Got sidetracked again. There I was, pecking happily away on Ioudas, when I was finally struck with what I could do with Rotten Apple, which – as implied in my last past – has become more of a universe than just a single story. The format that kept wanting to come out was a collection of short stories – 13 of them – that would explore the deaders from a variety of angles, locations and viewpoints (including two told from the humans’ POV; one in love with a deader, the other a lifeist prepping a “bombing run.”)
So now I have two complete stories and the starting points for the rest, along with a smattering of notes for how those tie in to the “central plot” of the novel idea I’d originally had. It’s almost like 13 separate preludes to the main event. Which I kind of enjoy from an “insane artist” perspective.
Of course, then we get to the naming thing. Which is always my weak point, I know. I can’t just call it Rotten Apple, so I’m at a wall. I kind of have a clock metaphor going (picturing each story as being one “hour,” culminating in the lifeist’s tale, titled “Thirteen O’Clock,” and including other titles like “The Eleventh Hour” and “Dinner for Two.” Trying to find bad number puns for the others that remain contextually appropriate isn’t the easiest for me. Oh well.
Anyway, decided I’d drop the first chunk of the first story – which is one of the as-yet untitled ones – out here, see what folks think. If you like it – or even if not, since it’s my blog and I’ll post what I please, bwa ha! Kidding, folks, kidding – I may drop a few more, possibly the whole thing.
So give it a look, let me know what you think, and if you’ve got ideas for names, I’m all ears, folks. Excerpt follows.
– 1 –
When Charlie Mason had headed out west, leaving behind the rancid ghettos and run-down tenements of New York in favor of the open skies and relative solitude of Nevada, he’d thought it was a new lease on life — What life? Ha ha. — a chance to escape the hatred and the constant fight just to keep alive and out of sight.
Seeing the news in August, the bit where some lifers had shot his friend Allen up with some kind of super-rabies and beat him to death, had decided him. Charlie hadn’t waited, just tossed a trashbag full of clothes in the back of the truck, refilled his protein supplements and took off.
He’d made his way across the country, keeping to the back roads and keeping the speedometer on his ’48 Chevy a nice and healthy five miles under — wouldn’t do to catch the eye of a lifeist cop, traveling all by his lonesome — until he’d pulled into Ely. Stopping to fill the tank — and grumbling at the thirty-three cent cost per gallon, more than double what it had been the year before — he’d limped into the store in search of a soda while a kid had set about filling the tank, and had found a job instead.
The proprietor had been squinting at him, sizing him up; the man was a round little ball of meat, maybe five-four and two-ten. Dusky skin and something in the pattern of wrinkles on his face gave Charlie the suggestion of some Indian ancestry; the wide-brimmed white hat with the peacock feather the man was wearing helped obscure his eyes, but Charlie had learned to recognize the feel of being scrutinized. Given his appearance and the general sentiment of the normals about his kind, it was usually a given.
Charlie was tall and slender, topping out just over six feet and coming in around one-fifty on a good day. With his thick black hair, cut sensibly at the base of his ears and slate grey eyes, he might have made it to handsome. If, that was, his throat wasn’t mostly a ragged flap held together with knitting yarn, the left side of his face wasn’t torn from the corner of his mouth to the ear and missing the skin between them and he hadn’t been missing the last two fingers of his left hand, having only stumps that had a mangled, chewed look and required regular resealing with super glue to keep them from suppurating a rancid mixture of pus and blood. He counted himself lucky; a lot of his kind looked a hell of a lot worse. Sure, if he took his shirt off the damage became a lot more severe, but he wasn’t the type to strip in front of others.
Setting two glass bottles of Co’-Cola on the counter, Charlie was rummaging for his wallet with his good hand, prepared to lay out a five — the Chevy had a huge tank, and he was used to tipping well, an often-futile gesture to offset some of the prejudice against his kind — when the shopkeeper spoke.
“Got somewhere particular you’re goin’, son?”
While the squinting and staring along with the words should have set off alarm bells — a deader like him telling someone just where he was headed was almost always a terrible idea — the tone was kind, curious. Glancing out the window and seeing the kid was busy polishing the road-dust off the Chevy’s cracked windshield, Charlie figured he could spare a minute to chat, at least.
“Haven’t decided, yet,” he rumbled in a cracked and dusty voice, initially damaged in the attack that had made him what he was and further atrophied by the dusty climate and lack of use.
The shopkeep made Charlie’s five disappear, sliding across a pair of dollar bills and nodding. Something almost like a smile lurked at the edges of the old man’s lips as he responded. “Yeah, you’ve got that look about you. But maybe you’d be willing to stay a bit? Might be somethin’ in it for you, and I know from experience that going your way a little later but with a bit of cash in your pocket makes it a mite easier.”
