The Beardly Writer

Some write from the heart. I write from the beard.

Category: Isolation

Isolation: Chapter 3

I know we last left Isolation at chapter 7. And I know I said I wouldn’t be posting chapter 3 here on this blog. But circumstances have taken me away from writing lately (namely, relocating to Ohio), and so instead of not posting anything, or posting something half-assed, I submit to you Isolation: Chapter 3. This chapter marks the beginning of the second of 4 narratives in the book.

Isolation: Chapter 3

Built in the spring of 1933 by Basajuan Salaberri, Porter’s Retreat was intended as a hunting shack for Basajuan and his newborn son. Basajuan immigrated to the U.S. along with his parents and two older sisters from Biscay, Spain when he was eleven years old. His father, Argi, had higher aspirations for his children than shepherding, the family trade for generations. He enjoyed the work himself, the time alone in the fields, the simple meals, the wide sky set like a blanket over his piece of the word, but looking east over Europe he saw only darkness on the horizon. Looking west, however, he saw the bright light of American opportunity. The start of the Great War was the excuse he needed to pick his family up and move toward the light.

The ties between the Basque and America went back more than a hundred years, or even thousands, depending on with whom you speak. There is evidence Basque fishermen discovered the Americas before the Viking Knarr reached their shores. But for Argi, there was a much more personal tie. His great, great-grandfather shook the hand of Founding Father John Adams during his visit to Biscay in 1779. So taken with his hosts was John that portions of the U.S. constitution owe their origins to the Basque people and government. As such, Argi did not see his immigration to America as abandoning his old country, inhabited by his people for thousands of years, but rather venturing into his new country.

They settled first in Idaho, Argi finding work on a ranch. His wife and two daughters earned a few extra dollars making and selling traditional Basque crafts. Basajuan, meanwhile, occupied himself with exploring the ranch where his father worked. On more than one occasion he nearly cost his father his job. He had a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But Basajuan was the light of his father’s life, and his only son. He could not bring himself to punish the poor boy. Argi swore to be different from his own father, a strict-disciplinarian. So his son’s antics were indulged. Until they stopped.

Basajuan loved horses. He knew he wasn’t allowed near the horses’ stable. He’d been caught there before, once even by the ranch owner who would have beat the boy with a bull whip had his father not intervened. Argi pleaded with his son to stay out of trouble, and the boy really did want to please his father. It was just that horses were so wonderful! Big and beautiful, and strong. He wanted to be a cowboy, just like his father. He wanted more than anything to ride one of the horses, but the rancher forbade it. These horses were for work, not play. Basajuan didn’t know it, but his father was saving to buy a horse for his son. He had worked out a deal with the rancher. Had the boy known, he might not have done what he did. One night his desire got the better of him and he snuck into the stable. His favorite horse of all was Falconer. Falconer was the newest horse to the stable, bought just three months earlier by the rancher. Half-Mustang, half-Arabian, and wholly magnificent. It had the short, muscular frame of a Mustang, the graceful, curved neck of the Arabian, dark eyes and an intelligent face. Its coat was a solid grey that shone in the moonlight. The beast stood 5 feet at the shoulders, the same height as Basajuan. He had witnessed the horse being delivered to the ranch and knew it was untrained. The way it struggled against the ranch-hands’ ropes, nostrils flared, whinnying and snorting; it was a sight to behold. And little Basajuan had, and hadn’t forgotten.

He crept along the stable floor, right up to Falconer’s pen and peered through the slits into where the horse slept standing. As quietly as possible, Basajuan climbed the pen door until he was perched on top. What would he do now? He’d gotten this far just to get another look at the beautiful animal. He paused a moment: it looked so peaceful that the memories of its wild, untamed nature temporarily vanished. Before he knew what he was doing, he jumped onto the horse’s back. He landed on his stomach and immediately began to slip off. He grabbed the horse’s mane to pull himself up. The horse, meanwhile, had woken up. Even a trained horse would find it difficult to react any differently to being awakened by a boy jumping onto its back and pulling on its mane. Falconer, even after three months with the rancher, had yet to break.

The horse reared and kicked open the pen door. Basajuan clung to the horse for dear life as it bolted from the stable. The commotion, and the boy’s screams, brought the rancher and several hands running out of their beds in their PJs. Argi threw open the door of his barrack just in time to watch Falconer gallop by, the terrified face of his son staring out from between two fistfuls of mane. Argi leapt from his porch and took off for the stable. Grabbing a rope, he ran after the horse. He tied a lasso in the rope as he ran and the horse circled back, heading straight for him. Argi tied one end of the rope around a fence post and expertly threw the other at the horse, lassoing it around the neck. The horse was brought up short and stopped suddenly, throwing Basajuan from its back. Argi ran forward to calm the horse before it stomped his son into the ground, and called to his son to get out of the way. The horse snorted and cried and reared back, furious and wild. Argi tugged on the rope, trying to pull the beast away from Basajuan, who lay on his back, frozen by the fall and the horrifying spectacle. The boy’s father turned to his son and the horse turned on the ranch hand. One solid kick to Argi’s chest, right above the heart, and Basajuan’s father was dead before he hit the ground.

After the accident, Basajuan had no choice but to grow up quickly. He was the only man in his family. Using the money Argi had saved for a horse, Basajuan’s mother moved them to Oregon near other Basque settlers in the hopes of making life a little easier. When Basajuan was old enough he found work as a lumberman. The work was exhausting and demanding, and he was only ever home long enough to eat a quick meal and sleep. But he preferred the hills of Oregon to the plains of Idaho, and his young body took well to the exercise. So much so that, during the off-season, he could sometimes find work as a strongman in small carnivals. He became something of a celebrity in his small community and, though not the most eligible bachelor, was certainly a favorite of the ladies to look upon. But he had eyes only for one: Rosina MacMillan.

Rosina was the daughter of the sawmiller, and the prettiest girl in Oregon as far as Basajuan was concerned. Other girls’ affections fell on deaf ears and blind eyes. For three years he watched Rosina from afar, catching occasional glimpses of her at the lumber yard or in town at Morgan’s General Store. It’s not that he lacked the courage to approach her; he felt he had nothing to offer a young lady in the way of ease and security. He struggled along with his mother and sisters to provide a roof and food for themselves, and he refused to put a flower like Rosina through that. He scrimped and saved every penny he could, the real reason he took those odd-jobs with the carnivals. He worked harder than every other man at the mill and earned every promotion and raise he was given. His heart burned for the day he’d saved money enough for a small house of his own, at which time he imagined he’d walk into the sawmiller’s house and ask for his daughters hand in marriage. And he could hardly believe it when the daily finally arrived.

It would have taken much longer than three years if his sisters had not married and lessoned his financial burden. Provided for by their husbands, Basajuan had only to provide for himself and his mother. An end in sight, he worked even harder. Fortune seemed to smile on him yet again when an east-coast blacksmith decided he’d had enough of the hustle and bustle of city life and would move across country and live out the rest of his days in rural (relative) bliss. He had a modest house built for himself before his arrival, just on the outside of town. Basajuan walked by the house everyday on his way to and from work, each time swearing to himself that he would build a house just like it for Rosina. The blacksmith, unfortunately, never got to lay eyes on it. One unseasonably warm January morning in Boston, a tank containing two million, three hundred thousand gallons of molasses burst under the pressure, creating a wave of sticky sweet, brown death that swept through the city. The Great Boston Molasses Tragedy claimed the lives of twenty-one people, including the poor blacksmith. His widow was well-cared for by a relative and wanted to sell the unused house quickly. She telegraphed the only lawyer in the small community and hired him to sell the house on her behalf. He was instructed to agree to the first offer over eighteen hundred dollars, the cost to build the house and the land on which it sat. Being winter, and off-season for lumberman, Basajuan had no real reason to walk past the empty house. He had just come off a week with the carnival, where his take had been better than usual. The townsfolk welcomed him home, especially the young women, and to escape their advances he slipped away to take a long walk. Without thinking he found himself walking the familiar route to the lumber mill, and passing by the dead blacksmith’s house. A beautiful home, he thought to himself. Without ever having been inside, he knew the layout because he’d seen its construction. There were three bedrooms; one for him and Rosina, another for his mother, and a third for the children. He daydreamed what life would be like, and could almost see the children playing in the yard, his beautiful wife watching them from the kitchen window while preparing dinner, his mother knitting on the porch, and him coming home from a day’s work at the lumber mill. It was the earnest and innocent daydream of a young man in love. It was also a daydream interrupted by the lawyer opening the front door of the cottage and stepping out onto the porch. Basajuan’s heart sank when he saw it, believing it to be the blacksmith finally taking up residence.

“Basajuan!”

Basajuan looked again and realized it was the solicitor, Tom Welmont.

“Mr. Welmont, sir. Is he arriving, then?

“Pardon?”

“The blacksmith, sir. The house appears all in order. Will he be moving in soon?

“Ah yes, well. Ahem, uh poor fellow. Some sort of accident, I’m told. A tragedy, really. I’m afraid the owner of this house has, well, met our maker.”

“Dead, sir?”

“It appears so, yes.”

“God bless him.”

“Blessings, yes. Well, Basajuan, a pleasure.”

Tom Welmont made to depart.

“Er, uh, sir?”

“Yes?”

“If I may be so bold, what will happen to his estate? This house here, sir?”

“Well, his widow, the Mrs. um, oh, the widow has sent instructions that the property be sold immediately.”

“Immediatley?”

“Yes, and she doesn’t stand to earn a penny on the sale, either. Going very cheap. The first offer of eighteen hundred dollars or more is to be accepted on the spot. Plus my meager fees, of course”

Basajuan’s jaw dropped. Tom Welmont tipped his hat.

“Well, be seeing you.”

“Mr. Welmont sir!”

Somewhat agitated, Welmont turns around again and raises his eyebrows to the young man.

“I wonder if we might have a word. Inside.”

Basajuan motioned toward the vacant house, inviting the lawyer and himself within. Agitation gives way to curiosity and Welmont leads the way. Two weeks later Basajuan ushered his mother into his, and her, new home. It was more than he could have hoped for and all he had dreamt. The house came fully furnished: upholstered armchair and couch, feather duvets on the beds, two stoves in the kitchen, a brick outhouse… a mansion compared against what they were accustomed to.

Basajuan emptied his savings to buy the house, and even so had to convince Welmont to forward him a small loan in order to make the purchase. His plan was to have a house and money in the bank before asking the sawmiller for his daughter’s hand, but he simply couldn’t wait any longer. With a second, smaller loan from Welmont, Basajuan bought his first suit & tie and knocked on the sawmiller’s door.

The sawmiller, Orson MacMillan, had always been secretly fond of Basajuan in a fatherly manner. He saw something of himself in the eager boy who, three years earlier, knocked on the same door looking for work. MacMillan would normally have sent one so young scurrying back to his mother, but something in his eyes, an honest desperation born out of sincere need and carrying the promise of hard work, stayed MacMillan’s tongue and instead he opened his office to the lad. The sawmiller offered the boy a glass of water, which he politely refused but drank anyway when placed before him. Courteous, doesn’t want to be a bother, but also careful not to offend. The child has manners, MacMillan thought. And so Basajuan was put to work in the lumber yard, trial by fire, a proving ground if ever there was one. And prove himself he did. The young man excelled at every station, earning the respect and trust of the other employees, even the seasoned veterans. In no time he worked his way to assistant supervisor. MacMillan was proud of him, and proud of himself, too for spotting Basajuan’s potential. His potential didn’t stop at the sawmill MacMillan guessed. He saw the way his employee looked at his daughter, and the effect it had upon her. MacMillan had no son of his own. His wife died of pneumonia shortly after Rosina was born. She was the light of his life, and the heir to his business, if she wanted it. He prayed whoever his daughter married would be capable of managing the mill once he grew too old. He prayed that man might be Basajuan. And so it came as no surprise but a great delight that Basajuan knocked once again on his office door and asked for his daughter’s hand.

Within a month they were wed in the town church, presided over by Reverend Carpenter who, as usual, was about ten minutes too long-winded. But it was an otherwise blissful occasion for the happy pair (and a decidedly depressing affair for many of the town’s young ladies), punctuated by the groom carrying his blushing bride over the threshold of their new home to start their new life together. Basajuan couldn’t believe his good fortune. His father’s many sacrifices had not been in vain. His mother could rest easy. Truly, he was living the American dream his father hoped for his family. And, like many good Americans, Basajuan very nearly threw it all away to get laid.

