Failed NaNo Friday: Headlong Part 1
I mentioned my 2006 NaNoWriMo entry last week, and here’s the first part. There’s a content advisory on this one, so be advised.
Warning: Contains explicit language, violence, and an unsympathetic POV character.
“Another one, Ziggy. And maybe get some booze in it this time?”
The thick bald man behind the bar rolled his eyes, but he got to work without dawdling. Soon enough he came over with the finished drink. “If you just wanted rum, Gunner, you shouldn’t have ordered a mojito.”
Just mix the drinks, bar monkey. Gunner didn’t let his annoyance show, flashing his best smile–best any guy was going to get, anyway–as he slipped what would have been Ziggy’s tip out of the little pile of bills on the bar. He took his drink and started making his way back through the bar crowd. Even after four months in this town, he didn’t understand why Thursday was a big bar night for the students, but he was more than willing to take advantage of the target rich environment.
His latest conquest to be was back from the bathroom, waiting at the table with his pitcher. She flashed what she probably thought was a coy smile when she saw him. Oh yeah, he grinned back, you’re mine. He slid onto his stool, setting the sugary minty monstrosity he’d ordered on the table between them. “Shelley, you’ve got to try one of these. They’re supposed to be really hot right now.”
She grinned, a little unsteady, and reached for the mojito. “Okay, but you’re going to have to give me a lift home.” She chuckled, drunkenly pleased with her innuendo.
“We’ll work something ou–What the fuck!” Gunner shot to his feet as cold liquid drenched his back. He whirled, one hand making a fist, the other slipping into his pocket. Two frat boys had taken over the table behind him. One had a dripping upended pitcher and an angry smile. The other was trying to stifle laughter. They both stood up.
“Sorry, br-bro,” Chuckles choked out. “Didn’t, ah, didn’t see you there.”
Gunner’s left hand closed around the yellowed ivory case of the straight razor in his pocket and he felt himself calm down. A little. His eyes narrowed, but he forced a cold smile. “So, did you guys lose a bet? Or did you just decide it’d be fun to get your asses kicked tonight?”
Pitcher stepped forward, poking the empty container at Gunner’s nose. “We’re friends of Candi’s, asshole.”
“Good for you. That means what to me, now?”
Pitcher swung then, and Gunner knocked over his stool getting out of the way. The legs caught his leg, almost tripping him. Even so, he’d have a bruise or two in the morning. Oh you’re making yourself a real nuisance, college boy. For his part, Pitcher overbalanced and wound up sprawled over the table, spilling Gunner’s beer and Shelley’s mojito all over. Shelley shrieked and jumped back, falling over into the backs of the people at the next table. As they turned and yelled, Gunner crouched down next to Pitcher. “Listen, buddy, you don’t want to do this here, you’ll get us all kicked out. Let me get you a beer and we’ll talk.”
Knocking his breath out on the table seemed to have taken some of the fight out of Pitcher, and he nodded. Satisfied, Gunner stood back up and checked on what was to have been his night’s entertainment. She was drunkenly trying to apologize to the people she’d crashed into. Gunner raised his voice so they’d hear him over the bar roar. “Sorry, folks, she’s a real sloppy drunk. Honey, you’d better call the drunk van and get out of here before you hurt yourself.”
His sneer got through, undoing everything he’d been working on all night. Hurt flashed in those vacant eyes, followed swiftly by anger. She drew herself up with as much dignity as a drunk nineteen year old can manage, flipped him off, and stalked off into the crowd, only stumbling twice. Gunner grinned. Plenty more where you came from, chicky.
An hour later, Gunner had Pitcher and Chuckles–they said their names were Brandon and Joe, but they would always be Pitcher and Chuckles to Gunner–eating out of his hand. They’d polished off two pitchers of Gunner’s beer between them and were feeling charitable.
“No hard feelings, bro, right?” Pitcher wasn’t slurring. Apparently he was one of the loud, expansive drunks. “I mean, for the beer, the beer on your shirt.”
Gunner smiled, showing all his perfect teeth. “No… bro, you’re fine, really. I know how it is. A girl comes in, all broken up ’cause some jerk hasn’t called, you get involved, I get it.”
Chuckles leaned over and clinked glasses with Pitcher. “Bros before hos, man, bros before hos.”
