Rental Child

fall-651020_960_720“Finish up Johnny.  The men are here.  They don’t like to wait.”

“What men?” asked five-year-old Johnny.

“The men from the child rental place.  They’ve come to take you back.”

“They’re going to take me away?” Johnny asked, his eyes growing wide.

“Of course!  Goodness, you didn’t think we were going to keep you, did you?  Silly boy.”  Joan grinned at him.  “Now hurry up.  They’re very busy men and they don’t like to be kept waiting.”

Continue reading “Rental Child”

Guatemala – 1999 part 2

tacos.

Wednesday

I take over the wheel for my second shift at daybreak in Amarillo, Texas.  We won’t allow the photographer to drive.  He looks worse in the daylight, his reddish hair stuck to one side of his head, stale beer sweating freely from his overworked body.  I can’t see his eyes behind his glasses and that troubles me.  He is pale and soft, like a fish.

I caught a few hours last night while Josh drove, but we never stopped.  I’m tired enough that I have to blink hard to focus on the road.  Josh sighs a lot and his words come slowly.  He keeps asking me if I think he should sleep.

Why are we doing this?  That is the question Josh and I bounce back and forth while Umberto alternates between snoring, opening another warm beer or adding his own disjointed comments.  We ignore him.  I try once to bring him into the conversation but it is futile.  I can’t tell if it’s the alcohol or just his ordinary state.

The answer to the question should be easy.  We’re going to sell this ridiculous car.  Taking risks we shouldn’t for what will no doubt turn out to be a foolish amount of money.  Better by far to race across Texas holding up a string of convenience stores, blasting Jimmy Buffet for courage and eating stolen Slim Jims.

Million of cars a year are stolen in the U.S.  Many of them end up on the long pipeline south, down to Central America and yes, Guatemala, where we’re going.  Import taxes of 80% or worse on legal cars makes this a lucrative trade.  The bribes are easy and the chances of prosecution nil.  Against all this our one dubious little Volkswagen of mid-80’s vintage surely can’t count for much.

But it’s not that.  It never was that.  The car thing was only a story for wives and girlfriends, a way to alleviate black looks.

It’s for the story.  That’s why we have the photographer.  It’s why our editors fronted us perfectly good cash and loaned us his services.

It’s not that either.  As much as we try and reassure ourselves, we know we’re writers, not journalists.  A couple of perfectly useless Creative Writing degrees between us.

It’s a quest, that’s what we finally agree on.  A search for the primal, a deeper, darker side of ourselves that can only be found south of the border, where potholes swallow cars whole, the beer flows freely, and a man knows not to look at the soldados at the checkpoints.  A place where an industrious man once stole an entire country and held it for several years.

On the surface our credentials are impeccable.  It has been ten years since I was south of the border, but I once spent quite a bit of time down there.  Lived in the primitive areas, made friends with the locals, got sicker than I’ve ever beeen.

Ten years true, but in the intervening time I’ve seen a great many other places.  Spent several years out of the country.  Met my Swiss wife Down Under.  Toured the South Pacific.  Lived in Europe.

Josh lived in Panajachel, our quasi-destination, for a year.  When he was 19 he left school and hitched to Tierra del Fuego, via the hardest and most foolish route he could find.  He’s lived in Ecuador, sold oranges in Panama, stumbled through the salt flats of Argentina.  This would be a trip to the supermarket for him.

We clasp hands and agree on the severity of our quest.  Blood brothers to the end.  The photographer garbles something from the back seat and a limp hand pokes into the front.  We give him a cigarette.

I remember back, last night/this morning, late/early when I tried to help clean up the back at a gas stop.  I’d been sleeping in the back, the photographer’s haven.  I stuck my hand in a plastic bag on the floor in the back – just awakened, gritty and weird – and got it back with a fine layer of tobacco spit juice.

That’s when I feared.

Sputtering gas station lights revealed taco clutter all over the floor.  Broken shells.  Cheese.  Spilt salsa.  Partial, piss-warm beers.  The photographer’s sleeping bag smelt so bad I couldn’t touch it.

That’s when I knew.

Our photographer would have to go.

We break it to him outside Corpus Christi, in the parking lot of Ben’s Big Pig Hog-A-While.  (“The thickest, slickest ribs in Texas.”)  He’d stayed, passed-out, in the car while we ate and plotted against him.  Worked up our nerve for what would have to be done.