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Isolation: Chapter 7

The compass needle bounced as Richard waited for it to settle. Due North. There was something so satisfying about trekking north. He wanted badly to be able to say he was walking True North. That was the most satisfying north of all. But a compass points to magnetic north, which changes over time. It made him sad to know all the people following all the compasses all over the world since its invention were following slightly different versions of north. Negligible differences, of course. But wouldn’t it be grand, millions of people looking at millions of compasses and all heading toward the same square inch of land on top of their spinning world? The blue marble. The pale blue dot. And him, a pale beige speck on its surface. He wasn’t usually so philosophical, so sentimental. But he also wasn’t usually hiking through the vast Oregon wilderness. It can put things into perspective, given the chance.

I must get out more often. Richard was already making plans to get away regularly. After only one hour of wilderness hiking he was sold. And why not? Mankind, or at least modern humans, have been around for over 150,000 years, and their ancestors were walking upright in the trees as long as maybe 7 million years ago. And for the vast majority of that time they dwelt in the forests, the plains, the bush. This was man’s natural habitat. This is what our bodies were designed for, where our bodies were built to survive. No, not just survive, but thrive! And we did. We covered the globe. Richard’s pace slowed. What good has it done? He warned himself not to get into it. But really, what good has it done? Medicine, sanitation… These were good. These were noble, beneficial achievements. But look at the harm. He hadn’t ever bothered to look at the harm before. He kept a ration of white guilt next to a supply of western guilt on hand. Not too much, just enough to assuage any personal conviction. After all, what had he personally done? Images of starving children in Africa appear on the television? Apply a dab of western guilt salve to the burn. The topic of slavery in America is broached? A little tincture of white guilt does the trick. Suddenly nothing is actively required of him: he’s done his part by feeling sorry for it all. A person can’t be held accountable for the actions of another. Each man is responsible for his own actions. His pace stopped altogether. Let’s change the subject.

It was interesting how his mind wandered. At home, his walks through the neighborhood had always helped him focus. They brought clarity. But out here, in the thick of it, he felt his mind might wander off and be rid of him altogether. A ridiculous thought. He cleared his throat as if to clear his mind. Brady looked up at his master as he swung the pack off his back and stole a drink from his bottle. He grimaced at the taste but welcomed the refreshment. It was still warm, and helped against the cold air.

“How much further should we go?”

Brady stared at him with drooping eyes, then looked away the way dogs do when you try and hold their gaze. He always thought it made them look sheepish. The dog put his nose to the ground and sniffed, for lack of anything else to do. Richard scratched him behind the ears.

“Let’s keep going, yeah?”

He hoisted the pack onto his shoulders once more and continued through the trees. Like all animals, he and Brady followed the path of least resistance until they inevitably came across an animal trail. And a well traveled one at that. Even Richard’s untrained eye spotted it right away. Brady’s nose got to work immediately and eagerly sucked in all the scents available. Richard had to reach out and grab hold of Brady’s collar to stop him running off.

“Stay.”

Brady looked forlornly up and down the trail, desperate to do what he was bred to do. Richard removed the compass from his pocket and took note of the trail’s direction. Northwest the trail went downhill, while southeast it went up. Better to go uphill now while I’ve got the energy, then it’s downhill back to the cabin. The trail seemed straight enough for now. Time for a little of that adventure he promised himself. I’m on a real game trail. And where there’s game, there might be an opportunity to try his luck at hunting. Or rather shooting. He only wished he’d made time for target practice that morning. Oh well, there’ll be other chances.

The worries of the morning’s events weren’t forgotten, simply pushed aside. Richard could do that, was good at it. He could compartmentalize when he had to, when something was either too big or too confusing to deal with. He liked to imagine his life was a simple one, free of drama. He liked to imagine it because it wasn’t true, not completely. He didn’t go in search of adventure (his current predicament notwithstanding) and was about as far from an adrenaline junkie as there could be. But drama found him out sooner or later. Complications, he called them. Or displeasures. Never fights or arguments or catastrophes or deaths in the family. Unpleasantries. Richie? It’s Martha. I’m afraid (sob), I’m afraid there’s bad news (sniffle). Oh no. This is going to be unpleasant. It’s Judith. Richie she’s dead (uncontrollable sobbing). I see. How did she die? I told her to watch her weight. We all did. Richie you heartless bastard (voice disappears into the background). Rich? Rich it’s Charles, your brother. Jude died on the operating table. There were complications. The doctors, they couldn’t get her heart started again. Complications. I see. I, uh, suppose I should take the next flight over. The plane ticket is going to be murder. For mom’s sake. Thanks, Rich.

Richard’s breathing increased with the slope of the trail. He was getting his exercise now, working up an appetite, which reminded him he hadn’t eaten yet that day. It’s been an eventful one. No wonder he was already feeling winded. It looked to him that the trail was leveling off up ahead and hoped to find a good place to rest a few moments. As the slope grew more gradual, the trail opened up from the bramble into a small clearing, dominated by a large tree growing at the edge of a rocky precipice. He crept up to the edge and looked down. There wasn’t much of a view; it only went down about twenty-five feet. The ground below was free of vegetation and covered in fallen leaves. As good a spot as any for a picnic. Right then the ground beneath his feet gave way slightly and he heard a sound like rope breaking and dirt hitting the ground below. He fell backward but caught himself and scrambled away from the edge. It must be an overhang, soil held together by the roots of the tree. Staying well clear of the edge, he sat his pack down against the tree and himself down next to it. He reached into the pack and came out with a granola bar. Granola and dirty tea. Some picnic. He wasn’t really complaining, though. Despite the conditions, he was happy for the moment. The tree rose above him, its many limbs starting thick and low down the trunk and winding up and out over the ledge. He wondered what kind of tree it was. Most everything else around was an evergreen, but not this one. It looked old, and strong. The kind of tree he imagined children would want to climb and build tree houses in. He marveled at it while chewing the cereal bar. It only made him thirstier so he folded the wrapper over the remainder and stuffed it into the pack. He stole another swig from his bottle and stood up, ready to go on.

Against his better judgment and in favor of even more adventure, Richard abandoned the game trail. He had timed his route so far, and using time to determine distance and his compass to determine the angles, figured he could close the triangle by heading back to the cabin on a south-westerly route. He was slightly nervous at the dare, but trusted his wits, and besides, you never know till you try. The consequences of his being wrong were never allowed at the front of his mind. To entertain those thoughts would have been unpleasant. He drew a rough sketch of his journey in the dirt with a stick and found the exact (read: approximate) direction he needed to take to in order to reach the cabin. With somewhat less confidence than before but twice as much determination, Richard, with Brady it tow, got going.

And soon regretted his decision. Twenty minutes into their way back Richard caught sight of something that made it feel as if his stomach and testicles had swapped places. He hoped to god it wasn’t what he thought it was and worked up the courage to inspect it closer. A tree off to his left stood out from its neighbors. It was the same species, same relative age. But as Richard grew closer it became more and more apparent that this tree hated him. Why else would it do this to him? He looked at the other trees for reassurance, but they stared back blankly. An icicle grew inside his gut, grew up and out through his skin. The blood drained from his face. Isn’t this what he wanted? Isn’t it what he’d daydreamt? He tasted acid at the back of his throat. The tree mocked his fear. His eyes closed tightly. You can’t wish it away. Why are you so scared? Get a hold of yourself. Was he overreacting? He didn’t know. What he did know was it was probably a good idea to get out of there as quickly and quietly as possible. He judged he had at least an hour before he reached the cabin, forty-five minutes if he pushed himself. He drew several deep breaths and held the last one, flooding his brain with oxygen. After a moment of dizziness he felt sense returning. There’s nothing to worry about. There was plenty to worry about, but not much worth in doing so. Richard stepped back and looked again at the tree. Four scars tore down through the bark of the tree. Claw marks. Bear claws. He traced the length of the grooves with his fingers, which came away sticky with sap. These cuts are fresh. He couldn’t remember how large a bear’s territory was, or how many were supposed to live in these woods. He’d read that bears usually avoided humans. He repeated that over and over to himself as he turned off the rifle’s safety. They usually avoided people, except when they didn’t. Brady wasn’t happy either. The dog was running from tree to tree, sniffing out the bear. Richard hissed at him.

“Brady!”

The hound ignored him, absorbed by the heady aroma of apex predator.

“Brady!!”

The dog looked briefly back at his owner before scurrying off to the next tree. Richard knew he had to get Brady under control. Bloodhounds could forget everything around them while tracking a scent and Richard was not about to leave his dog alone in the woods with a bear around. He regretted leaving the leash behind, he wouldn’t make the same mistake again. Brady stopped yet again to sniff, but not at a tree. Richard tried to see what it was, but the dog was in the way. A magpie sang somewhere overhead and Richard looked around nervously. He tip-toed toward Brady and peered around him to see what captured his attention: his shoulders sagged. Bear scat. Brady skipped to another tree, following the bear’s scent. Richard ran for the dog without hesitation, leaping into the air and hooking his arms around it before it had a chance to run. Richard grunted as he hit the ground on his side, hurting his shoulder but not releasing his grip on the dog for a second.

“Sorry boy.”

He checked to make sure Brady was okay, then took hold of his collar and rose to his knees. Richard scratched the dog’s haunches and head, reassuring it after the tackle, and then stood up.

“Come on boy, go for a ride.”

Brady bucked up considerably and pawed at his master’s leg. Richard checked the compass and got his bearings, then looked at his watch: 12:17. Forty-five minutes to the cabin. He started jogging. To take his mind off the unpleasantness of not being on top of the food chain, he turned his thoughts again to his work. I’ve wasted enough of the day. I’ve wasted enough of this trip. I have to get down to business and write. I have six days. Six days to write eighty thousand words. To finish a novel in that time I have to write at least… thirteen thousand, three hundred and thirty-three point three repeating words a day. If I write twelve hours a day, that’s… one thousand, one hundred and eleven point one repeating words an hour…

Richard glanced at his watch again: 12:59. Three minutes earlier than he expected. He lifted his head and drank in the sight of the path in front of him, the driveway leading to the cabin. He reckoned he was only a hundred yards or so away. Almost there. Strange how a place he wanted so badly to leave just hours earlier could now seem such a sanctuary. He stepped onto the overgrown trail with no small sense of accomplishment, and even he had to admit that this time he felt justified in it. A short walk later he was unlocking the front door and welcoming himself and Brady home. No time to rest, though. He grabbed the water pot and filled it from the rain catch. I’ll get this one boiling then come out to clean the gutters. On his way in he ripped another handful of fresh pine needles from a tree. Good source of vitamin C.

Richard set the pot on the stove and stoked a fire to get the water boiling. He stepped out onto the porch and took a deep breath. When he exhaled he could see his breath. He was so distracted on his hike he hadn’t realized how cold it was outside. He shivered an icy breeze cut through his clothes to the sweat beneath. It was a hard push to get back so quickly, but he hadn’t noticed he’d sweat till now. He shivered again. Better get a fire going in the other stove as well. Richard stepped off the porch and brought in a load of firewood, dropping it in the front room. Fetching the matches and some kindling from the kitchen, he knelt down in front of the stove. He threw open the door and immediately jumped backwards in disgust and tumbled to the floor. Something was in the stove that shouldn’t be. He rose to his elbows and peered forward. A tuft of gray fur mottled with splotches of red sat motionless inside. Richard climbed to his feet and put a hand on the table to steady himself. The chair looked comforting so he sat down. He stared at his lap for a moment before realizing something else wasn’t right. He continued to stare at his lap, not wanting to admit it, but knew he eventually had to look. And when he did look, he wished he hadn’t. The blank piece of paper he had left in the typewriter that morning was no longer blank. Richard struggled to remember: had he typed something and forgotten? He was sure he hadn’t. But, there was type on the page. Just one word. One word that shouldn’t be there.

RABBIT

He stared long and still at the word. His brain didn’t know in which direction to go, so it decided to do nothing. It was a brain that needed to make sense of the world. It liked to solve puzzles, find solutions to problems and riddles. But it didn’t care for this riddle. It would rather it go away. It didn’t want to make the obvious connection. Unfortunately, Brady didn’t give it a choice. The noises Brady made behind Richard finally caused him to turn around and face what his brain didn’t want to see. From out of the stove, Brady pulled the bloody carcass of a rabbit, its eyes and heart cut out. Richard leapt up and bursts through the front door.