They’re going to go on like this until last call. Gunner got up. “Listen, guys, I’ve got to go. I’ve got work tomorrow and it’s late.” They stammered their fond farewells but Gunner wasn’t listening. He threaded his way through the bar crowd for the last time and slipped out the back door. The other side of this block had been hollowed out for parking, and he had no trouble finding what he was after. Just like Pitcher had said, a huge black monster of a rich kid’s blinged out SUV. Student parking permit in the window, right next to the decal with the Greek letters. The carving on the razor’s handle was familiar enough that Gunner could picture it with just his fingertips in his pocket: a naked woman with a bad case of mermaid hair standing on the shore of a storm tossed sea. Supposedly his grandfather, a man he’d never met, had killed a man with it in the second world war. Gunner had always appreciated the clean simplicity of the thing. Even with the ivory handle and the carving, it was basically just a straight blade, honed to perfection. Gunner had used it for many years, but never to shave.
Brandon pushed open the back door of the Ox and held it for Joe, who got his drunk ass through the door on the first try, mostly by luck. I hate having to sober up by last call. “Come on, bro, we’re going home.”
Joe held up his hand in the universal “Hang on a second, I’m going to puke over here in the alley” signal. Brandon rolled his eyes and started for his car. Behind him he heard Joe take a few deep breaths, then call out “False alarm, bro.”
“It better be.” Brandon fished his keys out and pushed the button that unlocked the doors and started the engine. As his eyes adjusted to the glare he mused aloud. “You know, I don’t know what happened with him and Candi, but that Gunner actually wasn’t a bad guy.”
Dimly, “Yeah, he was a real urk–”
“Oh, man, you didn’t get any on you, did you? ‘Cause you are not riding with me if you’re dripping puke.” Brandon started to turn, but suddenly there was a hand over his mouth and something warm running down his shirt. The hand released, and Brandon tried to ask what was going on, but his mouth was full of something salty and he couldn’t talk.
As Brandon fell to his knees, a cheerful voice said “Sorry, bro, didn’t see you there.”
Gunner moved on after that night. He always did whenever a town got exciting. It wasn’t fear of being caught, he just knew from experience that things only went downhill after he relieved a village of its idiot. Pitcher’s penismobile was tempting, but too easy to trace. He kept his leased Lexus, or rather M. Shedisky of Boca Raton’s leased Lexus, and moved on down the Interstate. When he got low on cash or good credit cards, or just got horny, he stopped at the next town for a while. He’d stay a while, running short cons, picking pockets, maybe even doing honest work if it seemed easy enough. A few years ago he’d spent three months selling luxury cars in Kansas City. When he finally left he’d been driving his first Lexus and wondering if he could get the blood off of his boss’s Rolex.
Not that he left a trail of bodies everywhere he went. Gunner wasn’t one of those sick serial killer bastards, no sir, killing nurses or hookers or schoolteachers because they couldn’t bust a nut any other way. Hell with that. But if somebody pissed Gunner off he’d go a little out of his way to help them kick their oxygen habit. And Granddad’s razor was just so perfect for the job. Leaving a body wasn’t nearly as fun as leaving a dozen or so knocked up college girls, either.
The towns after Pitcher and Chuckles went by pretty quick, none held his interest very long. More by chance than anything he found himself working his way up the Interstate towards Chicago. That’s how he wound up in Larson. That’s how he met Cora.
Cora knuckled her back, groaning. The lunch rush was finally over, just a few tables left to watch, people with no pressing business chatting over their coffee. She liked to think she was in good shape, but her second day waiting table’s in Bob’s Classic Diner was making her wonder whether “thin” and “in shape” weren’t farther apart than she’d realized. All the more reason to get EMT certified so I can quit taking these crappy part time jobs… and start lugging stretchers around. Wait a second! Suddenly Cora stopped knuckling her aching back and slapped her forehead. She backed into a corner behind the lunch counter. When she was sure nobody was looking, she spread her right hand over the sore part of her back and concentrated. Without looking, she knew a white glow had enveloped her hand, light too bright to look at that somehow cast no shadows. The pain in her back melted away in a rush of warmth. Not as noble as healing a concussion or stopping a heart attack, but it’s not like I’m going to run out.
She knew nobody had seen, but she still jumped when the bell over the door rang. When she looked, the man letting the door swing shut behind him was backlit by the early afternoon sun shining off a windshield. From just the silhouette he didn’t look like much: tall, a little gawky, in some kind of bulky jacket and with hair sticking out randomly to the sides of his head. Then he moved, and she moved, and suddenly she could see colors and textures. The dark hair resolved into an elaborate coif that might have been a painstaking duplication of the kind of bed head angels got. The jacket likewise was a very expensive thing slumming in the role of something you’d pick up at the Goodwill. She was sure that it had come off the rack looking just that rumpled, complete with the hand mended rips. She was also sure its outer shell had a higher thread count than her sheets. He wore it open over a similarly rumpled and faded striped oxford (open to the third button and displaying an inch or so of a silver necklace) and expensively decrepit jeans and Converse sneakers. She smiled, the outward expression of the inward guffaw that was building in the back of her mind, when he glanced her way.