He takes it well.  Laughs even, and pats us on our backs.  But there is something in his eyes which says this has been done to him before, and often during the night.

On the road again and Mexico lies just over the horizon.  Freedom.  Texas is too damn big and probably best viewed from outer space or somewhere further away.  Perhaps we are expecting the flashing lights when they pull us over.

The cop is friendly, courteous, but persistent.  His job is interdiction.  Drugs and weapons and the border.  His excuse for taking us down is a bad turn signal.  His real reason a profile that we fit.

He searches our car three times while the drug dog paces in the back of his car and we stand in the Texas sunset.  He is sure he has us and he does, but he is looking for the wrong thing.  He barely glances at licenses, doesn’t care about registration.  He wants drugs and the fact that we are going the wrong way, that we would have to be the world’s biggest morons to be smuggling drugs into Mexico, doesn’t carry much weight with him.  What is a minor thing like geography compared to the science of profiling?  But this is Texas and we aren’t too tired to know that the rules are different here.

Suddenly, irrationally, we are free.  Shaken but determined.

Wreckers Gate – 2

wreckers gate-create space

“You’ll pay for this,” he moaned from where he lay on the ground. “I’ll see you dragged back to Qarath in chains.”

Rome walked past the fallen man without giving him another look, but when he heard the gasp of pain he knew that Quyloc hadn’t been so kind. A sharp kick, probably. Ilus had once dressed down Quyloc in front of all the men and then had him lashed, all because Quyloc did not stand when he went by. Quyloc didn’t easily forget a slight.

Rome held the axe loosely in one hand as he made his way through the camp. The men were gathering as news of his presence spread. They crowded around his path, many fresh off the battle field, armored and carrying weapons. Some were wounded, with bloodstained bandages wrapped around heads and limbs, hobbling out of the medical tents to see what the noise was about. There were scattered cheers as he made his way through them, Quyloc and Tairus close behind, and a number fell in behind him.

When it became clear that he was headed for the walls of Thrikyl the cheers began to die off and bewilderment and concern began to show. Did he mean them to mount a new attack on the impregnable city? Especially now, when they were already bloodied from the day and the sun was slipping close to the horizon? Many of them drew back, whispering among themselves. The Black Wolf wore no armor, his clothes were rags and he carried a strange-looking axe. Had he gone mad?

At the edge of bowshot Rome turned to Quyloc. “Wait here.”

“What are you doing?” Quyloc hissed, trying to keep his voice low enough that the soldiers couldn’t hear. “Are you crazy?”

“Probably,” Rome admitted. “If I am, there’s no sense in you or anyone else getting killed too.”

“I have to agree with Quyloc,” Tairus put in. “I don’t see how getting yourself killed is going to do anyone any good.” He looked back at the massed soldiers, every eye watching intently. “They respect you. Hell, they love you. Talk to them. Maybe they will follow you.”

“And if they do, what then?” Rome asked. “We march on Qarath and besiege it, kill our own people in a bloody civil war?” He shook his head. “No. I have to do this. If it doesn’t work, Rix will get what he wants and no one else dies. If it doesn’t…” What made him think this would work? What did the days in the Gur al Krin do to his brain? he wondered.

Except that the axe seemed to be humming slightly in his hands and he had a feeling he knew what it was capable of.

Alone he started across the empty battlefield, looking at the high stone walls before him. They were massive, a good hundred spans tall. It was said that the walls of Thrikyl had been built by the gods and while that might not have been true, what was true was there were no visible seams in the stone. It might have been raised whole from the very bedrock. Those walls had never fallen.

Rome thought he heard a voice urging him on, perhaps one of the men waiting behind him. Perhaps only his own imagination. He shifted the axe to hold it in both hands. Too light for a proper weapon, but beautifully balanced.

He was halfway to the walls when he heard the hurrying footsteps behind him and knew it was Quyloc. Always Quyloc backed him up, ever since they were boys. Now Rome felt his smile break out. This was the way it should be. With Quyloc behind him there was nothing he couldn’t do. His brawn and Quyloc’s brains. “Just like when we took down Dirty Henry,” he said, but didn’t think Quyloc heard. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that all this ended right here. Now.

