DiLeo Writes—Chapter 3: For the Love of Paper and Pencils (and a Free Story)
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I'd like to share a short story I wrote earlier this year. It's titled "Heroes and Villains" and you can skip right down to it and read now, if you wish. I'd love to hear what you think about it—send any comments through Twitter @authordileo or Facebook (Author DiLeo).
In my last newsletter, I promised to write a bit about the novel I finished writing and revising, but I'll save those comments for another time. (I'm currently waiting for my BETA readers to get back to me with their thoughts, and thank God they were willing to read it.) I will say only that each story (essay, novel, screenplay, etc.) teaches you how to write that particular story. There is no magic bullet for guaranteed writing success. Writing is a process, and if you want to write, you must discover your process and trust it, especially when it's messy and frustrating.
It's time well spent.
Before story time, I must opine about my love of all things analog. You've probably noticed a few (many, many dozens) of tweets extolling my love of pencils and paper.
I wrote my first short story—a tale of a raindrop who lives his entire life in the clouds and then plummets to his grisly death—in second grade on extra-wide ruled looseleaf paper. When I was in fourth grade, I filled several black-and-white marble composition books with some really bad screenplays. They were mostly slapstick humor gags strung together, along the lines of Airplane and The Naked Gun, but, you know, written by a ten year old.
My parents encouraged me to type up my work on the electric Brotherhood typewriter in the basement. I took to it greedily, loving the clack-clack sound of the keys and the professional-looking copy it produced.
Through high school, I typed dozens of short stories (mostly horror) on that typewriter. There was an upgraded Brotherhood electric typewriter I used for a while: it had a small digital screen that showed the sentence I just wrote so I could change anything BEFORE it typed it. Then I got my first computer, an agonizingly slow PC, but suddenly I could type and type and then revise and then print. I wrote my first published story on that computer.
I've used computers, as we all have, nonstop since then. I'm typing this on a computer, of course, and I'm using the internet to share this newsletter. If not for social media, I wouldn't have you willing readers.
I'm not trying to bite the hand that feeds me.
Technology has its place. However, we are humans and we need to do things with our hands beyond typing and clicking. We need to fully employ all our senses, and we need to embrace the messiness of creation. Computers are efficient, convenient, and they take the messy art of creation and anesthetize it through antiseptic digitalization.
To quote David Sax from his marvelous book The Revenge of Analog: "The real world isn't black or white. It is not even gray. Reality is multicolored, infinitely textured, and emotionally layered. It smells funky and tastes weird, and revels in human imperfection. The best ideas emerge from that complexity, which remains beyond the capability of digital technology to fully appreciate" (xviii).
I've always written sporadically in journals and notebooks, but several years ago I dove fully into a technology thousands of years old: paper and pencil.
Author Joe Hill (new book coming this October, Strange Weather) wrote a wonderful piece about writing his novels longhand here. I've tweeted about it several times. Read it.
Inspired, I bought a ton of Moleskins and filled them with notes and stories and novels in progress. I LOVED the feel of the paper—and the sense of creation and accomplishment was as tangible as the book in my hand.
When you start down any rabbit hole, you never know where you'll end up: Moleskins and Pilot G-2 pens (05 is the best) ultimately led to Rhodia notepads and Palomino Blackwing pencils—easily the most pleasurable experience of writing, the Blackwing Pearl glides beautifully on the vellum-quality Rhodia paper. It is an immersive, full-sensory joy. For the novel I recently finished, I wrote over forty single-spaced handwritten pages of revision in an orange-colored, yellow-lined paper Rhodia notepad, number 19. It was a delightful, invigorating experience that unshackled my imagination.
A quick anecdote:
This past December, I volunteered to serve as a model for the drawing class in the high school where I teach English. While I tried to stay perfectly still in my Rodin-thinking pose (fully clothed, of course), students used charcoal to draw me. The art teacher walked around the room, encouraging students, offering praise and guidance (the best way to hold the charcoal is to pinch it between fingers, not hold like a pencil), and something this teacher said really struck me.