“Who’s there? Who are you? Show yourself!”

The forest responded with deafening silence. Inside the cabin, bones crunched and skin tore as Brady ate the rabbit.

Isolation: Chapter 6

The downside of posting rough draft chapters as I finish them is, the more I write, the more I need to revise previous chapters. It’s not much yet, just little details here and there. But anyone reading along will notice the inconsistencies. Oh well. You’ll all just have to buy the book when it’s finished. Thanks for reading!

Isolation: Chapter 6

Richard felt for a brief moment as if he were hovering in midair. That, or time must have slowed down. It was amazing to him that he could have several thoughts in so short an amount of time, and then to have the self awareness of having those thoughts while still falling was almost enough to make him forget he was falling at all. Almost. But beyond all of that was the most prevailing thought, and the accompanying fright, that someone had been watching him through the window.

He wasn’t sure how he came to be falling. It happened so fast that it escaped his attention, like his first and last visit to a haunted house. It wasn’t a real haunted house, just one of those attractions that spring up in late September every year in preparation for Halloween. He didn’t particular like being scared. When he was very young his father played a practical joke on him. The two were on a father-son day hike in Baxter State Park on their way to see Little Abol Falls. Little more than a creek tumbling over some rocks, it was still impressive to young Richard, being the first waterfall he’d seen in person. On their way back to the car he needed to urinate so his father told him to go off the trail and behind a tree to do his business. After using his stream to knock a few ants off of the tree, he zipped up and went back to the trail. Only his father was gone. Richard’s mind immediately brought forth the stern warning his father gave before they got out of the car to hike the trail. He leaned over from the driver’s seat, leaned in close to Richard’s face and said in as serious a tone as he could:

“Be careful, Dick. There are wild animals in these woods. This isn’t our backyard. These animals don’t want to play with you. They want to eat you. If you give them the chance, they will eat you. Stay by my side and don’t wander off the trail, understand?”

Richard hadn’t wanted to get out of the car after a speech like that. But this was also the first time his father had taken him on a special trip, just the two of them. He loved his father and didn’t want to disappoint him or waste this opportunity. Now he was wishing he’d stayed in the car. He looked up and down the trail but saw no sign of his father. Before he could do anything else he heard a low growl from behind. He froze in fear. Only eight years old and his first time out in nature, Richard was terrified without his father. The growl rose again, this time accompanied by the rustle of brush. The young boy managed to turn around to see what his attacker would be. In his mind he pictured a ferocious bear, fifteen feet tall with twelve-inch claws and teeth and red eyes. A loud growl issued from a nearby bush which shook violently. This was it, Richard knew it. The monster behind the bush jumped up, and Richard’s bowels gave up. He let out a cry that could be heard for miles, a cry that would chill the heart of any parent. Especially the parent that evoked the cry, the one who jumped out from behind the bush as a practical joke on his son. Donald immediately realized he’d been a fool and done a terrible thing and rushed forward to hold and comfort his soiled son. That was their last time in the woods until the family camping trip three years later. For years after, Richard associated the experience of being scared with the emotion of abandonment, and so tried his best to avoid frightening situations. And he was generally successful until he was fifteen when two older cousins, visiting while their parents got a divorce, pestered him into going to a haunted house with them.

The cousins had been to every haunted house in New Jersey and prided themselves on never being scared. Richard didn’t understand the attraction. Why go to a haunted house, a place intended to scare you, if you knew you wouldn’t be scared? He was old enough to understand that some people would do it to impress a date, but his cousins never took girls. They weren’t going in order to impress anybody, just proving over and over to themselves that they weren’t scared a’ nuthin. In a weak moment of trying to fit in, Richard agreed to go to the haunted house nearest his home to show his cousins he could be just as fearless. But once in the car the older cousins, who could drive and shared a car, drove right passed it.

“I think you missed it. It’s back there on the right.”

“That place is for sissies and little girls. You ain’t a little girl, are you Ricky?”

“Shut up, Manney.”

“We’re heading into Portland. We hear there’s a haunted house there that’s so scary it makes kids puke. You ain’t gonna puke, are you Ricky?”

“Shut up, Michael.”

They pulled into the makeshift parking lot of the haunted house. It was built in a farmer’s field just outside of town. Rumor was the farmer did all of the preparation himself. Took him months. Some say most of the year. There was a corn maze and a pumpkin patch for families during the day. But at night, the junior high and high school kids came out in droves to test their nerves against what was billed as the “Scariest Night of Your Life.” The year Richard and his cousins visited was the last year the attraction opened. A few days later a terrible accident took the life of a local teenager and the farmer was blamed. The haunted house wasn’t even a house at all. It was made up of three buildings, each progressively scarier. The first was an old barn, converted and used for the more cliché horrors like jump scares, ghosts on wires, shadow figures, etc. Younger children and their parents had the option of going through this building, so it wasn’t all that frightening. Really it was just to leave the older kids wanting more, so by the time they made it into the next building, a large cattle barn, they’d be easier to scare. Here, the haunts were amped up to include horror movie characters like Jason Vorhees, Freddy Krueger and Michael Meyers. Blood, guts and gore filled the stalls. Terrible scenes of car crashes and grisly accidents. People missing legs, arms and heads. Shrieks and screams filled the air. This is where girls jumped and grabbed onto the arms of their dates and the boys had a chance to play protector. But beneath their tough façade, many still felt uneasy. Richard took it all surprisingly well, much better than he suspected. He was nearing the end of the second building having endured only slight trepidation, and a little nausea at all the fake blood, and could see the exit door at the end of a hallway. Just in front of the exit, the hall took a small crook, about twenty inches, so that he’d have to move right to follow the path out. The hall was well lit, and with the door in sight, he let down his guard just as the twenty inches of wall facing him opened and a masked figure sprung out at him. It happened so fast, all he could remember was seeing the door and walking toward it, and then being on the ground staring up at the ceiling. The fall itself held no place in his memory. What he did next surprised even him. He discovered he wasn’t frightened; he was impressed. As his cousins helped him to his feet, he found himself applauding the man who emerged from the wall. The man bowed ever so subtly, stepped back into his hiding place, and closed the trap door. Richard was amazed at what he was feeling. Perhaps there was something to be said about this whole horror business he thought as he exited. What he had forgotten, was there was one final building to traverse: the slaughterhouse.

Richard’s head hit the cabin floor with a solid thonk. Ouch. He rolled over onto his knees and crawled to the hutch, sitting back against it harder than he meant and rattling the cabinet doors. Someone was outside the cabin. Watching him. Brady rushed to his master’s side and licked his face in concern. Richard pushed him aside and leaned forward to look out the window but pulled his head back before he could see anything. He took a deep breath and held it, listening for any sounds outside, but all he heard was his heart beat, pounding in his head. His eyes caught sight of the west window and a cold shiver took hold of his body. I’m too exposed here. Then he realized the door was unlocked. His impulse was to jump up and lock the door, but his body didn’t respond. Move you idiot. He didn’t want to see that face again, didn’t want to be seen by it. Him. Whoever it was. Who was it? Who could it be? Lock the door. Now. Richard’s joints thawed and he crawled to the door. He felt eyes boring into him from the window behind. Reaching for the door his hand trembled. His whole body trembled. The handle clicked as he grasped it. Sshhh. He fastened the lock on the handle and reached higher for the deadbolt. Iron grated against iron as it slid into place. He tried to control his breathing. The cabin felt cramped, alone. A million miles from anywhere. He had to turn around. Turn around. He braced himself against the door and stood to his feet. His legs felt as if they were made of stone and treacle. He suddenly felt he was acting very silly. Acting silly? A man appeared in my window! Had he really? One way to find out. Richard took several large breaths, counted to three and spun around.

All that greeted him through the windows was the forest, brightly lit with morning sun. Well of course he won’t still be there. Go outside. Richard collected his nerves and grabbed the rifle. Making sure it was loaded, he unlocked the door and was about to throw it open boldly but then thought better of it and opened it only a crack. He stuck the rifle barrel out the door first and pushed it open slowly. The duct tape covering the gunshot hole was already peeling back. Should have sprung for the good stuff. For the second time in as many days Richard found himself wielding a gun out of fear and possible self-defense. He was supposed to be the one doling out the scares. It was probably just some hunter or other. What season was it, anyway? Deer? Turkey? He had no idea. He didn’t even know who all this land belonged to, hadn’t bothered to ask Kevin or Cheryl how much of the property around the cabin belonged to them. Maybe it was Richard who trespassed the night before while chasing after Brady, provoking some unknown neighbor to investigate. Maybe he hadn’t seen anyone at all. He had gotten himself pretty worked up over the books. And let’s be honest, it wasn’t the first time this had happened. Shut up. We’re not getting into that now.

Standing on the porch, the rifle lowered at his side, he scanned the forest.

“Hello? Anybody there?”

He felt nervous giving himself away by calling out. The image of the face in the window was already fading, or maybe it was obscure to begin with: its features mercurial and indefinite. Brady jogged passed his master and padded aimlessly around the yard, sniffing here and there. He doesn’t smell anything. Richard didn’t know which was more disconcerting: that a stranger was watching him, or not. The implications of either were more than he wanted to think about. Better at least take a look. Keeping the gun ready at his side he traipsed around the cabin. He looked down at the ground outside the window he saw the face through but couldn’t see any tracks in the grass. But, not being a tracker, he didn’t really know what he was looking for besides obvious footprints. He looked at the window, into the cabin. There really should be curtains on these windows.

“Brady!”

The bloodhound approached his master obediently. Richard pointed at the ground. He needed to know.

“Smell anything, boy?”

Brady sniffed around Richard’s feet and along the edge of the cabin, then sat down and looked up at his master. Nothing. Richard knelt down and scratched Brady’s head. A part of him, he wasn’t sure how large, wanted Brady to catch a scent.

“Good boy, Brady. Good boy.”

Back inside the cabin, Richard locked the door securely. He needed to shrug this off. He had far too much work to do. Thirsty. He remembered the water cooling down in the sink and entered the kitchen. It was warm, and all the floaties had settled to the bottom. Richard lowered his head into the sink, put his lips to the water and drank, slurping great mouthfuls of water. It tasted terrible. He stood up, forcing himself to stop and save some for Brady who was already wagging his tail at his feet. The dog nearly knocked the pot out of Richard’s hand in an attempt to get to the water as he lowered it to the floor. He realized this would be a constant process until he got the gutters cleared and it rained. As soon as Brady finished the water he’d have to refill, boil, and cool more. He began to worry he wouldn’t get any writing done. But he realized he could do something about the flavor.

With the pot cleaned of Brady’s slobber, Richard set it down, full of stagnant water, on the stove top. He added fresh fuel to the fire and stoked it hot again. From the pantry shelves he opened a box of earl grey tea bags and dropped four of them into the water. From his shirt pocket he pulled a handful of fresh pine needles he’d picked up outside and dropped it into the pot, too. He could hardly hope to remove the horrible taste altogether, but maybe he could at least mask it. It couldn’t hurt to try.

With the water on the stove Richard sat again at his typewriter. He stuffed the book and two of the manuscripts back into his satchel. The third he stared at for a moment before picking up. It was the original manuscript for Dead of Night. From its pages protruded countless sticky notes with revisions, notes, and addendums scrawled in chicken scratch. He leafed through its contents, pausing here and there to read or reminisce. Eventually the final page lay open before him, the italicized words

The End

mocking him with their inky-black permanency. A single blank yellow note stuck to the bottom right corner of the page, like an open-ended conversation or an ellipsis. Maybe a teaser of more to come. Richard fiddled with the note absentmindedly and let his eyes drift to the as yet still blank page in the typewriter. More to come indeed. He hadn’t had an original idea in months. It’s in there, in my head. Somewhere. I just need to find it. He decided he couldn’t work just yet. The business with the face in the window, and the water: he needed to get out. To stretch his legs. Back home his daily walks usually did the trick. There’s no reason it shouldn’t work out here.