Wreckers Gate, book 1 of The Devastation Wars

Not Hiding Anymore

I have a confession to make: I’ve always been somewhat ashamed of being a writer. Maybe ashamed isn’t the right word. Maybe I should say embarrassed. Whatever the word is, I’ve always kind of hidden my writing from others. It goes like this.

Standing around with the other men at a gathering of some sort, maybe a kid’s birthday party (when you have little kids there’s a lot of those). Not really knowing each other, sooner or later one of us says, “So, what do you do?” Ugh. I hate this question. I generally focus on the more acceptable jobs I’ve done over the years, like teacher, small business owner, social worker. If I mention writing at all it’s a quick mumble, always hoping they’ll gloss over it.

Bad is when someone says, “Oh, what do you write?” I was trying to avoid this. Bad enough that I spend so much time tapping computer keys for no money, but a great deal of that time has been spent writing fantasy. Fantasy. Saying that aloud to a group of strange men is the kiss of death. You write about dragons and unicorns? (For the record, I have never written about either. I have some pride. Just kidding. Not putting down those who write about either. I love both of them and can talk at length about The Last Unicorn.)

Even amongst my old friends, those who have known me since college, when I was actually getting my Creative Writing degree and was proud of it, I’ve kept it all down low. I don’t talk to them about my latest book, especially not when they’re talking about the stress and hassle of their Serious Important Jobs. It’s just me and my dirty little secret.

Why so much secrecy, you ask? Well, I think I’ve always felt the pressure to have a “real” job that is proper and productive. (For the record, I’ve had lots of “real” jobs. After all, I’m married with two kids. Food doesn’t produce itself. It’s just that I’ve always avoided them as much as possible and gotten tired of doing them right away.) Writing’s okay as a hobby, but a real man should have a real job. (Writing can be a real job too, if it’s technical writing or journalism, both of which I hate with a passion and both of which would crush the joy I take in writing.)

Anyway, I’m done with all that. I’m not hiding my passion anymore. I love writing. I am passionate about it. There’s nothing like the feeling when I’m in the midst of the scene and I can watch it unfolding before my eyes, when the characters are racing around doing crazy, cool, interesting things and I’m just running along after them trying to get it down before it’s gone. When it’s on, when it’s happening, I’m not calling the shots. The characters are. They come alive and they grab me by the throat and they demand to be heard.

It’s awesome. There’s nothing else like it.

I’m a writer. I’ve been writing novels for 25 years now, since the 80’s. By my estimation I passed Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour mark somewhere in the 2000’s. By now I must have 15k hours. That’s 15,000 hours of my life doing something that has almost never paid me a dime, turning out works that at most a few dozen people read. I’ve been writing in the early morning darkness when others were asleep. I’ve been writing when others were watching TV or killing time on the Internet. Day after day. Week after week. Month after month.

I’m proud of that. I’m proud of my dedication. Proud of my hard work. I’ve written a dozen novels over the years and the last five have been really good. They’re quality, well-crafted stories with strong characters and unexpected surprises. I can hold them up with pride.

I’m a writer. And I’m proud of it. If you’re a writer, I hope you’re proud of it as well.

Ain’t A Soul Around (Or Too Many)

“This is a hell of a way to make a living,” Tom muttered to himself as he hauled back the steel grate he’d made and set it aside.  The irony of his words escaped him as he lowered himself once again into hell.  But then, irony wasn’t one of Tom’s strong points.

The heat and familiar stench – he guessed it was brimstone – hit him as he paused on the top step of the aluminum ladder to put the surgical mask on and adjust his sunglasses.  Hell could be damn bright and the smell wasn’t to be believed.

Tom wasn’t a thinking man, but if he had been, he might have thought back then, to the day not so long ago when he’d first discovered hell in his backyard …

*          *          *

Tom lived out on the edge of Tucson, in a place known as Three Points that was less a town and more a highway intersection, the desert dotted with cholla cactus and sagging mobile homes that wouldn’t go anywhere ever again.  On this day he’d gone into his back yard and there, beside his rusted barbecue, was a hole.  It sure wasn’t a rabbit hole, he saw right away.  It was big enough for a man to crawl down into for one thing, and no rabbit hole he knew smoked.  Tom went closer, not jumping to conclusions or getting excited, but strolling over to see what was what.  The smell was bad, but that wasn’t what fixed him.  Sounds came out of the hole, what sounded like screams and moans and such, drifting out with that little bit of smoke and the big smell.

