in the sky from cooking him in the saddle.  His legs hurt, and his body ached.  He was on the second day of his journey back, and he’d found the hardpan no less forgiving than it had been on the way out.

Fortunately, the caballeros had been willing to part with enough salted beef and bread to keep him through the trip, though he preferred to eat at night when the desert was cool, and the dry food didn’t pull the moisture from his lips like a cactus drew blood.  He rubbed at his eyes and thought of the ranch, and his mother there, and hoped that Ramon was keeping up with the chores.

He rode on for a time in near silence, his thoughts circling like buzzards over a carcass.  He could hear the sounds of the roan’s hooves clipping against the desert floor, and the occasional scuttle and slither of snakes and lizards.  Here and there cottonwoods would add to the sounds when the day kicked up a hot breeze, but aside from those things, the trail was bright and lonesome.

*

Night fell like a cool sheet over the desert, and for the first time, Billy looked up.  Above, the whole of the sky was lit with stars, cold and distant and perfect points of light in a velvet setting.  They formed clouds and constellations and whorls, God’s fingerprint hovering above the hardpan.  It made him feel small, a sky like that, and though the sand hadn’t cooled yet, and the breeze hadn’t begun, Billy shivered a little – his mother would have said a goose walked over his grave.

He clucked softly to the roan, and she slowed and then stopped.  Billy dismounted and led her to the side of the trail, near a small mesa with a depression at its base. He dropped the lead, and the horse wandered a few feet off.  After a few minutes of using a small tin plate to dig a pit for the fire, Billy found a small pile of sagebrush fetched up against the rock, and brought it back, building a small fire.  He dropped his roll beside it, then sat against the stiff fabric while he chewed a strip of jerky and sipped from his canteen.

The dark had closed in while he worked, black and sure of itself.  He heard the roan whicker from somewhere near, and the sound of a lizard or a prairie dog scuttling through the sand.  His heart trip-hammered a bit while the night drifted in, and he fought the urge to saddle back up and ride from here until dawn split the night.  Instead, he forced himself to take small bites of the jerky, to chew it methodically, and to think of home.

He thought of his mother, before the disease wormed its way into her flesh, of the way she looked standing against the sun, the scrub grasses blowing behind her, and the fabric on the line snapping in the wind.  She would shade her eyes and look out, calling to him where he was digging a fencepost, or watering the cattle, and he would look up to where she stood, haloed in the light.  Times like that he thought of how it should have been his father she was waving to, his father the one who should have been planting the timbers for the fence or slopping the buckets in the troughs.  Those days were gone, though – William Munsen had ridden down the trail and never come back, and left Billy the man.  So it went.

He sighed, and washed the last of the jerky down with a few sips from his canteen, banked the fire, and rolled into his bedroll.  He closed his eyes and let the image of the ranch, warm against the sun, the cottonwoods blazing in the evening light, lull him to sleep.

*

Billy awoke to the sound of someone stirring the embers of his fire.  His pulse leapt like a wolf after prey, and he swallowed hard but managed to lie still, his back to the fire.  He cursed himself for not pulling the rifle he’d brought from its place next to the saddle before he laid down.  He lay in the dark, taking deep breaths, trying to pretend to sleep and listen at the same time.  He felt heat flare against his back as the fire re-kindled and threw shadows against the mesa in front of him.  He looked up at the puppet-show there, the black silhouettes stark on the orange rock – his, laying prone, and the stranger, sitting on a rock, a long stick in his hand.  The fire flickered and Billy’s heart skipped as their shadows writhed, and he thought for a moment the man’s had become that of a giant raven, perched over him.

“Stop playing possum, boy.  I know you’re awake.”

Billy felt the sharp end of the stick poke him gently in the back, and he instinctively shied away from it even as he tried to hold his water.  He rolled in the blanket and sat up, pushing himself back from the fire a foot or two.  No need to give the man an easy target.  He rubbed the sleep from his eyes so he could see who it was that had commandeered his fire.

The man sitting across from him was old.  Older, anyway.  His face was the same color as that of the old bruja, though from the sun, not nationality.  Lines rode his skin like a roadmap of one of the bigger cities Billy had seen in his primers – maybe Boston, or New York.  The man had blue eyes set above a straight nose and full lips that looked almost swollen in the orange light.  He was wearing a black shirt and chinos, and a blood-red kerchief was wrapped around his neck.  He smiled, and Billy heard the roan whinny.  He cast about for the rifle, hoping it had fallen from his pack, but it was nowhere on the ground.

“Looking for this?”  The man asked.  He held up the Winchester, its long barrel black in the firelight, the wood stock orange against the flames.  He tossed it to Billy, who watched it land in the sand with a puff of dust.  After a moment, the boy scrambled for the rifle and had it seated against the crook of his shoulder.

“Who are you?”  He asked.

The man stirred the fire.  Sparks jumped from the sagebrush and drifted upward, to the stars.

“Just an old man.”

“What do you want?”  Billy flexed sleep-numb fingers and slipped one inside the trigger guard.

The man didn’t seem to hear and instead looked up at the stars.  “I knew your pa, you know.”

“Bull,” Billy said.

“William Munsen.  40.  Rode off this way a few years ago.  Good man.  Good man.”

The way he said good man made Billy think of teeth in the dark, and sharp knives.