Richard stood up from the chair with resolution. He would trek out into the woods, Brady at his heels and gun at arm, and explore. He would familiarize himself with his surroundings. It would at least give him room to think, if not also grant him peace of mind. If he found no people or signs of their presence he could more easily shake off the morning’s misfortune. The tea was removed to the sink where Richard filled his water bottle with the hot beverage. It still tasted bad, but not nearly as before. He checked to make sure the rifle was loaded, and put a few extra rounds in his pocket. You never know. He might run across a bear. Maybe he’d shoot himself some dinner. Richard donned his jacket and opened the door, ushering Brady and then himself out. With the door locked and the cabin secure, Richard confidently set off, allowing Brady to lead the way.

Isolation: Chapter 5

I promised last week that I would post a new section from Isolation today. Maybe I shouldn’t have. This last week was crazy and I didn’t have the time I thought I would. Most of that was my fault. But here it is, as promised. More hastily written than I prefer. But again, this is only a first draft I have to keep reminding myself. Here is chapter five, take it as it is.

Chapter 5

Richard’s tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. It felt swollen and dry. His body wrestled consciousness, craving both more rest and hydration. The need for water tipped the scales and his crusted eyelids peeled back, allowing light to pour into his brain. He raised a hand involuntarily to block the light and sat up in the bed, which creaked like a gaggle of witches being burned at the stake. His throat sympathized, as it too felt on fire. He needed a drink, a big one, and soon. But soon was not in the cards.

He stepped into his khakis and pulled them to his waist, then threw a flannel over his bear arms and chest. Brady padded around the cramped room eager to see what his master would do next. The dog watched intently as Richard first donned socks and then laced up his boots. He then followed Richard out of the cabin and around back to the rain catch. Brady knew very little other than what immediately concerned him, and what concerned him most at the moment was the dryness of his mouth and throat. Beyond that, the actions of his master were disconcerting because he seemed to be getting taller. Brady had momentarily caught a whiff of an interesting scent and followed it for a few yards, but turned back when he heard a loud smack. He walked up to his master who was now several feet higher than Brady was accustomed to him being. The dog sniffed the air for a clue and then realized his master was standing on some sort of thin, cross-hatched wooden structure that hadn’t been standing there moments earlier, but was instead lying down against the building. It didn’t look at all sturdy or safe. He whimpered, hoping his master knew what he was doing.

Richard looked down from the ladder when he heard Brady whimper. The dog looked pitifully up at him, wagging its tail. Richard resumed the short climb and found himself eye-level with the gutter. He planted his feet as firmly as he could on the round ladder run and using both hands began to scoop out the leaves and twigs and dirt that clogged his only source of fresh water.

Fresh water. It occurred to him that, even if he cleared the gutters for the rain catch, he would still have to wait until it rained to collect any drinking water for him or the dog. He descended the ladder, much to Brady’s relief, and stepped round to the chopping block. Dehydration must be clouding his ability to think clearly. He needed to stop and make a plan. Water was priority, and right now his only source was the stagnant water in the catch. It would have to be boiled to make it safe, and that meant getting the wood-burning stove going. He looked at the small stack of dry firewood, grateful to whoever had left it there. He filled his arms with as much as he could carry and brought it into the kitchen.

He hadn’t built a fire in decades, since his family’s one and only camping trip as a child. It had been an ill-fated venture from the start. No one in his immediate family had ever been camping, and it might have stayed that way had Richard’s father not been laid off, putting the family’s annual vacation in peril. Richard’s father, Donald, did his best to disguise his unemployment from his children, leaving the house at the usual time every morning and returning, briefcase in hand, at the end of the day. They couldn’t have known the briefcase was full of job applications and copies of his resume: and a hip flask of brandy. He tried to convince them that a camping trip to Vermont would be a welcome respite from their normal beach holiday in Florida: he fooled no one, least of all himself. But the children sensed something was wrong with their father, so they played along so as not to upset him further. And of course there was their mother, Joan, ever-smiling as if all was right in the world, supporting her humbled yet determined husband. Her assurances to her children that camping as a family would be an adventure to remember got them all excited and eager to blaze the trail. The excitement quickly gave way to resentment and despair. Upon arrival at their campsite, several hours late due to a semi-trailer that had turned over and blocked traffic, they were forced to make camp in near total darkness. Donald was able to wrest the Coleman lamp from the rear of the station wagon to supply at least some light, but when he turned the lamp too bright the neighboring campers complained from the anonymous comfort of their tents and sleeping bags. In the end the tent proved too great an adversary for the novices and they were resigned to spending the first night of their vacation in the car.

The task of building and starting a fire was given to Richard, the eldest son, while Donald would drive to the nearest market for food (a chore that had been waylaid by their late arrival). The only fire-making tools they brought were a single book of paper matches. Donald had naively assumed that, like a hotel, the basics would be provided: and in a way they were. The campsite was in a deeply forested area and campers were permitted to collect dead and fallen wood. Richard had only the neighboring campsites as insight into fire-building. As nonchalantly has an eleven-year-old can manage, he watched as the campers to his right constructed and lit their fire. In his estimation these were seasoned woodland veterans as they had a fire roaring in no time at all. Feeling confident, he advanced into the woods for fuel, kindling, and a tinder bundle; words he overheard from his new fire tutors. His plan was simple: first he would stuff his pant pockets with material for the tinder bundle then he would load up his arms with sticks and branches. The plan very abruptly hit a snag as he realized he didn’t know what tinder was. He wished his father hadn’t sprung the camping trip idea on the family with such short notice. There hadn’t been time for him to visit the library and read up on camping and hiking. He even knew the exact place on the shelf to find several books by experienced hiker Eric Ryback he wanted to read, and this would have been the perfect opportunity. Instead he was stuck in the woods with little knowledge and no experience. Richard’s feet never stopped moving while he looked for tinder and bemoaned his predicament. Before long they carried him out of earshot of his family, and his mind having been occupied, he failed to pay attention to his direction. What is tinder? Was it the definite name of what he was looking for, or an item of a general category like the two other items on his list, kindling and fuel? If the latter, he could surmise that since fuel is large pieces of wood, and kindling is small twigs and sticks, that tinder might be smaller yet. Maybe what he was looking for was something that would light quickly and easily, allowing the larger elements to catch fire in turn. Dry leaves crunched under his feet. Perhaps that would do. He scooped up a handful, but they crumpled to dust in his grip. That’s no good. He looked up and spotted, not very far away, the unmistakable sight of a paper birch tree. He couldn’t believe his luck! Just weeks ago he had read about this very tree in a nature guide. He remembered he spent the rest of the day after having read the book searching his neighborhood for this very tree. The idea of a tree producing paper of its own, instead of having to be felled and milled fascinated his young mind. He raced toward the tree and ripped off every loose bit of bark he could reach and stuffed his pockets full. Satisfied, he turned around to start gathering the rest of the materials, when it hit him that he couldn’t see the camp. The forest looked the same in every direction. The calm mind that allowed him to discern the nature of tinder moments before became clouded by panic. He was lost.

Richard shook his head and began loading the stove with wood. He removed from his pocket a magnesium stick and shaved off a small amount into the stove atop of small collection of twigs and a few scraps of his typing paper. Using the edge of the mag stick and his knife he threw sparks onto the magnesium and coaxed the fire into life. He made sure to visit the library before this trip.

Taking the one pot he brought with him he went back to the ladder and propped it up next to the rain catch. He looked again at the stagnant, filthy water. It needed boiled and filtered. He pulled a bandana from his back pocket and tied it over top of the pot before lowering it into the dark water. Once full he climbed down and returned to the kitchen. With no idea how long it would take the water to boil, Richard sat down at his typewriter. From out of the duffel bag he pulled a permanent marker and a picture calendar, still in shrink wrap. Its subject: twelve beautiful and panoramic views of the Cascade Mountains, the very mountains Richard now inhabited. He peeled back the plastic and flipped to October, featuring a majestic picture of Mount Rainier. Uncapping the marker he blacked out every date except the week of the twelfth through the eighteenth, then crossed out Sunday the twelfth.

“Six days.”

He glanced at the typewriter and the blank page it held. Would it be enough time? Was he just fooling himself? He reached into his pocket for one of the nails he removed from the shutters. Using the crowbar, he drove the nail into the wall near the front door and hung the calendar on it. Six days. Don’t screw it up. Just then he heard the water boiling over and rushed into the kitchen. He moved the pot to the sink to let it cool down. Fanning away the steam he looked into the water and saw minimal particulate, but even despite his thirst he wasn’t excited to drink it. I’ll let Brady have the first drink. He left the water to cool and returned to his typewriter.

Where to begin? Where had he begun? He didn’t want to rely on what he’d used before. Where had it gotten him? A cabin in the middle of nowhere and a dehydration headache. He needed a new strategy, a new plan of attack. He looked at the blank page. It needed words. A title. A title would be a good place to start. Something from which to write, or a rallying point around which to write. Something to keep him focused. He needed to stay focused. Six days. Less than a week. So much was riding on this. He had everything invested in this last effort. Don’t say last. This isn’t the last. It’s the first of many. The third of many. The third of possibly many. The third of three, maybe. A trilogy. His trilogy of failures. They say things come in threes, right? Maybe that’s how it works. Maybe he needed one more failure before he earned a string of successes. But there wasn’t time. There isn’t time! Focus. A title. What makes for a good title? It will take more than a clever title to make it to Oliver’s desk. Don’t you think I know that? So what makes a good title? It has to be sexy, right? That’s what they want nowadays. Sex. Or violence. Sexy violence. Violent sexiness. Something evocative. Or something so banal it becomes evocative. It. The Thing. Those aren’t titles, they’re syllables. But they worked. Because they had good stories. The title can come later. He needed a good story.

The white paper stared blankly at him. Richard delved back into the duffel bag and pulled out an accordion folder. He unwound the red string and reached in, pulling out three thick manuscripts and a book and dropped them on the table. The book was a hardcover, “Dead of Night” by Richard Reynolds. He flipped the book over and read the back cover review excerpts.

“Outstanding! Reynolds delivers thrills and chills in this one-of-a-kind horror experience. Not to be missed!”
Oscar De Cordova, Chicago Sun-Times

“Reynolds explodes on the scene with Dead of Night, a twisted tale of murder, betrayal, and terror that will haunt you for days. This may be the author’s first book, but he wastes no time establishing himself as a master of his genre.”
Miriam Briggs, San Francisco Chronicle

“Very few books have ever given me nightmares. Dead of Night is one of them. I can think of no higher praise for a horror novel than that it continues to deliver the frights even after the story is over.”
Charles McDonald, New York Times

Richard puffed up while reading the accolades for what must of have been the thousandth time. This was years ago, but he still loved seeing his name in print. He turned the book over again and looked at his name below the title. Dead of Night by Richard Reynolds. It just looked… right. His name looked and sounded like it belonged on the cover of books. It was his destiny to be a writer. A successful writer. Except that he didn’t believe in destiny. He believed in hard work, determination, and perseverance. And opportunity. To be successful, you needed to be an opportunist. Richard believed this week was an opportunity, one he wouldn’t let slip away.

He dropped the book and picked up the two manuscripts, the first titled “Altar Dwelling,” and the second “Fangs of Bavaria,” both by Richard Reynolds. Stuck between their pages were letters from his publisher, Kingston Wright Publishers. His lower lip stiffened as he pulled the letters free. He didn’t need to read them again, he’d memorized them. Words and phrases from their pages spun around his head like a child’s mobile: “does not meet publisher’s standards,” “we have decided to pass,” “overly indulgent,” “confused narrative,” “insipid,” “least frightening horror story,” “devoid of scares,” “rejected,” “Rejected,” “REJECTED.”

Richard slammed the manuscripts to the floor and spun around in his seat. Ignorant bastards! His last two manuscripts were every bit as good as Dead of Night. Every bit as good. He emptied himself into those books, quit his job to devote all his time to writing. All the money he’d made for his publisher and this was how they treated him? That damned two book contract. He should never have signed it. Sixteen years he slaved in that office, yes sir, no sir, staff meetings, business meetings, cash flow statements, five different bosses giving him five contradicting orders. Then finally his big break, his way out. The very first publisher he approached practically leapt out of their chairs to offer him a contract. He was told it would be a long, hard push to get published. But not for him. Not for Richard Reynolds. The moment he signed his name on the dotted line he called his office and gave his notice. He daydreamed about creative and dramatic ways to quit, like the “who’s coming with me” scene from Jerry McGuire. He wanted so bad to piss off at least one person, especially Todd Barnes, boss number two. The guy’s tie was always, always crooked. And a mouth breather. Every time he exhaled it sounded like the sigh of a teenager who just got dumped by his girlfriend who was way out of his league to begin with and so there’s no chance he’ll ever date anyone even half as beautiful as her again. But despite fancying himself a writer, all Richard could come up with to get back at Barnes was to put something in his coffee, and even then he couldn’t decide what and eventually his two weeks were up and he was carrying his things out of the office for good.