A puzzled look came over his face as Tom lowered his lanky form to the ground.  He listened and thought for a long while and then he did start to get a little bit excited.  Not afraid mind you, but excited.  Tom didn’t excite easily but then, it isn’t every day a man finds hell in his backyard.

Because that’s what he was thinking he had here.  It all sort of fit, and he couldn’t think what else it might be.  A hole into hell had opened in his backyard, right next to his rusted barbecue.  He stood and carefully moved the barbecue a few feet further away.

After awhile he began to wonder what he should do.  Birds hopped around in the dust and the ants went about their business like nothing, but he felt he ought to do something.  This seemed to him like something pretty big and he figured that someone should know about it.  I mean, who knew what kind of troubles could come out of having a hole into hell.  He didn’t, but still…

So he tried telling old Karl who had the trailer next door and sat on his front porch all day spitting globs of brown tobacco juice at everything that moved.  He barely got through the gate when Karl spit almost on his shoe.

“I just want to tell you something Karl,” he said, hoping he’d stop.  He didn’t like being spit on.

“You get back over to your place and do something about that sulfur smell!” Karl yelled through yellow teeth.  “Smells like hell.  A man can’t breathe.”  He took out his plug of tobacco and recharged.  “You moron,” he added.

Now that wasn’t too nice.  Tom didn’t think he was a moron; he just didn’t see things quite like other people.  But he tried to explain.  “That’s what I came for, Karl.  There’s this hole in my backyard.  That’s where the smell is coming from.  I think it might be hell.  Maybe someone should do something about it.”

Karl cackled and spit on Tom’s right shoe.  “Yeah, something should be done all right.  About you, you half-wit.  Get out of my yard and get rid of that smell before I call the police!”

Tom left just ahead of another glob of spit.  He knew Karl wouldn’t call the police –old Karl didn’t have a phone any more than he did and he knew as well as Tom that the police didn’t like to be bothered by the trailer people unless one of them shot another.  But it did start him thinking.  Karl was a mean old cuss, but he knew a lot of things and he had the right idea.  He probably should call the police.

That didn’t work out too good either.

He walked to the general store/gas station down at the highway that was the only thing there really was in Three Points besides cars whizzing by on the highway to Ajo or turning off to Sasabe, and used the phone there.  Before the lady at the police station would even talk to him she wanted to know his name and address and once she knew where he was she got that sound in his voice.  He’d heard it before; it meant she wasn’t going to believe him, whatever he said.  Only once did she show any interest, and that was when he said it smelled like sulfur.

“You want to report a drug lab then.  A methamphetamine lab?”

“No ma’am.  It’s not a drug lab at all, least not one I ever heard of and I’ve seen COPS a lot.  It’s just a hole in the ground and – ”

“Right.  Thank you Mr. Holman.  We’ll send someone out as soon as we get a chance.”

He could hear her laughing and talking to someone else before she hung up and he knew nobody’d come.  Then there was nothing to do but go home but first he went into the store and bought a paper because he remembered that it was Wednesday and the new papers always came out on Wednesday.  He thought about telling Jim, the owner of the store, about hell, but he didn’t.  Jim was pretty nice to him, always smiling and yelling HELLO! and he wasn’t feeling like having anyone else treat him like a fool right then.

But when he got home it seemed his problem might be solved because there, right on the cover of his favorite newspaper was a story and a picture just like his.  Now Tom loved his paper, even better than the TV.  He liked the big headlines and the pictures and some of the stories were really incredible.  They were always about two-headed babies and airplanes found on the moon and talking cows and he liked to read these stories, then just sit back and think that this must be a pretty marvelous world where things like this can happen.  Anyway, the headline today said:  MAN FINDS DOORWAY TO HELL IN HIS BASEMENT!  And then it went on about some guy finding a smoking hole in his basement and how the firemen and police in his hometown in Iowa were amazed and it had quotes from them and a picture of the man standing beside the hole looking pleased and holding a Bible.

Tom put the paper down then and sat back to think.  He thought for a long time and then he went into his backyard and looked at the hole and then came back in and read the story again and thought some more.  And what came out of it was that the next day when he got off work from his job at the wrecking yard down the road he went to Jim’s store and used the payphone again.