“What do you want?”  He asked again, a tremor slipping into his voice.

The man in black lowered his head so Billy could see his eyes.  The fire was reflected in his pupils, setting them ablaze.  Billy thought of hellfire and damnation, like Pastor Ree talked about on Sunday mornings, and wondered if this was the sort of thing sinners saw before their last moments on God’s earth.  He wondered if his mother would see this.  He gripped the Winchester harder still until his knuckles stood out white against pink flesh.

The man finally answered.  “A trade.  That medicine for your life.  The old woman – she’s feeble.  Hell, she’s probably already lying in bed, the flies circling her like a day old turd in the sun.  Ramon’s long gone, the silver in his grubby fists.  The little shit’s probably already drunk it all up.”  He opened his palms in a conciliatory gesture.  “Just the medicine boy.  If you share, I’ll let you walk.  If not, I’ll eat you.  Legs first.”

Billy squeezed the trigger.  The noise was loud and vast in the night and next to the tower of stone, and his ears rang.  A cloud of smoke, smelling of cordite, puffed into the night.  The man was knocked off his rock, his shirt billowing out with the impact.  Not looking to see if he was dead, Billy, his heart hammering like a parade was tromping through his chest, jumped on the roan, snatching up the reins and kicking her flanks.  She jumped into action, hooves tearing great clods of hard sand and throwing them behind the duo as they began to gain speed and pound their way across the desert.

They fled, the night slipping around them.  Mesas and scrub blurred by while overhead, the stars seemed to slip their moorings and slide past in the night sky.  They rode like that for some time, the sound of hooves and the roan’s heavy breathing covering Billy’s own heart, before he was aware of another sound, a loud rustling like a lizard’s claws scrabbling on the desert floor.  He cast a glance over his shoulder and saw the man in black following, running on all fours, his jaw elongated, a great tongue lolling from his mouth amid long needle-like teeth.  Billy kicked the roan again, and they surged forward.

Behind him, he could hear another sound begin.  The man had begun to sing.

“Them bones them bones them dry bones!  Eat ’em up suck the marrow!  Little boys and old women, simple men and fools, eat ’em up, suck the marrow!  Them bones them bones them dry-y-y-y bones!”

Billy spurred the roan one last time, and they flew through the night.  He could feel the flecks of foam begin to appear on her flanks, and though he worried for her, his fear was greater.  He would ride her until she fell, and then he would run until his feet bled, but he would not end a meal for the thing behind him.

They pounded on into the night, the vision of the thing behind them spurring them on.  After a time, Billy no longer heard the man singing, though he did not dare slow their pace.  Eventually, dawn broke the sky, pale and hot, and the roan began to slow.  He could feel her heart hammering through her ribs, could feel her labored breathing.  She stumbled, and stopped, and he leapt from her in time for her to fall to her knees.  A part of him died inside seeing her like that, but he had no time.  He dug into the saddle bag and grabbed the medicine.  He stuffed it into his waistband and did the only thing he knew.  He ran.  He didn’t know if the man was still chasing him, but he wouldn’t be caught on his knees.

A mile down the road, he heard the horse scream.  He ran on.  He ran until his side threatened to split, and black spots flickered into his vision like flies fat from decay. Still, he ran.

*

Later, with the sun hot in the sky, and his feet bloody and blistered, the ranch came into view.  He burst through the gate and into the house.  Raul was there, wiping sweat from his mother’s forehead, and for a moment, all he could feel was relief.  The man in black was a liar.  He gave Raul the medicine, who brewed it into a tea and gave it to his mother.

When she came around for the first time, he didn’t tell her about the roan or the bruja, or the man in black.  Instead, he held her hand and smiled back at her.  Eventually, she fell asleep, and he did too, deep by her side.

His dreams were not all pleasant, and he often thought of the old woman who had helped his mother and wondered if she could help him.  He knew she wouldn’t though – that was the nature of things – you could only be innocent once.  She would shy away from him, as others did.

After, when he woke in the small hours, days and weeks months and years from then, he wondered if he would always be running from the man in black and if one day he would fall and not be able to continue.

 

 

A Query

Here is the query letter that caught my editor’s attention. I’ve seen people ask before how these work, and thought I’d share one that happened to work for me. Good luck!

Dear Editor,

Alice wakes one day to find herself on the other side of death, in the corrupted fairy tale land of Nod. Unable to remember much of the events leading to her demise, she sets out on a journey to discover her memory and the reason for her presence in Nod. Unknown to her, the man responsible for her death, Jack, is on a mission to find her spirit and end her second life.

Along the way, she meets a cast of characters that include a madman with a dark secret, her faithful companion, Dog, and woman made of memory.  Together, they help her on her journey as she uncovers the truth of Nod and the woman behind it all, the Red Queen.

Fairy Tale, complete at 63,180 words, is a contemporary fantasy.

I was raised in Michigan and now live in North Dakota, working as a web developer for an advertising agency.  I’ve been published in several small online magazines, and my short story, Resurrection, took runner-up in the Fictuary short story contest.

Thank you for your consideration.