Kingston Wright Publishers was just about through with him. It had been four years since Dead of Night, and Richard hadn’t brought them a publishable book since. At first they did their best to be sympathetic. The man lost his wife, they reminded themselves. Doesn’t matter how, divorce or death; when a man loses his wife it’s bound to set him back. And it wasn’t necessarily the time. An author could take any number of years to finish a book, and longer for a great book. Kingston Wright Publishers knew this and believed in giving their authors the space and time they needed. But Richard, he approached them only nine months after Dead of Night was published and presented them with a new manuscript. Hang onto it for now, they told him. Give it some time. Take another vacation. But he was persistent and refused to leave until they accepted it. The next editorial meeting was not a comfortable one for new assistant editor Kevin Breckinridge, who was given the task of taking the manuscript home and evaluating it. He appeared at the meeting visibly agitated, and with a crooked tie.

“Breckinridge. You were given the new Reynolds book, right? What was it called… alter, uh alter something…?

“Uh, yes. Al-Altar Dwelling. With an A.”

“Huh?”

“An A. Altar. Altar with um, a uh, an A. Altar Dwelling.”

“Yes. Right. And your thoughts?”

“Yeah. This is the same Richard Reynolds, author of Dead of Night? New York Times Bestseller, sold over one million copies?”

“Casey, is that, uh… Yes. That’s him. More of the same, we hope.”

“Well… Well I, I suppose there would be two ways of looking at it.”

“Yes?”

“In the first scenario, I have no idea what I’m doing and I couldn’t recognize good writing if it jumped up and bit me in the ass.”

“And the second?”

“Mr. Reynolds wrote the first book through divine inspiration. Because based on what I read over the weekend, well, it may just be the worst thing I’ve ever read.”

Of course Richard wasn’t privy to that conversation. Much like his high school teachers, the Kingston Wright publishers spared him a talk he really shouldn’t have been spared. Instead they chose to ignore his calls for a few weeks, and then suggested once again he take a vacation, an extended one, and get back with them in a few months time. They knew what he was capable of. Dead of Night was one of their best selling books ever, and they wanted more. Richard wanted more than anything to be a success, to be considered a great writer. In his life he’d been a good CPA. Very dependable, so serious errors. But no matter how good a CPA, they aren’t remembered. Great authors, they were remembered. Richard leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes and breathed deeply. He had this week to prove he belonged in their number. That he, too, was a great author. He knew it in his bones. He inhaled again and relaxed his body. He needed to think positive. He took this opportunity to come to the mountains, to get away and write. To prove he wasn’t a one-hit-wonder. He was as determined as he’d ever been. He would write a new novel. And he would take it to those pompous buffoons at Kingston Wright, slap a new manuscript down on their desk, and just walk away and wait for the phone call he knew would come. Richard smiled to himself and opened his eyes, only to see a face staring back at him through the window.

Isolation: Chapter 4 (continued)

He waited. A bead of sweat traced along his eyebrow. It tickled. He twitched his cheek and blinked, trying to get the droplet to fall. He wanted badly to reach up and wipe his face, but he dared not take a hand off the gun. Despite the pleasant October temperature, his body was overheating from the tension of the moment. How long was he supposed to wait before the coast was clear? It’s not a coast, it’s a cabin, a voice in his head chimed in. It’s a figure of speech, he parried. Bolstered by the annoyance of his inner dialogue, he removed his left hand from the gun and reached for the key in his right pocket. It was a slight struggle to reach the envelope and he had to twist his hip left and up, at one point leaning the barrel of the rifle against the door to balance himself. Finally he was able to pinch the edge of the envelope between two of his fingers and gingerly lift it from his pocket. He tore it open with his teeth and the key slid out into his palm. The gun was getting very heavy at this point, so once again leaning the barrel against the door he reached out for the padlock. There’s nobody inside.

Brady’s sudden outburst was so loud and so unexpected that Richard’s body reacted before his mind had a chance to chime in. Adrenaline hit him like a punch to the gut and in a fraction of a second spread out in a wave across his body. His eyes bulged and his muscles flexed involuntarily from the added stimulus. Just as his brain was about to tell him to calm down, it was just Brady, it had an entirely new, and much louder noise to decipher. An experienced gun owner will tell you to keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to fire. He may have told you, but apparently he hadn’t bothered to tell Richard. The deafening noise that erupted from the muzzle two feet in front of his face, and probably the recoil as well, sent Richard flying backward off the porch. He landed flat on his back, his limbs splayed out in four different directions, the gun knocked from his hands.

The echo of the gunshot seemed to go on forever, but long after it ended, the ringing in Richard’s ears still sang. He closed his eyes. The grass was warm and tickled his bear arms and neck. He usually avoided lying in the grass; too many insects. He always imagined ants crawling into his clothes and through his hair. Once as a child while playing outside with his siblings he sat up after a tumble through the grass and felt something crunchy at the back of his mouth. He spit it into his hand and saw the masticated remains of a ladybug. He rose to his elbows and looked ahead at the cabin door and the bullet hole it now displayed. That will have to be fixed. How would he explain it to Kevin? He probably wouldn’t have to, he never came up here, would probably never know. But for his own sake he’d better fix. It wouldn’t do to have a gaping hole in the door letting insects in at night. Duct tape would block the whole for now; he’d worry about a more permanent replacement later. He did remember to pack duct tape, right? Yes. Bottom of the pack, next to the-

The cabin. Intruders. The gun. The fall must have knocked the sense out of him. He scrambled for the gun and swung around to face the cabin. No one had come out since he fired. He hadn’t heard anything either. Where was Brady? He looked around for the dog. Probably hiding. That was one hell of a noise. He rose to one knee. His shoulder ached from the rifle’s kick. That will take some getting used to. On his feet again he approached the cabin, more quickly this time.

“Anyone in there?”

The question came out a hoarse croak. He tried to clear his throat and realized how thirsty he was. He took the porch and reached into his pocket for the key. Setting the gun down against the doorframe he undid the lock. He was no longer thinking about squatters, he was trying to do as little thinking as possible. He was keeping embarrassment at bay as long as he could. When that stopped working, he’d start rationalizing his actions. He had every right to be cautious, he told himself. Everyone knew animals had a sixth sense about things. He picked up the rifle and cracked open the door. Seeing nothing, he pushed it open a little further. It was pitch black inside. The sun was coming from behind the house. He looked to his left and saw the window was shuttered. They all must be. He looked again into the interior darkness of the dwelling and decided to remove all the shutters first. Good decision. But first he would get a drink of water. Maybe find Brady. Another good decision.

He reached into the Jeep for his water bottle and upended it, relishing the cool liquid as it wet his dry mouth and throat. He finished the rest of the water and dropped the bottle onto the front seat.

“Brady! Brady, here boy!”

Richard paused to listen and was taken off-guard when a slobbery tongue attacked his face. He turned to see Brady’s saggy face staring at him. The dog must have retreated to the backseat of the car when the gun went off. Richard scratched Brady’s head reassuringly and the dog relaxed.

Careful to take the gun with him under his arm, Richard approached the front of the cabin to inspect the window. Nailed shut. That could be a problem; he hadn’t packed a hammer. Maybe he’d have better luck with the other windows. He rounded the cabin to the left and proceeded to check the only window on that side, finding it in much the same condition as the first one. He sighed. It was going to be a dark week. The two windows on the back of the cabin where also nailed shut. He pulled at one of them: it didn’t budge. Fully expecting the remaining windows to complete a matching set, he was surprised to find no windows at all on the right side. Instead he found a wall of ancient tools. Chains, traps, saws, picks… Richard set the rifle down and traded it for an axe. Most of the tools were rusted from years of weather and disuse, but the axe, while certainly not new, at least looked as though it had been kept indoors. He ran is thumb along the blade and discovered it was still sharp. A stack of wood sat under a small lean-to at the side of the cabin, and a chopping block a few feet away, but there were no signs the axe had been used recently. He set the axe back in its place on the wall and spied a crowbar. Just what the doctor ordered.

Snatching it off the wall, and nearly forgetting to grab the rifle in his excitement, he took the crowbar to the first window and got to work pulling nails. They gave surprisingly easy and the shutters were pulled back in two moment’s time. He dropped the nails into his pocket and moved around to the second window, making quick time of its shutters, too. Richard allowed a smile to creep across his face. The embarrassment of his fearful display just moments earlier was being ebbed aside by the small satisfaction he received from triumphing over the windows, because this put him back on equal footing with the cabin. Cabin one, Richard one. To Richard, this was the turn of the tide. The cabin had him at a disadvantage upon his arrival. He was out of his element, the cabin definitely in its. But as the last nail squeaked in frictional resistance before giving up its hold of the last shutter, Richard was confident he would prevail over anything the cabin, or the mighty forest in which it stood, had in store for him.

The shutters open, ambient light poured into the rustic cabin, giving Richard his first revealing look at the interior. Not much to write home about. But he wasn’t here to write about the cabin itself. Stepping across the threshold he found himself in a modest foreroom. Must have been the original hunting shack. It was furnished with a wood burning stove against the right wall, a wooden rocking chair, a simple, hand-made four-legged table, matching chair, and an oil lamp. Against the wall to his left was a hutch, out of place in the cabin with its intricate wood carving and elegant design. To his right was the kitchen, but to call it that was a serious exaggeration: a sink, another wood burning stove replete with oven and range, a small piece of butcher’s block for a counter, another lamp, and empty pantry shelves. A door in the upper right corner of the foreroom sat slightly ajar. Richard stepped in and put his hand to the door, opening it slowly. A brass bed-frame supported an ancient, naked box springs and a mattress that’d seen better days decades ago. Next to the bed was an end-table with wash basin and pitcher, and across the small room was a chest-of-drawers, a lamp and vanity mirror. Out from under the bed poked a chamber pot. God almighty, I hope that’s empty. Richard patted the mattress and a cloud of dust billowed up around him. He sat gingerly on the edge of the bed and the springs groaned and creaked loudly beneath him. At least I’ll get a good night’s sleep. He looked out the window and saw the sun sinking low on the horizon. Better unpack before dark.

Richard returned to the Jeep, threw his pack on his back, and grabbed the duffel in one hand and the suitcase in the other. While packing for his trip he felt no small amount of pride at being able to carry everything he needed for a week away on his person at once. Minus the sack of apples and sack of potatoes, but he wasn’t counting those. He set the bags down in the foreroom and entered the bedroom. There he flipped the mattress over and unrolled his sleeping bag on top. In the kitchen he filled the empty shelves with the canned and dry goods from his pack. From the Jeep he then brought in the perishable apples and potatoes and set them high on the shelf. He looked at the layout of the foreroom. This won’t do. With great difficulty, he dragged the hutch to the same wall as the front door. The sun was setting behind the cabin, making that the west wall, and the left wall the south wall. His home office was set up so that his writing desk faced the south window, preventing any glare from hitting his computer screen. Ignoring the fact that he had no computer or electricity at the cabin, Richard determined it was still the best arrangement for writing. He placed the table and chair in front of the window on the south wall, and the rocker against the west wall. He stood back to admire his work. It wouldn’t win him any design awards, but it suited his needs.