The story didn’t tell the man’s phone number, but he thought if he called the paper they’d give it to him and he could call the guy and find out what he was doing about the hole and maybe he could do the same thing.

“We just did that story pal.  Sorry, we’re not interested.  Come up with something better and call us back.”

“Does this happen a lot?” Tom asked.  Who knows?  Maybe having hell in your backyard wasn’t so unusual.

“Only when they open the doors son, only when they open the doors.”

But Tom could be stubborn too and he kept talking to the man and finally he said,  “Okay, look, we’ve got a man in Phoenix right now.  That’s pretty close isn’t it?  I’ll send him down.  I guess we could call it an epidemic.”

The man showed up the next day in a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a tie.  He gave Tom a big smile and a business card and he talked fast.  Tom thought he must be awfully important to have so much to say all at once.

“There we are, Steve Jones, Eye on the World on-the-spot reporter, nice place you have here my man, nice place.  Very quaint, out of the hurly burly of the city, now let’s see, you say you found hell in your backyard.”  He winked and gave Tom a little jab in the ribs.  “Sure, this is the sticks, but it can’t be all that bad eh?”  He seemed to pause for something so Tom smiled and the man continued.  “Let’s see it then, just take me right to it, we don’t want it to freeze over now do we?”  He had a big camera and a tiny tape recorder and he snapped a couple pictures of Tom and his trailer then.

Tom took him around back and showed him.  He figured it was a good thing old Karl didn’t hear too well and the next two lots were empty because the moaning and screaming and such had gotten louder in the past few days.  The hole looked a little bigger too, with flickers of red light down at the bottom.

When they got to the hole the reporter’s words died on his lips and his face went pale.  “Holy shi – What the – ” was all he could manage.  His hands were shaking so bad Tom didn’t think he got any pictures of the hole.  “I think this hick really has…” he mumbled.  “It can’t be.”  He seemed to have forgotten Tom.  Then there was one scream, a little louder than the others and the reporter sank to his knees.

“Mo – mom?” he quavered.  “Is that you?”

He left fast and Tom didn’t get a chance to say anything so a couple days later he called the paper again and got the same guy he’d talked to the first time.

“It’s you again, is it?  I don’t know what you did, but Jones doesn’t work here anymore.  Quit his job, the damnfool.  Said he didn’t give a shit about my deadline.  Can you get that!  He didn’t give a shit about my deadline!  The namby-pamby has the gall to go and have a nervous breakdown on my deadline.”  Then he hung up.

Some things happened after that, to make Tom think having hell in his backyard wasn’t such a good thing.  Oh, nothing with the hole itself.  That didn’t really change, though Tom made a big grate for it with his cutting torch and welder because it seemed to him hell probably had some pretty bad things living in it and he didn’t want them coming out unannounced.

But other things did change.  Word got around Three Points that he was on drugs or something and claimed to have seen the devil in his backyard.  People started avoiding him, even Jim down at the store, and kids threw stuff at him sometimes and laughed.  His boss found out and fired him and now he had lots more time with nothing to do and not sure why.  He went out and looked in the hole sometimes but that got kind of old after awhile.

LeAnn, one of his other neighbors, came over one day.  She’d heard about it too.  He’d known LeAnn for a long time but he didn’t really talk to her much.  She said she was a witch – a good witch, mind you – and dressed in old baggy dresses and black eyeshadow all the time.  She was always saying weird stuff about the spirit world and she made him uncomfortable, though he wasn’t sure why.  She got real strange when she saw the hole.

“Oh, wow!  Wow!  I think…”  She stopped and rolled her eyes back in her head, holding her hands out before her.  “I sense the spirit world is very close to us right now.”

Tom shifted to his other foot and squeezed his hands.  She was doing it again.

“Yes.  They are heeeere.”  Her voice had gotten all distant and dreamy.  She shivered.  “I sense pain.  Much suffering.”

Tom shifted back to his other foot.  Anyone could tell that, he thought.  Couldn’t she hear all the screaming?

She rolled her eyes back and stared at him.  “We must hold a seance.  We must find a way to communicate with the souls of the dead and discover the reason for their pain.”