Clayton Snyder

What I Mean When I Talk About Writing: Plot

Hoo boy. Plot. There’s a theory out there, put forth by Stephen King and others, that separates the way people write plots. One type is the Builder. They write outlines, sketch in the important details, and move on with their story. Generally, those books are well structured and written quicker than most. They know where every plot device and twist will fall, what the characters are doing, and why. I’d mentioned Brandon Sanderson before – he’s a well-known Builder. His books are easy to read (nothing wrong with that), well thought out, and everything has a clear reason and motivation. He’s also nearly as prolific as King. And we know Building works – a lot of Builders are also best-sellers. I am not one of those people.

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I meant to do that.

I fall into the second category – what King calls a Gardener, and the Internet refers to as a Pantser. I’ve found (for me at least) that outlining and plotting and planning makes for a very boring write. I’ve also found that rarely does the plot or a character do what I had planned for them anyway, and halfway through writing, I’ll stop, look at my outline, and then throw it away because I’ve veered so far off course the only way to complete the work is to let the story do what it’s going to do, and just hang on. That’s fun for me. I like not knowing where things are headed until I’m encroaching on a paragraph and my brain shouts ‘Surprise!’.

That’s not to say it’s all chaos. I do tend to write down major events in the story before I start, and characters. I generally already know where things are going to end up, and how they start. It’s the journey in between that I enjoy. While I write, I keep an eye on those notes through the story and ask myself am I close to hitting this story beat yet, or is this how this character would handle this plot development? If the answer is yes, hoorah, milestone. If not, hoorah, more story to surprise me.

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Whaaa-?

The downside is that sometimes I get stuck. At times I’ll find myself in a corner, surrounded by paint, and wonder how I got there. Then I have to step back, read parts I’ve written, and make connections. A lot of times those connections will end up threading together and pulling the story out of the painted corner. Other times, I need to go back and make those connections so I can throw the story a rope. But, the truth of the matter for me is this: it never gets boring.

That’s the important part. If your story is boring you, it’s going to bore other readers as well. It’s not a matter of if you built or gardened, or if you’re hitting every beat on the Hero’s Journey. It’s a matter of if you can keep yourself engaged, and by extension, your readers. For me, that means letting the words do what they will. It’ll be different for you, of course. But hopefully, it’ll be fun.

161433967

Here We Go.

What I Mean When I Talk About Writing: Character and Dialogue

Depending on who you are, these are the big two. If you’re like Sanderson, you might be all about plot first, and how the characters fit in later, and we will get to the plot later. But I wanted to talk a bit about character and dialogue first. Some will separate those two – I don’t, for a simple reason. How people talk leads into who they are. It’s a brief window, whether colored by patois, or by use of dictionary words, into a part of their character. Here we go then. My thoughts.

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Aw man, I got the squiggles.

One of the big questions I often see asked is “How do you write someone different to yourself?”. Short answer, you don’t. Sure, you can do research – watch people, maybe read a little philosophy and psychology – that’ll help. It’ll give you an insight into what makes people tick. But the truth of the matter for me is that you can’t write a person without coloring their experiences with your own. I believe people, real or fictional, are a sum of the things that came before, and no amount of research is going to tell you what it’s really like for a soldier in Iraq or a stock trader in New York without actually having  lived those things. Leonardo da Vinci coined the much-paraphrased idea that every artist paints himself, or parts of himself in a portrait. It’s a truism I haven’t been able to avoid, and one that harkens back to ‘write what you know’. There’s a reason so many authors’ books are about authors.

My characters often find themselves in hard spots – it’s what I like to write. “How are you going to get out of this one?” I’ll ask them, and the answer is almost always by being clever, or ruthless, or smart. Never genius. Never some sort of tactical maestro. Never Sherlock, always Watson. I can’t find that in myself, and frankly, it would ring false to me even if I researched that sort of person and tried to shoehorn it in. It would feel wooden, like a puppet I’m controlling, rather than a real boy. I want my people to feel organic. I want them to react like I know friends, family, and myself might react or act in a situation. If they’re brave, it’s not because they’re not also scared shitless. It’s because being brave is the thing they know they have to do. Why did that villain just kill three people? Because he believes it’s right, and God help us if we don’t know people who are so fervent in their belief that they always seem one step away from volcanic violence. True to life, sometimes with qualities amplified for effect. I’ll probably never face down a dragon, but if there’s a taco truck on the other side of a busy highway, I’m going to cross.

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Hells yeah.

How does dialogue fit into that? For me, it’s fairly simple. I write people talking how I feel people actually talk. I don’t subscribe to the Tarantino school where everybody tells long stories or pontificates on the nature of cheeseburgers and nihilism. I don’t subscribe to the Shonda Rimes version of a monologue every 15 minutes for effect. People talk in simple sentences for the most part. They try to be clever or funny or hurtful or sincere or any one of a thousand emotions, depending on the situation. And depending on the person, they almost never lecture you or tell you a long-winded story about that time they were in Winn-Dixie and someone brought three pigs in and then someone got them drunk and wait a minute – that might actually be funny. But you get the point. If everybody spoke like they do in movies and some books, nothing would get done in the world. Finally, I write dialogue so it reveals parts of  a character. A simple comment, depending on context can be an ego blow or boost. It can convey love or loathing. It’s up to you to decide how to use them. To (probably misquote) a song: Words are only water/I hope they’re never cold.

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Ack, my feelings.

Action. I know I didn’t mention it above, but unless your character loves idle words, make them do what they say they’re going to, in the tone they said it.