Students grew discouraged when their drawings did not meet their expectations, when what their hands created did not match what their brains imagined. "Don't worry about it," the teacher said. "Don't worry about stray lines and marks. Those 'errors' give your drawing energy."
Embrace the messiness. Revel in it.
I could go on and on, and will in future newsletters (we'll discuss technology in the classroom sometime soon), but for now let me urge you to take a break from the computer every once in a while and pick up a pen or pencil (or charcoal) and write on good old paper. It is rejuvenating.
You might enjoy it.
Above: Rhodia notepads, Palomino Blackwings, Field Notes Memo Books (love those, always have one in my pocket), and Scout Books.
Okay, story time. One last note: I wrote this story's first draft in a mix of pen and pencil on paper and the draft is full of cross-outs and bizarre idiosyncratic shorthand—and I absolutely love how messy it is.
To quote that art teacher: It gave my writing energy.
Thanks for reading and enjoy!
Heroes and Villains
It should’ve been black. The interior was dark—night-world dark—but the exterior shone in marvelous, gleaming red, a color demanding to be noticed, screaming to be.
The car came up fast on our right. That was not uncommon, considering my father’s rattle-prone Pontiac, but this car didn’t simply pass us and vanish into the distance like all the others.
It hovered beside us, almost floating in tandem. A four-door with a steep, sloped windshield and a slanted body that stretched forward to protruding headlights and backwards to long, jutting fins, like old cars had, only this car wasn’t bulky like those 1950s-models; it was sleek, slender, and low, a race car that looked and sounded like it could really move, rocket down the highway—but also different in a way that troubled me.
Something about the red color—it was slippery, as if freshly applied, like your hand would come away stained if you touched it or maybe sink into it like water. That red color was startlingly bright—all these years later, I see that super-bright, blushing gleam.
My face wobbled along the side, eyes bulging, chin jutting, hair swarming, distorting my face into something hideous, worthy of a freak show. Oil-black tinted windows were impossible to see through. The loud, growling engine thundered so powerfully it vibrated through the Pontiac door.
Flutters of worry unsettled my stomach. That was not uncommon a feeling for me—I felt it when the bigger kids at school turned their predatory eyes to me; when my math teacher made me come to the board to solve an equation; when my brother Steve called me into his bedroom, his hands open and ready for Indian-burn practice: “Lucky I don’t give you a pecker burn,” he said that morning when pimples of blood spotted my arm—but this was worse than any of that.
The people in the red car were not mere bullies—they were bad people, perhaps robbers, crooks, even murderers. They would not be innocuous villains like the ones in Hardy Boys books (in which nothing really bad ever happened); the Bad People in this car might have guns and knives, even uzis and machetes, and also the sadistic personalities to use them.
I heard my mother saying my name, but the red car had all of my attention. Who was in it? Why was it driving right beside us? That was definitelysomething Bad Guys did.
Predators stalking prey.
Steve slapped my arm and pointed at Mom, who had turned in her seat to stare back at me.
“Idiot,” Steve mouthed and set his headphone back on his ear.
“Yes, Mother,” she corrected.
“Yes, Mother,” I repeated.
She taught English at a small private college and suffered no tolerance for language laziness or casual slang, which she condemned as the Talk of Cretins. For her, grammar didn’t stop with language: it was the creased fold of my made bed, the chalked chores on the pantry door, the soft chewing sounds during silent dinner time.
“Do you have your Christmas list?”
It was Thanksgiving, and we were headed to my aunt’s in New Jersey. In my pants pocket, three exact penciled copies of my Christmas list were carefully folded and labeled: one for Mom, one for Aunt Marge, one for Grandma Bella. I took the time to compose each one carefully. Dad was an encyclopedia editor and worked deliberately, always with super-sharp pencil, crafting perfect block letters on yellow-lined paper in orange-covered Rhodia notepads. I liked siting next to Dad when he worked from home and I would try my best to imitate his penmanship, but my writing wobbled and slanted in a juvenile mess.