Finally he picked up the suitcase and laid it carefully on top of the table. He unlatched it and raised the lid as if opening a treasure chest long hidden. Richard sat and marveled at what lay before him: a portable typewriter. His fingers ran over the keys, up from which stuck the purchase receipt. He plucked the receipt up and placed it into his wallet. He bought the typewriter months earlier on a whim, before the idea of his forest retreat had occurred to him. Looking back on it he believed it to have been prophetic. A sign that he was meant to be here, to do this. That his plan would succeed. He found it quite by accident. On a day like any other he found himself with a sudden urge for adventure and so paid a visit to a thrift store he had driven by hundreds of times but never stopped. Thrift stores were not Richard’s style, but that was the point – adventure! As much as he felt comfortable with. He took his time, perusing the aisles, picking up and looking over many of the items. He spent a solid twenty minutes practice swinging the discount golf clubs. He was fascinated by the number and diversity of things for sale. While in the house wares department he came upon what he thought was a suitcase. Assuming it had either been placed there by mistake, or more likely, by some teenage punk who thought he was being funny, he decided to play Good Samaritan and take it back to the luggage department where it belonged. But when he tried to hoist it up he found it much heavier than expected. That punk’s gone and filled it with something. Frustrated, he knelt down to open the suitcase. His frustration was quickly replaced with awe. He snapped the lid shut and hauled it to the register and purchased it without a second thought. He was not an impulsive person, and so it is no wonder that without a plan for its use, he placed the hastily bought treasure in a closet and soon forgot about it until Kevin’s words “no electricity” caused the synapses in his brain to pull the memory of the typewriter to his conscious mind.

Richard pulled a stack of paper from the duffel and rolled one blank sheet into the machine. He sat with his fingers at the ready on the keys. And he continued to sit, motionless. I need a drink of water. Richard sat up and walked out to the Jeep to grab his water bottle. Empty. Taking the bottle to the kitchen faucet, he turned the tap on, and nothing happened. Not even a drip escaped. Kevin said there was running water. He knelt down and looked under the sink, but the only pipe was the drain. He stood up and realized the water pipe was coming from the ceiling. Rain catch. He hadn’t taken notice of it earlier, but he did see a large barrel or drum at the back corner of the cabin. Richard walked outside and around to the back. Sure enough, the roof gutters all fed into a fifty-gallon drum, raised up on a scaffold. It occurred to him that ten years of debris probably chocked the gutters and that whatever water was in the drum was stagnant and undrinkable. It also occurred to him that he failed to bring any water of his own, save what he filled his water bottle with at the house. And that water was long since drunk. Cabin two, Richard one. He worried more for Brady’s sake than his own. The dog hadn’t had a drink of water since they left the house. He decided to get to bed early to get an early start on the day. First thing’s first – clean water supply.

As he stepped onto the porch to enter the cabin, he heard Brady bark yet again. Maybe bringing the dog was a mistake after all. It came from behind the cabin, where he’d just come from. Richard rather perturbedly rounded the cabin to bring Brady inside. Brady was acting as before when they first arrived, hunched over and growling, this time not at the cabin, but at the outhouse behind it. He realized he had failed to inspect the outhouse yet. Not about to repeat his embarrassing display from earlier, he was about to tell Brady to knock it off when he heard scratching come from inside the outhouse. He froze. His mind immediately searched for his gun. It was propped next to his bed. He looked to his left, toward the wall of tools. Toward the axe. As quietly as he could he side-stepped toward the cabin and lifted the axe from its perch. Brady barked again, and again the scratches from inside the outhouse. Mustering every ounce of courage he had and taking out a loan for the remainder, he found enough to approach the tiny structure, axe in hand. Brady watched his master tread stealthily forward. Richard reached out for the door but snatched it back when he heard more scratching and saw the door move slightly. He swallowed hard and reached out again with his left hand, the axe held high in his right. Counting down from three to himself, he threw open the door with a yuppie-Viking cry – which turned immediately into a shriek as a raccoon burst forth from the outhouse and scrambled for the cover of woods. Brady took off like a shot after it, his blood-hound instincts taking over.

“Brady!”

Richard called out after him, but all he heard were the diminishing sounds of the chase. He faltered for just a second before running into the woods after Brady, knowing full-well there was no way he’d be able to keep up, and that it was possible to get lost in these woods. But reason yielded to his attachment to Brady. He paused to listen for any sounds of his dog, heard scurrying ahead, and took off in that direction. Every few moments he paused to listen and chased after the noises he hoped were Brady. There was maybe a half-hour of daylight left before the forest was plunged into darkness. If he didn’t find Brady soon, he’d have to backtrack to the cabin alone. The forest seemed ominous and foreign in the orange/purple light of dusk. Shadows stretched into unnatural and sinister shapes. Crickets and other nocturnal creatures began to stir and fill the air with clicks and song. He paused again to listen and heard something not far off. He jogged toward the sound and to his great relief found Brady sniffing at the ground. Richard exhaled an enormous sigh of relief and knelt down next to the dog. He scratched Brady’s back and haunches. Brady meanwhile was engrossed with something on the ground in front of him.

“What have you got there, boy?”

Richard leaned forward to inspect what held the dog’s attention. The smell hit his nostrils at the same moment his eyes fell upon what made the smell. Richard reeled back and stood up, coughing. He looked again, from a safe distance, at the remains of… a small animal was the best he could tell. A bloody skull stared up at him from empty eye sockets, and fur was scattered everywhere. It was a kill site, for sure. His first thought was what kind of predator would leave only fur and a skull. His next thought, and slightly more urgently, was to wonder if it was still nearby.

“Let’s get out of here, Brady.”

Having sufficiently sniffed the area, Brady was content to follow Richard away. The two of them turned their backs on the remains to retrace their steps back to the cabin. Unseen by either of them, behind a tree opposite the kill site, sat a neat pile of the dead animal’s internal organs.

A Selection from Chapter 4…

What follows is, as usual, an unedited selection from the book I am currently writing. This comes from the first half of chapter 4. If you want to read chapter 3, you’ll have to buy the book when it’s finished. Chapter 4 picks up where chapter 2 left off.

 

Chapter 4 (a selection)

Richard reached across the seat and opened the passenger door. Brady practically flew out of the Jeep, excited to be free from the confines of the moving metal cage. It had been a long drive and Richard was proud of how well he had behaved. He watched for a moment as Brady took in the thousands of new scents in the air and struggled to decide which one to investigate. He opened his own door and took the first few steps around the Jeep toward the cabin he’d be sleeping in for the next seven days. Nature. Solitude. Peace and quiet. He felt ready, and took a deep breath of mountain air. He slapped his hands to his chest, re-enacting something he’d seen actors do innumerable times in the movies. Even on his own, miles away from prying eyes, he was putting on a show. His performance was brought up short when he heard Brady growl.

The dog was hunched over, his hind-quarters raised and his snout near the ground. Brady made a low, guttural noise; a sound Richard had never heard him make. Brady’s growl grew in volume and intensity and Richard looked to see what might be spooking him.

“What is it Brady?”

A chill ran down Richard’s spine, carrying with it a realization – at first just a feeling, but coalescing soon into a thought. He was alone in unfamiliar territory. Who else might be out here? What else? He felt suddenly claustrophobic, as if the trees were closing in on him. He had never liked horror movies, but the few he’d seen came racing back. Flashes of masked killers and severed limbs. He turned around to look into the woods. The trees were old and tall. Little grew on the forest floor. Despite the sun, it was dark in there. Richard shut his eyes. He was being irrational and he knew it. He cleared his throat loudly, and the ghouls retreated. When he opened his eyes again he was back in a warm forest retreat.

Except for Brady, who continued to growl. At what? Richard followed the dog’s line of sight but couldn’t see anything the matter. Perhaps he smelled something he didn’t like. Richard knew there were bears in these woods. Was there a bear nearby? Kevin said no one had visited this cabin in a decade. No one in the family, anyway. That is to say, no one he knew of. Could a perfectly livable shelter really sit empty for so long and not be an invitation to occupy? These mountains may not hold a large population, but there were plenty enough hunters, naturists and hillbillies that, chances were, this cabin had been happened upon, especially given its age. How could he be sure he wasn’t walking into a cabin full of squatters, hell-bent on preserving their home?

Richard back-stepped to the open passenger door of the Jeep. He reached in behind him, his hand fumbling blindly for a moment before finding and pulling out a brand-new green, soft gun case. Without taking his eyes off the cabin, he unzipped the case and dropped it to the ground, holding the just-as-new Winchester Model 70 in his hands. Richard had never owned a gun in his life until three weeks ago. The idea of gun ownership had only crossed his mind once before that. When he and Kristine first married, all sorts of new worries and fears manifested, and protecting his new wife and home was very near the top of the list. At the very top was his performance in the bedroom. He was twenty-two, and had been with only two women before, and even then his experiences could be counted by removing only one glove. Kristine was an old-fashioned girl and wanted to wait until they were married to enjoy, and these were her words, amorous congress. Richard didn’t mind most of Kristine’s old-fashioned ways; in fact many of them he found very endearing. But on this one matter he tried again and again, without success, to change her mind. It wasn’t even religious conviction as neither was particularly spiritual, least of all Kristine, who viewed organized religion as a dangerous vestige of humanity’s superstitious past. All she would ever say on the subject was a lady does not open her bed to any but her husband. Where was she from, Victorian England? When he found the courage to ask her that very question, he learned first-hand that no, she was not, as no one from Victorian England could speak with the vitriol that proceeded from her thin-lipped mouth. So the matter was dropped from conversation, but not his mind. Despite this contention, he still loved her and wanted to protect her and their new life together. A few of his acquaintances suggested owning a gun would grant him the peace of mind he was after. He mulled the notion briefly before dismissing it, opting instead for a quality home alarm and surveillance system. And a sturdy, wooden bat within arm’s reach of the bed (as a show of machismo to try and impress his wife. It didn’t work).

His transition to gun owner was part of his master design for his week at the cabin. It served a practical purpose to ward off any predators he might encounter, as well as being a measure of security and comfort during the lonelier moments he knew he would suffer. It is one thing to be alone in your alarmed and surveilled home at the center of a gated community, and quite another to be alone in a shack in the mountains. But Richard had further plans for the weapon. The man had never fired a shot in his life, not even from a BB gun or a sling shot. He had even turned down the offer to test his new rifle at the shop’s firing range.

“Are you sure?”

The portly man behind the counter looked quizzically at Richard. He knew his type the second he walked into the shop. That was a man who never held a gun in his life. You could tell by the way he stood just inside the doorway, slightly befuddled by the sight of all the weapons on the walls and in the glass cases. Were there really so many different kinds of guns? The man laughed to himself. Here we go again. Same routine with all these clowns. He’ll wonder around the floor a bit, trying to make it seem like he was looking for something in particular. Eventually he’d tap on the glass and ask to see something from the case, nine times out of ten it was a revolver. A lot of ‘em went right for the Colt Single Action Army, also known as the Peacemaker, due to its familiarity: it looked like every revolver from those westerns movies they’d seen as kids. And it wasn’t a bad gun, just not the most practical for home protection, and that’s usually what they were after. Eventually he’d get their attention away from the six-shooters and onto something a little more in-line with the twenty-first century, like a reliable Glock 17 Gen4. This guy, though, surprised him. He did wonder around the shop for a few minutes, but instead of ending up in handguns he stopped over by the rifles. The salesman sauntered over and asked, in his most polite voice, if he could be of any help. The guy said simply

“Winchester 70.”

The man turned around and lifted the rifle off the rack and handed it to the customer.

“The rifleman’s rifle. You going hunting?”

And there was Richard’s ulterior reason. He wasn’t so daft as to expect to hit anything, but he was sure as hell going to try. He was pitting himself against nature, after all. What better testament to his dominion over nature than killing his own food? And that’s as far as Richard took the idea. What he would with the carcass in the off-chance that he managed to shoot and kill an animal hadn’t occurred to him. He had no earthly idea how to skin and clean game. This was a man who bought frozen, pre-cooked meat. But Richard was too concerned with the first part of the equation; hitting his target. He planned to use empty cans of soup and hash for target practice. He’d brought 5 boxes of 30.06 rounds, 100 in all. Plenty enough for practice, and then, the real thing. He had day dreams of being startled by a bear in the woods and killing it with one expertly place shot. He’d hang the bear’s head in his home and regale party guests with the tale.

All of that went right out the window now that he held the gun in his hands with the very real prospect of using it. The closest he’d been to firing it was reading about firing it, and that’s quite a gap, even for non-life threatening situations. Richard hoisted the gun up to his shoulder. It felt cumbersome and uncomfortable. He took one step toward the cabin and then realized the gun wasn’t loaded. He looked around in embarrassment, and then quickly walked around to the other side of the Jeep.

“Stupid.”