“I’m going to kill you,” she said, smiling.

“I’m going to kill you,” she said. Her eyes were flat.

Yeah, don’t get in her way.

The last thing I do, and I think it’s important for most writers to do this, is to ask a reader after they’ve finished a simple question. Did you buy that character as a person? If they say yes, I’ve somehow managed to avoid writing a train wreck. Which is always a win.

 

What I Mean When I Talk About Writing: Part 1

For the longest time, I’ve been hesitant to talk about writing. I think a part of me wants to keep quiet, afraid that if I talk about it, like a dream, it will stop working. Another part of me thinks who am I to talk? Most of the time it feels like I’m flailing about with words, and the times I get published are simply me blundering into the right room at the right time.

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Oops.

I know there are people out there with better insight – they keep blogs where that’s what they do – they talk about the craft. They’re constantly creating content – about how to build a character or how to find a theme or how your writing space has to be the right color of mauve. They’re attending conferences and helping other writers polish their work. But here’s a secret thought I hold close most of the time: I don’t actually see them writing.

Don’t get me wrong – I think part of what they’re doing is somewhat useful. They help aspiring or unsure writers with their confidence, they show them in articles what they might be doing wrong, or they help organize meet and greets where people get to sit and talk about the work. But that seems to be the line. It’s a cottage industry, writing about writing or talking about writing. It’s another for-profit endeavor, and the more I think about it, the more it annoys me, because what’s actually happening is that all of this time spent making charts and outlines and chatting and pontificating is time spent not actually writing. Here’s another secret I’ve learned over a long career: If you want to get better, sit down and write.

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Ugh, words.

Stop talking about it endlessly, stop thinking it to death, and stop procrastinating because you got the No. 3 pencils and they’re Farber, and you really wanted some Pentel mechanicals. Write, then show it to people, then write some more. Write until you hate it, write until you love it, and write until you hate it again, yourself, and the world. Get the idea down, then go back and edit. Read an article about how to bring theme out, or metaphor. But first and foremost, WRITE. That’s secret number three. You can’t get better at something without starting to do it.

That said, I’m going to do what working writers rarely do, and open up a bit of my brain over a couple of posts. I’m going to share what it’s like for me to create, and hopefully, you find it interesting. But don’t take it necessarily as advice. What works for me maybe doesn’t work for you. That’s the nature of creativity. Some people get inspired by a song on the radio. Others have to smear themselves with peanut butter and take the A-Train to Boston. Whatever works. Instead, think of it as me opening my skull up, and for a minute, you can see the gears inside. In the meantime, go make something.

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Sure. That, uh, works.

 

Came Back Wrong

The thing he’d raised from the dead stood, the ligaments in its legs creaking with disuse.  Its skin hung sallow and loose, and the hair on its head was spare, brittle, and white.   It looked at Cory with eyes that were withered orbs set in dark sockets and let loose a moan that rattled its chest.

Cory held up two fingers and pointed at his mouth.  “Hello.”  He said.

The corpse looked at him, and its mouth worked for a moment.  Its chest heaved, and it gave a wracking cough, black bile dribbling from between its lips and pattering to the dirt below.  Cory waited, as patiently as he could after having already failed three times before.  The corpse tried again, a thin wheedling breath playing through its nose.

“Aaaaa.”  It shut its mouth, and its brow furrowed.  It tried again.  “Aaaaaa.  Aaaap.  Aaaaple.  Apple!”

Its mouth screwed up into a hideous grin, yellowed teeth shining dully in the moonlight.  Cory slapped himself in the forehead.  Failure number four.  He took the corpse by the arm and patted it on the shoulder.

“Yes, yes.  Very nice, er…Hank.  Come along.”

He guided it to the shed and opened the door.  Moonlight spilled onto the wood floor, and up the back wall, where it half-illuminated three other corpses.  Two men and a woman, he had given each of them names – Mona and Harvey and Bill.  They looked up at the sound of the door opening and the sudden influx of light and smiled.  The air was filled with the voices of the dead as they each tried to speak.

“Doggie!”

“Perfume!”

“Throndset!”  Cory wasn’t sure how Bill could even get that word out.  Half his tongue was gone, eaten away by insects.

Hank grinned and replied to them.  “Apple!”

Cory rolled his eyes, and gave the newcomer a little push, and Hank shuffled inside.  He shut the shed door and locked it.  He turned on the hose attached to the back of his house, and washed his hands, then went inside.  Behind him, dimly, he could hear the corpses yammering in their one-word sentences to each other.  He sighed.  Maybe he’d get it right tomorrow night.

*

            Cory knew where he’d gone wrong.  He’d had a good think about it while trying to chew through the rubber mat that passed for Salisbury steak in his frozen dinner.  It was a matter of freshness.  Like the steak, the corpses he’d been getting from the cemetery where old and freezer-burnt, so to speak.  He needed fresh meat.

It was that line of thought that had led him to drive through downtown rather than digging up some country grave in the middle of the night.  He trolled the streets in methodical fashion, driving first north and south, then east and west.  He considered a hooker but discounted it.  There were a number of problems with that approach, not the least of which being the fact that he’d been raised to respect women, and not kill them and raise them from the dead.