Mom turned forward. She glanced at Dad, but he was completely focused on driving, both hands on the wheel, back straight, not quite touching his seat. His fingers had been drumming along with the The Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” and I’d been mouthing the lyrics, but now both of us were still.
The next song started: “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man).” I knew those lyrics, too; I was with Dad when he bought the cassette at The Wall, and it’d been playing nonstop in the car for months.
I was ten, my father was fifty, and it was 1991.
Directly across from me, the rear window of the red car slid down and a fish-belly white arm plopped out. Bone-skinny and hairless, the arm drooped down the side of the door. The fingers dangled, and the glossy, wet paint reflected them twice their length.
Bright sunlight filled the day, but inside the car thick darkness concealed whoever lurked within. Sun bathed the sallow, sickly arm yet did not penetrate the open window, as if the darkness in the car were swallowing the light.
My science teacher Mr. Cantor had taught about black holes, which were bottomless pits in outer space, and anything that got near one—asteroid, spaceship, even light—was sucked right in and could never get out.
My brother was lost in the heavy cacophony of his music, my mother was searching for her nail file in her purse, which might be filled with marbles and loose change from the sound, and my dad was fully-focused on the road.
The pale hand made slow, circular motions, scooping handfuls of air.
I leaned toward my window, squinting, beginning to see something in the cave-dark car, a darker outline of a head, perhaps, or a sharp nose and hollow, oil eyes--
A face was pushing from the night-world interior. Only it wasn’t a face, not really—it was a mask. Not a Donald Trump parody or a generic Halloween-screaming face, this mask was completely featureless, smooth, a flesh-colored caul.
Except for two vertical exclamation marks where the eyes should be.
Sweat trickled between my shoulder blades, and a chill rippled through me. The person in the red car was obviously some kid or dumb teenager like my brother, someone who thought it might be funny to freak people out on the highway, but knowing that did nothing to sooth my fear. A guy who wore a mask like this might have all sorts of terrible thoughts buzzing in his brain.
I expected him to reach back in the car and come up with a sawed-off shotgun. He’d point it right at me, and though I wouldn’t be able to tell I’d know he was smiling under his mask—and then he’d fire. Blood and bones and teeth would splatter everywhere. The gore would be bright, bright red.
Steve slapped my arm.
Mom was staring at me. “I have been saying your name.”
I glanced out the window and the smooth mask-face was gone inside the dark car, the tinted window back up.
“Cretin,” Steve said and shoved down the play button on his Walkman.
* * *
The car sped away. Thick, black smoke twirled from the four exhaust pipes, and obscured the license plate. My father’s eyes filled the rearview mirror.
“You okay back there?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said.
Cars swept past us on both sides.
* * *
Grandma lived in an apartment building that hulked at the far end of a tree-lined street, and the best way to pick her up was to drive down a narrow access road alongside the building to the back where two dumpsters sat on large, rusted wheels. From her apartment, Grandma could see when we arrived, and she’d come down the stairs and out the service exit.
Dad circled the tiny lot, front bumper almost nicking one of the dumpsters where a faded sticker read BRING OUT YOUR DEAD, and parked so we were angled toward the exit and in perfect position for Grandma. In a minute or two, she’d emerge out the back door in her grey coat with the fur lining and her matching scarf coiled around her throat.
We waited. The cassette in the tape deck reached the end of one side.
“Caleb,” Mom said, “please provide Grandma assistance.”
“‘Um’ is not a word.”
I opened my door and heard it: the rumbling, humming, growling drone of the red car’s engine. It was nearby, cruising past the apartment building, or even idling in the neighboring parking lot, and I forced myself to get out but then I could only stand there, and the sound got louder and louder.
The car was moving.
The red car must have gained dozens of miles on us. It couldn’t possibly have followed us here. Had to be a different car.
The ugly white hand scooping the air . . .
Mom rolled down her window. “You are acting strangely.”
“We need to—,” I said and the deep engine-rumble echoed off the brick apartment wall.
The red car slipped into view as smoothly as a snake slithering toward cornered prey. It blocked the access road. We were trapped.
The red paint rippled like water disrupted by a breeze, and a small maple nearby seemed to shrink back. Or maybe that was the flicker of its shadow.