Tom shifted again.  “Why?”  He shrugged.  “They’re right there.  Why not just ask them?”

So he did.

Then she fainted and he had to catch her and take her inside and rub her forehead with a wet cloth.  When she woke up she could hardly speak.

“They…answered you,” she whispered.  “The spirit world is strong in you.  They have chosen you as their messenger.  You are blessed.”

“No, it’s not like that LeAnn.  You could do the same thing.  All I did was yell into the hole.”

But of course she didn’t believe him.  She refused to even try and Tom gave up trying to convince her.  Right then Tom had another one of those times when he wondered.  He wondered if maybe it wasn’t that he was dumb or even slow, but that he just didn’t understand people.  They refused to see things that seemed plain as the nose on your face to Tom.  They didn’t make any sense to him.

He found out a little while later that even dead people didn’t make much sense.

LeAnn came by one day and asked him if he’d be willing to talk to the spirits again.  She had this wispy little woman with gray hair and big mouse eyes with her who nodded a lot but didn’t say anything.  Tom just shrugged.

“Marian here wants to talk to her dead husband.”

“Why don’t we just let Marian talk to him – ”

LeAnn pulled him aside and explained to him that Marian had come to her for help, she was a client and she was paying.  Furthermore, she would give Tom ten dollars if he would just do this.  Well, Tom did know that he needed money and so he said sure and went out into the backyard.  The women followed but they didn’t come very close to the hole.

LeAnn told him the name and Tom just leaned over the hole and shouted into it.  The moans got a little louder and then one voice spoke up and yelled back.

Well, Mouse-eyes just about fainted dead away but she managed to stumble closer to the hole and quaver into it.  Tom listened to them for awhile but they didn’t seem to be getting anywhere, what with her crying and all the moaning and such coming out of the hole making it hard to hear and suddenly it all seemed kind of silly and sad to Tom that this woman couldn’t talk to her dead husband so he walked over to the back of the house, grabbed the extension ladder leaning there and dropped it into the hole.  Saying, “Excuse me, ma’am,” he stepped around the woman and went down into the hole.

About this time Tom was feeling a little surprised at himself – the smell and the heat were a lot worse in here – but he went ahead anyway.  The red light was pretty strong down at the bottom of the ladder and in it he could see all these people milling around like sheep in a pen.  At least, they looked like people, but they were kind of wavery and ghostlike.  They came up to him and around him but they didn’t seem to be able to touch him so after the first bit of nervousness Tom ignored them, remembering why he came down here, and hollered, “Walter!” real loud.  They got pretty quiet then and one ghost came forward.  Tom could tell this was him; he just looked like he would be married to Mouse-eyes.  He tried to tell him that his wife wanted him up top to talk to him and if he’d just follow…but Walter interrupted and said,

“No.  I can’t leave.  I am damned here for eternity.”

Well, that made Tom a little mad somehow – maybe it was just the heat getting to him – and without thinking he grabbed Walter and dragged him right up the ladder with him.

Now LeAnn fainted and Mouse-eyes and Walter crowded together and she was howling about missing him and Walter was yelling that he’d been redeemed and looking at Tom like he’d done something special and it was all getting pretty embarrassing to Tom when Walter just sort of faded away like a puff of smoke.

*          *          *

And that’s how he got where he was now, going into hell again for someone else’s dead loved one.  As Tom disappeared into the hole the crowd of people gathered in his backyard sent up a cheer that made his face turn red.  Darn, he thought, I still can’t get any of them to listen.  He’d tried too.  He didn’t want this job, even if it did pay better than his old.  Give him the peace of the wrecking yard any day.  But his old boss still wouldn’t talk to him, no one in Three Points would – they were all still sure he was on drugs – except for LeAnn and she always sounded out of breath when she did talk to him.  A good thing was that old Karl had stopped spitting on him but that was never so bad anyway.

So he did this nearly every day now, going down and getting someone for someone else who paid him.  All the dead people waited for him now and he could already see them gathered around the bottom of the ladder, same as the crowd up top.  He sighed.  There was no getting away from it anymore.

“Why don’t you all just go on and get out of here,” he said, waving them up the ladder.  “You want to be free, then go.  Then everyone’ll leave me alone.”

But they answered as they always did, crying and begging, saying how they were damned and only he could save them.  It was no use arguing.  They were no better than the people up top.