Two hours of driving, and Cory was about to point the car toward another country road when he saw something promising.  He slowed the car and pulled over, then shut the engine off.  He sat in the quiet for a moment, listening to the tick of the cooling engine.  He was screwing up his courage and found he had to both swallow past a large lump in his throat and force himself to breathe evenly.  He could hear the rush of blood in his ears.

He watched the man standing under the overpass, his hands held before a barrel fire, his tattered coat clinging to a body that probably hadn’t been washed in some time.  His hair hung in long tatters and in some places mingled with his beard.  Finally, when Cory thought he’d grabbed hold of himself enough, he took a deep breath, exhaled, and left the car.

He walked to the barrel fire, his head on a swivel, watching for other men or women, other possible witnesses.  When he saw no one, his confidence picked up, and his step became surer.  A few yards out, his shoes crunching on gravel, the old man heard the sound and looked up.  A frown crossed his forehead, bringing his bushy eyebrows together.

“You lost, John Q?”

Cory shook his head and tried to put on his friendliest smile.

“John Q?”

The man gestured back at his car and at Cory himself.

“Car, job, house, wife, picket fence, three point five kids.  John Q Public.”  He snorted deep, and spat a wad of phlegm to the side.  “So, you lost?”

Cory was close enough to feel the heat from the barrel fire.  He smiled again and hoped he sounded compassionate.

“Close.  No wife, no kids.  Not really lost, either.  Just out for a drive, and I thought I saw a guy who could use a little kindness.”

The old man was looking at the fire, his hands tucked into his armpits.  He snorted.  “Huh.”  Then he looked up at Cory.

“You ain’t a weirdo, are ya?  You know, give me a meal, maybe a shower, and then you want me to spank ya?”

Cory chuckled.  “Hell no.  Just a nice guy.  Isn’t that weird enough these days?”

“So whaddya want?”

Cory shrugged, tried to look like he was altruistic.  “Like you said.  Well, without the spanking.  Shower and a meal?  Maybe your name?”

“Name’s Phil.”  He eyeballed Cory one more time, one eye squinting.  “You sure you ain’t a weirdo?”

“Pretty sure.  C’mon, we’ll get you a steak and some warm water.”

Phil seemed to struggle with himself for a minute.  He muttered something under his breath and then shook his head.  Another minute and he seemed to come to a decision.

“Alright.”

“Great.”  Cory was smiling.  It felt weird to him.  Like wearing someone else’s face.

And you’re not a weirdo.  Right.

Cory turned to go, and Phil followed him to the car.  Before he got in, the old man stuck out his hand.

“Thanks, mister.”

Cory smiled again.  He thought of the Joker and shook Phil’s hand.  “Not a big deal.”

They left the overpass behind.

*

            While Phil washed up, Cory got dinner ready.  Chicken with rice, buttermilk biscuits, a salad, and a Kool-Aid and antifreeze cocktail.  Cory made Phil’s plate and set the table, then ate a sandwich over the sink.  In the background, he heard the shower shut off, and a few minutes later, the bathroom door open.  He left the kitchen to find Phil sitting down at the table.  He already had a mouthful of chicken.

“This is great, man.  I can’t thank ya enough.”  The words came out a bit rounded from the mouthful of food.  He took a sip of his drink and smacked his lips, then raised the glass and grinned.  “Good.”

He fell back to the food.  He looked presentable enough with his hair trimmed and combed.  An idle part of Cory’s brain wondered how messy this was going to turn out to be.  Another part, the part he was struggling to keep tamped down, wanted to knock the glass of poison from the man’s hands.

Cory took the chair across from Phil and watched him eat for a while longer, each bite of chicken and rice punctuated by a sip of Kool-Aid.  Before long, the plate and glass were empty, and the old man was leaning back, his hand on his stomach.  He belched loudly and then gave Cory a sheepish grin.

“‘Orry.  Good.  Food like that, go to a man’s head.”  The words were slurred, and he giggled.  “Got an’more drink?”

Cory shook his head.  “Sorry, no.”

“S’alright.  Shay, you sheem like a nishe fella affer all.  Shure you don’ wanna fonnle me?”

He stopped talking, and he got a distinctly green look on his face.  With a lurch, he bent to one side and emptied his stomach on the wood floor.

“Shit.  Shorry.  Shicken.  Buc Buc.”

He vomited again and fell off the chair to the opposite side.

“Ow.”  He said, the word floating up to Cory from the floor.  “OOOOWW-”

The room was suddenly silent.  Cory stood up and walked over to the man.  He was lying face up on the floor, bits of vomit clinging to his freshly groomed beard.  Cory fought to keep his gorge down.  Phil’s eyes were fixed on the ceiling, one pupil dilated.  Cory looked at the puddle of vomit on the floor, and grimaced, then fetched a roll of paper towels, plastic bags, and a pair of rubber gloves.

Fifteen minutes later, the floor was clean, albeit one dead man.  Cory stood and tossed the plastic bags into the garbage, then grabbed a small area rug from the foyer and laid it next to Phil.  With some effort, he managed to get the dead man on top, and then used it to slide him to the back door and down the steps to the yard.

Outside, the moon was a quarter crescent sickle hanging among tatters of wispy cloud.  Stars peeked out of the black above, like the eyes of some predator.  Cory drug Phil to the circle of dirt he’d dug into the ground.  He laid him out, hands pointing to the sides, legs splayed.  Satisfied the old man was laid out just right, he stepped out of the circle.