I did not move. The car sat there, bright red with black windows, and its engine noise the deep-throated purr of a deadly beast.
I waited for the window to come down again, maybe all the windows, waited for shotgun barrels to poke into the light, waited for the slaughter.
The rear driver’s side window rolled down and darkness leaked free, smoke-like, but different, more substantial, as if it could be seized in a fist.
My insides squeezed.
Mask-man appeared again, and this time he pushed farther out into the afternoon light. He was bald and earless, and right then I saw it wasn’t a mask.
What I took for a latex mask was smooth and unwrinkled skin, as unmarked and soft as an infant’s. Baby fat even bulged the face. There was no facial hair of any kind—not clean-shaven, just sleek and hairless like the arm had been. And he—at least I assumed it was a he—had no eyes, only two exclamation-mark slits; no nose and no mouth, either. Yet not a mask.
A freak, I thought. A mutant freak. Some sort of birth-defected malformed thing that should not be alive.
My father opened his door and got out.
“Dad . . .”
“I see it,” he said, voice soft.
The thing in the backseat had no visible eyes and yet he--it—was looking at me: I felt its stare along my prickling skin.
He raised one hand toward me. His shirt sleeve slipped down his hairy forearm.
Steve opened his door and got out as well. He was taller than Dad by an inch or so and a bit heavier, and he puffed his chest and stood tall, going up on his toes. His headphones hung around his neck. He was my bully, but maybe he could be my protector too.
Those two eye-slits quivered, and parted in sideways curtains to reveal completely white, half-dollar-sized eyes. They were milky thick, spoiled cream.
Though impossible over the engine’s powerful drone, I heard the wet kiss of those lids as they parted.
My breath caught. The world stretched and flattened into a vast desert where there was only us and the thing in that car.
Steve stood frozen, unblinking. His Walkman had fallen at his feet and plastic pieces lay broken around his sneakers.
My mother sat back-stiff, hands gripping her purse, eyes huge behind her large glasses. If only she had a weapon in that purse—a gun, a knife, a pair of brass knuckles.
“Go away,” my father said.
The herringbone cap he wore was tilted back on his head, and his dress shirt hung loosely off his narrow shoulders; he looked scrawny, almost child-like, but his voice was deep, strong, baritone-confident.
“What do you want?” he said.
“Dad, is this a . . .”
Joke, was what I wanted to say. That word, however, never came out.
In the the middle of the thing’s face where a nose should be but wasn’t, a circular hole pursed in a fleshy orifice, and it opened wider and wider, unfurling skin, until it was the size of a softball, and inside that hole dozens and dozens of teeth spiraled, grey, mucus-slathered, and very, very sharp.
Pressure pushed behind my eyes and clogged my throat, and I thought with something close to relief that my brain was going to rupture and leak out my ears.
That mouth stretched wider and wider. The fat, white eyes slid aside and the mouth was the thing’s entire face—a sharp toothed-filled maw twisting down into a black gullet.
Mom was frozen with her hand in her bag. Steve hadn’t moved but tears rolled down his blanching cheeks.
The red car’s front passenger door opened.
A skinny man in a bright yellow polo and tan pants stepped out. He was tall, well over six feet. Unlike the guy in the backseat, this man was almost normal-looking.
He had a mouth, a nose, and two normal-sized and normal-colored eyes, but his face was hairless and smooth, almost plasticky in the light. He wore a New Jersey Devils cap, blond tuffs jutting over his ears.
“Who are you?” my father asked, managing to sound angry, almost infuriated.
The man in the yellow polo and Devils cap did not answer, but he walked around the open door and approached. He wore shiny brown-leather shoes that clacked on the pavement.
My father did not move, and neither did I.
The man stopped a few feet from Dad’s open door. He raised his hands and my father flinched. The man smiled, just enough, and rubbed one forefinger against the other. The fingers were very long and ended in thick yellowing nails.
“Shame, shame,” he said. His voice rang with an unsteady quaver, like the after-effects of a ringing bell. “You’re up to some fun tonight, old man.”