Gray. His eyes were gray. But “gray” just didn’t describe them, somehow. Towering prairie thunderstorms were gray. Dolphins jumping in shimmering ocean sunlight were gray. These were… Suddenly she realized that her sarcastic smile had turned to an ear spanning grin, and that the stranger was grinning back in a way that said “Yeah, I know.” Cora’s face burned, and she whirled around. Waiting for her composure to return, she walked over to the supply cupboard and replaced the perfectly good ticket book in her apron with a new one. She still felt flushed, so she got a new pen, too.
Cora realized all at once how silly she was being. She wasn’t some stupid teenager to be swept off her feet by a cute guy every other day. She was almost twenty five, and she had a job to do. Besides, he clearly wasn’t local. Just another traveler who’d disappear up the interstate after he finished his late lunch. Squaring her shoulders, she turned around to go get his order. He was studying the menu and rolling one earlobe between thumb and forefinger. Something about the sight of him reminded her of someone, but she couldn’t say what or whom. She was still wondering when she reached him, and he looked up, pinning her with those amazing eyes again. He grinned and reached for her hand. Folding strong, warm fingers around her suddenly clammy palm, he said “Hi, I’m Gunner.”
I hope he’s not getting back on the highway today.
For his part, Gunner was starting to hope he wasn’t getting back on the highway that day either. This waitress–Cora, her name tag said–was worth another look. Tall but not too tall, thin but not bony, with big brown eyes and rich brown hair, and a brilliant smile. More importantly, her hand trembled in his like a baby bird. He was already halfway there, and she knew it. From here on it would just be a matter of keeping up the pressure without spooking her. He would have to be smooth, but then, he always was.
He ordered the patty melt because she seemed to want him to, and filled up the wait with a stream of effortless patter. By the time his patty melt (which was excellent, just like she’d promised) arrived he had found out everything worth knowing about Cora Lessing. Born and raised in Larson, popular but not outstanding in high school, a couple years away at UIUC, then drifted back home, confused about her goals. Currently sharing a rental house downtown with three friends and taking night classes towards an EMT certification, “So I can heal the people who need it most.” Cora, on the other hand, came away with the impression that Gunner was an entrepreneur, or maybe a day trader, or maybe a retired dot commer, or maybe a venture capitalist scouting for the next big thing. The only thing she was sure of by the time she cleared away his plate was that the ten year old Lincoln Towncar he’d pulled up in was not his car, or maybe it was, but only because he hadn’t gotten somewhere where he could purchase a vehicle that was up to his normal standards. She didn’t know she’d been meant to overhear him sigh “I miss the Lexus.”
Well, that was almost the only thing she was sure of. She was also sure she was going to let him take her dancing after she got off work.
Ward rolled over and stopped the music. Somebody was knocking, pounding really, on his door. “Come in,” he tried, but the pounding continued. Sighing, he took a deep breath and yelled. Finally the pounding stopped and the door swung open. A tall young black man tossed something in a plastic bag at Ward, which landed on his stomach with a thump and a rush of outgoing breath. “Howdy, banjo picker!” Ward sat up on the couch and made room for his guest.
“‘Sup, Token Black Man?” Ward unwrapped the package and found a spindle of blank CD’s. “Does this mean I made another fan?”
“Only potentially,” the other man closed the door and plopped down on the couch next to Ward. “One of your existing fans ordered half a dozen copies. My guess is he’s Christmas shopping.”
“Oh? Was it Hank in Georgia? He mentioned he had a couple of nieces who might like my stuff.”
“Um… I can’t place the name for you, but the guy’s in South Dakota.”
“Oh, that’ll be Jim then. I don’t think he’s married; maybe he’s giving them out at work or something. I’ll send them out tomorrow before work.” Ward balled up the bag and tossed it in–well, near–the trash and set the spindle on his coffee table.
“And collect your filthy lucre, too. Speaking of which, it’s time to pay me.”
Ward snapped his fingers. “Crap, has it been a week already?”