He’d done this before, and was getting to be old hat at it.  First, a bit of blood at each of the five points – feet, hands, and head.  He picked open the scab on his arm where he had cut himself open the first time, and caught the drops in his hand, then scattered them at the cardinal points.

Next, a bit of smoke.  He pulled a cigarette out of his shirt pocket and lit it, inhaling deeply.  Then he walked to the man’s head, bent low without entering the circle, and blew the smoke into Phil’s open mouth.  There was a sound, like the wind picking up through the branches of a tree, and a voice came on the wind, whispering indistinctly.

Finally, the words.  They were the hardest part.  Each had to be spoken distinctly, clearly, and with intent.  The book had been very clear.  He stood at Phil’s feet and uttered them.

“Morte.  Vitae.  Veritas.”

Phil’s body twitched, and his feet kicked in the dirt.   Cory repeated the words.

Another twitch and Phil’s chest deflated, a groan escaping from his throat.  He twisted in place and struggled to stand.  His eyes were glazed and foggy, as though cataracts covered the iris.  He stood, and Cory waited for the fog to clear from the old man’s eyes.  When it did, he raised two fingers to get Phil’s attention and pointed at his mouth.

“Hello.”  He said.

Phil opened his mouth, and a thin blue stream of antifreeze and Kool-Aid drooled from between his lips, staining his beard.  He opened his mouth, and- screamed.  It was high-pitched and shrill, and loud enough to wake the birds in Cory’s maple tree and send them flying into the black sky.  Cory stepped back involuntarily.

The sound stopped, and Phil’s chest expanded.  Cory flinched as a second later as Phil let another scream loose, his voice echoing in the quiet neighborhood.  Panic grabbed Cory by the chest and tried to crush his heart, and he did the only thing he could think of.  He grabbed the shovel he had left out and clubbed Phil in the face with it.

The corpse stopped screaming for a second, shock creeping across its face like ice on a slow river.  Cory tried to think.  He needed to shut Phil up or muffle him before he belted out another scream and woke up the neighborhood.  A thought occurred to him, and he tore off his shirt.  Phil seemed to be recovering, and his chest expanded.  He opened his mouth, and Cory lunged forward, stuffing the shirt between his teeth.  The scream came, but it had lost its teeth.

Cory held the ends of the shirt and wrapped them around Phil’s head, then tied them in place.   Phil’s nostrils flared, and his chest expanded, and another scream came.  He blinked.  Cory smirked at him.

“C’mon Phil.”

He took the corpse by the arm and led him to the shed.  He opened the door.

“Doggie!”

“Perfume!”

“Throndset!”

“Apple!”

Phil screamed in greeting.  Cory gave him a little push, and when the old corpse was inside, he shut the shed door and locked it. Through the door, he could hear the mutterings of the dead, punctuated by a muffled scream.

*

            He was too fresh.  The others were too old.  Maybe, if I’m lucky, they’re in the Goldilocks Zone.

Cory finished his dinner and scraped the plate clean, then put it in the sink.  He walked to the back yard and picked up the gas can he’d set by the steps.  He fished in his pocket for a lighter.  He felt the hard lump, and satisfied it was there, he began to douse the shed.  It was a shame, really.  It had taken him half a summer to build, but there was no helping it.  The book had never said how to put the dead back.

When he was done, he walked over to the two circles he’d dug into the lawn and checked his handiwork.  Cheryl and Carli were laid out in each, each in their pretty Sunday dresses.  He walked around them and smoothed stray strands of hair back from their foreheads.  His fingertips gently caressed the bruises the car dash had left on their faces.

Cheryl’s head flopped to the side, and he straightened it and then stood.  He walked to the shed and with little ceremony, lit it.  The gasoline went up with a whoosh, and he felt his hair singe.  Inside, just below the roaring of the flame, he thought he could hear “Apple!”  He walked back over to his wife and child and started the ritual.

A part of him thought of what it had cost him to get their bodies.  All of his savings to bribe the city morgue.  All of his humanity and soul to bring them back.  It had better be worth it.  He bled for them, and blew the smoke into them, and then spoke the words.  They twitched and spasmed.  They groaned.

As one, they stood, the fogginess clearing from their eyes.  He raised two fingers and pointed at his mouth.  He couldn’t help smiling, even as he felt the heat from the shed grow more intense.  He heard sirens in the distance, and somewhere distant to him, Phil screaming.

“Hello.”  He said.

They opened their mouths.

Puppet

“Someone threw away a perfectly good white boy.”

They were standing in a circle around the body, Max, Johnny, and Stan.  They stood with their arms crossed under the power lines that crisscrossed the alley between tall brownstones that blocked the sun and cast shadow into the narrow space.  At the mouth of the alley, pedestrians walked by, heads down or forward, but not looking in, and past that, cars rode by in twos and threes, their colors blurring under the bright light.  Stan looked around, and then made a sound of exasperation.

“Really?  Better off Dead?”  Blank looks.  “John Cusack?”  Still no reaction.  He threw his arms up and turned in a circle.

“I was born in 1805, Stan,”  Max said.

“So? You’ve never snuck into a movie theater?  Shit, you don’t even have to sneak – just walk in and sit down.”