He opened the rear door and searched through his pack of supplies, glancing up nervously at the cabin. Finally he found a box of rounds and snatched it from the pack. He pulled the bolt back and loaded the rifle. Six rounds, and he only dropped two while loading. He pushed the bolt back in place and rose up. His hands shook while training the rifle on the front door, and his feet hesitated to carry him forward. He told himself he was being paranoid, that the cabin was empty and he’d feel like an idiot once he got inside. But the gun didn’t lower an inch. Finally his brain won control over his feet and he crept towards the cabin. Slowly he said to himself. If anyone was inside, they had to know he was out here. But there’s no one in there he argued. Still he approached the cabin, cautiously. His stomach burned. His muscles ached. He tasted bitterness at the back of his throat. I could leave. Get a hotel. Drive back down the mountain and stop at the first hotel I see. This far out, it would still be roughing it. I could pit myself against the army of roaches that no doubt infested the room. He stepped forward. I could hold up in the bathtub, fight them off with the plunger and a rolled up towel. Richard’s last stand. Another step toward the cabin. The hotel manager will write a book about it and put copies in each room next to the Gideon’s Bibles. If I die, they’ll display my corpse outside, propped up in a coffin, and charge a nickel-a-person to see Richard, the Cascades Cockroach Killer. His left foot reached out and kicked the cabin’s front porch. He snapped back to reality, and his heart tried its best to jump out of his chest, or at least beat fast and hard enough to make him drop the gun. He took a breath to steady himself. Then another, exhaling slower. What was his plan? What did they do in the movies? Kick the door down and shout expletives. He looked at the door: padlocked. The cabin was old enough; the door frame might just give way. Or he could use the key Kevin gave him. It was in an envelope in his pocket. He stepped up onto the porch. The wood creaked and groaned in protest. He froze and listened for any movement inside. He looked again at the lock. If there was anyone inside, they hadn’t gone in through the door. The door looked suddenly to him so much like any other door that before he realized what he was doing, he reached out and knocked. Three solid raps against the door with his knuckles. Adrenaline surged through his body at the sound. He gripped the rifle with renewed fervor and readied his body for anything.

 

Thanks for reading!

The Story Continues…

Isolation: Chapter 2

R.E.M. hummed somewhere in the background, unheard and overrated. The radio had been turned down in favor of the sounds of the forest pouring in through the open windows of the Jeep CJ-5. Most of nature’s score, however, was drowned out by four brand-new 37-inch rugged terrain tires, purchased specially for this journey. Richard had the Jeep lifted to accommodate the new tires, an expense he couldn’t really afford, but in his mind was essential to his plan. In fact, it had nearly drained his savings. He had grown accustom to not worrying about money and was hoping to find his way back there again. But he wasn’t leaving it to hope alone. No, he had his plan. And if he spent every penny he had, so be it.

Anyway, Richard was pleased with his purchase. The tires gripped the dirt road nicely, much better than his old touring tires would have. He wasn’t even sure you were allowed into the mountains without a well-prepared vehicle and supplies. He thought he remembered reading or hearing that somewhere. Or maybe that was just during the winter, when vehicles had to have snow chains. It didn’t matter. He was confident he had the right vehicle for the job.

New tires weren’t his only expenditure before driving into the wilderness. He was determined to do this right. On his feet were Merrell hiking boots. He bought them a full month earlier and wore them on his daily walks to break them in. He’d heard the horror stories about inexperienced hikers wearing new boots on long hikes and earning themselves debilitating blisters on their heels. He didn’t have time for blisters. He didn’t have the pain tolerance. Aside from new boots he also sported a new denim jacket and a new digital watch. While at the department store the day before, where he’d stopped to buy the watch and the jacket, he looked himself over in the full length mirror of the changing room and was pleased with the reflection: so pleased in fact that only a knock from the store associate, inquiring, after five minutes of trying on a jacket, if everything was alright, could tear him away. To onlookers, however, he looked like every other suburbanite trying to play rough-and-tumble for a weekend.

His indulgences did have an end, though. Stashed in the back of the Jeep were not the luxuries and faux-camping toys of other upper-middle class weekend explorers, but rather a mostly sensible assortment of survival goods. There was a duffle bag of clothes, a sleeping bag, a backpack bursting with supplies, and a rather out-of-place, old-fashioned hard suitcase. He only planned to be gone a week, but there was food enough for ten days at least – a bag of potatoes, bag of apples, dry goods like rice and oats, canned beans, veggies, meat, hashes and soups. And a twenty-five pound bag of dog food for Brady.

His co-pilot had ridden almost the entire journey with his head out the window. Richard laughed when he thought about the unfortunate travelers behind him on the freeway that morning, the great rivulets of drool flying out of Brady’s maw and splattering across their windshields. It wasn’t a cruel laugh, as Richard wasn’t a man to wish harm or even unpleasantness against anyone. It was the laugh of a free man, unburdened by time and schedules and others’ expectations. Ahh, if only that were true.

He had forgotten for a moment that the purpose of this week-long sojourn was precisely time and schedules and others people’s expectations. Richard pushed the thoughts away. There would be time for that later. The drive had been too relaxing, and would continue to be, to entertain those kinds of worries. Besides, this trip was as much for him as for them. It was his idea. He didn’t plan to spend every waking moment on work. He had decided, after stumbling upon a television marathon of a particular survival reality show, that man needed to get out into nature on occasion, to pit himself against the forces to reveal of what kind of metal he was made. In his life, the closest to nature Richard ever felt was being stung by a jellyfish at nine years old while on a family vacation in Florida. He lay on the beach, surrounded by his family and onlookers, awaiting the EMTs. As his father stood over him urinating on his wound, amid the intense pain and humiliation, he had a brief moment of clarity. He would later recount it to his friends as the first great epiphany of his life. He saw and understood in a flash the connectedness of all living things. He saw the great circle of life like Ezekiel’s wheel within a wheel spinning in front of him. And larger still, he felt the expanse of the universe, felt in his gut the hopeless size of it all, and knew that every part of it, every particle, was connected to every other part. As he lay there in the sand, covered in sweat, piss and sea water, he tried to explain it all to his father, his mother, anyone who would listen. He couldn’t understand why they weren’t listening to him. But all the crowd heard were the incoherent screams of a child, delusional with pain. As the EMTs loaded him into the ambulance, he could feel the revelation slipping away. To this day all Richard retained was the memory of having had an epiphany. All he knew was that he had once known the answer, and a vague sense that he was an important part of nature, of the universe. This feeling stayed with him his whole life, and consciously or not, influenced many of his decisions.

His laugh caught Brady’s attention and the dog turned to look at its master. Richard met the animal’s gaze with affection. Only a year ago he had thought the dog homely to look at. The long, flapping ears, the folds of skin on its face and neck, the sagging eyes… When Richard first brought the dog home he wondered if he’d ever get used to the ugly mug, but the warmth and loyalty Brady showed quickly won him over. He soon regarded Brady’s characteristics as noble. Richard scratched the dog’s head and ears, and the dog responded by licking its master’s face.

“Cut it out!”

Richard pushed the dog’s big face away and continued to scratch its head.

“We’re getting close, boy.”

Brady simply looked at him with big, dopey eyes, basking in the attention.

After two hours drive, Richard sure hoped they were getting close. The majority of the time had been spent on a minority of the miles. Unfamiliar with the mountain roads he was navigating, he split the difference between wanting to make good time and get to his destination as quickly as possible, and taking it extra slow and careful, and kept the Jeep just below the speed limit. If there was a speed limit on these roads. He hadn’t passed a sign for at least forty-five minutes. For that matter, he hadn’t passed a car, or any other sign of civilization (apart from the road he was on) in at least as much time. An hour earlier the asphalt ended and the road turned to gravel, eventually giving way to dirt. He had forgotten to set the trip odometer so he had no idea the actual miles he had driven. He knew his destination was approximately forty miles east of Interstate 5. Those were forty miles straight. He had no idea how many more miles the twists and bends in the road added. He was heading into the thick of it, the middle of the Oregon wilderness.

Twenty-two years he had lived in Oregon, and never before had he ventured into the mountains like this. He moved from the east coast to attend Reed College. He expected his intellect to be welcomed there, even (he occasionally day dreamed) celebrated. Not that he considered himself one of the great thinkers, but he did carry a general sense of superiority over others. It wasn’t arrogance, and he rarely flaunted it, it was just a closely held personal belief that he was, if ever so slightly, smarter than most people. The conviction was fostered by the fact that he had, grade school through high school, consistently ranked in the top five-percent of his classmates. Had his school offered any honors classes he surely would have been enrolled. And just as surely, his bubble would have been popped. Richard lived in a small Maine community, with a total population of fifteen thousand, and high school enrollment of around three hundred. His intelligence was such that he was at the top of the relatively small sample group, but would have been at the bottom of comprehending and following honors-level curriculum. Of course he didn’t know this, and so off he went to college with an inflated sense of acuity. It was then left to Reed College to do what his former educators could not: burst his ego and serve him a sobering reality-check. He was so excited the morning of his first day of classes. Eight hours later he was an emotional wreck. He locked himself in his room the next two days, pouring over his textbooks, knocking his head against the wall, and cursing his old teachers for not preparing him for college. It didn’t occur to him until a month had passed that the problem could be his own: that he wasn’t as smart as he thought. The realization settled slow and heavy on his shoulders like a death shroud. He lasted only one semester at Reed before transferring to Lewis and Clark.

It was there he met Kristine. Richard had dated occasionally in high school. Mostly first dates. He was pleasant enough at first meet, but the pleasantness gave way to tedium over the course of dinner and a movie. Both his parents were stay-at-home types. His father could usually be found in the living room, laid back in his easy chair, book in hand. His mother was content to sit in the sewing room, mending or making clothes for her children. That, or sitting at the kitchen table with the latest Reader’s Digest. Rather than rebel against this laid-back lifestyle, he learned at an early age to embrace it. Most of the other children in town couldn’t wait to get away to somewhere exciting. The few young ladies who said yes to his shy invitation soon found he was yet another part of the town they were so eager to escape. Richard, to his credit, didn’t take it personal. He was able to entertain himself just fine at home, taking after his parents, with homework or a good book. He was confident the right woman would appear in good time. And so Kristine did.

Good time is a subjective term. In his mind she appeared at the eleventh hour, on the verge of late. Before heading off to college, Richard wrote a timeline for the rest of his life. Even while drafting it, he knew it was a silly exercise. He didn’t expect every event to happen exactly as and when he wrote it out. But he was fairly confident in the major plot points. Engaged by twenty. Graduate and marry at twenty-two. First child at twenty-four. Last child at thirty, and so on. His twenty-first birthday was fast approaching and he didn’t even have a girlfriend, let alone a fiancé. He had already suffered the defeat of Reed, he wasn’t sure his life could take another setback. Late one night after an uncharacteristic evening of heavy drinking (i.e. two pints of beer and a shot of Jagermeister [the latter forced on him by an inebriated classmate celebrating God-knows-what]) he borrowed a lighter from a friend, took the handwritten timeline behind his dormitory, and proceeded to light the piece of paper on fire. Just as he did, he first heard and then saw a group of female students standing outside the girls’ dormitory across the way. In the center of the group stood Kristine, a nondescript type in the eyes of most males, but something about the way she looked at him, seriously, and with non-judgmental curiosity while the other girls pointed and giggled, caused a stirring inside of him. He held the burning paper in his hand until a gust of wind snatched it out of his fingers and placed it squarely against his chest. The flames licked at his shirt and chin and Richard frantically slapped his breast to put out the flames. The spectacle elicited further giggling and laughing from the girls. All but Kristine, who watched him with the slightest smile. And so it was that Richard entered her life, on fire. And even though he managed to put out the flames on his shirt, a fire had been kindled in his heart.

The mountain pass grew narrow. Richard shuddered to imagine what would happen if he encountered opposing traffic. There was simply no room to pass. The forest came right to the edge of the road, almost overtaking it at times. To his left were a small run-off ditch and then the steep climb of the mountain, and to his right the equally steep descent. Scars occasionally cut across the dirt road as rainwater exceeded the ditch’s capacity and forged its own way down the mountain. Richard and Brady bounced in their seats as the Jeep traversed the deepest one yet. His foot eased slightly off the accelerator. He was a confident driver, but with no one around either to impress or prove anything to, he allowed for a little more caution. Besides, he thought he could see a turn-off ahead.