Tom took hold of the woman he came for and pulled her up the ladder.  As the little crowd of people broke into another cheer Tom shook his head.  This was too much.  He decided something then, something he guessed he should have seen a while before.  The hole had to go.  It was just too much trouble.  He did wonder if he should feel bad about all those dead people who were still down there, but then, he wasn’t sure he was doing the right thing anyway.  He wasn’t any priest or anything and he didn’t have the training for this kind of stuff.  After all, he wouldn’t go and try getting a job as a mechanic when he was just a junkyard hand, would he?  The more he thought this way, the more sense it made.

That night he took his shovel and his digging bar and knocked in the sides of the hole.  The hole was quiet while he did it and he wondered if maybe even the dead slept sometimes.  Anyway, it didn’t take too long and then it was done and no more thinking about it.

The next day the same crowd of people showed up at his front door all crying and hollering for him but Tom was ready for them.  He had the door locked and a sign on it saying:  THE HOLE’S GONE.  GO AWAY.  He didn’t think it would work right away and it didn’t.  They kept hanging around but he knew if he waited sooner or later they’d leave and he could get back to regular life like he was meant to.

In the afternoon he got tired of sitting inside and he snuck out the back door and climbed over the fence to Karl’s place.

“Hi, Karl,” he said.  “It’s Tom.  I quit the drugs everyone’s been worrying about.  I feel better now.  It’s just me again.”

“You’re a damnfool kid, that’s what you are!” Karl yelled at him.  “I always said you’d be a worthless neighbor!”  He peeled his brown-stained lips back and spit on Tom’s right shoe.

Tom smiled.  Some people he understood.

Landsend Plateau

Landsend Plateau digital cover

But now the wind sprang to new life. It shoved her and screamed into her ears. It cried and moaned as it whistled around her. She fought to keep it out, but she could not seal it away completely – not when she had so recently allowed it in – and as it blew through it pelted her with images that made her cry out: the Plateau splitting asunder in a savage spray of molten rock and fire. The Takare fleeing, dying. She saw a world made new in a terrible image, drawn in the ashes of the old. She saw a gray hand whose fingers stretched into every corner of the world, igniting violence, disease and hatred where it passed. She saw a ball of fire thrown down from the heavens into the center of the Plateau, shattering on impact, and from its center came a mighty being, a being that might be the world’s hero, might be its doom. She shuddered before it all. Her head bowed and tears sprang unbidden to her eyes.

Then she shook herself, almost angry, and wiped away the tears. She had never shied away, no matter the price. She would not start now. “I’ll go!” she shouted at the wind. “Stop pushing me!” She clenched herself and stepped inside.

The defile echoed with the crashing thunder of water on stone, louder than any scream. The air burned her lungs, thick with sulfur. A few steps forward and she staggered and had to reach out to the stone for support, as something else assaulted her.

Fear.

It came from all around her and it struck her with palpable force, pounding against her inner walls like storm-driven waves on a breakwater. It slammed against her, over and over, a scream that had no end.

It did not come from the men who preceded her. They were too small, too brief, for fear this immense. This was the fear of a god, an immortal being driven nearly mad with terror.

She wondered at it even as she knotted her fists, lowered her head, and pushed forward. Later, if there was a later, she would puzzle over this. For now she must act. The wind had not followed her in here, but she knew it still waited for her outside. There was no way around this except through it.

The walls of the defile soared far overhead, swallowing her. The sky was a thin, cloudy ribbon only sometimes visible. The river was a thrashing, hissing beast that snarled its way through the tumbled boulders it had chewed from the walls, slowly digesting them. The path was a mere scar on the rock beside the river, slick as new ice. One misstep and she would end up in the river to have her head dashed against a stone.

Shakre looked back the way she had come. The world outside was gone. The defile closed in about her. There was nothing but the river and the stone, sound and smell and fear all snarled together into an indistinguishable mass.

No way out but forward.

Shakre continued on, concentrating on the placement of each step, trying to block everything else from her mind. As she rounded a sharp corner something loomed up before her suddenly, a huge indistinct shape in the gloom. She put her hand to her heart but it was only a rock formation jutting out from the wall of the defile. But for just a moment it had been a hunched creature waiting there, stubby wings protruding from its back. There was a flash from one of the hollows where an eye should be but it was only the trick of a stray beam of sunlight that was quickly gone. She hurried past it, careful not to touch it.