Max shook his head, and Stan made a disgusted sound.

“Not once in the last 100 years?  Gah.”  He turned to Johnny, who he knew had been alive in the 50s.  “What about you, slick?”

Johnny shrugged.  “I was a James Dean fan.”  He looked down again and frowned.  “What do you think happened to him?”

Stan pointed to the puddle spilled around the body and the edges of the shirt that were soaking it up and turning a deep crimson.  “Probably stabbed.  Not likely he was shot, unless someone used a small caliber.”

“How do you know?”  Max asked.

“No exit wound.  Lots of blood.”

“Why don’t they look?”  Johnny asked, interrupting the conversation.

“What?  Who?”

Johnny gestured to the people passing by outside the alley.

“They don’t want to see,”  Max said.

“Why not?”

“You ever really want to see something ugly?  Do you seek it out, make yourself uncomfortable?  When you were still a person, when you cut yourself, did you take your time and look at the wound, or did you cover it up fast and pinch it off?”

Johnny fell quiet for a moment.  “You think he’s got family?”  He said after a minute.

“Probably,”  Max said.

“Doesn’t matter.  Lucky bastard got the A-train right away.”  Stan said.  He knelt and dug his hand into the man’s back, the translucent blue of his skin passing into the body.

“What the hell are you doing, boy?”  Max asked.

Stan looked up.  “Just making sure the lights are out.”  He pulled his arm out and stood.

“So?”  Johnny asked.

“Yeah, he’s a goner.  So, you guys gonna stick around for the cop show?”

They shook their heads.

“I’m going to the library.  There’s a guy comes in and reads The Windup Bird Chronicle, and if I don’t get there in time, I’ll miss a page or two.”  Max said.

“Yeah, the Strand is showing Rebel Without a Cause,”  Johnny chimed in.

They said their goodbyes.  Max walked through the alley wall, probably giving some poor housewife a chill, and Johnny wandered out to the street and through traffic, where several cars passed through him before he got to the other side.  Left alone, Stan looked around the alley and wondered what to do.

Eternity could be boring sometimes.  Sure, you got the chance to watch people all you wanted, and the cop show was always entertaining, but you could only watch hot women get into their shower so many times before it got to be old hat.  He did get free passes to all the movies – being dead would do that – and all the TV he could watch, but that tended to suck when you couldn’t turn the channel.  There were always books, but much like TV, you had to wait for someone else to start reading before you could.  There was other entertainment to watch – war, rape, murder, but you had to be a sick fuck in life to enjoy those.

He eyed the corpse in the alley and wondered what it would be like to be alive again.  To feel, to breathe, to eat a cheeseburger.  An idea popped into his head and fluttered around, like a moth getting too close to a candle flame.

That won’t work.  Will it?

He thought maybe he should wander off, find something else to do before he had any other ideas.  When you were dead, too many ideas were dangerous.  They gave you hope.  He thought of Max, dead for all those years, and wondered if the old man still had ideas, or if he brushed them off like houseflies.   He started to walk away and found himself at the corpse’s feet.  The idea fluttered again.

Stan knelt, placing his knees on the dead man’s.  He felt a tingle, like what he felt when he would walk through solid objects.  He knelt there for a moment, feeling the buzz, and then closed his eyes.  He fell forward, into the dead man, and his whole body took on the tingle like licking a 9-volt.  It was comforting, like one of those electric chairs at the mall.  He didn’t want to open his eyes, just wanted to feel that comforting tingle until the world faded into black.  He pushed himself up and found it took some effort.  He opened his eyes.

He looked down and was surprised to see hands, flesh and blood, pressed into the concrete.  He could feel stones pressing into them, and the weight of the body he was wearing pressing down.  His arms trembled a bit, and he pressed himself back until he sat on his borrowed heels.  Pain flashed through the body he had stolen, and he looked down at the soiled shirt.  He could just make out the tear in the fabric where the blade had gone in.  He pressed a hand to his side, and pain spiked from the wound, sending a flare into the brain he was using.

It faded, and like a light being switched on, euphoria flooded into his brain.  He was in a body.  He could breathe – he did just then, and took a deep breath, and ignored the pain in his side – air flooded into his lungs, and he felt light-headed for a moment, like the first time he’d had a cigarette.  Which reminded him of cigarettes – he missed the harsh burn of smoke and the frisson from that first drag.  He missed the taste of red meat, hot and juicy and savory, and the feel of a woman on his jock.

The sound of traffic outside the alley pulled him back into the real world, and he looked down.  The shirt was torn and bloody and ruined, and he didn’t think he wanted to stagger out of the alley in that shape.  He couldn’t afford attention from doctors or police.  He’d need a shirt to start.  He looked around and saw luck had continued to smile on him.  Hanging from one of the lines toward the back of the alley was someone’s laundry, and right in the middle of the line, a big flannel.

Stan lurched to his feet, the feel of muscle working under him unfamiliar, and promptly fell forward.  He managed to get his hands out in time before he smashed his face into a pulp, but his palms ended up skinned, and his knees a wracked mess.  He took a breath, though he suspected he still didn’t need to and pushed himself up.  He crab-walked to the wall of the brownstone next to him and pressed his back into it.  Then, with careful deliberation, levered his new body up until he was standing.  He cheered to himself, an internal victory dance, and then took a hesitant step.  When he didn’t fall down, he had another celebration – go Stan, it’s your birthday – and took another.  Before long, he was at the clothesline.