My father swallowed. “You don’t scare me.”
The man, or whatever it was, made an amused “humpf” sound. Those long-fingers curled around the top of the open door. “We’re always around,” he said. “Always.”
“What do you want?” Dad said.
You’re a soul eater, I thought, and the Yellow-Polo Man’s head snapped toward me. His stare cut into me, and my chest flushed heat as if my heart were bleeding out.
He turned to my father. “I’ll make a deal,” he said. “I’ll take you and spare your family.”
Squirmy blue veins wormed along his temples and down into his cheeks, and his lips pulled back from pearly white teeth, but the teeth ended in sharp, filed-points. Vampire fangs—every one of them.
Not a man.
He was the one with the mask. It had features like a normal face, but it was a mask, and it was covering the same awful tooth-filled mouth that the thing in the backseat had. Or maybe there was something even worse under this fake face.
The thing in the backseat laughed, its skin wobbling, those teeth vibrating. The sound was the high-pitched, metallic whine of a machine, but that thing wasn’t a machine—it was a monster.
They were both monsters, real monsters, and they drove around in a red car that probably wasn’t a car at all but some sort of monster itself, driving around for victims.
When my father spoke again, a new tone had come into it, softer, resigned. “What will it be like?”
“It will be sweet, Encyclopedia Man,” the Yellow-Polo Thing said slowly, as if tasting each word. “Oh, so very sweet.”
The thing’s right hand leaped up and landed on my father’s chest, dead-center. Long nails pierced him, and Dad let out a startled gasp. He stumbled back but the Yellow-Polo Creature seized his arm, held him in place.
“So, so sweet.”
Dad started to shake—electrocuted. His eyes rolled back to all white, and greenish, snotty phlegm dribbled over his bottom lip.
“Dad!” I screamed.
Steve and Mom hadn’t moved. Maybe they couldn’t.
His arms flopped at his sides, bouncing off the car and the door; his feet jittered in their loafers, and he would have collapsed if The Thing wasn’t holding him up.
It has been twenty-five years since that day, but I still don’t know where the thought came from—I reached through my mother’s open window and directly into her pocketbook. Her hand was in there, a mannequin’s hand, but her fingers held something fat and heavy.
I grabbed it, and the sharp thing next to it.
An awful, warbling moan slipped from my father’s mouth. The Yellow-Polo Monster was ginning, lips spread almost ear-to-ear, and its teeth were so big and sharp. Any moment now, it was going to drop its face against my father’s neck and those teeth would tear out his throat in a spray of blood.
And ran around the front of the car. I felt big and strong, a weapon gripped in each hand. It did not occur to me that neither thing was technically a weapon, and thank God for that. I’m too old now to pretend otherwise: if not for the surging bravado of my ten-year-old self, I would have stood witness as my father was killed.
I stabbed the metal nail file into the side of the Yellow-Polo Thing. It pierced the skin easily, a knife through melting butter. The Thing screamed, or what passed for a scream. It was loud and quavering and completely inhuman and unnatural. No man or animal could make such a noise.
I stabbed it again. A dark stain spread rapidly through the yellow fabric. It made that scream-sound again and turned to me.
My father fell backwards, free, and crumpled to the ground.
The monster’s mouth dropped wide, wider, large enough to chomp into my skull. Its hand reached for me.
Those long, long fingers.
I swung my other hand, and the change purse I clutched in it. It bulged full of coins, as always, and my hand couldn’t completely grasp it, but the force of my swing was enough.
The change purse smacked the Thing’s head. The Devils hat tumbled off, and a sheen of rubbery flesh went with it. The pseudo-skin splattered onto the driver’s door. Black liquid bubbled from the wound and coursed down its neck and onto the yellow shirt.
The change purse flew. Coins jangled across the concrete. Sunlight reflected off them in dozens of dizzying bright flashes.
I stabbed the monster in the throat.
The nail file sunk in all the way to my fist. Warm black blood gurgled around my fingers. That giant mouth chomped down again and again, but it was a fish out of water, a shocked, desperate reflex.