The Jeep rolled to a stop. To call the turn-off Richard stared at a road would be a joke. He thought the road he was on was as primitive as it could get, but the path before him was completely overgrown. Two car-width parallel indentations in the grass and brush, and the unnatural lack of trees, were all that separated it from the surrounding forest. He almost drove passed, but a hand-painted sign nailed to a tree at the head of the path caught his eye. Brady looked expectantly at its master.

“Stay.”

Richard stepped out of the Jeep, his boots finding their first purchase in non-suburban soil. He came around the Jeep and approached the still as yet illegible sign. Years of decay had destroyed several of the painted letters, but after brushing off as much dirt as he could, he was eventually satisfied that the sign read “Porter’s Retreat.” Kevin hadn’t been able to tell him why it was so named, or who Porter was. Although he had never been there personally, Kevin assured Richard it was remote but comfortable. He didn’t even have pictures, just stories from his wife Cheryl’s side of the family. And even they hadn’t visited the cabin in over a decade. From what Richard understood it was built by Cheryl’s great-grandfather as a hunting shack, and then upgraded to a (very) modest retreat by her grandfather. Kevin and Cheryl had never used it, Kevin being too attached to the internet and technology because of work. So when Richard mentioned in passing one evening over dinner with his friends his intent to get away somewhere remote for a week, Kevin spoke up and offered to let him use the cabin.

“It’s sitting there, empty as a politician’s promise. We’d be happy to let you use it. Cheryl, you can give Richard directions, yeah?”

Back in the Jeep, Richard slipped it into gear and turned onto the path. He took it slow, more thankful and proud than ever for the new tires. According to Cheryl’s directions, the cabin was just over a mile ahead. One more mile and his vacation would officially start, even if it was a working vacation.

He was getting nervous. What am I doing here, he wondered? Would the gamble pay off? Was a week enough time? Had he brought everything he needed? Waves of anxiety swept over him. He fought back. He’d spent two weeks writing a packing list, and he brought every item on it. He was here to get away from distractions and work. And as far as the gamble: it had to pay off. It had to.

The path sloped up and down, skirting large trees and rocky outcroppings, and winding its way ever closer to its own termination. Richard had a vague idea what to expect when he reached the end of the line, but tried not to have any concrete expectations. This was a new and difficult exercise. This was the same man who, at eighteen, wrote a timeline for the rest of his life. Richard was a goal oriented man, preferring to leave nothing for the fates to decide. He never considered himself a control freak, especially after marrying one, but he did like the feeling of being the master of his own fate. This trip was designed to challenge that part of his nature. He didn’t know what he was getting himself into, and it both frightened and exhilarated him.

God, would he ever reach the cabin? The path seemed to go on forever. As usual he forgot to check the odometer at the path’s head and so had no idea how far he’d come, but it felt like miles. Had he misread the sign and taken the wrong road? He began to look for a place to turn around, but just like the previous road, there was absolutely no room. The prospect of driving the path in reverse convinced him to forge ahead.

He was soon rewarded with the sight of a clearing up the trail. Something leapt within Richard’s stomach. Had he made it? Brady picked up on his excitement and pawed at the seat. The Jeep emerged from the shadow and cover of the woods into a small, sunlit clearing. Richard felt the warmth of the sun on his fingers as they gripped the steering wheel. He brought the Jeep to a halt, put it in park, and shut off the engine.

“Well, boy. We’re here.”

To the right of the Jeep, nestled in the trees and set against a backdrop of the valley below, stood Porter’s Retreat.

The beginnings of a book?

For the last three months of I’ve been working on a new screenplay. It’s totally outside of my usual genre, so I’m understandably having some difficulty putting it together. It may also be that I began this new screenplay on the heels of finishing another, and so may have rushed into it a bit. Going back to square one, I began writing a character sketch for the protagonist. I wrote it in prose, setting it inside the story. I soon had near two-thousand words, and what looked for the world like the beginnings of a good short story, or perhaps more.

What follows is that character sketch. It hasn’t been edited since its first writing. It is stream of consciousness what my brain told me about the protagonist, Richard. I’ve decided to roll with it, to keep writing and see where it leads. If it leads anywhere, I’ll post portions here. Feel free to add your comments, I love reading them.

Isolation: Chapter One.

The cloud looked like a manatee. If confronted, Richard would have to admit he’d never been particularly fond of manatees. It’s not that he disliked them, he simply never thought about them. The subject of manatees just never came up. The eco-hippies in his corner of Oregon were more concerned with organic non-GMO soy chai lattes than with saving the whales. Or manatees. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d even seen a picture of one. So it surprised him when, upon opening his eyes, his first thought was the cloud looked like a manatee.

If he had been able to hold onto that thought, he almost certainly would have realized he was wrong. The cloud bore only a passing resemblance to a manatee, and that was being generous. No, what the cloud really looked like was a swan. How a person could mistake a swan for a manatee is probably much the same way manatees had been mistaken for mermaids. At least that’s the story. Sailors too long at sea would spot a manatee in the water several hundred feet away and believe themselves to have seen a mermaid. A wrinkled, water-logged sausage of a mermaid with a face even a mother couldn’t love. In reality what the sailor saw was a strange, new creature.  What the sailor hadn’t seen, and for many months, was a woman– the very thing he wanted to see most. He saw in the manatee what he wanted to because his mind was distracted by cabin fever. On this last point, Richard could relate. But the more immediate distraction, the one that caused him to both see a manatee in a cloud where it was definitely a swan, and then immediately forgot about the damned cloud, was the fact that he had been shot.

Twice, actually. To his great relief the bullets had more or less grazed him. Once in the leg, another in the arm. They still hurt like hell; there was no getting around that. But he was fairly confident they weren’t, at least immediately, life threatening. There was also a general pain all through his body, a dull ache like he’d been sat on by an elephant. He took a deep breath only to regret it. Since when did air hurt so much? He lifted his right arm, the one that hadn’t been shot, and ran his hand over his chest. At least one broken rib. Great, he thought. Let me just add that to my growing list of injuries. Twisted ankle: check. Broken rib: check. Throbbing Headache: check. Gunshot wounds: double check.

He wondered how long he had lay there amid the dirt and fallen leaves. The sun was up. He looked at his watch, or rather where his watch used to be. Just a faint tan line on his wrist. Damn. It wasn’t an expensive watch, just your average $30 department store number with an alarm feature. He picked it up the same morning he left for the cabin. He knew there wouldn’t be any clocks where he was going. No clocks and no electricity. He’d even left his phone at home. His friend Kevin had asked him why the alarm was necessary. He was going to a cabin in the woods by himself for a whole week. Why on earth would he want to wake up to an alarm every morning? But that was Kevin. He slept in every day till at least noon.

They had been friends for the better part of three years and Richard still wasn’t sure exactly what Kevin did for a job. Something to do with the internet was all he knew. Kevin had tried to explain it once, but after two minutes it was clear Richard wasn’t following a word of it. He had no interest in the internet. He wasn’t a luddite or anything, he was simply set it in ways. That’s what he told himself. It was a source of pride for him that he did all of his research at the library. The library! That venerable old institution, as he thought of it, was his home away from home. That’s what he told others. He half-heartedly believed it, too. There may have been a time when he spent several days a week, his nose buried in books, sitting by himself in one of the library’s study rooms. But those days, if they ever existed, were in the past. And so was his writing career. That’s what his publisher told him.

He tried to sit up. If he’d ever wondered what rigamortis felt like, he didn’t anymore. He’d no idea the human body could feel so stiff while alive. This is probably because he never put in a hard day’s labor. His muscles were those of a mostly sedentary man. This isn’t to say he was overweight. To the contrary, he had a slim frame. One of those blessed with a high metabolism, he was never much concerned with what he ate. He vaguely knew that exercise was good for him and so he took walks. These walks were made more enjoyable because of Brady.

Richard rescued Brady just one year earlier from an animal shelter. It wasn’t concern for animals that prompted the adoption. Much like manatees, he hadn’t ever really given dogs much thought. His family hadn’t kept pets growing up, and with several brothers and a sister to keep each other busy, the children never thought themselves deprived. After college he’d married quickly, and his new wife was allergic. Not that that was what prevented them from getting a pet. She detested small animals. They were all rats of various size in her mind. After they moved in together, theirs was a very tidy house. A place for everything and everything in its place kind of house. The kind of house you felt uncomfortable sitting in for fear of leaving a crease in the seat cushion. It was his wife’s doing. He was a neat person by nature, but her neatness made his look slovenly. Not that he minded. For all appearances he was happily married, and for a while that was enough for him.

It was boredom that brought Richard to the Eugene Animal Rescue and Sanctuary. After his wife died and he picked up walking, he quickly realized he would need additional motivation to continue his exercise. How people did this day after day, walking and jogging the same streets of their neighborhoods, Richard couldn’t fathom. Just two weeks of it and he was ready to give up, or move. He needed either a change of scenery or something other than his own thoughts to keep his mind occupied. He bought an MP3 player and filled it with music. This worked for a few days, but he soon grew tired of his small music collection. It was during his third listen to Roger Whittaker’s A Special Kind of Man that Richard decided it wasn’t working. Next he tried books on tape. This lasted even shorter than the music, probably because the only audio book he had was Trump Strategies for Real Estate (Unabridged), given to him by his father-in-law (with whom, up until receiving the gift, he thought he had kept a good relationship after his wife’s death). His friends, the few he kept, saw what he did next as out of character.

Richard was not a spontaneous man. For sixteen years he’d ordered the same drink, a twelve-ounce iced Americano with heavy cream, every morning on his way to the office. Even after the settlement allowed him to quit his job, he continued to visit the coffee shop every morning. It was habit more than anything: and the need to keep up appearances. In all actuality, Richard’s decision to get a dog was anything but spontaneous. After the MP3 player had failed, he went in search of something else to keep him walking. He could just as easily have purchased a treadmill or stationary bike, set it down in front of the television, and been done with it. Looking back, if he bothered to do so, this would have saved him a lot of grief. And blood. But no, Richard was bound and determined to find a way to make walking a part of his new routine.

Once the idea of a dog came to him, Richard did spend some time in the library, although not as much time as he bragged. He pulled every book he could find about dog breeds off the shelves.  One day, all of the study rooms were taken. After a brief whispering match with the librarian on duty, he resigned himself to the general hall. He set up near the reference stacks and built on the table top, using the twenty-some volumes of the World Book Encyclopedia and the thirty-two volumes of Britannica, a barrier between himself and the rest of the library patrons. Despite a few strange looks during construction, Richard was pleased with his book-fort and got down to the business of breed research. This was not a decision to take lightly. What breed of dog would fit best his personality and lifestyle?

Richard sighed heavily, despite the pain in his chest. Sooner or later he would have to get up and make his way back to the cabin. His mind was still foggy; he couldn’t quite remember how far the walk would be. He almost chuckled at the thought. Walk. It may be he’d have to crawl. And that’s if he could find a way either up or around the steep bluff and back to familiar ground. He cursed himself again and wished he’d scouted this area better. But then again, how could he have known he’d end up like this? This was supposed to be his vacation.

Brady would be able to find the cabin. He was a purebred bloodhound. Loyalty was the trait he decided he wanted most in a dog. Devotion to its master. There were other breeds that were purported to be easier to obedience train, but Richard wasn’t interested in too much training. He wanted a dog that needed and appreciated exercise, and would relax while at home. He knew of their predilection to wander off after an interesting scent, but he figured a good leash would settle the matter. Brady’s leash. Richard saw it in his mind’s eye, hanging by the back door of his home. Brady had been so good, never once dashing off on his own. He stayed near his master on their walks. Richard decided last minute that Brady’s vacation would be from his leash. Over time, he grew to see Brady as something more than an exercise tool. Despite himself, Richard grew attached to the animal. All clichés aside, Richard found himself his first best friend. It was, in many ways, the truest and best relationship Richard ever had.

“Brady.”

The sound of his own voice cleared the fog in his head. He remembered something he shouldn’t have forgotten. Something so important he couldn’t understand how he had forgotten. His already stiff body tensed at the realization. His mind screamed at him to move, run, do something, but his muscles wouldn’t respond. Richard summoned the will and slowly moved his neck. He turned his head, painfully slow, and looked to his right. The ground was empty. Using more nerve and energy than he thought he had left, he searched the forest floor around himself. He was definitely alone. A shudder tore through Richard’s body. Not only had he survived the fall, but so had the stranger. And now the stranger was missing.

Thanks for reading, and leave a comment below!