After that she saw them everywhere. Some were only dark eyes and mouths in the walls above her. Others were like the first, predatory things that crouched on stone outcroppings or lurked in shallow caves. But all of them were stone. Whatever they had once been, Shakre told herself, they were only stone now. They could not move. They were not watching her. But her steps grew faster and she tried to avoid looking at them.

She came to a place where the defile opened up and the river settled into a large, somewhat circular pool. The only way forward was a tiny ledge that circled the pool on one side, only a hand’s width above the water. She looked down at the river, up at the looming walls. No way but forward. Taking a deep breath, she stepped out on the ledge. She was halfway around when she became aware of another presence, there in the defile with her. Its Song probed along her barriers with cold tentacles. She gasped and drew back from their touch. The Song was alien, unlike anything she had encountered since the night, long ago, when she entered the poisonwood.

Frantically she scanned the dim walls around her, looking for any hint of movement. Only at the last moment did she look down.

A dark shape was rising up out of the water.

Shakre turned and ran.

As she hit the far side of the pool, she slipped and fell hard on the rock. Behind her she heard a single splash. She clambered to her feet and ran without looking back.

Only after she felt the strange Song recede did she slow to catch her breath. Her ankle throbbed and there was a pain in her chest. What was that thing?

The realization came to her all at once, as something clicked open inside her and jumbled pieces fell into place. She knew where the fear came from now:

Tu Sinar.

A god whose fear was so strong it poisoned the very air. A god who feared so much that he built a fortress around his dwelling place, and filled it with guards to protect him.

Shakre stared around her in awe. The hunched, frozen shapes, the twisted faces gaping from the stone walls – they were Tu Sinar’s guards. But they had fallen asleep at their posts. Only now were they beginning to rouse themselves, alerted finally by a closing danger. But it was not she who was the danger. It was the men she followed. Of course. They came as the agents of Melekath, Melekath who would have reason to hate Tu Sinar as much as any of the old gods. Tu Sinar had fled to this place, hidden himself in a fortress, all because he feared Melekath, and what would happen if Melekath ever freed himself from his prison.

Excerpt from Landsend Plateau

Guatemala – 1999

The trip starts badly.  Josh is hours late, already on Mexico time.  I pace the house and curse the dogs.  Josh called ten hours ago, said he was out the door.  Just had to pick up the photographer, that the editors had come through with one for us at the last minute.

Then they show and the doubt in my stomach turns to dread.  They don’t look good.  Josh is alternately grim and nervous.  Umberto, the photographer, is either very drunk or insane.  What the hell am I doing anyway?  I am a seemingly normal, happy family man with more bills than I can pay.  Why leave the beautiful wife and smiling baby to race down south with people I hardly know?  Why risk jail, or worse?

I mumble goodbye and jump in the car.  The photographer made a bad impression.  He looks like no one you send your husband south with and my wife’s no fool.

The car doesn’t do much to inspire confidence either.  It’s a black, ’86 Volkswagen GTI.  The broken odometer reads 564,985 miles.  The right headlight dangles, pointing at the ground.  The passenger door doesn’t open.  It idles rough or not at all.  Five miles out of town the driver’s side wiper breaks free and hangs out over the road like a dislocated limb.

It smells bad too.  Something died in the back seat I think, and it didn’t go easily.  I turn and see our photographer hunched back there.  He thrusts his sole camera at me and asks me if I think I can fix it.  I wonder aloud where the 16mm movie cam is that’s supposed to capture this epic, where the multitude of equipment is that all real photographers carry.

“It’s a bad subject,” the photographer says, one of his few lucid sentences in our short time together.  “All my gear, stolen in Panama.  You think you know people.  Then, wham! up against the wall, the knife at your neck and it’s all gone.  Months of work.”  He slumps back in the corner and opens another Bud tin.

Josh grips the wheel and says nothing, but the car speeds up.  His black hair is stringy already, the church camp basketball T-shirt loose on his bony frame.  It’s one of the things I like best about Josh, that he’s skinnier than I am.

We race on into the night, stops for gas and beer and tacos.

(an excerpt from my journal kept on the trip to Guatemala, so long ago)