Charlie arched a brow as he popped the cap on his soda with the edge of the counter. Digging in his pocket for his pills, he swallowed two with a draught, draining half the bottle while he thought it over. Rolling his shoulders in a shrug, he tried to get a read on the proprietor’s eyes.
Still seeing nothing malicious there — and Charlie considered himself a good judge of character, out of necessity — he shrugged again. “It might. What’re you looking for?”
Charlie was surprised when the shopkeep stuck his hand out, the longtime gesture of the well-trained American male that was so rarely extended to his kind — despite all evidence to the contrary, most folks considered the deaders to be ridiculously contagious, and wouldn’t touch them unless absolutely necessary — and nodded at the proffered arm. “Name’s Randall. Randall Whiteheart.”
Feeling oddly touched, Charlie shook, careful not to squeeze too hard, since the older man’s fingers had the bunched and knotted look of long-time arthritis. “Charlie Mason.”
Whiteheart nodded, gave a three-pumps-and-done shake before pulling his hand back. Glancing out the dusty window and pointing, he continued. “Nicetameetcha, Charlie. Did you see the old ranch on your way in? Guessin’ you did, since you pulled in from the east, and it’s hard to miss.”
Charlie thought he’d seen a mess of a ranch house about a mile back, but he’d mostly been thinking his own thoughts while keeping half an eye on the gas gauge. He shook his head. “Might have seen it, not sure. The one with half the roof gone?” He took another swallow of his soda, trying to ease his throat; it hurt most of the time and talking always made it worse, but when it came down to his budget and medical treatment, he could afford his protein pills, or he could afford a down payment on that new plastique technique, but not both. Not having to make a habit of eating raw meat outranked being able to filibuster, in his opinion.
“Yeah, that’s the one,” Whiteheart snorted. “And it’s mine. Last caretaker didn’t fare so well in the hail we got a month back, got leg-broke trying to batten down that roof. I’m a little too old to stay out there and try to put it to rights, and Joseph out there —” he gestured to the kid, who was now standing beside Charlie’s truck and fidgeting with his hands in the pockets of his overalls, “— he’s got to stick here and make sure folks get taken care of. No gas for another hunnret and fifty miles, yanno.”
Charlie grunted, bobbing his head slightly while he thought it over. A little bit of a repair job, a roof over his head and some time to think about what else he could be doing wouldn’t be so bad, he reasoned. He glanced back to Whiteheart’s eyes, testing the weather there, then plunged.
“Sure. What were you thinkin’?”
Whiteheart’s smile grew wider. He tapped a button on the register, popping the cash drawer with a clang. He extracted the five Charlie had paid with, then a twenty, and set them atop the two bills already on the counter. “Well, figure if you can get that roof fixed, clean up the place a bit and keep the squatters and coyotes away while I make some other arrangements to open her back up, twenty-five a week plus lodgin’s and all the gas and cola you could want’d be fair enough. Shouldn’t take no more than two months. If you decide you like it out there, we can probably work somethin’ out and keep you on once we’ve got the stock running again. If not, you get yourself a little vacation and head your way with a few large bills in your wallet.”
Charlie nudged at the bills with his good hand, glancing back up to Whiteheart and trying to hide his surprise. The pay was good — better than he’d been making at Russel’s hole-in-the-wall diner, at least — but the he found it hard to believe the other man would be so willing to take in a deader. Some of his disbelief must have shown on the remains of his face, because Whitehead laughed and put up his palms.
“No trick, son. I just need a body, and figure you might be up to it. Seem strong enough, and folks like you don’t seem to mind the isolation. Plus, wasn’t too long ago that folks like me was looked at funny and not trusted, figure it never hurts to show some goodwill.”
Whitehead’s smile seemed to turn a trifle sad, one corner quirking down and a shadow floating across his eyes. Charlie supposed the man must have his own tales to tell. He nodded, pocketing the cash.
“Well, sounds like a deal. Thanks, Mr. Whitehead.” Charlie’s voice cracked more than usual; he’d been almost absurdly touched by the trust of a stranger.
Flapping his hands, Whitehead deposited a small key on the counter where the bills had been. “Now, now, none of that. Just call me Randall. That there’ll open the padlock on the front; rest of the keys are hung by the door once you’re in. Go on, check the place out, make yourself at home.”
Charlie scooped up the key, clipping it to his own — almost empty — keyring while the part of his mouth that was still able perked up in a smile. Coming this way was the right idea, he thought.
He offered his hand to Whiteheart again, who shook willingly enough. Charlie’s smile managed to creep outward another inch or so — though it caused a tugging sensation on the ripped side of his face, leaving him worried that if he had any more happy-thoughts today he’d need stitches — as he released the older man’s hand.
“Thank you,” he croaked.
“Not a care, son, not a care. I’ll stop by later to check on you, bring you some staples, make sure Doc Flannagan knows you’re out there and can get your pills if you’re on them, that sort of thing.”
Charlie nodded, and slipped back to his truck.