The clothing presented a new challenge.  He found his hands weren’t ready to operate a clothespin or buttons, and he ended up ripping the shirt from the line, which came easily, and off his torso, which did not, and left lines of welts where the seams wouldn’t part.  After some cursing and no small amount of frustration, he managed to get the flannel on and buttoned just enough to not show his nipples when he walked down the street.  He looked down at himself, clean as he would be for some time, and felt satisfied enough to leave the alley.  He took a few more practice steps and screwed up his courage, and then joined the pedestrian traffic outside as though he belonged.

*

“What. Will. You. Have?”

The cashier couldn’t have been more than 16, and Stan was trying not to wring his neck.  He stared up at the menu, the high-def photos making his stomach rumble.  He thought he wanted the Uber-Stack, six patties alternated with cheese and bacon and sandwiched between  two glistening buns, but the Reichsburger sounded delicious as well.

“Sir?”

Stan forced his face to frown, and the kid behind the counter stepped back.  Shit. He was doing it wrong.  He tried to remember what a normal face looked like and smiled.  He was sure all of his teeth were showing, but damn if he wasn’t trying.

“Gimme the Uber-Stack.”

“Mezzerschmidt fries or Panzer Rings?”

“Rings, please.”

The kid pressed some buttons on his register, which beeped and booped at him.

“Eight o five.”

Panic stitched its way across Stan’s chest.  He thrust a hand into his pocket, and – holy shit ­– came out with a 50.  He passed it over to the kid and waited for his change, then stepped to the side.  When his order came up, he almost ran to a booth and sat down.

The first bite of meat was heaven.  Juicy and savory and cheesy and bacon-y and oh my God, this is what Heaven must taste like.  He popped an onion ring into his mouth and savored the fried goodness.  His soda was sweet and fizzy and the bubble tickled his borrowed nose.  He took another bite of burger and sighed.

A noise from the front of the store interrupted his third bite.  Someone was up front, shouting.  He turned in his seat and looked.  A young man in a big coat was waving his arms, and acting agitated.  Stan ducked his head, but not before the kid turned, and he saw the gun in his hand.

“Hey.  Hey you.  Motherfucker in the flannel.  Get up here.”

Stan sighed again and trudged up front.  The kid grabbed him and put one arm around his neck, the other hand, the one with the gun, pressing the weapon to his temple.

“Now.”  The kid said.  “Open the register, or I shoot this motherfucker.”

The cashier rolled his eyes and reached under the counter.

Don’t be a hero, you dipshit, Stan thought.  The would-be robber saw it too, though, and swept the gun toward the cashier.

“You going for an alarm?  Stupid motherfucker, what’d I tell you?”

He pressed the gun against Stan’s head.

Oh shi- was all Stan had time to think before the sound of the gun going off echoed in his head, blotting out all thought.  He felt his borrowed skull crack and explode outward, and his borrowed brains fly out like a bowl of thrown Jell-o.

The room echoed, and he saw the cashier piss himself and open the register.  He saw the cashier.  Somehow he still had control of the body.  An idea came to him, and being the master of impulse control he was, he acted on it immediately.

He groaned, long and loud, and rolled his eyes back.  He reached out and grabbed the robber’s arm and bit it, still groaning.  The kid pushed back from him, yowling in pain.  He clutched his arm and scuttled backward.  From the corner of his eye, the cashier had fainted.

“ZOMBIE!”

The robber emptied his gun into Stan’s body, screaming the whole time.  Stan just kept advancing.  He tried frowning and grinning at the same time, and it must have worked because the robber let out a squeal and threw the pistol at him.  It hit him in the chest and rebounded, dropping to the floor with a clatter.  The kid in the big coat, who would have robbed Fuhrer Burger, ran like a scared cat.

Stan stood there a moment longer, then raised a hand to his head.  It was ruined.  The bullet had left a gaping hole in his skull.  Maybe I can wear a hat.  He poked a finger into the hole and could feel brain.  A big one.  A liquid weight hit him in the middle of the thought, followed by the smells of fried fish and potatoes.  He looked down at the pool around his feet, then turned.

The cashier had come to his senses, and he stood to one side, an empty bucket in one hand, a match in the other.  He tossed it at the puddle of oil.

“You want fries with that?”  He asked.

Stan’s borrowed body went up like a candle wick.  He tried to hold out, for one minute, then two.  When the muscle around his bones melted, and the body collapsed, he vacated with an annoyed sigh and stepped away from the flames.  He stood to one side, watching the heap of flesh burn, and could only feel annoyance he hadn’t finished his burger.

A voice to his left spoke up.

“Glad I aint got a nose no more,”  Max said.

Johnny appeared through the wall to their right.  “And they call me a greaser.”

The stood around for a bit, watching as the body burned and the cops filed in.  After a while, they exited through the wall and met in the alley beyond.

“So whaddya guys wanna do?”  Stan asked.

Max shook his head, Johnny shrugged.

“We should see a movie.”

“Better off Dead’s pretty good?”  Max said.

Stan put his arm around Max’s shoulders.  “Truth’s in the title, pal.”