“Okay,” Ward got up, “just let me get…” Stepping away from the couch, he turned to face his guest. He sank to one knee and stretched one hand out, clutching the other over his heart. “Lucas?”
“I just want to say that you are a wonderful and generous and brilliant human being, and my eventual fame and riches will be entirely due to the most excellent website you created and even now run for me. And in return for this, when I achieve the aforementioned riches and fame, you can stay in the guest house as long as you want and decorate it however you want.” Ward stood up. “Did I get it right?”
Lucas shrugged, grinning. “Not quite, but improvisation is the soul of art, right?”
“Close enough. I’m getting a Coke, you want anything?”
“Nah, I’m good.”
Ward’s apartment was a tiny basement studio, so walking to the “kitchen” was a matter of taking three steps away from the “living room” (which also doubled as the “bedroom” at night) and opening the fridge, which was right next to the door to the bathroom. There were only a few Coke cans left, hidden behind the leftover containers filled with various attempts at turning ramen into food. While he snagged one, he called over his shoulder to Lucas, “Aren’t you usually watching cartoons on Saturday night?”
“Ken and Stacy are at a show in Urbana tonight, and Cora’s boyfriend is cool, but she was giving me the ‘leave us alone for the evening’ vibe like you wouldn’t believe.”
Ward closed the fridge and took the two steps into the “computer room” to grab his chair. He wheeled it over by the sofa and sat down, propping his feet on the arm of the couch. “Cora’s got a boyfriend? Since when?”
“Since, like, Tuesday. I can’t believe you don’t keep up with the gossip around here.”
“I’m sorry, I haven’t been to the beauty parlor this week. Tell me everything. Is it scandalous?” He grinned and took a gulp of Coke. He barely knew Cora, but “scandalous” just didn’t seem applicable, somehow.
Lucas laughed, then seemed to stop and think. “Actually, you might say it is. He’s not from around here, and he’s been staying with us all week.”
Ward raised an eyebrow. “Really? Couch surfing?”
“Ah, not since Wednesday, no.”
Ward put his feet on the floor and set down his Coke. “Tell me more about this mystery guy.”
Now it was Lucas’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “You don’t approve, Headmaster?”
“Let’s just say I’ve got a suspicious nature. Now spill.”
Lucas spread his hands. “Okay, but it’s nothing to get worked up over. He’s a good guy, really. You’d like him. And it can’t be some kind of con, the guy’s loaded. Anyway, yeah. He’s like an entrepreneur or investor or something. Keeps him on the road a lot. He was just passing through when he met Cora and they hit it off. So he’s put off whatever he was heading toward to stay here for a week or two. They’re really sweet together, if you can stand the saccharine factor. And it’s not like anybody else has been knocking on her door lately.” He finished pointedly, literally pointing a finger at Ward.
“What? How did this get to be about me?”
Lucas shrugged. “You’re the one who runs away any time a pretty girl wants to talk about your music, or anything else. Apparently quick fingers make up for your looks for a certain kind of girl. If you weren’t so skittish you wouldn’t be single. And if you weren’t single, maybe you wouldn’t be worried about what Cora’s up to with Tall Dark and Handsome.”
Ward gritted his teeth. “Damnit, Lucas, I’m not… I don’t know how long I’m going to be here, so it’s not a good idea to go looking for–”
“Bullshit (no offense). You’ve been saying that for three years, man.” He waved a hand, dismissing the old argument before it could go further, then leaned forward conspiratorially. “Look, man, it’s okay, but… If you’re gay you should tell me. I can work it into the website, probably open up whole new markets for you!”
Ward rolled his eyes and slipped a pick out of the watch pocket of his jeans one handed. From the hip, he flicked it at Lucas, who took it right on the end of the nose. “Maybe when I get the classical guitar album done. Gay bluegrass banjo doesn’t sound like a winner to me.”
Lucas sat back, rubbing his nose ostentatiously. “How you can do that kind of freaky shit with a pick when you can’t even hit your garbage can…” His hand dropped as a thought struck. “I have to see you play quarters against Gunner. He’s freaky fast, too.”
Ward’s hand, reaching for the Coke on the floor, jerked and knocked the can over, but he caught it in time. “Gunner? His name is Gunner?”
Lucas nodded uncertainly. “Yeah, why?”
“What’s his last name?”
“It’s… You know it’s never come up. Why do you ask?”
“Because it’s Carson.” Unconsciously, Ward had begun rolling his earlobe between his thumb and forefinger. “He’s my brother.”
Outside, Gunner sat beside the basement window and sipped his beer, grinning.