I forced the file in farther and there was a potent rotten-egg stench, and I let go.
The Yellow-Polo Monster wobbled, hunched over, gushing its diseased blood, and hacking a strained, metallic rasp.
The Polo-Thing turned and scurried back to the the car, moving fast but hobbling, more animal-like than man. Black globules splattered the concrete. Then it was at the open passenger door, hand over the wound, and it hesitated before dropping into the nighttime dark inside the red car.
The backdoor to the apartment building squeaked open. A man in a blue suit perfectly tailored to his thin frame stepped out. He looked refreshed, as if from a pleasant rest. His black hair was gelled into solid, combed grooves. He was young, or maybe not; it seemed impossible to tell his age.
A grey scarf trailed from one hand like a shed snakeskin.
The Man in the Blue Suit walked directly to the red car, black dress shoes grinding loose dirt.
He opened the driver’s door, and turned to look at me. “Be good, kid,” he said in a surprisingly normal voice. “See you around.” He dropped into the dark world within. The umbra swallowed him into a black hole.
The door shut and the car’s engine revved so loudly it was all I heard, the monstrous roar of a dinosaur, and the car reversed rapidly down the narrow street and out onto the main road.
* * *
Three months later my father turned to me in the front seat of the Pontiac where we parked in a strip mall outside a dollar store. “You can’t escape the monsters forever,” he said. “Eventually, they get you.”
We never discussed what happened on Thanksgiving, not once, and neither Mom nor Steve had any memory other than some vague recollections about teenagers playing a prank. Grandma died in her sleep. She was old. Nothing suspicious, and I was the only one who noticed her scarf was missing.
“We can fight them,” I said. “We did it.”
Dad smiled in a sad, strange way I couldn’t understand at ten. He turned down the radio. The Beach Boys again: “Good Vibrations.”
“Dad, they’re easy to spot.” I thought of the Yellow-Polo Thing running back to the red car, black blood coating its hand, and I saw how it paused before dropping inside. It stared right at me, and those eyes were as bright yellow as its shirt. Those eyes woke me some nights, as well as the words of the Man in the Blue Suit.
Be good, kid. See you around.
“They can be hurt, maybe even—”
An engine rumble.
Louder and louder.
Dad set his head against the driver’s window and closed his eyes, as if thinking about this were too exhausting.
“Dad, what’re you—”
The red car turned into the lot and rolled toward us.
Light rain slowed to a gentle snowfall.
“It’s okay, Dad. It’s going to be okay.” But I wasn’t talking to him, my voice a whisper.
The snow parted around around the car. No flake touched it.
The car stopped in front of us. A warped version of the Pontiac wobbled along the driver’s side. In it, my father and I were twisted and stretched.
“Dad, they’re here.”
The driver’s window rolled down.
My breath caught. Not one day went by since Thanksgiving where I didn’t think of the things in that car, of the Yellow Polo Thing and its torn flesh and black blood, of the eyeless being in the backseat whose mouth filled its face, and of the Man in the Blue Suit who carried grandma’s scarf like dead snakeskin.
The Man in the Blue Suit grinned from the driver’s seat. It was a mouthful of gleaming, white teeth. Many, many teeth.
The Yellow-Polo thing sat hunched over in the passenger seat, something cupped in both hands, his mouth bent toward it.
Something tissuey and slick and red.
An organ, I thought. Maybe a cow heart.
The Man in the Blue Suit stretched an arm out the window. Snow curved around it. His fingers stretched, and he curled them into his palm, and did it again and again.
Scooping the air.
Head against the glass, he hadn’t moved.
“Dad, wake up.”
I touched his arm. He didn’t respond. I shook him. His head rolled back and forth against the glass. I shook harder.
“Dad!” I yelled. “Dad! Dad!”
When his fingers curled into his palm this time, the Man in the Blue Suit clenched a fist and brought it to his mouth.
He kissed it.
Beside him, Yellow-Polo Thing chomped a meaty bite and blood spurted. He stared at me, and something almost-human saw me. Something that had once been human.
It was recognition.
The window slid back up, a sheen of black.
That was it? They’d done something to Dad, killed him, and now they were going to drive off and leave me here alone?
I got out.
The car idled.
“No,” I said. “You don’t get to do that. No. No. No.”
“You can’t do this!”
The engine rumbled, growled. Streams of exhaust smoke slithered around the back tires.
“Take me!” I yelled.
The words were out and I couldn’t take them back. Not that I wanted to. Dad was dead. Back home it was Steve and his Indian burns and Mom and her oppressive rules.
“Take me,” I said again. “I’ll go.”
The snow was falling heavier, dusting the brim of the Devil’s cap I wore, and coating the pavement, but not one flake touched the car.
The rear passenger door opened on silent hinges.
My legs took me around the back of the car, through the red glowing smoke to the open door.
I peered inside.
Shadows receded into the nighttime world and a black leather seat waited, empty.
Warmth uncoiled from inside. Cozy in there, I thought. So cozy, I could fall asleep in a few seconds.
Somewhere far off, a car honked. I was in a strip mall off a main road just beyond the heart of town, but I was also alone before an open entrance to a different world and all the dark secrets it promised.
Exhaust gathered over my Converse sneakers.
I stood there, unmoving.
The Man in the Blue Suit. The Yellow-Polo thing. The Mouth Creature.
They were each human once. I was sure.
I took off the Devils cap, worked the brim with my fingers, and tossed it on the seat.
It tumbled and settled. Didn’t vanish. Didn’t spontaneously combust. Didn’t melt.
Curtains of snow curved around the open door.
I heard something from inside: the smooth harmony of surfer boys in a hippy version of doo-wop complete with do-do-do-bum-bum-bum-dum-de-dum-de-do-de-do-wah.
The Beach Boys were singing “Heroes and Villains.” The sound was soft yet dynamic. Not playing off a cassette tape. It sounded as if the band were somewhere in the car, though far away, as if the car’s interior world stretched and stretched and the old rock group was way, way back inside playing a concert.
My father was a slumped shadow in the Pontiac. Did the Man in the Blue Suit have his soul? If I got in the red car, would he show me? What would it look like? I thought it might resemble his perfect, crisp handwriting.
At home, it was my mother’s cold-hearted grammar and rules, and Steve’s Indian burns, and my blood-speckled arms.
In the red car? I didn’t know. It might be awful. My face could melt into two eye slits, and my mouth engorge with fangs. It might hurt, but it might also give me purpose and protection.
The black seat dark as night itself.
I stood there, tried to will myself to get in.
The door swung shut, completely silent save for a faint metallic click. The engine revved.
The car drove.
Four funnels of exhaust twirled into the falling snow, and the car was gone.
As if up in smoke.
Faint, but still audible, the Beach Boys sang.
* * *
I often wake from nightmares—it is always a return to the same place.
It is twenty-six years ago.
The car door is open, the leather seat waiting, the snow parting around it. I am ten, and I can’t be sure if it’s the snow wetting my cheeks or my tears.
The seat waits and waits.
And I wonder.
Thanks for reading. Be well.
What I've read recently:
The Force by Don Winslow (fantastic, super-fast read, great moral complexity)
The Forgotten Girl by Rio Youers (fast-paced, imaginative supernatural thriller with heart)
In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson (delightfully creepy western/vampire tale with literary flare)
The Cartel by Don Winslow (not as good as The Force, but well worth the time)
"Snapshot, 1988" by Joe Hill (brilliant, one of 4 short novels in his upcoming Strange Weather)
The Silent Corner by Dean Koontz (just started, but moving fast...)
Final Note: Josh Ritter is one of my favorite musicians and he has a new album coming this September, Gathering. Check out the first release from the album.
Okay, final FINAL note: A new Stephen King novel is always cause for celebration, but this fall he has a long novel co-written with his son, Owen. It's called Sleeping Beauties, and it sounds awesome. Owen is a kind soul and a marvelous writer. He was kind enough to visit with my creative writing students a few years ago and share some insights into the craft.
And here's the new book:
Thanks and be well.